Home Time Period All History Medieval History Ch. 36: England to the End of the Crusades, the Norman Conquest, Henry II, Magna Carta

Medieval History Ch. 36: England to the End of the Crusades, the Norman Conquest, Henry II, Magna Carta

Medieval History Ch. 36: England to the End of the Crusades, the Norman Conquest, Henry II, Magna Carta

The following is an excerpt (pages 390-416) from Ancient and Medieval History (1944) by Francis S. Betten, S.J. Although some information may be outdated, the Catholic historical perspective it provides remains pertinent. Use the link at the bottom of post to read the previous/following pages. Use the Search box above to find specific topics or browse using the Resources tab above.





502. The Last Period of Anglo-Saxon England. — We left England, in § 466, as a united country, under Edgar the Peaceful (959-975). After four years Ethelred the Redeless, one of the most luckless kings, began a reign (979-1016) which was filled with the ruthless warfare and wanton destruction of Danish invasions. England was conquered completely. Knut the Great (Kanute, Cnut), King of Denmark and Norway, ascended the English throne. England thus became for a time part of a Scandinavian empire. Knut ruled, however, as an English king, in the spirit of Alfred the Great. He lived mainly in England, and dismissing his Danish army, rested his power upon the good government he gave to the realm. While in Rome on a pilgrimage, he wrote a noble letter to his English subjects: “I have vowed. . . to rule justly and piously. If I heretofore have done anything unjustly, through the headiness or carelessness of youth, I am ready, with God’s help, to amend it utterly.”

503. Edward the Confessor. First Norman Influence. — Knut the Great was succeeded by his sons, who proved very unlike him in morals and ability. After seven years the northern empire was broken up entirely. The Witan of England restored the Saxon line by electing Edward, son of Ethelred and a Norman princess. Much of his life had been spent in Normandy. Save a war with Scotland his reign was free from foreign complications. He strove to promote the welfare of his people by a strict administration of justice, the abolition of heavy taxes, and an open-handed generosity to the poor.
Edward the Confessor encouraged the spread in England of the reformatory ideas of Cluny (§ 501). For this purpose he promoted Norman clerics to important English bishoprics and abbeys. Normans were employed, too, in minor administrative positions. Thus an immigration of Normans began under his reign. This, as well as the fact that not all his appointees justified the confidence placed in them, was a pretext of much trouble and of open rebellion. Edward lacked the necessary firmness to suppress these disturbances. Still, in spite of his weakness the people long after clamored for the “laws and customs of good King Edward.”

Empire of Knut the Great, 1014-1035
Empire of Knut the Great, 1014-1035

504. THE NORMAN CONQUEST.— Edward the Confessor left no son. The English Witan chose Harold, the most powerful of the Saxon noblemen, though not of royal descent, for their king. He was said to have been recommended by Edward. But William, Duke of Normandy, claimed the throne on the ground of distant relationship and of a promise from Edward, and because Harold on some former occasion had taken an oath of fealty to him. He had, moreover, convinced the Pope that he would be a better champion of ecclesiastical discipline than Harold, whose past did indeed not guarantee much zeal for the true welfare of the Church. William now prepared to make his claim good by arms.

A NORMAN SHIP From the Bayeaux Tapestry. The Bayeaux Tapestry is a linen band 230 feet long and 29 inches wide., embroidered in colored worsteds, with 72 scenes illustrating the Norman Conquest. It was a contemporary work. See (§ 484.) The banner is supposed to be the one blessed by the Pope
From the Bayeaux Tapestry. The Bayeaux Tapestry is a linen band 230 feet long and 29 inches wide., embroidered in colored worsteds, with 72 scenes illustrating the Norman Conquest. It was a contemporary work. See (§ 484.) The banner is supposed to be the one blessed by the Pope

“Harold, the Last of the Saxons,” is, however, a gallant figure, whose tragic reign of forty weeks and one day adds a touching interest to the close of Saxon kingship. He was threatened from two sides. His own brother, Tostig, Earl of Northumbria, had been driven into exile by a popular rising. Harold refused to restore him. So Tostig stirred up Harold Hardrada, the adventurous king of Norway and one of the most romantic heroes in history, to attack England on the north, while William of Normandy prepared to invade from the south. The Norwegian host, a fleet of three hundred ships, landed first, on the coast of Yorkshire. Harold was in the south, to meet the even more formidable force from across the Channel. Hurrying northward with his trusted household troops, English Harold overthrew and slew Norwegian Harold, in a desperate and brilliant battle at Stamford Bridge.

But meantime William had made his landing on the south coast near Hastings. Back hastened Harold, by forced marches, with his exhausted and depleted troops. The jealous nobles of the old Danelagh held aloof. Only the knights and husbandmen of Kent and Wessex rallied nobly to his banner. By a stratagem he forced William to an attack, which brought on the battle of Hastings or Senlac, one of the world’s decisive struggles. It gave a complete victory to William the Conqueror.

