The Strange Case of the Law (2012) s01e01 Episode Script

Laying Down the Law

1 'October, Westminster Abbey.
' 'I've come to see one of the great set pieces of English law 'the ceremony marking the start of the new legal year.
' This is the legal establishment on show.
Ritual, tradition, plenty of wigs.
It's colourful, it's splendid.
The danger is that it can make the law seem far removed from most people's lives.
In fact, the public have been at the centre of the legal system for centuries.
Sitting in a jury, it is they who decide guilt or innocence.
Without precedent in history, English law came to embody a fairness and equality barely known elsewhere.
In this series, I'll show how the story of England's law is nothing less than the story of England's people.
'I'll explain how despite being forged by kings and invaders, 'by the Church and politicians, English law has always resisted 'becoming merely the tool of the powerful.
' But this isn't an open and shut case.
'The law has also been guilty of brutality and excess.
'Its methods have sometimes been merciless.
It has taken pioneering 'and courageous individuals to put it back in its path 'of justice and fairness.
' The result, in my opinion, exceeds anything England has achieved in the arts or the sciences.
In its importance, and in its influence, English law is this country's greatest gift to the world.
'My name's Harry Potter, and I'm a barrister.
'I didn't come to the profession by a conventional route.
'It was while working as a prison chaplain 'that I became interested in the law.
' 'Now I practice in London and I specialise in criminal defence.
' Like all my colleagues, I work within a very specific system, the English common law.
Its principles are practised in countries as far afield as India and America, but it's quite different from the system used on the Continent.
Or even, in many respects, in my native Scotland.
'The term common law doesn't just mean something 'practised uniformly across the country.
'A system where judges largely base their rulings 'on earlier, similar cases, actual practice, 'rather than on theory or on legislation.
'And it's been that way for centuries.
' This makes venerable rituals like the annual ceremony in Westminster Abbey perhaps less detached from reality than they might look.
Because several of the key features that characterise the courtrooms I work in today were in place by the 14th century.
So how did England, unlike its neighbours, develop such a unique and enduring system? That's what I'm setting out to explore in this programme.
The origin of the English common law.
'The first thing any legal system needs is a set of laws.
'And I've come to Rochester in Kent 'to track down the earliest-known English law code.
' 'Established in the 5th century, 'Kent is thought to have been the first Anglo-Saxon kingdom.
'Rochester's ancient cathedral and imposing castle testify 'to the region's early predominance.
' But Rochester boasts yet another treasure, which for a lawyer such as me is even more significant.
'Stored in the council archives is a book of enormous importance, 'not just for the law but for the entire English-speaking world.
' This is the treasure I was telling you about.
It's the Textus Roffensis, or the Rochester book.
And it contains a number of documents but the most significant is the first, and it's this.
A few pages of a text dating back to 600.
It's not only the first writing in English that we have, so it's the beginning of English literature, it's the first law code that we have.
It's a very simple list of fines or compensation for accidents, injuries, wrongs.
"If hair seizure takes place, 50 sceatta as compensation.
" "If an ear becomes struck off, one is to compensate with 12 shillings.
" "If one strikes off a thumb, 20 shillings.
" And this is perhaps the most sensitive one.
"If someone disables a genital member, "one is to buy him off with three person payments.
" 'A person payment was the monetary value ascribed to a man's life.
' 'In this instance, the victim was compensated for the children 'he would no longer be able to sire.
' We tend to think that the compensation culture is something imported from America.
But here it is, at the very start of English law.
'The laws in the Textus have traditionally been attributed 'to the first English king to become a Christian.
' 'This was Aethelberht, who ruled Kent 'in the late 6th and early 7th century.
' 'So how did he fit into this early compensation culture?' 'I asked the historian and linguist Carole Hough 'to explain how the system worked in practice.
' There are different ranks within Anglo-Saxon society.
There's the King, the aristocracy, the ordinary free man, and the slave.
And it is the rank of the victim that determines the amount of compensation that they are entitled to.
So if you damage the King's toenail, he gets more than if you damage a slave's toenail? Don't even think about damaging the King's toenail.
Now in terms of enforcement, do we know if this code was enforced, how it was enforced? The responsibility for enforcing laws was very much on the families, the relatives, the victims.
