General history: Justices of the peace

Pages 215-221

The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 1. Originally published by W Bristow, Canterbury, 1797.

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Justices of the peace

IN antient times there were two sorts of conservators of the peace in this realm, the first were those who had this power annexed to some office which they held; and the second were without any office, and simply and merely conservators of the peace, who claimed that power by prescription, or were bound to exercise it by tenure of their lands, or lastly were chosen by the freeholders in full county court before the sheriff, by force of the king's writ, out of the principal men of the county, after the return of which, the king directed his writ to the person elected, commanding him to take upon him, and execute the office until he should order otherwise. Their office was (according to their names) to conserve the king's peace, and to protect the obedient and innocent subjects from force and violence. In this manner the conservatores pacis were constituted till the deposal and murder of king Edward II. by the contrivance of queen Isabel, when, lest so foul an action might alarm the people, and occasion risings and other disturbances of the peace, the new king (Edward III.) sent writs to all the sheriffs in England, the form of which is preserved by Walsingham, giving a plausible account of the manner of his obtaining the crown, and that was done ipsius patris beneplacito, and withal commanding each sheriff that peace be kept throughout his bailiwic; and a few weeks after the date of these writs, it was ordained in parliament, in the first year of that reign, that for the maintenance and keeping the peace in every county, good men and lawful, who were no maintainers of evil, nor barretors in the county, should be assigned to keep the peace; and thus, upon this occasion, was the election of conservators of the peace taken from the people, and given to the king, this assignment being construed to be by the king's commission. (fn. 1)

In the 12th year of that reign they were authorised by two commissions to reduce all vagabonds and wanderers, to dissipate all mutinous and riotous conventions, and to suppress all thieves and outlaws, and other persons disaffected to the peace established, and to vindicate and assert the two statutes of Northampton and Winchester. But still they were called only conservators, wardens, or keepers of the peace, till the 34th year of king Edward III. when by statute they had power given them of trying felonies, and then they acquired the more honourable appellation of justices of the peace. It appears, that in the 8th year of the above reign, in the parliament held at York, it was petitioned, that in every county there might be appointed one justice of the peace learned in the law, who should be chief; and though this was not then granted, it shews it was thought expedient, and might be soon afterwards put in practice. (fn. 2) These justices, the principal of whom is the custos rotulorum, or keeper of the rolls of the county, are now appointed by the king's special commission, under the great seal, the form of which was settled by all the judges in the reign of queen Elizabeth, anno 1590. This appoints them all, jointly and severally, to keep the peace; and any two or more of them to enquire of and determine selonies and other misdemeanors, in which number some particular justices, or one of them, are directed to be always present; the words of the commission running, quorum aliquem vestrum unum esse volumus, whence the persons so named are usually called justices of the quorum, and formerly it was the custom to appoint only a select number of justices, eminent for their rank, or their skill and discretion, to be of the quorum, though now, all in the commission are advanced to that dignity, except the last one or two persons named in it.

Touching their number and qualification, it was ordained by the statute, in the 18th year of king Edward III. that they should be two or three of the best reputation in each county; but these being found too few for the purpose, it was provided by statute, in the 34th year of that reign, that one lord, and three or four of the most worthy men of the county, with some learned in the law, should be made justices in every county. After this, the number of justices, through the ambition of private persons, became so large, that it was thought necessary, by statute in the 12th and 14th years of king Richard II. to restrain them, at first to six, and afterwards to eight only; but this rule is now disregarded, which seems, as Mr. Lambarde justly observes, to be owing to the growing number of statute laws, committed from time to time to the charge of the justices of the peace, the burthen of which has occasioned, and very reasonably, their increase to a larger number. The commission of the peace for each county, now containing the names of several hundred persons, every gentleman of rank and property in a county looking upon himself slighted if his name is not inserted in it.

As to their qualifications, they were at first directed to be of the best reputation, and most worthy men of the county, of the most sufficient knights, esquires, and gentlemen of the law; and as in process of time, it was found, that contrary to the laws, men of small substance and low rank had crept into the commission, whose degree, in life and poverty made them both covetous and contemptible, to prevent this, it was thought necessary, in the 18th year of king Henry VI. to affix a qualification of twenty pounds per annum to this office, which, on the continued alteration of money was, in the reign of George II. raised to one hundred pounds per annum, clear of all deductions; notwithstanding which, this method has not as yet proved any ways sufficient to remedy the above inconvenience.

Conservators of the Peace for the County of Kent (fn. 3)

HENRY de Montford, Bartholemus de Burghurst, Johannes de Ifield. (fn. 4)

Bartholemus de Burghurst, Johannes de Cobham, Johannes de Ifield. (fn. 5)

Johannes de Cobham, Johannes de Ifield. (fn. 6)

Willielmus de Clinton, Johannes de Cobham, Johannes de Segrave, Thomas de Feversham, Tres vel duo eorum. (fn. 7)

Willielmus de Clinton, John de Cobham, Galfridus de Say, John de Segrave, Otho de Grandison, Thomas de Feversham. Quinque, quatuor, tres et duo eorum. (fn. 8)

Johannes de Cobham, Thomas de Aldon, Johannes de Segrave. De confirmatione pacis, ac statuti Northampton, et cujusdem or dinationis, ne qui alicubi incedant armati ad terrorem populi. (fn. 9)

