Statute of Winchester

The Statute of Winchester defined the rights and obligations of British kings and subjects in military affairs and established a national police force.

Summary of Event

During his busy reign, Edward I Edward I , the so-called English Justinian, legislated a number of significant matters. The Statutes of Gloucester Gloucester, Statutes of (1278) (1278) addressed land law Laws and law codes;England . Westminster I (1275) Westminster I (1275)[Westminster 01 (1275)] changed a number of procedures, with the aim of receiving oppression of subjects. Westminster II (1285) Westminster II (1285)[Westminster 02 (1285)] and Westminster III (1290) Westminster III (1290)[Westminster 03 (1290)] reorganized feudalism in England, while the Statute of Mortmain Mortmain, Statute of (1279) (1279) attempted to limit the Church’s power to acquire land and to block feudal obligations to the king and nobles. Of great significance for future English fortunes was the Statute of Winchester (1285). [kw]Statute of Winchester (1285)
[kw]Winchester, Statute of (1285)
Winchester, Statute of (1285)
England;1285: Statute of Winchester[2540]
Government and politics;1285: Statute of Winchester[2540]
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Edward I

Apart from providing for various contingencies, such as the supervision of strangers, clearing high roads, and guarding city gates and walls, this law called for the maintenance of a national militia, the origins of which were in the ancient Anglo-Saxon concept of the universal military obligation of freemen. Certain modifications had been made in implementing this custom even before the Norman Conquest in 1066. The land unit for providing one fighting man had been increased from one hide to five or more as the equipment of the fighting knight became more expensive than that of the old Saxon thegn (or thane). Often, too, military service came to be commuted into a money payment called “scutage.” Military;England

In 1181, Henry II Henry II (king of England) took a step toward reorganization of local defense with his Assize of Arms that established a graded hierarchy of military obligations based on a single recruitment system extending down to the general military duty of all freemen. By assessing military service in terms of the economic resources of the individual, the Assize of Arms Arms, Assize of (1181) interpreted feudal custom. Further, by standardizing military obligations in monetary terms Henry set a precedent that similar reforms by Henry III in 1230 and 1242 were later to incorporate into the English constitution.

By Edward I’s reign, subinfeudation—the process of creating subordinate tenancies out of one landholding—had damaged the system of military tenure. Under feudalism, a lord owed the king military service. When the lord subinfeudated his land, however, the military obligation was divided among his tenants. While in theory the process of subinfeudation should not damage the ability of the king to raise an army of knights, in reality, as landowners began to create long chains of tenure, it became increasingly difficult to determine exactly what each subtenant owed in terms of military service.

King Edward I.

(Library of Congress)

At least two considerations prompted the issuance of the Statute of Winchester. One was a general rise in prices during the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries stemming from the commercial renaissance of the period. The royal revenues were increased, but prices continued to rise ahead of income, especially the price of waging war, which rose as the use of sophisticated weapons necessitated specialized training for the infantry and limited the effectiveness of the amateur militia levies. Crossbows and the use of professional soldiers required large cash outlays, and by reaffirming the military obligation of all freemen, Edward expected to increase his revenues through scutage.

Edward’s second and total victory over the Welsh in 1284 was the second and immediate cause of the Statute of Winchester. The Welsh campaigns had required large formations of expensive mercenary foot soldiers to supplement the feudal host, and because he intended to conquer rather than merely punish, Edward needed additional men as carters, woodsmen, builders, diggers, carpenters, and masons to erect castles and field fortifications in order to keep the Welsh in check. The combined pressures of needing additional revenue and additional men led Edward, in 1285, to feel the urgent need to define the rights and obligations of the king and subjects in military affairs. The Statute of Winchester was a brilliant effort at definition.

Reflecting the old Anglo-Saxon fyrd (national militia prior to the Norman Conquest) and the Assize of Arms, the statute fixed everyone’s military obligation on the price of scutage in lieu of each obligation. Every freeman between the ages of fifteen and sixty was required to have armor according to his wealth. The statute defined five classes, the highest of which were those whose lands were valued at fifteen pounds and forty marks in goods. These men had to be fully equipped cavalrymen, each with chain-mail coat, iron helmet, sword, knife, and horse. At the other extreme were those freemen of little property, each of whom was obliged to have only a quilted coat, an iron helmet, a bow, and arrows. Two constables were appointed in each hundred (county subdivision) to review this host twice every year, and they could use it to repel an invader or to maintain local law and order as a police force. Constables had their own hierarchy leading up from constables of townships or villages (or “vills”), through the hundreds and counties, to king’s constable of the realm.

The Statute of Winchester also represented a major change in criminal law. It placed heavy demands on local government for the maintenance of law and order. Under the Statute of Winchester, for example, in a hundred in which a robbery was committed, the whole hundred was held responsible unless the robber was found. The statute also standardized and consolidated earlier practices that required the vills to maintain night watchmen and provide necessary weapons for their constables. Furthermore, the statute specified that all people of a vill must answer the hue and cry, armed with their weapons. The vill could be punished for failure to respond to the hue and cry raised in the discovery of a crime. The vill could also be fined for failure to capture the perpetrator. There seemed to be a great concern with the number of crimes that were going unreported, and the Statute of Winchester was designed to address this concern.

Like so many medieval decrees, the Statute of Winchester was administered differently in different parts of the realm. Strict enforcement would have provided too unwieldy a force besides depriving the land of its cultivators. There was also the question of the duration and extent of service. Rather than face this problem, Edward I and his successors chose to utilize the Commissions of Array. In this case, the king appointed certain prominent men to “elect” or conscript such forces from each area as were needed for royal service at a particular time. The area, hundred, or county was responsible for supporting this force, but for strictly offensive operations the royal treasury often bore the expense, and the district provided its quota by hiring mercenaries. This arrangement paved the way for the “Bastard Feudalism” of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.


By reestablishing that all freemen owed the king military service or scutage in lieu of military service, the Statute of Winchester was significant in the following ways. First, it raised both the money and the men needed by Edward I that the increasing cost of armament had depleted. Second, it strengthened the position of the king by creating a national force organized by counties and responsible to the monarch. Finally, the statute forced the financial burden of keeping the peace on local authorities and thus freed the king from increased outlays.

Further Reading

  • Baker, J. H. An Introduction to English Legal History. 4th ed. London: Butterworths, 2002. An accessible introduction to English law, including documents in Latin with accompanying English translations.
  • Lyon, Bryce. A Constitutional and Legal History of Medieval England. New York: Harper & Row, 1980. A study of the extent of centralization and consolidation in medieval England in comparison to France, which failed to establish a national militia as England did under the Statute of Winchester.
  • Maitland, F. W. The Constitutional History of England. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1920. Shows the connection between the old Anglo-Saxon national military force and the Statute of Winchester.
  • Plucknett, T. F. T. Legislation of Edward I. Oxford: Clarendon, 1949. An excellent study of Edward I’s legislation including the significance of the Statute of Westminster.
  • Prestwich, Michael. Edward I. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997. A thorough biography, placing the importance of Edward I’s legislation in a historical context.