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Source: McKechnie's introduction to Magna Carta: A Commentary on the Great Charter of King John, with an Historical Introduction, by William Sharp McKechnie (Glasgow: Maclehose, 1914).
EVENTS LEADING TO MAGNA CARTA.
The Great Charter is too often treated as the outcome of accidental causes; its sources are traced no deeper than the personal tyrannies and blunders of King John. That monarch’s misdeeds are held to have goaded into action a widespread opposition that never rested until it had achieved success; and the outcome of this success was the Great Charter of Liberties. The moving causes of events of tremendous moment are thus sought in the characteristics and vices of one man. If John had never lived and sinned, so it would appear, the foundations of English freedom would never have been laid.
Such shallow views of history fail to comprehend the magnitude and inevitable nature of the sequence of causes and effects upon which great issues depend. The compelling logic of events forces a way for its fulfilment, independent of the caprices, aims and ambitions of individual men. The incidents of John’s career are the occasions, not the causes, of the movement that laid the foundations of English liberties. The origin of Magna Carta lies too deep to be determined by any purely contingent phenomena. It is as unwise as it is unnecessary to suppose that the course of constitutional development in England was violently wrested into a new channel, merely because of the incapacity or cruelties of the temporary occupant of the throne. The source of the discontent fanned to flame by John’s oppressions must be sought in earlier reigns. The genesis of the Charter cannot be understood apart from its historical antecedents.
It is thus necessary briefly to narrate how the scattered Anglo–Saxon and Danish tribes and territories, originally unconnected, were slowly welded together and grew into England; how this fusion was made permanent by the growth of a strong centralized government which crushed out local independence, and threatened to become the most absolute despotism in Europe; how, finally, the Crown, because of the very plenitude of its power, called into play opposing forces, which set limits to royal prerogatives and laid the foundations of the reign of law. Such a survey of the early history of England reveals two leading movements; the establishment of a strong Monarchy able to bring order out of anarchy, and the establishment of safeguards to prevent this source of order from degenerating into an unrestrained tyranny, and so crushing out not merely anarchy but legitimate freedom as well. The later movement, in favour of liberty and the Great Charter, was the natural complement, and, in part, the consequence of the earlier movement in the direction of a strong government able to enforce peace. In historical sequence, order precedes freedom.
These two problems, mutually complementary, arise in the history of every nation, and in every age: the problem of order, or how to found a central government strong enough to suppress anarchy, and the problem of freedom, or how to set limits to an autocracy threatening to overshadow individual liberty. Deep political insight may still be acknowledged in Æsop’s fable of Jupiter and the frogs. King Log proves as ineffective against foreign invasion as he is void of offence to domestic freedom; King Stork secures the triumph of his subjects in time of war, but devours them in time of peace. All nations in their early efforts to obtain an efficient government have to choose between these two types of ruler—between an executive, harmless but weak; and one powerful to direct the business of government at home and abroad, but ready to use powers entrusted to him for the good of all, for his own selfish aims and the trampling out of his subjects’ liberties.
On the whole, the miseries of the long centuries of Anglo–Saxon rule were the outcome of the Crown’s weakness; while, at the Norman Conquest, England escaped from the mild sceptre of inefficiency, only to fall under the cruel sceptre of selfish strength. Yet the able kings of the new dynasty, powerful as they were, had to struggle to maintain their mastery; for the unruly barons fought vigorously to shake off the royal yoke.
During a century of Norman rule, constant warfare was waged between two great principles—the monarchic, standing on the whole for order, seeking to crush anarchy, and the oligarchic or baronial, standing on the whole for local autonomy, protesting against the tyranny of autocratic power. Sometimes one of these gained the ascendant; sometimes the other. The history of medieval England is the swing of the pendulum between.
The main plot, then, of early English history, centres in the attempt to found a strong monarchy, and yet to set limits to its strength. With this main plot subordinate plots are interwoven. Chief among these must be reckoned the necessity of defining the relations of the central to the local government, and the need of an acknowledged frontier between the domains of Church and State. On the other hand, all that interesting group of problems connected with the ideal form of government, much discussed in the days of Aristotle as in our own, is notably absent, never having been forced by the logic of events upon the mind of medieval Europe. Monarchy was accepted as the only possible scheme of government; the merits of aristocracy and democracy, or of the much–vaunted constitution known as “mixed” were not discussed, since these forms of constitution did not lie within the sphere of practical politics. The student of history will do well to begin by concentrating his attention on the main problem, to which the others are subsidiary.
William I. to Henry II.—Main Problem: the Monarchy.
The difficulties that surrounded the English nation in its early struggles for existence were formidable. The great problem was, first, how to get itself into being, and thereafter how to guard against the forces of disintegration, which strove without rest to tear it to pieces again. The dawn of English history shows the beginning of that long slow process of consolidation in which unconscious reason played a deeper part than human will, whereby many discordant tribes and races, many independent provinces, were crushed together into something bearing a rude likeness to a united nation. Many forces converged to the achievement of this result. The coercion of strong tribes over weaker neighbours, the pressure of outside foes, the growth of a body of law, and of public opinion, the influence of religion as the friend of peace, all helped to weld together a chaos of incongruous and warring elements.
It is notable that each of the three influences, destined ultimately to aid in this process of unification, threatened at one time a contrary effect. Thus the rivalries of the smaller kingdoms tended towards disruption before Wessex gained undisputed supremacy; the Christianizing of England, partly by Celtic missionaries from the north and partly by emissaries from Rome, threatened to split the country into two, until mutual rivalries were stilled after the Synod of Whitby in 664; and one effect of the settlements of the Danes was to create a barrier between the lands that lay on either side of Watling Street, before the whole country succumbed to the unifying pressure of Canute and his sons.
The stern discipline of foreign conquest was required to make national unity possible; and, with the restoration of the old Wessex dynasty in the person of Edward Confessor, the forces of disintegration again made headway. England threatened once more to fall to pieces, but the iron rule of the Normans came to complete what the Danes had begun half a century before. As the weakness of the Anglo–Saxon kings and the disruption of the country had gone hand in hand; so the complete unification of England was the result of the Norman despotism.
Thereafter, it was the strength of its monarchy that rendered England unique in medieval Europe. Three kings in particular contributed to this result—William the Conqueror, Henry Beauclerk, and Henry Plantagenet. In a sense, the work of all three was the same; to build up the central authority against the disintegrating effects of feudal anarchy. But the policy of each was modified by changing times and needs. The foundations of the edifice were laid by the Conqueror, whose character and circumstances combined to afford him an opportunity unparalleled in history. The difficulties of his task, and the methods by which he secured a successful issue, are best understood in relation to the nature of the obstacles to be overcome. Feudalism was the great current of the age—a tide formed by many converging streams, all flowing in the same direction, unreasoning like the blind powers of Nature, carrying away or submerging every obstacle in its path. In other parts of Europe—in Germany, France, and Italy, as in Scotland—the ablest monarchs found their thrones endangered by this feudal current. In England alone the monarchy stood firm. William I. refrained from any attempt to stay the torrent; but, while accepting it, he made it serve his own purposes. He watched and modified the tendencies making for feudalism, which he found in England, and he profoundly altered the feudal usages and rights transplanted from Norman soil. The special expedients used by him for this purpose are well known, and are all closely connected with his crafty policy of balancing Anglo–Saxon against Norman elements, and of selecting what suited him in either. He encouraged the adoption in England of feudalism, considered as a system of land tenure and of social distinctions based on the possession of land; but he successfully checked the evils of its unrestrained growth as a system of local government and jurisdiction.
William’s policy was one of balancing. Not content to depend entirely on the right of conquest, he insisted on having his title confirmed by a body claiming to represent the Witenagemot, and alleged that he had been named successor by his kinsman, Edward Confessor, a nomination strengthened by the renunciation of Harold in his favour. Thus, to Norman followers claiming to have set him by force of arms on his throne, William might point to the election by the Witan, while for his English subjects, claiming to have elected him, the presence of foreign troops was an effective argument. Throughout his reign, he played off the old English laws and institutions against the new Norman ones, with himself as umpire over all. He retained, too, the popular moots or meetings of the shire and hundred as a counterpoise to the feudal jurisdictions; the fyrd or militia of all free men as a set–off to the feudal levy; and whatever incidents of the Anglo–Saxon land tenures he thought fit.
Thus the Norman feudal superstructure was built on a basis of Anglo–Saxon usage and tradition. William, however, did not shrink from innovations where these suited his purpose. The great earldoms into which England had been divided, even down to the Norman Conquest, were abolished. New earldoms were indeed created, but on a different basis. Even the great officers subsequently known as Earls Palatine, always few in number, never attained to the independence of the Anglo–Saxon Ealdormen. William was chary of creating even ordinary Earls, and such as he did create soon became mere holders of empty titles of honour, ousted from all real power by the Norman vicecomites or sheriffs. No English earl was a “Count” in the continental sense of a real ruler of a “County.” No earl was allowed to hold too large an estate within his titular shire.
Ingenious devices were used for checking the feudal excesses so prevalent on the Continent. Rights of private war, coinage, and castle–building, were jealously circumscribed; while private jurisdictions, although tolerated as a necessary evil, were kept within bounds. The manor was in England the normal unit of seignorial jurisdiction; the higher courts of Honours were exceptional. No appeal lay from the manorial court of one magnate to that of his over–lord, while, in later reigns at least, appeals were encouraged to the Curia Regis. The results of this policy have been aptly summarized as “a strong monarchy, a relatively weak baronage, and a homogeneous people.”
During the reign of William II. (1087–1100) the Constitution made no conspicuous advance. The foundations had been laid; but Rufus was more intent on his hunting and enjoyments, than on the deeper matters of statecraft. Minor details of feudal organization were doubtless settled by the King’s Treasurer, Ralph Flambard; but the extent to which he innovated on the practice of the elder William is matter of dispute. On the whole, the reign must be reckoned a time of comparative rest between two periods of advance.
Henry I. (1100–35) took up, with far–seeing statesmanship and much vigour, the work of consolidation. His policy shows an advance upon that of his father. William had been content to curb the main vices of feudalism. Henry introduced within the Curia Regis itself a new class of men, representing a new principle of government. The great offices of state, previously filled by holders of baronies, were now given to creatures of Henry’s own, men of humble birth, whose merit had raised them to his favour, and whose only title to power lay in his goodwill. Henry’s other great achievement was the organization of the Exchequer, as a source of royal revenue, and as an instrument for making his will felt in every corner of England. For this great work he was fortunate to secure in Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, the help of a minister who combined genius with painstaking ability. At the Exchequer, as organized by the King and his minister, the sheriff of each county twice a year, at Easter and at Michaelmas, rendered account of every payment that had passed through his hands. His balance was adjusted before all the great officers of the King’s household, who subjected his accounts to close scrutiny. Official records were drawn up, one of which—the famous Pipe Roll of 1130—is extant at the present day. As the sums received by the sheriff affected every class of society in town and country, these half–yearly audits enabled the King’s advisers to scrutinize the lives and conduct of high and low. These half–yearly investigations were rendered more effective by the existence at the Exchequer of a great record of every landed estate in England. With this the sheriffs’ returns could be compared and checked. Henry’s Exchequer thus found one of its most powerful weapons in the great Domesday Survey, the most enduring proof of the statesmanship of the Conqueror, by whose orders and under whose direction it had been compiled.
The central scrutiny conducted within the Exchequer was supplemented by occasional inspections conducted in each county. The King’s representatives, including among them the officers who presided over the half–yearly audit, visited, at intervals still irregular, the various shires. These Eyres, as they were called, were at first undertaken chiefly for financial purposes. The sheriffs’ accounts rendered at Westminster were checked locally on the scene of their labours. These investigations necessarily involved the trial of pleas. Complaints of oppression at the hands of the local tyrant were made and determined on the spot; gradually, but not until a later reign, the judicial business became equally important with the financial, and ultimately even more important.
Henry, before his death in 1135, seemed to have carried to completion the congenial task of building a strong monarchy on the foundations laid by William. Much of his work was, however, for a time undone, while all of it seemed in imminent danger of perishing for ever, because he left no male heir of his body to succeed him. His daughter’s claims were set aside by Stephen, son of the Conqueror’s daughter, and a cadet of the House of Blois, to whom Henry had played the indulgent uncle, and who repaid his benefactor’s generosity by constituting himself his heir. Stephen proved unequal to the task of preserving the monarchy intact from the forces that beat around the throne. His failure is attributed by some to personal characteristics; by others, to the defective nature of his title, combined with the presence of a rival in the field in the person of his cousin, Henry’s daughter, the ex–Empress Matilda. The nineteen years of anarchy which nominally formed his reign did nothing—and worse than nothing—to continue the work of his great ancestors. The power of the Crown was humbled: England was almost torn in fragments by the claims of rival magnates to local independence.
With the accession of Henry II. (1154) the tide quickly turned, and turned for good. Of the numerous steps taken by him to complete the work of the earlier master–builders of the English Monarchy, only a few need here be mentioned. Ascending the throne in early manhood, he brought with him a statesman’s instinct peculiar to himself, together with the unconquerable energy common to his race. He rapidly overhauled every institution and every branch of administration. The permanent Curia Regis was not only restored to working order, but improved in each of its many aspects—as the King’s household, as a financial bureau, as the administrative centre of the kingdom, and as the vehicle of royal justice. The Exchequer, which was originally merely the Curia in its financial aspect, received the re–organization so urgently needed after the terrible strains to which it had been subjected. The Pipe Rolls were revived and financial reforms effected. The old popular courts of hundred and county, and the feudal jurisdictions were brought under more effective control of the central government by the restoration of the system of Eyres with their travelling justices, whose visits were now placed on a more systematic basis. Equally important were the King’s care in the selection of fit men for the duties of Sheriff, the frequent punishment and removal from office of offenders, and the restored control over all in authority. Henry was strong enough to employ more substantial men than the novi homines of his grandfather without suffering them to get out of hand. Another expedient for controlling local courts was the calling up of cases to his own central feudal Curia, or before those benches of professional judges, the future King’s Bench and Common Pleas, that formed as yet merely committees of the Curia as a whole.
Closely connected with these innovations was the new system of procedure instituted by Henry. The chief feature was that each litigation must commence with an appropriate royal writ issued from the Chancery. Soon for each class of action was devised a special writ, and the system came to be known as “the writ system.” A striking feature of Henry’s policy was the bold manner in which he threw open the doors of his royal Courts of Law to allcomers (excepting villeins), and provided there—always in return for hard cash, be it said—a better article in name of justice than could be procured elsewhere in England, or, for that matter, elsewhere in Europe. Thus, not only was the Exchequer filled with fines and fees, but, insidiously and without the danger involved in a frontal attack, Henry sapped the strength of the great feudal magnates, and diverted the stream of litigants from manorial courts to his own. The same policy had a further result in facilitating the growth of a body of common law, uniform throughout the length and breadth of England, opposed to the varying usages of localities and individual baronial courts.
The reorganization of the army was another reform that helped to strengthen the throne of Henry and his sons. This was effected in various ways: partly by the revival and more strict enforcement of obligations connected with the Anglo–Saxon fyrd, under the Assize of Arms (1181), which compelled every freeman to maintain at his own expense weapons and warlike equipment suited to his station in life; partly by the ingenious method of increasing the amount of feudal service due from Crown tenants, based upon an investigation instituted by the Crown and upon the written replies returned by the barons, known to historians as “the Cartae of 1166”; and partly by the development of the principle of scutage, a means whereby unwilling military service, limited as it was by annoying restrictions as to time and place, might be exchanged at the option of the Crown for money, with which a more flexible army of mercenaries might be hired.
By these expedients and many others, Henry raised the English monarchy, always in the ascendant since the Conquest, to the very zenith of its power, and left to his sons the entire machinery of government in perfect working order, combining high administrative efficiency with great strength. Full of bitter strifes and troubles as his reign of thirty–five years had been, nothing had interfered with the vigour and success of the policy whereby he tightened his hold on England. Neither the long struggle with Becket, ending as it did in Henry’s personal humiliation, nor the unnatural warfare with his sons, which hastened his death in 1189, was allowed to interfere with his projects of reform in England.
The last twenty years of life had been darkened for him, and proved troubled and anarchic in the extreme to his continental dominions; but in England profound peace reigned. The last serious revolt of the powers of feudal anarchy had been suppressed in 1174 with characteristic thoroughness and moderation. After that date, the English monarchy retained its supremacy almost without an effort.
William I. to Henry II.—Problem of Local Government.
It is necessary to retrace our steps in order to consider the subsidiary problem of local government. The failure of the Princes of the House of Wessex to devise adequate machinery for keeping the Danish and Anglian provinces in subjection to their will was one main source of the weakness of their monarchy. When Duke William solved this problem, he took an enormous stride towards establishing his throne on a securer basis.
Every age has to face, in its own way, a group of difficulties essentially the same, although assuming different names as Home Rule, Local Government, or Federation. Problems as to the proper nature of the local authority, the extent of its powers, and its relation to the central government, require constantly to be re–stated and solved anew. The difficulties involved, always great, were unspeakably greater in an age when no proper administrative machinery existed, and when rapid communication and serviceable roads were unknown. Lively sympathy is excited by consideration of the difficulties that beset the path of King Edgar or King Ethelred, endeavouring to rule from Winchester the distant and alien races of North–umbria, Mercia, and East Anglia. If a weakling governed a distant province, anarchy would result and the King’s authority might suffer with that of his inefficient representative; while a powerful viceroy might consolidate his own authority and then defy his King. The two horns of this dilemma are amply illustrated by the course of early English history. The West–Saxon Princes vacillated between two lines of policy: spasmodic attempts at centralization alternated with periods of local autonomy. The scheme of Edgar and Dunstan has sometimes been described as a federal or home–rule policy—as a frank surrender of the attempt to control exclusively from one centre the mixed populations of Northern and Midland England. Their solution was to relax rather than tighten the bond; to entrust with wide powers the local viceroy in each district, and to aim at a loose federal empire—a union of hearts, rather than a centralized despotism founded on coercion. The dangers of such a system are obvious, where each ealdorman commanded the troops of his province.
Canute’s consolidating policy has been the subject of much discussion, and has sometimes been misunderstood. The better opinion is that, with his Danish troops behind him, he felt strong enough to reverse Dunstan’s tactics by decisive action in the direction of centralization. His provincial viceroys (jarls or earls, as they were now called) were appointed on a new basis: England was mapped out into new administrative districts under viceroys having no hereditary connection with the provinces they governed. In this way Canute sought to arrest the process by which England was breaking up into a number of petty kingdoms. If these viceroys were a source of strength to the powerful Canute, they proved a source of weakness to the saintly Confessor, who was forced to submit to the control of his provincial rulers, such as Godwin and Leofric, as each in turn gained the upper–hand in the field or among the Witan. The process of disintegration continued until the coming of the Conqueror changed the relations between the monarchy and the other factors in the national life.
Among the expedients adopted by the Norman Duke for curbing his feudatories in England, one of the most important was the reorganization of the system of provincial rulers. The real representative of the King in each group of counties was now the sheriff, not the earl. His Latin name of vicecomes is misleading, since that officer in no sense represented the earl or comes, but acted as the direct agent of the Crown. The name “viceroy” more accurately describes his actual position and functions.
The problem of local government, however, was not eradicated: it only took a different form. The sheriffs themselves, relieved from the earl’s rivalry, tended to become too powerful. If they never dreamed of openly defying the royal authority, they thwarted its exercise, appropriated to their private uses items of revenue, pushed their own interests, and punished their own enemies, while acting in the King’s name. The office threatened to become territorial and hereditary, and its holders aimed at independence. Safeguards were found against the sheriffs’ growing powers, partly in the organization of the Exchequer and partly in the itinerant justices, who took precedence of the sheriff and heard complaints against his misdeeds in his own county. By such measures, Henry I. seemed almost to have solved these problems before his death; but his success was apparent rather than real.
The incompleteness of Henry’s solution became evident under Stephen, when the leading noble of each locality tried, generally with success, to capture both offices for himself: great earls like Ralph of Chester and Geoffrey of Essex compelled the King not only to confirm them as sheriffs in their own titular counties, but also to confer on them exclusive right to act as justices.
With the accession of Henry II. some advance was made towards a permanent solution. That great ruler was strong enough to prevent the growth of the hereditary principle as applied to offices either of the Household or of local magistrates. The sheriffs were frequently changed, not only by the drastic and unique measure known as the Inquest of Sheriffs, but systematically, and as a matter of routine. Their power tended in the thirteenth century to decrease, chiefly because they found important rivals not only in the itinerant judges, but also in two new officers first heard of in the reign of Richard I., the forerunners of the modern Coroner and Justice of the Peace respectively. All fear that the sheriffs as administrative heads of districts might defy the Crown was thus ended. Yet each of them remained a petty tyrant over the inhabitants of his own bailiwick. While the Crown was able and willing to avenge neglect of its own interests, it was not always sufficiently alert to punish wrongs inflicted upon its humble subjects. The problem of local government, then, was fast taking a new form, namely, how best to protect the weak from unjust fines and oppressions inflicted on them by local magistrates. The sheriff’s local power was no longer a source of danger to the monarch, but had become an effective part of the machinery which enabled the Crown to levy with impunity its always increasing taxation.
William I. to Henry II.—Problem of Church and State.
The Church had been, from an early date, in tacit alliance with the Crown. The friendly aid of a line of statesman–prelates from Dunstan downwards had given to the Anglo–Saxon monarchy much of the little strength it possessed. Before the Conquest the connection between Church and State had been exceedingly close, so much so that no one thought of drawing a sharp dividing line between. What afterwards became two separate entities were at first merely two aspects of one society, which comprehended all classes of the people. Change came with the Norman Conquest; for the English Church was brought into closer contact with Rome, and with the ecclesiastical ideals prevailing on the Continent. Yet no fundamental alteration resulted; the friendly relations that bound the prelates to the English throne remained intact, while English Churchmen continued to look to Canterbury, rather than to Rome, for guidance.
Gratitude to the Pope for moral support in effecting the Conquest never modified William’s determination to allow no unwarranted papal interference in his new domains. His letter, both outspoken and courteous, in reply to papal demands is still extant:—“I refuse to do fealty nor will I, because neither have I promised it, nor do I find that my predecessors did it to your predecessors.” Peter’s pence he was willing to pay at the rate recognized by his Saxon predecessors; but all encroachments would be politely repelled.
In settling the country newly reduced to his domination, the Duke of Normandy found his most valuable adviser in a former prior of the Norman Abbey of Bec, whom he raised to be Primate of all England. No record has come down to us of any serious dispute between William and Lanfranc. Friendly relations between King and Archbishop continued, notwithstanding Anselm’s condemnation of the evil deeds of Rufus. Anselm supported that King’s authority over the Norman magnates, even while he resented his evil practices towards the Church. He contented himself with a dignified protest (made emphatic by a withdrawal of his presence from England) against unfair exactions from English prelates, and against the long intervals during which vacancies remained unfilled.
Returning at Rufus’s death from a sort of honourable banishment at Rome, Anselm found himself compelled, by his conscience and the recent decrees of a Lateran Council, to enter on the great struggle of the investitures.
In many respects, the spiritual and temporal powers were still indissolubly locked together. Each bishop was a vassal of the king, holder of a Crown barony, as well as a prelate of Holy Church. By whom, then, should a bishop be appointed, by the spiritual or by the temporal power? Could he without sin perform homage for the estates of his See? Who ought to invest him with ring and crozier? Anselm adopted one view; Henry the other. A happy compromise, suggested by the King’s statesmanship, or possibly by Bishop Ivo of Chartres, healed the breach for the time being. The symbols of spiritual authority were to be conferred by the Church, but each prelate must perform fealty to the King before receiving them, and do homage thereafter, but before he was actually anointed as bishop. This compromise of 1106 did not embrace, it would appear, any final understanding as to the method of appointing bishops: “Canonical election” formed no part of Henry’s express concessions.
Henry, however, does not seem to have rejected openly the claims of the capitular clergy, but only to have taken steps to render them nugatory in practice. Some of the leading prelates, administrative officials on whom the Monarch could depend, took part in the election of bishops and were usually able to secure the appointment of a candidate acceptable to the King.
The Church gained in power during Stephen’s reign, and deserved the power it gained, since it remained the only stable centre of good government, while other institutions crumbled around it. It was not unnatural that Churchmen should advance new claims, and we find them adopting the watchword, afterwards so famous, “that the Church should be free,” a vague phrase, destined to be embodied in Magna Carta. The extent of immunity thus claimed was never defined: an elastic phrase might be expanded with the ever–growing pretensions of the Church. Churchmen made it clear, however, that they meant it to include at least two principles—“benefit of clergy,” and “canonical election.”
Henry II. attempted to define the position in the Constitutions of Clarendon (1164), clause 12 of which provided that in filling vacant Sees the King should summon potiores personas ecclesiae and that the “election” should take place in the King’s chapel with consent of the King and consilio personarum regni, vague words which seem to reserve to Henry the decision as to who constituted “the more influential persons of the church,” whom he ought to summon, thus enabling him to control elections (as his grandfather had done) by means of ecclesiastics whose loyalty to the Crown was undoubted. Henry, in consequence of his humiliation following on Becket’s murder, had to release the bishops from their oath to observe the Constitutions. In 1173 he gave a definite promise to allow greater liberty in elections, and it was part of a new agreement with Rome in 1176, that in normal circumstances vacant sees should not be kept in the King’s hands for more than a year. Yet, in practice, he continued to exercise a control not inferior to that enjoyed by his grandfather. On the whole, the rights of the Church at the close of the reign of Henry Plantagenet were not far different from what had been set down in the Constitutions of Clarendon. A new definition of the frontier between the spiritual and temporal powers was the outcome of John’s need of allies on the eve of Magna Carta.
Richard I. and John.
Henry II., before his death, had fulfilled the task of restoring order: to effect this, he had brought to perfection machinery of rare excellence, equally adapted for purposes of taxation, of dispensing justice, and of general administration. Great as was the power for good of this new instrument in the hands of a wise and justice–loving king, it was equally powerful for evil in the hands of an arrogant, or even of a careless monarch. All the old enemies of the Crown had been crushed. Local government, now systematized, formed a source of strength, not of weakness; while the Church, whose highest offices were filled with officials trained in Henry’s own Exchequer (differing widely from the type of saintly monks like Anselm), still remained the fast friend of the Crown. The monarchy was strong enough to defy any one section of the nation.
The very thoroughness with which the monarchy had surmounted its early difficulties, induced in Henry’s successors an exaggerated feeling of security. The very abjectness of the various factors of the nation, now prostrate beneath the heel of the Crown, prepared them to sink their mutual suspicions and to form a tacit alliance in order to join issue with their common oppressor. Powers used moderately and on the whole for national ends by Henry, were abused for selfish ends by both his sons. Richard’s heavy taxation and contemptuous indifference to English interests reconciled men’s minds to thoughts of change, and prepared the basis of a combined opposition to a power that threatened to grind all other powers to powder.
In no direction were these abuses felt so severely as in taxation. Financial machinery had been elaborated to perfection, and large additional sums could be squeezed from every class by an extra turn of the screw. Richard did not even require to incur the odium, since ministers, his instruments, shielded him from the unpopularity of his measures, while he pursued his own good pleasure abroad in war and tournament without visiting the subjects he oppressed. Twice only, for a few months in either case, did Richard visit England during a reign of ten years.
In his absence new methods of taxation were devised, affecting new classes of property; in particular, personal effects—merchandise and other chattels—only once before (in 1187, for the Saladin tithe) placed under contribution—now became a regular source of royal revenue. The isolated precedent of Henry’s reign was followed when an extraordinarily heavy levy was required for Richard’s ransom. The very heartiness with which England made sacrifices to succour the Monarch in his hour of need was turned against the tax–payers. Richard showed no gratitude; and, being devoid of kindly interest in his subjects, he argued that what had been paid once might equally well be paid again. With exaggerated notions of the revenue to be extracted from England, he sent from abroad demand after demand to his overworked justiciars for ever–increasing sums of money. The chief lessons of the reign are connected with this excessive taxation; the consequent discontent prepared the way for a new grouping of political forces under John.
Some minor lessons may be noted:
(1) In Richard’s absence the odium for his exactions fell upon his ministers at home, who bore the burden meet for his own callous shoulders, while he enjoyed an undeserved popularity by reason of his bravery and achievements, exaggerated as these were by the halo of romance which surrounds a distant hero. Thus may be traced some dim foreshadowing of the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, although analogies with modern politics must not be pushed too far.
(2) Throughout the reign, parts of Henry’s system, technical details of taxation and reforms in the administration of justice, were elaborated by Archbishop Hubert Walter, connected with trial by jury on the one hand and with election on the other.
(3) Richard is sometimes said to have inaugurated the golden age of municipalities. Many Charters, still extant, bear witness to the lavish hand with which he granted, on paper at least, privileges to the nascent towns. John Richard Green finds the true interest of the reign not in the King’s Crusade and French wars, so much as in his supposed fostering care over the growth of municipal enterprise.
The death of Richard on 6th April, 1199, brought with it at least one important change; England was no longer to be governed by an absentee. John endeavoured to shake himself free from the restraints of powerful ministers, and conduct the work of government in his own way. The result was an abrupt end to the progress made in the previous reign towards ministerial responsibility. The odium formerly exhausting itself on the justiciars of Richard was now expended on John. While, previously, men had sought redress in a change of minister, such expectations could no longer deceive. A new element of bitterness was added to injuries long resented, and the nobles who felt the pinch of heavy taxation were compelled to seek redress in a new direction. All the forces of discontent played openly around the throne.
As is usual at the opening of a reign, the discontented hoped that a change of sovereign would bring relief. Heavy taxation had been the result of exceptional circumstances: the new king would revert to the less burdensome scale of his father’s exactions. Such hopes were quickly disappointed. John’s needs proved as great as Richard’s: the excessive demands, both for money and for service, coupled with the unpopular uses to which these were put, form the keynote of the reign: they form also the background of Magna Carta.
The reign falls naturally into three periods; the years in which John waged a losing war with the King of France (1199–1206), the quarrel with the Pope (1206–13), the great struggle with the barons (1213–16).
The first seven years were for England comparatively uneventful, except in the gradual deepening of disgust with the King and all his ways. The continental dominions were ripe for losing, and John precipitated the catastrophe by injustice and dilatoriness. The ease with which Normandy was lost showed something more than the incapacity of the King as a ruler and leader—John Softsword as contemporary writers call him. It showed that the feudal army of Normandy had come to regard the English Sovereign as an alien. The unwillingness of the English nobles to succour John has also its significance. The descendants of the men who helped William I. to conquer England had now a less vital interest in the land from which they came. The estates of many of the original Norman baronage, not unequally divided on both sides of the Channel, had been split up by inheritance or escheat. Some of John’s barons were purely English landowners with no interest at stake in France.
By his arbitrary and selfish home policy, the King had alienated their sympathies. Some of his father’s innovations had been unpopular from the first, and became the objects of bitter opposition in John’s tactless hands. The whole administration of justice, along with the entire feudal system of land–tenure, with its military obligations, aids and incidents, were degraded into instruments of extortion, of which details will be given under appropriate chapters of the subjoined commentary. English discontent contributed to the loss of Normandy, and that in turn left English barons more free to attend to insular matters, and so prepared the way for Magna Carta.
The death of Archbishop Hubert Walter on 13th July, 1205, deprived John of the services of the most experienced statesman in England. It did more, for it marked the termination of the long friendship between the English Crown and the English Church: its immediate effect was to create a vacancy, the filling of which led to a quarrel with Rome.
