History of England in the Middle Ages

THE Anglo-Saxon polity limited the succession of the crown to a particular house, but allowed a latitude of choice within that house. The community was divided into thanes, or gentry, ceorls or freemen, and serfs.

The Norman conquest involved a vast confiscation of property and the exclusion of the native English from political privileges. That the government was extremely tyrannical is certain. The crown derived its revenues from feudal dues, customs duties, tallages--that is, special charges on particular towns--and the war tax, called the danegelt; all, except the first, being arbitrary taxes. The violence of King John led to the demand of the barons for the great Charter, the keystone of English liberty, securing the persons and property of all freemen from arbitrary imprisonment or spoliation.

The reign of Edward I forms an epoch. The confirmation of the charters put an end to all arbitrary taxation; and the type of the English parliament was fixed. In the great councils the prelates and the greater barons had assembled. A system of representation is definitely formulated in Montfort's parliament of 1265. Whether the knights were elected by the freemen of the shire or only by the tenants in chief is not clear. Many towns were self-governing--independent, that is, of local magnates--under charters from the crown. Montfort's parliament is the first to which towns sent representatives. Edward established the practice in his model parliament; probably in order to ensure that his demands for money from the towns might, in appearance at least, receive their formal assent.

Parliament was not definitely divided into two houses until the reign of Edward III. In this reign the commons succeeded in establishing the illegality of raising money without consent; the necessity that the two houses should concur for any alterations in the law; and the right of the commons to inquire into public abuses and to impeach public councillors.

In the next reign the commons asserted the right of examining the public expenditure. Moreover, the parliaments more openly and boldly expressed resentment at the acts of the king's ministers, and claimed rights of control. For a time, however, the king secured supremacy by a coup d'etat, which, in turn, brought about his deposition and the accession of Henry IV, despite the absurd weakness of his title to the inheritance of the crown.

The rights thus acquired develop until the Wars of the Roses. Notably, redress of grievances becomes the condition of supply; and the inclination of the crown to claim a dispensing power is combated.

This continues during the minority of Henry VI; but the revival of dissatisfaction with the government leads to a renewed activity in the practice of impeachments; and parliament begins to display a marked sensitiveness on the question of its privileges. The commons further definitely express their exclusive right of originating money bills.

So far, the essential character of our constitution appears to be a monarchy, greatly limited by law, but swerving continually into irregular courses, which there was no constraint adequate to correct. There is absolutely no warrant for the theory that the king was merely a hereditary executive magistrate, the first officer of the state. The special advantage enjoyed by England lay in the absence of an aristocracy with interests antagonistic to those of the people.

The process by which the villein became a hired labourer is obscure, and an attempt was made to check it by the Statute of Labourers at the time of the Black Death. This was followed by the peasants' revolt of 1382, which corresponded to the far worse horrors of the French Jacquerie. Sharply though this was suppressed, the real object of the rising seemed to have been accomplished.

Of the period of the Wars of the Roses, it is here sufficient to say that it established the principle embodied in a statute of Henry VIII, that obedience to the de facto government is not to be punished on the ground that that government is not also de jure.

Return to Outline of Great Books Volume I