This earliest of all legal treatises composed in French exists in two versions, one short (version 1) and the other long (version 2). The treatise claims to be Edward the Confessor’s laws as confirmed by William I; it is, however, an imposture, an unofficial description of the law composed in the time of Henry I (1100–1135) or Stephen (1135–54). The short form of the treatise covers issues of church peace, royal peace, regional customs, crime, jurisdiction, administration of justice, and penalties. The long version adds 24 chapters which are translations of chapters in Cnut’s Winchester code.

For the long version, see Leis Willelme, version 2.  It was translated into Latin in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century; see Leges Willelmi .

Digital edition

Edited by Bruce O'Brien, Ian Short, Paul Brand, Yorio Otaka

Manuscripts

Text filiations

Introduction

by Bruce O'Brien, Ian Short, Paul Brand, Yorio Otaka

The treatise known as the Leis Willelme exists in two versions, one short (version 1), extending to 28 chapters, and the other long (version 2), extending to approximately 52 chapters. In both versions, the treatise claims to be a statement of what post-conquest drafters of charters and laws knew as the laga Edwardi, the laws of England in force under Edward the Confessor and confirmed by William the Conqueror. The treatise is not, however, official or authoritative in the sense of representing directly the product of any supposed affirmation of earlier law by King William. Instead, it is an imposture and an unofficial description of the law of England. It was arguably composed in the time of Henry I (1100–1135) or Stephen (1135–54), though no later than the date of its earliest witness, the Holkham manuscript (Hk; now BL Additional MS 49366), which on paleographical grounds was written c. 1175. The short form of the treatise preserved in the Holkham manuscript covers issues of church peace, royal peace, regional customs, crime, jurisdiction, administration of justice, and penalties. The first version of the Leis Willelme differs significantly from the second in that the author (or another) has added over 24 chapters translated directly from an Old English text of I-II Cnut.

 

What is published here is part of what will eventually become a full edition of the short version of the Leis. This work consists of a translation by Ian Short, the first new one to appear since Agnes Robertson's respected translation included in her 1925 Laws of the Kings of England from Edmund to Henry I. We also republish here Yorio Otaka’s 1994 edition of the sole surviving witness preserved in the Holkham manuscript, corrected against the manuscript; the last edition, done by Felix Liebermann, was published in 1903. Paul Brand and Bruce O’Brien have contributed to the translation and the edition. Otaka used modern punctuation for his edition and removed almost all of the accents supplied by the original scribe of the manuscript. A transcription of the Holkham manuscript's copy, provided by O'Brien, presents the text with its medieval punctuation as well as its acute accents. The commentary is at present merely a preliminary list of cross-references from Liebermann's edition, definitions of words borrowed from the Old English legal register, and occasional notes about rubrication and paleography.

The long version was probably composed in the twelfth century, close to the time the short version was composed. The long version was translated into Latin in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century; see Leis Willelme, version 2, and Leges Willelmi.

 

Other editions and translations

Reinhold Schmid, ed., Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, 2nd edn (Leipzig: Brodhaus, 1858), pp. 322–340.

John Matzke, ed., Lois de Guillaume le Conquerant (Paris, 1899).

Agnes Jane Robertson, ed. and trans., The Laws of the Kings of England from Edmund to Henry I. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1925), pp. 252–75.

Bibliography

John P. Collas, ed., Year Books of Edward II, vol. 25: 12 Edward II, Part of Easter and Trinity, 1319, Selden Society 81 (London: Quaritch, 1964), pp. xiv–cxxviii.

Felix Liebermann, ed., Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, vol.3 (Halle: Niemeyer 1916), pp. 282–92.

Felix Liebermann, ‘Über die Leis Willelme’, Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen und Literatur 106 (1901), 113-138.

Bruce O’Brien, ‘A Book of Laws from the Time of Henry II’, in Making the Common Law–Institutions, Lawyers and Texts: Studies in Medieval Legal History in Honour of Paul Brand, ed. Susanne Jenks, Jonathan Rose and Christopher Whittick (Leiden: Brill, 2012), pp. 51–67.

Bruce O’Brien, ‘Leis Willelme’, in The Encyclopedia of British Medieval Literature, ed. Siân Echard and Robert Rouse, 4 vols (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017).

Bruce O’Brien, ‘Translating Technical Terms in Law-Codes from Alfred to the Angevins’, in Conceptualizing Multilingualism in England, c. 800 –c. 1250, ed. Elizabeth M. Tyler (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011), pp. 57–76.

Yorio Otaka, ‘Sur las langue des Leis Willame’, in Anglo-Norman Anniversary Essays, ed. Ian Short, Anglo-Norman Text Society, Occasional Publications Series, 2 (London, 1993), pp. 293-308.

H. G. Richardson and G. O. Sayles, Law and Legislation from Æthelberht to Magna Carta (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 1966).

Patrick Wormald, The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the Twelfth Century, vol. 1: Legislation and its Limits (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), pages 407–9.

Jakob Wüest, Die ‘Leis Willelme’: Untersuchungen zur altesten Gesetzbuch in französischer Sprache, Romanica Helvetica, 79 (Bern: Francke, 1979).