BATTLE OF HASTINGS From the Bayeaux Tapestry
From the Bayeaux Tapestry

All day long the battle raged between two civilizations. The English strength lay in the mail-clad family guards of the king. They wielded huge battle-axes, and fought on foot, shoulder to shoulder, the king among them, behind a wall of overlapping long shields. This was a splendid force to resist attack. The Norman strength lay in their mounted knights and men-at-arms, assisted by bowmen, — magnificent troops to make an onset.

Charge after charge of Norman horse failed to break the Saxon shield- wall. William’s furious valor and personal strength, which had already won him fame on many a bloody field as the most terrible knight in Christendom, showed as never before, mingled with cool generalship and quick resourcefulness. Three times a horse was killed under him. Once his troops broke, and the cry went up, “The Duke is slain.” William tore off his helmet, to show his face, shouting with mighty voice, “I live; and by God’s help I shall conquer!”

Finally, at three in the afternoon, by feigning flight, William drew part of the English troops from their impregnable position, in spite of Harold’s orders, and then turning upon their disordered ranks, he rode them down in masses. Still the household troops stood firm about the king, and at six the fight swayed back and forth as stubbornly as ever about the dragon standard. But the duke brought his archers to the front, to pour their deadly shafts into the massed English array; and, as the sun went down, an arrow pierced Harold’s eye. The combat closed, in the gathering dusk, with the slaughter of his followers over his corpse. William was left master of the kingdom.

The Norman Conquest was one of the chief turning points in English (and American) history. Never since has a conquering people established itself in England. Roman, Saxon, and Dane had held the island in turn. Each had brought his peculiar contribution to its development. Now the Normans had conquered, because they were better equipped for warfare than the Anglo-Saxons, and better disciplined. This same superiority they were to show in government.


505. William I, the Conqueror (1066-1087).— After his victory, William went through the form of an election by the English Witan (§ 630, note). He proved a stern but just ruler. Even his enemies cannot help praising the “good peace” he gave to the country, “so that a man might fare his realm with a bosom full of gold.” His government, however, was much more systematized than had been the methods used by the Anglo- Saxon kings, and it required a larger income. Hence he demanded higher taxes, which he levied with a severity unknown before his day. The estates forfeited by those who had fought against him he bestowed on Norman nobles. Several risings against him only increased the number of these newcomers. Also ecclesiastical positions were preferably given to Normans. He ruled, however, always with great regard for English customs,
and it cannot be denied that the innovations he made, although their introduction was not carried through without hardship, were for the true benefit of the country. To acquaint himself with the resources of the kingdom and the dues payable to the king, he had an accurate census taken, the results of which are recorded in the “Domesday Book,” a source from which we get more information about England than we have of any other country of that time. The population numbered some 1,200,000 inhabitants, of whom one tenth, called “burgesses,” dwelt in “boroughs.” The king’s feudal army contained about 5000 knights.


506. William II.—William the Conqueror had ruled both England and Normandy. In his will he gave Normandy to his eldest son Robert, and England to his second son William II, called Rufus (the Red) (1087- 1100). William II, Rufus, was a bad ruler, who made enemies of nearly all Englishmen. “In his days all justice sank, and all unrighteousness arose.” He was killed mysteriously and interred without the ceremonies of the Church.

507. Henry I (1100-1135), the youngest son of the Conqueror, issued a charter of liberties, which a hundred years later was to become the model for a much more important document. By force and intrigues he wrested Normandy from his good-natured brother, Duke Robert, and acquired the County of Maine in
France. From his time (if not from earlier times) dates the King’s Court, composed of a few able men, which supervised the finances, and also served as a supreme court of justice. From time to time Henry I sent members of this royal court into distant parts of the realm to look after his interests and administer justice in his name. The people gave to Henry I the honorable title of “Lion of Justice,” though he ruled much like an absolute monarch.

Under William II and Henry I the “contest about lay investiture” was fought out in England (§ 582).

508. Stephen. — After Henry I’s death his nephew Stephen secured the election. He was weak by nature, and his reign was distracted by civil wars with the supporters of Henry I’s daughter, Mathilda. Feudal anarchy seemed to have seized at last upon the land. The contemporary chroniclers bewail the misery of the age with bitter phrases: —

“ Every powerful man made his castles, and when they were built they filled them with devils and evil men; they put men in their dungeons for their gold and silver, and tortured them with pains unspeakable . . . and it was commonly said that Christ and his saints slept.”

Observe that the three successors of William I all had rivals for the throne, and so were kept in some measure in dependence upon the nation.


The talent for organization possessed by William the Conqueror showed itself both by leaving intact those English political institutions which seemed to work well, and by altering those that were capable of improvement.

