1. William the Conqueror

William the Conqueror ruled England with a masterly mixture of force, legality, piety, subtlety, and fraud. Elevated to the throne by a cowed Witan, he swore to observe existing English law. Some thanes in the west and north took advantage of his absence in Normandy to try revolt (1067); he returned, and passed like a flame of revenge through the land, and “harried the north” with such judicious killing and destruction of homes, barns, crops, and cattle that northern England did not fully recover till the nineteenth century.24 He distributed the choicest lands of the kingdom in great estates among his Norman aides, and encouraged these to build castles as fortresses of defense against a hostile population.* He kept large tracts as crown lands; one parcel, thirty miles long, was set aside as a royal hunting preserve; all houses, churches, and schools therein were leveled to the ground to clear the way for horses and hounds; and any man who slew a hart or hind in this New Forest was to lose his eyes.25

So was founded the new nobility of England, whose progeny still bear, now and then, French names; and the feudalism that before had been relatively weak covered the land, and reduced most of the conquered people to serfdom. All the soil belonged to the king; but Englishmen who could show that they had not resisted the Conquest were allowed to repurchase their lands from the state. To list and know his spoils, William sent agents in 1085 to record the ownership, condition, and contents of every parcel of land in England; and “so narrowly did he commission them,” says the old Chronicle, “that there was not a yard of land, nay … not even an ox, nor a cow, nor a swine, that was not set down in his writ.”26 The result was the Domesday Book, ominously so named as the final “doom” or judgment in all disputes of realty. To assure himself military support, and limit the power of his great vassals, William summoned all important landowners of England—60,000 of them—to a concourse at Salisbury (1086), and made every man pledge his paramount fealty to the king. It was a wise precaution against the individualistic feudalism that was at that time dismembering France.

One must expect a strong government after a conquest. William set up or deposed knights and earls, bishops and archbishops and abbots; he did not hesitate to jail great lords, and to assert his right over ecclesiastical appointments against the same powerful Gregory VII who was in these years bringing the Emperor Henry IV to Canossa. To prevent fires he ordered a curfew —i.e., a covering or extinction of hearth fires, and therefore in winter retirement to bed—by eight P.M. for the people of England.27 To finance his spreading government and conquests he laid heavy taxes upon all sales, imports, exports, and the use of bridges and roads; he restored the Danegeld, which Edward the Confessor had abolished; and when he learned that some Englishmen, to elude his fingers, had placed their money in monastic vaults, he had all monasteries searched and all such hoards removed to his own treasury. His royal court readily accepted bribes, and honestly recorded them in the public register.28 It was frankly a government of conquerors resolved that the profits of their enterprise should be commensurate with its risks.

The Norman clergy shared in the victory. The able and pliant Lanfranc was brought in from Caen and was made Archbishop of Canterbury and first minister to the King. He found the Anglo-Saxon clergy addicted to hunting, dicing, and marriage,29 and replaced them with Norman priests, bishops, and abbots; he drew up a new monastic constitution, the Customs of Canterbury, and raised the mental and moral level of the English clergy. Probably at his suggestion William decreed the separation of ecclesiastical from secular courts, ordered all spiritual matters to be submitted to the canon law of the Church, and pledged the state to enforce the penalties fixed by ecclesiastical tribunals. Tithes were levied upon the people for the support of the Church. But William required that no papal bull or letter should be given currency or force in England without his approval, and that no papal legate should enter England without the royal consent. The national assembly of the bishops of England, which had been part of the Witan, was hereafter to be a distinct body, and its decrees were to have no validity except when confirmed by the King.30

Like most great men, William found it easier to rule a kingdom than his family. The last eleven years of his life were clouded by quarrels with his Queen Matilda. His son Robert demanded full authority in Normandy; denied this, he rebelled; William fought him indecisively, and made peace by promising to bequeath the duchy to Robert. The King grew so stout that he could hardly mount a horse. He warred with Philip I of France over boundaries; when he tarried at Rouen, almost immovable with corpulence, Philip jested (it was said) that the King of England was “lying in,” and there would be a grand display of candles at his churching. William swore that he would indeed light many candles. He ordered his army to burn down Mantes and all its neighborhood, and to destroy all crops and fruits; and it was done. Riding happily amid the ruins, William was thrown against the iron pommel of his saddle by a stumble of his horse. He was carried to the priory of St. Gervase near Rouen. He confessed his sins in gross, and made his will; distributed his treasure penitently among the poor and to the Church, and provided for the rebuilding of Mantes. All his sons except Henry deserted his deathbed to fight for the succession; his officers and servants fled with what spoils they could take. A rustic vassal bore his remains to the Abbaye aux Hommes at Caen (1087). The coffin made for him proved too small for his corpse; when the attendants tried to force the enormous bulk into the narrow space the body burst, and filled the church with a royal stench.31

