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Legal history: England & common law tradition: Legislation

English & UK legislation

At the beginning of English legal history royal enactments were issued under a variety of names: assizes, constitutions, provisions and charters etc as well as statuta/statutes.
The convention is that English statutes start with the confirmation of Magna Carta (1225)
It was not until 1407 (Henry IV) that the legislative procedure (separate debates and separate agreement from both Lords and Commons before royal assent) we take for granted today took root.

The volumes called The Statutes of the Realm (1810-1827) are the first published source you should look to if you need the text of legislation passed before 1714 (before George I). Editions called Statutes at Large (Ruffhead's, Pickering's) both overlap the Statutes of the Realm and provide a continuation in the Georgians. The University then the Royal Printer brought out volumes entitled The Statutes of the UK from 1793/94. The bound volumes of acts by the Law Report publisher took over in 1866.

Online resources

Holders of an Oxford SSO are well provided for with a number of routes to historic Westminster legislation as originally promulgated, provided the acts had indeed been subsequently printed. (To see the current state of legislation still in force, holders of an Oxford SSO should use either LexisLibrary or Westlaw Edge UK)

Early English legislation can be referred to by terms no longer used in this context, such as the Provisions of Oxford (1258).

On the free web the following might help (especially for public general acts)

The print collection in the LawBod

The LawBod has a very good (but not guaranteed complete) historic  Westminster Legislation (bills & acts: public, local, private and personal) in print. For English & UK legislation the shelf marks are Cw UK 3 to Cw UK 30.
Level 1 Open Shelf public acts
Statutes at Large, both Ruffhead's and Pickering's
Acts of Interregnum
Statues of the UK (University then HM's Printers volumes) from 34 & 35 Geo 3, 1793/94
Law Report Public Acts from 29&30 Victoria, 1866

The Bodleian's collection of individually printed acts (bound into years) are available on request. As are the volumes of the Statutes of Realm. Please ask at the Enquiry Desk.

Amended legislation: snap shots in time Cw UK 15

English/Westminster Statutes Revised
1st edition - All revised statutes in force from 1235 to 1868 + 3 suppl volumes which took coverage to 1878
2nd edition - All revised statutes in force up to 1886 + suppl volumes which took coverage to 1920 incl.
3rd edition - All revised statutes in force to end of 1948.

From 1972 the official revised edition was Statutes in Force


Separate information is available for early legislation from Scotland and Ireland

Finding aids

Indexes to, and digests of, Westminster legislation are at Cw UK 70 - Cw UK 80 on Level 1.

On line tools to help searches include

Prior to 1963 acts were numbered according to the particular year of the individual king or queen's reign it had been passed. This is commonly referred to as the regnal year.

Pre 1797  Westminster acts were either Public or Private. 
In 1797 Public Acts were divided into two series : Public General Acts or Public Local and Personal Acts.

The Law Library's print holders are reasonably good from 38 Geo 3. For acts from 19th century to date, try Level 1, one floor beneath the entrance level to the Law Library. For earlier asks please ask a member of staff for assistance.

Local and Personal Acts 1798 onwards

The following is thanks to the House of Commons Information Office Factsheet L12.

Technically the series has undergone a number of name changes listed below. Today these niceties are largely irrelevant except when consulting precise library catalogues.

1798-1802 Public Local & Personal Act 
1803 - 1814 Local & Personal Acts to be judicially noticed
1815 - 1867 Local & Personal Acts declared public and to be judicially noticed
1867 - 1963 Provisional Order Confirmation Acts
1868             Local & Personal Acts
1869             Local & Private Acts
1870 on        Local Acts

The LawBod has a good but not comprehensive collection of this category of legislation. The volumes from I Geo IV (1820) are on open shelves at Cw UK 11 and Cw UK 12. on Level 1. Please ask a member of staff for help if you need earlier ones.

Finding aids

Printed indexes to Westminster legislation are on open shelf on Level 1, one floor beneath the entrance level to the Law Library.

Chronological table of local legislation
v. 1. Local and personal acts 1797-1860 -- v. 2. Local and personal acts 1861-1890 -- v. 3. Local and personal acts 1891-1910 -- v. 4. Local and personal acts 1911-1994  Cw UK 080 L415b
and its 2000 supplement (including corrections to the first edition texts) Cw UK 080 L415c

Index to local and personal acts : consisting of classified lists of the local and personal and private acts and special orders and special procedure orders, 1801-1947 Cw UK 080 I38b

Chronological table of private and personal acts 1539-1997 Cw UK 080 L415c

"A Bill is a proposal for a new law, or a proposal to change an existing law that is presented for debate before Parliament." Definition from Parliament.UK website.

