Henry de Bracton studied law at Oxford University and later, chief justice of England.

His date of birth is uncertain but estimated to have been about 1210.

He was known to have been active in the church as well as being a roaming judge in five counties of medieval England and later settled in Exeter, in the southwest of England.

Bracton was the first judge to research, collect and record over 2,000 decisions of his court in a casebook (called the Note Book), thus publishing the world's first "law report."

This work pioneered the use of precedents and the stare decisis rule. More importantly, law reports provide publicity to the rules of law laid down by the courts and act as a control over arbitrary decisions.

Bracton's example was forever thereafter followed in England as judges began to record their decision in Year Books or Yearbooks, which were published from 1291 to 1535.

De legibusOddly, the Year Books were written in French, the language of the royal court since the Norman Conquest of 1066. Bracton’s first name was Henri, the French spelling of Henry and his surname, while he was alive, was Bratton, later recorded as de Bracton.

Bracton’s Note Book was only discovered twenty years after his death.

Law was, at the time, practised in Latin, the then-language of academia.

Bracton, in Latin, wrote De legibus et consuetudinibus Angliae, and, after Ranulf de Glanvill's Tractatus de legibus et consuetudinibus regni Angliae, one of the very first encyclopedia of the English common law, as it then was (pictured); and, arguably, the most influential. An extract, including the first pages, is available on this site, Bracton On The Laws And Customs of England.pdf, translation from Latin to English.

Later, De legibus was translated into English and re-titled On The Laws And Customs of England, which was then one of the first books on the common law, and described as "the first great book on English law" and "the crown and flower of English jurisprudence".

The opening stanza:

"To rule well a king requires two things, arms and law, that by them both times of war and of peace may rightly be ordered.

"Each stands in need of the other, that the achievement of arms be conserved by the law, the law preserved by the support of arms.

"If arms fail against hostile and un-subdued enemies, then will the realm be without defence; if law fail, justice will be extirpated; nor will there be any man to render just judgment."

De legibus borrowed moderately in substance, and substantially in form, from Roman law, then expanding throughout Europe, mostly through the use of the very popular Justinian’s Institutes.

He wrote the volume between 1235 and 1240 and it thereafter stood as the primary general reference book and authority on the English law until William Blackstone published his Commentaries some 500 years later.

Some historians allege that Bracton was merely the editor of De Legibus and that he was greatly assisted by two other judges, Martin Pattishall and Bracton's mentor, William Raleigh, and that the material was complete by 1240 and not as late as 1259, as suggested by other historians.

Henri de Bracton died in 1268.

REFERENCES:

  • Birks, P. and McLeod, G., Justinian’s Institutes (London: Gerald Duckworth & Co., 1987), page 7.
  • Harvard Law School, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Bracton Online at hlsl5.law.harvard.edu/bracton
  • The British Encyclopedia, Volume 2 (London: Odhams Press Limited, 1933), page 180.
  • Weiner, C., Bracton: A Tangled Web of Legal Mysteries 2 G. Mason University Law Review129 (1978).