At work at the moment I’m doing an urgent but unfortunately pretty boring project that involves searching through lots of legislation. Occasionally the boredom is alleviated by the discovery of some entertainingly old Acts of Parliament that are still in force as part of UK law.
You can go back a century or so and the legislation is still fairly comprehensible, although sometimes the sentences get quite long and full of sub-clauses. Here’s section 16 of the Commons Act 1899, for example:
Any provisions with respect to allotments for recreation grounds, field gardens, or other public or parochial purposes contained in any Act relating to inclosure or in any award or order made in pursuance thereof, and any provisions with respect to the management of any such allotments contained in any such Act, order, or award, may, on the application of any district or parish council interested in any such allotment, be dealt with by a scheme of the Charity Commissioners in the exercise of their ordinary jurisdiction, as if those provisions had been established by the founder in the case of a charity having a founder.
Back in the earlier part of the nineteenth century it can get a bit tricky to follow:
In every case where any tithes or rent-charge shall have been or shall hereafter be released, assigned, or otherwise conveyed or disposed of under the provisions of the said Acts, or any of them, or of this Act, for merging or extinguishing the same, the lands in which such merger or extinguishment shall take effect shall be subject to any charge, incumbrance, or liability which lawfully existed on such tithes or rent-charge, previous to such merger to, the extent of the value of such tithes or rent-charge; and any such charge, incumbrance, or liability shall have priority over any charge or incumbrance existing on such lands at the time of such merger taking effect; and such lands, and the owners thereof for the time being, shall be liable to the same remedies for the recovery of any payment and the performance of any duty in respect of such charge, incumbrance, or liability, or of any penalty or damages for nonpayment or non performance thereof respectively, as the said tithes or rent-charge, or the owner thereof for the time being, were or was liable to previous to such merger.
(That’s section 1 of the Tithe Act 1839.)
By the time you reach, say, section 2 of the Calendar (New Style) Act 1750, the prose is becoming rather epic:
And for the continuing and preserving the calendar or method of reckoning, and computing the days of the year in the same regular course, as near as may be, in all times coming, the several years of our Lord one thousand eight hundred, one thousand nine hundred, two thousand one hundred, two thousand two hundred, two thousand three hundred, or any other hundredth years of our Lord which shall happen in time to come, except only every fourth hundredth year of our Lord, whereof the year of our Lord two thousand shall be the first, shall not be esteemed or taken to be bissextile or leap years, but shall be taken to be common years consisting of three hundred and sixty-five days, and no more; and that the years of our Lord two thousand, two thousand four hundred, two thousand eight hundred, and every other fourth hundredth year of our Lord from the said year of our Lord two thousand inclusive, and also all other years of our Lord which by the present supputation are esteemed to be bissextile or leap years, shall for the future and in all times to come be esteemed and taken to be bissextile or leap years, consisting of three hundred and sixty-six days, in the same sort and manner as is now used with respect to every fourth year of our Lord.
(Also how weird is it to think that in 1750 there were people not only thinking about but actually passing legislation about what’s going to happen in the year 2800?)
By the Cestui que Vie Act 1707 they seem to have developed a love of capital letters and a terror of punctuation:
And if it shall appear to the said Court by Affidavit that such Minor Married Woman or other Person for such Life such Estate is holden is or lately was at some certain Place beyond the Seas in the said Affidavit to be mentioned it shall and may be lawful for the Party or Parties prosecuting such Order as aforesaid at his her or their Costs and Charges to send over one or both the said Persons appointed by the said Order to view such Minor Married woman or other Person for whose Life any such Estate is holden and in case such Guardian Trustee Husband or other Person concealing or suspected to conceal such Persons as aforesaid shall refuse or neglect to produce or procure to be produced to such Person or Persons a personal View of such Infant Married Woman or other Person for whose Life any such Estate is holden that then and in such Case such Person or Persons are hereby required to make a true Return of such Refusal or Neglect to the Court of Chancery which Return shall be filed in the Petty Bag Office and thereupon such Minor Married Woman or other Person for whose Life any such Estate is holden shall be taken to be dead and it shall be lawful for any Person claiming any Right Title or Interest in Remainder Reversion or otherwise after the Death of such Infant Married Woman or other Person for whose Life any such Estate is holden to enter upon such Lands Tenements and Hereditaments as if such Infant Married Woman or other Person for whose Life any such Estate is holden were actually dead.