John failed, as usual, to recognize the merits of abler men, and saw in the death of his great Minister merely the removal of an unwelcome restraint, and the opening to the Crown of a desirable piece of patronage. He prepared to strain to the utmost his rights in the election of a successor to the See of Canterbury, in favour of one of his own creatures, John de Grey, already by royal influence Bishop of Norwich. Unexpected opposition to his will was offered by the canons of the Cathedral Church, who determined to appoint their own nominee, without waiting either for the King’s approval or the co–operation of the suffragan bishops of the Province, who, in the three last vacancies, had participated in the election, and had invariably used their influence on behalf of the King’s nominee. Reginald, the sub–prior, was secretly elected by the monks, and hurried abroad to obtain confirmation at Rome before the appointment was made public. Reginald’s vanity prevented his keeping his pledge of secrecy, and a rumour reached the ear of John, who brought pressure to bear on a section of the monks, now frightened at their own temerity, and secured de Grey’s appointment in a second election. The Bishop of Norwich was enthroned at Canterbury, and invested by the King with the temporalities of the See. All parties now sent representatives to Rome. This somewhat petty squabble benefited none of the original disputants; for Innocent III. was quick to seize his opportunity. Both elections were set aside by decree of the Papal Curia, in favour of the Pope’s own nominee, a certain Cardinal, English–born, but hitherto little known in England, Stephen Langton by name, destined to play an important part in the history of the land of his birth.
John refused to view this triumph of papal arrogance in the light of a compromise—the view diplomatically suggested by Innocent. The King, with the hot blood common to his race, and the bad judgment peculiar to himself, rushed headlong into a quarrel with Rome which he was incapable of carrying to a successful issue. Full details of the struggle, the interdicts and excommunications hurled by the Pope, and John’s measures of retaliation against the unfortunate English clergy, need not be here discussed; but it should be noted that Innocent, in 1211, released the English people from allegiance to their King.
John was one day to reap the fruits of this quarrel in bitter humiliation and in the defeat of his most cherished aims; but, for the moment, the breach with Rome seemed to lead to a triumph for the King. The papal encroachments furnished him with a pretext for confiscating the property of the clergy. Thus his Exchequer was amply replenished, while he was able for a time to conciliate his most inveterate opponents, the northern barons, by remitting during several years the hated burden of a scutage. John had no intention, however, to forego his right to resume the practice of annual scutages: on the contrary, he executed a measure intended to make them more remunerative. This was the Inquest of Service, ordered on 1st June, 1212.
During these years, however, John temporarily relaxed the pressure on his feudal tenants. His doing so failed to gain back their goodwill, while he broadened the basis of future resistance by shifting his oppressions to the clergy and through them to the poor. Meanwhile, his power was great. Speaking of 1210, a contemporary chronicler declares: “All men bore witness that never since the time of Arthur was there a King who was so greatly feared in England, in Wales, in Scotland, or in Ireland.”
Some incidents of the autumn of 1212 require brief notice, as well from their inherent interest as because they find an echo in Magna Carta. Serious trouble had arisen with Wales. Llywelyn (who had married John’s natural daughter Joan, and had consolidated his power under protection of the English King) now seized the occasion to cross the border, while John was preparing for a new continental expedition. The King changed his plans, and prepared to lead his troops to Wales instead of France. A muster was summoned for September at Nottingham, and John went thither to meet his troops. Before tasting meat, in Roger of Wendover’s graphic narrative, he hanged twenty–eight Welsh hostages, boys of noble family, whom he held as sureties that Llywelyn would keep the peace.
Almost immediately thereafter, two messengers arrived simultaneously from Scotland and from Wales with unexpected tidings. John’s daughter, Joan, and the King of Scots, each independently warned him that his English barons were prepared to revolt, under shelter of the Pope’s absolution from their allegiance, and either to slay him or betray him to the Welsh. In a panic he disbanded the feudal levies; and, accompanied only by his mercenaries, moved slowly back to London.
Two of the barons, Robert Fitz–Walter, afterwards the Marshal of the army which opposed John at Runnymede, and Eustace de Vesci, showed their knowledge of John’s suspicions by withdrawing secretly from his Court and taking to flight. The King caused them to be outlawed in their absence, and thereafter seized their estates and demolished their castles.
These events of September, 1212, rudely shook John out of the false sense of security in which he had wrapped himself. In the spring of the same year, he had still seemed to enjoy the full tide of prosperity; and he must have been a bold prophet who dared, like Peter of Wakefield, to foretell the speedy downfall of the King.
John’s apparent security was deceptive; he had underestimated the powers arrayed against him. In January, 1213, by Innocent’s command, formal sentence of excommunication was passed on John, and Philip of France was appointed as its executor. The chance had come for which the barons, particularly the eager spirits of the North, had long been waiting. The King, on his part, realised that the time had arrived to make his peace with Rome.
On 13th May, 1213, John met Pandulf, the papal legate, and accepted unconditionally the same demands which he had refused contemptuously some months before. Full reparation was to be made to the Church. Stephen Langton was to be received as archbishop in all honour with his banished bishops, friends and kinsmen. All church property was to be restored, with compensation for damage done. One of the minor conditions of John’s absolution was the restoration to Eustace de Vesci and Robert Fitz–Walter of the estates which, they persuaded Innocent, had been forfeited because of their loyalty to Rome.
Two days later, apparently on his own initiative, he resigned the Crowns of England and Ireland, and received them again as the Pope’s feudatory, promising to perform personal homage should occasion allow. John hoped thus to be free to avenge himself on his baronial enemies. The surrender was embodied in a formal document which bears to be made by John, “with the common council of our barons.” Were these merely words of form? They may have been so when first used; yet two years later the envoys of the barons claimed at Rome that the credit (so they now represented it) for the whole transaction lay with them. In any case, no protest seems to have been raised at the time of the surrender. This step, so repugnant to later writers, seems not to have been regarded by contemporaries as a disgrace. Matthew Paris, indeed, writing in the next generation, describes it as “a thing to be detested for all time”; but events had ripened in Matthew’s day, and he was a keen politician rather than an impartial onlooker.
Stephen Langton, now assured of a welcome to the high office into which he had been thrust against John’s will, landed at Dover and was received by the King at Winchester on 20th July, 1213. John swore on the Gospels to cherish and defend Holy Church, to restore the good laws of Edward, and to render to all men their rights, repeating practically the words of the coronation oath. He agreed further to make reparation of all property taken from the Church or churchmen.
The Years of Crisis, 1213–15.
Once more the short–sighted character of John’s abilities was illustrated: a brief triumph led to a deeper fall. For a season, however, after he had made his peace with Rome, he seemed to enjoy substantial fruits of his diplomacy. Philip’s threatened invasion had to be abandoned; the people renewed their allegiance on the removal of the papal sentence; the barons had to make their peace as best they could, awaiting a better opportunity to rebel. If John had confined himself to home affairs, he might have postponed the final explosion: he could not, however, reconcile himself to the loss of the continental heritage of his ancestors. His attempts to recover Normandy and Anjou led to new exactions and new murmurings, while their complete failure left him, discredited and penniless, at the mercy of the malcontents at home.
His projected campaign in Poitou required all the levies he could raise. More than once John demanded, and his barons refused, their feudal service. Many excuses were put forward. At first they declined to follow a King who had not yet been fully absolved. After 20th July, 1213, their new plea was that the tenure on which they held their lands did not compel them to serve abroad: they added that they were already exhausted by expeditions within England. John took this as defiance, and determined, with troops at his back (per vim et arma), to compel obedience. Before his preparations were completed, an important assembly met at St. Albans on 4th August, to make sworn inquest as to the extent of damage inflicted on church property during John’s quarrel with Rome. From this Council directions were issued in the King’s name commanding sheriffs, foresters, and others to observe the laws of Henry I. and to abstain from unjust exactions, as they valued their lives and limbs.
On 25th August, after John had set out with his mercenaries to punish his northern magnates, Stephen Langton held a meeting with the great men of the south. Many bishops, abbots, priors and deans, together with some lay magnates of the southern counties, met him at St. Paul’s, London, ostensibly to determine what use the Archbishop should make of his power to grant partial relaxation of the interdict, still casting its blight over England. In the King’s absence, Stephen reminded the magnates that John’s absolution had been conditional on a promise of good government. He showed them Henry I.’s coronation charter: “by which, if you desire, you can recall your long lost liberties to their pristine state.” All present swore to “fight for those liberties, if it were needful, even unto death.” The Archbishop promised his help, “and a confederacy being thus made between them, the conference was dissolved.”
Stephen Langton desired a peaceable solution. We find him, accordingly, at Northampton, on the 28th of August, striving to avert civil war. His line of argument is worthy of note: the King must not levy war on his subjects before he had obtained a legal judgment against them (absque judicio curiae suae). These words should be compared with the “unknown charter” and with chapter 39 of Magna Carta.
John continued his march to Nottingham, bidding the archbishop not to meddle in affairs of state; but threats of excommunication caused him to consent to substitute legal process for violence, and to appoint a day for the trial of defaulters before the Curia Regis—a trial which never took place. John apparently continued his journey as far north as Durham, but returned to meet the new papal legate Nicholas, to whom he performed the promised homage and repeated the act of surrender in St. Paul’s on 3rd October. Having completed his alliance with Rome, he was confident of worsting his enemies in France and England.
Yet most, if not all, of the magnates were against him, and this fact may possibly explain John’s issue of writs, on 9th November, 1213, inviting four discreet men of each county to discuss with him affairs of the Kingdom. This has sometimes been interpreted as a deliberate design to broaden the basis of the commune concilium by adding to it representatives of classes other than Crown–tenants. Miss Norgate, indeed, lays stress on the fact that these writs were issued after the death of the great Justiciar, Geoffrey Fitz–Peter, and before any successor had been appointed. John, she argues, acted on his own initiative, and is thus entitled to the credit of being the first statesman to introduce representatives of the counties into the national assembly. Knights who were tenants of mesne lords (Miss Norgate says “yeomen”) were invited to act as a counterpoise to the barons. This innovation is held to have anticipated the line of progress afterwards followed by de Montfort and Edward I.: compared with it, the often–praised provisions of chapter 14 of Magna Carta are regarded as antiquated and even reactionary.
Recent research and criticism, however, have tended to throw doubts on the authenticity and purport of these writs, and to postpone the introduction of the representative principle into the central council to a considerably later date. It would be unwise to build far–reaching inferences on the supposed participation of county representatives in the debates of November, 1213.
In the early spring of 1214, John considered his home troubles ended, and that he was now free to use against France the coalition formed by his diplomacy. He went abroad early in February, leaving Peter de Roches, the unpopular Bishop of Winchester, as Justiciar, to guard his interests, in concert with the papal legate. Deserted by the northern barons, John relied partly on his mercenaries, but chiefly on the Emperor Otto and his other powerful allies. Fortune favoured him at first, only to ruin him more completely in the end. On 2nd July, 1214, John had hastily to abandon the siege of Roches au Moine, leaving his baggage to the enemy. The final crash came on Sunday, 27th July, when the King of France triumphed over John’s allies at the decisive battle of Bouvines. On 18th September, John was compelled to sign a five years’ truce with Philip, abandoning all pretensions to his continental dominions.
He had left even more dangerous enemies at home, to watch with trembling eagerness the vicissitudes of his fortunes abroad. His earlier successes struck dismay into the malcontents in England, apprehensive of the probable sequel to his triumphant return home. They waited with anxiety, but not in idleness, the culmination of his campaign, wisely refraining from open rebellion until news reached them of his failure or success. Meanwhile, they quietly organized their programme of reform and their measures of resistance. John’s strenuous endeavours to exact money and service, while failing to fill his Exchequer, had ripened dormant hostility into an active confederacy organized for resistance. The English barons felt that the moment for action had arrived when news came of the disaster at Bouvines.
Even while abroad, John had not relaxed his efforts to wring exactions from England. Without consent or warning, he had imposed a scutage at the unprecedented rate of three marks on the knight’s fee. Writs for its collection had been issued on 26th May, 1214, an exception being indeed allowed for tenants personally present in the King’s army in Poitou. The northern barons, who had already refused to serve in person, now refused likewise to pay the scutage. This repudiation was couched in words peculiarly bold and sweeping; they denied liability to follow the King not merely to Poitou, but to any part of the Continent.
When John returned, vanquished and humiliated, on 15th October, 1214, he found himself confronted with a crisis unique in English history. During his absence, the opponents of his misrule had drawn together, formulated their grievances, and matured their plans. The embarrassments on the Continent which weakened the King, heartened the opposition. The northern barons took the lead. Their cup of wrath, which had long been filling, overflowed when the scutage of three marks was imposed. Within three weeks of his landing, John held parley with the malcontents at Bury St. Edmunds (on 4th November). No compromise was possible: John pressed for payment, and the barons refused.
It seems probable that, after John’s retiral, a conference of a more private nature was held at which, under cloak of attending the Abbey for worship, a conspiracy against John was sworn. Roger of Wendover gives a graphic account: the magnates came together “as if for prayers; but there was something else in the matter, for after they had held much secret discourse, there was brought forth in their midst the charter of King Henry I., which the same barons had received in London . . . from Archbishop Stephen of Canterbury.” A solemn oath was taken to withdraw their fealty (a threat carried into effect on 5th May of the following year), and to wage war on the King, unless he granted their liberties. A date—soon after Christmas—was fixed for making their formal demands. Meanwhile they separated to prepare for war. The King also realized that a resort to arms was imminent. While collecting mercenaries, he tried to sow dissension among his opponents: he hoped to buy off the hostility of the Church by a charter, issued on 21st November, professing to be granted “of the common consent of our barons.” Its object was to gain the Church’s support by granting freedom of election to vacant sees. The appointment of prelates should henceforth really lie with the canons of the various cathedral or conventual churches and monasteries, saving, however, to the Crown the right of wardship during vacancies. John promised never to deny or delay his consent to an election, and conferred powers on the electors, if he should do so, to proceed without him. The King was bitterly disappointed in his hope that by this bribe he would bring over the Church from the barons’ side to his own.
John held what must have been an anxious Christmas at Worcester, but tarried only for a day, hastening to the Temple, London, where the proximity of the Tower gave him a feeling of security. There, on 6th January, 1215, a deputation from the insurgents met him without disguising that their demands were backed by force. These demands, they told him, included the confirmation of the laws of Edward, with the liberties set forth in Henry’s Charter. On the advice of the Archbishop and the Marshal, who acted as mediators, John asked a truce till Easter, which was granted on his promise that he would then give reasonable satisfaction. The Archbishop, the Marshal, and the Bishop of Ely were named as the King’s sureties.
John was in desperate straits for money: “the pleas of the exchequer and the counties ceased throughout England, for nobody was found who would pay tax to the King, or obey him in anything.” On 15th January, he reissued the Charter to the Church, and demanded a renewal of homage. The sheriffs in each county were instructed to administer the oath in a stringent form; all Englishmen must now swear to “stand by him against all men.” Meanwhile, emissaries were dispatched by both sides to Rome. Eustace de Vesci, as spokesman of the malcontents, asked Innocent, as overlord of England, to compel John to restore the ancient liberties, and claimed consideration on the ground that John’s surrender to the Pope had been made under pressure put on the King by them—all to no effect. John thought to propitiate the Pope by swearing to go upon Crusade, a politic oath which would serve to protect him from personal violence, and which afforded him, as is well illustrated by several chapters of Magna Carta, a fertile excuse for delay in remedying abuses. In April, the northern barons met in arms at Stamford, and after Easter (when the truce had expired) marched southward to Brackley, in Northampton. There they were met, on 27th April, by the Archbishop and the Marshal, as emissaries from the King, to enquire as to their demands. They received in reply, and took back with them to John, a certain schedule, which, so Roger of Wendover informs us, consisted for the most part of ancient laws and customs of the realm, with an added threat that, if the King did not immediately adhibit his seal, the rebels would constrain him by seizing his castles, lands, and goods.
John’s answer when he read these demands, was emphatic. “Why do not the barons, with these unjust exactions, ask my kingdom?” Then furious, he declared with an oath that he would never grant them liberties which would make him a slave.
A metrical chronicle records the threat to depose the King, unless he fully amended the law and furnished undoubted guarantees for a lasting peace. On 5th May, the barons went through the ceremony of diffidatio, or formal renunciation of allegiance, a recognised feudal right, and not involving treason if justified by events and properly intimated to the overlord. They chose as their commander, Robert Fitz–Walter, who, as though conducting a Crusade, styled himself piously and grandiloquently, “Marshal of the army of God and Holy Church.”
The insurgents, still shivering on the brink of civil war, delayed to march southwards. Much would depend on the attitude of London, with its wealth and central position; and John bade high for the support of its citizens. On 9th May a new charter was granted to the Londoners, who now received a long–coveted privilege, the right to elect their mayor annually and to remove him at the year’s end. This marked the culmination of a long series of progressive grants in their favour. Previously the mayor had held office for life, and Henry Fitz–Aylwin, the earliest holder of the office (appointed perhaps in 1191), had died in 1212.
Apparently no price was paid for this charter; but John doubtless expected in return the grateful support of the Londoners, exactly as he had expected the support of churchmen when he twice granted a charter in their favour. In both instances he was disappointed. Next day he made, probably as a measure of delay, an offer of arbitration to the barons. In the full tide of military preparations, he issued a writ in these words: “Know that we have conceded to our barons who are against us that we shall not take or disseise them or their men, nor go against them per vim vel per arma, unless by the law of our land, or by the judgment of their peers in curia nostra. until consideration shall have been had by four whom we shall choose on our part and four whom they shall choose on their part, and the lord Pope who shall be oversman over them”— words worthy of careful comparison with chapter 39 of Magna Carta. The offer could not be taken seriously, since it left the decision of every vital issue virtually to the Pope, whom the barons distrusted.
Another royal writ, of two days later, shows a rapid change of policy, doubtless due to the contemptuous rejection of arbitration. On 12th May, John ordered the sheriffs to do precisely what he had offered not to do. They were told to take violent measures against the rebels without waiting for a “judgment of peers.” Lands, goods, and chattels of the King’s enemies were to be seized and applied to his benefit. The barons, rejecting all offers, marched by Northampton, Bedford, and Ware, towards the capital. London opened its gates on 17th May. The example was quickly followed by other towns and by many hesitating magnates. The confederates felt strong enough to issue letters to all who still adhered to John, bidding them forsake him on pain of forfeiture.
John found himself, for the moment, without power of effective resistance; and, probably with a view of gaining time rather than of committing himself irretrievably to any abatement of his prerogatives, agreed to a conference. As a preliminary, he issued, on 8th June, a safe–conduct for the barons’ representatives to meet him at Staines within the three days following. This was too short notice: on 10th June, John, now at Windsor, granted an extension of the safe–conduct till Monday, 15th June. William Marshal and other envoys were dispatched from Windsor to the barons in London with a message of surrender: John “would freely accede to the laws and liberties which they asked,” if they would appoint a place and day of meeting. The intermediaries, in the words of Roger of Wendover, “without guile carried back to the barons the message which had been guilefully imposed on them.” The barons, immenso fluctuantes gaudio, fixed as the time of meeting, the last day of the extended truce, Monday, 15th June, at a certain meadow between Staines and Windsor, known as Runnymede.
Runnymede, and after.
On 15th June, 1215, a five days’ conference between King and Barons began. On the side of the insurgents appeared a great host; on the monarch’s, a small band of magnates, loyal to the person of the King, but only half–hearted, at the best, in his support. Their names may be read in the preamble to the Charter: the chief among them, Stephen Langton, still nominally neutral, was known to be in full sympathy with the rebels.
Dr. Stubbs, maintaining that the whole baronage of England was implicated in these stirring events, analyses its more conspicuous members into four groups: (1) the Northumbrani or Norenses of the chroniclers, the first to raise the standard of revolt; (2) other barons from various parts of England, who had shown themselves ready to co–operate with the Northerners—“the great baronial families that had been wise enough to cast away the feudal aspirations of their forefathers, and the rising houses which had sprung from the ministerial nobility”; (3) the moderate party, who followed the lead of London, including even the King’s half–brother (the Earl of Salisbury), the loyal Marshal, Hubert de Burgh, and other Ministers of the Crown, whose names may be read in the preamble to the Charter; and (4) the tools of John’s misgovernment, mostly men of foreign birth, tied to John by interest as well as loyalty, since their differences with the baronial leaders lay too deep for reconciliation, a few of whom are branded by name in Magna Carta as for ever incapable of holding office. These men of desperate fortunes alone remained whole–hearted on John’s side when the crisis came.
When the conference began, the fourth group was in command of castle garrisons or of troops actually in the field; the third group, a small one, was with John; the first and second groups were, in their imposing strength, arrayed against him.
Unfortunately, the vagueness of contemporary accounts prevents us from reproducing with certainty the progress of negotiations on that eventful 15th of June and the few following days. Some inferences, however, may be drawn from the words of the completed Charter and of several closely related documents. One of these, the Articles of the Barons, is sometimes supposed to be identical in its terms with the schedule which had been already presented to the King’s emissaries at Brackley, on 27th April. It is more probable that during seven eventful weeks the original demands had been somewhat modified. The schedule of April was probably only a rough outline of the Articles as we now know them, and these formed in turn the draft on which the Charter was based. Articles and Charter are alike authenticated by the impress of the King’s seal. There is thus a strong presumption that an interval elapsed between the King’s acceptance of the first and the completion of the second; since it would have been absurd to seal a superseded draft at the same time as the principal instrument. The probability of such an interval must not be lost sight of in any attempt to reconstruct the stages of negotiations at Runnymede.
A few undoubted facts form a starting–point on which inferences may be based. John’s headquarters were at Windsor from Monday, 15th June, to the afternoon of Tuesday the 23rd. On each of these nine days (with the possible exception of the 16th and 17th) he visited Runnymede to confer with the barons. Two crucial stages were reached on Monday the 15th (the date borne by Magna Carta itself) and on Friday the 19th (the day on which John in more than one writ stated that peace had been concluded). What happened exactly on each of these two days is matter of conjecture. It is here maintained, with some confidence, that on Monday the substance of the barons’ demands was provisionally accepted and that the Articles were then sealed; while on Friday this arrangement was confirmed and Magna Carta itself, in several duplicates, was sealed.
To justify these inferences, a more detailed examination of the evidence available is required. The earliest meeting between John and the baronial leaders, all authorities are agreed, took place on Monday, 15th June, probably in the early morning. The barons undoubtedly brought to the conference a list of grievances they were determined to redress. On the previous 27th of April the rebels had sent a written schedule to the King; they are not likely to have been less fully prepared on 15th June.
John, on his part, would naturally try a policy of evasions and delays; and, when these were clearly useless, would then endeavour to secure modifications of the terms offered. These tactics met with no success. His opponents asked a plain acceptance of their plainly expressed demands. Before nightfall, John, overawed by their firmness and by the numbers of the armed force behind them, was constrained to surrender, and signified his acceptance of the barons’ demands, as contained in a list of 49 Articles (apparently drawn out on the spot), by imprinting his great seal on the wax of its label, where it may still be seen. Ralph of Coggeshall’s brief account gives the contemporary opinion: “By intervention of the archbishop of Canterbury, with several of his fellow–bishops and some barons, a sort of peace was made.” The document bears traces of the discussions that preceded it. The first article postpones a definition of the customary “relief,” leaving this to be expressed “in carta.” Articles 45 and 46 (less vital to the barons as affecting their allies, not themselves) are joined by a rude bracket; and their suggested modification in favour of John is referred to Stephen Langton’s decision. The last article, or forma securitatis, the dregs of John’s cup of humiliation, is separated by a blank space from the rest.
The document is in a running hand and appears to have been rapidly though carefully written: a diligent copyist would be able to complete his task within a few hours. There are thus ample reasons for holding that it was not the identical schedule of the preceding April, but that it was written out between two conferences on Monday, 15th June, by one of the clerks of the royal Chancery. This is in keeping with the contemporary heading: “Ista sunt capitula quae barones petunt et dominus rex concedit.”
Comparison with the final Charter suggests that further conferences led to alterations in regard to various details: thus, chapter 14 contains provisions not contained in the Articuli, though forming a necessary supplement to the substance of article 32. New influences would seem to have been at work, favourable to the claims of the English Church; effecting some slight modifications in favour of the Crown; and apparently not too careful of the interests of the towns or of native traders.
It is not difficult to infer the nature of the forces at work. John was fighting for his own hand; the barons merely demanded a fair statement of their just rights, and had no desire to take undue advantage of the King; the towns found the barons more ready to meet the King by sacrificing their allies’ rights than their own; Stephen Langton, while acting as mediator, looked well after the interests of the Church.
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday were probably consumed in adjusting these matters of detail; in reducing the heads of agreement to the more binding form of a feudal Charter; and in engrossing several copies for greater security. Everything was ready for settlement on Friday, the 19th. On that day, the final concord probably included several steps; the nomination by the opposition, with the King’s acquiescence, of twenty–five barons to act as “Executors” under chapter 61, the solemn sealing and delivery of several originals of the Charter in its final form, the taking of an oath by all parties to abide by its provisions, and the issue of the first batch of writs of instructions to the sheriffs.
The barons on that day renewed their oaths of fealty and homage: this was the stipulated price of “the liberties.” They promised a guarantee in any form John wished, except the delivery of hostages or the surrender of strongholds—a promise they failed to keep.
The statement that Friday, 19th June, was the day on which peace was finally concluded rests on unmistakable evidence. On 21st June, John wrote from Windsor to William of Cantilupe, one of his captains, instructing him not to enforce payment of any unpaid balances of “ten–series” demanded since the preceding Friday, “on which day peace was made between the King and his barons.”
It has been usually assumed that peace was concluded, and the Charter sealed on the 15th. The fact that all four copies of Magna Carta still extant bear this date seems to have been regarded as conclusive. Elaborate charters, however, which occupied time in preparation, usually bore the date, not of their actual execution, but of the day on which occurred the transactions they record. Thus it is far from safe to infer from Magna Carta’s mention of its own date that the seal was actually adhibited on 15th June.
Such presumption as exists is all the other way. The Great Charter is a lengthy document, and it is barely possible that any one of the four originals known to us could have been engrossed (to say nothing of the adjustment of substance and form) within one day. Not only is it much longer than the Articles on which it is founded; but even the most casual comparison will convince any unbiassed mind of the slower rate of engrossment of the Charter. All four copies show marks of deliberation, while those at Lincoln and Salisbury are models of leisurely and exquisite penmanship. The highly finished initial letters of the first line and other ornamental features may be instructively compared with the plain, business–like, rapid hand of the Articles. How many additional copies, now lost, were once in existence bearing the same date, it is impossible to say; but each of those still extant may well have occupied more than one day in the writing.
In addition to the various originals of the Charter issued under the great seal, chapter 62 provides that authenticated copies should be made and certified as correct by “Letters Testimonial,” under the seals of the two archbishops with the legate and the bishops. These were intended for the sheriffs, whose writs of instructions dated 19th to 27th June, to publish the terms of the charters, are preserved in the Patent Rolls. Each sheriff was instructed to cause all in his bailiwick to make oath, according to the form of the Charter, to the twenty–five barons or their attorneys, and further, to see to the appointment of twelve knights of the county in full County Court, to declare upon oath all evil practices as well of sheriffs as of their servants, foresters, and others. This was held to apply chiefly to the redress of forest grievances.
A week elapsed before these writs, with copies of the Charter, could be sent to every sheriff. During the same few days, orders were sent to military commanders to stop hostilities. A few writs, dated mostly 25th June, show that some obnoxious sheriffs had made way for better men; while Hubert de Burgh became Justiciar in room of Peter des Roches. On 27th June, new writs directed the sheriffs and the elected knights to punish, by forfeiture of lands and chattels, all who refused to swear to the twenty–five Executors within a fortnight.
The barons were still unsatisfied as to the King’s sincerity, and demanded further securities. The interesting question thus arises, how far they were justified in doubting John’s intentions. Prof. Petit–Dutaillis, founding mainly on the writs dispatched to sheriffs and constables, credits John with perfect though perhaps short–lived good faith. He rightly refuses to believe Wendover’s unlikely story of John’s immediate retiral to the Isle of Wight, and of the war preparations he made there in a delirium of fury. Proof of John’s sincerity is sought in the reputed quarrel with his Flemish mercenaries, for whom the King’s “villain peace” meant that his purse would be closed to them and led them to desert his cause.
In brief, according to M. Petit–Dutaillis, John’s conduct was above reproach during June and July, and until the bad faith of his opponents forced him to protect himself.
Yet John’s punctilious observance, for a short space, of the letter of his bargain may be equally consistent with studied duplicity, dictated by urgent need of gaining time, as with any loyal intention to submit permanently to restraints which, in his own words, “made him a slave,” and were to be enforced by “five–and–twenty over kings”; while his negotiations with Rome are difficult to reconcile with any intention of permanently keeping faith.
Justified or not, the barons demanded that the City and Tower of London should be placed in their hands as pledges of good–faith until 15th August, or until the reforms were completely carried out. John had to surrender the city to the rebels, but the Tower was placed in the neutral custody of Stephen Langton. These terms may be read in a supplementary treaty headed: “Conventio facta inter Regem Angliae et barones ejusdem regni.” John, equally distrustful on his side, demanded the security promised at the renewal of allegiance; but the barons refused to embody the terms of their homage in a formal Charter. The Archbishops of Canterbury and Dublin, with several suffragans, appealed to as umpires by the King, recorded a protest narrating the barons’ breach of faith.
The same prelates, alarmed apparently lest drastic measures of reform should lead to the total abolition of the forests, entered a second protest. As mediators, bound to see fair–play, they declared in writing that the words of the Charter must be read in a restricted sense: customs needful for preserving the forests should remain in force. The provisions referred to were, as is now well known, chapters 47, 48, and 53 of Magna Carta itself, and not, as Roger of Wendover states, a separate Forest Charter. That writer was led into error by confusing John’s Charter with its reissue by his son. Sir William Blackstone was the first commentator to correct this mistake.
These are not the only pieces of evidence that point to lack of moderation on the barons’ part, revealed even before the four days’ conference was ended. Matthew Paris narrates how it was found necessary to curb the excesses of the twenty–five Executors of the Charter by the nomination of a second body of thirty–eight barons, drawn from both parties.
From a contemporary chronicler there comes a strange tale of the arrogance of the twenty–five: one day when they went to the King’s court “to make a judgment,” John, ill in bed, asked them to come to his chamber as he was unable to go to them; but they curtly refused, demanding that the King, unable to walk, should be carried into their presence.
John looked for aid to Rome. Three weeks before granting the Charter, he had begun his preparations for its repudiation. In a letter of 29th May, addressed to the Pope, there may still be read his own explanation of the causes of quarrel, and how he urged, with low cunning, that the rebels prevented fulfilment of his vow of crusade. In conclusion, he expressed his willingness to abide by the Pope’s decision on all matters at issue. He followed up this letter, shortly after 19th June, by dispatching Richard de Marais to plead his cause at Rome. Delay was doubly in his favour; since the combination formed against him was certain, in a short time, to break up. It was, in the happy phrase of Dr. Stubbs, a mere “coalition,” not an “organic union”—a coalition, too, in momentary danger of dissolving into its original factors. The barons were without sufficient sinews of war to carry a protracted struggle to a successful issue.
Soon, both sides to the treaty of peace were preparing for war. The northern barons, anticipating the King in direct breach of the compact, began to fortify their castles, and maltreated the royal officials. John, in equally bad faith, wrote for foreign allies, whilst he anxiously awaited the Pope’s answer to his appeal. Langton and the bishops still struggled to restore harmony. The 16th July was fixed for a new conference. John did not attend; but it was probably at this Council that in his absence a papal bull was read conferring upon a commission of three—the Bishop of Winchester, the Abbot of Reading, and the legate Pandulf—full powers to excommunicate all “disturbers of the King and Kingdom.” No names were mentioned, but these powers might clearly be used against Langton and his friends. The execution of this sentence was delayed, in the groundless hope of a compromise, till the middle of September, when two of the commissioners, Pandulf and Peter of Winchester, demanded that the archbishop should publish it; and, on his refusal, they forthwith suspended him from office (a sentence confirmed by the Pope on 4th November).