509. Local government was not much interfered with by William. At this time England was divided into some forty shires, also named “counties” after the coming of the Normans. At the head of the shire was the sheriff (shire-reeve) appointed by the king. The shire fell into subdivisions called hundreds, and the hundred was made up of townships or villages. Many villages, among them the chief village of nearly every shire, had grown into fortified places, called boroughs, with special royal privileges (§ 505). A borough in many regards was like a hundred. Each of these units had its courts, consisting of landowners and certain other personages. The court of those days dealt with all sorts of governmental business, not merely judicial. These courts represented old Teutonic institutions in an improved shape (§ 390). On the whole, the Normans did not change this machinery of local government, except that they gave greater power to the sheriff, the king’s representative in the shire.

510. Feudalism in England. — As on the continent, Anglo- Saxon feudalism had grown from old Teutonic institutions under the influence of the peculiar conditions of the land. But it was neither so general nor so minutely organized as on the continent. Serfdom, too, existed throughout the land. The difference between serfs proper and villeins was still clearly marked. In consequence of the Danish invasions many owners of middle-sized estates and many free villagers preferred the safety of vassalship or serfdom to their unprotected freedom, and so through voluntary surrender (commendation, § 468) both feudalism and serfdom were on the increase.

William the Conqueror introduced the fully developed feudalism of the continent. He stripped it, however, of some undesirable features. His chief innovations were these: —
(a) Upon the plea that the whole people had not willingly received him, he confiscated all the land and let it out as feudal holdings, partly to the present owners, partly to his Norman supporters. Thus all landowners became the king’s direct vassals. Allodial tenure was wiped out. The king was the owner of all land. (Even at present, in theory, all English landowners are tenants of the crown.)
(b) Every landholder, large or small, had to take the oath of fealty directly to the king, though he might be another lord’s immediate vassal (§471, 1). Thus, in case of rebellion, every participant could be punished for high treason.
(c) He also took care that the properties held by each of his great vassals were scattered in different counties, so that the vassals could not easily assemble their forces for any treasonable attack.

511. The Great Council. — Under the Anglo-Saxon kings the great state assembly was the Witan, or Witenagemot, consisting of the most prominent men, bishops and lay lords, whether they were the king’s vassals or not. The Witan now gave way to a feudal assembly, the Great Council, to which the king’s vassals were summoned. Since all the prominent nobles, including the ecclesiastics, had become royal vassals, the same men who formerly had made up the Witenagemot now became members of the Great Council, though they assembled according to another principle.

These Norman innovations placed a great deal of power in the hands of the king, and secured at the same time the freedom of local institutions. In no country of the continent were royal power and individual liberty so happily blended.


512. Better Bishops and More Vigorous Religious Life. — In spite of the zeal of Edward the Confessor, the Church was still suffering from the anarchy of prior reigns, and a number of ecclesiastics were unworthy of their positions. William put able Normans into their places. The See of Canterbury, the first of the country, which for nineteen years had been held by the illiterate and immoral Stigand, obtained one of its greatest archbishops in the person of the Norman monk Lanfranc. The Reform of Cluny (§ 501) began to spread vigorously. To comply fully with the demands of the Canon Law (§ 494), separate ecclesiastical courts were established. William retained, however, the decisive influence upon the appointment of all prelates, and placed some restrictions on the exercise of episcopal jurisdiction. And though the active connection with Rome received great encouragement from him, he refused to give up the practice of investing bishops in the manner prohibited by Pope Gregory VII (§578, 582). Taken all in all, William the Conqueror’s action on the life of the Church of England redounded greatly to its advantage. “The Normans,” says even a partisan of Harold, “revived the observances of religion which were everywhere grown lifeless.”


513. Arts and Civilization. — The Norman newcomers formed a sort of leaven in the mass of the English people. They brought with them a better knowledge of fine arts. The castles, churches, and abbeys they built dwarfed the modest structures of the Anglo- Saxons. Their finer manners, their grander thoughts, their greater respect for learning, shown above all by the Norman clergy, roused the admiration of the English and were in due time assimilated by them. The fact that Normans held the first positions in Church and State gave special weight to their example. Through the Normans England entered into a more lively intercourse, both intellectual and religious, with the continent, an intercourse which was to continue long after the Normans had ceased to be a distinctive part of the population. In the beginning the Normans had looked down upon the natives with contempt. Two or three generations later their descendants were Englishmen like the rest of the people.

ELEVENTH-CENTURY COVER OF A MANUSCRIPT BOOK Two of the precious stones which once adorned it is still in place. Note the metal strips, the numerous minor stones, and the figures in the spaces around the center. Such elaborate covers are not rare. Wooden plates took the place of what is cardboard in present-day book covers.
ELEVENTH-CENTURY COVER OF A MANUSCRIPT BOOK: Two of the precious stones which once adorned it is still in place. Note the metal strips, the numerous minor stones, and the figures in the spaces around the center. Such elaborate covers are not rare. Wooden plates took the place of what is cardboard in present-day book covers.

