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The beginnings of Parliament



 

King John had signed Magna Carta unwillingly, and it quickly became clear that he was not going to keep to the agreement. The nobles rebelled and pushed John out of the southeast. But civil war was avoided because John died suddenly in 1216.


 

 


John's son, Henry III, was only nine years old. During the first sixteen years as king he was under the control of powerful nobles, and tied by Magna Carta.

Henry was finally able to rule for himself at the age of twenty-five and greatly upset the nobles. He spent his time with foreign friends, and became involved in expensive wars supporting the pope in Sicily and also in France.

Henry's heavy spending and his foreign advisers upset the nobles. Once again they acted as a class, under the leadership of Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester. In 1258 they took over the government and elected a council of nobles. De Montfort called it a parliament, or parlement, a French word meaning a "discussion meeting". This "parliament" took control of the treasury and forced Henry to get rid of his foreign advisers. The nobles were supported by the towns, which wished to be free of Henry's heavy taxes.

 

When Henry died in 1272 his son Edward I took the throne without question. Edward I brought together the first real parliament. Simon de Montfort's council

 

had been called a parliament, but it included only nobles. It had been able to make statutes, or written laws, and it had been able to make political decisions. However, the lords were less able to provide the king with money, except what they had agreed to pay him for the lands they held under feudal arrangement.

 

Edward I was the first to create a "representative institution" which could provide the money he needed. This institution became the House of Commons. Unlike the House of Lords it contained a mixture of "gentry" (knights and other wealthy freemen from the shires) and merchants from the towns. These were the two broad classes of people who produced and controlled England's wealth.

 

In 1275 Edward I commanded each shire and each town (or borough) to send two representatives to his parliament. presentatives of their local community. This, rather than Magna Carta, was the beginning of the idea that there should be "no taxation without representation", later claimed by the American colonists of the eighteenth century.



 

In other parts of Europe, similar "parliaments" kept all the gentry separate from the commoners. England was special because the House of Commons contained a mixture of gentry belonging to the feudal ruling class and merchants and freemen who did not. The co-operation of these groups, through the House of Commons, became important to Britain's later political and social development.

 

Dealing with the Celts

 

Edward I was less interested in winning back parts of France than in bringing the rest of Britain under his control.

 

A new class grew up, a mixture of the Norman and Welsh rulers, who spoke Norman French and Welsh, but not English. They all became vassals of the English king.

In 1284 Edward united west Wales with England, bringing the English county system to the newly conquered lands. But he did not interfere with the areas the Normans had conquered earlier on the English-Welsh border, because this would have led to trouble with his nobles.


 


The English considered that Wales had become part of England for all practical purposes. If the Welsh wanted a prince, they could have one. At a public ceremony Edward I made his own baby son (later Edward II) Prince of Wales. From that time the eldest son of the ruling king or queen has usually been made Prince of Wales.

 

Ireland had been conquered by Norman lords in 1169.

 

Henry II made Dublin, the old Viking town, the capital of his new colony. Much of western Ireland remained in the hands of Irish chiefs, while Norman lords governed most of the east. Edward I took as much money and as many men as he could for his wars against the Welsh and Scots. As a result Ireland was drained of its wealth. The Norman nobles and Irish chiefs quietly avoided English authority as much as possible. The Irish chiefs continued to live as they always had done, moving from place to place, and eating out of doors, a habit they only gave up in the sixteenth century.



 

In Scotland things were very different. The Scottish kings were closely connected with England. Since Saxon times, marriages had frequently taken place between the Scottish and English royal families. The feudal system, however, did not develop in the Highlands, where the tribal "clan" system continued. Some Scottish kings held land in England, just as English kings held lands in France. And in exactly the same way they did homage, promising loyalty to the English king for that land.

In 1290 a crisis took place over the succession to the Scottish throne. There were thirteen possible heirs. Among these the most likely to succeed were John de Balliol and Robert Bruce, both Norman- Scottish knights. In order to avoid civil war the Scottish nobles invited Edward I to settle the matter.

 

Edward had already shown interest in joining Scotland to his kingdom. He invaded Scotland and put one of them, John de Balliol, on the Scottish throne.

 

De Balliol's four years as king were not happy. First, Edward made him provide money and troops for the English army and the Scottish nobles rebelled. Then Edward invaded Scotland again, and captured all the main Scottish castles.

Edward's treatment of the Scots created a popular resistance movement. It was led by William Wallace a Norman Scottish knights. He captured Wallace and executed him, putting his head on a pole on London Bridge. Edward tried to make Scotland a part of England, as he had done with Wales. Some Scottish nobles accepted him, but the people refused to be ruled by the English king.