Stephen left for Rome, and his absence at a critical juncture proved a national misfortune. The insurgents lost in him, not only their bond of union, but also a wholesome restraint. After his departure, a papal bull arrived (in the end of September) dated 24th August. This is an important document in which Innocent, in the plainest terms, annuls and abrogates the Charter, after adopting all the facts and reproducing all the arguments furnished by the King. Beginning with a full description of John’s wickedness and repentance, his surrender of England and Ireland, his Crusader’s oath, his quarrel with the barons; it goes on to describe Magna Carta as the result of a conspiracy, and concludes, “We utterly reprobate and condemn any agreement of this kind, forbidding, under ban of our anathema, the foresaid king to presume to observe it, and the barons and their accomplices to exact its performance, declaring void and entirely abolishing both the Charter itself and the obligations and safeguards made, either for its enforcement or in accordance with it, so that they shall have no validity at any time whatsoever.”
A supplementary bull, of one day’s later date, reminded the barons that the suzerainty of England belonged to Rome, and that therefore nothing could be done in the kingdom without papal consent. Thereafter, at a Lateran Council, Innocent excommunicated the English barons who had persecuted “John, King of England, crusader and vassal of the Church of Rome, by endeavouring to take from him his kingdom, a fief of the Holy See.”
Meanwhile, the points in dispute had been submitted to the rude arbitrament of civil war, in which the first notable success fell to John, who took Rochester Castle by assault on 30th November. The barons had already made overtures to Louis, the French King’s son, offering him the crown of England. Towards the end of November, seven thousand French troops arrived in London, where they spent the winter, while John marched from place to place, meeting, on the whole, with success, especially in the east of England. John’s best ally was once more the Pope, who did not intend to allow a French Prince to usurp his vassal’s throne. Gualo was dispatched from Rome to Philip, King of France, forbidding his son’s invasion, and asking protection and assistance for John. Philip, anxious to break the force of the Pope’s arguments by proving some right to intervene, endeavoured to find defects in John’s title as King of England, and to argue that therefore John was not in titulo to grant to the Pope the rights of an overlord; John had been convicted of treason while Richard was King, and this involved forfeiture of all rights of succession. Thus the Pope’s claim of intervention was invalid, while Prince Louis justified his own interference by some imagined right which, he ingeniously argued, had passed to him through the mother of his wife.
John had not relied solely on papal protection; but the fleet, collected at Dover to block Louis with his smaller vessels in Calais harbour, was wrecked on 18th May, 1216. The French Prince, setting sail on the night of the 20th May, landed next morning unopposed. John, reduced to dependence on mercenaries, dared not risk an engagement. Gualo, now in England, on 28th May excommunicated Louis by name, and laid London under interdict. On 2nd June, the French Prince entered London, received homage from the Mayor and others, and took oath to uphold good laws and restore invaded rights. It was probably on this occasion that Louis confirmed the Charter. Into the vicissitudes of the war and the royalist reaction, to which the arrogance of the French troops contributed, it is unnecessary here to enter. At a critical juncture, when fortune still trembled in the balance, John’s death at Newark Castle, on the morning of 19th October, 1216, altered the situation, rendering possible, and indeed inevitable, a new arrangement of parties and forces in England. The heir to the throne was an infant, whose advisers found it prudent to reissue voluntarily, and to accept as their rule of government, the essential principles of the Charter that had been extorted from the unwilling John.
FEUDAL GRIEVANCES AND MAGNA CARTA.
The Immediate Causes of the Crisis.
Many attempts have been made to show why the storm, long brewing, broke at last in 1214, and culminated precisely in June of the following year. Sir William Blackstone shows how carefully historians have sought for some one specific feature or event, occurring in these years, of such moment as by itself to account for the rebellion crowned with success at Runnymede. Matthew Paris, he tells us, attributes the whole movement to the sudden discovery of Henry I.’s Charter, and most of the chroniclers assign John’s inordinate debauchery as the cause of the dissensions, dwelling on his personal misdeeds, real and imaginary. “Sordida foedatur foedante Johanne, gehenna.” Blackstone himself suggests a third cause, the appointment as Regent in John’s absence of the hated alien and upstart, Peter des Roches, and his misconduct in that office.
Of John’s arrogance and cruelty there is abundant testimony; but the causes from which Magna Carta took its rise were more deeply rooted in the past. The very success of Henry Plantagenet in restoring order in England, for effecting which special powers had been allowed to him, made the continuance of these powers unnecessary. From the day of Henry’s death, if not earlier, forces were at work which only required to be combined in order to control the licence of the Crown. When the battle of order had been won—the complete overthrow of the rebellion of 1173–4 may here be taken as the crucial date—the battle of liberty had, almost necessarily, to be begun.
The wonder is that the crisis was so long delayed. Events, however, were not ripe for rebellion before John’s accession, and a favourable occasion did not occur previous to 1215. The doctrine of momentum accounts in politics for the long continuance of old institutions in a condition even of unstable equilibrium; an entirely rotten system of government may remain for ages until at the destined moment comes the final shock. John conferred a boon on future generations, when by his arrogance and his misfortunes he combined against him all classes and interests in the community.
The chief factor in the coalition that ultimately triumphed over John was the baronial party, led by those strenuous nobles of the north, who were goaded into opposition by their own personal and class wrongs, not by any altruistic promptings to sacrifice themselves for the common good. Their complaints, as they appear in the imperishable record of Magna Carta, are grounded on technical rules of feudal usage, not upon any broad basis of constitutional principle.
The grievances most bitterly resented may be ranged under one or other of two heads—increase in the weight of feudal obligations and infringement of feudal jurisdictions: the Crown, while it exacted the fullest measure of services legally exigible, curtailed those rights and privileges which had originally balanced the obligations. The barons were compelled to give more, while they received less. Each of these heads calls for separate and detailed treatment.
The grievances of the barons, however, were not the only wrongs calling for redress. It is probable that the baronial party, if they had acted in isolation, would have failed in 1215 as they had already failed in 1173. If the Crown had retained the active sympathy of Church and common people, the King might have successfully defied the baronage as his father had done before him. John had, on the contrary, broadened the basis of opposition by oppressing the mercantile classes and the peasantry. The order–loving townsmen had been willing to purchase protection from Henry at the price of heavy taxation: John continued to exact the price, but failed to furnish good government in return. Far from protecting the humble from oppression, he was himself the chief oppressor; and he let loose his foreign favourites as deputy oppressors in all the numerous offices of sheriff, castellan, and bailiff. Far from using the perfected machinery of Exchequer, Curia, and local administration in the interests of good government, John valued them merely as instruments of extortion and outrage—as ministers to his lust and greed.
The lower orders were by no means exempt from the increased taxation which proved so galling to the feudal tenants. When John, during his quarrel with Rome, repaid each new anathema of the Pope by fresh acts of spoliation against the English Church, the sufferings of the clergy were shared by the poor. In confiscating the goods of monasteries, he destroyed the chief provision for poor–relief known to the thirteenth century. The alienation of the affections of the great masses of lower–class Englishmen thus effected was never wholly undone, even after the reconciliation of John with the Holy See. Notwithstanding the completeness and even abjectness of John’s surrender, he took no special pains to reinstate himself in the good graces of the Church at home. Innocent, secure at the Lateran, had issued his thunderbolts; and John’s counterstrokes had fallen, not on him, but on the English clergy. The measures taken, in 1213 and afterwards, to make good to these victims some part of the heavy losses sustained, were inadequate.
After 1213, John’s alliance with Rome brought new dangers in its train. The united action of two autocrats, each claiming supreme powers, lay and spiritual respectively, threatened to annihilate the freedom of the English nation and the English Church. “The country saw that the submission of John to Innocent placed its liberty, temporally and spiritually, at his mercy; and immediately demanded safeguards.”
This union of tyrants led to another union which checkmated it, for the baronial opposition allied itself with the ecclesiastical opposition. The urgency of their common need brought prelates and barons into line—for the moment. A leader was found in Stephen Langton, who succeeded in preventing the somewhat divergent interests of the two estates from splitting them asunder.
All things were thus ripe for rebellion, and even for united rebellion; an opportunity only was required. Such an opportunity came in a tempting form in 1214; for the King had then lost prestige and power by his failure in the wars with France. He had lost the friendship of the English Church. His unpopularity and vacillating nature had been thoroughly demonstrated. Further, he had himself, in 1191, when plotting against his absent brother Richard, successfully ousted the Regent Longchamp from office, thus furnishing an example of successfully concerted action against the central government.
The result was that, when the barons began active operations, not only had they no opposition to dread from churchman or merchant, from yeoman or peasant, but they might count on the sympathy of all and the active co–operation of many. Further, John’s policy of misrule had combined against him two interests usually opposed to each other, the party of progress and the party of reaction. The influence of each of these may be clearly read in various chapters of Magna Carta.
The progressive party consisted mainly of the heads of the more recently created baronial houses, men trained in the administrative methods of Henry II., who desired that his system of government should be properly enforced. They demanded that the King should conduct the business of Exchequer and Curia according to the rules laid down by Henry. Routine and order under the new system were what this party desired, and not a return to the unruly days of Stephen. Many of the innovations of the great Angevin had now been loyally accepted by all classes of the nation; and these accordingly found a permanent resting–place in the provisions of the Charter. In temporary co–operation with this party, the usually rival party of reaction was willing to combine for the moment against the common enemy. There still existed, in John’s reign, magnates of the old feudal school, who hoped to wrest from the King’s weakened hand some measure of feudal independence. They had accepted such reforms as suited them, but still bitterly opposed many others. In particular, they resisted the encroachments of the royal courts of law which were gradually superseding their private jurisdictions. For the moment, John’s crafty policy, so well devised to gain immediate ends, and so unwise in the light of subsequent history, combined these two streams, usually ready to thwart each other, into a united opposition to his throne. Attacked at the same moment by the votaries of traditional usage and by the votaries of reform, by the barons, the trading classes, and the clergy, he had no course left him but to surrender at discretion. The movement which culminated at Runnymede may thus best be understood as the resultant of a number of different but converging forces, some of which were progressive and some reactionary.
The Crown and Feudal Obligations.
Among the evils calling loudly for redress in England at the commencement of the thirteenth century, none spoke with more insistent voice than those connected with feudal abuses. The refusal of the northern barons to pay the scutage demanded on 26th May, 1214, was the spark that fired the mine. The most prominent feature of the Charter is its solicitude to define the exact extent of feudal services and dues, and so to prevent these from being arbitrarily increased. A detailed knowledge of feudal obligations forms a necessary preliminary to the study of Magna Carta.
The precise relations of the Norman Conquest to the growth of feudalism in England are complicated, and have formed the subject of much controversy. The view now generally accepted, and with reason, is that the policy of the Conqueror accelerated the process in one direction, but retarded it in another. Feudalism, regarded as a system of government, had its worst tendencies checked by the great upheaval that followed the coming of Duke William; feudalism, considered as a system of land tenure, and as a social system, was, on the contrary, formulated and developed. It is mainly as a system of land tenure that it falls here to be considered. Originally, the relationship between lord and tenant, dependent upon the double ownership of land (of which each was, in a different sense, proprietor), implied obligations on both sides: the lord gave protection, while the tenant owed services of various sorts. It so happened, however, that, with the changes wrought by time, the legal obligations of the lord ceased to be of much importance, while those of the vassal became more and more burdensome. The tenant’s services varied in kind and in extent with the nature of the tenure. It is difficult to frame an exact list of the various tenures formerly recognized as distinct in English law: partly because the classical authors of different epochs, from Bracton to Blackstone, contradict each other; and partly because of the obscurity of the process by which these tenures were gradually differentiated. Sir William Blackstone, after explaining the dependent nature of all real property in England, thus proceeds: “The thing holden is therefore styled a tenement, the possessors thereof tenants, and the manner of their possession a tenure.” Tenure thus comes to mean the conditions on which a tenant holds real estate under his lord.
The ancient classification differs materially from that in use at the present day. The modern English lawyer (unless of an antiquarian turn of mind) concerns himself only with three tenures: freehold (now practically identical with socage), copyhold and leasehold. The two last–mentioned may be rapidly dismissed, as they were of little importance in the eyes of Littleton, or of Coke: leasehold embraces only temporary interests, such as those of a tenant–at–will or for a limited term of years; while copyhold is the modern form of tenure into which the old unfree villeinage has slowly ripened. The ancient writers were, on the contrary, chiefly concerned with holdings both permanent and free. Of these, seven at least may be distinguished in the thirteenth century, all of which have now come to be represented by the modern freehold or socage. These seven are knight’s service, free socage, fee–farm, frankalmoin, grand serjeanty, petty serjeanty, and burgage.
(1) Knight’s Service. Medieval feudalism had many aspects; it was almost as essentially an engine of war as it was a system of land–holding. The normal return for which an estate was granted consisted of the service in the field of a specific number of knights. Thus the normal feudal tenure was known as knight’s service, or tenure in chivalry—the conditions of which must be constantly kept in view, since by them the relations between John and his recalcitrant vassals fell to be determined. When finally abolished at the Restoration, there fell with knight’s service, it is not too much to say, the feudal system of land tenure in England. “Tenure by barony” is sometimes spoken of as a separate species, but may be more correctly viewed as a variety of tenure in chivalry.
(2) Free Socage. The early history of socage, with its division into ordinary and privileged, is involved in obscurities which do not require to be here unravelled. The services returned for both varieties were not military but agricultural, and their exact nature and amount varied considerably. Although not so honourable as chivalry, free socage was less burdensome, in respect that two of the most irksome of the feudal incidents, wardship and marriage, did not apply. When knight’s service was abolished those who had previously held their lands by it, whether of the Crown or of a mesne lord, were henceforward to hold in free socage, which thus came to be the normal holding throughout England after the Restoration.
(3) Fee–farm was the name applied to lands held in return for services which were neither military nor agricultural, but consisted only of an annual payment in money. The “farm” thus indicates the rent paid, which apparently might vary without limit, although it was long maintained that a fee–farm rent must amount at least to one quarter of the annual value. This error seems to have been founded on a misconstruction of the Statute of Gloucester. Some authorities reject the claims of fee–farm to rank as a tenure separate from socage; although chapter 37 of Magna Carta seems to recognize the distinction.
(4) Frankalmoin was a favourite tenure with founders of religious houses. It was also the tenure on which much of the glebe lands of England was held by the village priests. The grant was made in liberam eleemosinam or “free alms” (that is, no temporal services were to be rendered). In Scots charters the return formally stipulated was preces et lacrymae.
(5) Grand serjeanty was a highly honourable tenure, sharing the distinctions and the burdensome incidents of knight’s service, but distinct in this, that the tenant, in place of ordinary military duties, performed some specific service, such as carrying the King’s banner or lance, or filled some important office at the coronation. An often–quoted example of a serjeanty is that of Sir John Dymoke and his family, who have acted as the Sovereign’s champions at successive coronations from Richard II. to William IV., ready to defend the Monarch’s title to the throne by battle in the ancient form.
Grand serjeanties were liable to wardship and marriage, as well as to relief, but not to payment of scutage. William Aguilon, we are told by Madox, “was charged at the Exchequer with several escuages. But when it was found by Inquest of twelve Knights of Surrey that he did not hold his lands in that county by military tenure, but by serjeanty of finding a Cook at the King’s coronation to dress victuals in the King’s kitchen, he was acquitted of the escuages.”
(6) Petty serjeanty may be described in the words of Littleton as “where a man holds his lands of our lord the king to yield to him yearly a bow or sword, or a dagger or a knife . . . or to yield such other small things belonging to war.” The grant of lands on such privileged tenures was frequently made in early days on account of some great service rendered at a critical juncture to the King’s person or interests. Serjeanties, Miss Bateson tells us, “were neither always military nor always agricultural, but might approach very closely the service of knights or the service of farmers. . . . The serjeanty of holding the King’s head when he made a rough passage across the Channel, of pulling a rope when his vessel landed, of counting his chessmen on Christmas Day, of bringing fuel to his castle, of doing his carpentry, of finding his potherbs, of forging his irons for his ploughs, of tending his garden, of nursing the hounds gored and injured in the hunt, of serving as veterinary to his sick falcons, such and many other might be the ceremonial or menial services due from a given serjeanty.”
The line between grand and petty serjeanties, like that between the greater and smaller baronies of chapter 14 of Magna Carta, was at first vaguely drawn. The distinction, which Dr. Horace Round considers an illustration of “nontechnical classification,” may possibly have originated in the Great Charter. At a later date, however, petty serjeanties, while liable for “relief,” escaped the onerous incidents of wardship and marriage which grand serjeanties shared with lands held in chivalry. The way was thus prepared for the ultimate amalgamation of petty serjeanty with ordinary socage.
(7) Burgage, confined to lands within free boroughs, is mentioned as a separate tenure by Littleton, and his authority receives support from chapter 37 of Magna Carta. Our highest modern authorities, however, treat it rather as a variety of socage. In Scotland, where several of the English tenures have failed to obtain recognition, burgage has established itself beyond a doubt. Even the levelling process consummated by the Act of 1874 has not abolished its separate existence.
Of these tenures, originally six or seven, frankalmoin and grand serjeanty still exist, but rather as ghosts than realities; the others have been swallowed up in socage, which has thus become identical with “freehold.” This triumph of socage is the result of a long process: fee–farm, burgage, and petty serjeanty, always with features in common, were gradually assimilated in almost all respects, while a statute (12 Charles II. c. 24) transformed tenure in chivalry also into socage. The once humble socage has thus risen high, and now embraces most of the land of England.
The interest of historians centres in tenure by knight’s service, which is the very kernel of the feudal system. Lack of definition in the middle ages was a fruitful source of quarrel: for a century and more after the Norman Conquest, the exact amount and nature of military services due by a tenant to his lord were vague and undetermined. Each Crown tenant (except favoured foundations like Battle Abbey) held his lands on condition of furnishing a certain number of fully armed and mounted soldiers in the event of war. High authorities differ as to when and by whom the amount of each vassal’s service was fixed. The common view (promulgated by Professor Freeman ) attributes the allocation of specific service to Ranulf Flambard, the unscrupulous tool of Rufus. Mr. J. H. Round urges convincing reasons in support of the older view which attributes the innovation to William I. Two facts, apparently, are certain: that within half a century from the Conquest each military tenant was burdened with a definite amount of service; and that no written record of the amount was made at the time of granting: there were, as yet, no written charters, and thus disputes arose. Probably, such grants were made in full Curia, and the only record of the conditions would lie in the memory of the Court.
Long before Magna Carta, the various obligations had been grouped into three classes, which may be arranged in order of importance, as services, incidents, and aids. Under each of these three heads, disputes continually arose. The essence of the feudal tie consisted in the liability to render “suit and service,” that is, to follow the lord’s banner in time of war, and attend his court in time of peace. It will be more convenient, however, to reserve full consideration of these services until the comparatively uncomplicated obligations, known as incidents and aids, have been first discussed.
I. Feudal Incidents. In addition to “suit and service,” the lord reaped, at the expense of his tenants, a number of casual profits, which thus formed irregular supplements to his revenue. These profits, accruing, not annually, but on the occurrence of exceptional events, came to be known as “feudal incidents.” They were gradually defined with more or less accuracy, and their number may be given as six: reliefs, escheats, wardships, marriages, primer seisins, and fines for alienation.
(a) Relief is easily explained. The fee, or feudum, or hereditary feudal estate, seems to have been the result of a gradual evolution from the old beneficium (or estate held for one lifetime), and that again from the older precarium (or estate held during the lord’s will). Grants originally subject to revocation, gradually attained fixity of tenure for the life of the original grantee, and, later on, became transmissible to descendants: the Capitulary of Kiersey (a.d. 877) is said to be the first authoritative recognition of the heir’s absolute right to succeed. It would seem that even after the Norman Conquest, this rule of hereditary descent was not established beyond possibility of dispute. The heir’s right to succeed remained subject to one condition, namely, the payment of a sum known as a “relief.” This was an acknowledgment that the new tenant’s right to ownership was incomplete, until recognized by his superior—a reminiscence of the earlier precarium from which the feudum had developed. The amount remained long undefined, and the lord frequently asked exorbitant sums.
(b) Escheat, it has been said, “signifies the return of an estate to a lord, either on failure of issue from the tenant or upon account of such tenant’s felony.” This lucid description conveys a good general conception of escheat; but it is inaccurate in at least two respects. It does not exhaust the occasions on which escheat occurs, and it errs in speaking of “the return” of an estate to a lord, when more accurately, that estate had always remained his property, subject only to a burden, which was now removed. In theory, the feudal grant of lands was always conditional: when the condition was broken, the grant fell, and the lord found himself, automatically as it were, once more the absolute proprietor, as he had been before the grant was made. Thereafter, he held the land in demesne, unless he chose to make a new grant to another tenant. The word “escheat” was applied indifferently to the lord’s right to such reversions, and to the actual lands which had reverted. In warlike times the right was valuable, for whole families might become rapidly extinct. Further, when a landholder was convicted of felony, his blood became, in the phrase of a later day, attainted, and no one could succeed to any estate through him. If a man failed in the ordeal of water provided by the Assize of Clarendon in 1166 for those accused of heinous crimes, his estates escheated to his lord. A complication arose when treason was the crime of which the tenant had been convicted; for the king, as the injured party, had prior rights which excluded those of the lord: the lands of traitors were forfeited to the Crown. Even over the lands of ordinary felons the king had rights during a period which was defined by Magna Carta.
Felony and failure of issue were two main grounds of escheat, but not the only ones; the goods of fugitives from justice and of those who had been formally outlawed also escheated, and Glanvill adds another case, namely, female wards guilty of unchastity (an offence which spoiled the king’s market). Failure to obey the royal summons in time of war or to pay scutage in lieu thereof might also be a ground of forfeiture.
Escheat was thus a valuable right both to the Crown and to mesne lords. Its effect was simply this: one link in the chain was struck out, and the links on either side were fitted together. If the defaulter was a Crown tenant, all his former sub–tenants, whether freeholders or villeins, moved up one rung in the feudal ladder and held henceforward directly of the king, who took over the entire complexus of legal rights previously enjoyed by the defaulter: rents, crops, timber, casual profits, and advowsons of churches falling vacant; jurisdictions and their profits; services of villeins; reliefs, wardships, and marriages of freeholders, as these became exigible.
The Crown, however, while taking everything the defaulter might have taken before default, must take nothing more—so Magna Carta provides. The rights and status of innocent sub–tenants must not be prejudiced by the misdeeds of defaulting lords.
(c) Wardships are described in the Dialogus de Scaccario as “escheats along with the heir” (escaeta cum herede). This expression does not occur elsewhere, but it would be impossible to find any description of wardship which throws more light on its nature and consequences. When the heir of a deceased tenant was unfitted to bear arms by reason of his tender years, the lands were, during his minority, without an effective owner: the lord treated them as temporarily escheated, entered into possession, drew the revenues, and applied them to his own purposes, subject only to the obligation of maintaining the heir in a manner suited to his station in life. Considerable sums might thus be spent: the Pipe Roll of the seventeenth year of Henry II. shows how out of a total revenue of £50 6s. 8d. from the Honour of “Belveeir,” £18 5s. had been expended on the children of the late tenant. Wardship came to an end with the full age of the ward, that is, in the case of a military tenant, on the completion of his twenty–first year, “in that of a holder in socage on the completion of the fifteenth, and in the case of a burgess when the boy can count money, measure cloth, and so forth.” Wardship of females normally ended at the age of fourteen, “because that a woman of such age may have a husband able to do knight’s service.” An heiress who did not succeed to the estate until she was fourteen thus escaped wardship altogether, but if she became a ward at a younger age, the wardship continued till she attained sixteen years unless she married earlier.
All the remunerative consequences flowing from escheat flowed also from wardship—rents, casual profits, advowsons, services of villeins, and reliefs. Unlike escheats, however, the right of the Crown here was only temporary, and Magna Carta sought to provide that the implied conditions should be respected by the Crown’s bailiffs or nominees: the lands must not be wasted or exhausted, but restored to the son when he came of age, in as good condition as when his father died.
One important aspect ought to be emphasized: Wardship affected bishoprics as well as lay baronies, extending over the temporalities of a See between the death of one prelate and the instalment of his successor. It was to the king’s interest to keep sees vacant, while his Exchequer drew the revenues and casual profits. This right was carefully reserved, even in the comprehensive charter in which John granted freedom of election.
(d) Marriage as a feudal incident is difficult to define; for its meaning changed. Originally it seems to have implied little more than the right of a lord to forbid an heiress to marry his personal enemy. Such veto was reasonable, since the husband of the heiress would become the tenant of the lord. The claim to concur in the choice of a husband gradually expanded into an absolute right to dispose of the lands and person of the female ward: the prize might be a bribe to any unscrupulous gentleman of fortune who placed his sword at the King’s disposal, or it might go to the highest bidder. The lady passed as a mere adjunct to her own estates. At fourteen she might be sent to market, and the only way in which she could protect herself against an obnoxious husband was by out–bidding her various suitors.
This right seems, at some uncertain date, to have been extended from females to males, and instances of sums thus paid occur in the Pipe Rolls. It is difficult at first sight to imagine how the Crown found a market for such wares as male wards; but probably wealthy fathers were ready to purchase desirable husbands for their daughters. Thus in 1206 a certain Henry of Redeman paid forty marks for the hand and lands of the heir of Roger of Hedon, “ad opus filiae suae,” while Thomas Basset secured a prize in the person of the young heir of Walerand, Earl of Warwick, to the use of any one of his daughters. This extension to male heirs is usually explained as founded on a strained construction of chapter 6 of Magna Carta; but the beginnings of the practice can be traced before 1215. The lords’ right to sell their wards was recognized and defined by the Statute of Merton, chapter 6. The attempts made to remedy some of the most serious abuses may be read in Magna Carta. Hallam considers that “the rights, or feudal incidents, of wardship and marriage were nearly peculiar to England and Normandy,” and that the French kings never “turned this attribute of sovereignty into a means of revenue.”
(e) Primer Seisin, which is usually regarded as a separate incident, and figures as such in Blackstone’s list, is perhaps better understood, not as an incident at all, but as a special procedure—effective and summary—whereby the Crown could enforce the four incidents already described. It was an exclusive prerogative of the Crown, denied to mesne lords. When a Crown tenant died, the King’s officers had the right to enter into immediate possession, and to exclude the heir, who could not touch his father’s lands without permission from the Crown: he had first to prove his title by inquest, give security for any balance of relief or other debts, and perform homage. It will be readily seen what a strong strategic position all this assured to the King in any disputes with the heir of a dead vassal. If the Exchequer had doubtful claims against the deceased, its officials could satisfy themselves before admitting the heir to possession. If the heir showed any tendency to evade payment of feudal incidents, the Crown could checkmate his moves. If the succession was disputed, the King might favour the claimant who pleased or paid him most; or, under colour of the dispute, refuse to disgorge the estate—holding it in custody analogous to wardship, and meanwhile drawing the profits. If the son happened to be abroad when his father died, he would experience difficulty in forcing the Crown to restore the estates. Such was the experience of William Fitz–Odo on returning from Scotland in 1201 to claim his father’s carucate of land in Bamborough. Primer seisin was thus not so much a separate incident, as a right peculiar to the Crown to take summary measures for the satisfaction of all claims against a deceased tenant or his heir. Magna Carta contains no direct reference to it, but chapters 37 and 53, providing against the abuse of prerogative wardship, have a bearing on the subject.
(f) Fines for alienation occupy a place by themselves. Unlike the incidents already discussed, they became exigible not on the tenant’s death, but on his parting with his estate during his lifetime, either as a gift or in return for a price. How far could he effect this without consent of his lord? This was, for many centuries, a subject of heated disputes, often settled by compromises, under which the new tenant paid a fine to the lord for recognition of his title. Such fines are payable at the present day in Scotland (under the name of “compositions”) from feus granted prior to 1874; and, where no sum has been mentioned in the Feu Charter, the law of Scotland defines the amount exigible as one year’s rent. Magna Carta contains no provisions on this subject. Disputes, long and bitter, took place in the thirteenth century; but their history is irrelevant to the present inquiry.
II. Feudal Aids. The feudal tenant was expected to come to the aid of his lord in any special crisis or emergency. At first, the occasions on which these “aids” might be demanded were varied and undefined. Gradually they were limited to three. Glanvill, indeed, mentions only two: the knighting of the overlord’s eldest son, and the marriage of his eldest daughter; but he intends these, perhaps, as illustrations rather than as an exhaustive list. Before the beginning of the thirteenth century the recognized aids were the ransoming of the King and the two already mentioned. This understanding was embodied in Magna Carta.
A tradition has been handed down from an early date, that these aids were voluntary offerings made as a mark of affection. Long before John’s reign, however, the obligation had become fixed by law; the tenant dared not refuse to pay the recognized three. But, when the Crown exacted contributions for any other reason, it required consent of the commune concilium.
The Great Charter, while confirming this tacit compromise, left the amount of aids undefined, merely stipulating that they should be “reasonable.” Examples of such payments, both before and after the Charter, are readily found in the Exchequer Rolls. Thus, in his fourteenth year Henry II. took one mark per knight’s fee for his daughter’s marriage; Henry III. took 20s., and Edward I. 40s. for a similar purpose. For Richard’s ransom, 20s. had been exacted from each knight’s fee (save those owned by men actually serving in the field); and Henry III. took 40s. in his thirty–eighth year at the knighting of his son. The Statute of Westminster I. fixed the “reasonable” aid payable to mesne lords at 20s. per knight’s fee, and 20s. for every estate in socage of £20 annual value. This rate, it will be observed, is one–fifth of the knight’s relief. The Crown, in thus enforcing “reason” on mesne lords, seems never to have intended that the same limit should hamper its own dealings with Crown tenants, but continued to exact larger sums whenever it thought fit. Thus £2 per fee was taken in 1346 at the knighting of the Black Prince.
A statute of Edward III. at last extended to the Crown the same measure of “reasonableness” as had been applied three–quarters of a century earlier to mesne lords. The last instances of the exaction of aids in England occur as late as the reign of James I., who, in 1609, demanded one for the knighting of the ill–fated Prince Henry, and in 1613 another for the marriage of his daughter Elizabeth.
III. Suit and Service. This phrase expresses the essential obligations inherent in the very nature of the feudal tie. It may be expanded (as regards tenure in chivalry) into the duty of attendance at the lord’s court, whether met for administrative or judicial purposes, or for reasons of mere display, and the further duty of military service under that lord’s banner in the field. Suit had ceased to be an urgent question before the reign of John. Indeed, the barons were gradually approaching the modern conception, which regards it as a privilege rather than a burden to attend the commune concilium—the embryo Parliament—of the King.
It was otherwise with the duties of military service, which were rendered every year more unwillingly, partly because of the increased frequency of warlike expeditions, partly because of the greater cost of campaigning in distant lands like Poitou, partly because the English barons were completely out of sympathy with John’s foreign policy and with him. We have seen that the want of definition in the Conqueror’s reign left to future ages a legacy of strife. William and his barons lived in the present; and the present did not urgently call for definition. Therefore, the duration of the military service, and the conditions on which exemption could be claimed, were originally vague; but the return due (servitium debitum) for each knight’s fee was gradually fixed by custom at the service of one fully armed horseman during forty days. There were still, however, innumerable minor points on which disputes might arise, and these remained even in 1215. Indeed, although several chapters of the Charter attempted to settle certain of these disputed points, others were left as bones of contention to subsequent reigns: for example, the exact equipment of a knight; the liability to serve for more than forty days on receiving pay for the extra time; what exemption might be claimed by churchmen; how far a tenant might compromise for actual service by tendering money; whether attendance and money might not both be withheld, if the King did not lead his forces in person; and whether service was due for foreign wars equally as for home ones.