The results of the Norman Conquest were limitless. A new people and class were imposed upon the Danes who had displaced the Anglo-Saxons who had conquered the Roman Britons who had mastered the Celts …; and centuries would elapse before the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic elements would reassert themselves in British blood and speech. The Normans were akin to the Danes, but in the century since Rollo they had become Frenchmen; and with their coming the customs and speech of official England became for three centuries French. Feudalism was imported from France into England with its trappings, chivalry, heraldry, and vocabulary. Serfdom was more deeply and mercilessly imposed than ever in England before.32 The Jewish moneylenders who came in with William gave a new stimulus to English trade and industry. The closer connection with the Continent brought to England many ideas in literature and art; Norman architecture achieved its greatest triumphs in Britain. The new nobility brought new manners, fresh vitality, a better organization of agriculture; and the Norman lords and bishops improved the administration of the state. The government was centralized. Though it was through despotism, the country was unified; life and property were made more secure, and England entered upon a long period of internal peace. She was never successfully invaded again.

2. Thomas à Becket

It is an adage in England that between two strong kings a weak king intervenes; but there is no limit to the number of intermediate middlings. After the Conqueror’s death his eldest son Robert received Normandy as a separate kingdom. A younger son, William Rufus (the Red, 1087–1100), was crowned King of England on promising good behavior to his anointer and minister Lanfranc. He ruled as a tyrant till 1093, fell sick, promised good behavior, recovered, and ruled as a tyrant till he was shot to death, while hunting, by an unknown hand. The saintly Anselm, who succeeded Lanfranc as Archbishop of Canterbury, withstood him patiently, and was sent back to France.

A third son of the Conqueror, Henry I (1100–35), recalled Anselm. The prelate-philosopher demanded an end to the royal election of bishops; Henry refused; after a tedious quarrel it was agreed that English bishops and abbots were to be chosen by cathedral chapters or the monks in the presence of the king, and should do homage to him for their feudal possessions and powers. Henry loved money and hated waste; he taxed heavily but governed providently and justly; he kept England in order and at peace, except that with one battle—at Tinchebrai in 1106—he restored Normandy to the British crown. He bade the nobles “restrain themselves in dealing with the wives, sons, and daughters of their men”;33 he himself had many illegitimate sons and daughters by various mistresses,34but he had the grace and wisdom to marry Maud, scion of both the Scottish and pre-Norman English kings, thereby bringing old royal blood into the new royal line.

In his last days Henry made the barons and bishops swear fealty to his daughter Matilda and her young son, the future Henry II. But on the King’s death Stephen of Blois, grandson of the Conqueror, seized the throne, and England suffered fourteen years of death and taxes in a civil war marked by the most horrible cruelties.35 Meanwhile Henry II grew up, married Eleanor of Aquitaine and her duchy, invaded England, forced Stephen to recognize him as heir to the throne, and, on Stephen’s death, became king (1154); so ended the Norman, and began the Plantagenet, dynasty.* Henry was a man of strong temper, eager ambition, and proud intellect, half inclined to atheism.36 Nominally master of a realm that reached from Scotland to the Pyrenees, including half of France, he found himself apparently helpless in a feudal society where the great lords, armed with mercenaries and fortified in castles, had pulverized the state into baronies. With awesome energy the youthful king gathered money and men, fought and subdued one lord after another, destroyed the feudal castles, and established order, security, justice, and peace. With a masterly economy of cost and force he brought under English rule an Ireland conquered and despoiled by Welsh buccaneers. But this strong man, one of the greatest kings in England’s history, was shattered and humbled by encountering in Thomas à Becket a will as inflexible as his own, and in religion a power then mightier than any state.

Thomas was born in London about 1118, of middle-class Norman parentage. His precocious brilliance of mind caught the eye of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, who sent him to Bologna and Auxerre to study civil and canon law. Returning to England he entered orders, and soon rose to be Archdeacon of Canterbury. But, like so many churchmen of those centuries, he was a man of affairs rather than a clergyman; his interest and skill lay in administration and diplomacy; and he showed such ability in these fields that at the age of thirty-seven he was made secretary of state. For a time he and Henry accorded well; the handsome chancellor shared the intimacy and knightly sports, almost the wealth and power, of the King. His table was the most sumptuous in England; and his charity to the poor was equaled by his hospitality to his friends. In war he led in person 700 knights, fought single combats, planned campaigns. When he was sent on a mission to Paris his luxurious equipage of eight chariots, forty horses, and 200 attendants alarmed the French, who wondered how rich must be the king of so opulent a minister.