514. The Language. — For a long time the language of the Normans, Norman-French, remained the language of the royal court. After the Normans had become Englishmen, the Saxon tongue, the speech of the masses of the people, won out, though not without undergoing great changes. It dropped most of its numerous endings, discarded many of its words, and in return received an abundant supply of French, or rather Latin-French, words and idioms. Thus began the language in which Shakespeare was to write his immortal plays.



515. The Coming of the Plantagenets. — We left England engulfed in civil war between King Stephen and Mathilda, the daughter of Henry I (§ 508). Mathilda had married Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, a territory south of Normandy in France. Their son Henry raised a claim to the throne of England. Henry was already a mighty prince: through his mother, Mathilda, he possessed Normandy and Maine; from his father he inherited Anjou and Touraine; by marriage he acquired Aquitaine, that is, all the land from the lower Loire down to the neighborhood of the Pyrenees. When he appeared in England at the head of a strong army, King Stephen, whose son had just died, came to an understanding with him through the mediation of Theobald, the aged Archbishop of Canterbury. Stephen adopted him as his son and successor, and after Stephen’s death, in the same year, Henry succeeded without opposition, as Henry II. Henry II and his descendants are known as the Anjou kings, or the Angevines (this word being a medieval Latin adjective referring to Anjou). Geoffrey of Anjou, Henry II’s father, used to wear a twig of the broom plant (planta geneta) with its yellow flower on his helmet, and this habit gave to him and his family the surname of Plantagenet.

516. Henry II’s Relation to England. — Although sovereign King of England, Henry II remained vassal of the crown of France for his extensive French possessions. (See the map facing page 420.) These provinces, more than half of what is now France, made him mightier than the King of France himself. In fact, he thought of himself chiefly as a French prince with important possessions in the neighboring island. He spent the greatest part of his time, too, on the continent. None the less he proved one of the greatest, and in spite of his blunders, one of the most beneficent of all the English kings.

Henry’s stout body and broad shoulders rose from bowed legs, and were topped by a bull neck and a round head with fiery face and bulging eyes. He had a memory that forgot no detail of business, a strong will, and great physical strength which enabled him to keep tirelessly at his task while servants and attendants dropped with fatigue. He delighted in the conversation of the learned. Yet he was grossly immoral, liable to descend to the basest artifices if they furthered his ends, and exceedingly jealous of every kind of authority unless it came from himself or was at least subservient to his will.


517. Henry II first restored order. The civil war between Stephen and the followers of Mathilda had brought swarms of foreign troopers into the country, who were ravaging at will. The king drove them out or cut them down. He next caused the new castles, which had been erected contrary to law and had often been strongholds of robbery and oppression, to be destroyed.

518. The king strengthened his own position by enforcing again the general duty of military service. All men who were no lord’s vassals had to be ready to join his forces whenever summoned by the royal sheriffs. He dispensed his immediate vassals from furnishing their quota of warriors on condition that they paid a certain amount of money, called scutage (shield-money). By the former law he secured a militia, an army that was independent of his vassals. By the second he was enabled to hire trained professional soldiers who were more efficient than the feudal armies. His vassals, too, liked the arrangement, because it liberated them from a burdensome duty. The subvassals, generally known as “knights,” now had more time to devote to the farming of their land, and to the business of the various popular courts.

519. Reform of the Courts of Justice. —

(a) Henry I had established the King’s Court to act as a supreme court of the land. But it had simply become a feudal court, open only to the great royal vassals. Henry II made it again accessible to all free Englishmen, in particular to those in danger of being dispossessed by their lords.

(b) He divided England into six districts, and sent into each of them at stated times three judges from the King’s Court. This was the beginning of the institution of the circuit judges, which did much to unify the English law and the methods of procedure in the courts, and brought the king’s judicial assistance, as it were, to the very door of every Englishman. It also helped to increase the royal revenues, because the circuit judges were in the first place bound to look after the king’s financial interests in every county, and because certain fees were demanded for taking up cases in the court. No other country could boast of such a system. Purged of abuses the circuit courts are still part of the English and American judiciary.

520. Introduction of Trial by Jury. — In most of the civilized countries the court trials are generally carried on with the assistance of a jury; that is, there are besides the judges twelve other men selected from among the citizens. They listen to the witnesses and thereupon answer the question whether, from the evidence presented in the court, the accused person is guilty or not. By doing so they really act as judges, though they are not so called. If they declare the man guilty, the judge imposes the penalty. These men are styled jurors or jurymen, which means persons that have sworn, namely, to pronounce a just verdict. They are, however, the petty jury. Preceding the trial there has been the action of the grand jury. The grand jury does not decide whether or not a man is guilty, but simply whether it seems advisable to put him before the court and the petty jury.