Law was enforced by society from within rather than by the King from the top.
So you damage my son's ear and I come to you and say, "Well, the code says that's three shillings", and you hand over the three shillings? And your family would be standing behind you, saying "And we insist that you hand it over.
" And I think one of the things we have to remember is that the laws would be a starting point for negotiation between the families.
So it wouldn't necessarily be 50 shillings that was handed over.
It would be, "Look, this injury is worth 50 shillings.
" "Well, I've got a cow here that's worth 10 shillings and a few pigs "that are worth six, so we'll make it up in that way to settle the matter.
" 'The clear categories and prices of Aethelberht's code 'are bound to have suited his Anglo-Saxon subjects, 'whose economy centred around farming and livestock rearing.
' At 40, four 'Still, a law code solely based on cost appears morally rather empty.
'Surely human beings can't be treated like commodities or cattle?' You might accuse Aethelberht's code of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.
But in the context of the time, it had much merit.
The ability to settle a dispute, to draw a line under a grievance, was crucial in the early Anglo-Saxon era when the greatest threat to the stability of society came not from external enemies but from internal feuds.
'Before the Royal regulation of law, blood feuds were the only form 'of justice available in Anglo-Saxon lands, and they could lead 'to escalating conflicts that threatened the entire realm.
'By ensuring justice for the people, 'Aethelberht and his successors were safeguarding their thrones.
' 'If laws are the essential basis of any legal system, 'the next step is having institutions to administer 'and implement them.
Courts.
'Anglo-Saxon society was ordered into areas known as hundreds, 'so-called according to one theory 'because they may have contained roughly 100 homesteads.
'These had their own assemblies to deal with minor cases.
'More serious disputes and crimes were referred to the shire courts, 'forerunners of our county courts.
' This mound goes by the characterful name of Scutchamer Knob, sometimes corrupted to Scotsman's Knob.
Anyway, in Anglo-Saxon times, the shire court of Berkshire met here and you couldn't have missed it.
'Sited prominently on the Ridgeway, 'assemblies here would have been visible for miles around.
' 'Presiding over the shire court might have been a senior cleric 'such as a bishop, especially when a dispute involved the church, 'or otherwise a representative of the King, 'a figure known as a shire reeve or sheriff.
'And trials would be resolved 'using a remarkably simple method of proof.
' Early trials were based on oaths.
To prove your innocence, all you had to do was to swear an oath that you weren't guilty and to get people to come here to swear to your honesty.
If you could rustle up the prescribed level of support, you were off the hook.
'Just how many oath helpers you needed 'depended on your social status and the nature of the alleged offence.
'One 10th-century text stipulates '36 people were required in a case of arson or murder.
' To us, it all sounds very odd and open to abuse.
But this was a society suffused with religious faith.
To lie on oath was to risk damnation, and your friends might be less than keen to support you if they considered you a liability who could compromise their good standing in the community.
So yes, it was simple, but that needn't mean it was ineffective or unjust.
'The Anglo-Saxons didn't distinguish 'between what we now regard as civil and criminal law.
'So oaths could be used to resolve property disputes as well.
'Of course, if two opposing parties swore contradictory oaths, 'it meant at least one of them was committing a mortal sin.
'A situation the authorities preferred to avoid.
' There's a record of an important case being adjudicated on this very spot in 990.
A wealthy woman named Winfled lay claim to a couple of estates and the suit was heard here at shire court under the auspices of two bishops.
Winfled's oath-helpers included such luminaries as the Abbot of Abingdon and the Abbess of Reading.
In the event the dispute was settled by arbitration and compromise, the parties having been urged not to resort to oaths.
Which shows just how serious such a step would have been.
'The system of hundred and shire courts expanded across the country 'as successive Anglo-Saxon kings increased their territory.
' 'By the 10th century, England had a legal infrastructure 'unmatched in Europe, with its capital here in Winchester.
' As the size of their kingdoms and the scale of their power grew, the Anglo-Saxon monarchs continued to issue law codes.
But these now went well beyond the old compensation-based system to include physical punishments such as mutilation and death.
The codes made an increasingly gruesome read.
'Around 925, 'King Athelstan proclaimed his first law code for England.
'Right at the beginning he decrees that no thief be spared 'who may be taken red-handed, 'if he is older than 12 years and has stolen more than 8p.
