Quick Ref / Glossary




Abjuring the realm
A criminal who had claimed sanctuary could confess his crime and agree to leave the country. After abjuring (renouncing) the realm, he was only able to return with the sovereign's permission.

Abolition movement
Leading figures of the anti-slavery movement in Britain included the Yorkshire MP William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson (who devoted most of his life to the movement) and the former slave Olaudah Equiano (Gustavus Vassa). The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded in 1787, and the Anti-Slavery Society in 1823. After vigorous campaigning, the British slave trade was abolished in stages, starting with the Atlantic slave trade in 1807. Slavery was abolished in the British West Indies and Cape Colony (South Africa) on 1 August 1834, leading the way to the abolition of slavery in other British colonies during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Alien subsidies
Taxes levied between 1440 and 1487 on foreign nationals resident in England.

Anti-Corn Law League
Pressure group founded in 1839 by 'free traders' Richard Cobden and John Bright to campaign for the repeal of the 'corn laws'. Regulations forbidding grain exports had been introduced as early as the 14th century. Although much legislation followed, in this context 'corn laws' refers to the measures introduced in the late 18th and early 19th century. When domestic prices reached specified levels, grain exports were prohibited. Alternatively, to ensure artificially high prices, import duties were imposed on grain coming into the country. The result was that grain cheaper than domestic price levels was discouraged and bread became expensive.

An assize trial was a trial by jury. In its most settled and enduring form 'the assizes' meant the routine of bringing royal justice to various parts of the country. Two commissioners travelled one of six circuits twice a year during the vacations of the royal courts at Westminster. The commissioners were given powers to 'hear and determine' criminal cases, try or release prisoners in gaols ('gaol delivery'), and hear civil cases that would otherwise have come to the royal courts. See also Oyer and Terminer.

Atlantic Charter
Joint declaration made by Roosevelt and Churchill in August 1941, setting out broad principles for the conduct of international relations in the postwar world. Drawn up at sea, off the coast of Newfoundland, it provided a foundation for the United Nations Charter. Its eight principles included non-aggression, self-determination, free trade, freedom of the seas, and renunciation of territorial expansion.

In medieval times, the extinction of civil rights took place when judgement of death or outlawry was recorded against a person who had committed treason or a felony. It involved the forfeiture and reversion to the Crown of the land and goods belonging to the person attainted. It could also result from a Bill of Attainder brought against an individual in Parliament.


Benefit of clergy
A legal fiction extensively used prior to the 18th century, whereby a claim to being a member of the clergy allowed a person sentenced to death to be branded (burned in the hand) and discharged.

Black Death
A virulent bubonic plague pandemic, originating in China, that swept Asia and Europe in the 14th century, killing more than 50 million people. It reached England in 1348.

Another term for villein or serf. A man in bondage to a manor or individual lord. See villein.

From Norman times, a town granted rights and privileges by charter. Later, boroughs became entitled to parliamentary representation. See also corporate towns.


Originally, a formal written record of a grant. Royal charters were used to confer status (e.g. that of borough or city) and to grant rights and privileges to institutions such as banks, colleges and guilds.

In 1838, the 'People's Charter' was drafted by William Lovett, one of the founders of the London Working Men's Association. The resulting movement was at the centre of the demands for parliamentary reform during the late 1830s and throughout the 1840s. The Chartists' six main demands were: votes for all men; equal electoral districts; abolition of the requirement that Members of Parliament be property owners; payment for MPs; annual general elections; secret ballots. Chartism also promoted the cause of trade unions and factory reform, and was vehemently against the new Poor Law. See also John Lovell and the People's Charter.

Civil liberties
The basic human or civil rights of the individual. In Britain, the Human Rights Act of 1998 guarantees the right to life, freedom from torture, freedom from slavery and forced labour, the right to liberty and security, right to a fair trial, right to privacy, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association, and the right to marry and have a family.

Clarendon Code
Legislation introduced in 1661-5 in order to repress nonconformism and ensure the supremacy of the Church of England. Named after the Lord Chancellor, Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, although he objected to its harshness, it consisted of the Corporation Act, the Act of Uniformity, the Conventicle Act and the Five Mile Act. See Religious minorities.