This system, under one form or another, is very old. Traces of it are found even in the ancient Teutonic customs. But the beginnings of its present form date from Henry II. His Norman predecessors already had appointed similar boards to decide cases in which the king’s property interests were involved. Henry II extended it to the civil cases (questions of property) of all the freemen. He also ordered that in criminal cases such juries should present suspected offenders to the court for trial. (This is what our grand juries do now.) Thus persons too mighty to be accused by individuals could be haled into court. The trial was still carried on by ordeal (§ 400). But when the ordeals were more and more abandoned and even condemned by the Church, a smaller jury was summoned for the trial. This trial jury at first acted both as witnesses and as judges. But since they were allowed to call in other witnesses, it became the rule for them to act as judges only. — In spite of many undeniable shortcomings this system is rightly considered as a guarantee of popular liberty and a means of inspiring the people with confidence in the verdicts of the courts.


521. The Constitutions of Clarendon. — Henry II could brook no power that did not emanate from himself. The independence and privileges of the clergy were a thorn in his side. He intended to secure once for all the so-called “ rights ” which his predecessors, contrary to Canon Law and in spite of the protest of Church authorities, had at various times usurped and which were styled “ the royal customs.” He made his chancellor, Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury and thereby Primate of England. Thomas had been the king’s trusted friend and adviser, and a gay companion at the banquet table and in the hunt. But with his episcopal consecration he became a changed man — he became St. Thomas. He rigidly removed all luxury, wore a hair-shirt next his body at all times, and observed most conscientiously the rules which regulate a bishop’s life. The king, to his utter surprise, found in him a fearless champion of the rights of the Church.

A cleric had committed an offense against the king, and Henry II thought that no condign punishment had been given in the ecclesiastical court. In his wrath he resolved to put the relation between Church and State upon an entirely new basis. A Great Council was called and the king laid before it the Constitutions of Clarendon, in which were embodied what purported to be the “royal customs.” The council was to declare them the law of the land.

The chief points were these: (a) The revenues of bishoprics, abbeys, etc., were to go to the king from the death of the incumbent until the election of his successor. (b) The election was to take place in the king’s chapel, with the advisers appointed by the king, and not before the king himself had summoned the electors, (c) The royal courts were to define whether a criminal case belonged to the secular or ecclesiastical jurisdiction; and if found guilty in the Church court, the criminal was to be tried again in the secular court. (d) No direct vassal of the king or any of his household officers should be excommunicated without the king’s permission. (e) No bishop or archbishop should go beyond the sea without the king’s permission (to prevent complaints being made about the king in Rome). — It is evident that with the enactment of such laws the Church in England would be completely at the king’s mercy, though the possibility that he might give the desired permissions still kept it from an accomplished schism.

522. The Opposition of St. Thomas. — In the council the bishops naturally shrank from consenting to such enslavement. Henry in great rage had the door of the next apartment thrown open. There they beheld a body of knights with drawn swords, waiting for the signal to massacre the prelates. To avert bloodshed the primate now yielded to the entreaties of bishops and lords and put his name to the fatal document. But he repented directly, wrote to Rome for absolution, and at another session of the Great Council retracted publicly and solemnly. He was the only bishop that did so. The king’s anger was terrible. Thomas fled to France, while Henry seized his ecclesiastical and private property. Even his innocent relatives and friends with their whole families, about four hundred persons, were robbed of all their possessions, driven out of the country, and forced to swear that they would go to the primate and implore him to satisfy the king. It must be said to Henry’s credit that he does not seem to have sided with the anti-pope against Alexander III (§ 559).

The urgings of Alexander III and the fear of spiritual punishments finally prevailed on the king to come to some understanding with St. Thomas and to allow him to return to Canterbury. But his former sentiments soon awoke again. Four of his knights took his angry words as a desire to see the troublesome prelate done away with. They hastened to Canterbury and killed Thomas in his cathedral, December 29, 1170. Henry disclaimed having given any such order, and of his own accord did public penance at the tomb of the martyr and canceled the obnoxious Constitutions of Clarendon. The martyr’s death was the victory of his cause.

The people of England felt that St. Thomas had fought for their own liberty in upholding the rights of the Church. He became one of the most popular saints and his tomb the goal of countless pilgrimages in England and from abroad.

523. Henry II’s Expedition to Ireland. — After the battle of Clontarf in 1014 (§ 451, 2) the Danes made no more inroads into Ireland. Unfortunately the victory brought no political unity. There was almost incessant conflict between the several tribes or parts of tribes.

