The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

13th century in England

Category: 13th century

The main provisions of feudalism may be regarded as a contract between the king, on the one hand, and his vassals, on the other. It was recognized that the king had certain rights and duties. In the same way the vassal had his corresponding rights and duties. If the feudal contract was openly violated by the king, the barons, having exhausted all other means, could rebel against the king. This of course was a very risky thing, especially in England, where the power of the Crown was very great.

John Lackland, as he was known in English history because he practically lost everything that he possessed, thought himself above the existing feudal laws and used the most evil means for forcing money out of his people.

The church was similarly treated, and the towns, that had become comparatively independent, were made to pay all kinds of taxes and fines. The result was the complete isolation of the Crown from those sections that had previously been its supporters. John was unwise enough to make an attack on the church over the filling of the vacant seat of Archbishop of Canterbury at he time when Pope Innocent III was in power, for then the Catholic church was extremely powerful. Pope Innocent III made use of this situation in England and declared John excommunicated and deposed of his powers as king. Moreover, Innocent III persuaded the kings of France and Scotland to make war on him. John’s forces were crushed and the English barons refused to fight. John stood alone. Unwillingly he submitted and on June 15, 1215, at a field called Runnymede by the river Thames John signed the programme of demands expressed by the barons in a document known as Magna Charta or the Great Charter.

• This document of sixty-three sections provided that the church and the barons were to retain their old rights and liberties. The ancient liberties of London and of other towns were guaranteed. Merchants were to be permitted to trade without paying heavy tolls. However, most important was the clause decreeing that no freeman was to be detained or punished except ‘by the lawful judgement of his peers and the law of the land’. The class character of this clause is most evident for only the freeman, or in fact the privileged classes could make use of this right. One of the specific points of the Great Charter was the setting up of a permanent committee of 25 barons to see that John’s promises were kept. It also said that John must govern with the Council’s advice and permission. This particular device did not work well but it gave the barons the advantage to start a political struggle against the king if necessary as a class rather than as individuals.

Magna Charta meant great changes in the feudal system. Even more important, however, was the Charter’s influence on those classes in future centuries — the bourgeoisie and the gentry — who stood against the king’s powers and demanded a limitation of his rights.

The moment the barons dispersed, John denounced the Charter and gathered an army. A war followed which was interrupted by the death of John. His son Henry was only nine. Government was carried out in his name by a group of ‘barons. They became stronger than ever before. Within this period the principles of Magna Charta came to be accepted as the basis of the law at least in theory.

During the minority of Henry III the baronial group governed the country in the name of the king. When Henry came of age the struggle resumed, for he was much influenced by his French wife’s foreign friends to whom he gave lands that the barons thought should have been kept for themselves. Moreover, Henry III was under the great influence of the church. The result was that while Henry was constantly making demands for money the administration of the state grew less efficient.

When Henry III allowed himself to be persuaded by the Pope in 1257 to accept the kingdom of Sicily for his son Edward and asked the Council to provide the money necessary to conquer the island there was a very large opposition in the country. The barons refused the money. However, they were not united and the king made use of this. A civil war started in the country. In 1258 the barons and churchmen held an assembly and drew up the Provisidns of Oxford. That document provided that the Justiciar, Chancellor, and Treasurer be appointed with their consent, and that abuses of the king’s officials in local districts be ended. A Council of Fifteen was to govern England and control the ministers. Other committees were to look after finances and the church. The barons soon disagreed among themselves, however, and the king took advantage of their disputes. Then it was that a new leader of the barons appeared in the person of Simon de Montfort. In the civil war (1264—5), Simon’s forces defeated those of the king at the battle of Lewes (1264) and captured the king and his son Edward.

It was under these circumstances that Simon summoned the first English parliament in January 1265. Besides the barons there were knights (2 knights from each shire) and burgesses from the towns (representatives of the well-to-do dwellers of the towns). Simon had summoned these representatives in order to gain their support and consolidate his power. However, he failed in the latter. Prince Edwardjfescaped, defeated Simon and killed him.

Although the king was now back in power, the parliamentary experiment had made its mark. Simon’s creation did not die with him. Prince Edward continued it when he became king. Two knights from each county were summoned, and two burgesses from each town. Under future kings, the custom grew. It continued calling to council not only the barons, but persons to represent the ‘commons’ — that is, the local communities. At first it was only a way of telling these leading citizens of towns what new taxes to expect. They listened; but they did not talk. However, eventually the practice changed and parliament assumed its role as a fiscal body responsible for taxation.

The composition of parliament, where there were knights and burgesses, was of important significance too. The knights or lesser landowners lived on their estates and made the largest possible income from them. They were greatly interested in the development of the wool-trade. Thus they had many common interests with the merchants and wealthy craftsmen of the towns. Later on the gentry emerged from these landowners, as well as the bourgeoisie from the top of the town dwellers. These two classes were to play the most important role in the gradual consolidation of power of the English parliament, which assumed its supreme legislative role in the seventeenth century during the English bourgeois revolution.

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