Difficulties increased as time went on. The Conqueror’s followers had estates on both sides of the Channel: his wars were theirs. Before John’s reign, these simple relations had become complicated by two considerations. By forfeitures and the division of inheritances, holders of English and of Norman fiefs had become distinct. On the other hand, the expansion of the dominions of the English kings increased the number of their wars, and the expense of each expedition. The small wars with Wales and Scotland formed sufficient drain on the resources of English magnates without their being summoned to fight in Maine or Gascony.
Were the barons bound to follow John in a forlorn attempt, of which they disapproved, to recover his lost fiefs from the French Crown? Or were they bound to support him only in his legitimate schemes as King of England? Or were they, by way of compromise, liable for services in the identical possessions held by William the Conqueror at the date when their ancestors first got their fiefs—that is, for wars in England and Normandy alone? So early as 1198 the Knights of St. Edmunds refused to serve in Normandy, while offering to pay scutage. The northern barons in 1213 declared that they owed no service whatsoever out of England. This extreme claim put them clearly in the wrong, since John could produce precedents to the contrary. When, on his return from the unfortunate expedition of 1214, he demanded a scutage from all who had not followed him to Poitou, the malcontents declared that they had no obligation either to follow him out of the kingdom, or to pay a scutage in lieu thereof. Pope Innocent was probably correct in condemning this contention as founded neither on English law nor on feudal custom. There is some ground for believing that a compromise was mooted on the basis that the barons should agree to serve in Normandy and Brittany, as well as in England, on being exempted from fighting elsewhere abroad.
A definite understanding was never arrived at: chapter 16 of Magna Carta provided that existing services were not to be increased, without defining what these were. This was to shelve the difficulty: the dispute went on under varying forms and led to an unseemly wrangle between Edward I. and his Constable and Marshal, dramatized in a classic passage by Walter of Hemingburgh. Strangely enough, the Confirmatio Cartarum of 1297, which was, in part, the outcome of this later quarrel, omits (like Magna Carta itself) all reference to foreign service. The omission from both charters of all mention of the chief cause of dispute is noteworthy. It must be remembered, however, that the question of liability to serve abroad had practically resolved itself into that of liability to scutage, and that chapters 12 and 14 of the Charter of 1215 provided an adequate check on the levy of all scutages; but this is a subject that requires separate and detailed treatment.
IV. Scutage. The Crown did not always insist on personal service, but was frequently willing to accept a commutation in the form of a money payment. The subject of scutage is one of the most vexed of questions, all received opinions of yesterday having to–day been thrown into the melting pot. The theories of Stubbs and Freeman, once universally accepted, require substantial modifications. Four propositions may be stated with some confidence: (1) that scutage is an ambiguous term with a vague general meaning as well as a narrow technical meaning; (2) that the importance of the changes introduced by Henry II. in 1156 and 1159 has been much exaggerated; (3) that scutage was always in the option of the King, never of the barons, his tenants; and (4) that at a later time, probably during John’s reign, scutage changed its character, and became, partly through altered circumstances and partly by the King’s deliberate policy, a much more burdensome exaction. Each of these propositions requires explanations:
(1) The proper technical meaning of scutagium or “shield–money” is a money payment of so much per “shield” (that is, per knight’s fee) by a tenant in lieu of actual attendance in the army of his feudal lord: it is, as Dr. Stubbs explains, “an honourable commutation for personal service.” The word, however, is also more loosely used for any exaction assessed on a feudal basis, irrespective of the occasion of its levy; and, in this wider sense, includes feudal aids and other payments as well.
(2) Professor Freeman, Dr. Stubbs, and their adherents held that one of Henry’s most important reforms was the invention of scutage; that he allowed his Crown tenants at their discretion to substitute payments in money for the old obligation of personal service in the field—this option being granted to ecclesiastics in 1156, and to lay barons in 1159. Such a theory had a priori much to recommend it. A measure of this nature, while giving volume and elasticity to the resources of the Crown, was calculated subtly to undermine the basis of the feudal tie; but Henry, far–seeing statesman as he was, could not discard the ideals of his own generation: no evidence that he made any sweeping change is forthcoming. On the contrary, his grandfather, Henry I., is shown by the evidence of extant charters to have accepted money in place of the services of knights when it suited him (notably from church fiefs in 1109), and there is no evidence (direct or indirect) to show that the grandson accepted such commutation when it did not suit him. Scutage was thus known in England half a century before 1156—the traditional date of its introduction.
(3) Further, neither before nor after the reign of Henry II. had the individual baron any option of tendering at his discretion money in place of personal service. The conclusions on this subject formulated by Dr. Horace Round lie implicitly in the examples from the Pipe Rolls stored in the famous work of Madox. From these it would appear that the procedure of the Exchequer of the great Angevin and his two sons might be explained in some such propositions as these:
(a) The option to convert service into scutage lay with the Crown; not with the tenants, either individually or as a body. When the King summoned his army, no baron could (as Professor Freeman would have us believe) simply stay away under obligation of paying a small fixed sum to the Exchequer. On the contrary, Henry and his sons jealously preserved the right to insist on personal service whenever it suited them; efficient substitutes were not always accepted, much less money payments.
(b) If the individual wished to stay at home he required to make a special bargain with the King, paying such sum as the King thought fit to demand and sometimes having to find a substitute in addition. Exorbitant sums (not properly “scutages” at all) might thus be extorted from stay–at–homes ne transfretent or pro remanendo ab exercitu—phrases which appear in the Pipe Rolls of Richard. A Crown vassal in John’s twelfth year made fine “that he might send two knights to serve for him in the army of Ireland.” In such cases, each baron made his own bargain with the Crown: a scutage, on the contrary, “when it ran in the land” was at a uniform rate.
(c) The tenant–in–chivalry who stayed at home without first making his bargain was in much worse plight. He had broken faith, and in strict feudal theory had forfeited his fief by failing to perform the service for which he held it. He was “in mercy,” and might be glad to accept such terms of pardon as a gracious king might offer him. Sometimes, quite small amercements were inflicted: the Abbot of Pershore in 1196 escaped with 40s: But the Crown sometimes insisted on total forfeiture.
It was the duty of the Barons of Exchequer to determine whether lands had thus escheated by default, and also to determine the amount of “forfeit” to be taken where confiscation was not justified or insisted on. The barons wished to refer such questions to the judicium parium.
(4) Scutage tended continually to become more burdensome:
(a) With new inventions and more complicated fashions in arms and armour for man and horse, and increased rates payable for the hire of mercenaries, the expenses of a campaign steadily increased. It was not unnatural that the normal rate of scutage should increase in sympathy. Under Henry the recognized maximum had been two marks, the exact equivalent of 40 days’ wages at the normal rate of 8d. per diem. Usually he was content with a smaller sum per knight’s fee: 20s., 13s. 4d. or even 10s. being sometimes taken.
(b) A second method of increasing the yield of scutage was to readjust the assessment on which it was based, by increasing the number of contributory knights’ fees. Henry II. in 1166 had invited his unsuspecting barons to furnish him with details of the number of knights actually enfeoffed on their lands both before and after the death of his grandfather; and then treated the latter as a sort of unearned increment, the benefit of which should be shared by the Crown. The amount of servitium debitum as previously reckoned was increased by the addition of the number of knights of the novum feoffamentum, that is, of those created subsequent to the death of Henry I. The basis of assessment thus fixed in 1166 remained unaltered at John’s accession.
(c) The third respect in which scutages tended to become more burdensome was in their increased frequency. This was, in part, a consequence of the growth of the Empire of the Kings of England, bringing with it a widening of interests and ambitions, and an increase in the number and expense of wars. Much depended, however, on the spirit in which this feudal prerogative was used, on the amount of consideration given to the needs and interests of the barons. Neither Henry nor Richard seems to have regarded it as other than an expedient to be reserved for special emergencies, not as a permanent source of revenue in normal times.
Henry II. seems to have levied money in name of scutage only when actually at war—on seven occasions in all during a reign of thirty–five years; and only once at a rate exceeding 20s., if we may trust Mr. Round, and that when he was putting forth a special effort against Toulouse. Richard I., rapacious as he was, levied, apparently, only four scutages during ten years, and the rate of 20s. was never exceeded even in the King’s hour of urgent need,—in 1194, when the arrears of his ransom had to be paid and preparations simultaneously made for war in Normandy.
If it can be shown that John altered established usages under every one of these heads, breaking away from all restraints, and that too in the teeth of the keen opposition of a high–spirited baronage whose members felt that their pride and prestige as well as their money–bags were attacked, a distinct step is taken towards understanding the crisis of 1215. Such knowledge would explain why a storm, long brewing, burst in John’s reign, neither sooner nor later; and even why some of the disreputable stories told by the chroniclers and accepted by Blackstone and others, found inventors and believers.
It is here maintained that John did make changes in all of these directions; and, further, that the incidence of this increase in feudal burdens was rendered even more unendurable by two considerations:—because at his accession there remained unpaid (particularly from the fiefs of the northern knights) large arrears of the scutages imposed in his brother’s reign, and because in June, 1212, he drew the feudal chain tight by a drastic and galling measure.
That John elevated scutage from a weapon reserved for emergencies into a regular source of revenue, and that he raised the rate demanded beyond the recognized maximum of two marks, becomes apparent from a glance at the table of scutages extorted during his reign:
|First scutage of reign—
||1198–9 — 2 marks per knight’s fee.
|Second scutage of reign—
||1200–1 2 marks per knight’s fee.
|Third scutage of reign—
||1201–2 2 marks per knight’s fee.
|Fourth scutage of reign—
||1202–3 2 marks per knight’s fee.
|Fifth scutage of reign—
||1203–4 2 marks per knight’s fee.
|Sixth scutage of reign—
||1204–5 2 marks per knight’s fee.
|Seventh scutage of reign—
||1205–6 20s. marks per knight’s fee.
|Eighth scutage of reign—
||1209–10 2 marks per knight’s fee.
|Ninth scutage of reign—
||1210–11 2 marks per knight’s fee.
|Tenth scutage of reign—
||1210–11 20s. marks per knight’s fee.
|Eleventh scutage of reign—
||1213–14 3 marks per knight’s fee.
It will be seen that, in his very first year, John took a scutage at two marks per scutum. Next year he wisely allowed a breathing space; then without a break in each of the third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh years of his reign, scutages were extorted in quick succession at the same high rate. Fines, in addition to this scutage of two marks, were exacted from those who had not made the necessary compromise for personal service in due time.
These scutages were collected with increasing difficulty, and arrears accumulated; but the spirit of opposition increased even more rapidly. In 1206, apparently, the breaking point was almost reached. Accordingly, in that year, some slight relaxation was allowed—the annual scutage was reduced from two marks to 20s. John’s needs, however, were as great as ever, and would prevent further concessions, unless something untoward happened. Something untoward did happen in the summer of 1207, when John quarrelled with the Pope. This postponed his quarrel with the baronage. John had, for the time being, the whole of the confiscated property of the clergy in his clutches. The day of reckoning for this luxury was still far distant, and the King could meanwhile enjoy a full exchequer without goading his Crown tenants to rebellion. For three years no scutage was imposed. In 1209, however, financial needs again closed in on John, and a new scutage of two marks was levied; followed in the next year actually by two scutages, the first of two marks against Wales, and the second of 20s. against Scotland. John had no sense of moderation. These three levies, amounting to a total of five–and–a–half marks per fee within two years, strained the tension almost to breaking point.
During the two years following (Michaelmas, 1211, to Michaelmas, 1213) no scutage was imposed. John, however, although he thus a second time relaxed the tension, had no intention to do so for long. On the contrary, he determined to ascertain if scutages could not be made to yield more in the future. By writs, dated 1st June, 1212, he instituted a strict Inquest into the amount of service exigible from every estate in England. Commissioners were appointed to take the sworn verdicts of local juries as to the amount of liability due by each Crown vassal. Mr. Round considers that previous writers have unaccountably ignored the importance of this measure, “an Inquest worthy to be named in future by historians in conjunction with those of 1086 and 1166,” and describes it as an effort “to revive rights of the Crown alleged to have lapsed.” John intended by this Inquest, the returns to which were due on the 25th June, to prepare the necessary machinery for wringing the uttermost penny out of the next scutage when occasion for one again arose. That occasion came in 1214.
Up to this date, even John had not dared to exact a rate of more than two marks per knight’s fee; but the weight of his constant scutages had been increased by the fact that he sometimes exacted personal services in addition, and that he inflicted crushing fines upon those who neither went nor arranged beforehand terms of composition with the King.
Thus insidiously throughout the entire reign, the stream of feudal obligations steadily rose until the barons feared that nothing of their property would be saved from the torrent. The normal rate of scutage had been raised, the frequency of its imposition had been increased, the conditions of foreign service had become more burdensome, and the objects of foreign expeditions more unpopular; while attempts were sometimes made to exact both service and scutage in the same year. The limit of the barons’ endurance was reached when, under circumstances peculiarly inauspicious, John, in May, 1214, demanded a new scutage at the unprecedented rate of three marks on every fee, grounded doubtless on the searching inquest of 1212.
This outline of the history of scutage makes plain that grievances connected with its abuse formed one of the chief incentives to the insurrection that resulted in the winning of the Great Charter.
Royal Justice and Feudal Justice.
A well–known aphorism describes the King as “the sole fountain of justice.” It would be an anachronism to transport this metaphor into the thirteenth century. In John’s reign there still were, not one, but many competing jurisdictions. It was by no means certain that the King’s Courts were the proper tribunals to which a wronged individual must repair. On the contrary, the great bulk of the rural population, the villeins, had no locus standi except in the court of the manor to which they belonged; while the doors of the royal Courts had been opened to the ordinary freeman no earlier than the reign of Henry II. Royal justice was still the exception, not the rule. Each man must seek redress, in the ordinary case, in his own locality. To dispense justice to the nation at large was no part of the normal business of a medieval King.
I. Rival systems of Law Courts. In the thirteenth century, there existed not one source of justice, but many. Rival courts, eagerly competing to extend their own sphere of usefulness and to increase their own fees, existed in a bewildering multitude. Putting aside for the moment the Courts Christian, the Borough Courts, the Forest Courts, and all exceptional or peculiar tribunals, there existed three great rival systems of jurisdiction which may be named in the order in which they became in turn prominent in England.
(1) Local or District Courts. Justice was originally a local product, administered in rude tribunals which partook more or less of a popular character. Each shire had its assembly for hearing pleas, known as a “shire–moot” in Anglo–Saxon days, and as a “comitatus” after the Norman Conquest; while each of the smaller districts subdividing the shire, and forming units of administration for purposes of taxation, defence, justice, and police, had a moot or council of its own, serving as a court of law, to which the inhabitants of the villages brought their pleas in the first instance. These smaller districts were known as hundreds in the south, and as wapentakes (a name of Danish derivation) in the north.
The theory generally received is that all freemen were originally suitors in the courts of shire and hundred, and that the whole body of those present, the ordinary peasant (“ceorl”) equally with the man of noble blood (“eorl”), took an active part in the proceedings, pronouncing (or, at least, concurring in) the judgments or dooms there declared; but that, as time progressed, the majority of the Anglo–Saxon ceorls sank to the half–servile position of villeins—men tied for life to the soil of the manor, and passing, like property, from father to son. These villeins, although still subjected to the burden of attendance, and to some of the other duties of their former free estate, were deprived of those rights which had once formed the counterpart of the obligations. Another school of historians, it is true, denies that the mass of the population, even in very early times, ever enjoyed an active share in the dispensation of justice. It is unnecessary here to attempt a solution of the intricate problems of the courts of shire and hundred; or to discuss the still more vexed question how far the small assembly of each township is worthy to be reckoned a formal Court of Law.
(2) Feudal Courts. Centuries before the Norman Conquest, the system of popular or district justice found itself confronted with a rival scheme of jurisdictions—the innumerable private courts belonging to the feudal lords. These private tribunals, known as feudal, manorial, or seignorial courts, slowly gained ground on the older public courts of shire, hundred, and wapentake.
Practically every holder of land in England came to be also the holder of a court for the inhabitants of that land. The double meaning of the word “dominus” illustrates the double position of the man who was thus both owner and lord. In the struggle between two schemes of justice, the tribunals of the feudal magnates triumphed over, but never abolished their rivals. The earlier popular courts lived on; but the system of district justice, which had once embraced the whole of England, was honeycombed by the growth of feudal courts. As each village passed under the domination of a lord, the village–moot became a manorial court endowed with wider powers and more effective sanctions for enforcing them. Further, as complete hundreds fell under control of powerful magnates, the courts of these hundreds were also transformed into feudal courts: franchises thus took the place of many of the old popular moots. Still, the older system retained part of the disputed ground, thanks to the protection of the Crown. Many hundreds never bowed to the exclusive domination of any one lord, and the courts of the shires were guarded by the Norman Kings against the encroachment of even the most powerful barons.
Although it was the policy of the Norman Kings to prevent their barons from gaining excessive powers of jurisdiction, it was by no means their policy to suppress these jurisdictions altogether. The Conqueror and his sons were glad that justice should be administered, even in a rough–and–ready manner, in those districts whither the Crown’s arm was not long enough to reach, and where the popular courts were likely to prove inefficient. The old system and the new existed side by side; it was to the interest of the central government to play off the one against the other.
In later days (but not till long after Magna Carta), each manorial court had three distinct aspects, according to the class of pleas it was called upon to try. Later writers distinguish absolutely from each other, the Court Baron, settling civil disputes between freeholders of the manor; the Court Customary, deciding non–criminal cases among the villeins; and the Court Leet, a petty criminal court enforcing order and punishing small offences. The powers of these courts might vary, and in many districts the jurisdiction over misdemeanours belonged not to the steward of the manor, but to the sheriff in his half–yearly Circuits or “Tourns” through the county. In imperfectly feudalized districts the Tourn of the sheriff performed the same functions as the Court Leet did within a franchise.
(3) Royal Courts. Originally, the King’s Court had been merely one among many feudal courts—differing in degree rather than in kind from those of the great earls or barons. The King, as feudal lord, dispensed justice among his tenants, just as any baron or freeman dispensed justice among his tenants, bond or free. No one dreamed, in the time of the Norman Kings, that the Curia Regis could undertake the labour of dispensing justice for the whole nation. The monarchy had no machinery at command for a task which no Anglo–Saxon King, nor even William I., could have undertaken. No attempt in this direction was made until the reign of Henry II., who was placed in a position of unprecedented power, partly by circumstances, but chiefly by his great abilities. Even he, born reformer as he was, would never have increased so greatly the labours of government, if he had not seen that the change would enhance the security of his throne and the revenue of his exchequer.
From an early date, however, the business of the Monarch was wider than the business of any other lord. In a dim way, too, it must have been apparent from the first, that offences against the established order were offences also against the King, and that to redress these was the King’s business competent in the King’s Courts. The Crown, further, asserted a right to investigate pleas of special importance, whether civil or criminal. Still, under William and his sons, royal justice had made no deliberate attempt to become national justice, or to supersede feudal justice: the struggle came with the reforms of Henry II.
Thus the three great systems of jurisdiction, popular justice, feudal justice, and royal justice succeeded each other, on the whole, in the order in which they are here named. Yet the sequence is in some ways logical rather than chronological. No absolute line can be drawn, showing where one system ended and the next began. The germs of manorial jurisdiction may have been present from an early date. Shire–courts and hundred courts alike were continually in danger of falling under the domination of powerful local magnates. Yet, the shire–courts were successful in maintaining till the last (thanks to royal favour) their independence of the manorial jurisdictions; while only a proportion of the hundred courts fell into bondage. The royal courts, again, from an early date, withdrew causes from the Shire Courts and interfered with manorial franchises. The Courts Baron were silently undermined, until they sank into decrepitude without ceasing to exist. With these caveats, the three systems may be regarded, in some measure, as following one another in the order named:—popular justice, feudal justice, royal justice.
II. Legal Procedure. The procedure adopted in litigation in Anglo–Saxon and Norman times was similar in essentials in all three classes of tribunals, and differed materially from the practice of courts of law at the present day. Some knowledge of the more glaring contrasts between ancient and modern procedure will conduce to an understanding of several obscure provisions of Magna Carta.
Avoiding technical language, and eliminating special procedure peculiar to any one court or country, the principal stages in a litigation in a modern court of law may be given briefly as follows: (1) On the complaint of the party aggrieved a summons, or writ, is issued by an officer of the Court. Proceedings are opened by the command addressed to the defendant to appear in Court and answer what is alleged against him.
(2) In the usual case each party lodges written statements of his facts and pleas—that is, of the circumstances as they appear to him (or such of them as he hopes to bring evidence to prove)—on which he founds his claim or his defence, and of the legal principles he intends to deduce from these circumstances. When these statements of facts and pleas have been revised and adjusted, the complete data are before the Court; each party has stated what he considers essential to his case.
(3) Proof is, in due course, led; that is, each party is afforded an opportunity of proving such facts as he has alleged (and as require proof through the denial of his opponent). This he may do by documents, witnesses, or oath. Each party has the further privilege of shaking his opponent’s evidence by cross–examination.
(4) The next important stage is the debate, the main object of which is to establish by legal arguments the pleas founded on; to deduce the legal consequences inherent in the facts which have been proved.
(5) Finally, the Judge gives his decision. He has to determine, after weighing the evidence led by either party, what facts have really been established, and how far the various pleas of plaintiff and defendant respectively are implied in these facts. Reasoning of such a kind as can be successfully performed only by a trained legal mind is thus necessary before the final decree or sentence can be pronounced by a Judge in a modern court of law.
A trial in Anglo–Saxon and early Norman times stands in notable contrast to all this in its stages and procedure, and even more in the spirit which pervades the whole. Thus, the proceedings, from first to last, were purely oral, there being no original writ or summons, no written pleadings, no record kept of the decision except in the memories of those present. The functions of “the Judges” were entirely different, and called for no previous training, since they were not required either to weigh a mass of evidence or to determine the bearing of subtle legal arguments, but merely to see fairplay, and to decide, according to simple rules, well established by centuries of custom, by what test the allegations of plaintiff and defendant were respectively to stand or fall. Finally, the arrangement of the stages of the litigation was entirely different: it is with something of a shock that the modern lawyer learns that in civil and criminal causes alike “judgment” invariably preceded “trial.” Reflection will convince him that each of these words had in the Middle Ages a meaning different from what it bears to–day. That this is so can be best understood by following the stages of the old procedure.
(1) The initial difficulty was to obtain the presence of the defendant in Court, since there existed a strange reluctance either to compel his attendance or to allow judgment to pass against him by default. No initial writ was issued commanding him to appear; almost endless delays were allowed.
(2) When both parties had been, after many adjournments, actually brought face to face before the Court, the statements alike of the claim and of the defence were made verbally and in set formulae, the slightest slip or stumble in the words of which involved complete failure. This is merely one illustration of the tremendously formal and technical nature of early legal procedure, a trait common to all primitive systems of jurisprudence.
(3) Before the plaintiff could put the defendant on his defence, he required to show some presumption of the probability or bona fides of his case. This he usually did by producing two friends ready to substantiate his claim, known sometimes as his “suit” (Latin secta), or his “fore–witnesses.” Their testimony had no reference to the particular facts of the case; it was not weighed against the “proof” afterwards led by the defendant; its object was merely to warrant the Court in demanding “proof” from the latter at all.
(4) Then came the judgment or “doom,” which partook in no respect of the nature of the judgment of a modern tribunal. It came before the proof or trial, not after it, and was therefore called a “medial” judgment. It consisted in decreeing whether or no, on the strength of the previous procedure, the defendant should be put to his proof at all; and if so, what “proof” should be demanded.
Now, the exact test to be appointed by the court varied somewhat, according to circumstances, but long–established custom had laid down with some exactitude a rule applicable to every case likely to occur; and, further, the possible modes of proof were limited to some four or five at the outside. In Anglo–Saxon times, these were mainly compurgation, ordeal, witnesses (whose functions were, however, widely different from those of witnesses in modern law), and charters. The Norman Conquest introduced for the new–comers, a form of proof previously unknown in England—“trial by combat”—which tended, for the upper classes at least, to supersede all earlier procedures. The “proof,” of whatever kind it might be, thus appointed by the “judges” for the defendant’s performance was technically known as a “law” (Latin lex) in the sense of a “test” or “trial” or “task,” according to success or failure in which his case should stand or fall. To pronounce a “judgment” in this sense was a simple affair, a mere formality in the ordinary case, where room for dubiety could hardly be admitted: thus it was possible for “judgment” to be delivered by all the members of a feudal court, or all the suitors present at the hundred or shire–moot.
(5) The crucial stage, this “trial” which thus came after “judgment,” consisted in one party (usually the defendant) essaying, on the day appointed, to satisfy the court as to the truth of his allegations by performing the task or “law” which had been set or “doomed” to him. When this consisted in the production of a charter, or of “transaction witnesses” (that is, the testimony of those officials appointed in each market–town to certify the conclusion of such bargains as the sale of cattle), it commends itself readily to modern approval. More frequently it took the form of “an oath with oath–helpers,” the plaintiff bringing with him eleven or twelve of his trusty friends or dependents to swear after him the words of a long and cumbrous oath, under risk of being punished as perjurers for any slip in the formula. Sometimes the decision was referred to the intervention of Providence by appealing to the ordeal of the red–hot iron or the more dreaded ordeal of water. After the Norman Conquest, the trial in all litigations between men of high rank, took the form of duellum or legally regulated combat between the parties. The defendant gained his case if he caused the plaintiff to own himself a “craven,” or if he held out till nightfall against the plaintiff’s attempts to force him to utter that fateful word.
This earlier form of “lex” or trial (which is referred to in several clauses of Magna Carta) was thus entirely different from the modern “trial.” It may be said without exaggeration that there was no “trial” at all in the current meaning of the word—no balancing of the testimony of one set of witnesses against another, no open proof and cross–examination, no debate on the legal principles involved. The ancient “trial” was merely a formal test, which was, except in the case of battle, entirely one–sided. The phrase “burden of proof” was inapplicable. The litigant to whom “a law” was appointed had rather the “privilege of proof,” and usually won his case—especially in compurgation, and even in ordeal if he had arranged matters properly with the priest who presided. In one sense, the final “trial” was determined by the parties themselves, or by one of them; in another and higher sense the facts at issue were left to Providence; a miracle, if necessary, would attest the just claim of the innocent.
The essentials of this procedure were the same in Norman as in Anglo–Saxon England, and that in all three classes of tribunals—popular, manorial, and royal courts. Two innovations the Normans did make; they introduced trial by combat and “inquisitio.” Among the prerogatives of the Norman Dukes was this right to compel the sworn evidence of reliable men of any district—men specially picked for the purpose, and put on oath before answering the questions asked of them. This procedure was known as inquisitio (or the seeking of information) from the point of view of the government making the inquiry, and as recognitio (or the giving of information) from the point of view of those supplying it. This device was capable of endless extension to new uses in the deft hands of the Norman Kings. William employed it in compiling Domesday Book; while his successors made it the instrument of experiments in the science of taxation. It has a double claim to the interest of the constitutional historian, because it was one of the influences that helped to mould our Parliamentary institutions; and because several of the new uses to which it came to be put had a close connection with the origin of trial by jury. The recognitors, indeed, were simply local jurors in a rude or elementary form.
III. Reforms of Henry II. in Law Courts and Legal Procedure. It was reserved for Henry of Anjou to inaugurate a new era in the relations of the three classes of courts. He was the first king deliberately to plan the overthrow of the feudal jurisdictions by insidiously undermining them, if not yet by open attack. He was the first king to reduce the old district courts so thoroughly under the control of royal officials as to turn them practically into royal courts. He was the first king also to throw open the doors of his own courts of law to all–comers, to all freemen, that is to say, for the villein had for centuries still to seek redress in the Court of that very lord of the manor who was too often his oppressor.
In brief, then, Henry’s policy was twofold: to convert the County Courts completely into Royal Courts, since in them royal officials now dispensed royal justice according to the same rules as prevailed at the King’s Curia; and to reduce all manorial or private Courts to insignificance by diverting pleas to his own Curia, and leaving the rival tribunals to die gradually from inanition. Both branches of this policy met ultimately with success, although the event hung in the balance until long after his death. The barons, though partially deceived by the insidious nature of Henry’s reforms, did what they could to thwart him; but the current was with the Crown. Royal justice steadily encroached upon feudal justice. One of the last stands made by the barons has left its traces in several chapters of Magna Carta. These contain what seem, at first sight, to be merely trivial alterations of technical points of court procedure; but inextricably bound up with them are principles of wide constitutional importance. It was Henry’s good fortune or policy to disguise radical reforms until they looked like small changes of procedure; it follows that the framers of Magna Carta, while appearing merely to seek the reversal of these trivial points, were really seeking to return to the totally different conditions which had prevailed prior to the reforms of Henry.
The short account of that monarch’s system of procedure, necessary to a comprehension of Magna Carta, falls naturally into two divisions.
(1) Criminal Justice. (a) By his Assizes of Clarendon and Northampton, Henry reserved important crimes for the exclusive consideration of his own judges either on circuit or at his court; and he demanded entry for these judges into all franchises for that purpose. In this part of his policy, the King was completely successful; heinous crimes were, in the beginning of the thirteenth century, admitted on all hands to be “pleas of the Crown” (that is, cases reserved exclusively for royal jurisdiction); and Magna Carta made no attempt to reverse this part of the Crown’s policy: all that was attempted in 1215 was to obtain a promise that these functions, now surrendered to the Crown forever, should be discharged by the Crown’s officials in a proper manner.
(b) Henry’s usual good sense, in this matter stimulated by some notable miscarriages of justice, led him to question the equity of the procedure usually adopted in criminal pleas: for private “appeal” (or accusation by the injured party or his nearest surviving relative), he substituted, whenever possible, communal accusation; that is, the duty of indicting suspected criminals before the King’s Justices was no longer left to private initiative, but was laid on a body of neighbours—the predecessors of the Grand Jury of later days. Appeals were discouraged and rules laid down restricting the right of accusation.
(c) A necessary complement was the discouragement of “trial by combat.” An ingenious device was invented and extended to an increasing number of cases; an accused individual might apply for a writ known as de odio et atia, and evade the duellum by a reference to what was practically a jury of neighbours.
(2) Civil Justice. Henry’s innovations under this head were equally important. In his reign justice, it is sometimes said, was pigeon–holed. Much attention was bestowed on the formalities of litigation; while pleas began to be classified into stereotyped groups, each form of grievance having its appropriate remedy, to be obtained only by means of the appropriate writ.
(a) The Writ System. An unflinching rule was established that no case could be brought before the royal court until a writ had been obtained from chancery. This had to be paid for, sometimes at a fixed rate, and sometimes at whatever sum the Crown demanded. The whole procedure in the royal courts, which followed the issuing of such a writ, came to be known as “the writ system.” From an early date, much attention was directed to the devising of forms of writ applicable to various cases. The system, somewhat inflexible from the first, had become absolutely rigid long before the close of the thirteenth century. If a proper writ was not selected, or if no such writ had been invented, the wronged individual had no remedy in the King’s courts of common law. Registers of writs were drawn up, copied and enlarged, and transmitted from one generation to another.
