The King’s Peace: How One Edict Marginalized Crime Victims for Centuries

In the early 2th century, a pivotal shift occurred in how crime was viewed and prosecuted in English law under the Norman kings. This transformation, while unintended, had a profound and enduring impact on the role of victims that still reverberates through Western criminal justice systems today.The catalyst was the “King’s Peace” edict issued by King Henry I in the years after the Norman Conquest of 1066. As described by Kirchengast, “Under William the Conqueror, the concept of crime as a private wrong against the individual was superseded by the view of crime as an offense against the King’s peace and the King’s authority.”2

The Victim’s Role Pre-Conquest

Prior to the Norman invasion, crime in Anglo-Saxon England was treated primarily as a conflict between individuals and their communities. The emphasis was on repairing the harm done to the victim through restitution, compensation or reconciliation.23Victims and their families played a central role in this process, actively participating in the prosecution, negotiation and resolution of crimes committed against them. As Daly and Immarigeon note, “The history of restorative justice cannot be encapsulated in discrete temporal categories…it contains overlapping layers of thought and activism” rooted in indigenous traditions that viewed crime as a rupture in the community fabric to be healed.3

Crimes Against the King’s Peace

However, the King’s Peace decree fundamentally reframed crime from a private wrong against the individual victim to a public wrong against the sovereign authority and law of the realm.23 Serious offenses like murder, arson and robbery were no longer just personal crimes, but violations against the King’s peace.”The shift from the victim’s right to restitution also pulled away the community’s controls, including its ability to give offenders a sense of the magnitude of the harm and the opportunity to redeem themselves by repairing that harm.”2Prosecution and punishment became a matter of upholding the King’s law and authority, not seeking justice for those directly harmed. Fines and penalties went to the Crown rather than compensating victims.23

Victims Marginalized

As a result, crime victims lost their legal standing and ability to actively participate in the process meant to address the wrongs done to them. They were relegated to the role of witnesses, no longer the central parties in seeking accountability and resolution.2“Whereas previously victims or their kin had a large measure of control over the resolution of crimes, the Norman kings arrogated more and more of this control to themselves and their representatives,” Kirchengast explains.2 Victims became marginalized from a process now driven by state interests rather than their own.

An Unintended Legacy

While an unintended consequence of asserting royal authority, this pivotal shift set a precedent that remains embedded in Western legal traditions descended from English common law. Crime is still primarily viewed as an offense against the state, not the individual victim.The adversarial process centers on the government determining guilt and imposing sentences, often with limited involvement from those most directly impacted by the crime. Victims’ rights have evolved, but many still feel marginalized and unable to have their needs for healing and restoration addressed.3What started as the King’s Peace edict to reinforce the Norman monarchy’s power laid the foundation for marginalizing crime victims that still persists over 900 years later. An unintended legacy that legal systems around the world continue grappling with today.

Restorative Justice: Recentering Victims in the Justice Process

The traditional criminal justice model has often left crime victims feeling marginalized, excluded and unable to have their needs met. However, the restorative justice movement reveals these deficiencies and provides an alternative approach:

Giving Victims an Active Voice
Restorative practices create spaces for victims “to express the full impact of the offense” in a more holistic way, rather than just being witnesses. Victims play a central role in addressing the harms done to them.

Fostering Genuine Accountability
Restorative processes give “offenders a chance to accept responsibility for the harm done by the crime.” This aims to make them understand the full impacts in a way that punitive models often fail to achieve.

Avoiding Re-Victimization
As notes, victims frequently “face insensitive treatments by traditional systems, often feeling excluded and re-victimized.” Restorative approaches are designed to be more inclusive, humanizing and avoid compounding victims’ trauma.

Prioritizing Healing and Recovery
Rather than focusing solely on establishing guilt, restorative justice emphasizes “the restoration/recovery processes of victims, offenders and communities.” Repairing harm and healing take priority.By giving victims a voice, creating accountability, avoiding re-victimization and prioritizing recovery, restorative justice reveals the shortcomings victims face in the traditional criminal justice model. It then attempts to recenter and address victims’ needs through more inclusive, reparative practices.

References: 2 Kirchengast, T. (2006). The victim in criminal law and justice. Palgrave Macmillan.3 Daly, K. & Immarigeon, R. (1998). The past, present, and future of restorative justice: Some critical reflections. The Contemporary Justice Review, 1(1), 21-45.