The Ames Foundation

The De legibus et consuetudinibus Angliae
attributed to Henry of Bratton


Henry of Bratton (Henricus de Brattona or Bractona) was an English judge of the court known as coram rege (later King’s Bench) from 1247–50 and again from 1253–57. After his retirement in 1257, he continued to serve on judicial commissions. He was also a clergyman, holding various benefices, the last of which being the chancellorship of Exeter cathedral, where he was buried in 1268.

Bracton’s chief claim to fame is his association with the long treatise De legibus et consuetudinibus Angliae (“On the Laws and Customs of England”), which F. W. Maitland described as “the crown and flower of English jurisprudence.” The work (now commonly known simply as Bracton) attempts to describe rationally the whole of English law, a task that was not again undertaken until Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England in the eighteenth century. The work is remarkable both for its wealth of detail and for its attempts to make sense out of English law largely in terms of the ius commune, the combination of Roman and canon law that was taught in the universities in Bracton’s time.

While the attribution of the work to Bracton is of considerable antiquity and is supported by a claim made in his name in some manuscripts at the very beginning of the text,1 it now seems that the bulk of the work was written in the 1220’s and 1230’s by persons other than Bracton. It seems then to have been edited and partially updated in the late 1230’s, with various additions being made to it between that time and the 1250’s. The last owner of the original manuscript and the author of the later additions was probably Bracton.

1He describes himself simply as ‘ego talis’ (‘I, such-and-such’) in HLS MS 1, fol. 13ra (1ra).

The standard modern edition of Bracton includes the Latin text of George Woodbine (1876–1953) with the translation of the late Samuel E. Thorne (1907–1994). To Professor Thorne we owe the modern understanding of the authorship of the work. A brief account of Bracton by J. H. Baker (from which the above is derived) may be found in A. W. B. Simpson (ed.), Biographical Dictionary of the Common Law, s.n. Bracton. Bibliography since Thorne’s work includes: J. L. Barton, “The Mystery of Bracton,” Journal of Legal History, 14 (1993) 1–142, and P. A. Brand, in J. Hudson (ed.), The History of English law: Centenary Essays on “Pollock and Maitland” (1996), 65 ff. The most recent biography is by Brand in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.n. Bratton [Bracton], Henry of, with further references.

The Ames Foundation has three publications of Bracton online. The first, a fully searchable HTML version of the Woodbine-Thorne edition is described more fully here (the technical description on the index page is somewhat out of date) and may reached directly here. (The online version does not include the first volume of the Woodbine-Thorne edition, which consists almost entirely of collations of numerous manuscripts needed to establish the proposition that all surviving manuscripts derive from a badly-executed copy of the lost original. We also did not place online Thorne’s introductions to the various volumes. That was probably a mistake, which we hope to rectify.) The more recent publications are a complete set of images of HLS MS 1 and HLS MS 2, which may be reached through our ‘metadata’ for HLS MS 1 and HLS MS 2 (which currently are usable, but incomplete).






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This page last updated 08/20/19. Contact Rosemary Spang with comments.
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