Henry de Bracton (Henricus de Brattona or Bractona) was an English jurist, judge, and important ecclesiastical figure in the 13th century. He was born in Bratton Clovelly, though the exact date is unknown, and was most likely educated at Oxford before becoming an itinerant judge in 1245. He was later appointed to a judgeship in the king’s court and became archdeacon of Barnstable in 1263. He also served as chancellor of Exeter Cathedral and in 1265, according to legend, he was made chief justiciar of England by King Henry III.
Bracton is known principally for his association with the lengthy Latin work De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae, or On the Laws and Customs of England, the first systematic and comprehensive treatment of English law. The work was never actually completed, and recent scholars have thrown serious doubt on the claim that it was originally written by Bracton, suggesting instead that most of the book was written in the 1220s and 1230s. Bracton appears to have been the last owner of the manuscript and a redactor rather than the original author. On the Laws was based largely on the combination of Roman and canon law that was taught in universities at the time, the ius commune, and it established a written authority for existing common law. The work became the standard for many later treatises on law in England, and it was not until Blackstone [q.v.] in the 18th century that an attempt was made again to systematize the entire body of English law.
On the Laws delineates the various legal treatments of cases involving suicide, interpreting self-killing as a felony committed against oneself. The work makes a series of fine distinctions based on the circumstances of and motivation for the act of suicide, though many of these were later lost in the often wholesale denunciation of suicide as felo de se, or “felon of himself,” freely spoken of as “self-murder.” On the Laws attempts to distinguish between suicides committed to avoid legal penalty for a previous felony—in these cases the perpetrator is assumed guilty—and those in situations of depression (“weariness of life”) and intolerable physical pain. It also interprets what are now called “dyadic” suicides, those suicides intended to affect another person, as felonies where the intent was to injure. Penalties for suicide variously involve forfeiture of inheritance and/or moveable goods, penalties that primarily affect surviving family members or heirs. In cases of mental illness, however, the inheritance and property are preserved. This latter exception would be preserved in later centuries, though some of On the Laws’ fine distinctions concerning the intent and impact of suicide would be lost. Nevertheless, these laws, set in writing for the first time by On the Laws, established a legal approach to suicide and property that shaped English law for centuries to come.
Henrici de Bracton, Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae. Libri Quinque. Ed. Sir Travers Twiss. London: Longman & Co., 1879. Book III, Of the Crown, Treatise II, ch. 31, pp. 505, 507, 509. Online at http://heinonline.org.
from ON THE LAWS AND CUSTOMS OF ENGLAND
WHERE A MAN COMMITS FELONY UPON HIS OWN PERSON
Of Please of the Crown
Just as man may commit felony by slaying another so may he do so by slaying himself, the felony is said to be done to himself, as where one has been accused of some crime and been arrested [or outlawed] [as] for homicide or with the proceeds of theft, or apprehended in the course of some evil deed and crime, and kills himself in fear of the crime that hangs over him; he will have no heir, because the felony previously committed, the theft or homicide or the like, is thus convicted. But the goods of those who destroy themselves when they are not accused of a crime or taken in the course of a criminal act are not appropriated by the fisc, [King’s treasury], for it is not the wickedness of the deed that is reprehensible but that the fear of guilt in the accused takes the place of confession. Therefore if they are accused of or apprehended in the course of a crime and kill themselves let their goods be confiscated, that is, the goods of those who know they deserve death, as where if they were found guilty of their crime they would be condemned to death or exile.
But if a man slays himself in weariness of life or because he is unwilling to endure further bodily pain [as where he drowns himself or throws himself from a height, or kills himself in some other way,] he may have a successor, but his movable goods are confiscated. He does not lose his inheritance, only his movable goods, [because no felony is proved, nor is there any precedent crime for which he ought to be in peril of life or members.] [This is true] of those who drown or are crushed, who die by misadventure, but if a man hangs himself are his heirs not thereby disinherited? [No], according to some, nor does his wife lose her dower, except in the case above, because [of] a felony done to himself he cannot be convicted. But if one lays violent hands upon himself without justification, through anger and ill-will, as where wishing to injure another but unable to accomplish his intention he kills himself, he is to be punished and shall have no successor, because the felony he intended to commit against the other is proved and punished, for one who does not spare himself would hardly have spared others, had he had the power. But what shall we say of a madman bereft of reason? And of the deranged, the delirious and the mentally retarded? Or if one labouring under a high fever drowns himself or kills himself? Quaere whether such a one commits felony de se. It is submitted that he does not, nor do such persons forfeit their inheritance or their chattels, since they are without sense and reason and can no more commit an injuria or a felony than a brute animal, since they are not far removed from brutes, as is evident in the case of a minor, for if he should kill another while under age he would not suffer judgment. [That a madman is not liable is true, unless he acts under pretense of madness while enjoying lucid intervals.]