In 1162 he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. As if by some magic incantation, he now changed his ways abruptly and thoroughly. He gave up his stately palace, his royal raiment, his noble friends. He sent in his resignation as chancellor. He put on coarse garb, wore a haircloth next to his skin, lived on vegetables, grains, and water, and every night washed the feet of thirteen beggars. He became now an unyielding defender of all the rights, privileges, and temporalities of the Church. Among these rights was the exemption of the clergy from trial by civil courts. Henry, who aspired to spread his rule over all classes, raged to find that crimes by the clergy often went unpunished by ecclesiastical courts. Assemblying the knights and bishops of England at Clarendon (1164), he persuaded them to sign the Constitutions of Clarendon, which ended many clerical immunities; but Becket refused to put his archiepiscopal seal upon the documents. Henry promulgated the new laws nevertheless, and summoned the ailing prelate to trial at the royal court. Becket came, and quietly withstood his own bishops, who joined in declaring him guilty of feudal disobedience to his suzerain the King. The court ordered his arrest; he announced that he would appeal the case to the Pope; and in his archiepiscopal robes, which none dared touch, he walked unharmed from the room. That evening he fed a great number of the poor in his London home. During the night he fled in disguise, by devious routes, to the Channel; crossed the turbulent strait in a frail vessel, and found haven in a monastery at St. Omer in the realm of the king of France. He submitted his resignation as archbishop to Pope Alexander III, who defended his stand, reinvested him with his see, but sent him for a time to live as a simple Cistercian monk in the abbey of Pontigny.

Henry banished from England all of Becket’s relatives, of any age or sex. When Henry came to Normandy Thomas left his cell, and from a pulpit at Vézelay pronounced excommunication upon those English clergymen who upheld the Constitutions of Clarendon (1166). Henry threatened to confiscate the property of all priories, in England, Normandy, Anjou, and Aquitaine, affiliated with the abbey of Pontigny if its abbot continued to harbor Becket; the frightened abbot begged Thomas to leave, and the ailing rebel lived for a time on alms in a dingy inn at Sens. Alexander III, prodded by Louis VII of France, commanded Henry to restore the Archbishop to his see or face an interdict of all religious services in the territories under English rule. Henry yielded. He came to Avranches, met Becket, promised to remedy all his complaints, and held the Archbishop’s stirrup as the triumphant prelate mounted to return to England (1169). Back in Canterbury, Thomas repeated his excommunication of the bishops who had opposed him. Some of these went to Henry in Normandy and roused him to fury with perhaps exaggerated accounts of Becket’s behavior. “What!” exclaimed Henry, “shall a man who has eaten my bread … insult the King and all the kingdom, and not one of the lazy servants whom I nourish at my table does me right for such an affront?” Four knights who heard him went to England, apparently without the knowledge of the King. On December 30, 1170, they found the Archbishop at the altar of the cathedral in Canterbury; and there they cut him down with their swords.

All Christendom rose in horror against Henry, branding him with a spontaneous and universal excommunication. After secluding himself in his chambers and refusing food for three days, the King issued orders for the apprehension of the assassins, sent emissaries to the Pope to declare his innocence, and promised to perform any penance that Alexander might require. He rescinded the Constitutions of Clarendon, and restored all the previous rights and property of the Church in his realm. Meanwhile the people canonized Becket, and proclaimed that many miracles were worked at his tomb; the Church officially pronounced him a saint (1172); and soon thousands were making pilgrimage to his shrine. Finally Henry, too, came to Canterbury as a penitent pilgrim; all the last three miles he walked with bare and bleeding feet on the flinty road; he prostrated himself before the tomb of his dead foe, begged the monks to scourge him, and submitted to their blows. His strong will broke under the weight of general obloquy and mounting troubles in his realm. His wife Eleanor, banished and imprisoned by the adulterous King, plotted with her sons to depose him. His eldest son Henry led feudal rebellions against him in 1173 and 1183, and died in revolt. In 1189 his sons Richard and John, impatiently awaiting his death, allied themselves with Philip Augustus of France in war upon their father. Driven from Le Mans, he denounced the God who had taken from him this town of his birth and love; and dying at Chinon (1189), he cursed with his last breath the sons who had betrayed him, and the life that had given him power and glory, riches and mistresses, enemies, contumely, treacheries, and defeat.

