Faculty of Law Twilight Seminar Series - ‘The Admiralty Sessions in Early Modern England: An Old Response to a Present-Day Problem’

Dr Gregory Durston

Presented by: Dr Gregory Durston

The Admiralty Sessions in Early Modern England: An Old Response to a Present-Day Problem

Everybody is welcome to attend (staff, students, visitors)


When: Tuesday, 9 July, 2019

Time: 5:30pm refreshments, 6pm – 7pm seminar

Where: Faculty of Law, Case Study 2 (4_3_41), Bond University


The growth in England and then Britain's merchant marine (rather than warships) from the medieval period onwards meant that an increasing number of criminal offences were committed on or against the country's vessels while they were at sea. Between 1536 and 1834, such crimes were determined at the Admiralty Sessions if brought to trial. This was a special part of the wider Admiralty Court, which, unlike the other forums in the same tribunal, used English common law procedure rather than Roman civil law to try its cases. To a modest extent, this produced a 'hybrid' court, dominated by the common law but influenced by aspects of Europe's other major legal tradition. The Admiralty Sessions also had their ceremonies, and recourse to their own (highly singular) execution regime.

During the near three centuries of their existence, the Admiralty Sessions faced enormous legal and logistical problems. The crimes they tried might occur thousands of miles and months of sailing time away from England. Assembling evidence that would 'stand up' in front of a jury was a constant challenge, not least because of the peripatetic lives of the seafarers who provided most of their witnesses.

The forum's relationship with terrestrial criminal courts in England was often difficult and the demarcation between their respective jurisdictions complicated and subject to change. Despite all of these problems, the court experienced significant successes, as well as notable failures, in its battle with a litany of serious maritime crimes, ranging from piracy to murder at sea, while spawning a series of Vice- Admiralty Courts in English and British colonies around the world.

Many of the problems raised at Admiralty Sessions continue to trouble modern courts, whether manifest in the challenges to maritime security posed by pirates off the coast of Somalia, the use of firearms in international waters, inadequately investigated suspicious deaths on cruise ships and ocean going yachts, the disappearance of leisure craft while at sea, or the extreme difficulty posed by assembling evidence in such ‘mobile’ cases. As a result, this little remembered court is still of relevance to the modern world.

About the speaker

Dr Gregory Durston studied history for his first degree before turning to the law, qualifying as barrister of Middle Temple and spending several years in common law chambers. He then became a legal academic and spent 30 years teaching in Law Schools in England and Japan, while acquiring an LLM and PhD at the London School of Economics in the process. He remains an honorary fellow at Kingston University Law School. Dr Durston has written numerous books and articles, most on criminal justice history and the English law of evidence, but also touching on subjects such as insider dealing and market manipulation. He is currently engaged on a major study of the Tudor justice system.