This timely, important and thought-provoking book opens with words spoken to St Paul by Festus, governor of Judea: ‘It seemeth to me unreasonable to send a prisoner, and not withal to signify the crimes laid against him’ (Acts 25:27). As the means by which, historically, English judges determined whether imprisonment was just or unjust, the common law writ of habeas corpus has been accorded iconic status as ‘the Great Writ of Liberty’ in Anglo-American jurisprudence and acclaimed alongside Magna Carta. Paul Halliday punctures such pretensions, however, regretting that previous studies of habeas corpus have ‘been written less as a history than as an exercise in legal narcissism’. Eschewing a Whiggish reliance on the triumphalist assertions of well-known legal writers, Halliday uses the ‘often filthy and rumpled’ writs, returns to writs, enrolled copies, court orders and affidavits in the court of King’s Bench archives to construct a radically revisionist account of how the writ worked between 1500 and 1800.
Estimating that it was used by over 11,000 individuals, ranging from peers and MPs to apprentices, bodice makers and prostitutes, Halliday has amassed information concerning roughly 4,800 individual cases from both a quadrennial survey and an examination of all writs issued in volatile periods (such as the 1590s–1610s,