Close writ
A writ under the Great Seal sent folded and closed by the seal on the outside, so its contents could be read only by the person or persons to whom it was addressed. Unclosed letters, proclamations or writs issued under the Great Seal were termed 'patent'. These were open, with the seal appended on a tag or cord, so the text could be read by any literate person.

Common law
The body of law evolved by judges from precedent and custom - as opposed to statute law (law enshrined in Acts of Parliament).

Corporate towns
From late medieval times, 'incorporated' boroughs (i.e. those enjoying corporate status) were governed by municipal corporations entitled to pass by-laws, hold land and use a common seal. They could also sue and be sued. Urban government was reformed by the Municipal Corporations Acts of 1835 and 1882, which standardised regulations concerning the election of councillors and aldermen and the appointment and responsibilities of mayors.

See shire.


The granting of limited rights of citizenship to a denizen - a person habitually dwelling in a foreign country. In England, from the 16th century denization was granted by letters patent.

Devolution, devolved government
The transfer of power or responsibilities from central government to regional or local government.

Dissolution of the monasteries
Between 1536 and 1540 Henry VIII ordered the closure of the religious houses of England and Wales (around 800 monasteries, nunneries and friaries). He claimed their property on the false grounds that the Crown had founded them all. Henry at first added to the existing Crown lands and sold some of the land to his supporters; later he sold more monastic land to fund his wars with France.


The process of enclosing (with hedges, ditches, fences, etc.) open lands that had formerly been subject to common rights. Farmers found it difficult to introduce farming innovations on scattered strips of land subject to such rights, and larger holdings were built up over several centuries of consolidation and enclosure. Between the 1730s and 1830s enclosure was authorised by individual Acts of Parliament, as well as through the earlier formal and informal agreements of landowners. Although enclosure promoted modern farming methods, the reduction and elimination of common rights was devastating for many smallholders and wage workers.

English republic
Britain's only republican period during the past 1,000 years. Established following the execution of Charles I, it lasted until the Restoration in 1660. It included the 'Commonwealth or Free-State' declared by the Rump Parliament on 19 May 1649.


Feudal aids
Grants of subsidies or taxes to the Crown for extraordinary purposes, such as the knighting of the king's son, the marriage of his daughter, or to ransom the king if he was captured. These were linked to the structure of feudal lordship, since Magna Carta had determined that a lord could demand such contributions from his inferiors on only three occasions. Some kings manipulated the right by retrospectively claiming such feudal taxes during times of greater need.

Feudal incidents
Under the feudal system, a lord granted land (known as a 'fee' or 'fief') to a servant in return for military service and other obligations. These privileges, burdens and customs, attached to land, office, estates or manors, were known as feudal incidents. They included such practices as the royal right to wardship and the payment of a fine (called 'livery of lands') upon an heir's entry into inherited estates.

A system of landholding, common throughout Europe in medieval times, whereby freehold land was held or occupied in return for personal service to a lord or goods paid in kind, assured by oaths of homage.

Forest fines
Penalties payable for breach of the laws protecting the royal forests and hunting reserves, introduced following the Norman conquest. The more extreme penalties for offences against these laws were abolished by the Forest Charter of 1217.


Glorious Revolution
Name given to the events surrounding the 'abdication' of James II in 1688 and his replacement by his daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange (as joint sovereigns) in 1689. As part of the constitutional settlement, William and Mary were presented with the Declaration of Rights, asserting the authority of Parliament and limiting the powers of the sovereign.

Green paper
See white paper.

Guilds (gilds)
Guilds were medieval associations consisting of the chief traders of a town. The early merchant guilds excluded craftworkers. The later craft guilds therefore sought to include employers, day workers (journeymen) and apprentices. The aim of the guilds was to regulate wages, prices and the number of apprentices entering the trade, as well as upholding standards of workmanship.


Habeas corpus
A writ ordering that a detained person be brought before a court or judge, at a specified time and place, in order to determine whether such detention is lawful. The right of any citizen to obtain the issue of such a writ is regarded as one of the most fundamental civil liberties. In England, writs beginning with the instruction 'Habeas corpus' (Latin for 'Have the body…', meaning 'You are to produce the person detained') were first issued in the 13th century. The law relating to them was formalised by the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679.

