Classic History Books


The History of England by A. E. Pollard

earls of their power, and entrust it to a nominal deputy, the sheriff. In France, the sheriff
(vice-comes, vicomte) became hereditary in his turn, and a prolonged struggle over the

same tendency was fought in England. Fortunately, the crown and country triumphed over the hereditary

principle in this respect; the sheriff remained an official, and when viscounts were created later, in

imitation of the French nobility, they received only a meaningless and comparatively innocuous title.

Some slight check, too, was retained upon the crown owing to a series of disputed successions to the
throne. The Anglo-Saxon monarchy had always been in theory elective, and William had been careful to

observe the form. His son, William II, had to obtain election in order to secure the throne against the

claims of his elder brother Robert, and Henry I followed his example for similar reasons. Each had to

make election promises in the form of a charter; and election promises, although they were seldom kept,

had some value as reminders to kings of their duties and theoretical dependence upon the electors.

Gradually, too, the kings began to look for support outside their Norman baronage, and to realize that

even the submerged English might serve as a makeweight in a balance of opposing forces. Henry I bid

for London's support by the grant of a notable charter; for, assisted by the order and communications

with the Continent fostered by Norman rule, commerce was beginning to flourish and towns to grow.

London was already distancing Winchester in their common ambition to be the capital of the kingdom,

and the support of it and of other towns began to be worth buying by grants of local government, more

especially as their encouragement provided another check on feudal magnates. Henry, too, made a great

appeal to English sentiment by marrying Matilda, the granddaughter of Edmund Ironside, and by

revenging the battle of Hastings through a conquest of Normandy from his brother Robert, effected partly

by English troops.

But the order, which the three Norman sovereigns evolved out of chaos, was still due more to their
personal vigour than to the strength of the administrative machinery which they sought to develop; and

though that machinery continued to work during the anarchy which followed, it could not restrain the

feudal barons, when the crown was disputed between Henry's daughter Matilda and his nephew Stephen.

The barons, indeed, had been more successful in riveting their baronial yoke on the people than the kings

had been in riveting a monarchical yoke on the barons; and nothing more vividly illustrates the utter

subjection of Anglo-Saxons than the fact that the conquerors could afford to tear each other to pieces for

nineteen years (1135-1154) without the least attempt on the part of their subjects to throw off their

tyranny. There was no English nation yet; each feudal magnate did what he pleased with his own without

fear of royal or popular vengeance, and for once in English history, at any rate, the lords vindicated their

independence. The church was the only other body which profited by the strife; within its portals and its

courts there was some law and order, some peace and refuge from the worldly welter; and it seized the

opportunity to broaden its jurisdiction, magnify its law, exalt its privileges, and assert that to it belonged

principally the right to elect and to depose sovereigns. Greater still would have been its services to

civilization, had it been able to assert a power of putting down the barons from their castles and raising

the peasantry from their bondage.

Deliverance could only come by royal power, and in Henry II, Matilda's son, Anjou gave England a
greater king than Normandy had done in William the Bastard. Although a foreigner, who ruled a vast

continental empire and spent but a fraction of his days on this side of the Channel, he stands second to

none of England's makers. He fashioned the government which hammered together the framework of a

national state. First, he gathered up such fragments of royal authority as survived the anarchy; then, with

the conservative instincts and pretences of a radical, he looked about for precedents in the customs of his

grandfather, proclaiming his intention of restoring good old laws. This reaction brought him up against

 

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