Justices of the Peace (JP’s) owed their offices to the king. By the reign of Henry VII, Justices of the Peace had superseded the local power of Sheriffs and were the chief local government officers. JP’s were responsible for the maintenance of public order in their area of jurisdiction. They were also responsible for executing legislation that had been introduced in London. JP’s were appointed from local land owners and they therefore had a vested interest in implementing legislation that ensured greater social cohesion at a local level. The average number of JP’s per county was 18. The most senior JP in a county was usually a bishop. The other JP’s followed in terms of seniority dependent on their social precedence within their locality. JP’s relied on knights and squires to enforce decisions that had been made by JP’s and once every three months all JP’s in a county met at Quarter Sessions. It was at Quarter Sessions that serious court cases were dealt with. This would include everything except any cases involving treason. The criminal cases that were considered too difficult for JP’s to deal with went to the Assize Courts. An Assize Court was held in each county every six months. These were controlled by judges under special commission from the Crown.
Henry VII preferred to select his JP’s from the second tier of a county’s landowners. This was all part of his campaign to restrict the power of the great magnates as the JP’s were answerable to the king and they would be a useful source of information with regards to any magnate that was becoming too powerful. Henry wanted his JP’s to be responsible to him and not to the magnates in their counties. Henry continued the policy of Edward IV of extending the power of the JP’s. In 1487, JP’s were given the power to grant bail to those awaiting trial. In 1495, JP’s were given the authority to deal with juries that were considered to be tainted by loyalties to a magnate. In the past, members of a jury sympathetic to a local magnate had been used by that magnate to escape justice for offences committed. Now JP’s could remove members of a jury who was believed to be suspect in cases involving local nobility. JP’s were also given the power to act without a jury except in cases that involved the possible passing of the death sentence. JP’s were also allowed to reward informers.
Probably the greatest hold Henry had over a JP was the simple fact that they served for a year. He would then be put up for reappointment – something the king did. Any JP who fell from grace would also fall from grace socially within his region as his failure to be reappointed would be seen as a sign of his incompetence. Therefore, all JP’s had a very good incentive to do as well as they could for the king and clearly Henry himself benefited from this. The king was also responsible for social advance and a successful and loyal JP could expect to advance up the social ladder if only by being awarded a title.
How did a JP extend his authority over his area? Each county was divided into hundreds and by law each hundred had to have a High Constable and every parish a Petty Constable. However, JP’s found it difficult to find appointments at every level in a county as many people resented those who held these positions simply because they were seen as the visible side of law enforcement. Punishment as this time was harsh even for petty crimes and many in rural England still poached as a way of getting sufficient food for their families. JP’s adjudicated over those caught poaching and High and Petty Constables enforced their authority in areas where they almost certainly lived.
The power of a JP was balanced however. The Court of the King’s Bench could override any decision made at a Quarter Session and from 1485 on all JP’s had to start a session of the Quarter Court by reading out a proclamation that grievances against a JP or a decision taken by a JP could be referred to an Assize Court or to the king. However, the evidence does suggest that this form of appeal rarely happened.