The LawBod have a few bills from the eighteenth century, definitely not a comprehensive collection.
Official Papers (on the Ground Floor of the Law Bod) have a very strong collection from the nineteenth century onwards.. 

Looking for the Bill of Rights?

The Bill of Rights is the short title assigned to this piece of legislation by Short Titles Act 1896 (c. 14)Sch. 1. Its full, and less confusing title is an Act declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject, and settling the Succession of the Crown.

You may find citations to it in the older style - chapter number and regnal year c.2 (1 Will and Mar Sess 2)

1688 or 1689?

The Bill of Rights is assigned to the year 1688 on (as it was previously in successive official editions of the revised statutes from which the online version is derived) although the Act received Royal Assent on 16th December 1689. This follows the practice adopted in The Statutes of the Realm, Vol. VI (1819), in the Chronological Table in that volume and all subsequent Chronological Tables of the Statutes, which attach all the Acts in 1 Will and Mar sess 2 to the year 1688. The first Parliament of William and Mary (the Convention Parliament) convened on 13th February 1689 (1688 in the old style calendar - until 1st Jan 1752 the calendar year began on March 25th). It appears that all the Acts of that Parliament (both sessions) were treated as being Acts of 1688 using the old method of reckoning, according to which, until 1793, all Acts passed in a session of Parliament with no specified commencement date were deemed to be passed in the year in which that session began (see Acts of Parliament (Commencement) Act 1793 (c 13)). The Short Titles Act 1896 (c. 14) gave to chapter 2 of 1 Will and Mar sess 2 the title "The Bill of Rights", without attributing it to any calendar year. In the Republic of Ireland, the Short Titles Act 1896 (c 14) has been amended to add "1688" to the short title of The Bill of Rights as it continues to have effect there (see Statute Law Revision Act 2007, Act of the Oireachtas No 28 of 2007, s 5(a)).

What might be the subject matter of a royal proclamation?

Quotation from James A Doig, 'Political Propaganda and Royal Proclamations in Late Medieval England' (1998) 71(176) Historical Research, Volume 71, Issue 176, October 1998, 253 at 254

"Proclamations covered an extraordinarily wide range of subjects. According to the introduction to the catalogue of the Warrants for Proclamation files in the Public Record Office [now National Archives, Kew], they may be divided into five broad categories.7 Some proclamations were intended to give information on matters of general interest or importance such as the making of a truce,8 or the granting of charters of liberties, or the enactment of statutes and ordinances.9 Some require certain people or groups of people to be present on a specified day at a specified place to prosecute or make claims against a particular individual or a group of individuals, such as all merchants with claims against a foreign prince, or persons with claims against the dissolved order of Knights Templar,10 or persons with complaints against royal purveyors of wool.11 Others required the attendance at a particular court of named defendants to answer charges against them.12 Proclamations were used by the Crown to prevent people from doing things, such as disposing of offal in the river at Salisbury,13 selling boats to foreigners,14 or, most frequently, forbidding actions against the king's peace.15 Finally, the Crown used proclamations to encourage or secure certain types of action, such as inviting people who wished to have their charters confirmed to go to the chancery16 or inviting all those indicted of felony but wishing to be pardoned to appear at Portsmouth ready to go abroad in the king's service.17"

7 The following paragraph and references are from the introduction to Public Record Office,
Chancery Files, Etc., Class List (List and Index Soc., cxxx, 1976).
8 P.R.O., Warrants for proclamation, C 255/3/1, no. 48; /3, nos. 43A-58, 62±73, 75; /5, no. 1; /9, nos. 7±11; /12, nos. 6±10.
9 Ibid., C 255/3/2, no. 1; /5, nos. 7, 22±5; /9, nos. 190±222, 26.
10 Ibid., C 255/3/2, nos. 5, 10±29.
11 Ibid., C 255/3/3, nos. 436±49.
12 Ibid., C 255/3/5, no. 8; /7, nos. 1±22.
13 Ibid., C 255/3/5, no. 6.
14 Ibid., C 255/3/3, no. 49A.
15 Ibid., C 255/3/4, nos. 38, 40, 41.
16 Ibid., C 255/3/3, nos. 38±40.
17 Ibid., C 255/3/3, nos. 52±4.