' 'And new crimes were beginning to emerge, 'reflecting important social and economic changes.
' Athelstan minted the first single currency for England.
This coin, in Winchester's Museum, bears the following inscription.
"Athelstan Rex Tot Brit.
" King of all Britain.
It's a tiny object, but it embodies royal authority.
And if you were caught making a counterfeit, you were in a whole lot of trouble.
Athelstan's code says "If the monier be guilty, "let the hand be struck off that wrought the offence "and set up upon the money smithy.
" Nailed to the Mint.
'Anglo-Saxon law had become much harsher 'because, in an attempt to increase its effectiveness, 'kings had started to take over the administration of justice.
'Any serious crime was now deemed an offence against the Crown, 'a breach of the King's peace, 'and would be punished with appropriate severity.
' 'There was now, in effect, a tacit contract with the people.
'By acting as the guarantor of justice, 'the King could claim fines and forfeitures from the offender.
'In return, the injured party was given the satisfaction 'of seeing the wrong-doer maimed or executed.
' 'Some of the best physical evidence for how justice operated 'in later Anglo-Saxon England 'has been found on the outskirts of Winchester.
'The archaeologist Andrew Reynolds took me to Harestock, 'close to the old Roman road.
' What was found here that makes it so special? Some archaeological excavation uncovered the remains of 16 individuals buried in a series of graves.
The modern name Harestock is derived from the old English "shaffod stockan", which literally means "heads on stakes".
It basically tells us that it's an Anglo-Saxon judicial execution cemetery.
So you can imagine here in the Anglo-Saxon period a traveller moving along the road behind us, we're at a particularly prominent place in the landscape here.
You can see this rising ground.
A very prominent place, a series of poles with heads on sticks.
A very dramatic sight for travellers.
So it's making a statement as well? It's sending a very clear message of power and authority.
When you look at the Anglo-Saxons' continental neighbours, even though they have very highly developed legal culture, they don't seem to have anywhere near the kind of approach to using the landscape in a very precise way in terms of where criminals and outcasts were buried.
So what was happening in Anglo-Saxon England was unique? It was indeed, Harry, yes.
'As a lawyer, I put great emphasis on the quality of the evidence.
'The remains recovered from the Harestock site 'are now kept in storage by Winchester museums.
'Andrew showed me one example.
' Now this is astonishingly well-preserved for somebody who has been in the ground 1,000 years.
To layman's eyes, there's nothing here to indicate anything other than the sad death of a young person.
It was a very different picture when the body was actually taken out of the ground because rather than the hands being to either side, as they are here, when the body was excavated, they were found crossed over each other underneath or behind the back.
And that's a clear indication, really, that you've got foul play or something that's not quite usual going on there.
But the greatest indication that this is not a normal burial is the fact that the head, which you can see here at the correct anatomical position, was actually found by the side of the leg.
So how was decapitation done? Well, almost certainly with a sword, probably with the hands tied behind the back.
If you take a look at this bone here where the blade of the sword caught the underside of the jaw when the person was executed.
And that would be one blow, would it? That would have been one blow.
'In the absence of a police force, the threat of death or mutilation 'was a clear way of preventing crime but in later Anglo-Saxon times 'it wasn't just punishment that was a deterrent.
'Even before you were found guilty, the trial itself could be an ordeal.
'Literally.
' 'In common with much of Europe, 'the later Anglo-Saxons 'adopted an additional method of determining proof.
'One which drew on the power of the elements 'of water, and of fire 'and which invited God himself to intervene in the trial.
' This was the Judicium Dei, the judgment of God, trial by ordeal.
If you were suspected of a crime, you were subjected to a ritualised but painful and dangerous test.
God would come to the aid of the innocent, but for the guilty, there would be no such comfort.
The ordeal was neither torture nor punishment it was a mode of proof.
Only if you failed were you punished.
'Because of their religious element, 'ordeals were supervised by the clergy.
'Two main kinds of ordeal were employed in England.
'The first involved carrying a piece of red-hot iron in your bare hand.
' Before the ordeal, the priest called upon God to bless the hot iron, so that it would be a pleasing coolness to those who carry it with justice and fortitude, but a burning fire to the wicked.