He had not quite failed. He had surrendered to Becket dead what he had refused to Becket living; yet in that bitter dispute it was Henry’s contention that won the accolade of time: from reign to reign, after him, the secular courts spread their jurisdiction over clerical, as well as lay, subjects of the king.37 He liberated English law from feudal and ecclesiastical limitations, and set it upon the path of development that has made it one of the supreme legal achievements since imperial Rome. Like his great-grandfather the Conqueror he strengthened and unified the government of England by reducing to discipline and order a rebellious and anarchic nobility. There he succeeded too well: the central government became strong to the verge of irresponsible and incalculable despotism; and the next round in the historic alternation between order and liberty belonged to the aristocracy and freedom.

3. Magna Carta

Richard I the Lion-Hearted succeeded without challenge to his father’s throne. Son of the adventurous, impulsive, irrepressible Eleanor, he followed in her steps rather than in those of the somber and competent Henry. Born in Oxford in 1157, he was delegated by his mother to administer her dominions in Aquitaine. There he imbibed the skeptical culture of Provence, the “gay science” of the troubadours, and was never afterward an Englishman. He loved adventure and song more than politics and administration; he crowded a century of romance into his forty-two years, and gave to the poets of his time the compliment of imitation as well as the encouragement of patronage. The first five months of his reign were spent in gathering funds for a crusade; he appropriated for the purpose the full treasury left by Henry II; he removed thousands of officials, and reappointed them for a consideration; he sold charters of freedom to cities that could pay, and acknowledged Scotland’s independence for 15,000 marks—not that he loved money less, but adventure more. Within half a year of his accession he was off to Palestine. He cared as little for his own safety as for others’ rights; he taxed his realm to the utmost, and squandered revenue in luxury, feasting, and display; but he galloped through the final decade of the twelfth century with such bravado and bravery that his fellow poets ranked him above Alexander, Arthur, and Charlemagne.

He fought and loved Saladin, failed and swore to conquer him, turned homeward, and was captured on the way (1192) by Duke Leopold of Austria, whom he had offended in Asia. Early in 1193 Leopold surrendered him to the Emperor Henry VI, who held a grudge against Henry II and Richard; despite the law, generally recognized in Europe, against the detention of a Crusader, Henry VI kept the King of England prisoner in a castle at Dürnstein on the Danube, and demanded for him from England a ransom of 150,000 marks ($15,000,000)—double the whole annual revenue of the British crown. In the meantime Richard’s brother John tried to seize the throne; resisted, he fled to France, and joined Philip Augustus in attacking England. Philip, violating a pledge of peace, attacked and seized English possessions in France, and offered great bribes to Henry VI to keep Richard prisoner. Richard fretted in comfortable durance, and wrote an excellent ballad38 appealing to his country for ransom. Through this turmoil Eleanor governed successfully as regent, with the wise counsel of her justiciar Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury; but they found it hard to raise the ransom. Finally released (1194), Richard hurried to England, levied taxes and troops, and led an army across the Channel to avenge himself and Britain against Philip. Tradition holds that he refused the sacraments for years lest he be required to forgive his faithless enemy. He recovered all the territory that Philip had captured, and resigned himself to a peace that allowed Philip to live. In the interlude he quarreled with a vassal, Adhemar, Viscount of Limoges, who had found a cache of gold on his land. Adhemar offered Richard a part, Richard demanded all, and besieged him. An arrow from Adhemar’s castle struck the King, and Richard Coeur de Lion died in his forty-third year in a dispute over a mess of gold.

His brother John (1199–1216)* succeeded him after some opposition and distrust; and Archbishop Walter made him swear a coronation oath that his throne was held by the election of the nation (i.e., the nobles and prelates) and the grace of God. But John, having been false to his father, his brother, and his wife, was not sorely hampered by one more vow. Like Henry II and Richard I he gave little evidence of religious belief. It was said that he had never taken the Eucharist since coming of age, not even on his coronation day.39 The monks charged him with atheism, and told how, having caught a fat stag, he had remarked: “How plump and well fed is this animal! and yet, I dare swear, he never heard Mass”—which the monks resented as an allusion to their corpulence.40He was a man of much intellect and little scruple; an excellent administrator; “no great friend to the clergy,” and therefore, said Holinshed, a bit maligned by monastic chroniclers;41 not always in the wrong, but often alienating men by his sharp temper and wit, his scandalous humor, his proud absolutism, and the tax exactions to which he felt driven in defending Continental England against Philip Augustus.