Shortly before 1170, Dermot McMurrough, king of the province of Leinster, “who combined zeal for founding churches and encouraging learning with a ferocious cruelty and licentiousness,” was forced to flee the country. With the permission of Henry II he obtained the assistance of some Anglo-Norman knights, chief of whom was Richard Strongbow. By their aid Dermot repossessed himself of his kingdom and allowed his friends to occupy Dublin and its environs. Both the rapacity of these adventurers and jealousy of their success impelled Henry to cross over himself, 1171. He fought no battle but redressed some grievances of the natives and tried to win them by the display of his army, by condescension, and by the splendor of his court. An assembly of Irish chieftains at Waterford recognized him in some vague terms as their lord. He left the following spring and almost his first act was the reconciliation with the Pope and the penance at St. Thomas’ tomb.

CLONMACNOISE, IRELAND (From an Irish wood engraving.) Once a famous monastery and school, founded in 544. The round towers served as a refuge during time of invasions. Their door was commonly high above the ground. Note the “Celtic Cross.” Many personages great in Irish history rest under these tombstones.
(From an Irish wood engraving.) Once a famous monastery and school, founded in 544. The round towers served as a refuge during time of invasions. Their door was commonly high above the ground. Note the “Celtic Cross.” Many personages great in Irish history rest under these tombstones.

524. The Pale. — Again the Irish failed to effect a strong union of their forces, though the Anglo-Normans from now on made little or no progress. The latter retained their hold on a district in the east of Ireland with the city of Dublin. This was subsequently called the Pale. Its boundaries shifted as the power of the invaders increased or relaxed. But the English king continued wearing the title of Lord of Ireland.

525. The closing years of Henry II were darkened by domestic troubles. The feudal lords tried to cast off royal control. A powerful coalition was formed between this English feudal force, the king of Scotland, and the king of France. Henry’s splendid generalship crushed his foes in detail; and England had seen its last great uprising of feudalism against the national government.

But Philip II of France, who had stirred them to treason, now intrigued ceaselessly with the remaining sons, Richard and John. The dying king was driven to yield to their demands. As a condition of peace, a list of conspirators whom he was required to pardon was handed him. At the head stood the name of John, his favorite son. Indeed his partiality for John had driven Richard into arms against him. Thus John’s name in the list of traitors was the last blow. The king sank into a deep melancholy. “Now,” he said, “I care no more for myself or the world.” Seven days later, when he felt that his end was near, he had himself carried into church, received the last sacraments, and died at the foot of the altar.


526. Richard 1(1189-1199). — The great officers who had been trained under Henry II carried on his system of government with little change through the reigns of his two tyrannical sons. Richard the Lion-Hearted cared mainly for military glory. He was a valiant, impetuous knight, but a weak statesman and ruler. Of the eleven years of his reign, he spent only seven months in England and these solely to get money for foreign wars; Among other things he sold many charters of liberties to the rising towns. He is remembered as one of the leaders of the third crusade (§ 594).

527. John Lackland (1199-1216), was an abler man than his brother, but a more despicable character. Three events mark his reign, — defeats by France, by the Pope, and by his subjects.
(1) Abroad, he lost Normandy and all northern France to the French king. (2) After a long quarrel with Pope Innocent III, John promised to redress the grievances of his subjects, and though not compelled by the Pope, he even surrendered England to the Pope to receive it back in a kind of semi-vassalage. (3) England wrested from his hands a charter of liberties known as Magna Carta (the Great Charter). This third event demands fuller notice.

OPENING LINES OF THE MAGNA CARTA (Reduced facsimile.) The characters in the margin are supposed to be the coats of arms of barons who signed as witnesses, but they are a later embellishment to the document.
(Reduced facsimile.) The characters in the margin are supposed to be the coats of arms of barons who signed as witnesses, but they are a later embellishment to the document.

528. MAGNA CARTA. — Toward the close of his reign, John’s oppression and harsh exactions brought all classes of Englishmen to unite against him. In 1213, while he was warring in France two mass meetings of barons and knights and townsmen gathered, to discuss their grievances. Amid stern enthusiasm, Stephen Langton, whom the Pope had made Archbishop of Canterbury, brought before one of these gatherings the long-forgotten charter of Henry I. On this basis, Langton and the leaders of the nobles then drew up the demands of the meeting. John at first refused even to look at the document. But a mighty army of two thousand knights, supported by the townsmen of London arrayed in their “trainbands,” marched against him (“the Army of God and Holy Church”). John was deserted by all but a few foreign mercenaries; and, June 15, 1215, at a meadow of the Thames called Runnymede, he was forced to sign the Great Charter, — the “ first great document in the Bible of English liberties.”

[What follows are] SECTIONS 39 and 40 of Magna Carta
The bars are facsimiles of the writing in the charter, with the curious abbreviations of the medieval Latin. Below each line is given the Latin in full with a translation.