The accused had to walk a few paces holding the iron.
The hand was then bandaged and after three days was inspected to see if it were healing.
'If the wound were clean, that was proof of your innocence, 'but if it had started to fester, you were deemed guilty.
' 'The second kind of ordeal was more dangerous.
'You were bound and lowered into a body of sanctified water.
'And your guilt was determined by whether you floated or sank.
' Now you might assume that sinking meant you were guilty.
After all, you were much more likely to drown.
But the belief was that the water was so pure as to repel sin.
Sinking indicated innocence.
Floating was proof of guilt.
'Ordeals like these may sound barbaric 'but they were carried out in Christian Europe for centuries.
'I asked legal historian John Hudson what factors determined 'whether you were sent for ordeal in the first place.
' They seem to have been often proposed as a way of settling cases that you couldn't settle in other ways.
For example, if you don't have any factual proof, no marks on the person who is accused, no evidence that they are holding stolen goods, no blood on their hands.
Then there's a chance that no one will know who committed the offence, and then the likelihood is that they would have to go to trial by ordeal.
The number of people who actually undergo the ordeal, having been threatened with it, may well be much smaller.
It seems to be a way of trying to scare people either into confessing or very often into settling.
This was the judgment of God, so how often did God acquit in such circumstances? We have quantitative evidence.
We've got registers from the 13th century from Hungary, which give us numbers of people going to ordeal and we find that more than 50% of people get off.
Why might the acquittal rate have been so high? It must be physiological in some way.
People have done studies of throwing people into swimming pools and seeing how many of them naturally float and how many of them naturally sink.
And, of course, carrying a hot iron should cauterise your hand.
What convicts you, it seems, in England, is not whether you're burnt or not everyone would be burnt - it's whether your hand is clean or foul.
Has it turned pus-y or not? What really matters to you is whether you are bound up thereafter with good ointment and clean bandages.
While officially God was determining the outcome, it seems that human intervention was quite possible at all stages of the ordeal.
And nobody had greater control over the process than the clergy.
How often they might have given the Almighty helping hand in declaring guilt innocence we'll never know, but it's clear that the whole ordeal system ensured for the Church a central role in the dispensing of justice.
'This raised an important question - who was in charge of the law? 'The Church or the King? 'It would become a thorny political issue 'but not for the Anglo-Saxon kings.
'Their role was about to come to a sudden end.
' One night in September 1066, Duke William of Normandy landed with his army on the south coast.
It is said, here, at Pevensey Bay.
The Norman invaders quickly exerted an iron grip over the entire country.
Which should have been bad news for the law of the Anglo-Saxons, now a vanquished race.
Except it wasn't.
'William grasped an important principle for any ruler of England.
'It's always better to go with rather than against 'the grain of the law.
'William had political and practical reasons for this.
'He had invaded England 'because he believed he had the right to the throne.
'If he wanted to be seen as the true heir of Anglo-Saxon England, 'dumping or even damaging its legal system 'would have been counter-productive.
'Besides, the hundred and shire court system was highly organised 'and efficient by continental standards.
' The English, it appears, were rather better at running the country than they were at defending it.
'However, one key innovation introduced by the Normans 'was their favoured method of ordeal.
' 'In trial by combat, God would grand victory to the righteous.
'This was seen by the wealthy as a more dignified means 'of resolving civil disputes than hot iron or water.
'It could also be used in criminal cases.
' This is the sword you've just been fighting with? That's right, Harry.
We have here a couple of examples of swords of the early medieval period, looking a bit like this.
So if the person was engaging in a judicial combat, is of this sort of sword that that person would use, depending on their status? Presumably this cost quite a lot of money at the time.
The equivalent price would be that of a Mercedes Benz or a Rolls-Royce today.
What was the purpose of the combat? Was it to kill your opponent or just bludgeon them into submission? Well, for a civil case, which would be about large amounts of money or land, you would probably try to bludgeon them into submission and by the time one opponent is on the ground and calls out "I yield", it is probably equivalent to an out-of-court settlement in a large civil case.
My Lord! 'Criminal cases were an altogether less dignified affair, 'often involving the kind of riff-raff 'who couldn't afford a decent blade.
' This wooden stick would have been a far more likely weapon in trial by combat in a criminal case and, in so many words, you try to hit your opponent where it hurts.
