Law and Justice

The Laws of Albion in the Pendragon Era


The monk Gildas the Wise wrote a screed called On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain. It is, essentially, a religious work bemoaning the state of Britain. While some researchers claim that Gildas belongs to the generation after Arthur, others claim that Arthur killed Gildas’s brother Huaill. Unfortunately, it’s not really possible to pin down too many exact dates during this time period. What Gildas does do, however, is give us a couple of sentences about the state of law and order in the Britain of his time. He says that Britain had “judges, but unrighteous ones.” He also mentions that the judges do more to protect thieves and murderers than to “seek the rule of right judgment.” Jails were apparently in use as Gildas claims that those in jail are there because of political offenses, not true offenses. There were kings, but they were tyrants.

Murder was only murder depending upon who was killed and who did the killing. Crossing the local lord pretty much put you at his mercy. The Welsh chronicles tell us that killing a lord’s soldier was the same as attacking the lord himself. Again, whether theft and rape were crimes depended on who was the accuser and who was the accused. Justice was quick and cruel. Assassination, often between brothers or even father and sons, was an everyday hazard. Gangs of bandits, called latrunculii, infested the roads and forests. By nearly every conceivable definition of the word, there was no real law enforcement. With “capital” offenses, when the warlord chose to act, beheadings were the general method of execution, although hanging and flinging the suspect from a cliff were coming into style. The Saxons were particularly fond of hanging, though in the later part of the Dark Ages, after the Saxons were Christianized, they tended to favor amputation and beating rather than execution. There was a quid pro quo in Saxon England as well. Murders could spark blood feuds, where the aggrieved party could legally exact revenge. Druids, who are thought to have experienced a resurgence after the Romans left, allegedly favored multiple methods of execution.

Lip service was probably given to Brehon Law , the code used in Ireland, but even the renowned St. Patrick found his own British countrymen more brutal and vicious than their Irish counterparts. Patrick went so far as to write a letter to the soldiers of a tyrant named Coroticus. Apparently, Coroticus had raided a Scotti (Irish) village and killed the Christian inhabitants. Patrick’s intent was to turn the soldiers against their master, something that certainly wouldn’t have stood Patrick in good stead if Coroticus had ever gotten his hands on the old bishop.

Two laws, however, appear to have been inviolate. Tribal laws on hospitality were strictly adhered to, as well as the law of sanctuary. Otherwise, justice was a fleeting concept. The one exception to this seems to have been a late fifth-century king, Riothamus. A letter survives from a Gallic bishop named Sidonius to Riothamus which describes the king as renowned for his fairness and sense of equity. Some believe that Riothamus was the original Arthur.

This clipping taken from Tony Hays

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