That was section 2, or section II as they called it back then. And here’s section I of another Cestui que Vie Act: this one’s from 1666, where the spelling is starting to get kinda funky:
If such person or persons for whose life or lives such Estates have beene or shall be granted as aforesaid shall remaine beyond the Seas or elsewhere absent themselves in this Realme by the space of seaven yeares together and noe sufficient and evident proofe be made of the lives of such person or persons respectively in any Action commenced for recovery of such Tenements by the Lessors or Reversioners in every such case the person or persons upon whose life or lives such Estate depended shall be accounted as naturally dead, And in every Action brought for the recovery of the said Tenements by the Lessors or Reversioners their Heires or Assignes, the Judges before whom such Action shall be brought shall direct the Jury to give their Verdict as if the person soe remaining beyond the Seas or otherwise absenting himselfe were dead.
Funky spelling abounds in section XIV of the Ecclesiastical Licences Act 1533 (which is also so old that there are variant texts of it and it has textual annotations like you get in fancy editions of Shakespeare):
Provyded alway that the seid Archebisshopp of Canterburye or any other person or persons shall have noo power or auctoritie by reason of this acte to vysite or vexe any Monasteries Abbeys Priories Colleges Hospitallis Houses or other places religious whiche be or were exempte before the makyng of this acte, any thynge in this acte to the contrary therof not withstondyng; but that redresse vicitacion and confirmacion shalbe had by the Kynges Highnes hys heires and successours by commission under the greate seale to be directed to suche persones as shalbe appoynted requysite for the same, in such monasteries colleges Hospitals Priories Houses and Places religious exempt; So that noo visitacion [X36 nor confirmacion] shall frome hensforth be had nor made in or at any suche Monasteries Colleges Hospitallis Priories Houses and Places religious exempt by the sayd Bysshop of Rome nor by any of his auctoryte nor by any out of the Kynges Domynyons; Nor that any person religious or other resiant in any the Kynges Dominyons shall fromhensforth departe out of the Kynges Domynyons to or for any visitacion congregacion or assemble for Religeon, but that all suche visytacyons congregatyons & assembles shalbe within the Kynges Domynyons.
I’d like to also give a special shout-out here to the Scottish Parliament, which around this time was producing some pretty radical spelling of its own, like the short and sweet Reversion Act 1469:
Item As tuiching the new Inuentionis of selling of landis be chartir and sesing and takin again of Reuersionis And It happin the byare to sell again the samyn land to ane vthir persone It is now sene expedient in this present parliament and according to law and conscience that the sellare sall haue Recourse to the samyn landis sauld be him vnder lettre of Reuersione to quhatsumeuir handis the said lettre cummys payand the mone and schawand the Reuersione and haue sic priuelege and fredome aganis the personis that haldis the said landis as he suld haue again the principale first byare …
Folks, to be perfectly honest, I’m not even sure whether that’s in English or in Scots. But I’ll tell you what definitely is not in English, and that’s any Act of the English Parliament before the mid-fifteenth century. Check out the Confirmation of Liberties Act 1423:
Et primes q~ Seinte Esglise & toutz les frs esp~uelx & temporelx & toutz les autres lieges du Roy aiantz liƀtees & fraunchises & auxi toutz les Citees & Burgħs aient & enjoient toutz lour liƀtees & fraunchises bien usez & nient repellez ne p_ la cõe ley repellablez,
And, well, it can’t really get much more funky than that, but can we just finish by appreciating that the Statute of Marlborough 1267 — **1267** — is still valid law in this country.
I mean what.