Transmission of the Customary Laws

While it is generally accepted that the laws of the Isle of Man began to be written down in 1417, the original copies of these laws have unfortunately been lost. 
It is not unusual for medieval texts to be known to us through later copies.  Indeed, it may well be the case that the medieval originals were discarded after new copies had been made of them.
The Customary Laws of 1417 have been transmitted primarily via 17th and 18th century manuscripts which contain the Manx statutes from 1417. These manuscripts were the basis of a number of printed editions of the statutes made in the late 18th and 19th centuries. The laws have also been transmitted via Parr's Abstracts, a collection of Manx laws in summary, and the Commissioners' Report of 1792.


British Library Add MS 4149

This manuscript, held in the British Library, contains what is likely to be the earliest surviving copy of the 1417 Customary Laws Act, dating to the first two quarters of the 17th century.  The manuscript contains statutes of the Isle of Man from 1417 to 1570. They appear at the end of the manuscript, which contains transcripts of numerous political and legal documents, most of which concern royal marriages of England.


Most of the transcripts in the manuscript were written by Ralph Starkey, a prolific scribe, antiquarian and bookseller who died in 1628. A scribe known only as the Feathery Scribe, on account of his light, wispy hand, also contributed to the manuscript, as did later owner Sir Simonds d’Ewes, mostly in the form of notes.


The manuscript probably belonged originally to Ralph Starkey, whose collections were bought by Sir Simonds d’Ewes, 1st Baronet, who was a politician, member of the Long Parliament, and supporter of the Parliamentarian cause during the English Civil War.  After his death in 1650, the manuscript appears to have made its way into the hands of an otherwise unknown Hewett, before ending up in the ownership of the English historian Thomas Birch. On his death in 1766, his books and manuscripts were left to the British Museum. 

Manx Museum MS 09191/1/1

This manuscript contains the statutes from 1417 up to a sitting of Tynwald Court on 20th October 1710, which suggests that it is the older of the two manuscripts held in the Manx Museum. It contains a copy of the 1417 indenture.  It has an index at the back of the manuscript that lists the contents of each page one by one.
Manx Museum MS 0919/1/1 | Clockwise left to right: First page, showing the 1417 customary law; Detail of index; Detail of the indenture

Manx Museum MS 09191/1/2

This manuscript contains the statutes from 1417 up to a sitting of Tynwald Court on 5th July 1763.  It is likely to be a copy of the older manuscript, or one very much like it, since it contains the same glosses in the margins of the text, which function as guidance notes.  Its index appears at the front of the text and is arranged alphabetically by topic. 
Manx Museum MS 0919/1/2 | Clockwise left to right: First page, showing the 1417 customary law; Detail of index; Detail of Tynwald Day procedure

Tynwald Library 941.02-07

This manuscript is very similar, though not identical, in appearance to Manx Museum MS 09191/1/2.  It contains the statutes from 1417 up to a sitting of Tynwald Court on 5th July 1753, and contains a copy of the indenture. It has an index at the front of the text which is arranged alphabetically by topic.
This manuscript can be viewed in the Tynwald Library as part of an exhibition on 600 Years of the Customary Laws Act 1417.

Parr’s Abstracts

The Customary Laws of 1417 have also been transmitted via Parr’s Abstracts, a collection of Manx laws in summary.
John Parr (1651-1713) was a lawyer, member of the House of Keys, and episcopal registrar who later became a Deemster. In 1679 he presented the newly appointed Lieutenant Governor Robert Heywood with what Parr titled An Abridgement or A Short Tract of the most usefull Lawes, Acts and Ordinances conteyned in the Statute Book of this Isle of Mann.
The book was designed to provide an easily accessible overview of the laws current in the Island at the time; as such, the summarised laws are arranged alphabetically by topic.  The law governing the proceedings on Tynwald Day appears under ‘Court of Tynwald’, amongst other ‘Court’ entries. The text is accompanied by references to the Statute Book and other useful information. 
Parr’s Abstracts has survived in a number of manuscripts, both contemporaneous and later.
Parr’s Abstracts | Clockwise from left to right: 17th century manuscript; Photocopy of 17th century manuscript; 19th century transcription

Commissioners’ Report of 1792​

In 1791, a Royal Commission was appointed to examine the governance and finances of the Island, after the 4th Duke of Atholl alleged that his family had not received a fair deal under the Isle of Man Purchase Act 1765. The Report reproduced the earliest written laws, noting that they dated from 1417 onwards. The Commissioners concluded that, ‘the laws and ordinances that were enacted in the Island during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, appear by the Manks Statute Book, to have been prescribed by such different powers, or combinations of power, that as precedents of the exercise of Legislative authority, they can have but little weight’.

