National Army Museum

Liberty and the Common Law

England’s legal system, which has since spread beyond its country of origin, resulted from an uncommon combination of centuries of input from a wide variety of sources. Harry Potter traces its roots and follows its branches.

The Common law of England has been compared to a broad river with many tributaries or to a tree with many deep roots and myriad branches. It is inherently conservative in a Burkean sense: its authority depends on its antiquity, on its ability to change and on popular involvement and public acceptability. 

It has a long history. Perhaps surprisingly, given their 400-year occupation of what they called Britannia, the Romans seem to have left no secular legal imprint, although Roman civil law deeply influenced ecclesiastical law, which was common not just to England but throughout Europe. Nor did the native Celts leave a legal legacy. The common law sprang from a variety of continental sources that coalesced and indigenised in England. The Anglo-Saxons, who displaced the Britons, brought with them Germanic customs. The Vikings invaded whole swathes of England and imposed Danelaw. Finally, the Normans crushed and unified the country, creating – if a date can be given to a process – in the reign of the first Plantagenet, Henry II, the common law. 

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Liberty and the Common Law

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