The Court of Chivalry Part 1

The Court of ChivalryIn December 1954 there occurred in England an event of Heraldic importance that is unlikely to have occurred anywhere but England. This was the revival of the Court of Chivalry which had not sat for 219 years. The nature of the Court of Chivalry has been very misunderstood. Its name has been given as that of a Court Military or Court Martial and from this it was assumed that the Court of Chivalry was the origin of the courts martial. This is incorrect and is based on an erroneous translation of the Latin name of the old court, Curia Militaris ( where Miles means knight), and so the correct translation is Court of Knighthood i.e. Court of Chivalry. The Court was that of the two great Officers of State, the High Constable and the Earl Marshal. The Court did exercise disciplinary powers in the military. References to a Constable and Marshal are usually found in connection with a medieval army, but they don’t necessarily indicate the presence of both of these functionaries on all occasions. In the case of a war waged simultaneously with France and Scotland, clearly the two could not be present with both armies. There were statutes and ordinances of war, from which developed the Articles of War, which were eventually embodied in the Mutiny Act of 1689.


 Bohun coat of armsThe type of cases brought before the Court of Chivalry varied; some where of a kind which later came within the jurisdiction of the Common Law Courts; all were more or less concerned with matters of honor, about the wrongful use of coats of arms, or of offensive or hateful speech, such as a statement that a man was not a gentleman. The office of Lord High Constable was hereditary in the family of Bohun, but after the extinction of that family various persons held the office until 1521 when the last High Constable was Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. The office of Earl Marshal eventually became hereditary in the family of the Duke of Norfolk. It is clear that the Court of Chivalry presided over by two Crown officers could become an instrument of royal tyranny. In fact cases of treason were brought before the court and dealt with in a very summary and often unjust manner. To prevent such abuses, the English Parliament, as early as 1389, passed statutes to confine the jurisdiction of the Court to “ cognizance of contracts touching deeds of arms or of war out of the realm and also things which touch war within the realm which cannot be determined or discussed by the common law”.

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