Printed Editions​

1792 The Statutes and Ordinances of the Isle of Man now in Force. Alphabetically arranged by T. Stowell, Advocate. Most humbly inscribed to the honourable Alexander Shaw, Esq. Lieutenant Governor and Chancellor of the Isle of Man (Douglas: Christopher Briscoe).

The first printed compilation of Manx Statutes.  Described in Lex Scripta as being ‘from the hands of an erudite and eminent lawyer of great talent…on the acknowledged merits of this publication it were perfectly superfluous to offer an eulogium’.

1797 The Statute Laws of the Isle of Man, edited by Christopher Briscoe (Douglas)

The text of this edition was based on the Commissioners’ Report of 1792. The preface to Lex Scripta describes this book in an unflattering way: ‘…its very imperfect and mutilated state, its inferior paper and type, and its want of sufficient document to stamp its accuracy and authenticity, it failed to afford general satisfaction’.  
Together with his brother Joseph, Christopher Briscoe ran the printing office that was behind the newspaper the Manx Mercury. In 1783, Joseph printed a collection of Acts of Tynwald passed in 1776 and 1777.

1819 The Lex Scripta of the Isle of Man: Comprehending the Ancient Ordinances and Statute Laws from the Earliest to the present Date, printed at the Manks Advertiser Office for George Jefferson (Douglas, Duke Street)

The text of this edition was based on the Commissioners’ Report of 1792. In the preference, the editor states, ‘…we need no apology for giving the old laws in their ancient, though obsolete terms, conceiving it to be more correct to present the public with a faithful transcript than to attempt any amendment or alteration in a compilation’. This printed edition was the first to include an index.  
George Jefferson was the printer of the conservative newspaper the Manks Advertiser, which he ran from 1801 to 1842.  For some time he held a monopoly of printing on the Isle of Man.  He was the uncle and erstwhile employer of Robert Fargher, who relentlessly campaigned for the House of Keys to become a popularly elected body. 

1821 The Ancient Ordinances and Statute Laws of the Isle of Man: carefully copied from, and compared with, the Authentic Records. Together with copious extracts from the several British Statutes which have reference thereto., edited by Mark Anthony Mills Esq (Douglas: Phoenix Press)

Described as ‘perhaps the noblest piece of typographical work ever done by a Manx press’. It was printed on paper made by hand in the Isle of Man, with some of the folios incorporating a three-legs motif. 
Mark Anthony Mills (c.1772-c.1823) was a solicitor from Ireland. ‘A rather colourful character’, he tried unsuccessfully to secure a licence to practice in the Isle of Man. In 1812 he was jailed in Castle Rushen for affronting the court, and was apparently whipped by Deemster Heywood. He was the proprietor of the Isle of Man Gazette from 1815 to 1821, when his printing press was seized and sold at public auction to pay off debts. 

1841 The Ancient Ordinances and Statute Laws of the Isle of Man; carefully compiled from, and compared with, the original records, from the earliest date to the year 1841; with a copious index. Edited by George Geneste and John M. Jeffcott (Douglas: J. Quiggin, Custom-House Quay)

This edition is comprised of the text of Mills’ Statutes with additions from 1821 onwards compiled by George Geneste, an advocate, and an index compiled by John. M Jeffcott, advocate and later Member of the House of Keys.  

1860 Legislation by three of the Thirteen Stanleys, Kings of Man. Manx Society Vol. III. Edited, with introduction and notes, by the Rev. William MacKenzie (Douglas)

This book reproduces the laws of 1417 as recorded in British Library Add MS 4149, then held in the British Museum.  The editor considered it to be ‘…a more ancient text…better than those in the printed copies’.
Rev. William MacKenzie was a Member of the Free Presbytery of Edinburgh and minister of the Presbyterian Church in Douglas who lived at Strathallan Villa. He also compiled and edited an Index to all the Statute Laws in 1861.  

1883 The Statutes of the Isle of Man, edited by John F. Gill (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode)

This official series of the Statutes was initiated by Sir Henry Brougham Loch, who was Governor of the Isle of Man from 1863 to 1882 and oversaw the reform of the House of Keys.  The editor ‘carefully compared the text with the originals or the authorized copies in the Rolls Office’ and declared it to be ‘the most perfect copy of the Statutes which has ever been published’. The manuscripts on which it is based are those now held in the Manx Museum. Click here to read the 1417 act as printed in Gill's Statutes​