History of the Courts

Norse rule

Kingdom of Mann & The IslesUp until 1079 the Isle of Man was administered by the Norse Kingdoms of Dublin and Orkney. It was part of the realm of the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles. It is believed that the Tynwald Parliament originated from this time.

In 1079 Godred Crovan (more commonly known as King Orry), a Norse-Gael ruler, seized control of the Island at the Battle of Skyhill in Ramsey. His descendants would go on to form a dynasty that would rule the Island for more than 200 years.

In 1164 the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles was split into the Kingdom of Hebrides and the Kingdom of Mann.

Magnus III was the last recognised Norse King of Mann. Upon his death in 1265, the Norse-Manx dynasty of Godred Crovan came to an end. 

Battle of Largs

In 1263 the Scottish King, Alexander III, defeated Haakon, the King of Norway, at the Battle of Largs.

After failing to purchase the Islands from Norway, Alexander launched an attack against the Isle of Skye. Haakon, angry at this event, raised a fleet and sailed to meet Alexander's forces. Storms forced several Norwegian ships to land and Alexander's forces attacked one of these at Largs. The Norwegians were heavily outnumbered, with most of their men still on other ships and were defeated.

Although heralded as a great Scottish victory, it is widely suggested that this was just a mere skirmish. However the battle did assert Scottish supremacy over the Western Isles and the Isle of Man came under the nominal sovereignty of the Scottish King. 

Treaty of Perth

After the death of Magnus III, King Magnus of Norway (known as the lawmender) sold the islands, including the Isle of Man, to Alexander III of Scotland. In return Scotland recognised Norwegian sovereignty over Shetland and Orkney and paid the Norwegian King 4,000 marks (and another 100 marks for every year after the treaty).

After the Treaty of Perth, Scottish supremacy was firmly established. The only discontent came in 1275 when Godred VI (Godred Crovan's descendant) overthrew the Scottish Lord, briefly became King of Mann and tried to restore Norse rule. He was eventually defeated later in that year by Alexander III at the Battle of Ronaldsway. 

1266-1399 English and Scottish rule

The Kingdom of Mann remained under the Scottish sovereignty of Alexander III until his death in 1285. After his death there were various disputes as to who had a claim to the throne of Mann.

With Edward I of England all but subduing Scotland, by Alexander III's death in 1285, he was effectively in possession of the land of Mann before the death of Alexander III's daughter (whom Edward planned to marry his son to) and heir, in 1290. He granted the Lordship of Mann to Walter de Huntercombe until, under Edward I's orders, he surrendered it to John Bailliol in 1293. After the Bailliol's revolt in 1294, Edward reclaimed possession of the Island and granted it to Anthony de Beck, who held it until his death in 1310.

After Anthony de Beck's death, the Island was granted to various lords by Edward II and it endured a period of relative instability. In 1313 this came to a head when Robert the Bruce of Scotland invaded the Island to deny its strategic position to the English Crown. After establishing his supremacy over it, Bruce granted the Lordship of the Kingdom of Mann to the Earl of Moray. The Island remained effectively under Scottish administration until 1333. 

Independent rule

In 1333 the English, under Edward III, defeated the Scottish at the Battle of Halidon Hill. As well as re-establishing English supremacy over the Scottish, Edward III ordered that possession should be taken of the Island again. Later that year he granted the Lordship of Mann to Sir William de Montacute and then to his son after his death. Edward III renounced all claims over the Kingdom of Mann and recognised it as a separate kingdom.

Sir William II de Montacute then sold the Island and its Lordship to Sir William de Scroop in 1392. After Richard II, King of England, was defeated by Henry Bollingbrook, Scroop was executed and the Island was seized by Henry (Bollingbrook) IV. This would later be altered to be a declaration that Henry IV conquered the Island and therefore had complete control over its laws. In fact, none of Henry IV's troops ever set foot on the Island. Unlike Richard, Henry did not recognise the Island as a separate kingdom.