In 1199 John secured permission from Pope Innocent III to divorce Isabel of Gloucester on grounds of consanguinity, and soon thereafter he married Isabella of Angoulême, despite her betrothal to the count of Lusignan. The nobility of both countries took offense, and the count appealed to Philip for redress. About the same time the barons of Anjou, Touraine, Poitou, and Maine protested to Philip that John was oppressing their provinces. By feudal fealties going back to the cession of Normandy to Rollo, the territorial lords of France, even in provinces owned by England, acknowledged the French king as their feudal suzerain; and by feudal law John, as Duke of Normandy, was vassal to the king of France. Philip summoned his royal vassal to come to Paris and defend himself against divers charges and appeals. John refused. The French feudal court declared his possessions in France forfeited, and awarded Normandy, Anjou, and Poitou to Arthur, Count of Brittany, a grandson of Henry II. Arthur laid claim to the throne of England, raised an army, and besieged at Mirabeau Queen Eleanor, who, though eighty, led a force in defense of her unruly son. John rescued her, captured Arthur, and apparently ordered his death. Philip invaded Normandy. John was too busy honeymooning at Rouen to lead his troops; they were defeated; John fled to England; and Normandy, Maine, Anjou, and Touraine passed to the French crown.

Pope Innocent III, at odds with Philip, had done what he could to help John; John now quarreled with Innocent. On the death of Hubert Walter (1205) the King persuaded the older monks of Canterbury to elect John de Gray, Bishop of Norwich, to the vacant see. A group of younger monks chose Reginald, their subprior, as archbishop. The rival candidates hurried to Rome, seeking papal confirmation; Innocent rejected them both, and appointed to the see Stephen Langton, an English prelate who for the past twenty-five years had lived in Paris, and was now a professor of theology in the university there. John protested that Langton had no preparation for the office of primate of England, a position involving political as well as ecclesiastical functions. Ignoring John’s demurrers, Innocent, at Viterbo in Italy, consecrated Stephen archbishop of Canterbury (1207). John defied Langton to set foot on English soil; threatened to burn the cloisters over the heads of the rebellious Canterbury monks; and swore “by the teeth of God” that if the Pope laid an interdict on England he would banish every Catholic clergyman from the land, and would put out the eyes and cut off the nose of some of them for good measure. The interdict was pronounced (1208); all religious services of the clergy in England were suspended except baptism and extreme unction; churches were closed by the clergy, church bells were silenced, and the dead were buried in unconsecrated ground. John confiscated all episcopal or monastic properties, and gave them to laymen. Innocent excommunicated the King; John ignored the decree, and waged successful campaigns in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. The people trembled under the interdict, but the nobles acquiesced in the spoliation of Church property as transiently diverting the royal appetite from their own wealth.

Proud of his apparent victory, John offended many by his excesses. He neglected his second wife to beget illegitimate children upon careless mistresses; jailed Jews to milk their money from them; allowed some imprisoned prelates to die of hardships; alienated nobles by adding insults to taxes; and strictly enforced the unpopular forestry laws. In 1213 Innocent used his last resort: he promulgated a decree of deposition against the English King, released John’s subjects from their oath of allegiance, and declared the King’s possessions to be now the lawful spoil of whoever could wrest them from his sacrilegious hands. Philip Augustus accepted the invitation, assembled an impressive army, and marched to the Channel coast. John prepared to resist invasion; but now he discovered that the nobles would not support him in a war against a Pope armed with physical as well as spiritual force. Furious against them, and seeing the imminence of defeat, he struck a bargain with Pandulf, the papal legate: if Innocent would withdraw his decrees of excommunication, interdict, and deposition, and would change from foe to friend, John pledged himself to return all confiscated ecclesiastical property, and to submit his crown and his kingdom to the Pope in feudal vassalage. It was so agreed; John surrendered all England to the Pope, and received it back, after five days, as a papal fief subject to perpetual tribute and fealty (1213).

