Christianity and English law

Authors Avatar

Student ID: 0405551                                                                                           LA 242


In today’s society, the idea of religious doctrine being married to or forming the basis of a legal system is a difficult one to advocate to legislators or to those in the legal profession. However, historically English common law owes much of its development to Judaeo-Christian influences. In this essay, I will examine the role as well as the symbols and images of Christian theology in the English common law in order to assess the importance of Judaeo-Christian theology in the development of English common lawyer and the secular legal profession.

Influence of Judaeo-Christian Theology on the Common law

The Henrician Reformation prohibited the teaching of Canon law in England and prompted the rise of the secular legal system in England. However the strong influence of Judaeo-Christian theology is evident in English law, as it inherited much of the jurisdiction of ecclesiastic courts and the traditions and laws of the Roman Catholic Church. Moreover with the Act of Supremacy the merging of the authority of the crown and the church led to the common law absorbing much of what used to be the ecclesiastical courts’ jurisdiction and the inheritance of the customs and traditions of the Roman church. Additionally, as Raffield highlights many eminent prelates remained as members to the Inns of Court. 

One particular reason that Judaeo-Christian theology was able to play a major role on the stage of early English Common Law was the unwritten nature of the English Constitution. It was the contention of William Dugdale thtat ‘…the Common Law is, out of question, no less antient than the beginning of differences betwixt man, after the first peopling of this land, it being no other than pure and tried Reason…or the absolute perfection of Reason, as Sir Edward Coke affirmeth, adding that the ground therof is beyond the memory or Register of any beginning’. This emphasis on antiquity could have been to persuade others of the primacy of the common law. Jurists of the time have argued to the effect that ‘substantive law derived from the distillation of ancient custom and was therefore largely unwritten; the principles enshrined in common law having their textual origins in Judaeo-Christian scripture’5b As a result Christian theology and the law were considered indivisible from one another.

According to Fullbecke, in ‘A Direction for Preparative to the study of the Lawe’; ‘Where God is not, there is no truth, there is no light, there is no Law.” From this it is gathered that law and theology existed together and they was no way for one to be separated from another.

Moreover, given that the rival jurisdictions to English common law followed the civil law tradition emanating from Rome and consequently perhaps drove English legal commentators of the early modern period to write about legitimacy of English law. Judaeo-Christian theology was a way of elevating the Common law.

When Fortescue was reigning as Chief Justice of Henry VI referred to the Book of Deuteronomy as the written constitution of England so that the King may rule in accordance with the laws God handed down to Moses. This idea of extending Old Testament law to English law and building a bridge between the two were not limited to the writings of Sir John Fortescue. So fundamental was the idea that English law stemmed from the higher authority of God’s laws, Coke asserted that;

In nature we see the infinite distinction of things proceed from same unity, as many rivers from one fountain, many arteries in the body of man from one heart, many veins from one liver, and many sinews from the brain: so without question, this admirable unity, and consent in such diversity of things proceed only from God, the fountain and founder of all good laws... 

Join now!

A similar idea is conveyed when Sir Coke notes that the basic laws of England were not a product of design by the state but ‘written with the finger of God in the Human Heart’. This is a notion carried on by Dugdale who wrote in Origines Juridiciales; ‘the Common Laws of England are grounded upon the Law of God, and extend themselves to the original Law of Nature, and the universal Law of Nations and that they are not originally Leges scriptae’.

Moreover, in the Doctor and Student by Christopher St German, whose writings influenced English law for a period ...

This is a preview of the whole essay