Head, shoulder, arms, knees, feet, and all the male places.
Would you like to try? I would go like that, or like that, boink? Yes.
And what about that? I think so.
There's no reason to believe that this wouldn't have been sharpened to a very nasty point, and it may even have had nails in it.
'Although combat was a means of establishing proof, not a penalty, 'such a violent procedure sometimes saw the lines become blurred.
' When you beat the opponent to the ground, you might as well carry on and kill them, because afterwards they'll be taken away and executed anyway, either for the crime they were initially accused of or if is the other party that gets beaten to the ground, for having committed major acts of perjury.
'What might happen if you lost and survived 'is told in one of the few accounts we have of 'an English judicial duel.
' A certain Thomas of Eldersfield near Gloucester was defeated in combat by a man he'd been accused of wounding.
Rather than having him hanged, the judges, being merciful, ordered that he merely be castrated and blinded.
The victor and his family set about this task with a degree of relish, throwing his eyes on the ground and using his testicles as footballs, the local lads kicking them playfully at the girls.
Norman rule was far from being a disaster for English law.
It allowed the people to pursue their Anglo-Saxon legal traditions in the context of strong and stable government.
At least, that was the case for almost three-quarters of a century.
Then, in 1135, Stephen usurped the throne.
Civil war ensued and the country fell apart.
'For nearly two decades, from 1135 to 1154, 'England suffered what has been called both 'The Anarchy' 'and the 19-Year Winter.
' 'The result was a breakdown in law and order, 'a myriad of unresolved disputes, a depletion of royal coffers 'and the collapse of the King's authority.
' The man who had to sort out this mess was Stephen's cousin, Henry II, who came to the throne in 1154 aged just 21.
The main instrument he used was the law.
To such an extent that some historians have called him nothing less than the father of the English common law.
'Henry realised that it wasn't sufficient just to issue laws.
'The trick was to ensure their common, 'consistent and effective implementation.
' 'So in 1166, Henry established a system of roving Royal Justices.
'These hand-picked officials represented a new level 'of intervention by the Crown in English law.
'The Justices were to travel the country, 'making sure that the law was being enforced by the shire courts 'and claiming all the fines that were due to the King.
' The Justices weren't mere functionaries.
Henry was pulling out his big guns.
The first pair to set off included one of his chief ministers and the Earl of Essex.
They managed to get as far as Carlisle when the Earl rather inconveniently fell ill and died.
Before his demise, in the space of just a few months, they'd managed to shake down half the shires of England.
'The Justices were able to ascertain how well local sheriffs were doing 'in prosecuting offenders.
'And how much money was owed in fines to the king.
'Here, in Lincolnshire, for example, they recorded more than 100 cases.
' There's Simon Fitzwalter who owes 40 shillings for making a false claim, and one Hugo de Cookton, who was fined a mark for absenting himself from trial by duel.
In total, over £250 was forfeit to the Crown.
Not a lot in today's money, but in 1166, that amount could buy you 20 knights or 165 soldiers for an entire year.
'As the Justices made their way across the country, 'startling disparities emerged.
'While Yorkshire reported 127 felonies, 'Wiltshire came up with a mere three, 'Worcestershire, just one, and Shropshire none.
' Either these counties had staggeringly virtuous populations or somebody wasn't doing their job.
'This is where Henry's other big idea came into play.
'He decreed a single set of legal procedures 'that were strictly to be followed throughout England.
'Such standardisation was unprecedented in Europe.
'And, crucially, from then on, 'members of the public would play an essential role in the legal process.
'So-called juries of presentment became common practice.
' Juries of presentment didn't consider evidence and determine guilt or innocence.
Instead they were representatives of local communities who had to report under oath all the crimes committed in their area and to name those they deemed responsible.
So not juries in the modern sense, but a key precursor.
'Increasingly, the county sheriffs were sidelined 'and the juries were required to present their reports 'to the Justices themselves.
'These Justices were becoming a powerful body, 'both in the shires and in the capital.
'There was now a central court firmly established at Westminster.
'It wasn't a Superior Court or Court of Appeal, 'but it was the base from which the roving Justices set out 'and to which they returned.
'And it sat in regular sessions of its own.
'In effect, it was Henry's legal headquarters.