John embarked for Poitou to attack Philip, and commanded the barons of England to follow him with arms and men. They refused. The victory of Philip at Bouvines deprived John of German and other allies to whom he had looked for aid against an expanding France. He returned to England to face an embittered aristocracy. The nobles resented his inordinate taxation for disastrous wars, his violations of precedent and law, his bartering of England for Innocent’s forgiveness and support. To force the issue, John required ofthem a scutage—a money payment in lieu of military service. They sent him instead a deputation demanding a return to the laws of Henry I, which had protected the rights of the nobles and limited the powers of the king. Receiving no satisfactory answer, the nobles collected their armed forces at Stamford; and while John dallied at Oxford they sent emissaries to London, who won the support of the commune and the court. At Runnymede on the Thames, near Windsor, the forces of the aristocracy encamped opposite the few supporters of the King. There John made his second great surrender, and signed (1215) Magna Carta, the most famous document in English history.

John, by the grace of God King of England … to his archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, barons … and all his faithful subjects, greeting. Know ye that we … have by this our present Charter confirmed, for us and our heirs forever:

1. That the Church of England shall be free, and have her whole rights and liberties inviolable….

2. We grant to all the freemen of our kingdom, for us and for our heirs forever, all the below-written liberties….

12. No scutage or aid shall be imposed … unless by the general council of our kingdom….

14. For holding the general council concerning the assessment of aids and scutage … we shall cause to be summoned the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, and greater barons of the realm* … and all others who hold of us in chief. …

15. We will not in future grant to anyone that he may take aid of his own free [non-slave] tenants, except to ransom his body, and to make his eldest son a knight, and once to marry his eldest daughter; and for this there shall be only a reasonable aid….

17. Common pleas shall not follow our court, but shall be held in some fixed place….

36. Nothing henceforth shall be given or taken for a writ of inquisition … but it shall be granted freely [i.e., no man shall be long imprisoned without trial]….

39. No freeman shall be taken, or imprisoned, or disseised [dispossessed], or outlawed, or banished, or in any way destroyed … unless by the lawful judgment of his peers [his equals in rank], or by the law of the land.

40. We will sell to no man, we will not deny to any man, either justice or right.

41. All merchants shall have safe and secure conduct to go out of, and to come into, England, and to stay there, and to pass as well by land as by water, for buying or selling… without any unjust tolls….

60. All the aforesaid customs and liberties … all people of our kingdom, as well clergy as laity, shall observe, as far as they are concerned, towards their dependents….

Given under our hand, in the presence of witnesses, in the meadow called Runnymede, the 15th day of June, in the 17th year of our reign.42

The Great Charter deserves its fame as the foundation of the liberties today enjoyed by the English-speaking world. It was indeed limited; it defined the rights of the nobles and the clergy far more than of the whole people; no arrangements were made to implement the pious gesture of Article 60; the Charter was a victory for feudalism rather than for democracy. But it defined and safeguarded basic rights; it established habeas corpus and trial by jury; it gave to an incipient Parliament a power of the purse that would later arm the nation against tyranny; it transformed absolute into limited and constitutional monarchy.

John, however, had no idea that he had immortalized himself by surrendering his despotic powers or claims. He signed under duress; and on the morrow he plotted to annul the Charter. He appealed to the Pope; and Innocent III, whose policy now required the support of England against France, came to the defense of his humiliated vassal by proclaiming the Charter void, and forbidding John to obey, or the nobles to enforce, its terms. The barons ignored the decree. Innocent excommunicated them and the citizens of London and the Five Ports; but Stephen Langton, who had led in formulating the Charter, refused to publish the edict. Papal legates in England suspended Langton, promulgated the decree, raised an army of mercenaries in Flanders and France, and with it ravaged the English nobility with fire and sword, plunder, murder, and rape. Apparently the nobles had no dependable public support; instead of resisting with their own feudal levies they invited Louis, son of the French King, to invade England, defend them, and take the English throne as his reward; had the plan succeeded, England might have become part of France. Papal legates forbade Louis to cross the Channel, and excommunicated him and all his followers when he persisted. Louis, arriving in London, received the homage and fealty of the barons. Everywhere outside of mercantile London John was victorious, and merciless. Then, amid the energy and fury of his triumph, he was struck down by dysentery, made his way painfully to a monastery, died at Newark in the forty-ninth year of his age.

A papal legate crowned John’s six-year-old son as Henry III (1216–72); a regency was formed with the earl of Pembroke at its head; encouraged by this elevation of one of their number, the nobles went over to Henry, and sent Louis back to France. Henry grew into an artist-king, a connoisseur of beauty, the inspiration and financier for the building of Westminster Abbey. He thought the Charter a disintegrating force, and tried to abrogate it, but failed. He taxed the nobles within an inch of revolution, always swearing that the latest levy would be the last. The popes needed money, too, and, with the King’s consent, drew tithes from English parishes to support the wars of the papacy against Frederick II. The memory of these exactions prepared the revolts of Wycliffe and Henry VIII.