Willielmus de Clinton, Radulphus Savage, Thomas de Aldon, Johannes de Hampton, Willielmus de Reculver. Quatuor vel tres eorum. De feloniis et malefactoribus notorie suspectis insequendis et de audiendo et terminando felonia, transgressiones et excessus. (fn. 10)

Johannes de Cobham, Thomas de Aldon, Thomas de Brockhull, Willielmus de Orlanstone. Tres vel duo eorum. Jo. de Warrena, com. de Surry. Willielmo de Clinton, com. de Huntingdon, quos, &c. (fn. 11)

Johannes de Cobham, Thomas de Brockhull, Otho de Grandison, Willielmus de Morant. Tres vel duo eorum in com. Kantii. (fn. 12)

Galfridus de Say, Willielmus de Thorpe, Otho de Grandison, Arnaldus de Savage, Stephanus de Valoigns, Willielmus de Norton. (fn. 13)

Galfridus de Say, Willielmus de Norton, Willielmus de Thorpe, Thomas de Lodelow. (fn. 14)

Rogerus de Mortuomari, Comes de March, constab. castr. Dovoriœ et custos 5 portuum, Willielmus de *Thorpe, (fn. 15) Radulphus de Spigornel, Willielmus de *Norton, Stephanus de Valoigns, Thomas de Lodelow, Willielmus Warner. (fn. 16)

In the next commission, awarded after the act of the 34th of king Edward III. the eight following persons were named:

Sir Robert Herle, lord warden of the five ports, and constable of Dover-castle; John de Cobham; Roger de Northwood, of Northwood; Ralph de Fremingham, of Fremingham; Robert de Lodelow; Robert Vintners, of Vintners in Boxley; John Barrie, of Sevington; and Thomas Hartridge, of Hartridge in Cranbrook.

But the restriction in the above act, that one lord, with three or four of the best in the county, and three or four learned in the laws, should be assigned in every shire to keep the peace, and restrain offenders, was but little attended to; for in the commission issued in the 1st year of king Richard II. the numbers were greatly augmented, and were as follow:

De justiciariis ad pacem conservandam assignatis. Edmundus comes Cantab. constab. castri Dovoriœ.

Johannes de Cobham, Robertus *Belknap, Stephanus de Valoigns, Henricus de *Estrie, Willielmus Horne, Thomas de *Shardelow, Willielmus Topcliff, Thomas Garwinton de Well, Nicholas Hering, Willielmus Tilcombe, Willielmus Mackenade, Johannes Francis, Thomas Hartridge, John Bird de Smeeth. Justiciarii ad pacem conservandam assignati, in lastis de Sheringhope, Shepwey, St. Augustine, et 7 bundredis in com. Kantii. Teste rege apud Westm. 1ma die Aprilis. (fn. 17)

Idem Edmundus comes supradictus, Johannes Cobham, Robertus Belknap, Thomas Colepeper, Henry de Estrie, Johannes Fremingham, Jacobus de Peckham, Thomas de Shardelow, Willielmus Topclive, Nicholaus Hering, Willielmus Makedade. Justiciarii ad pacem conservandam assignati, in lastis de Ailesford, Sutton, et Leucata de Tunbridge in com. Kantii. Teste rege ut supra.

The above were two separate commissions, issued at the same time, for the several parts of the county, as above-mentioned.

In the reign of queen Elizabeth, anno 1596, (fn. 18) there were no less than sixty-four of the nobility and gentry of this county in the commission of the peace, then residing in it, besides numbers of others, who resided in other parts of the kingdom.

In the first of king Charles I. as it appears by the commission then granted, there were eighty-six persons named in it. (fn. 19) How much the numbers have still increased since the above reign, may be seen by the names in the present commission of the peace, which are near four hundred, though there is not a fourth part of them that qualify themselves to undertake this most useful and necessary office, for the service of their country.


  • 1. Coke's Inst. c. viii. part. ii. p. 558. Blackstone's Com. vol. i. p. 394 et seq.
  • 2. Cotton's Records, p. 15.
  • 3. Rymer's Fœd. vol. i. p. 792.
  • 4. Pat. 48 Hen. III. Pat. 1 Edw. III. 1ma. pars memb. 7ma. in dorso.
  • 5. Pat. 3 Edw. III. 1 ma. pars memb. 16 in dorso.
  • 6. Pat. 5 Edw. III. 1 ma. pars memb. 24 in dorso.
  • 7. Pat. 6 Edw. III. 1 ma. pars memb. 22 in dorso.
  • 8. Pat. 6 Edw. III. 1ma. pars memb. 11 in dorso.
  • 9. Pat. 9 Edw. III. 2da. pars memb. 24 in dorso.
  • 10. Pat. 20 Edw. III. 2da. pars memb. 18 in dorso.
  • 11. Pat. 12 Edw. III. memb. 16 in dorso.
  • 12. Pat. 18 Edw. III. 2da. pars memb. 35 in dorso.
  • 13. Pat. 29 Edw. III. 1ma. pars memb. 29 in dorso.
  • 14. Pat. 31 Edw. III. 1ma. pars memb. 17 in dorso.
  • 15. Those marked thus were judges.
  • 16. Pat. 31 Edw. III. 2da. pars memb. 11 in dorso.
  • 17. Pat. 1 Rich. II. 1ma. pars memb. 20 in dorso.
  • 18. Lambarde's Peramb. p. 28.
  • 19. Rym. Fœd. vol. xviii p. 856.