' What was starting to emerge here was a body of judges, as we would recognise them now, serving both at Westminster and in the shire circuits and building up a pool of knowledge and expertise.
It's easy to imagine them getting together between sessions or just over a meal, swapping stories, debating the finer points of legal practice, and using this shared experience to shape their subsequent rulings.
'Accounts of cases began to be written down, 'allowing them to be consulted, 'and the first books about English law started to appear.
' The Justices were establishing a method that remains a defining characteristic of the English legal system.
They were making judgments based on precedent.
Common law wasn't just about consistency across the realm, it was also about being consistent with previous decisions.
'The Westminster Court mainly dealt with civil litigation.
'They would hear your suit more quickly than a shire court 'for a fee.
'Making money seems to have been an important aspect of Henry's reforms, 'a point I raised with legal historian Paul Brand.
' How much is revenue-raising as opposed to making the country safer an underlining priority for Henry? Clearly he was not unaware of the fact that Justices brought in money.
It would be wrong to suppose that he didn't have that in mind at all in what he did, but there were rather more profitable things for a king to do than ensuring justice.
He did not charge significantly large amounts for access to royal courts.
So he ensured that royal justice was affordable? He ensured that royal justice was affordable to the normal man in the street.
So he had very high ideals as to his role, I suppose? He, as it were, reorientates the English monarchy.
He retools it as an institution deserving the support of the King's subjects because it provides justice for them.
'And that justice was meant to be consistent across society.
'The common law didn't discriminate, at least in theory, 'between the rich and poor.
' But one important group remained safely beyond the grasp of the common law.
Henry's attempts to deal with that problem would come to define his reign and reach a head here in Canterbury.
'That problem was the clergy.
'They enjoyed their own legal system, Canon Law.
'If you were in holy orders, 'you were subject solely to the jurisdiction of the Church.
'The Crown couldn't touch you.
'No matter how serious the crime, the cleric would merely be ordered 'by his bishop to purge his sin, usually through penance, 'whereas a layman might be mutilated or hanged.
'That is, unless they claimed "benefit of clergy.
" ' "Benefit of clergy" provided perhaps the biggest loophole in English legal history.
On the flimsiest of grounds, you could claim to be a cleric, thus removing your sanctified soul from the grasp of the secular authorities.
Eventually, the benefit could be claimed merely by reciting the first verse of Psalm 51.
"Have mercy upon me, O God, "according to thy loving kindness.
According unto the multitude "of thy tender mercies, blot out my transgressions.
" 'The inability of royal justice to prosecute criminous clerics 'represented perhaps the most serious challenge 'to Henry's authority.
'So when he appointed his close friend Thomas Becket 'as Archbishop of Canterbury, 'he did so on the expectation that under Becket's leadership, 'the Church would conform and cooperate.
' 'But Becket went native.
'Henry was NOT amused.
' Even when working full-time as a priest, I had little sympathy for Becket and his stance.
To defend the independence and rights of the Church from secular intrusion is one thing, to protect literate murderers, robbers and rapists from the full rigours of the law is quite another.
The clerical child abuse scandals of recent years are Becket's legacy.
I can well understand how Henry II got more than a little exasperated at the pig-headed obduracy of his archbishop, and how he demonstrated that frustration in an intemperate outburst to the effect of, "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?" 'What happened next 'is one of the most famous stories of Medieval England.
' On the night of 29th December, 1170, the story goes Becket was at evening prayer here in Canterbury Cathedral, when he was confronted by four knights loyal to the King.
They struck him down with repeated blows from their swords, and they were so ferocious that they sliced off the crown of his head, so that, in the words of an eyewitness, "The blood, white with the brain, and the brain, "no less red from the blood, dyed the floor of the cathedral.
" 'It's unlikely Henry actually ordered Becket's murder.
'His archbishop's demise undermined all that the king wanted, 'as public opinion rallied round the Church.
'Becket became a martyr, and a repentant Henry 'felt he could no longer touch the issue of criminous clerics.
' 'Although the Church may have remained off-limits, 'Henry II had given the rest of his kingdom a lasting legacy.
' Henry and his advisers didn't reinvent law in England, but they certainly gave it order, cohesion and a degree of uniformity unmatched ANYWHERE in Europe.