(b) Control of Feudal Courts. Whether devised for that purpose or not, this writ system proved a useful instrument for diverting the stream of litigation from the barons’ courts to the curia regis. Henry, if we may credit Glanvill, succeeded in establishing the somewhat astounding rule that no plea concerning land could be commenced in any court without the authority of a royal writ. Even if such writs were issued as matter of course, the mere need of asking for them would supply Henry with information doubly valuable in relation to certain other expedients still to be explained. That King, applying to his own needs procedure known to the Carolingian Kings, secured an effective means of evoking suits regarding freehold from the seignorial courts to his own. This was done by procedure initiated by two types of writs: “writs of right” addressed to the holder of a court, bidding him do justice under penalty of interference by the royal court; and “writs praecipe” addressed to the sheriff, bidding him require the holder of a piece of land to hand it over to a claimant or explain to the King why he has not done so.
It is probable that even in 1215 the Crown had not fully developed the consequences afterwards seen to be involved in the writ of right, properly so called; but Henry II. and his sons seem freely to have used the writ praecipe in such a manner as to cause their barons to lose their jurisdiction—an abuse struck at by chapter 34 of Magna Carta.
(c) Royal Pleas and Common Pleas. The mass of new business made it necessary to increase the staff of judges and apportion the work. A natural division was that between ordinary (or common) pleas and pleas of the Crown. This distinction is recognized in many separate chapters. Thus two groups of judges were formed which, in later years, developed into separate courts—the Court of Common Pleas (known as “the Bench,” that is, the ordinary Bench), and the King’s Bench (known earlier as the court Coram Rege, supposed to be held in the King’s presence).
(d) The Petty Assizes. Special procedure for determining titles to land or rights of possession was also invented by Henry to supersede trial by battle. These Assizes, as they were called, are fully discussed elsewhere. While the Grand Assize is not mentioned in Magna Carta, its abuse was indirectly struck at by the clause concerning writs praecipe in chapter 34: the Petty Assizes, however, would seem to have won favour with the barons, who in chapter 18 demanded that regular sessions for hearing them should be held four times a year.
These were the chief innovations that enabled Henry II. to effect a revolution in the relations of royal to feudal justice. As time went on, new writs were continually devised to meet new types of cases; and litigants flocked readily to the King’s Courts, leaving the seignorial courts empty of business and of fees. Nor was this the only grievance of the barons. When one of their own number was amerced or accused of any offence involving loss of liberty or lands, he might be compelled by the Crown, under Henry and his sons, to submit to have the amercement assessed, or the criminal proceedings conducted, by one of the new Benches (by a tribunal composed of some four or five of the King’s officials), in place of the time–honoured judgment of his peers assembled in the Commune Concilium (the predecessor of the modern Parliament).
Can we wonder that the barons objected to be amerced and judged by their inferiors? Can we wonder that they resented the complete though gradual supersession of their own profitable jurisdictions by the royal courts? or that they looked with suspicion on every new development of the royal justice? Can we wonder that, when they seemed to have King John for the moment in their power, they demanded redress of these grievances, as well as of those connected with increase of feudal burdens? The cause for wonder rather is that their demands were not more sweeping: the barons, in their hour of triumph, accepted cordially one half of the royal innovations.
The chapters bearing on jurisdiction may be arranged in two groups, some reactionary, and some favourable to Henry’s reforms. On the one hand, no lord of a manor shall be robbed of his Court by the King evoking before the royal courts pleas between two freeholders of the lord’s manor; no freeman shall be judged or condemned by the King’s officials, but only before the full body of his peers; earls and barons must be amerced only by their equals. On the other hand, in prescribing remedies for abuses connected with numerous branches of legal procedure, the barons accepted by implication this new procedure itself and the royal encroachments implied therein. For example, the Crown’s right to hold “Common Pleas” was impliedly admitted, when the barons asked and obtained that these should be tried in some certain place (that is, at Westminster). Yet these very pleas must have included many cases which, prior to Henry II.’s reforms, would have been tried in a seignorial court. Again, in regulating the petty assizes, chapters 18 and 19 admit the Crown’s right to hold them. Here, as in chapter 40, the ground of complaint is not that there is too much royal justice, but rather that there is too little of it: henceforth it must be neither delayed nor denied. Further, the encroachments made by Henry II. in 1166 on the private franchises in the matter of criminal jurisdiction are tacitly accepted by the acquiescence in the King’s definition of “Pleas of the Crown” implied in chapter 24.
These, then, are the two groups into which the innovations made by Henry and his sons naturally fell, as viewed by John’s opponents in 1215: some of them had come to be warmly welcomed; while others, it was insisted, must be swept away.
MAGNA CARTA: ITS FORM AND CONTENTS.
Its Prototypes: Earlier Charters.
The traditional view makes Magna Carta the direct descendant of Henry Beauclerk’s Coronation Charter, which is, in turn, regarded as merely an amplification of the old coronation oath sworn by the Conqueror and his sons, in terms borrowed from a long line of Anglo–Saxon kings, stretching back from Edward Confessor to Edgar, Alfred and Egbert, until its origin is lost in the mists of antiquity. According to this time–honoured view, which insists on an exclusively Anglo–Saxon pedigree for the charters of Norman and Angevin kings, the charters of Henry I. and John were regarded as confirmations to the nation at large of the essential principles of the old laws of Alfred and of Edward, thus bridging over, alike in form and substance, the gulf of the Norman Conquest.
The accuracy of these preconceptions has of late years been rudely questioned. The simple formula for solving all problems of English constitutional origins by assuming an unmixed Anglo–Saxon ancestry, has been challenged from more sides than one. Magna Carta, like the Constitution itself, is of mixed parentage, tracing its descent not entirely from Teutonic, but partly from Norman, and even Danish and Celtic sources. In the first place, John’s Charter derives some of its vital clauses from documents not couched in charter form. The Constitutions of Clarendon of 1164 and the Forma Procedendi of 1194 are as undoubtedly antecedents of Magna Carta as is the Coronation Charter of Henry itself. The same is true of many grants made by successive kings of England to the Church, to London and other cities, and to individual prelates and barons. (In a sense, the whole previous history of England went to the making of Magna Carta.)
Then, again, the exclusively Anglo–Saxon origin of the antecedents of Henry’s Charter is by no means left unchallenged. A recent American writer, attacking the older theories as advanced by Bishop Stubbs, has formulated these three propositions: that Henry’s charter was feudal in character rather than constitutional or national, promising “a regulated feudal government” purged of Rufus’ misdeeds rather than a return to a “national” type of government; that its substance was derived from Norman innovations rather than from the Confessor’s or Canute’s laws; and that its form was founded on continental models, possibly on some Norman borough charter, and by no means on the old coronation oath.
These iconoclastic theories require to be modified: the claims of Magna Carta, on its formal side, at least, to an Anglo–Saxon ancestry have found a powerful advocate in Mr. W. H. Stevenson, who holds that the Anglo–Norman charters of liberties “are developments of the Anglo–Norman writ charter, and that in its turn is . . . merely the Anglo–Saxon writ translated into Latin.”
Looking both to the contents and the formalities of execution of John’s Great Charter, the safer opinion would seem to be, that, like the English Constitution, it is of mixed origin, deriving elements from ancestors of more races than one; but that the traditional line of descent from the oaths and writs of Anglo–Saxon kings, through the Charter of Henry I., is one that cannot be neglected.
The promises of good government that connect King John with the old kings of Wessex are thus the outcome of an essential feature of the ancient monarchy, and of the rules that regulated succession to the Crown. Two rival principles, the elective and the hereditary, from an early date, had struggled for the mastery. In an unsettled state of society, nations cannot allow the sceptre to pass to an infant or a weakling. When a king died, leaving a son of tender age and a brother of mature ability, the magnates of the kingdom, the so–called Witan, claimed the right to choose a fitting successor. The exact relations between the elective and the hereditary principles were never laid down with absolute precision: the practice usually followed by the Witenagemot was to select some near kinsman of the late king competent for the post. The king–elect had still to be solemnly anointed, and this gave to the Church an important share in deciding who should be king. Not later than the days of Edgar, it became the practice for the officiating archbishop to exact an oath of good government from the new sovereign before his final coronation. The terms of this oath became stereotyped; and, as administered by Dunstan to King Ethelred, they are still extant.
This may be analyzed into three promises—peace to God’s Church and people; repression of violence in men of every rank; justice and mercy in all judgments. When William I., anxious in all things to fortify the legality of his title, took the oath in solemn form, he created a precedent of tremendous importance, although he may have regarded it at the moment as an empty formality. The quasi–elective character of the kingship, the need for coronation by the Church, and this tripartite oath were all preserved.
This was of vital moment, because limits were thereby placed, in theory at least, to prerogatives that threatened to become absolute. The power of the Norman kings might almost be described as irresponsible despotism, tempered by fear of rebellion. Three forces, indeed, acted as curbs: the necessity for consulting the Curia Regis; the restraining influence of the Church; the growth of a body of public opinion, confined as yet to the upper classes.
These elements counted for something, but failed to restrain sufficiently even an average king; while they were powerless against a strong ruler, like William I. The moment at which the Crown might be taken at disadvantage was during the interregnum that followed a king’s death. Thus, William Rufus, anxious to prevent his elder brother Robert from making good his claim to the English throne, succeeded chiefly through the friendship of Lanfranc. To gain this, he was compelled to make promises of good government, taking oath in the ancient form. In the same reign, began the practice of supplementing verbal promises by sealed charters. No such charter was indeed issued either by Rufus or his father when they were crowned; but the younger William, at a critical period in his reign, granted a short Charter of Liberties, the text of which has not come down to us. By a treaty made at Caen in 1091, Duke Robert and Rufus agreed that each should constitute the other his heir. Thus, at Rufus’ death, Henry was, in a sense, a usurper, and this made it necessary for him to bid high for influential support. It is to this doubtful title that Englishmen owe the first Charter of Liberties that has come down to us.
Roger of Wendover relates how “as many charters were made as there are counties in England, and by the King’s command they were deposited in the abbeys of every county as a memorial,” and this is confirmed by an analysis of the copies still preserved.
Henry’s coronation charter was the price paid for support in his candidature for the Crown. Its terms contain, however unconsciously, an indictment of his brother Rufus’ government and, perhaps, in part also of his father’s. The new king was merely “playing to the gallery”: when his purpose was served, his promises were broken. On the bearing of these promises there is room for diversity of opinion. Dr. Stubbs’ contention that Henry “definitely commits himself to the duties of a national king” has been rejected, as already explained, by recent critics. The more modern view is strengthened by an analysis of the Charter, revealing important concessions to the barons and the Church, while those to the people at large were few and vague. Of the fourteen chapters into which it is usually divided, chapter one proceeds on the narrative that the kingdom had been oppressed by unjust exactions. Henry, in the first place, makes free the holy Church of God, “so that I shall neither sell nor farm out nor, on the death of archbishop, or bishop or abbot, accept anything from the demesne of the church or from its feudal–tenants until a successor has been inducted to it.”
It seems doubtful whether the regrettably vague phraseology of the qualifying clause is intended merely to apply the generalities of the church’s “freedom” to specific instances, or whether it must be taken as a deliberate restriction. The prohibition of selling has been read as referring to the simoniacal practice of taking money from aspirants to episcopal preferments; but more probably it was meant to prohibit the alienation of the property of a vacant see, a practice that must have been often resorted to, if we judge from the efforts at recovery made by successive archbishops, notably by Becket. This reading is the more probable from the fact that “selling” is here coupled with “farming out,” an expedient clearly inapplicable to prelatical appointments and referring to the Crown’s practice of granting leases of the lands of vacant sees for nominal annual returns in consideration of a heavy grassum paid to the Treasury at the commencement of the lease. The rest of the clause is best interpreted as a renunciation of the claim to exact either a “relief” from a prelate on his appointment or payments in lieu of relief from tenants of a vacant see or royal abbey.
The last clause of the chapter abrogates evil customs whereby the kingdom was unjustly oppressed, and then proceeds to define them—a process that occupies the remaining thirteen chapters of the document. Chapter 2 promises that reliefs of feudal tenants should be “just and legitimate.” Chapters 3 and 4 guard against abuse of the feudal incidents of marriage and wardship. Chapter 5 abolishes as an innovation “the common mintage” (an exaction levied by the mints when the coinage was altered), and enjoined the punishment of any one taken with false money—provisions finding no echo in John’s Charter.
Chapter 6 remits a number of arrears, reliefs, and penalties due to Rufus at his death. Chapter 7 confirms crown–tenants in the right to dispose of their personal estate by will, and provides for the division of the property of intestates among their wives, children, relations, and vassals, and for the good of their own souls. Chapter 8 seems to promise the total abolition of the Norman system of forfeitures and amercements (in respect of petty offences, as opposed to treasons and crimes) and a return to the Anglo–Saxon system of a fixed tariff of bots and wites.
Chapter 9 is concerned with the “murdrum” fine—a payment exacted by the Norman kings from all the inhabitants of a hundred in which a corpse had been found, where the slayer remained undiscovered and the dead man’s identity as a person of English birth could not be proved. “Murder” was thus primarily secret slaying, in the sense that the perpetrator was not known, and, secondarily, the fine exacted on that account. This heavy fine, whose original amount is variously given as 40 or 46 marks, was intended as a protection to Normans against the native Englishry they oppressed.
Henry remitted all “murder–fines” incurred before his coronation, and promised that those incurred after that date should be “justly” paid for “in accordance with the law of King Edward”—a clause difficult to reconcile with the recognized opinion that the murdrum was unknown in England prior to 1066, unless on the supposition that the draftsman of the Charter of 1100 was strangely ignorant of the usages of thirty–four years earlier. Perhaps the “murder–fine” was not an invention of the Conqueror and his sons, but an old English institution put by the Normans to new uses. An alternative suggestion may be hazarded that here (as perhaps elsewhere in the charter) the reference to the good laws of Edward was a mere tag or “common form,” meant to please his subjects without committing the King to anything in particular.
Chapter 10 contains no concession (unless it be an implied renunciation of Rufus’ encroachments), but, on the contrary, a blunt intimation that Henry, with his barons’ consent, would retain the forests as his father had had them. The barons’ consent may be partly explained by their expectation to enjoy, as more or less habitually in attendance upon Henry, a share in the pleasures of the hunt of which the King was “master.” By chapter II., Henry concedes “proprio dono meo to knights holding their lands per loricas [that is, by knight’s service] to have the lands of their demesne ploughs quit of all gelds and of every [non–military] service, in order that, as being relieved by so great a relief, so they might effectually provide themselves with horses and arms for my service and the defence of my kingdom.” In thus exempting Crown–tenants holding by the “hauberk” (that is to say his “barons,” in the wider sense of the word) from Danegeld, on the distinct understanding that they should keep in readiness an efficient military equipment, Henry aimed at making hard–and–fast an old and fluctuating rule that prohibited Crown–tenants from being subjected to a double set of burdens. The lands of knights and churchmen, who already served the King in other ways, were not expected to contribute Danegeld in respect of their home–farms. Holders of knight’s fees, however, must keep proper weapons and armour for themselves and their horses—an obligation involving an expenditure constantly increasing with every advance in the art of war. The chapter thus recognizes a contrast between land subject to military service and land subject to geld; “the inland and warland of old English fiscal arrangements, the dominium and terra geldabilis respectively of the Geld Roll of 1084.” The fact that Henry’s Charter draws so sharp a line between the two, suggests that the barons may have made this a condition of their support of his claims against those of Robert. Henry’s promise, however, was never strictly carried out: the practice continued to fluctuate. Under Henry II., only the barons of the Exchequer and a few privileged religious persons enjoyed exemption. Gradually the distinction between inland and warland became extinct.
The remaining clauses of the Charter of Henry I. are mainly of a formal character. Chapter 12 declares a firm peace for the future throughout his kingdom—thus marking the end of the interregnum consequent on his brother’s death. Chapter 13, on the strength of which wide–reaching theories have sometimes been built, seems to be merely an amplification of the purely formal chapter that precedes it: it restores the law of Edward, with the reforms his father had effected with the barons’ consent. The old law was vague; the innovations definite and well known. Chapter 14 proclaims terms and conditions of indemnity, extended to those guilty of acts of spoliation during the interregnum now brought to an end.
These provisions, taken as a whole, contain little to justify Henry’s claim to rank as a constitutional or national sovereign. The bulk of the concessions are made to the barons. The Church, it is true, obtains a definite promise in chapter one: but the individuals who would chiefly benefit were newly–appointed prelates, who became feudal vassals on entering upon the lands of their sees. Chapters 2 and 4 confine their benefits to Crown–tenants and sub–tenants, and are therefore purely feudal and not “national” in their range. They may be compared with the clauses of John’s Charter that extend some of its provisions to sub–tenants. Chapters 12 and 13, with their vague affirmation of a firm peace, and of the old English law, now half–forgotten (undefined and declared valid only so far as unaltered by William I.), are the only grants “to the people at large.” The baronial element clearly triumphs over the “national,” in the tenor and outlook of the famous coronation charter.
There are three intermediate links in the chain of charters connecting those of Henry I. and John, namely, the two charters of Stephen and that of Henry II. The circumstances of the accession of the earlier King were peculiar. Henry I. had nominated his only child Matilda as his heir: his nephew, Stephen, and all the English barons had done homage to her as their future liege lady. Stephen, however, taking advantage of Matilda’s absence and unpopularity, and of the barons’ reluctance to be ruled by a woman, made a bold dash for the Crown. From the moment of the old King’s death, “the Norman barons treated the succession as an open question”: in these words of Stubbs, Dr. Round finds the keynote of the reign. Stephen was prepared to bid higher for support than Henry had felt compelled to do: like William of Orange, five centuries later, he agreed to become “king upon conditions.” A Charter of Liberties and a solemn oath securing “the liberty of the Church” together formed the price of Stephen’s consecration; and this price was not perhaps too high when we remember that “election was a matter of opinion, coronation a matter of fact.” The process by which he built up a title to the Crown culminated in the Easter of 1136, when he secured the support of Matilda’s half–brother Robert, Earl of Gloucester, whose lead was quickly followed by influential nobles who, however, performed homage under an important reservation; their future loyalty would be strictly conditional on the treatment extended to them by Stephen.
These transactions took place at Oxford; at the same time the King issued his second or Oxford Charter, which combined the provisions of the oath to the Church and of the vague earlier charter, with the conditions extorted by Earl Robert and his followers. The opening words contain a laboured attempt to set forth a valid title to the throne. All reference to predecessors is avoided, and Stephen declares himself king “by appointment of the clergy and people, by consecration of the Archbishop and papal legate, and by the Pope’s confirmation.
Perhaps its chief provisions are those in favour of the Church, supplementing a vague declaration that the Church should be “free” by specific promises that the bishops should have exclusive jurisdiction and power over ecclesiastics and their goods, with the sole right to superintend their distribution after death. Here was a clear confirmation of the right of the Courts Christian to a monopoly of all pleas affecting the clergy or their property. Stephen also renounced wardship over church lands during vacancies—a surrender never dreamt of by Henry I. or Henry II. Grants to the people at large followed. A general clause promising peace and justice was supplemented by specific concessions of more practical value, namely, a promise to extirpate all exactions, unjust practices, and “miskennings” by sheriffs and others, and to observe good, ancient, and just customs in respect of murder–fines, pleas, and other causes.
Strangely enough, there is only one provision specially benefiting feudal magnates, the King’s renunciation of all tracts of land afforested since the time of the two Williams. The omission of further feudal concessions must not be attributed either to Stephen’s strength, or to any spirit of moderation or self–sacrifice in the magnates. Each baron of sufficient importance had already extorted a private charter, more valued than a general provision in favour of all and sundry. Such grants often included the right to maintain a feudal stronghold, whose owner would enjoy a position of practical independence.
It is instructive to compare these wide promises of Stephen with the meagre words of the charter granted by Henry of Anjou at or soon after his coronation. Henry II. omits all mention of Stephen and his charters, not because he did not wish to acknowledge a usurper, but because of that usurper’s lavish grants to the Church. Henry had no intention to confirm “benefit of clergy” in so sweeping a form, or to renounce wardship over vacant sees.
To the Church, as to the barons, Henry confirms only what his grandfather had already conceded. Even compared with the charter of Henry I., that of the younger Henry is shorter and less explicit—features that justified Stephen Langton in his preference for the older document. If Henry II. granted a short and grudging charter, neither of his sons, at their coronations, granted any charter at all. Reasons for the omission readily suggest themselves; the Crown had grown strong enough to dispense with this unwelcome formality, partly because of the absence of rival competitors for the throne, and partly because of the perfection to which the machinery of government had been brought. The utmost the Church could extract from Richard and John, as the price of their consecration, was the renewal of the three vague promises contained in the oath, now taken as a pure formality. John, however, was not to be allowed to shake himself free from the obligations of his oath. Stephen Langton, before absolving him in 1213, compelled him to swear it anew.
Not only were the terms of the ancient oath riveted anew on John’s conscience, but, as has been shown, the coronation Charter of Henry I., exhibited by the Primate in times of crisis to the nobles, and used in preparing the schedules that formed the rough drafts of the Articuli Baronum, was made a curb for royal caprice. It is thus impossible to neglect the importance of the sequence of coronation oaths and charters as contributors both to the form and substance of Magna Carta, although that is only one of the many lines of descent through which the Great Charter can trace its ancestry.
Magna Carta: its Form and Juridical Nature.
The juridical nature of the document to which John set his seal at Runnymede will be differently estimated according as it is judged by present–day or by medieval standards.
(1) The Modern Point of View. Much ingenuity has been expended in the effort to discover which particular category of modern jurisprudence most accurately describes the Great Charter. Is it an enacted law, or a treaty; the royal answer to a petition; or a declaration of rights? Is it a simple pact, bargain, or agreement between contracting parties? Or is it a combination of two or more of these? Something has been said in favour of almost every possible view, perhaps more to the bewilderment than to the enlightenment of students of history uninterested in legal subtleties.
The claim of Magna Carta to rank as a formal act of legislation has been supported on the ground that it was promulgated in what was practically a commune concilium. King John, it is maintained, met in a national assembly all the estates of his realm who had any political rights, and these concurred with him in the grant. The consent of all who claimed a share in the making of laws—archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, and crown–tenants, great and small—entitles the Charter to rank as a statute.
Against this view, however, technical informalities may be urged. Both the composition of the Council and the procedure adopted there, were irregular. No formal writs of summons had been issued, and, therefore, the meeting was never properly constituted. Further, the whole proceedings were tumultuary; the barons, assembled in military array, compelled the consent of John by show of force. On these grounds, modern jurisprudence, if appealed to, would reject the claim of the Charter to be enrolled as an ordinary statute. It may be argued also that Magna Carta, while something less than a law, is also something more. A law made by the king in one national assembly might be repealed by the king in another; whereas the Great Charter was intended by the barons to be unchangeable. It was granted to them and their heirs for ever; and, in return, a price had been paid, namely, the renewal of their allegiance.
Magna Carta has also been described as a treaty. Such is the verdict of Dr. Stubbs. “The Great Charter, although drawn up in the form of a royal grant, was really a treaty between the King and his subjects. . . . It is the collective people who really form the other high contracting party in the great capitulation.” This view receives some support from words contained in chapter 63 of the Charter: “Juratum est autem tam ex parte nostra quam ex parte baronum, quod haec omnia supradicta bona fide et sine malo ingenio observabuntur.” There is, however, a radical objection. A treaty is a public act between two contracting powers, who must, to meet the requirements of modern jurisprudence, be independent States or their accredited agents; while John and his opponents were fragments of one State, torn asunder by mutual jealousies.
For other authorities, Magna Carta is a contract, pact, or private agreement. M. Emile Boutmy is of this opinion:—“Le caractère de cet acte est aisé à définir. Ce n’est pas précisément un traité, puisqu’il n’y a pas ici deux souverainetés légitimes ni deux nations en présence; ce n’est pas non plus une loi; elle serait entachée d’irrégularité et de violence; c’est un compromis ou un pacte.” Thus considered, the proudest act of the national drama would take its place in the legal category which includes the hire of a waggon or the sale of a load of corn. There are, however, objections to this theory also. It is difficult to see how the plea of “force,” if sufficient (as M. Boutmy urges) to render null the enactment of a public law, would not be even more effective in reducing a private agreement. If Magna Carta has no other basis than the consent of the contracting parties, it seems safer to describe it as a public treaty than a private pact.
Other theories also are possible; as, for example, that the Great Charter is of the nature of a Declaration of Rights, such as have played so prominent a part in France and the United States; while a recent American writer on English constitutional development regards it as a code, creating a formal constitution for England—in a rude and embryonic form, it is true:—“If a constitution has for its chief object the prevention of encroachments and the harmonizing of governmental institutions, Magna Carta answers to that description, at least in part.” It would be easy to cite compromises between these competing theories. Thus, a high authority declares that “the Great Charter is partly a declaration of rights, partly a treaty between Crown and people.”
The essential nature of what took place at Runnymede, in June, 1215, is plain, when stripped of legal subtleties. A bargain was struck, between the King and his rebel magnates, that, in return for a renewal of fealty and homage, John would grant “to the freemen of England and their heirs for ever” the liberties enumerated in sixty–three chapters. No one thought of asking whether the transaction thus concluded was a “treaty” or a private “contract.” The terms had to be drawn up in legal form, so as to bear record to the exact nature of the provisions, and also to the authenticity of John’s consent. It was, therefore, reduced to writing, and the resulting document was naturally couched in the form invariably used for all irrevocable grants intended to descend from father to son, namely, a feudal charter, authenticated by the impression of the granter’s seal—just as in the case of a grant of land, and with many of the clauses appropriate to such a grant.
John grants to the freemen of England and their heirs certain specified rights and liberties, as though these were so many hides of land. The legal effect of such a grant is hard to determine; and insuperable difficulties beset any attempt to expound its legal consequences in terms of modern law. In truth, the form and substance of Magna Carta are badly mated. Its substance consists of a number of legal enactments and political and civil rights; its form is borrowed from the feudal lawyer’s book of styles for conferring a title to landed estate.
The results of this part of the inquiry seem, then, to be mainly negative. It is misleading to describe phenomena of the thirteenth century in modern phraseology which would have been unintelligible to contemporaries. Yet, if it is necessary to make the attempt, Magna Carta may perhaps be regarded as an agreement partaking of the natures alike of a statute and a royal grant, of a public treaty and a private contract, yet identical with no one of these, but (in any view) enacting or proclaiming a number of rules and customs as binding in England, and reducing them to writing in the unsuitable form of a feudal charter granted by King John to the freemen of England and their heirs.
(2) The Contemporary Standpoint. It is perhaps more profitable to enquire under what category of medieval jurisprudence Magna Carta would have fallen, if its contemporaries had consciously attempted its classification. In Dr. Vinogradoff’s phrase: “The best way to solve these problems is perhaps to locate our document in the pigeon–holes of medieval and not of modern rubrication.”
Answering his own question, he proceeds to range it, partly as a unilateral grant by John to his subjects and partly as of the nature of the medieval expedient known to the continent of Europe as an “establishment” (stabilimentum or établissement). No exact definition of a stabilimentum need be expected from an age accustomed to a vague use of words; but its essence seems to have been a legislative act, more or less of an institutional and exceptional nature, affecting the general welfare of the country, and thus requiring collective action by all classes or estates. The elements of authority dispersed among the various participants in legislative or sovereign power had to be concentrated round the King, somewhat as the consent of all first–class States has to be obtained at the present day for effecting a change in the rules of International Law observed by civilized nations.
Legislative acts similar to the établissements of Capetian Kings were not unknown in England. The main purport of the Statute of York (1322), for instance, according to its latest interpreter, would seem to be that consent of “the community” (or “commonalty,” as it is usually rendered), as well as of the prelates, earls and barons, should be needed for any change of the nature of an “establishment,” which thus means an alteration in the framework of government. Magna Carta contemplated in chapter 61 an institutional innovation, parallels to which may be found in the more or less oligarchical schemes of 1244, 1258, 1264 and 1311. The historical importance of such restrictions upon the method of legislation required for changing the framework of government, lies in their bearing on the development of a system of Estates and of the future Parliament of the three Estates.
Magna Carta: its Contents and Characteristics.
The rights enumerated in the sixty–three chapters of the Charter, representing the price paid by John for renewed allegiance, are fully discussed in the main part of the present volume: a brief description of their more prominent characteristics, when viewed as a collective whole, is, therefore, all that is here required.
As to externals, the want of orderly, logical arrangement has often been noted. As John Reeves says: “The whole is strung together in a disorderly manner, with very little regard to the subject matter”; while a recent writer maintains that “no portion of this famous document can possibly be described as a good piece of drafting.” Thirteenth–century standards, however, were different from our own; and the lengthy document, with its specific remedies for many abuses, contains evidence of a carefully weighed scheme and of a deep–rooted conviction of the need of reform. The barons and royal officials who helped in framing it were ignorant of the abstract principles of political science. Their ideas, it has been truly said, “seem to have been concrete and practical, and in their remedies they went no further than the correction of the specific abuses from which they suffered.” The framers of the document observed (with few exceptions) great legal accuracy in defining the traditional rights of the Crown, proceeding with praiseworthy moderation and scrupulous fairness towards John.
Three closely connected characteristics of the document, as a whole, will be brought out in the succeeding analysis: Magna Carta is feudal, contractual, and (in parts, at least) reactionary in tone. Professor Adams of Yale, giving voice to opinions now widely admitted by historians, emphasizes the crucial place occupied by “the feudal contract” as the basis alike of Magna Carta and of the medieval English constitution; and maintains that, from the narrower point of view of 1215, the essence of John’s Charter “in spirit, in method, and in principle,” was reaction.
In the attempt to analyze the leading provisions, various principles of classification have been adopted: the chapters may be arranged according to the functions of the central government they were intended to limit; according to their own nature as progressive, reactionary, or declaratory; and, finally, according to the classes of the community which reaped the greatest benefit.
I. Provisions classified according to the prerogatives affected.
Dr. Gneist arranges the chapters in five groups according as they place restraints (1) on the military power of the Crown, (2) on its judicial power, (3) on its police power, (4) on its financial power, or (5) furnish a legal sanction for the enforcement of the whole. In spite of Dr. Gneist’s high authority, it is doubtful whether an analysis of Magna Carta upon these somewhat arbitrary lines throws much light on its main objects or results. Such a division is founded on distinctions not clearly formulated in the thirteenth century, when the various functions of government were still undifferentiated.
II. Provisions classified according as they are of a progressive, reactionary, or declaratory nature.
Blackstone, writing in 1759, expresses the generally accepted views: “It is agreed by all our historians that the Great Charter of King John was for the most part compiled from the ancient customs of the realm, or the laws of King Edward the Confessor, by which they usually mean the common law, which was established under our Saxon princes, before the rigours of feudal tenures and other hardships were imported from the continent.” Substantially the same doctrine has been enunciated only the other day, by our highest authority. “On the whole, the charter contains little that is absolutely new. It is restorative. John in these last years has been breaking the law; therefore the law must be defined and set in writing.” This view seems, on the whole, a correct one: the insurgents in 1215 professed to be demanding nothing new. Yet the Great Charter contained much that was unknown to the days of the Confessor and had no place in the promises of Henry I.
Thus it is not sufficient to describe Magna Carta merely as a declaratory enactment: it is necessary to distinguish between the different sources of what it declared. A fourfold division may be suggested. (1) Magna Carta handed on some of the usages of the old English law unchanged by the Conqueror or his successors, now confirmed and purified from abuses. (2) In defining feudal incidents and services, it confirmed many rules of the feudal law brought into England by the Normans after 1066. (3) It also embodied many provisions of which William I. and even Henry I. knew no more than did the Anglo–Saxon kings—innovations introduced for his own purposes by Henry of Anjou, but, after half a century of experience, now accepted loyally even by the most bitter opponents of the Crown. In the words of Mr. Prothero, “We find . . . the judicial and administrative system established by Henry II. preserved almost intact in Magna Carta, though its abuse was carefully guarded against.” Finally, (4) in some few points, the Charter aimed at going farther than Henry II. had intended to go: to mention only two particulars, the petty assizes are to be taken four times a year, while sheriffs are prohibited from holding pleas of the Crown.