 

A new leader took up the struggle. This was Robert Bruce, who had competed with John de Balliol for the throne. He was able to raise an army and defeat the English army in Scotland. Edward I gathered another great army and marched against Robert Bruce, but he died on the way north in 1307. On Edward's grave were written the words "Edward, the Hammer of the Scots". He had intended to hammer them into the ground and destroy them, but in fact he had hammered them into a nation.

After his death his son, Edward II, turned back to England. Bruce had time to defeat his Scottish enemies, and make himself accepted as king of the Scots.

 

Edward I's coronation chair. The Scottish Stone of Destiny which Edward took from Scone Abbey is under the seat, a symbol of England's desire to rule Scotland. On either side of the throne stand the symbolic state sword and shield of Edward III.


 


 

 


Chapter 6

 

Government and society

 

The growth of government

 

William the Conqueror had governed England and Normandy by travelling from one place to another to make sure that his authority was accepted. The king's "household" was the government, and it was always on the move. There was no real capital of the kingdom as there is today. Kings were crowned in Westminster, but their treasury stayed in the old Wessex capital, Winchester.

 

This form of government could only work well for a small kingdom. By the time the English kings were ruling half of France as well they could no longer travel everywhere themselves. Instead, they sent nobles and knights from the royal household to act as sheriffs. But even this system needed people who could administer taxation, justice, and carry out the king's instructions. At first this "administration" was based in Winchester, but by the time of Edward I, in 1290, it had moved to Westminster.

Most important of all, the officials in Westminster had to watch the economy of the country carefully. Was the king getting the money he needed in the most effective way? Such questions led to important changes in taxation between 1066 and 1300. In 1130 well over half of Henry I's money came from his own land, one-third from his feudal vassals in rights and fines, and only one-seventh from taxes. One hundred and fifty years later, over half of Edward I's money came from taxes, but only one-third came from his land and only one-tenth from his feudal vassals.

 

It is not surprising, either, that the administration began to grow very quickly. When William I invaded Britain he needed only a few clerks to manage his paperwork. Most business, including feudal homage, was done by the spoken, not written, word. But the need for paperwork grew rapidly. From 1199 the administration in Westminster kept copies of all the letters and documents that were sent out.

 

Law and justice

 

The king, of course, was responsible for law and justice. But kings usually had to leave the administration of this important matter to someone who lived close to the place where a crime was committed. In Saxon times every district had had its own laws and customs, and justice had often been a family matter.

 

It was the kings duty to try people and punish them. It was Henry I who appointed a number of judges who travelled from place to place administering justice. (These travelling, or "circuit" judges still exist today.) They dealt both with crimes and disagreements over property. In this way the king slowly took over the administration from the nobles.

 

At first the king's judges had no special knowledge or training. They were simply trusted to use common sense. Many of them were nobles or bishops who followed directly the orders of the king. It is not surprising that the quality of judges depended on the choice of the king. Henry II, the most powerful English king of the twelfth century, was known in Europe for the high standards of his law courts. By the end of the twelfth century the judges were men with real knowledge and experience of


 


the law.

 

The law administered by these travelling judges became known as "common law", because it was used everywhere.

Traditional local laws were replaced by common laws all over land. This mixture of experience and custom is the basis of law in England even today. Modern judges still base their decisions on the way in which similar cases have been decided.

The new class of judges was also interested in how the law was carried out, and what kinds of punishment were used. From Anglo-Saxon times there had been two ways of deciding difficult cases when it was not clear if a man was innocent or guilty. The accused man could be tested in battle against a skilled fighter, or tested by "ordeal". A typical "ordeal" was to put a hot iron on the man's tongue. If the burn mark was still there three days later he was thought to be guilty. It was argued that God would leave the burn mark on a guilty man's tongue. Such a system worked only as long as people believed in it. By the end of the twelfth century there were serious doubts and in 1215 the pope forbade the Church to have anything to do with trial by ordeal.

 

Henry II had already introduced the use of juries for some cases in the second half of the twelfth century. But it was not the kind of jury we know today. In 1179 he allowed an accused man in certain cases to claim "trial by jury". The man could choose twelve neighbours, "twelve good men and true", who would help him prove that he was not guilty. Slowly, during the later Middle Ages, the work of these juries gradually changed from giving evidence to judging the evidence of others. Juries had no training in the law, they were ordinary people using ordinary common sense.

 


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