Now England didn't just have laws, it had a legal system.
A king born in France had laid the stable foundation upon which today's English law could be built.
'Henry II understood royal authority was best maintained in England, 'not through the arbitrary exercise of power, 'but by being seen as the guarantor of justice.
'But perhaps even he underestimated just how quickly the English 'would come to see justice not as the King's gift, but as THEIR right.
'It was a lesson that his son John would learn 'in a landmark moment in English history.
' 'On 15th June, 1215, 'King John rode from Windsor Castle to meet his barons, 'who had pitched their camp by the water meadows at Runnymede.
' On that June morning, nearly 800 years ago, these meadows would have been filled with thousands of people soldiers, knights, barons, bishops, the King himself all awaiting something unprecedented in English history.
The king was about to put his seal on a document that had been forced upon him by his subjects.
'John's disastrous French wars, his repeated demands for money, 'and his abuse of royal courts to levy fines, 'had alienated many of England's powerful barons.
'They had rebelled, forcing the King to negotiate.
'The result was written down 'in the most famous legal document in history 'the Great Charter, Magna Carta.
'Its 63 clauses cover a wide range of royal concessions, 'but Magna Carta was more than just a long list 'of legal and economic demands.
'It was a groundbreaking recognition that the English people had rights.
' Much of Magna Carta may strike the modern reader as impenetrable, obscure, and sometimes even trivial.
But buried among the clauses dealing with fish weirs and measures of ale are two of enduring significance.
"No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, "or stripped of his rights or possessions, "or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way.
"Nor will we proceed with force against him, "or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals "or by the law of the land.
" And, "To no-one will we sell, "to no-one deny or delay right or justice.
" 'These few lines have been hailed 'as the origin of fundamental civil liberties, 'including trial by jury.
'An agreement between the King and the barons 'had somehow ended up guaranteeing the liberty of wider society.
'To find out why, I went to meet an expert on Magna Carta.
' What the baronial opposition were doing to King John was clearly deeply controversial.
There were those who backed it, there were those who did not.
And there was much to play for.
John knew that, the baronial opponents knew that.
The loyalty of the lower free-classes knights, sergeants and others - could not be taken for granted.
These were constituencies that had to be mobilised, won over.
'Magna Carta wasn't just a legal document, 'it was an exercise in medieval public relations.
' Copies were almost certainly sent out to the shire courts of England, and read out before the earls, the barons, sergeants, the freemen.
This reflects the efforts by the baronial opposition to broadcast the details and the nature of the settlement.
'However, while the provisions of Magna Carta 'were being promulgated throughout the kingdom, 'the settlement between John and the barons was falling apart.
'Within months, they were hard at battle in strategic Rochester.
' John personally directed the siege of Rochester Castle.
Its eventual surrender in November was one of the few glorious moments for John in his troubled reign.
Not that he had long to savour it.
Dysentery killed him the following year.
But Magna Carta lived on.
'Magna Carta had been disseminated far too widely across the country 'to be ignored or forgotten.
'Of what are believed to be some 40 copies originally distributed, 'four still survive, including the one sent to Lincoln.
' At first glance, it's not much to look at.
But it's had perhaps more influence in English and world history than any other document.
'On two occasions of the greatest historical moment, 'Magna Carta would become a clarion call against overbearing government.
'Preceding the English Civil War, it was cited by Parliamentarians 'contesting the authority of Charles I.
'In the 18th century, 'it inspired the fathers of the American Revolution, 'and provided the basis for the United States Constitution.
' This is probably the most important extant document in our history.
'1215, the year Magna Carta was signed, 'was perhaps the most momentous in English legal history.
'It was the year the law outgrew not only the King, 'but also, the other great power in the land.
' The Church may have enjoyed its own separate legal system, canon law, but as we've seen, it also maintained a strong foothold in the common law, because only a cleric could preside over trials by ordeal.
In 1215, that all changed for reasons that had nothing to do with events in England.
'900 miles away in Italy, 'Pope Innocent III banned priests 'from blessing ordeals by water and fire 'on the basis that God's judgment 'wasn't at the beck and call of presumptuous mortals.
'Following the withdrawal of the Church from the legal process, 'England had to decide whether to follow much of Europe 'and adopt methods of proof dating back to Roman law.