History, indeed, has proved that a purely declaratory enactment is impossible: the mere lapse of time, by producing an altered context, changes the purport of any statute re–enacted in a later age. It is no unusual device for innovators to render their reforms more palatable by presenting them disguised as returns to the past. Further, it is important to bear in mind the nature of the provisions confirmed. A re–statement of some of the reforms of Henry II. leads logically to progress rather than to mere stability; while the confirmation of Anglo–Saxon usages or of ancient feudal customs, fast disappearing under the new régime, may imply retrogression rather than standing still. Chapters 34 and 39 of Magna Carta, for example, really demand a return to the system in vogue prior to the innovations of Henry of Anjou, when they favour feudal jurisdictions. Thus, some of the provisions of the Great Charter which, at a casual glance, appear declaratory, are, in reality, innovations; while others tend towards reaction.
III. Provisions classified according to the estates of the community in whose favour they were conceived.
Here we are face to face with a fundamental question of immense importance: Does the Great Charter really, as the orthodox view so vehemently asserts, protect the rights of the whole mass of humble Englishmen equally with those of the proudest noble? Or is it rather a series of concessions to feudal selfishness wrung from the King by a handful of powerful aristocrats? On such questions, learned opinion is sharply divided, although an overwhelming majority of authorities range themselves on the popular side, from Coke down to writers of the present day. Lord Chatham, in one of his great orations, insisted that the barons who wrested the Charter from John established claims to the gratitude of posterity because they “did not confine it to themselves alone, but delivered it as a common blessing to the whole people”; and Sir Edward Creasy caps these words with more ecstatic words of his own, declaring that one effect of the Charter was “to give and to guarantee full protection for property and person to every human being that breathes English air.” Staid lawyers and historians like Blackstone and Hallam use similar expressions. “An equal distribution of civil rights to all classes of freemen forms the peculiar beauty of the charter”; so we are told by Hallam. Bishop Stubbs unequivocally enunciated the same doctrine. “Clause by clause the rights of the commons are provided for as well as the rights of the nobles. . . . This proves, if any proof were wanted, that the demands of the barons were no selfish exactions of privilege for themselves.” “The rights which the barons claimed for themselves,” says John Richard Green, “they claimed for the nation at large.” It would be easy to add to this “cloud of witnesses,” but enough has been said to prove that it has been a common boast of Englishmen, for many centuries, that the provisions of the Great Charter were intended to secure, and did secure, the liberties of every class and individual, not merely those of the feudal magnates.
It is a usual corollary to this theory, to attribute credit to Stephen Langton for broad–minded statesmanship: the so–called “Articles of the Barons” are really, it would seem, articles of the archbishop. In Miss Norgate’s words, the original articles “are obviously not the composition of the barons mustered under Robert Fitz–Walter,” who could never have risen to “the lofty conception embodied in the Charter—the conception of a contract between King and people which should secure equal rights to every class and every individual in the nation.”
It is not safe, however, to accept, without a careful consideration of the evidence, opinions cited even from such high authorities. “Equality” is essentially a modern ideal: for many centuries after the thirteenth, class legislation maintained its prominent place on the Statute Rolls, and the interests of the various classes were by no means always identical. A vigorous minority has always protested against the popular view of Magna Carta. “It has been lately the fashion,” Hallam confesses, “to depreciate the value of Magna Charta, as if it had sprung from the private ambition of a few selfish barons, and redressed only some feudal abuses.”
Two different parts of the Charter have a bearing on this question: chapter 1, which explains to whom the rights were granted; and chapter 61, which declares by whom they were to be enforced. The liberties were confirmed “to all freemen of my kingdom and their heirs for ever.” This opens the question—who were freemen in 1215? An enthusiasm that seeks to enhance the merits of Magna Carta by extending its provisions as widely as possible, has led commentators to stretch the meaning of “freeman” to embrace the entire population of England, including not only churchmen, merchants, and yeomen, but even villeins.
Now, homo in medieval law–Latin, was originally synonymous with baro—all feudal vassals being described as “men” or “barons.” Magna Carta is a feudal grant, and the presumption is in favour of the technical feudal meaning. The word, indeed, occasionally bore a looser, wider sense; but any room for ambiguity seems to be precluded by the use of the qualifying word “free.” No villein was fully a “liber homo.” In chapter 34, for example, the “liber homo” is assumed to be a landowner with a manorial court. Even a burgess might not be reckoned for all purposes as “free”; for the Dialogus de Scaccario discusses how far a miles or other liber homo might lose his status by engaging in commerce in order to make money. The word “freeman,” it would appear, as used in the Charter is synonymous with “freeholder”; and therefore only a limited class could, as grantees or the heirs of such, make good a legal claim to share in the liberties secured by it. To the question, who had authority to enforce its provisions, the Great Charter has likewise a definite answer, namely, a quasi–committee of twenty–five barons. It is clear that no support for democratic interpretations of Magna Carta can be founded on the choice of executors; since these formed a distinctly aristocratic body.
Magna Carta, indeed, contains positive evidences which point to the existence of class legislation. At the beginning and end of the Charter, clauses are inserted to secure to the Church its “freedom” and privileges. Many chapters, again, have no value except to landowners; a few affect tradesmen and townsmen exclusively; while chapters 20 to 22 adopt distinct sets of rules for the amercement of the ordinary freeman, the churchman, and the earl or baron respectively. A distinction is made (for example, in chapter 20) between the freeman and the villein, and the latter was carefully excluded from many of the benefits conferred on others by Magna Carta.
(1) The Feudal Aristocracy. A casual glance at the clauses of the Great Charter shows how prominently feudal rights and obligations bulked in the eyes of its promoters. Provisions of this type must be considered chiefly as concessions to the feudal aristocracy—although the relief, primarily intended for them, indirectly benefited other classes as well.
(2) Ecclesiastics. The position of the Church is easily understood when we neglect the privileges enjoyed by its great men quâ barons rather than quâ prelates. The special Church clauses found no place whatsoever in the Articles of the Barons, but bear every appearace of having been added as an after–thought, due probably to the influence of Stephen Langton. Further, they are mainly confirmatory of the separate Charter already twice granted within the few preceding months.
(3) Tenants and Mesne Lords. When compelling John to grant Magna Carta by parade of armed might, the barons were obliged to rely on the support of their own freeholders. It was necessary that these under–tenants should receive some recognition of their claims, and concessions in their favour are contained in two clauses (couched apparently in no generous spirit), chapters 15 and 60. The former limits the number of occasions on which aids might be extorted from sub–tenants to the same three as were recognized in the Crown’s case. Chapter 60 provides generally that all customs and liberties which John agrees to observe towards his vassals shall be observed by mesne lords, whether prelates or laymen, towards their sub–vassals. This provision has met with a chorus of applause from modern writers. Dr. Hannis Taylor declares that, “animated by a broad spirit of generous patriotism, the barons stipulated in the treaty that every limitation imposed for their protection upon the feudal rights of the king should also be imposed upon their rights as mesne lords in favour of the under–tenants who held of them.” A vague general clause, however, affords little protection in a rude age and might readily be infringed when occasion arose. The barons were compelled to do something, or to pretend to do something, for their under–tenants. Apparently they did as little as they, with safety or decency, could.
(4) Something was also done for the merchant and trading classes. The existing privileges of London were confirmed in the Articles of the Barons; and some slight additions were made. An attentive examination suggests, however, that these privileges were refined away in the final form of Magna Carta. The right to tallage London and other towns was reserved to the Crown, while the rights of trading granted to foreigners were inconsistent with the policy of monopoly dear to the hearts of the Londoners. A mere confirmation of existing customs, already bought and paid for at a great price, seems a poor return for support given to the movement of insurrection at a critical moment, when their adherence was sufficient to turn the scale. The marvel is that so little was done for them.
(5) The relation of the villein to the benefits of the Charter has been hotly discussed. Coke claims for him, in regard to chapter 39 at least, that he must be regarded as a liber homo, and therefore as a participant in the advantages of the clause. This contention, it has been already shown, is not well founded. Yet the villein, it may be argued, though excluded from participating in the rights of freemen, has certain rights secured to him in his own name. For example, in chapter 20, John promises that he will not so cruelly amerce villeins—other people’s villeins at least—as to leave them utterly destitute.
The villein was protected, however, not as the acknowledged subject of legal rights, but because he formed a valuable asset of his lord. This attitude is illustrated by a somewhat peculiar expression used in chapter 4, which prohibited injury to the estate of a ward by “waste of men or things.” For a guardian to raise a villein to the status of a freeman was to benefit the enfranchised peasant at the expense of his young master.
Other clauses of John’s Charter and of the various reissues show scrupulous care to avoid infringing the rights of property enjoyed by manorial lords over their villeins. The King could not amerce other people’s villeins harshly, although those on his own farms might be amerced at his discretion. Chapter 16, while carefully prohibiting any arbitrary increase of service from freehold property, leaves by inference all villein holdings unprotected. The “farms” or rents of ancient demesne might be raised by the Crown, and tallages might be arbitrarily taken (measures likely to press hardly on the villein class). The villein was deliberately left exposed to the worst forms of purveyance, from which chapters 28 and 30 rescued his betters. The horses and implements of the villanus were still at the mercy of the Crown’s purveyors. The reissue of 1217 confirms this view: while demesne waggons were protected, those of villeins were left exposed. Again, the chapter that takes the place of the famous chapter 39 of 1215 makes it clear that lands held in villeinage are not to be protected from arbitrary disseisin or dispossession. The villein was left by the common law merely a tenant–at–will—subject to arbitrary ejectment by his lord—whatever meagre measure of protection he might obtain under the “custom of the manor” as interpreted by the court of the lord who oppressed him.
When taken together, the significance of these somewhat trivial points is clear. The bulk of the English peasantry were protected by Magna Carta merely because they formed valuable assets of their lords. The Charter viewed them as “villeins regardant”—as chattels attached to a manor, not as members of an English commonwealth.
The conclusion derived from this survey is that the baronial leaders are scarcely entitled to the excessive laudation they have sometimes received. The rude beginnings of features prominent later on (such as the conceptions of patriotism, nationality, equality before the law, and tender regard for the rights of the humble) may possibly be found in germ in parts of the completed Charter; but the Articles of the Barons were what their name implies, a baronial manifesto, seeking chiefly to redress the private grievances of the promoters, and mainly selfish in motive.
Yet, when all deductions have been made, the Great Charter stands out as a prominent landmark in the sequence of events that have led, in an unbroken chain, to the consolidation of the English nation, and to the establishment of a free and constitutional form of polity upon a basis so enduring that, after many centuries of growth, it still retains—or, until a few years ago, did retain—the vigour and buoyancy of youth.
Magna Carta: an Estimate of its Value.
The importance of the Charter for the men of 1215 did not lie in what forms its main value for the constitutional theorists of to–day. To the barons at Runnymede its merit was that it was something definite and utilitarian—a legal document with specific remedies for current evils. To English lawyers and historians of a later age it became something intangible and ideal, a symbol for the essential principles of the English Constitution, a palladium of English liberties.
To trace the growth of these modern estimates lies outside the scope of the present treatise; but it should be noted that admiration for John’s Charter and its numerous reissues and confirmations was more measured among contemporaries than among its votaries of the seventeenth or nineteenth centuries; and that, for a long interventing period, it suffered almost complete neglect.
There is some reason to suppose that the Carta Libertatum or Carta Baronum (as it is usually cited by contemporary authorities) was first described as “great” in the reign of Henry III., and that it was then “great” mainly in a material sense, a “large” charter as contrasted with a certain parva carta granted by Henry in 1237.
When, after many confirmations, the Charter had established itself as a permanent part of the law of the land, it seems to have fallen into the background of men’s thoughts. It played no conscious or conspicuous part in the “constitutional experiments” of the Yorkist kings; and friends of popular liberties under the Tudors seem to have made few appeals to its authority; Shakespeare’s King John has nothing to say of Runnymede or what happened there. It was during the struggles of Parliament with the first two Stewart Kings and in part through the influence of Coke, with his strange combination of black–letter lore and enthusiasm for the old Constitution as interpreted by him, that the Charter, now “great” in a sense higher than material, took hold of the popular imagination. Thereafter estimates of its worth steadily expanded. In many a time of national crisis, Magna Carta has been appealed to as a fundamental law too sacred to be altered—as a talisman containing some magic spell, capable of averting national calamity.
Are these modern estimates of its value justified by facts, or are they gross exaggerations? Did it really create an epoch in English history? If so, wherein did its importance exactly lie?
The numerous factors which contributed towards the worth of Magna Carta may be distinguished as of two kinds, inherent and accidental. (a) Its intrinsic value depends on the nature of its own provisions. The reforms demanded by the barons were just and moderate: avoidance of extremes tended towards a permanent settlement. Its aims were practical as well as moderate; the language in which they were framed, clear and straightforward. A high authority has described the Charter as “an intensely practical document.” This practicability is an English characteristic, and strikes the key–note of almost every great movement for reform which has succeeded in English history. Closely connected with this is another feature, the markedly legal nature of the Charter. As Magna Carta, after Coke’s day, was rarely absent from the thoughts of statesmen, a practical and legal direction was thus given to the efforts of Englishmen in many ages. Therein lies another English characteristic. While democratic enthusiasts in France and America have often sought to found their liberties on a lofty but unstable basis of philosophical theory embodied in Declarations of Rights; Englishmen have occupied lower but surer ground, aiming at practical remedies for actual wrongs, rather than enunciating theoretical platitudes with no realities to correspond.
Further, the nature of the provisions bears witness to the broad basis on which the edifice was intended to be built. The Charter, notwithstanding the prominence given to feudal grievances, redressed other grievances as well. Another intrinsic merit was that it made definite what had been vague before. Definition is a valuable protection for the weak against the strong: vagueness favours the tyrant who can interpret while he enforces the law. Misty rights were now reduced to a tangible form, and could no longer be broken with impunity. Where previously the vagueness of the law lent itself to evasion, its clear re–statement in 1215 pinned down the King to a definite issue. He could no longer plead that he sinned in ignorance; he must either keep the law, or openly defy it—no middle course was possible.
(b) Part of the value of Magna Carta may be traced to extrinsic causes; to its vivid historical setting. The importance of its provisions is emphasized by the object–lessons that accompanied its inauguration. Christendom was amazed by the spectacle of a King obliged to surrender at discretion to his subjects. The fact that John was compelled to accept the Charter meant a loss of royal prestige, and great encouragement to future rebels. What once had happened, might happen again: the King’s humiliation was stamped as a powerful image on the minds of future generations.
A separate treatise would be required for any serious attempt to discuss the various estimates formed of Magna Carta as viewed in successive centuries and in different aspects. Some commentators have concerned themselves mainly with individual clauses; others have treated it as one whole. Historians look mainly to its immediate effects; lawyers and publicists to its ultimate consequences, as it affected the development of the English law and Constitution.
(1) Value of Individual Provisions. To judge from the reforms that attracted the notice of the only contemporary chronicler whose opinion has come down to us, the clauses considered of most importance in his day were those treating of the “disparagement” of women, loss of life or member for killing beasts of the forest, reliefs, the restoration of seignorial jurisdiction (“hautes justices”) and the appointment and powers of the twenty–five barons over the King’s government and over the appointment of bailiffs.
Some at least of these clauses are among those usually considered reactionary, and there seems little doubt that the barons in 1215 were deeply interested in the restoration of their feudal franchises, which Henry and his sons were taking away from them. In the words of the French historian, who was perhaps the first to sound the reaction from the “traditional” view of Magna Carta: “The barons had no suspicion that they would one day be called the founders of English liberty. . . . They were guided by a crowd of small and very practical motives in extorting this form of security from John Lackland.”
Of modern writers’ estimates of the relative importance of particular clauses it seems unnecessary to speak, as their number and variety are great.
(2) Its Legal Value. The value of the Charter as a whole, however, is more than a mere sum of the values of its separate parts. Its great importance lay, not in the exact terms of any or all of its provisions, but in the fact that it enunciated a definite body of law, claiming to be above the King’s will and admitted as such by John. As our supreme authorities say of Magna Carta: “For in brief it means this, that the King is, and shall be below the law.” The King, by granting the Charter, admitted that he was not an absolute ruler—that he had a master in the laws he had often violated, but which he now swore to obey. Magna Carta has thus been truly said to enunciate “the reign of law” or “rule of law” in the phrase made famous by Professor Dicey.
This conception of the existence of a definite body of clearly formulated rights (now set down in the Charter in black and white under John’s seal), which the King was bound to observe, was supplemented by the King’s acceptance of the barons’ claim to a right of compulsion. This was a principle of abiding value, apart from any or all of the clauses redressing specific grievances. “In the slowly developing crisis of Henry III.’s reign, what men saw in the charter in its bearing on their differences with the King was not a body of specific law, but that the King’s action was bound and limited, and that the community possessed the right to coerce him.”
(3) Its Value for the future Development of the Constitution. Magna Carta marks the commencement of a new grouping of political forces in England; indeed, without such a rearrangement, the winning of the Charter would have been impossible. Throughout the reign of Richard I. the unity of interests between King and lower classes had been endangered by the heavy drain of taxation; but the actual break–up of the old tacit alliance only came in the crisis of John’s reign. Henceforward can be traced a change in the balance of parties in the commonwealth. No longer are Crown and people united, in the name of law and order, against the baronage, standing for feudal disintegration. The mass of humble freemen and the Church form a league with the barons, in the name of law and order, against the Crown, now the chief law–breaker.
Such an alliance involved the adoption of a new baronial policy. Hitherto each great baron had aimed at his own independence, striving to gain new franchises for himself, and to keep the King outside. This policy, which succeeded both in France and Scotland, had before John’s reign already failed in England; and the English barons, now admitting the hopelessness of the struggle for feudal independence, substituted a more progressive policy. The King, whose interference they could no longer hope completely to shake off, must at least be taught to interfere justly and according to rule; he must walk by law and custom, not by the caprices of his evil heart. The barons sought to control henceforward the royal power they could not exclude: they desired some share in the national councils, if they could no longer hope to create little nations of their own within the four corners of their fiefs. Magna Carta was the fruit of this new policy.
It has been often repeated, and with truth, that the Great Charter marks also a stage in the growth of national unity or nationality. Here, however, it is necessary to guard against exaggeration. It marks merely a stage in a process, rather than a final achievement. It is necessary somewhat to discount the Charter’s claims to be “the first documentary proof of the existence of a united English nation” and the often–quoted words of Dr. Stubbs, that “the Great Charter is the first great public act of the nation, after it has realised its own identity.”
A united English nation, whether conscious or unconscious of its identity, cannot be said to have existed in 1215, except under several qualifications. The conception of “nationality,” in the modern sense, is of recent origin, and requires that the lower as well as the higher classes should be comprehended within its bounds. Further, the coalition which wrested the Charter from the royal tyrant was essentially of a temporary nature, and quickly fell to pieces. Even while the alliance continued, the interests of the various classes, as has been already shown, were far from identical. Political rights were treated as the monopoly of the few; and civil rights were far from universally distributed. The leaders of the “national” movement gave no political rights to the despised villeins, who comprised more than three quarters of the population of England; while their civil rights were almost completely ignored in the provisions of the Charter. Magna Carta marked an important step, in the process by which England became a nation; but that step was neither the first nor yet the final one.
In treating of the juridical nature of Magna Carta as partly of the type of legislation known on the Continent as an établissement, requiring all participants in political power to be assembled round the King in order that they might give consent, it has already been suggested that what took place at Runnymede may have had an influence on the development of the conception of a series of estates and therefore on the genesis of the modern Parliament. The Charter’s greatest contribution, however, to constitutional advance lay undoubtedly in its admission (tacitly implied in its every clause) that the royal prerogative was limited by the customary feudal rights of the barons (if not of other classes as well).
In a sense there was nothing new in this: the feudal relation, with its inherent conceptions of mutual, contractual obligations and the rights of diffidatio and rebellion, needed no official proclamation: it was known to all. But the formal embodiment of a great mass of feudal custom in a document, destined to be consulted and reinterpreted in future ages, created, as it were, a bridge between the older monarchy, limited by medieval, feudal restraints, and the modern, constitutional monarchy, limited by a national law enforced by Parliament. This is the main thesis upon which Professor Adams so emphatically insists, “the unintended result” of Magna Carta. In light of it, he claims to have located the origin of the English Constitution in Magna Carta, and in these two principles of it which assert the limitations of the King’s prerogative and the barons’ right to compel him to respect the rights of others.
These estimates of the rôle played by Magna Carta would seem to be somewhat excessive and to attempt to find too simple an origin for a system of which complexity and compromise between conflicting elements are the very essence. On the one hand, there is more in the English Constitution than the mere principle of limited monarchy: on the other, the main line by which that monarchy has progressed from medieval to modern ideals has not been by the method, unsuccessfully attempted in 1215, 1244, 1258, 1265 and 1311 (to name only the best–known instances), of subjecting the King to the dictation of a Committee of his adversaries; but rather the method of using the counsellors of his own appointment to curb his own caprice, while making it progressively difficult for him to appoint any minister of whom the national council did not approve. The revolutionary expedient of the Committee of twenty–five was not destined to be on the direct line of development that led, through the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, to the Cabinet system of government that reached and perhaps passed its highest point of achievement in the nineteenth century.
(4) Its Moral or Sentimental Value. After every allowance has been made for the great and beneficent influence of Magna Carta, it may still be doubted whether the belief of enthusiasts in its excessive importance has been fully justified. Many other triumphs, almost equally important, have been won in the cause of liberty; and statutes have been passed embodying them. Why then should Magna Carta be extolled as the palladium of English liberties? Is not, when all is said, the extreme merit attributed to it mainly of a sentimental or imaginative nature? Such questions must be answered partly in the affirmative. Much of its value does depend on sentiment. Yet all government is, in a sense, founded upon sentiment—sometimes affection, sometimes fear: psychological considerations are all–powerful in the practical affairs of life. Intangible and even unreal phenomena have played an important part in the history of nations. The tie that binds the British colonies at the present day to the Mother Country is largely one of sentiment; yet the troopers from Canada and New Zealand who responded to the call of Britain in her hour of need produced practical results of an obvious nature. The element of sentiment in politics can never be ignored.
It is no disparagement of Magna Carta, then, to confess that part of its power has been read into it by later generations, and lies in the halo, almost of romance, that has gathered round it in the course of centuries. It became a battle cry for future ages, a banner, a rallying point, a stimulus to the imagination. For a King, thereafter, openly to infringe the promises contained in the Great Charter, was to challenge public opinion—to put himself palpably in the wrong. For an aggrieved man, however humble, to base his rights upon its terms was to enlist the sympathy of all. Time and again, from the Barons’ War against Henry III. to the days of John Hampden and Oliver Cromwell, the possibility of appealing to the words of Magna Carta has afforded a practical ground for opposition; an easily intelligible principle to fight for; a fortified position to hold against the enemies of national freedom. To explain the exact way in which this particular document—dry as its details at first sight may seem—has fired the popular imagination, is a task that lies rather within the sphere of psychology than of history, as usually conceived. However difficult it may be to explain this phenomenon, there is no doubt of its existence. The importance of the Great Charter has increased, as traditions, associations, and aspirations have clustered more thickly round it.
Thus Magna Carta, in addition to its legal and political value, has a moral value of an equally emphatic kind. Apart from and beyond the salutary effect of the useful laws it contains, its moral influence has contributed to an advance in the national spirit, and therefore in the national liberties. Such considerations justify enthusiasts, who hold that the granting of Magna Carta was the turning–point in English history.
Magna Carta. Its defects.
The great weakness of the Charter was the absence of an adequate sanction. The only expedient for compelling the King to keep his promises was clumsy and revolutionary; quite worthless as a working scheme of government. Indeed, it was devised not so much to prevent the King from breaking faith as to punish him when he had done so. In other words, instead of constitutional machinery to turn the theories of Magna Carta into realities, “a right of legalized rebellion” was conferred on an executive committee of twenty–five of the King’s enemies.
This is the chief defect, but not the only one. Many minor faults and omissions may be traced to a similar root. Constitutional principles are conspicuously absent. The importance of a council or embryo parliament, framed on national lines; the right of such a body to influence the King’s policy in normal times as well as in times of crisis; the doctrine of ministerial responsibility; the need of distinguishing the various functions of government, legislative, judicial, and administrative—all these cardinal principles are completely ignored. Only five of the sixty–three chapters can be said to bear directly on the subject of constitutional (as opposed to purely legal) machinery, and these do so only incidentally, namely, chapters 14, 21, 39, 52, and 61.
The Commune Concilium is indeed mentioned; and its composition and mode of summons are defined in chapter 14. But this chapter appears as an afterthought—an appendix to chapter 12: it has no counterpart in the Articles of the Barons. The rebel magnates were interested in the narrow question of scutage, not in the wide possibilities involved in the existence of a national council. The Commune Concilium was dragged into the Charter, not on its own merits, but merely as a convenient method of preventing arbitrary increase of feudal exactions. This is further proved by the omission of the Council from the reissue of 1217, when an alternative way of checking the increase of scutage had been devised.
If the framers of John’s Magna Carta had possessed the grasp of constitutional principles, with which they have been sometimes credited, they would have seized the opportunity afforded them by the mention of the Common Council, in chapters 12 and 14, to define carefully the powers they claimed for it. On the contrary, no list of its functions is drawn up; nor do the words of the Charter contain anything to suggest that it exercised powers other than that of consenting to scutages and aids. Not a word is said of any right to a share in legislation, to control or even to advise the Executive, or to concur in choosing the great ministers of the Crown. Neither deliberative, administrative, nor legislative powers are secured to it, while its control over taxation is strictly limited to scutages and aids—that is to say, it only extends over the exactions that affected the military tenants of the Crown. It is true that chapters 21 and 39 may possibly be read as confirming the judicial power of the Council in a certain limited group of cases. Earls and barons are not to be amerced except by their peers (per pares suos), and the natural place for these “equals” of a Crown vassal to assemble for this purpose would be the Commune Concilium. This, however, is matter of inference; chapter 21 makes no mention of the Council; and it is equally possible that its requirements would be met by the presence among the officials of the Exchequer of a few Crown tenants. Similar reasoning applies to the provisions of chapter 39 (protecting persons and property of freemen, by insisting on the necessity of a “trial by peers”) so far as they affect earls and barons.
It is clear that the leaders of the opposition in 1215 did not consider the constitutional powers of a national Parliament to be the best safeguard of the rights and liberties theoretically guaranteed by the Charter. They relied rather on the revolutionary powers of the twenty–five barons to be appointed under chapter 61.
The same inability to devise practical remedies may be traced in minor clauses of the Charter. When John promised in chapter 16 that no one should be compelled to do greater service than was due, no attempt was made to provide machinery to define such service; while chapter 45, providing that only men who knew the law and meant to keep it, should be made justiciars, sheriffs and bailiffs, laid down no criterion of fitness, and contained no suggestion of the way in which so laudable an ambition might be realized.
Thoughtful and statesmanlike as were many of the provisions of Magna Carta, and wide as was the ground they covered, important omissions can be pointed out. Some crucial questions seem not to have been foreseen; others, for example the liability to foreign service, were deliberately shelved —thus leaving room for future misunderstandings. The praise, justly earned, by its framers for the care and precision with which they defined a long list of the more crying abuses, must be qualified in view of the failure to provide procedure to prevent their recurrence. Men had not yet learned the force of the maxim, so closely identified with all later reform movements in England, that a right is valueless without an appropriate remedy to enforce it.
Magna Carta: Value of Traditional Interpretations.
The Great Charter has formed a favourite theme for orators and politicians, partly from its intrinsic merit, partly from its dramatic background, but chiefly because it has been, from the time of its inception to the present day, a rallying cry and a bulwark in every crisis that threatened to endanger the national liberties.
The uses to which it has been put, and the interpretations read into it, are so numerous and varied, that they would require a separate treatise to describe them all. Not only was Magna Carta frequently reissued and confirmed, but its provisions have been asserted and reasserted times without number in Parliament, in the courts of justice, and in institutional works on jurisprudence. Its influence has thus been threefold; and any attempt to explain its bearing on the subsequent history of English liberties would require to distinguish between these three separate and equally important aspects:—(1) It proved a powerful weapon in the hands of politicians, especially of the parliamentary leaders in the seventeenth century, when waging the battle of constitutional freedom against the Stewart dynasty. (2) Its legal aspect has been equally important as its political one: in the course of legal debate and in judicial opinions, it has been the subject of many and conflicting interpretations, some of them accurate and some erroneous. (3) Finally, it has been discussed in many commentaries either exclusively devoted to its elucidation or treating of it incidentally in the course of general expositions of the law of England.
In light of the part played by Magna Carta throughout centuries of English history, it is not surprising that an increasing veneration has tended at times to overstep all bounds. It is unfortunate, however, that it has been more frequently described in terms of inflated rhetoric than of sober methodical analysis. Nor has this tendency to unthinking adulation been confined to popular writers; judges and institutional authors, even Sir Edward Coke, have too often lost the faculty of critical and exact scholarship when confronted with the virtues of the Great Charter. There is scarcely one great principle of the modern English constitution calculated to win the esteem of mankind, which has not been read by commentators into Magna Carta. The political leaders of the seventeenth century discovered among its chapters every reform they desired to introduce into England, disguising revolutionary projects by dressing them in the garb of the past.
Instances of constitutional principles and institutions erroneously credited to the Great Charter will be expounded under appropriate chapters of the sequel. It will be sufficient, in the meantime, to enumerate trial by jury; Habeas Corpus; abolition of arbitrary imprisonment; prohibition of monopolies; the close tie between taxation and representation; equality before the law; a matured conception of nationality: all these, and more, have been discovered in various clauses of the Great Charter.
If these tendencies to excessive and sometimes ignorant praise have been unfortunate from one point of view, they have been most fortunate from another. The legal and political aspects must be sharply contrasted. If the vague and inaccurate words of Coke have obscured the bearing of many chapters, and diffused false notions of the development of English law, the service these very errors have done to the cause of constitutional progress is measureless. If political bias has coloured interpretation, the ensuing benefit has accrued to the cause of national progress in its widest and best developments.
Thus the historian of Magna Carta, while bound to correct errors, cannot afford to despise traditional interpretations. The meanings read into it by learned men have had a potent effect whether they were historically well or ill founded. The stigma of being banned by the Great Charter was something to excite dread. If the belief prevailed that an abuse was really prohibited by Magna Carta, the most arbitrary king had difficulty in finding judges to declare it legal, or ministers to enforce it. The prevalence of such a belief was the main point; whether it was well or ill founded was, for political purposes, immaterial. The greatness of Magna Carta lies not so much in what it was to its framers in 1215, as in what it afterwards became to the political leaders, to the judges and lawyers, and to the entire mass of the men of England in later ages.
Magna Carta. Its traditional relation to Trial by Jury.
One persistent error, adopted for many centuries, and even now hard to dispel, is that the Great Charter guaranteed trial by jury. This belief is now held by all competent authorities to be unfounded. Not one of the three forms of a modern jury trial had taken definite shape in 1215, although the root principle from which all three subsequently grew had been in use since the Norman Conquest.
Jury trial in each of the three forms in which it is known to modern English law (the grand jury, the petty criminal jury, and the jury of civil pleas) is able to trace an unbroken pedigree (though by three distinct lines of descent) from the same ancestor, that principle known as recognitio or inquisitio, which was introduced into England by the Normans, and was simply the practice whereby the Crown obtained information on local affairs from the sworn testimony of local men. While thus postulating a foreign origin, we are afforded some consolation by remembrance of a fact which modern authorities are inclined to neglect, namely, that the soil was prepared by Anglo–Saxon labour for its planting.