Heritable jurisdictions
Private courts held on a hereditary basis by certain noble Scottish families, which offered readily available access to justice. They were abolished in 1747.


See corporate towns

A form of contract between two or more parties. Originally, such deeds of agreement were drawn up as two or more copies on a single parchment, then cut in such a way that the matching of the pieces could be used as a test of authenticity. Contracts of service for soldiers, servants, apprentices and employees were often drawn up in the form of indentures.


The movement - both in Scotland and England and 'over the water' in France - to restore James II and his descendants to the throne (Jacobus being Latin for James). There were three main Jacobite risings: in 1689-90, in support of James himself; in 1715, in support of his son James Francis Edward Stuart (the 'Old Pretender'); and in 1745-6, led by Charles Edward Stuart (the 'Young Pretender'), more popularly known as Bonnie Prince Charlie.


A policy of (governmental) non-intervention. In the field of economics, laissez-faire policies such as free trade were persuasively advocated by Adam Smith in his book Wealth of Nations (1776).

Supporters of the House of Lancaster, descending from John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, fourth son of Edward III. In 1399 Gaunt's son, Henry Bolingbroke, deposed Richard II to become Henry IV, the first king of the new dynasty. It was during the reign of Gaunt's grandson, Henry VI, that the Wars of the Roses were fought. The direct Lancastrian line ended when Henry VI's son, Edward, Prince of Wales, was killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471 by Edward IV. However, when Henry Tudor (Henry VII) defeated the Yorkist usurper, Richard III, at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 he claimed Lancastrian descent via his mother, Margaret Beaufort, who was the granddaughter of John of Gaunt.

Letters patent
See close writ.

A republican and democratic movement dedicated to levelling out social and political inequalities, which Oliver Cromwell and other Parliamentarians viewed with mounting concern. The Levellers' political creed, Agreement of the People (1647), found wide support among the lower classes and the soldiers of the New Model Army. The leaders of the movement, such as John Lilburne, were savagely punished by Cromwell. As a result, the Levellers effectively ceased to exist after 1649.

'Lollard' was a contemptuous name for the followers of John Wycliffe, and those who developed his heretical beliefs about the relationship of the Church and God in the 15th century. The term derives from 'loll' - in this sense, meaning to idle.

Long Parliament
The parliament summoned by Charles I that assembled on 3 November 1640 and sat through the Civil War. It was ejected by Oliver Cromwell in 1653, restored for a short time in 1659, and eventually voted for its own dissolution in 1660. See also Rump Parliament.

Lord of the manor
See manor.

Artisans and other workers in the northern and Midlands counties who engaged in destroying textile machinery (1811-13), so called because their manifestos and handbills were sometimes signed 'Ned Ludd' or 'General Ludd'. The introduction and spread of the new textile technology reduced wages and standards of living. Initially the workers had sought government regulation of the technology; but when it became clear that the government favoured non-intervention, groups of organised workers began to destroy the machines.


Manhood suffrage
See suffrage.

In medieval England, an estate (unit of land) under the jurisdiction of a lord of the manor. Usually, part of the manor, known as the demesne, was retained by the lord for his own profit, while the remainder was granted to tenants in return either for rent or for services such as cultivating his demesne and attending the manorial court.

The granting of freedom to a villein, who often had to pay a 'quit rent' to the lord of the manor to compensate him for the resulting loss of services.


The granting of citizenship to immigrants after a specified period of residence. In Britain, naturalisation is at the discretion of the Home Secretary and is dependent on criteria such as residence, language, employment and good character. Originally, it required a private Act of Parliament.


A judgement declaring a person an outlaw (someone outside the protection of the law). Where an indictment had been found against a person and summary process failed to compel him or her to appear in court, the process of outlawry might commence. Those declared outlaws were stripped of all civil rights. In addition, their lands and goods were forfeited. Although this procedure had long ago fallen into disuse, in criminal proceedings outlawry was not formally abolished until 1938. See Outside the law.