Edward I (1272–1307) was less a scholar than his father, and more a king; ambitious, strong of will, tenacious in war, subtle in policy, rich in stratagems and spoils, yet capable of moderation and caution, and of farseeing purposes that made his reign one of the most successful in English history. He reorganized the army, trained a large force of archers in the use of the longbow, and established a national militia by ordering every able-bodied Englishman to possess, and learn the use of, arms; unwittingly, he created a military basis for democracy. So strengthened, he conquered Wales, won and lost Scotland, refused to pay the tribute that John had promised the popes, and abolished the papal suzerainty over England. But the greatest event of his reign was the development of Parliament. Perhaps without willing it, Edward became the central figure in England’s finest achievement—the reconciliation, in government and character, of liberty and law.

4. The Growth of the Law

It was in this period—from the Norman Conquest to Edward II—that the law and government of England took the forms which they maintained till the nineteenth century. Through the superimposition of Norman feudal upon Anglo-Saxon local law, English law for the first time became national—no longer the law of Essex or Mercia or the Danelaw, but “the law and custom of the realm”; we can hardly realize now what a legal revolution was implied when Ranulf de Glanville (d. 1190) used this phrase.43 Under the stimulus of Henry II, and the guidance of his justiciar Glanville, English law and courts acquired such repute for expedition and equity (tempered with corruption) that rival kings in Spain submitted their dispute to the royal court of England.44 Glanville may have been the author of a Treatise on Laws (Tractatus de le gibus) traditionally ascribed to him; in any case it is our oldest textbook of English law. Half a century later (1250–6) Henry de Bracton achieved the first systematic digest in his five-volume classic On the Laws and Customs of England (De legibus et consuetudinibus Angliae).

The King’s rising need for money and troops forced the expansion of the Anglo-Saxon Witenagemot into the English Parliament. Impatient to raise more funds than the lords would vote him, Henry III summoned two knights from each county to join the barons and prelates in the Great Council of 1254. When Simon de Montfort, son of a famous Albigensian crusader, led a revolt of the nobles against Henry III in 1264, he tried to win the middle classes to his cause by asking not only two knights from each county, but also two leading citizens from each borough or town, to join the barons in a national assembly. The towns were growing, the merchants had money; it was worth while consulting these men if they would pay as well as talk. Edward I profited from Simon’s example. Caught in the toils of simultaneous wars with Scotland, Wales, and France, he was constrained to seek the support and funds of all ranks. In 1295 he summoned the “Model Parliament,” the first complete Parliament in English history. “What touches all,” his writ of summons read, “should be approved by all, and … common dangers should be met by measures agreed upon in common.”45 So Edward invited two burgesses “from every city, borough, and leading town” to attend the Great Council at Westminster. These men were chosen by the more substantial citizens in each locality; no one dreamed of universal suffrage in a society where only a minority could read. In the “Model Parliament” itself the “commons” did not at once hold equal powers with the aristocracy. There was as yet no annual Parliament, meeting at its own will as the sole source of law. But by 1295 the principle was accepted that no statute passed by Parliament could be abrogated except by Parliament; and in 1297 it was further agreed that no taxes were to be levied without Parliament’s consent. Such were the modest beginnings from which grew the most democratic government in history.

The clergy only reluctantly attended this enlarged Parliament. They sat apart, and refused to vote supplies except in their provincial assemblies. Ecclesiastical courts continued to try all cases involving canon law, and most cases involving any member of the clergy. Clerics accused of felonies might be tried by secular authorities; but those convicted of crimes short of high treason were, through “benefit of clergy,” handed over to an ecclesiastical court, which alone could punish them. Moreover, most judges in secular tribunals were ecclesiastics, for education in law was largely confined to the clergy. Under Edward I the secular courts became more secular. When the clergy refused to join in voting supplies, Edward I, arguing that those who were protected by the state should share its burdens, directed his courts to hear no cause in which a churchman was plaintiff, but to try every suit in which a cleric was defendant.46 In further retaliation Edward’s Council of 1279, by the Statute of Mortmain, forbade the grant of lands to ecclesiastical bodies without the royal consent.

