A Law of War? English Protection and Destruction of Ecclesiastical Property during the Fourteenth Century

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Historians – both those who concentrate on military history and those who touch upon it in passing – often refer to the ‘laws of war’ in the middle ages without any clear idea of what this term actually implies. Ecclesiastical immunity during warfare has long been held as one such ‘law of war’, but this paper questions the validity of identifying late medieval ideas of ecclesiastical immunity during wartime as valid ‘law’. The paper focuses on English warfare in and around the fourteenth century (c.1290-c.1415), contrasting apparent attempts to protect ecclesiastical property with the widespread destruction of churches, abbeys, and other religious property during wartime. By comparing theoretical military conduct, as stipulated in military ordinances, with actual military conduct in the field, the paper seeks to reveal medieval attitudes regarding the limitation of war. A number of English campaigns from Edward I to Henry V are examined, with particular attention given to the Durham Ordinances of Richard II, created on the eve of his 1385 invasion of Scotland. The paper argues that notions of ecclesiastical protection contained within military ordinances were based more on politico-military factors than moral or legal considerations. Furthermore, it argues that ecclesiastical immunity lacked fundamental characteristics of law – compliance, sanction, enforcement – and therefore cannot be identified as valid ‘law’.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1381-1417
Number of pages37
JournalEnglish Historical Review
Issue number535
Early online date1 Dec 2013
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2013


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