Nullus liber homo capiatur, vel imprisonetur, aut dissaisiatur, aut utlagetur, No free man shall be taken, or imprisoned, or dispossessed, or outlawed,
Nullus liber homo capiatur, vel imprisonetur, aut dissaisiatur, aut utlagetur,
No free man shall be taken, or imprisoned, or dispossessed, or outlawed,
aut exuletur, aut aliquo modo destruatur, nec super eum ibimus nec super or banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor upon
aut exuletur, aut aliquo modo destruatur, nec super eum ibimus nec super
or banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor upon
eum mittemus, nisi per legale judicium parium suorum vel per legem terrae. him send, except by the legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.
eum mittemus, nisi per legale judicium parium suorum vel per legem terrae.
him send, except by the legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.
Nulli vendemus, nulli negabimus, aut differemus, rectum aut justiciam. To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice.
Nulli vendemus, nulli negabimus, aut differemus, rectum aut justiciam.
To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice.

The charter, which claimed only to state the old liberties of Englishmen, not to establish new ones, set the law of the land above the king’s will. True, in some other countries, during the Middle Ages, the great vassals extorted charters of liberties for themselves from their kings. But the peculiar features of this charter are: (1) the barons promised to their dependents the same rights they demanded for themselves from the king; and (2) special provisions looked after the welfare of townsmen and even of villeins.

The wording, necessarily, belongs to a feudal age; and the greater part of the document is concerned with the privileges of feudal vassals. The charter defined precisely the “aids” to which suzerains were entitled, — and so put an end to extortion. It declared that the king could raise no scutage or other unusual “aid” without the consent of the Great Council of England. All vassals of the king had a right to attend this council; and so this provision established the principle of no taxation without the consent of the taxed. It declared an accused man entitled to speedy trial, — and so laid the foundation for later laws of “habeas corpus.” It affirmed that no villein, by any fine, should lose his oxen or plow, his means of livelihood; and so foreshadowed our very modern laws providing that legal suits shall not take from a man his home or his tools. As time passed, and as a new society and new needs grew up, men read new meanings into the old language and made it fit the new age.

The charter became at once the standard of freedom for the whole nation. In the next two centuries, English kings were obliged to “confirm” it thirty-eight times; its principles and some of its wording have passed into the constitution and laws of every American state.

529. Henry III, son of John Lackland, came to the throne when very young. A relatively small part of his long reign was marked by war. The nobles who could not enrich themselves by booty turned their attention to the improvement of their states. Foreign commerce, too, had a chance to revive and was encouraged by legal enactments. However, Henry, though personally without blame, was not a strong ruler. His favoritism and his financial demands for questionable purposes led to an uprising under the mighty Simon of Montfort, who for a year governed ably in the name of the captive king. To strengthen his position Simon summoned the famous Parliament of 1265, which marks an important step in the development of that body. (See § 533.) This was the greatest event in Henry Ill’s reign. When liberated, after Simon had fallen in the battle of Evesham, 1265, Henry had to promise to rule according to the system of Simon of Montfort.

EDWARD I (1272-1307)

530. Character of Edward I. His Wars. — For two centuries after the Conquest, every king had been a foreigner. Edward was English to the core. He had even the golden hair of the old Saxon kings, and a favorite Saxon name, as well as a thoroughly English character. In his campaigns he proved himself a good general. A passionate temper hurried him sometimes, in his younger days, into the cruel sack of conquered towns. But he was quick to repent, — at times in a burst of tears; and in his old age he once said, “No man ever asked mercy of me and was refused.” His shield bore for its device the motto, “Keep troth.” He was a good son, a tender and wise father, a faithful and devoted husband, and one of England’s noblest kings.

Edward I wished ardently to unite the whole island of Britain into one kingdom. In this he won only partial success. However, he completed the conquest of Wales; and, to conciliate the Welsh people, he gave to his eldest son the title Prince of Wales, which has been borne ever since in England by the heir to the crown. For a time, too, Scotland seemed to submit to Edward’s arms and statesmanship; but the hero, William Wallace, and the patriot king, Robert Bruce, roused the Scotch people again to a stubborn and splendid struggle for national independence; and the two halves of the island remained separate kingdoms for some centuries more.
The true fame of Edward does not rest on his wars, but on his work for the wholesome development of the great central institutions of English political life: the King’s Court and the Great Council; and on the measures he took to do away with some more undesirable features of feudalism.

531. Edward I’s Reforms. — I. The King’s Court, first formed by Henry I (§ 507), restored and endowed with greater powers by Henry II (§ 519), consisted of men of the king’s own choice for the purpose of attending to various and very different kinds of business. Edward I divided it into three sections, each devoting its work to one kind of business.
(a) The Court of Common Pleas was the supreme court in civil matters, that is, those referring to property. It received and handled the appeals in these matters that came from the circuit courts.
(b) The King’s Bench — so called from the fact that this part of the King’s Court was accustomed to take its place on a certain bench in the common hall — was the supreme court in criminal matters.
(c) The Exchequer did the work handled in our country by the Treasury Department. Its members, the “Lords of the Exchequer,” originally sat around a “chequered” table (marked off into small squares for the convenient counting of money) — hence its name.

