Roger writing the LAWmag
Sep 2011

The 380 Year Court Case: A Little Demesne Goes A Long Way

In 1613, King James I (1566-1625) and his legal advisers believed the Crown owned the land on which was then and is still situated the Smithfield Market in London, anciently referred to as Smoothfield or West Smithfield. According to the king's records, that piece of land was being unlawfully occupied by the City of London's market as it was part of the ancient manorial grounds of the Royal ancestors. It was Royal demesne, went the argument.

The market was already ancient, described by a clerk of Thomas Becket (William Fitzstephen) in 1174 as:

"... a smooth field where every Friday there is a celebrated rendezvous of fine horses to be sold, and in another quarter are placed vendibles of the peasant, swine with their deep flanks, and cows and oxen of immense bulk."

380 years of litigationIt was a favourite place for jousting tournaments and public executions, such as that of William Wallace in 1305, on the adjacent grounds of St. Bartholomew. Between 1553 and 1558, Mary I had over 200 women burned at the stake at Smithfield on charges of witchcraft. The diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) spoke often of the Smithfield market.

James I sued in Chancery in 1613 for a declaration that the land belonged to the Crown. The City of London defended vigorously, producing charters endorsed by Edward III (1327) and renewed by Henry VI (1444) and Henry VII (1505), all of which conceded the land to the "citizens of London".

James didn't care about public markets. He presented a financially self-serving view that these had merely been long-expired leases, which he did not want to renew.

Within a year, James I was overwhelmed by innumerable political battles and as a pawn in the chess game of his reign, he agreed to a legal truce: a stay of proceedings was entered in 1614.

Indeed, the issue, it would seem, became moot when a subsequent charter issued by James' son Charles I, on October 18, 1638, specifically granted to the City of London the freehold title to the ancient site of the Smithfield Market. The problem was that this charter was written in Latin without punctuation or paragraph breaks, a dog's breakfast of legalese. Nonetheless, once translated, the language seemed clear:

"We … declare and grant that the aforesaid Mayor … and their successors for ever may have hold and enjoy, and shall and may be able to have hold and enjoy … that field called West Smithfield."

Butcher shopAnd there it stood with but the slightest flicker of a pilot light, in the archival dungeons of the Chancery Court in London, until dusted off and returned to the courtroom for inconclusive skirmishes in 1855 and 1860. Two different statutes were enacted hoping to clear up the ancient dispute: the London Central Market Act of 1875 and the London Central Markets Act 1886.

Meanwhile, Smithfield Market grew and evolved into London's great meat market. In April of 1992, the City of London announced a major renovation project of the Smithfield market land, especially to bring it in line with European Commission food hygiene regulations. Isolated docking stations were required, segregated for pre-wrapped (boxed) meat and carcass meat.

That is when the smirch on the land title record was discovered. Barristers and solicitors pondered the dilemma and Crown and London again disagreed. Since the case had only been stayed and not dismissed, it was felt cleanest to simply have the matter adjudicated once and for all. The style of cause was changed to Crown Estate Commissioners v Corporation of City of London.

The Crown took the position that Charles' 1638 charter was really a long-term lease: the land could be used by the City of London as long as it was for the purposes of a market but at the end of the lease, the land belonged to the Crown. The charter did not, they argued, give clear title and free to the City of London.

And so it was brought before Mr. Justice Leonard Hoffman who rendered judgment, thus almost ending the Court case, on May 6, 1992:

"Indeed the site was part of the Royal demesne until early in the 15th century but Smithfield was indubitably included in land later given to the City under charter granted by Henry VI in 1444 and confirmed by Henry VII in 1505."

The Crown appealed this decision but it was upheld by Justice Mann, Evans and Nicholls of the England and Wales Court of Appeal on May 13, 1994. Finally, The King v The City of London could be given a proper burial at the Courthouse Registry.


Posted in Legal History

Attached Images

  • The 380 Year Court Case: A Little Demesne Goes A Long Way
  • The 380 Year Court Case: A Little Demesne Goes A Long Way