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Breton [Bretun], John le [John Brito] (d. 1275), justice and bishop of Hereford, was chosen bishop from among the canons of Hereford in January 1269 and was consecrated on 2 June of that year. On his death in 1275 certain chronicles describe him as an ‘expert in English laws, who had written a book about them called le Bretoun’. The bishop could not in fact have written Britton in the version in which it has survived, because this third full-scale treatise on English law to survive (along with Bracton and Fleta) from the thirteenth century refers to statutes made up to fifteen years after his death, and the question is why he should have been credited with its authorship. John Selden argued in the seventeenth century that the bishop had been confused with the contemporary judge Henry of Bracton, the supposed author of the great treatise De legibus et consuetudinibus Angliae, of which the untitled Britton might be regarded as a condensation. Selden observed that the words attributing the book to John le Breton do not appear in most of the annals recording the bishop's death, and believed that they were a much later interpolation ‘by some smatterer’ in those few manuscripts of the Flores historiarum in which they do appear.

But the attribution is also made in the Annals of Six Reigns, written c.1320 by Nicholas Trevet, who was about seventeen when Breton died, and whose father was a justice on eyre between 1268 and 1272. Moreover, Britton is quite unlike Bracton in important respects. It is the first legal treatise in the French of the knightly families who ruled the shires rather than the Latin of the clerks of the king's household, and it is a practical work, omitting Bracton's Romanist jurisprudence. Britton passes over the first hundred or so folios of Bracton on the nature and theoretical divisions of law, and begins with a description of the various sorts of justices, of the duties of coroners, and of the way eyres are held—material which is presented in a form that suggests the particular concerns of an official administering the king's justice in the shires. This is a strong pointer to the bishop, for he can be identified with the ‘John le Breton, clerk’ who was sheriff of Hereford from May 1254 to April 1257, and also with the John le Breton who appears in June 1257 as the Lord Edward's constable of Abergavenny and bailiff of that honour.

In October 1259 this John le Breton was granted protection as he went beyond seas on business for the king and his son Edward. By the spring or early summer of 1260 he was keeper of the Lord Edward's wardrobe, and after the prince's quarrel with Roger Leyburn he succeeded to the latter's office of steward, in which capacity he was appointed in November 1261 to reinforce and victual Edward's castles throughout England and Wales. In Trinity term he is recorded as owing £120, partly from his time at Edward's wardrobe. Against this debt the memoranda roll notes that ‘the bishop of Hereford should be written to’, which suggests that John was already one of the canons introduced by the notorious Bishop Peter d'Aigueblanche, a past keeper of the king's wardrobe. For the next three years of baronial conflict, during which the Savoyard bishop and his canons were a target of the adherents of Simon de Montfort, John le Breton disappears from sight. Then in September 1265, a few weeks after the battle of Evesham, he received a royal protection, and in the following July he was granted £40 a year at the exchequer on his appointment as a justice of the king's bench. As a justice he could have drawn on his previous experience as both sheriff of Hereford and the Lord Edward's steward, which had included commissions to hear disputes between marcher barons and to hold inquiries as far afield as Oxfordshire and Berkshire. Between January and September 1268, John le Breton was also a justice on eyre in Yorkshire, but he was not at the next session in that circuit at Nottingham in November, and his election as bishop in January 1269 brought his career as a justice to an end.

John le Breton must have been one of the most senior of the former servants of Edward who received protections in July 1273 as they went beyond seas to meet the new king, Edward I, returning from crusade. But he is not listed among the bishops at Edward's coronation in September 1274, and he was dead by 12 May 1275, when a keeper of the bishopric of Hereford was ordered to seize and value the goods of the late Bishop John, ‘who was bound to the king in divers debts at the day of his death’. The memoranda roll for 1275 shows that the debts went back twenty years to his service as constable of Abergavenny. Thomas Wykes gives the death of John ‘dictus Brito’, bishop of Hereford, prominence immediately after an account of Edward's ‘famous and solemn’ first parliament at Westminster in which the king is described as setting out to restore the laws of the country to their proper state, ‘by the counsel of his loyal vassals and experts in the law’. The Statute of Westminster I was indeed the effective beginning of a great stream of parliamentary legislation, which was much concerned with local administration. It may be that this juxtaposition of events is the trivial source of the association of John, bishop of Hereford, with Edward's law-making, and hence with Britton, which is presented as a royal enactment of the laws of the land, revised as the king decided with the assent of his council. But John's unusual combination of experience as sheriff, constable, justice, and bishop makes it plausible that he was involved in the devising of a project of legislative reform which he did not live to carry forward.

Alan Harding

Sources  

Chancery records · Ann. mon., 4.219, 263 · H. R. Luard, ed., Flores historiarum, 3 vols., Rolls Series, 95 (1890), vol. 2, p. 480; vol. 3, p. 46 · N. Trevet, Annales sex regum Angliae, 1135–1307, ed. T. Hog, EHS, 6 (1845), 247 · F. M. Nichols, ed. and trans., Britton, 2 vols. (1865) · Joannis Seldeni ad Fletam dissertatio (1647); repr. with additions D. Ogg (1925), 11–19 · private information (2004) · TNA: PRO, Queen's Remembrancer's Memoranda Rolls, E159/50, m. 10 · TNA: PRO, Lord Treasurer's Remembrancer's Memoranda Rolls, E368/36, m. 14d, 22, 22d · D. Crook, Records of the general eyre, Public Record Office Handbooks, 20 (1982) · H. G. Richardson, ed., ‘The coronation of Edward I’, BIHR, 15 (1937–8), 94–9 · V. Salmon, ‘John Brinsley and his friends: scholarship in seventeenth-century Leicestershire’, Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society, 51 (1975–6), 1–14