The old English institution of frithborh—the practice of binding together little groups of neighbours for preservation of the peace—and the custom of sending representatives of the villages to the Hundred Courts, had accustomed the natives to corporate action, and formed precedents for asking them to give evidence on local matters jointly and on oath. Further, one form of the jury—the jury of accusation—is clearly foreshadowed by the directions given to the twelve senior thegns of each Wapentake by a well–known law of Ethelred. Yet the credit of establishing the jury system as a fundamental institution in England is undoubtedly due to the Norman and Angevin kings, although they had no clear vision of the consequences of what they did. The uses to which Inquisitio was put by William and his sons in framing Domesday Book, collecting information, and dispensing justice, have already been discussed. It was reserved for Henry II. to start the institution on a further career of development: he thus laid the foundations of the modern jury system not merely in one of its forms, but in all three of them.
(1) In reorganizing machinery for the suppression and punishment of crime by the Assizes of Clarendon and Northampton, he established the principle that criminal trials should (in the normal case) begin with indictment of the accused by a representative body of neighbours sworn to speak the truth. This was merely a systematic enforcement of one of the many forms of inquisitio already in use: criminal prosecution was not to be begun on mere suspicion or irresponsible complaints. The jury of accusation (or presentment), instituted in 1166, has continued in use ever since, passing by an unbroken development into the grand jury of the present day.
(2) By insisting that ordeal should supersede compurgation as the test of guilt or innocence, Henry unconsciously prepared the way for a second form of jury. When the fourth Lateran Council in the very year of Magna Carta forbade priests to countenance ordeal by their presence or blessing, a death–blow was dealt to that form of procedure or “test,” since it depended for its authority on superstition. A canon of the Church had struck away the pivot on which Henry had made his criminal system to revolve. Some substitute was urgently required and so the petty jury (or its rude antecedent) came into existence. The man publicly accused as presumably guilty was asked if he would stand or fall by reference to the verdict of a second jury of neighbours. This second verdict, then, was the new “test” or “law” substituted, if the accused man agreed, for his old right of proving himself innocent by ordeal. By obscure steps, on which those best entitled to speak with authority are not yet agreed, this jury, giving a second and final verdict, gradually developed into the criminal jury of twelve, the petty jury of to–day, which has had so important an influence on the development of constitutional liberties in England, and even on the national character. Another expedient of Henry’s invention aided the movement towards the criminal jury, namely, the writ de odio et atia by applying for which a man “appealed” of a crime might substitute what was practically a jury’s verdict for the “battle” which had previously followed “appeal” as matter of course.
(3) The Civil Jury owes its origin to quite a different set of reforms, though inaugurated by the same reformer. Among the evil legacies from Stephen’s reign, not the least troublesome were the claims advanced by rival magnates to estates and franchises which had been bestowed with lavish prodigality by Matilda and Stephen. Henry realized the urgent need of protecting vested interests by a more rational expedient than trial by combat. Here again he had recourse to a new development of “inquisition.” In such cases an option was given to the tenant (the man in possession) to refer the question at issue to the verdict of local recognitors.
This new expedient was applied at first only to a few special cases. It was used to settle claims of ultimate title—the out–and–out ownership of land—and then it was known as the Grand Assize; it was also used to settle a few well–defined groups of pleas of disputed possession, and then it was known as a Petty Assize (of which there were three distinct varieties). The King by a high–handed act of power deprived the demandant of that remedy which was his right by feudal law, the resort to the legal duel. It was because the new procedure was founded on a royal Ordinance, that the name “Assize” was applied to it.
By consent of both parties, however, disputes of almost every description might be similarly determined; being referred (under supervision of the King’s judges) to the verdict of local recognitors, usually twelve in number, who were then known as a jurata (not an assisa). While the assisa was narrowly confined to a few types of cases, the jurata was a flexible remedy capable of indefinite expansion, and thus soon became the more popular and the more important of the two. Sometimes the twelve recognitors, summoned as an assisa by the King’s command, were by consent of both litigants turned into a jurata to try a broader issue that had unexpectedly arisen. This explains the phrase, assisa vertitur ad juratam. The assisa and jurata, always closely connected and resembling each other in essential features, can both claim to be ancestors of the modern civil “jury,”—the name of the more popular institution having survived. Magna Carta, in providing for the frequent holding of the three petty assizes, marked a stage in the development of the Civil Jury; while, by enforcing the criminal procedure of Henry Plantagenet, and guarding it from abuse, the Charter had also a vital bearing on the genesis of the Grand Jury and the Petty Jury alike.
These tentative measures, however, still vague and unconsolidated, must not be identified with the definite procedure into which at a later date they coalesced: Magna Carta did not promise “trial by jury” to anyone.
HISTORICAL SEQUEL TO MAGNA CARTA.
Reissues and Confirmations of the Great Charter.
King John had accepted the reforms contained in Magna Carta unwillingly and insincerely; but the advisers of his son accepted them in good faith. Three reissues of the Charter were granted in 1216, in 1217, and in 1225, and these were followed by many confirmations. The scheme of this Historical Introduction is restricted to such facts as have direct bearing on the genesis and contents of John’s Charter. Yet no account of Magna Carta would be complete without some notice of the more important alterations effected in its text during the reigns of later kings.
(I.) Reissue of 1216. On 28th October, 1216, Henry of Winchester was crowned at Gloucester before a small assemblage. The young King took the usual oath as directed by the Bishop of Bath, and he also performed homage to the Pope’s representative Gualo; for the King of England was now a vassal of Rome. At a Council held at Bristol, on 11th November, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, was appointed Rector regis et regni; and, next day, the Charter was reissued in the King’s name. This was a step of extreme importance, marking the acceptance by those in power for the time being of the programme of the baronial opposition.
The Charter in its new provisional form was really a manifesto issued by the moderate men who rallied round the throne of the young King; it may be viewed in two aspects, as a declaration by the Regent and his co–adjutors of the policy on which they accepted office, and as a bid for the support of the barons who still adhered to the faction of the French prince. Its issue was, indeed, dictated by the crucial situation created by the presence in England of Prince Louis of France, supported by a foreign army and by a large faction of the English barons who had sworn homage to him as King. It was, therefore, framed in terms meant to conciliate such of the opposition as were still open to conciliation.
Yet the new Charter could not be a verbatim repetition of the old one. Vital alterations were required by altered circumstances. It was no longer an expression of reluctant consent by the government of the day to the demands of its enemies, but a set of rules deliberately accepted by that government for its own guidance. The chief tyrant against whom the original provisions had been directed was dead, and certain forms of tyranny, it was confidently hoped, had died with him. Restraints now placed on the Crown’s prerogatives would only hamper the free action of the men who framed them, not of their political opponents. The Regent, while willing to do much for the cause of conciliation, could not afford to paralyze his own efficiency at a time when foreign invaders were in possession of one–half of England, from which it would require a supreme effort to dislodge them. It was imperative that the government should retain a free hand in exacting feudal services and levying scutages.
Miss Norgate argues, somewhat unconvincingly, that the omission of chapters 12 and 14 was a concession to Gualo and the Holy See. Rome had regarded these provisions as dangerous innovations of so marked a kind as to justify the annulling of the Charter of 1215, and papal sanction could be obtained in 1216 only by their jettison. William Marshal, however, is not likely to have required external pressure: he naturally preferred to leave his own hands untied.
Yet the issue of the Charter under papal sanction, however obtained, was of material value to Henry’s cause. It had the immediate effect of bringing over eleven bishops to the young King’s side. M. Petit–Dutaillis sums up the situation in two propositions: the French invasion saved the Great Charter, and then papal support saved England from Louis.
The Charter of 1216 is notable for its omissions, which may be arranged under five groups. (1) Restraints placed in 1215 on the taxing power of the Crown now disappeared. The chapters which forbade the King to increase the “farms” or fixed rents of the counties and hundreds, those which defined the King’s relations with the Jews, and those which restricted the lucrative rights derived from the rigorous enforcement of the forest laws, were discarded. An even more important omission was that of chapter 12, which abolished the Crown’s rights to increase feudal contributions arbitrarily, without consent of the Common Council.
(2) No reference is made to John’s charter of May, 1215 to the Church, granting liberty of elections, although the vague declaration that “the English Church should be free” was retained. Chapter 42, allowing liberty to leave the kingdom, and to return without the King’s consent (a privilege chiefly valuable to the clergy in their intercourse with Rome) was entirely omitted: and the same is true of chapter 27, which had placed in the church’s hands the supervision of all distributions of chattels of men who had died intestate.
(3) A great number of provisions of purely temporary interest disappeared, among them those providing for disbandment of mercenary troops and dismissal from office of obnoxious individuals.
(4) A number of omissions of a miscellaneous nature may be grouped together; for example, chapter 45, by which the Crown restricted itself in the choice of justiciars and other officers; the latter half of chapter 47, relating to the banks of rivers and their guardians; and some of the provisions affecting the forest laws.
(5) These alterations implied, incidentally rather than deliberately, the omission of such constitutional machinery as had found a place in John’s Great Charter. The twenty–five Executors fell with the other temporary provisions; while chapter 14, which defined the composition and mode of summons of the Commune Concilium, was omitted with chapter 12, to which it had formed a supplement.
Magna Carta as granted by Henry is thus concerned with matters which lie within the sphere of private law, and contains no attempt to devise machinery of government or to construct safeguards for national liberties. The King’s minority implied a constitutional check, in the necessary existence of guardians, but when Henry III. attained majority, Magna Carta, deprived of its original sanctions, would, with the disappearance of the Regency, tend to become an empty record of royal promises. The machinery of government remained exclusively monarchic; the King, once out of leading–strings, would be restrained only by his own sense of honour and by the fear of armed resistance—by moral forces rather than legal or constitutional. The logical outcome was the Barons’ War.
The importance of the omissions is minimized by two considerations. (a) Many of the original provisions were declaratory, and their omission in 1216 by no means implied that they were then abolished. The common law remained what it had been previously, although it was not deemed advisable to emphasize those particular parts of it in black and white. In particular, throughout the reign of Henry, the Commune Concilium was always consulted before a levy was made of any scutage or aid. (b) It is stated in the new charter that the omitted clauses were reserved for further consideration. In the so–called “respiting clause” (chapter 42) six topics were thus reserved because of their “grave and doubtful” import: levying of scutages and aids; rights of Jews and other creditors; the liberty of going from and returning to England; the forest laws; the “farms” of counties; and the customs relating to banks of rivers and their guardians. This respiting clause amounts to a definite engagement by the King to consider at some future time (probably as soon as peace had been restored) how far it would be possible to re–enact the omitted provisions.
A practical difficulty confronted the advisers of the young King. Neither law nor custom afforded precedents for the execution of documents during a king’s minority. The seal of a king was not available for his heir: the custom was to destroy the matrix when a death occurred, to prevent its being put to improper uses. Henry was made to explain that, in the absence of a seal of his own, the Charter had been sealed with the seals of Cardinal Gualo and of William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, “rectoris nostri et regni nostri.”
In the Red Book of the Dublin Court of Exchequer there is a copy of an Irish version of this Charter, bearing to be executed at the same place and date as the English one (Bristol, 12th November, 1216). It is possible that it was not issued till some months later. After the coronation, the Marshal wrote to Geoffrey de Marsh, Justiciar of Ireland, promising to send a confirmation to the Irish of the liberties just granted to Henry’s English subjects. It was not till 6th February, 1217, that this promise was fulfilled by the sending of an Irish version of the Charter, in the King’s name, as a reward to his Irish subjects for their fidelity. If this is the original transcribed into the Red Book, it would seem to have been antedated by nearly three months; while its terms suggest that little trouble was taken to adapt the purport of the English Charter to Irish needs: four perfunctory alterations substitute the freedom of the Irish Church for that of the English Church; the liberties of Dublin for those of London; prohibit weirs in the Liffey, instead of the Thames and Medway; and make the “quarter of Dublin,” not of London, the measure of corn. The value of the grant must have lain rather in the principle involved than in the phraseology of particular clauses.
(II.) Reissue of 1217. The effect of the new Charter in England was disappointing: apart from the bishops, only four submissions were made to Henry in three months. The vicissitudes of the war need not be traced: on 19th May, 1217, the royalists gained a decisive victory at the battle known as the “Fair of Lincoln”; and, on 24th August following, Hubert de Burgh destroyed the fleet on which Louis depended. The French prince was glad to accept honourable terms. Negotiations, beginning on the 8th, resulted, on 12th September, 1217, in the Treaty of Lambeth or Kingston. “The treaty of Lambeth is, in practical importance, scarcely inferior to the charter itself.” It marked the final acceptance by the advisers of the Crown of the substance of Magna Carta as the permanent basis of government for England in time of peace, not merely as a provisional expedient in time of war. Its terms were equally honourable to both parties: to the Regent and his supporters, because of the moderation they displayed; and to Louis who, while renouncing all claim to the English Crown, did so only on condition of a full pardon to his lay allies, and a guarantee of the principles they fought for. He strove in vain to make better terms for the clergy, who were left exposed to Gualo’s vindictive greed.
It must have been an impressive scene when, on 12th September, at an eyot in the Thames near Kingston, between rival armies lining opposite banks, Louis (who had already granted a confirmation of the substance of John’s Charter) and Henry, laying their hands on the Gospels, swore with the Legate and the Marshal to restore to the barons of England and all other men of the realm their rights and heritages, with the liberties formerly demanded. Henry promised to pay to Louis 10,000 marks nominally as an indemnity for his expenses, an amount partly raised by a scutage of two marks “ad Angliam deliberandam de Francis.” Louis, on his side, restored all cities, lands and property taken by him in England. One version of the treaty mentions particularly the Rolls of Exchequer, charters of the Jews, charters of liberties made in the time of King John, and all other exchequer writings. The restoration of rights and liberties by Henry was the main provision of the treaty, and this was fulfilled on 6th November, 1217, by the issue of a revised Charter of Liberties and a separate Forest Charter.
The issue of these two Charters put the coping stone to the general pacification. After the havoc wrought by two years of civil war, the moment had come for a declaration by the Regent of his policy for ruling an England once more at peace. Not only was he bound in honour to this course by the Treaty of Lambeth, but the opportunity was a good one for fulfilling the promise made in chapter 42 of the Charter of 1216. Accordingly the respiting clause of that document disappeared, and some new clauses took its place. The matters then reserved for further discussion as “gravia et dubitabilia” had now been reconsidered and were either finally abandoned, or accepted with or without amendment. Of the six topics “respited” in 1216, one (concerning forests and warrens) was dealt with in the Forest Charter which took the place of chapters 36 and 38 of 1216 and of the omitted provisions of 1215; two others (concerning scutage and enclosure of rivers) formed the subjects of special chapters (44 and 20 respectively); while the remaining three (the rights of Jews, free egress from and ingress to England, and the “farms” of shires) were not mentioned, although some of the grievances involved may have been indirectly affected by certain newly added chapters (e.g. that which regulated the times of meeting of shire and hundred courts) or by the “saving clause” in chapter 42.
To take the chief alterations in the order in which they occur, chapter 7 of 1217 defines further a widow’s rights of dower; chapters 13, 14 and 15 alter the procedure for taking the three petty assizes; chapter 16 makes it clear that the King’s villeins do not share in the protection from harsh amercement; chapter 20, as already mentioned, treats of river enclosures; chapters 23 and 26 treat of purveyance, the former extending the term of payment allowed to Crown officials, the latter exempting entirely the carts of people of the better classes—“parsons,” knights and ladies. The two provisions, taken together, speak eloquently against the “democratic” interpretation of the Charter. Chapter 34 further limits or defines Crown bailiffs’ rights in regard to legal tests or “trials” where there is no evidence except their own unsupported testimony; chapter 38 makes clear a previously doubtful point concerning the King’s rights over escheats. Chapters 39, 42, 43, 44 and 46 will immediately receive separate discussion; while chapter 47 ordains “of common counsel” the demolition of all “unlicensed” strongholds built or rebuilt since the outbreak of the war between John and his barons.
Chapter 44, generally regarded as replacing chapter 12 of 1215, declares that scutages should be taken in future as they had been wont to be taken under Henry II. If, as has already been suggested, the scutage question was the immediate cause of the revolt of 1215, the importance and difficulty of this subject are obvious. Professor Adams thinks that the leaders in 1217, at their wits’ end for a solution, fell back on a vague, non–committal formula as “an effort of despair.” Yet the old rates of scutage could still be read in the Exchequer Rolls, and the practice of a reign that had closed only twenty–six years before must have been familiar to many others besides the aged Marshal who set seal to the Charter. In reality John’s innovations were now swept away; these included the habit of making an annual tax of what was meant for special emergencies, the assessment under the Inquest of 1212, the demand for scutage and service cumulatively, and, above all, the high rate of three marks per knight’s fee.
The essence of the barons’ demands in 1217 must undoubtedly have been the return to the normal maximum rate of 2 marks. The substitution of this reference to the usage of Henry for the discarded chapters 12 and 14 of John’s Charter (which made “common consent” necessary for all scutages, whatever the rate) was a natural compromise; and the barons in agreeing to it were justified in thinking, from their own medieval point of view, that they were neither submitting to unfair abridgments of their rights, nor yet countenancing reactionary measures hurtful to the growth of liberty. Yet when this alteration is viewed by modern eyes, in the light cast by the intervening centuries of constitutional progress, the conclusion suggests itself that, unconsciously, retrograde tendencies were at work. All mention of the Commune Concilium—that predecessor of the modern Parliament, that germ of all that has made England famous in the realm of constitutional laws and liberties—disappears. If (as it was once the fashion to maintain) the control of taxation by a national assembly, the conception of representation, and the indissoluble connection of these two principles with each other, really found place in Magna Carta in 1215, they were ejected in 1216, and failed to find a champion in 1217 to demand their restoration.
A modern statesman, with a grasp of constitutional principles, would have seized the occasion of the revision of the Charter, to define the functions of the Great Council with precision and emphasis. He would not lightly have thrown away the written acknowledgment implied in chapters 12 and 14 of 1215—in the germ, at least—of the right of a national council to control the levying of taxes. The magnates in 1217 were content, however, to abandon abstract principles; they were selling, not indeed their birthright, but their best means of gaining new rights from the Crown, for “a mess of pottage.”
Such considerations, however, must not be pressed too far: no one seriously thought in 1217, any more than in 1216, of dispensing with future meetings of the feudal tenants in Commune Concilium. Great Councils continued to meet with increasing frequency throughout the reign of Henry III., and the consent of the magnates was habitually asked to scutages even at a lower rate than that which had been normal in Henry II.’s reign. Sometimes such consent was given unconditionally: sometimes in return for a new confirmation of the Charters; sometimes a demand was met by absolute refusal—the first distinct instance of which seems to have occurred in January, 1242.
Chapters 39, 42 and 43, treating of topics not mentioned in John’s Charter, fall (strictly considered) outside the scope of this treatise, but a short account of their main provisions may prove useful here. Chapter 42, from its possible connection with the omitted chapter 25 of 1215, may be taken first. The shire court is not to meet oftener than once a month; less often, where local custom so ruled it. No sheriff or bailiff is to make his tourn through the hundreds oftener than twice a year—after Easter and after Michaelmas respectively—and only in the accustomed places. Careful provision is made for holding view of frankpledge at Michaelmas, with due regard to “liberties” upon the one hand, and to the King’s peace and keeping the tithings full upon the other. Finally, the sheriff is not to make “occasions,” but shall content himself with what he used to have for holding view of frankpledge in Henry of Anjou’s time—a reference, it would seem, to that “Sheriff’s aid” which was the cause of a famous quarrel in 1163 between Henry and his recently appointed Archbishop, Thomas à Becket.
Chapters 39 and 43 link themselves rather with the future than the past, showing that new problems were thrusting themselves to the front since the days of John—topics round which much controversy was to rage. These chapters anticipate the principles underlying two famous measures of Edward’s reign: the statutes of Quia Emptores and of Mortmain. Chapter 39 forbade for the future that any freeman should give away or sell so much of his land as would not leave sufficient to furnish the service due from the fief to the feudal lord.
Chapter 43 marks the growing hostility against the accumulation by the monasteries of wealth in the form of landed estates. The times were not ripe for a final solution of this problem, and the charter only attempted to remedy one of the subsidiary abuses of the system, not to abolish the main evil. An ingenious expedient had been devised by lawyers to enable tenants to cheat their lords out of some of the lawful feudal incidents. Religious houses made bad tenants, since, as they never died, the lord of the fief was deprived of wardship, relief, and escheat. This was not unfair, provided the transaction was bona fide. Sometimes, however, collusive agreements were made, whereby a freeholder bestowed his lands on a particular house, which then subinfeudated the same subjects to the original tenant, who thus got his lands back, but now became tenant of the church, not of his former lord. The lord was left with a corporation for his tenant; and all the profitable incidents would, under the new arrangement, accrue to the church. Such expedients were prohibited, under pain of forfeiture, by chapter 43 of the reissue of 1217; and this prohibition was interpreted liberally by the lords in their own favour.
The only remaining provision that calls for comment is the “saving clause” in chapter 46, intended, perhaps, to cover the gaps left in the Charter as conceived in 1215, by the decision not to restore some of the dubitabilia of 1216: this chapter reserves to archbishops, bishops, abbots, priors, templars, hospitallers, earls, barons, and all other persons, cleric and lay, the liberties and free customs they previously had. The vagueness of this provision deprived it of value.
These were the main alterations made in 1217 in the tenor of the Great Charter. This reissue is of great importance, since it represents practically the final form taken by the Charter. On 22nd February, 1218, copies of the Great Charter, in this new form, were sent to the sheriffs to be published and enforced. In the writs accompanying them, the special attention directed to the clause against unlicensed castles shows the importance attached to their demolition. These remained in 1217, as in 1154, a result of past civil war, and a menace to good government in the future. It was the aim of every efficient ruler to abolish all fortified castles—practically impregnable in the thirteenth century when artillery was unknown—except those of the King, and to see that royal castles were under command of castellans of approved loyalty. John had placed his own strongholds under creatures of his own, who, after his death, refused to give them up to his son’s Regent. The attempt to dislodge these soldiers of fortune, two years later, led to new disturbances in which the famous Falkes de Breauté played a leading part. The destruction of “adulterine” castles and the resumption of royal ones were both necessary accompaniments of any real pacification.
Attempts have been made to estimate the motives and forces at work in these considerable changes in the text of the revised Charter. Attention to minute points of detail in practice and phraseology are rightly held to indicate a return towards more normal conditions under which “problems of everyday government” and the more accurate statement of the law receive attention. The new Charter, in its desire to profit by the actual experience of the past two years, has some analogy to a modern amending statute. Other alterations, however, of a more fundamental nature would seem to have been deliberately made; and, as changing the old customs of the realm, they are of a legislative character in the strictest sense. Evidence of pressure from the baronage, in pursuance of their own selfish interests, can be traced in some at least of these innovations; but, on the other hand, the destruction of their “adulterine” castles shows that there were limits to their power.
The sincerity with which Magna Carta, thus amended, had been accepted by those in power is shown by the issue, seven months later, of letters to the sheriffs ordering them to publish the Charter in their shires and see that it was put in force; while orders were also given to respect the franchises of the city of London.
(III.) Reissue of 1225. Henry’s second Charter, like his first, had been authenticated by the seals of the Legate and the “Rector.” The objection to providing a seal of Henry’s own was that it might be used to prejudice the royal prerogatives by alienating Crown lands and franchises during the King’s minority. But, shortly before Gualo left England, his task as Legate well done, instructions were given to a goldsmith to prepare a royal seal of silver, 5 marks in weight. Apparently the first use to which it was put was to attest letters patent, issued after Michaelmas, 1218, warning all men that no grant in perpetuity was to be sealed with it till the King came of age.
The full twenty–one years would not be completed until 1st October, 1228; but by letters dated 13th April, 1223, Pope Honorius declared his ward to be of full age under certain reservations. A few months earlier (30th January, 1223) consternation had been created by writs issued in the King’s name to the sheriffs for a sworn inquest as to the customs and liberties enjoyed by John in the various shires, before the war; and Henry’s advisers thought it prudent to issue second writs on 9th April ordering that the results of the inquest should be held back till 25th June, and disclaiming all intention of raising up “evil customs.”
It was not, apparently, until December, 1223, that the Pope’s declaration of the partial ending of Henry’s nonage was given effect to, with consent of the Council; and on 13th January, 1224, Henry was asked by Stephen Langton for a new confirmation of the Charters. In the ensuing debate, William Brewer answered for the King: “The liberties you ask ought not to be observed of right, because they were extorted by force,” words which, coming from a royal favourite, were sufficient to justify suspicion. When the Archbishop had rebuked this rash adviser: “William, if you loved the King, you would not endanger thus the peace of his realm,” the young King said: “We have all sworn these liberties, and what we have sworn we are bound to keep.”
No formal charter seems at this time to have been granted; but the barons’ opportunity came in December of the same year, when Henry’s necessities forced him to demand a contribution of one–fifteenth of moveables. A bargain on these terms was struck, and on 11th February, 1225, the Charter of Liberties and the Forest Charter were both reissued. The new Forest Charter was practically identical with that issued in 1217; while the alterations in the new Charter of Liberties were the result of a determination to place on record the circumstances in which it had been granted. In the preamble Henry stated that he acted “spontanea et bona voluntate nostra” and all reference to consent was omitted, although many magnates appear as witnesses. These alterations were intended to emphasize the fact that no pressure had been brought to bear, and thus to meet the objection urged by Brewer in 1224, that the Charter had been extorted by force.
The “consideration” also appears in the concluding portion of the Charter, where it is stated that in return for the foregoing gift of liberties along with those granted in the Forest Charter, the archbishops, bishops, abbots, priors, earls, barons, knights, free tenants, and all others of the realm had given a fifteenth part of their moveables to the King.
The prominence given to this feature brings the transaction embodied in the reissue of 1225 (as compared with the original grant of 1215) one step nearer the legal category of “private bargain.” In another important new clause—founded probably on a precedent taken from chapter 61 of John’s Charter—Henry is made to declare: “And we have granted to them for us and our heirs, that neither we nor our heirs shall procure any thing whereby the liberties in this charter shall be infringed or broken; and if any thing shall be procured by any person contrary to these premises, it shall be held of no validity or effect.” This provision was clearly directed against future papal dispensations; the clause, however, was diplomatically made general in its terms.
One original copy of this third reissue of the Great Charter is preserved at Durham with a still perfect impression of Henry’s recently made seal in green wax, though the parchment has been “defaced and obliterated by the unfortunate accident of overturning a bottle of ink.” A second original is to be found at Lacock Abbey, in Wiltshire. The accompanying Forest Charter is also preserved at Durham.
This third reissue brings the story of the genesis of the Great Charter to an end. It marked the final form assumed by Magna Carta; the identical words were then used which afterwards became stereotyped and were confirmed, time after time, without further modification. It is this Charter of 1225 which (in virtue of the confirmation of Edward I.) still remains on the statute book.
Henry, however, was not yet, in 1225, fully of age; and suspicions seem still to have been entertained as to what would be his attitude when he became of full age for all purposes. It was apparently in January, 1227, that the Council authorized the King to issue writs to his sheriffs that all grants of lands, tenements, or liberties, to be held valid, must be confirmed under Henry’s seal. Writs in these terms went forth on 21st January. This was tantamount to an official declaration that the minority was ended.
Under feudal theory, the close personal relations between lord and vassal had to be renewed when a death occurred: every new King exacted payments for confirmation of earlier grants, and Henry’s previous recognitions had been provisional. The King was enunciating no general doctrine of contempt for vested interests: his abuse of power lay in the exorbitant sums charged for charters confirming earlier, informal “precepts.” There is no substantial ground for the opinion, once widely held, that the King intended to annual the Great Charter, and that, accordingly, it was not in force from 1227 to 1237. Nor, in the instructions to the sheriffs, is there a word said about the Forest Charter. Henry, indeed, dared not openly repudiate either of the Charters, which had received full papal authority.
Yet he was far from scrupulous in observing the letter of their provisions: there was good warrant for the complaint contained in article 7 of the Petition of 1258, that Henry broke his bargain, by extending the forests beyond the boundaries to obtain which the fifteenth had been paid. The process was begun by the issue of letters close, on 9th February, 1227. Henceforward, Henry’s attitude towards the charters was a settled one: he confirmed them with a light heart when he could obtain money in return, and then acted as though they did not exist.
(IV.) Confirmations (1237 to 1297). After the close of Henry’s minority history is concerned not with reissues of the Charter but with confirmations. Matthew Paris refers to the circumstances under which the first of these was executed on 28th January, 1237: as the express condition of a grant of “a thirtieth part of the kingdom, to wit of all moveables,” Henry promised that thenceforward the “libertates Magnae Cartae” should be inviolably observed. This Charter differs fundamentally from those of 1215, 1216, 1217 and 1225. It does not rehearse the substance of any one of the “liberties” it confirms, but contents itself with a brief reference: “We have granted and by this our charter confirmed . . . all liberties and free customs contained in our charters which we caused to be made to our subjects during our minority, to wit as well in magna carta nostra as in carta nostra de foresta.” Even with the long list of witnesses, occupying half of its extent, this document is a small one when compared with the voluminous parchments of earlier grants. It has been suggested that the marked contrast in size may have given rise to the practice of alluding to the earlier charter (whether of John or Henry) as Magna Carta, in distinction from the new parva carta.
In support of the suggestion, it may be argued that the phrase “Magna Carta” is never used by Roger of Wendover, and that its first appearance in the narrative of Matthew Paris is in the passage just quoted, sub anno 1237, “carta libertatum” being the usual description. The words ”Magna Carta” appear a second time in his account of a famous debate in 1242, where pointed reference is made to the bargain struck in 1237, when Henry conceded the liberties contained in “Magna Carta” in return for the thirtieth of moveables “et inde fecit eis quandam parvam cartam suam.” The antithesis is here emphatic.
The adoption of this parva carta means that the Charter had become stereotyped as it stood in 1225, and no longer moved with the times. For ten years previous it had, like a living thing, adapted itself to changing needs and grievances. The new style possibly corresponds with a new attitude on the part of both King and barons. Henry had abandoned any intention of repudiating the Charter or even of infringing its specific promises as to wardships, reliefs or the like: his practice was to evade its spirit, while observing its letter. The opposition, on their part, may unconsciously have come to consider the Charter’s value to lie, not in its specific clauses, but in its assertion of the existence of a fixed body of law to which successful appeal could be made against the King’s caprice. Changes in the texture of that law are no longer reflected in reaffirmations of the Charter; but must be sought for in a series of supplementary documents such as those of 1258, 1297, 1300, 1311, 1406 and 1628.
After 1237 little is heard of the charters until 1253, when complaint was raised of infractions, particularly in regard to the privileges of the Church. Both charters were republished, and on 13th May, the sentence of excommunication, which had accompanied the reaffirmations of 1225 and 1237, was repeated in a peculiarly impressive manner.
In 1265 Simon de Montfort, during his brief period of power, exacted from Henry and his son a new confirmation, dated 14th March, notable for its clause empowering “all of the realm to rebel against us and use their utmost resources and efforts to our hurt” in imitation of chapter 61 of John’s grant. After Simon’s overthrow and death, the King and the young Edward, of their own initiative, affirmed the charters by chapter five of the Statute of Marlborough (1267). Of the confirmations of Edward’s reign, it is only necessary to mention the emphatic Confirmatio Cartarum of 1297, accompanied by an Inspeximus of the issue of 1225, granted under conditions that are well known. It contains new clauses which impose restrictions on the taxing power of the Crown; and these, to some extent, take the places of those chapters (12 and 14) of the original grant of John, which had been omitted in all intervening grants.