Henry IV then granted the Island to Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. However in 1405 the Percys rebelled and after their defeat at the Battle of Shrewsbury, Henry IV re-possessed the Island and granted it to the family who would have the most impact on Manx history, the Stanleys. 

The Stanleys

Sir John I Stanley was the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland under Richard II. However the Stanleys were skilled at choosing the winning side and Sir John joined forces with Henry of Lancaster against Richard II. After he helped put down the Percy rebellion he was granted the Lordship of Mann. This was only supposed to be for his lifetime but, in 1406, after a payment, Henry IV granted it for his heirs, along with the patronage of Bishopric of Sodor and Man along with various other regalities.

After Sir John I Stanley died, the title of Lord of Mann passed to his son, Sir John II Stanley. Sir John II was an especially important figure in Manx constitutional history as he was the first Lord to set about changing the legal system of the Island. He ordered that for the first time the unwritten laws of the Deemsters should be committed to paper. He was also responsible for regularly summoning the Tynwald Court and abolishing trial by battle, replacing it with trial by jury. He mostly left the day to day running of the Island to his Governor and started to reduce the church's influence over law-making and enforcement.

The next two Stanley Lords, while not important to the development of the Manx constitution or legal system, were nevertheless important for two reasons. Thomas Stanley was the last man to hold the title 'King of Mann.' He also rebelled against Richard III and took Henry Tudor's side in the Battle of Bosworth field. It was then Thomas Stanley who placed the crown upon the head of Henry Tudor, making him Henry VII of England. In reward for this, Thomas Stanley was awarded the Earldom of Derby. His grandson, Thomas III Stanley was a confidant of Henry VIII. In his reign he changed his title to 'Lord of Mann,' for he said ' it is better to be a great lord, than a petty king.' However the truth is that Henry VIII probably didn't like having another 'King' around and Thomas changed it to keep the King's favour. 

Break to English sovereignty

Following the Death of Ferdinando Stanley in 1594, the Lordship of the Island became the subject of a bitter dispute between his three daughters. Along with their claims there was the question of whether or not Henry IV had acted illegally in granting the Lordship of Mann to John I Stanley as Henry Percy (the King of Mann at the time of the rebellion) was still alive and technically still King of Mann when it was granted to Sir John.

These disputes led Elizabeth I to seize control over the Island and order an investigation into its status. In 1598 jurists confirmed to the Queen that the feudal title of Mann did indeed belong to the Monarch, but that the Island was a separate jurisdiction as;

  • it was not part of the English state; and
  • it was not covered by acts of parliament unless specifically named.

During this period Elizabeth I appointed Henry Howard and Robert Cecil as temporary Lords of Mann while the question as to the inheritance of the title was debated. 

Return to the Stanleys

In 1610 the legal error that occurred when the Island was first assigned to the Stanleys was resolved and Queen Elizabeth I re-granted the Island to the Stanleys and to its new Lord, William IV Stanley.

Following the retirement of William IV Stanley, James I Stanley, otherwise known as Lord Strange or the 'Great Stanley', took up Lordship of Mann and beyond taking an interest in it, actually lived here for some years. James I Stanley was an arch royalist and one of Charles I's biggest supporters before and during the civil war.

While he spent much of his time as Lord providing for the defence of the Island against the parliamentarians, he also addressed the questions as to tenure, directing the church's affairs and established the Manx college.

He was selected by Charles I to lead his troops at Worcester and after their defeat at the battle of Wigan Lane, was imprisoned in Chester Castle then executed.

Following his death the Manx, under William Christian (Illiam Dhone), rebelled against his wife, Charlotte de la Tremoille (Lady Derby), who was in charge of the island in her husband's absence. After capturing the Castle at Peel, they were joined by parliamentarian forces and laid siege to Castle Rushen where, after a brief resistance, Lady Derby surrendered. 

Parliament grants Mann to Lord Fairfax

After the defeat at Castle Rushen to the combined forces of William Christian and Parliament, the Stanleys lost their title to Lordship of Mann. Parliament then granted the Lordship of Man in 1651 to one of its biggest supporters, Lord Thomas Fairfax. Although a supporter of the Commonwealth, when he assumed the title of Lord of Mann he effectively continued the monarchical style of government and the status of Mann didn't really change. 