' English law was at a crossroads.
It could have followed the route favoured on the Continent, where the authorities would try to extract confessions by torture if necessary - the inquisitorial system.
Instead, England continued along her own exceptional path towards trial by jury.
'Over the centuries, the role of "the man in the street" 'had become steadily entrenched in English legal practice.
'From the people who might back up your oath in Anglo-Saxon times, 'to Henry II's juries of presentment who indicted local criminals.
' 'These juries were cheap.
They tapped into local knowledge, 'and it was both logical and common sense 'that they should be adapted to replace ordeals in trials.
' Now it was no longer the Almighty, but a rather less exotic tribunal that would determine the outcome.
The judge would ask the members of the jury, when declaring whether the accused were guilty or not, to give a truthful answer.
In the Anglo-French of the time - aver-de.
Our "verdict".
'The first known English jury trial took place in 1220.
'A woman condemned for murder, called Alice, 'accused five others of criminality.
'They submitted to the judgment of their neighbours.
'In the phrase of the time, ' "Putting themselves for good and ill upon a verdict.
" 'These neighbours decided that one was lawful, 'but that four were thieves.
'And they were sent to the noose.
'By the late 13th century, 'juries were a familiar part of English law.
'Unlike modern ones, they didn't weigh evidence, 'but came to a decision based on their own knowledge or belief.
'For ordinary people to have such power in a society 'that was in other respects full of inequalities was revolutionary.
' Your peers had been given an authority that had previously been the preserve of God.
Your guilt was now decided in public by members OF the public, independent of the state.
The jury - the institution that most defines English justice truly begins here.
'By the end of the 13th century, we can see a number 'of the elements of English law that remain with us today.
'A unified set of laws across the country, the jury, 'the structure of local and central courts, 'a body of judges who share and exchange 'their knowledge and experience, 'and one other important part of our legal system has begun to emerge.
' Major civil suits often ended up being heard at Westminster, irrespective of where they'd originated.
But suppose you live in a distant shire.
Travelling to London to plead your own case will certainly require lots of time and money, and dealing with an expert Justice may be well beyond your capacity.
So why not turn to a new kind of practitioner who's come on the scene? Someone like me - a professional lawyer.
'In fact, then, as now, 'there were two branches of the legal profession.
' 'You would appoint an attorney 'to act as your agent and manage your case.
'The word comes from the Old French atorne - "to appoint".
'But the actual pleading of your case in court 'would be done by a sergeant.
'Attorneys and sergeants were the equivalent of today's 'solicitors and barristers.
' 'And by the later 13th century, 'there were around 30 sergeants practising in the courts, 'and 200 attorneys.
' 'Business was booming, 'and it was transforming an important part of the capital.
' Here's the famous Temple Church, built by the Knights Templar in the last years of Henry II's reign, and preserved to this day as the chapel of Inner and Middle Temple two of the four Inns of Court that have existed in this area since the Middle Ages.
'The Inns of Court, 'which also include Gray's Inn and Lincoln's Inn, 'have been training schools for lawyers 'since at least the 14th century.
' 'It was here that my predecessors were lodged, 'and learned legal procedures and precedents.
' 'And down the centuries, 'the Inns have continued to support and educate barristers.
' The ceremony for York Hall this evening will commence at 1800.
'One of the Inns of Court's most important responsibilities 'is the formal recognition of qualified barristers.
'In a ceremony I remember well - the call to the Bar.
' In the name of the Masters of the Bench, I call you to the degree of the utter Bar.
'The Bar was the barrier which traditionally separated the public 'from the working area of a courtroom.
'Today, men and a women from a whole host of countries 'come here to qualify from the very same institutions 'where England's first lawyers trained 'more than six centuries ago.
' English common law has become a model for legal systems all over the world.
The secret of its survival in England is that it was never imposed upon the nation.
Rather, it grew and evolved through many centuries.
The common law runs through our national story like veins through a body.
It has proved both robust and adaptable, and it's had to be.
'As it moved beyond its medieval origins, 'the common law would face a whole new set of challenges.
' Next time, how the champions of the common law battled tyranny in the lead-up to the English Civil War signed the death warrant of a king triggered the end of the transatlantic slave trade, and secured the liberties we still enjoy today.