Of later confirmations, Coke has counted 15 under Edward III., 8 under Richard II., 6 under Henry IV. and one under Henry V. Of these, only the statute of 1369 (42 Edward III. c. 1) requires special notice: it commands that “the Great Charter and the Charter of the Forest be holden and kept in all points, and if any statute be made to the contrary that shall be holden for none.” Parliament in 1369 thus sought to deprive future Parliaments of the power to effect any alterations upon the terms of Magna Carta. Yet, if Parliament in that year had the power to add anything, by a new legislative enactment, to the ancient binding force of the Great Charter, it follows that succeeding Parliaments, in possession of equal powers, might readily undo by a second statute what the earlier statute had sought to effect. If Parliament had power to alter the sacred terms of Magna Carta, it had power to alter the less sacred statute of 1369 which declared it unalterable. The terms of that statute, however, are interesting as perhaps the earliest example on record of the illogical theory that the English Parliament might so use its present legislative supremacy as to limit the legislative supremacy of other Parliaments in the future.
Magna Carta and the Reforms of Edward I.
The Great Charter, alike from its excellences and its defects, exercised a potent influence throughout the two succeeding reigns. It is hardly too much to say that the failure of Magna Carta to provide adequate machinery for its own enforcement is responsible for the protracted struggles and civil war that made up the troubled reign of Henry III.; while the difference of attitude assumed by Henry and his son respectively towards the scheme of reform it embodied, explains why one reign was full of conflicts and distress, while the other was prosperous and progressive. The fundamental difference between the policies of Henry and Edward lies in this, that while Henry, in spite of numerous nominal confirmations of Magna Carta, never loyally accepted the settlement it contained, Edward acquiesced in its main provisions honestly on the whole, with a sincere intention to carry them into practice.
At the same time, the attitude of Henry III. indicates an advance upon that of John. Henry, on attaining majority, had confirmed the charters freely and on his own intiative, and found himself thereafter unable openly to repudiate the bargain he had made. Yet the settlement between Crown and baronage was nominal rather than real: the King was bound by bonds of parchment which he could break at pleasure. In the absence of sanctions for its enforcement, the Charter became an empty expression of good intentions: no constitutional expedient existed to obviate a final recourse to the arbitrament of civil war. Thus, part of the blame for the recurring and devastating struggles of the reign of Henry must be attributed to the defects of the Great Charter.
The whole interest of the reign, indeed, lies in the attempts made to evolve adequate machinery for enforcing “the liberties.” Experiments of many kinds were tried in the hope of turning theory into practice. The system of government outlined in the Provisions of Oxford of 1258, for example, reproduced the defects of the scheme contained in chapter 61 of the Great Charter, and added new defects of its own. The baronial committee was not designed to enter into friendly co–operation with Henry in the normal work of government, but rather to supersede entirely certain of the royal prerogatives. No glimmering was yet apparent of the true solution afterwards adopted with success: it was not yet realized that the best way to control the Crown was through the agency of its own Ministers.
If Simon de Montfort had any vague conception of the real remedy for the evils of the reign, his ideals were overruled in 1258 by the more extreme section of the baronial party. Earl Simon, indeed, had one opportunity of putting his theories into practice: during the brief interval between the battle of Lewes, which made him supreme for the moment, and the battle of Evesham, which ended his career, he enjoyed an unfettered control; and some authorities find in the provisional scheme of the closing months of 1264, traces of the constitutional expedient afterwards successfully adopted as a solution of the problem. In one respect, the Earl of Leicester did influence the development of the English constitution; he furnished the first precedent for a true Parliament, reflecting interests wider than those of Crown tenants and free–holders, when he invited representatives of the boroughs to take their places by the side of representatives of the counties in a national council summoned to meet in January, 1265. His schemes of government, however, were not fated to be realized by him in a permanent form: the utter overthrow of his faction followed his decisive defeat and death on 4th August, 1265.
The personal humiliation of Simon, however, assured the ultimate triumph of the cause he had made his own. Prince Edward, from the moment of his brilliant victory at Evesham, was not only supreme over his father’s enemies, but also within his father’s councils. He found himself in a position to realize some of his political ideals; and he adopted as his own, the main constitutional conceptions of his uncle Earl Simon, who had been his friend and teacher before he became his deadliest enemy.
Edward Plantagenet, alike when acting as chief adviser of his aged father and after he had succeeded to his throne, not only accepted the main provisions of the Great Charter, but adopted also a new scheme of government which formed their necessary counterpart. The very fact of the adoption of Earl Simon’s ideals by the heir to the throne altered their chances of success. All such schemes had been foredoomed to failure so long as they emanated from an opposition leader, however powerful; but their triumph was assured when accepted by the monarch himself. Under the protection of Edward I.—the last of the four great master–builders of the constitution—the Commune Concilium of the Angevin kings grew into the English Parliament. This implied no sudden dramatic change, but a long process of adjustment, under the guiding hand of Edward.
The main features of his scheme may be briefly summarized: Edward’s conception of his position as a national king achieving national ends, the funds necessary for which ought to be contributed by the nation, led him to devise a system of taxation which would fill the Exchequer while avoiding unnecessary friction with the tax–payer. In broadening the basis of finance, he was led to broaden the basis of Parliament; and thus he advanced from the feudal conception of a Commune Concilium, attended only by Crown tenants, towards the nobler ideal of a national Parliament containing representatives of every community and every class in England. The principle of representation (foreshadowed in a vague way for centuries before the Conquest in English local government), now found a home, and, as it proved, a permanent home, in the English Parliament.
The powers of this assembly widened almost automatically, with the widening of its composition. To its original function of taxation, legislation was soon added. The functions of hearing grievances and of proffering advice had, even in the days of the Conqueror, belonged to such of the great magnates as were able to make their voices heard in the Curia Regis; and similar rights were gradually extended to the humbler members of the augmented assembly. The representatives of counties and towns retained rights of free discussion even after Parliament had split into two Houses. These rights, fortified by command of the purse strings, tended to increase, until they secured for the Commons some measure of control over the executive functions of the King, varying in extent and effectiveness with the weakness of the King, with his need of money, and with the political situation of the hour.
The new position and powers of Parliament logically involved a corresponding alteration in the position and powers of the smaller but more permanent council or Concilium Ordinarium (the future Privy Council). This had long been increasing in power, in prestige, and in independence, a process quickened by the minority of Henry III. The Council was now strengthened by the support of a powerful Parliament, usually acting in alliance with the leaders of the baronial opposition. The Council was recruited from Parliament, and the appointment of King’s ministers was influenced by the proceedings in the larger assembly.
The Council thus became neutral ground on which the conflicting interests of King and baronage might be discussed and compromised. Wild schemes like that of chapter 61 of Magna Carta or that typified in the Committee appointed by the Mad Parliament of 1258, were now unnecessary. The King’s own ministers, backed by Parliament, became an adequate means of enforcing the constitutional restraints embodied in royal Charters. The problem was thus, for the time being, solved. The bargain made at Runnymede between the English monarch and the English nation found its counterpart and sanction, before the close of the thirteenth century, in the conception of a King ruling through responsible ministers and in harmony with a national Parliament. Edward Plantagenet, though merely the unconscious instrument by whose agency the new conception was for a time partially realized, yet merits the gratitude of posterity for his share in the elaboration of a working scheme of government which took the place of the clumsy expedients designed as constitutional sanctions in 1215. The ultimate triumph of the principles underlying Magna Carta was assured not through any executive committee of rebellious barons, but through the constitutional machinery devised by Edward Plantagenet.
MAGNA CARTA: ORIGINAL VERSIONS, PRINTED EDITIONS AND COMMENTARIES.
Manuscripts of Magna Carta and Relative Documents.
The barons who had forced the Great Charter on King John were determined that its contents should be widely known and permanently preserved. It was not sufficient that the great seal should be formally impressed upon one parchment. Those who compelled John to submit were not content even with the execution of its terms in duplicate or in triplicate: copies were to be distributed throughout the land, to be preserved in important strongholds and among the archives of the chapters of cathedral churches.
I. The extant original versions. Of the many sealed copies, four have escaped the destroying hand of time: (1) The British Museum Magna Carta, number one—formally cited as “Cotton, Charters XIII. 31a.” The recent history of this document, which is possibly the original copy delivered to the barons of the Cinque Portes, is well known. It was discovered in the seventeenth century, among the archives of Dover Castle, by the Warden, Sir Edward Dering, and by him presented to Sir Robert Cotton. In the fire of 23rd October, 1731, this Charter was rendered in parts illegible, while the yellow wax of the seal was melted. It is possible that the accident has added to the prestige of this particular copy of Magna Carta.
Like the three others still extant, it is written continuously, though with many contractions, in a neat, running, Norman hand. Some omissions seem to have been made in the body of this version and to have been supplied at the foot. These are five in number. It is possible to regard them as corrections of clerical omissions due to carelessness or hurry in engrossing the deed; but the fact that one of the additions is distinctly in the King’s favour raises a presumption that they embodied additions made as afterthoughts to what had been originally dictated to the engrossing clerk, and that they were inserted at the King’s suggestion before he would adhibit the great seal.
The importance of this document was recognized, and a facsimile was prepared by John Pine, a well–known engraver, some eighteen months after the great fire. The engraving bears a certificate, dated 9th May, 1733, that the copy is founded on the original, which had been shrivelled up by the heat; but that, where two holes had been burned, the words obliterated had been replaced from the other version (to be immediately described) preserved in the Cottonian collection.
(2) The British Museum Magna Carta, number two—cited as “Cotton, Augustus, II. 106.” The early history of this document is unknown, but it came into the possession of Mr. Humphrey Wyems, and by him was presented to Sir Robert Cotton on 1st January, 1628–9. Unlike the other Cottonian copy, this one is happily in an excellent state of preservation; but there is no trace left of any seal. Three of the five addenda inserted at the foot of the copy previously described are found in a similar position here; but the substance of the two others is included in the body of the deed. On the left–hand margin, titles intended to be descriptive of several chapters occur in a later hand. Thus for the preservation of two original copies of the national charter of liberties the nation is indebted to Sir Robert Cotton. Several authors gravely record how Sir Robert discovered “the palladium of English liberties” in the hands of his tailor at the critical moment when scissors were about to transform it into shapes for a suit of clothes. This detail is a fable, since both manuscripts of Magna Carta in the Cottonian collection are otherwise accounted for.
(3) The Lincoln Magna Carta. This copy is under the custody of the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln Cathedral, where it has lain for many centuries. The word “Lincolnia” is endorsed in a later hand in two places on folds of the parchment. It has no corrections or additions inserted at the foot, but embodies in their proper places all those which occurred in the versions already discussed. Further, it is executed with flourishes and in a more finished manner: the inference is that it took longer to engross. The Record Commissioners, in preparing the Statutes of the Realm, considered this version of superior authority to the others and have chosen it for their engraving published in 1810 in that valuable work, and also in the first volume of their edition of Rymer’s Foedera in 1816.
(4) The Salisbury Magna Carta—preserved in the archives of the Cathedral there. The early history of this manuscript has not been traced, but its existence was known at the close of the seventeenth century. Sir William Blackstone, in April, 1759, instituted a search for it, but without success—his inquiries being met with the statement that it had been lost some thirty years before, during the execution of repairs in the Cathedral library. As its disappearance had taken place during the tenure of the see by Gilbert Burnet, his political adversaries accused him of appropriating it—an undoubted calumny, as will be hereafter explained. The document had not been re–discovered in 1800 when the royal commission published a report of its inquiries for national records. Two sub–commissioners visited Salisbury in 1806 in search of it, but obtained no satisfaction. It seems, however, to have been re–discovered within the next few years, since it is mentioned in a book published in 1814, and it is now exhibited to the public by order of the Dean and Chapter of Salisbury Cathedral. It resembles the Lincoln copy both in its fine, leisurely penmanship and also in the absence of additions at the bottom of the parchment.
II. Comparison of the Originals. Prior to Sir William Blackstone’s work, extraordinary confusion seems to have prevailed concerning the various Charters of Liberties. Not only was John’s Magna Carta confused with reissues by Henry; but these latter were known only from an official copy of the Charter of 1225 contained in the Inspeximus of the twenty–eighth year of Edward I. Neither Madox nor Brady was aware of the existence of any one of the four originals; and no mention is made of them in the first edition of Rymer’s Foedera, which appeared in 1704. Mr. Tyrrell, indeed, seems to have known of the second original in the British Museum and also of the Salisbury version. Mr. Care showed no clear knowledge of the various manuscripts, though he mentioned the existence of several. Even Blackstone in 1759 collated only the two Cottonian copies, since he failed to find that of Salisbury, and was unaware of the existence of the Lincoln manuscript.
As these four versions are practically identical in their substance, no important question seems to be involved in the discussion as to whether any one of them has greater authority than the others. The Record Commissioners considered that the Lincoln copy was the first to be completed (and therefore that it possessed special authority), because it contained no insertions at the foot of the instrument. Yet it seems more plausible to argue that this very immunity from clerical errors, or from additions made after engrossment, proves that it was of later and less hurried execution than the others, and therefore of less authority, if any distinction is permissible. Mr. Thomson has much ground for his contention, in speaking of the fire–marked version, that “the same circumstances may probably be a proof of its superior antiquity, as having been the first which was actually drawn into form and sealed on Runnymede, the original whence all the most perfect copies were taken.”
In all printed texts of Magna Carta, the contents are divided into a preamble and sixty–three chapters. There is no warrant for this in any one of the four originals: the “chapters” are a modern invention, made for convenience of reference.
III. Articles of the Barons. Of hardly inferior interest is the parchment which contains the heads of agreement made between John and the rebels on 15th June, 1215. This is now in the British Museum, cited officially as “Additional MSS. 4838.” The seven centuries that have passed over it have left surprisingly few traces; it is legible throughout, and still bears the impression of John’s seal in brown wax. It was apparently deposited in Lambeth Palace, where it remained until the middle of the seventeenth century. Archbishop Laud, when threatened with impeachment, thought it prudent to set his papers in order; and on 18th December, 1640, he dispatched for that purpose to his episcopal palace, his friend Dr. John Warner, Bishop of Rochester. A few hours later, Laud was committed to custody of Black–Rod, and an official messenger was sent by the House of Lords to seal up his papers. Bishop Warner had, meanwhile, escaped with the Articles of the Barons. He kept this till he died, and at his death it passed to one of his executors named Lee, and from him to his son Colonel Lee, who presented it to Gilbert Burnet. When the Salisbury Magna Carta disappeared, Burnet was suspected of appropriating it. What gave apparent weight to these misrepresentations of his political opponents was that special facilities had been granted him to search public records in the prosecution of his historical labours, and that he actually had in his possession—quite lawfully, as we know—the Articles of the Barons, which was confused by the carelessness of early historians with Magna Carta itself. The calumny was so widely spread that Burnet thought it necessary formally to refute it, explaining that he had received the Articles as a gift from Colonel Lee:—“So it is now in my hands, and it came very fairly to me.”
Bishop Burnet left it as a legacy to his son Sir Thomas Burnet; and on his death it passed to his executor David Mitchell, whose permission to print it Blackstone obtained in 1759. It was purchased from Mr. Mitchell’s daughter by another historian, Philip, second Earl of Stanhope, who presented it to the British Museum in 1769. It is now exhibited along with the two Cottonian copies of Magna Carta. The Record Commissioners have reproduced it in Statutes of the Realm in 1810, and also in the New Rymer in 1816.
The document begins with this headline: “Ista sunt Capitula quae Barones petunt et dominus Rex concedit.” Then the articles follow in 49 paragraphs of varying length, separate, but unnumbered, each new chapter (unlike the chapters of Magna Carta, which run straight on) beginning a new line. The numbers, which appear in all printed editions, have no warrant in the original.
IV. The so–called “unknown Charter of Liberties.” At Paris is preserved a copy of what looks like a charter granted by John, but irregular in its form. This document is preserved among the Archives du Royaume in the Section Historique and numbered J. 655. A copy of this copy was discovered at the Record Office in London by Dr. Horace Round in 1893. Before that date it seems to have been practically unknown to English historians, although it had been printed by a French writer thirty years earlier. As the interpretation of this document has proved a puzzle attracting many to attempt its solution, it may be well to give a brief analysis of its tenor. The text of the supposed Charter is preceded, in the manuscript (which is in a French hand of the early quarter of the thirteenth century), by a copy of the Charter of Liberties of Henry I., from which it is separated by this sentence, in Latin: “This is the Charter of King Henry, by which the barons seek their liberties, and these following are granted by King John,” words which invite comparison with the heading of the Articuli Baronum, and suggest that the document under description may have formed a link between Henry I.’s charter and these Articuli.
The first clause runs in the third person (concedit rex Johannes) and grants that he will arrest no man without judgment, nor accept anything for justice, nor commit injustice. The remaining eleven clauses are all in the first person singular (whereas regular charters run in the plural). The second clause restricts relief; the third regulates wardship; the fourth, marriage; the fifth, testate and intestate succession; the sixth, the rights of widows. The seventh, opening with the word “adhuc” (as though later additions were now made to provisions previously written), concedes that Crown vassals need not go on military service outside of England except in Normandy and Brittany; and seems further to suggest, in certain circumstances, a diminution of the servitium debitum. Clause 8 limits scutage to one mark unless by counsel of the barons.
Clause 9, again beginning with adhuc, agrees to give up the forests made by Henry II. and Richard. Clause 10 (also with its adhuc) grants remission, in several particulars, of the strictness of the forest laws. Clause 11 prohibits Jews from taking interest during a debtor’s minority; and clause 12 concedes that no one shall lose life or limbs for the killing of a deer.
At least seven solutions have been attempted of the problems raised by this manuscript. (1) Dr. Round, in communicating his discovery to the English Historical Review, maintained that the document was a copy, in a mangled form perhaps, of a charter actually granted in the year 1213 by King John to the northern barons, containing concessions which they had agreed to accept in satisfaction of their claims. (2) Mr. Prothero preferred to view it as an abortive proposal made by the King early in 1215 and rejected by the barons. (3) Mr. Hubert Hall dismissed the document as a forgery, describing it as “a coronation charter attributed to John by a French scribe in the second decade of the thirteenth century”—probably between November, 1216, and March, 1217, when King Philip desired to prove that John had committed perjury by breaking his promises, and had thereby forfeited his right to the Crown of England.
(4) In the first edition of this work, published in 1905, the tentative suggestion was made that the document might be a copy of the actual “schedule” which we know from Roger of Wendover to have been drawn up by the barons prior to 27th April, 1215, and at that date forwarded to John with the demand, under threat of civil war, that he should forthwith set his seal to it. In this view the schedule would be merely a precursor of the Articles of the Barons, with which it had been previously identified. The fact that this “schedule” was hurriedly drawn up by unskilful hands was suggested as an explanation of the peculiar features of the “unknown charter” emphasized by Mr. Hall; its archaisms, its erroneous royal style running in the singular, and its transition from the third to the first person. (5) Mr. Davis, in rejecting this theory, maintained that the document contained the jottings made by some one present while negotiations were actually in progress between the barons and John’s representatives at some date between the drawing up of the Articuli Baronum and the sealing of the Great Charter, presumably, therefore, between 15th and 19th June, 1215.
(6) Mr. Petit–Dutaillis modifies Mr. Davis’s theory materially. The conference, at which the unofficial note–taker was present, must have taken place shortly before the framing of the Articuli Baronum, and the note–taker himself may have been an emissary of Philip Augustus, possibly a spy of humble origin, collecting information in furtherance of Philip’s designs on England. (7) The most recent, detailed, and ingenious theory is that of Dr. Ludwig Riess of Berlin, who thinks that a copy of the first Henry’s Charter was sent to John for convenience of reference when the latter, amid the misfortunes of the ill–starred campaign of 1214, was trying to make terms with the rebellious northern barons, and that jottings subsequently made on the blank space at the foot of the parchment, as to concessions granted by John, constitute the so–called “unknown charter.”
Successive clauses of the document tell the story of its genesis—and a romantic story it is. When the northern barons met the demand of 26th May, 1214, for a scutage, by the counter demand for a confirmation of Henry Beauclerk’s Charter, John’s Regent, Peter des Roches, wrote to the King, then in Poitou, for instructions, enclosing a transcript of Henry’s Charter, to which he had appended a jotting to remind John of the promise already made on 28th August, 1213, through Stephen Langton. This note forms, in Dr. Riess’s theory, clause one of the much discussed document. Thereafter a period of haggling ensued between John and the distant rebels, with Peter and perhaps also the archbishop as intermediaries, the King making a careful memorandum from time to time of each concession wrung from him by the obduracy of the barons. The King is thus the author of clauses 2 to 12 inclusive, couched in the informal first person singular, each new group opening with the word “adhuc.”
The original document, which thus represented the stages of unsuccessful negotiations extending over several months, was captured, so it is inferred, by the French. After a copy had been made for preservation at Paris, the original was sent by Philip to the barons that they might embarrass John by confronting him with concessions in his own handwriting which he now desired to repudiate. When Henry’s Charter was produced by Stephen Langton at Bury St. Edmunds on 4th November, 1214, it was the royal jottings appended to it, not the familiar, century–old charter itself, that produced the sensation which modern writers have found so hard to explain.
Such is Dr. Riess’s brilliant effort at historical reconstruction: the main difficulties to its acceptance are that it involves too many unproved assumptions; that John, before the failure of his schemes, was unlikely to authorize substantial concessions, or to make careful memoranda of them as though he meant to keep his promises; and that five months, between May and October, would not suffice for the conduct of protracted negotiations between John in Poitou and the malcontents scattered through the north of England.
It is beyond doubt, however, that offers and counteroffers, of which the schedule of Easter was only one, passed to and fro, between March and June of the year 1215. The negotiations of which our document contains a record may have taken place between the respective dates of the “schedule” and the Articuli. It would be easy to explain the presence of a copy in the French archives on the assumption that the original was among “the charters of liberties” surrendered by Louis in 1217. This trifling amendment would meet some of the objections to Dr. Riess’s theory, which in all essentials seems to be the most convincing yet suggested. In any view, the “unknown charter” would appear to be a link between the Charter of 1100 and the Articuli.
It would clearly be inadvisable to found conclusions upon a document, the nature and authenticity of which form the subject of so many rival theories; but even if further investigation proves it to be a forgery, a forgery of contemporary date may still throw light on otherwise obscure passages in genuine charters. Instances of this will be found in the sequel.
Previous Editions and Commentaries.
I. Printed Editions of the Text. Prior to 1759, even the best informed writers on English history laboured under much confusion in regard to the various charters of liberties. Few seem to have been aware that fundamental differences existed between the charter granted by John and the reissues of Henry. Much of the blame must be borne by Roger of Wendover, who, in his account of the transactions at Runnymede, incorporated, in place of John’s Charter, the text of the two charters granted by Henry.
Early editions of “Magna Carta,” then, are not of John’s Charter at all, but give the text of Edward’s Inspeximus of Henry’s reissue of 1225. The very earliest of these to be printed was apparently that published on 9th October, 1499, by Richard Pynson, the King’s printer. The same document was followed in numerous editions by Pynson, Redman, Berthelet, Tottel, Marshe and Wight, from 1499 to 1618. It was not until Blackstone’s day, however, that John’s Charter appeared in print. Of the numerous editions that have since appeared, only four call for separate notice.
(1) In 1759 appeared Sir William Blackstone’s scholarly work entitled The Great Charter and the Charter of the Forest, containing accurate texts of all the important issues of the Charters of Liberties carefully prepared from the original manuscripts so far as these were known to him.
(2) In some respects the Record Commissioners have improved even on Blackstone’s work, in their edition of the Statutes of the Realm, published in 1810. A special section of the volume is devoted to Charters of Liberties, where not only the grants of John and Henry III., but also the charters which led up to them, and their subsequent confirmations, have received exhaustive treatment.
(3) A carefully revised text, Magna Carta regis Johannis, was published by Dr. Stubbs in 1868; and the various charters are also to be found, arranged in chronological order, in his well–known Select Charters, first published in 1870.
(4) In 1892, M. Charles Bémont published carefully edited texts of the charters of 1215 and 1225, printing as footnotes to the latter the variants of 1216 and 1217.
II. Commentaries and Treatises. Within five years of the peace made at Runnymede, a minstrel attached to Robert of Béthune, one of John’s familiars, included an incomplete but not inaccurate summary of the Charter in his Histoire des ducs de Normandie et des rois d’Angleterre, supposed to have been composed in 1220. This first rude commentary has already been alluded to. Posterity would gladly have bartered it, such as it is, for a few words of explanation from one who was well able to speak but preferred to keep silence. The discreet biographer of William the Marshal excuses himself from drawing upon his intimate sources of information: he must pass over, he says, the war which was in England between the King and his barons, for there were too many incidents which it would not be honourable to recount.
Later in the century, comes the mysterious medieval lawbook known as the Mirror of Justices, complaining of “the damnable disregard” of Magna Carta and containing a chapter on that document with some claims to rank as a commentary, although it represents the opinions of a political pamphleteer rather than those of an unbiassed judge. The date of this treatise is still the subject of dispute. It has been usual to place it not earlier than the years 1307–27, mainly because it makes mention of “Edward II.” Prof. Maitland, however, dates it earlier, maintaining on general grounds that it was “written very soon after 1285, and probably before 1290.” He explains the reference to “Edward II.” as applying to the monarch now generally known in England as Edward I., but sometimes in his own reign known as Edward II., to distinguish him from an earlier Edward still enshrined in the popular imagination, namely, Edward Confessor. Mr. Maitland is not disposed to treat this work of an unknown author too seriously, and warns students against “his ignorance, political bias, and deliberate lies.”
Reference has already been made to the comparative neglect of Magna Carta in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and to the influence of Coke in reviving interest in its provisions. Of the commentaries that have subsequently appeared, it is not, perhaps, necessary to mention more than the following thirteen. (1) The elaborate treatise of Sir Edward Coke, King James’s deposed Chief Justice, comprising the second of his four Institutes, was published in 1642 under direction of the Long Parliament, the House of Commons having given the order on 12th May, 1641.
Although this commentary, like everything written by Coke, was long accepted as a work of great value, its method is in reality uncritical and unhistorical. The great lawyer reads into Magna Carta the entire body of the common law of the seventeenth century, of which he was admittedly a master. He seems almost unconscious of the changes wrought by the experience and vicissitudes of four eventful centuries. The clauses of Magna Carta are merely occasions for expounding the law as it stood, not at the beginning of the thirteenth century, but in Coke’s own day. In the skilful hands of Sir Edward, the Great Charter is made to attack abuses of James or Charles, rather than those of John or Henry. In expounding the judicium parium, for example, he explains minute details of procedure before the Court of the Lord High Steward, and the nature of the warrants to be issued prior to arrest of any one by the Crown; while in the clause of Henry’s Charter which secures an open door to foreign merchants in England “unless publicly prohibited,” he discovers a declaration that Parliament shall have the sole power to issue such prohibitions, forgetful that “Parliament” did not exist in 1215, and that the regulation of trade was then an exclusive prerogative of the Crown.
(2) In 1680 Edward Cooke, barrister, published a small volume entitled Magna Charta made in the ninth year of King Henry III. and confirmed by King Edward I. in the twenty–eighth year of his reign. This contained a translation of Henry’s Magna Carta with short explanatory notes founded mainly on the commentary of Sir Edward Coke. Mr. Cooke declared that his object was to make the Great Charter more accessible to the public at large, since, as he said, “I am confident, scarce one of a hundred of the common people, know what it is.”
(3) Sir William Blackstone’s Introduction to his edition of the charters, published in 1759, as already mentioned, contains valuable information as to the documents he edits; but he explicitly disclaims all intention of writing a Commentary. He is careful to state “that it is not in his present intention, nor (he fears) within the reach of his abilities, to give a full and explanatory comment on the matters contained in these charters.”
(4) Daines Barrington published in 1766 his Observations upon the Statutes from Magna Charta to 21 James I. This book contains some notes on the Charter also founded chiefly upon Coke’s Second Institute; his original contributions are not of outstanding value.
(6) In 1772 Prof. F. S. Sullivan issued a course of lectures under the title An Historical Treatise on the Feudal Law, with a Commentary on Magna Charta: “I shall therefore proceed briefly to speak to Magna Charta, and in so doing shall omit almost all that relates to the feudal tenures, which makes the greatest part of it, and confine myself to that which is now law.”
(7) John Reeves’ invaluable History of English Law, which appeared in 1783–84, marked the commencement of a new epoch in the scientific study of the genesis of English law. Treating incidentally of Magna Carta, he shows wonderful insight into the real purport of many of its provisions, but the state of historical knowledge when he wrote rendered serious errors inevitable.
(8) In 1829 Richard Thomson published an elaborate edition of the charters, combined with a commentary which makes no serious attempt to supplement the unhistorical explanations of Coke by the results of more recent investigations. His work is a storehouse of information which must, however, be used with caution.
(9) In many respects, the most valuable contribution yet made to the elucidation of the Great Charter is that contained in M. Charles Bémont’s preface to his Chartes des Libertés Anglaises, published in 1892. Although he has subjected himself to the severe restraints imposed by the slender size of his volume and by a rigid desire to state only facts of an undisputed nature, leaving theories strictly alone; he has done much to help forward the study of the charters, insisting upon the close mutual connection between the various Charters of Liberties. It is doubtful, however, whether by this very insistence upon the continuity of this one series of documents, he does not lay himself open to the misconception that he takes too narrow a view of the scope and relations of the Charter. Magna Carta’s antecedents must not be looked for exclusively among documents couched in the form of charters, nor its results merely in their subsequent confirmations. It is impossible to understand it aright, except in close relation to all the varied aspects of the national life and development. Every Act appearing on the Statute Rolls is, in a sense, an Act amending Magna Carta; while such enactments as the Statutes of Marlborough and Westminster I. have as intimate a connection with John’s Great Charter as the Confirmatio Cartarum or the Articuli super Cartas have. This is a truth which M. Bémont recognizes, though the scheme of his book led him to emphasize another aspect of his subject. His object was not to explain the numerous ways in which the Charters of Liberties are entwined with the whole of English history, but merely to furnish a basis for the accurate study of one of their most important features. His book is indispensable, but is not intended to form, in any sense, a commentary on Magna Carta.
(10) A brilliant article by Mr. Edward Jenks appeared in The Independent Review for November, 1904, whose title, The Myth of Magna Carta, indicates the iconoclastic lines on which it proceeds. He argues that the Charter was the product of the selfish action of the barons pressing their own interests, and not of any disinterested or national movement; that it was not, by any means, “a great landmark in history”; and that, instead of proving a material help in England’s advance towards constitutional freedom, it was rather “a stumbling block in the path of progress,” being feudal and reactionary in its intention and effects. Finally, for most of the popular misapprehensions concerning it, he holds Coke responsible.
(11) In The Magna Carta of the English and of the Hungarian Constitution (1904), Mr. Elemér Hantos ably analyzes the numerous and interesting parallels between John’s Charter and the Bulla Aurea of Andreas II., dating from 1222, and furnishes a brief commentary on both.
(12) M. Charles Petit–Dutaillis, in his Étude sur la vie et le règne de Louis VIII. (1894), was one of the first of modern historians to deprecate exaggerated estimates of the value of Magna Carta, insisting that “the barons had no suspicion that they would one day be called the founders of English liberty.” More recently, in his Studies and Notes supplementary to Stubbs’ Constitutional History he has included a brief but valuable discussion of the Great Charter.
(13) The whole of Prof. G. B. Adams’ The Origin of the English Constitution (1912) is virtually a discussion of the Great Charter, and abounds in valuable suggestions for estimating its tenor and value, and for elucidating its various clauses. It does not aim at being an exhaustive treatise, but is intended to supplement rather than supersede existing commentaries.