Unquestionably this division of labor made for a much greater efficiency of the three divisions. This was in particular the case with the Court of Common Pleas and the Court of the King’s Bench. The country had advanced in civilization, and its laws had become more detailed, making a special knowledge necessary. Law was now a branch of higher studies, and was no longer exclusively pursued by clergymen. The lay jurists (lawyers) increased in number, and eventually monopolized the supreme courts. — For centuries these courts remained the main factors in the English judiciary.

532. Edward I’s Reforms. — 2. Modification of English Feudalism. — Edward I greatly restricted the holding of courts of justice by feudal lords. This meant an increase of the power and influence of the regular royal and local courts. Besides, he forbade the great lords to sublet or sell any of their estates so as to make the new holder their own vassal; the holder was to become vassal of the next higher lord, eventually the king. This naturally increased the number of “tenants-in-chief” of the king and diminished the resources of the lords. He declared all gentlemen who had a revenue of twenty pounds a year knights, thus increasing the number of this much-honored class and destroying the exclusiveness of the feudal order. He finally revived the national militia, which consisted of all able-bodied men. The poorest had to provide themselves at least with the long bow, which had ever been a popular weapon but had never been introduced into regular warfare. It was to play an important part in England’s future wars.

533. Edward I’s Reforms. — 3. THE PARLIAMENT. — As noted in § 511, the Saxon Witenagemot (Witan) had given way to the Great Council, which was a feudal assembly of the king’s immediate vassals (“tenants-in-chief,” barons), both ecclesiastical and secular. The members were in no way elected or “sent,” but each one came in his own name as a royal vassal. Those, however, who held small fiefs soon failed to appear. The Great Charter (Magna Carta) prescribed that only the great barons were to be summoned individually; the numerous small vassals were notified by a writ published by the sheriff in the court of each county. Still the small barons failed to appear.

In the troubles under Henry III a new device was tried successfully. Simon of Montfort, as actual regent, ordered the sheriffs to see that each county sent two knights and each borough two burgesses to the Great Council of 1265 (§ 529). These men were real “representatives,” coming to the Great Council in the name of the shire and the borough. Similar summonses were issued afterwards, though the measure was not looked upon as a permanent institution.

It was found that these “representatives” were more liberal in granting contributions to the crown than the great barons. This and other considerations led to the summoning, in 1295, of what was later known as the Model Parliament, to which each shire and each borough was ordered to send two representatives, since, as Edward I’s writ of summons said, “that which touches all should be approved by all.” From that time the regular representation of counties and boroughs became a fixed principle in the English parliament.

534. Other Developments of Parliament. — At first all the members, whether vassals of the king (both lay and ecclesiastical) or representatives of shires and boroughs, held common sessions in one hall, sitting in three groups: Ecclesiastical Lords, Secular Lords, Representatives of the People. Since only the bishops and great abbots actually attended, the ecclesiastics, called the “First Estate,” were not numerous. So they joined the “Second Estate,” the lay lords. Later on, when the sessions were held in separate halls, these two estates formed the House of Lords, while the “Third Estate” became known as the House of Commons. The members of the House of Lords, the bishops and abbots, lords, dukes, etc., came in their own name as “tenants-in-chief ” of the crown; the members of the House of Commons were elected and sent by the people.

The name of “Parliament” instead of “ Great Council ” had been in vogue for some time before the reign of Edward I. The final division into two separate houses took place long after him. But his is the merit of having made representative members a permanent element of the national assembly, — besides having given to the English judiciary system a shape which in its essential lines was to last for many centuries. —In studying the history of the English parliament we have been studying more than English history, because England has really been “the Mother of Parliaments” for all countries which to-day have a free government.

535. Parliament Deposes a King. — Even before this two-house form was established, Parliament gave one striking demonstration of its power. Edward II (1307-1327), son of the great Edward, was a weak and unworthy successor. Selfish and greedy favorites ruled through him, to the discontent and injury of the people. The nation rose against him, and Parliament deposed him with much legal formality.


537. “No Taxation without Representation.” — His wars induced Edward I to demand high money contributions from his nobles, lay and ecclesiastical. The clergy protested vigorously because according to the existing laws of the Church they should not pay any taxes. But most of them were intimidated and later on really paid the amount. Pope Boniface VIII, urged at the same time by bitter complaints of the French clergy (§ 666), restated in the famous bull “Clericis Laicos” the old regulations in strong language. At the same time the lay lords of England, too, complained of the extortionate taxing by the king. Archbishop Winchelsey of Canterbury, who had never paid the tax, took his stand with the lay lords. Armed with the papal document he was able to give greater force to their resistance. Edward I yielded. He again solemnly confirmed the Magna Carta with the additional promise, never to impose any kind of tax without the consent of Parliament. Thus was established in England’s political life the principle of “No taxation without representation,” which was to play such an important part in the history of America.