Oyer and Terminer
The system whereby justices commissioned by the Crown were instructed to 'hear and determine' general or particular offences, as specified in the commission, usually in a particular county or counties. This commission distinguished them from justices empowered to try or release prisoners in a specified gaol, who received a commission of 'gaol delivery'. See also assizes.


1. An area with its own church and incumbent (vicar or rector), sometimes called an ecclesiastical parish. 2. A unit of local government, sometimes called a civil parish.

The supporters of Parliament in its dispute with Charles I concerning exercise of the royal prerogative and in the Civil War. Popularly known as 'Roundheads', because of their cropped hair - in contrast to the more luxuriant hairstyle favoured by the Royalists (or 'Cavaliers'), who supported the king.

Historically, the powers, privileges and immunities of the sovereign. The scope and exercise of the royal prerogative was a source of frequent dispute first with the barons and then with Parliament, which sought to assert its own authority and to limit the powers of the monarch.

Princes in the Tower
Following the death of Edward IV in 1483, his sons, the 12-year-old Edward V and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York, were consigned to the Tower of London and never seen again. Shortly afterwards their uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, persuaded Parliament to endorse his claim to the crown and he ascended the throne as Richard III. Skeletons, believed to be those of the two princes, were unearthed at the Tower in 1674 and interred in Westminster Abbey. Whether they were murdered on the orders of Richard III or Henry VII is still a matter of debate.

Extreme Protestants who sought to 'purify' the Church of England of all traces of Catholicism, such as elaborate vestments and ritual. Some even urged the abolition of bishops. Their austerity and moral fervour won them many Parliamentarian followers during the Civil War, especially among Cromwell's New Model Army.


Term applied to the views, principles and policies of progressive and democratic campaigners (such as the Levellers, Corresponding Societies and Chartists) intent on a programme of political, social and economic reform. In the second half of the 19th century, the term was used for the progressive wing of the Liberal Party.

A bailiff or steward appointed by a landholder to manage or oversee his estates and tenants.

The movement and events in western Europe in the 15th and early 16th century that began with attempts - by thinkers such as Martin Luther and, later, John Calvin - to reform the Catholic church and led to the foundation of Protestant churches, which rejected the pope's authority. In Britain, Henry VIII's decision to break with Rome (see Act of Supremacy) divided the nation, religiously and politically, until the Restoration and after.

Rotten boroughs
Name commonly used for boroughs where the population had declined to such an extent that it was easy to gain election to Parliament by bribing or otherwise manipulating the electorate. Boroughs where the nomination of the MP or MPs was effectively in the gift of a wealthy landowner or powerful family were known as 'pocket boroughs'. Electoral anomalies and abuses of this kind were abolished by the Reform Act of 1832.

See Parliamentarians

Rump Parliament
The members of the Long Parliament remaining after Pride's Purge (December 1648), in which some 140 MPs were forcibly expelled. It was the Rump that put Charles I on trial and, on 19 May 1649, declared the 'Commonwealth or Free-State'.


In medieval times, those facing prosecution were allowed to take refuge in a church or other sanctified place, for up to 40 days. Once that time had elapsed, they had to either abjure the realm or submit to the law. If they did neither, then they could be declared outlaws.

Another name for villein or bondman. See villein.

In Anglo-Saxon England, each shire was governed on the king's behalf by an ealdorman. In Norman times, the sheriff ('shire reeve') replaced the ealdorman as the king's principal representative in the shire. His responsibilities included assessing and collecting taxes and the enforcement of royal writs.

The major unit of local government in Anglo-Saxon England. After the Norman conquest, the shire was superseded by the county as an administrative unit. However, the term shire continued to be used in certain contexts.

Star Chamber, Court of
So called because of the decorative pattern of stars on the ceiling of the chamber where it met, the Court of Star Chamber acted as a 'court of equity' in criminal matters. Founded in 1487, during the reign of Henry VII, it consisted of the chief officers of state and the two chief justices. Initially it had jurisdiction over unlawful riots and assemblies, offences of sheriffs, and jurors. This was later extended to offences against royal proclamations. The court was abolished by the Long Parliament in 1640.

Statute law
See common law.