Despite this divided jurisdiction, English law developed rapidly under William I, Henry II, John, and Edward I. It was a thoroughly feudal law, and bore down heavily on the serf; crimes of freemen against serfs were usually amerced by fines. The law allowed women to own, inherit, or bequeath property, make contracts, sue and be sued, and gave the wife a dower right of one third in her husband’s real property; but all the movable property that she brought to her marriage, or acquired during it, belonged to her husband.47Legally all land belonged to the king, and was held from him in fief. Normally the whole estate of a feudal lord was bequeathed to the eldest son, not only to keep the property intact, but to protect the feudal suzerain from a division of vassal responsibility in dues and war. Among the free peasantry no such rule of primogeniture obtained.

In so feudal a code the law of contract remained immature. An Assize of Measures (1197) standardized weights, measures, and coins, and provided state supervision of their use. Enlightened commercial legislation in England began with the Statute of Merchants (1283) and the Merchants’ Charter (Carta mercatoria, 1303)—two more achievements of Edward I’s creative reign.

Legal procedure slowly improved. To enforce the laws every ward had a “watch,” every borough a constable, every shire a shire-reeve, or sheriff. All men were bound to raise a “hue and cry” on perceiving a violation of the law, and to join in pursuing the offender. Bail was admitted. It is a major credit to English law that torture was not used in examining suspects or witnesses. When Edward II was induced by Philip IV of France to arrest the English Templars, he could find no evidence by which to convict them. Thereupon Pope Clement V, doubtless constrained by Philip, wrote to Edward: “We hear that you forbid torture as contrary to the laws of your land. But no state law can override canon law, our law. Therefore I command you at once to submit those men to torture.”48 Edward yielded; but torture was not again used in English legal procedure till the reign of “Bloody” Mary (1553–8).

The Normans brought to England the old Frank system of inquisitio, or judicial inquiry by a jurata or sworn group of local citizens, into the fiscal and legal affairs of a district. The Assize of Clarendon (c. 1166) developed this “jury” plan by permitting litigants to submit the question of their veracity not to trial by combat but to “the country”—i.e., to a jury of twelve knights chosen from the local citizenry, in the presence of the court, by four knights named by the sheriff. This was the grand assize, or major sitting; in the petty assize, or minor session for the trial of ordinary cases, the sheriff himself chose twelve freemen from the neighborhood. Men shunned jury service then as now, and had no notion that the system would be one of the foundations of democracy. By the end of the thirteenth century verdict by a jury had almost everywhere in England replaced the old tests of barbarian law.

5. The English Scene

England in 1300 was ninety per cent rural, with a hundred towns whose modern successors would rank them as villages, and one city, London, boasting of 40,000 population49—four times more than any other town in England, but far inferior in wealth or beauty to Paris, Bruges, Venice, or Milan, not to speak of Constantinople, Palermo, or Rome. Houses were of wood, two or three stories high, with gabled roofs; often the upper story projected beyond the one beneath. City law forbade emptying the end products of kitchen, bedroom, or bath through the windows, but the tenants of upper stories often yielded to the convenience. Most of the slops from the houses found their way into the current of rain water that ran along the curbs. It was forbidden to cast feces, permissible to empty urinals, into this gutter stream.50 The municipal council did what it could to improve sanitation—ordered citizens to clean the streets before their homes, levied fines for negligence, and hired “rakers” to gather garbage and filth and cart these to dung boats on the Thames. Horses, cattle, pigs, and poultry were kept by many citizens; but this was no great evil, since there were many open spaces, and nearly every house had a garden. Here and there rose a structure of stone like the Temple Church, Westminster Abbey, or the Tower of London, which William the Conqueror had built to guard his capital and shelter distinguished prisoners. Londoners were already proud of their city; soon Froissart would say that “they are of more weight than all the rest of England, for they are the most mighty in wealth and men”; and the monk Thomas of Walsingham would describe them as “of all people almost the most proud, arrogant, and greedy, disbelieving in ancient customs, disbelieving in God.”51

Through these centuries the amalgamation of Norman, Anglo-Saxon, Danish, and Celtic stocks, speech, and ways produced the English nation, language, and character. As Normandy fell away from England, the Norman families in Britain forgot Normandy and learned to love their new land. The mystic and poetic qualities of the Celt remained, especially in the lower classes, but were tempered by Norman vigor and earthiness. Amid the strife of nations and classes, and the blows of famine and plague, the resultant Briton could still make what Henry of Huntingdon (1084?-1155) called Anglia plena iocis—Merry England—a nation of abounding energy, rude jests, boisterous games, good fellowship, a love of dancing, minstrelsy, and ale. From those virile loins and generations would come the hearty sensuality of Chaucer’s pilgrims, and the magnificent bombast of the cultured swashbucklers of the Elizabethan age.

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