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Office of Justice of the Peace in England, 1600

by Earl B. Brand, Jr.

August 24, 1600, was not a good day for Mr. William Malden as he journeyed to London from his shire in northern England. The gentleman pondered his predicament and weighed available options prior to appearing before the dreaded Star Chamber. It was a rare occurrence indeed for a justice of the peace to appear before the Star Chamber. The social status of not only Mr. Malden, but the social status of Malden's family and heirs rested on the result of the Star Chamber's verdict. The die had been cast.

Malden's problems began when an informant, a fellow justice of the peace had testified before assize judges at the Quarter Sessions that Malden's wife was guilty of recusancy. Thereupon, in accordance with a statute of 1489, the clerk of the peace submitted a transcript of the proceedings of the Quarter Session to the King's Bench as required by law. Thus turned the wheel of Elizabethan justice.

Mr. Malden fully recognized the seriousness of the situation. It was known throughout the kingdom that the recusancy of a spouse meant loss of commission to a justice of the peace. Maiden remembered the oath administered and his declaration recognizing the supremacy of the ecclesiastical system of the Church of England. It should be noted that Mr. William Malden knew that a justice with papal sympathies "was not regarded as fit for the office of justice" (Beard, 119).

This hypothetical scenario was unusual for a justice of the peace in seventeenth century England. However, it serves to demonstrate the workings of the British legal system relative to the position of the justice of the peace.

The "justices of the peace (JPs) were the principal administrative and judicial officials of local government in Elizabethan England" (Wagner, 171). Over three hundred statutes had been passed by 1600 by Parliament to extend or redefine duties of justices of the peace (Loades, 266). The style of Tudor government was epitomized by the interrelationship of the House of Commons and justices of the peace. "The first brought the localities to the center, and the second took the center out to the localities" (Loades, 266). Therefore, the powers and sources of the justices were derived from several sources. They were derived primarily, therefore, by commissioning from the crown and the three hundred and nine statutes "which in one way or another referred to the duties of justices of the peace" (Elton, 454).

Although commissioned by the Crown, justices of the peace were under the supervision of the Privy Council. By 1600, the justices of the peace had become somewhat independent of the great barons. The Privy Council utilized justices of assize to refer information to the justices of the peace within their jurisdiction.

In Mr. Malden's case, it was not unusual, but the norm for justices of the peace to visit London for meetings with representatives of Parliament and the Privy Council. In fact, justices of the peace such as Mr. Malden literally inundated the Privy Council and Parliament with requests on behalf of their constituents. While in London, the duties of the justices of the peace in the shires would be augmented by the subordinates of the justices of the peace: the constables, watchman, surveyors of the highways, and overseers of the poor (Wagner, 186).

While in London, the justices of the peace played a vital role. In a sense, the justices of the peace were the eyes and ears of the various shires. The collection of taxes voted to Queen Elizabeth by Parliament was dependent upon the justices of the peace. For "if the government required more money, it asked for several tens and fifteenths (a tax on movable property) and often spread collection over several years" (Loades). It was the task of the ,local justices of the peace to collect these taxes at the local level.

The importance placed on the justices of the peace to collect taxes and enforce the laws of the Crown cannot be overemphasized. In fact, during Elizabethan times, the administrative duties of justices of the peace were critical to the implementation of Crown policy in the shires. For example, during this period, "the mayor was instructed to find out how many justices of the peace were in London ... and the justices who had come up to London were ordered home ... to their respective counties and enforce the law as pain of severe punishment" (Beard, 122). This proclamation demonstrates the importance of justices of the peace in local government within shires.

The strong centralized government of Elizabethan England can be traced to loyal court favorites and members of the Privy Council in London and numerous, loyal justices of the peace in the shires. In fact, the justices of the peace served as gatherers of intelligence throughout the realm. The justices of the peace formed an intelligence network that gathered information from the hinterlands and reported that information, through channels, to the crown. In the case of the hypothetical Mr. Malden, justices of the peace even served as informants against each other. The justices of the peace were warned: "If any of you see other justices mess up, advise Council through private or secret letters" (Beard, 122). Therefore, in addition to administrative duties, "the Council in special cases ordered the justices of the peace to appear in London to answer for their conduct" (Beard, 124). Therefore, these unpaid officials had to keep an eye out not only for assize justices visiting their localities, but for fellow justices of the peace as well.

During the visit of a justice of the peace to London, a visit to the chancery was almost always necessary. This visit served to clarify the various edicts and statutes that were constantly being transmitted to the justices of the peace. Due to the growth of the commission under Queen Elizabeth and "the constant increase of statutes conferring additional powers upon the justices of peace, considerable confusion existed" (Beard, 141). Therefore, a short visit served "to show the court of arms" at Court and to receive advice from the Chancery.

The oath of the justice of the peace enumerated their powers and duties. These duties consisted of conserving peace in their county, "to enforce and to cause to be enforced all ordinances and statutes pro bona pacis nostrae, and all laws and statutes made for arresting robbers, murderers, felons, and suspected criminals, and for the repression of riots, affrays, violence, and the disturbance of public peace" (Beard, 142). These duties, coupled with the collection of taxes made the justice of the peace a powerful entity within the shire. The justice of the peace was a unique English institution that

knits noblemen and gentlemen together, and in no place else but here in England are noblemen and gentlemen incorporated: for abroad in other countries noblemen meddle not with any parcel of justice, but in martial affairs; matter of justice that belongs to the gownmen; and this is it that makes those noblemen the more ignorant and the more oppressors; but here amongst us they are incorporated with those that execute justice, and so being warriors are likewise made instruments for peace; and that makes them truly noble (Hurstfield, 324).

In sum, the entire fabric of Elizabethan governmental control rested on the enforcement of statutes and collection of taxes by the justices of the peace. However, it is important to remember that the justices of the peace were unpaid officials. Therefore, in some cases, this led to lax enforcement, but not often, "because dismissal from the

commission was a serious blow to a gentleman's local social position, and the threat of dismissal could usually elicit cooperation" (Wagner, 171). In Mr. Malden's case, even cooperation could prove futile, because of the prevailing principle that if a justice of the peace disobeys the law, the entire structure collapses.


Beard, Charles A. The Office of Justice of the Peace in England: In Its Origin and Development. New York: The Columbia University Press, 1904.

Elton, G.R. The Tudor Constitution: Documents and Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960.

Hurstfield, Joel. Freedom, Corruption and Government In Elizabethan England. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Loades, David. Tudor Government: Structures of Authority in the Sixteenth Century. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1997.

Wagner, John A. Historical Dictionary of the Elizabethan World: Britain, Ireland, Europe, and America. Phoenix, Arizona: Onyx Press, 1999.