The right to vote in parliamentary elections. Also known as 'the franchise'. The Levellers (1645-9) and Chartists (1838-48) campaigned for manhood (adult male) suffrage. The Representation of the People Act of 1918 gave the vote to men over 21 and women over 30. In 1928 women were given the same voting rights as men.

Name, coined by the Daily Mail, for members of the militant Women's Social and Political Union - founded by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia in 1903 - who fought for female suffrage (see Women's rights). In protest at the continued refusal to give women the vote, the suffragettes resorted to extreme tactics, including chaining themselves to railings, refusing to pay taxes and disrupting political meetings. When imprisoned, many of them went on hunger strikes and were force-fed. They halted their activities following the outbreak of the First World War.


Especially in the Scottish Highlands before the clearances, a tenant - often a relative of the chief of the clan - who obtained a tack (lease) of a sizeable tract of land from the owner of an estate and sublet it to smallholders.

Deportation of convicts to a penal colony. Transportation to the American colonies was introduced in the 17th century, a number of death sentences being commuted. From 1718 transportation became a sentence in its own right, largely as an intermediate penalty between capital punishment and the branding that was a requirement of benefit of clergy. Later, from 1788, transportation to Australia was employed as a punishment for trivial as well as serious offences, partly to ease pressure on the prison system and partly as a way of getting rid of undesirable elements. This form of punishment was abolished in 1868.


A serf or bondman. From the Latin villanus - relating to a villa (farm or country estate). Villeins were owned either by, and attached to, a manor (villeins regardant), or attached to an individual lord (villeins in gross). Lords could dispose of their villeins, just like other items of property, and ownership was also transferred as manors were bought and sold. Villeins could not own property, and their lord's permission was needed for most activities. They could sue anyone at law except their lord. Although a lord protected his villeins (like any of his valuable possessions), villeinage was a form of slavery that gave those bound very few rights and their quality of life depended on the benevolence of his rule.


A ward was a minor (under the age of 21) who was placed in the care of a guardian. For those wards who were children of tenants in chief (those holding land directly from the Crown, and therefore normally heirs to large estates), the Crown had the right to their wardship. This was usually granted for a large fee to a nobleman or other aristocrat who would ensure that the ward was educated and protected appropriately until coming of age. Wardships were also frequently sold with the right to marry the heir. Since very often this meant marriage within the guardian's family, the manipulation of wardships could affect the balance of landholding society. Henry VIII established the Court of Wards and Liveries in 1541 to regulate the system of wardships and inheritances.

Wars of the Roses
The bitter intermittent struggle between the royal houses of York and Lancaster for the crown of England. The Wars of the Roses are traditionally regarded as beginning with the first Battle of St Albans in 1455 and concluding with Henry VII's victory against the Yorkist claimant, John, Earl of Lincoln, at the Battle of Stoke in 1487. So called because the emblem of the Yorkists was a white rose and that of the Lancastrians a red rose.

In the late 17th century, those opposed to the religious policies of Charles II and the succession of his Catholic brother James, Duke of York (later James II) were nicknamed 'Whigs'. By the early 18th century, the Whigs had become a loose political alliance made up of members of the aristocracy and the moneyed middle classes that supported the Hanoverian settlement. From the late 18th century, the Whigs favoured some measure of political reform, and this connection with parliamentary change was reinforced with the 1832 Reform Act. They came to adopt the term 'Liberals' quite early in the 19th century, although official usage dates from the 1860s.

White paper
An official paper outlining the government's policy on a matter to be brought before Parliament. A green paper is a more provisional document, intended to initiate or stimulate debate.

Members of the council of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England. Their assembly was called the Witenagemot.


Supporters of the House of York. The Yorkist dynasty claimed descent through the third and fifth sons of Edward III: Lionel, Duke of Clarence, and Edmund, Duke of York. The first Yorkist monarch was Edward IV - son of Richard, 3rd Duke of York (1411-60) and Cecily Neville - who came to the throne after defeating the Lancastrian forces at the Battle of Towton in 1461. In 1483 Edward IV's brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, usurped the throne to become Richard III. He was defeated at the battle of Bosworth by Henry Tudor (Henry VII) in 1485. See also Wars of the Roses.


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