English Medieval Legal Documents ›
6.0 - Writs and Pleadings

"The common law had...grown up round the royal writs. They formed the ground plan upon which its builders worked; and it is for this reason that the learning of writs was the first thing taught to students of the law. Seeing that the choice of a wrong or inappropriate writ meant loss of the action, this learning continued to be of the utmost importance to the practitioner all through his career." (71) However, despite their importance, there does not appear to have been any official register of writs for the medieval period. Although the original writs used to initiate actions were issued by the Chancery, there were apparently no official collections of forms prepared by the office, which would provide an authoritative text.(72) There were, however, a number of unofficial compilations of forms circulating in the legal community. A standard example found its way into print in 1531 and became known as the Register Brevium, or Register of Writs.

For a detailed listing of publications on procedure and writs, see Maxwell's chapter on courts and procedure,(73) and an extensive discussion of the various early editions of published writs can be found in Winfield.(74) Only the most important ones are listed below.

Natura Breui~u Newly Corrected in Englyshe/ With Dyuers Addycyons ... London: T. Pettit, 1544.
Abstract: English translation of the Old Natura Brevium with commentary.

Natura Breuiu(m) Newly Corrected, With Dyuers Addicio(n)s of Statutis: Boke Casis: Plees in Abatement(Es) of the Sayd Writtes and Theyr Declaracions: and Barris to the Same: Added and Put in Theyr Places Moste Conuenient . London: Richard Pynson , 1518.
Notes: Available online in EEBO (subscription database)
Abstract: Also known as the Old Natura Brevium.

Natura Brevium. The Old Tenures. Lyttylton Tenures. The New Talys. The Articles Uppon the New Talys. Diuersyte of Courtes. Justyce of Peace. The Chartuary. Court Baron. Court of Hundrede. Returna Brevium. The Ordynaunce for Takynge of Fees in the Escheker. And Fyrste a Table to All These Xii Bokes. London: W. Rastell, 1534.
Notes: 1545 edition also available online in EEBO (subscription database)
Abstract: A selection of writs with commentary. Also known as the Old Natura Brevium, or La Vieux Natura Brevium or The Tenuris. Text in English.

Registrum Omnium Breuium Tam Originalium Quam Iudicialium. 2 Parts . London: Rastell, 1531.
Notes: The 1531, 1553, 1595, and 1634 editions are available in EEBO (subscription database)
Abstract: Text in Latin. The first published collection of writs used for beginning or carrying on legal proceedings. The earliest manuscript dates to 1227. The 4th ed. is in 4 parts corrected and amended with appendix. 1687.

Returna Brevium . Early English Books, 1475-1640, 520:8. London: Wynkyn de Worde, 1519.
Notes: 1519 and later 16th century editions also available online in EEBO (subscription database)
Abstract: Text in Latin. 17 editions were published in the sixteenth century, plus 4 revised editions by John Kitchin.

De Haas, Elsa, and G. D. G. Hall , eds. Early Registers of Writs. SS, 87 for 1970. London: Quaritch, 1970.
Abstract: Contains the Latin text with translation of four early manuscript collections of writ forms, which were later represented by the standard compilation known as the Registrum Brevium Originalium, first published by Rastell in 1531. They come from the reigns of Henry III, Edward I, and Edward II. A fifth collection, a Registrum Judiciale of the mid thirteenth century, is concerned with writs issued by the Benches, which were generally of an interlocutory nature as compared with the original writs from Chancery which initiated actions at common law.

Fitzherbert, Anthony, and William Hughes, ed. The New Natura Brevium of the Most Reverend Judge, Mr. Anthony Fitz-Herbert . 9th ed. London: W. Rawlins, 1794.
Notes: 1576 edition also available online in EEBO (subscription database)
Abstract: A selection of writs with commentary, based on Rastell's 1531 edition of the Register of Writs. Also known as La Nouvelle Natura Brevium. Translated into English by W. Hughes.

Hansard, John, ed. A Book of Entries: of Declarations and Other Pleadings General and Special, in the Most Usual Actions in the Court of Kings-Bench. Also a Choice Collection of Special Writs, and Their Retorns. Together With Observations in Pleading, Instructing the Younger Clerks in the Practice of That Court. London: Printed by the assigns of Richard and Edward Atkins, for William Crook, 1685.
Notes: Also available online in EEBO (subscription database)
Abstract: From the original manuscripts in court-hand, collected and drawn by John Hansard ... To which are added, appeals of murder and mayheme, with variety of pleadings therein.

Hengham, Ralph de, and Simon Theloall, ed. Registrum Brevium Tam Originalium, Quam Judicialium. 4th ed. London: Printed by the assigns of R. and E. Atkins for T. Bassett, 1687.
Notes: Both 1531 and 1687 editions also available online in EEBO (subscription database)
Abstract: Text in Latin. Ascribed to Ralph de Hengham. The 4th edition by Simon Theloall, is entitled Le digest des briefs originals et des choses concernants eux. This came to be accepted as the quasi-official version of the Register of Writs.

Rastell, William, ed. A Colleccion of Entrees, of Declaracions, Barres, Replicacions, Reioinders, Issues, Verdits, Iudgements, Executions, Proces, Contynuances, Essoynes, & Diuers Others Matters. And Fyrst an Epistle, With Certayne Instructions Necessarye to Bee Redde for the Redy Fyndi(n)Ge of the Matters in Thys Booke. London: Richardi Tottell, 1566.
Notes: Also available online in EEBO (subscription database)
Abstract: Mostly in Latin, partly in Law French. A systematic subject arrangement of legal forms and entries.

Shanks, Elsie, and Stroud F. C. Milsom, ed and trans. Novae Narrationes. SS, 80 for 1963. London: Quaritch , 1963.
Abstract: Translation of the original Anglo-Norman texts. A collection of oral pleadings in common-law actions, all apparently dating from the later years of the reign of Edward I. Starting with writs of right, each action is discussed with references to the plea rolls, early year books, and the Brevia Placitata (SS, 66 for 1947).

Turner, George J., ed. Brevia Placitata. SS, 66 for 1947. London: Quaritch, 1951.
Abstract: A 13th century treatise in Norman French on pleading in the King's courts. It appears to have been written in 1260 and contains the earliest collection of common law pleadings, dating from the mid-thirteenth century.

Van Caenegem, Raoul C., ed. Royal Writs in England From the Conquest to Glanvill; Studies in the Early History of the Law. SS, 77 for 1958-59. London: Quaritch, 1959.
Abstract: A collection of 200 royal writs between AD 1066 and AD 1189, taken from widely scattered sources. It is intended to bridge the gap between the Anglo-Saxon royal writ, and the common law writs of Glanvill and Bracton.


71. Holdsworth, William S. A History of English Law. 17 Vols. London: Methuen, 1902-1972. vol. 2 at p.431
72. Plucknett, Theodore F. T. A Concise History of the Common Law. 5th ed. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1956 at p.276
73. Maxwell, William Harold, and Leslie F. Maxwell , comps. A Legal Bibliography of the British Commonwealth of Nations. 8 Vols. 2nd ed. London: Sweet and Maxwell, 1955-. Volume 1: English Law to 1800 at pp.258-357
74. Winfield, Percy H. The Chief Sources of English Legal History, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1925 at pp.268-307

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