Second return to the Stanleys

In 1660, after the restoration of Charles II to the throne of England, the Island was once more granted to the Stanleys and the new Lord, Charles Stanley. One of the first things he did was have William Christian arrested who was then tried and found guilty, by the Deemsters of treason. Although all others charged with treason for the rebellion were pardoned, Christian was shot at Hango Hill in 1663. This angered Charles II, who wanted Christian pardoned and he had the Deemsters responsible punished. Charles Stanley then spent the better part of his lordship putting down rebellions by the Manxmen who were unhappy about the way in which he was trying to change the law on tenant's holdings.

There was relative unrest about this question until the last Stanley to rule the Island, James II Stanley, entered into an agreement with the tenants concerning their land, which then became the Act of Settlement. It was so important to the Manx people it became known as the Manx Magna Carta. 

The Atholls succeed to the Lordship of Man

After the death of James II Stanley, the Lordship of Mann passed to his cousin, James Murray, 2nd Duke of Atholl and then to his daughter, Charlotte Baroness Strange and her husband. It was during their reign that the English monarch first started going about trying to purchase back the regalities to Man, with the final ones being purchased in 1765. Although no longer the Lord of Mann, John Murray, 4th Duke of Atholl served as Governor between 1793 and 1826. 

Current Lord of Mann

The current Lord of Mann is the reigning English Monarch of the House of Windsor, created by George V when he took the throne in 1910. At present this is His Majesty King Charles III.


Until 1780 the crypt in St. German's Cathedral on St. Patricks Isle was used as the main (ecclesiastical) prison on the Isle of Man. The civil prison was at Castle Rushen. However, after the last prisoner confined to the crypt under St German's Cathedral, Thomas Kneale, had to be released because it was too cold for him to serve his sentence, Castle Rushen took over as the main prison.

By the end of the 18th century, Castle Rushen was no longer used as a fortress, so its only remaining function was as the prison. By 1765 the fines collected from the prisoners were no longer used for its upkeep and it began to fall into disrepair. After protests by Governor Smith, the buildings were converted between 1813 and 1827 to make the prison a secure jail.

It became plain that Castle Rushen was not good enough to hold a prison by the end of the 19th century and, after a report in 1885, it was recommended that a new prison should be built.

A new prison holding thirty prisoners was built at Victoria Road and began use in 1891. In 1989 two new wings were added to the prison at Victoria Road to take its capacity to 98, including cells for juveniles and women.

In 2005 Tynwald approved the building of a new prison at Jurby. The new prison would hold 138 cells, forty more than the prison on Victoria Road and also have better facilities.


Courthouse in Castletown

For hundreds of years the main court was located within the walls of Castle Rushen, although some smaller courts for lesser offences were present in most of the main towns. In the 19th century, with the power and importance of Douglas growing, the courts were relocated there. 

Courthouses in Douglas

In 1795 a new courthouse was constructed near to the entrance of the Red Pier. When the Athol Street courthouse was built, it was torn down to make a hotel.

The Oddfellow's Hall in Athol Street was taken over and converted to be the new courthouse. It opened in 1857 and was in use for nearly 150 years until the opening of the new courthouse complex in 1997.

Local courthouses

The local Ramsey courthouse was opened in 1798 and bears a similar resemblance to the Old Courthouse in Douglas.

There was a courthouse built in Kirk Michael in 1831 for the northern parishes, especially for the Bishop who resided nearby at Bishopscourt.

The courthouse at Peel was probably constructed around 1693, although there are conflicting dates for this and renovated sometime in the 19th century. The courthouse at Peel was not popular with the Judiciary or the local legal professionals as it was deemed not fit to be in. They eventually moved to the new courthouse in Peel close to the Cathedral, which is still the police station in Peel to this day.


James Robinson - 2009

Page last updated on 20 September 2022