Classic History Books

The History of England by A. E. Pollard

the encroachments of the church, and the untoward incident of Becket's murder impaired the success of
Henry's efforts to establish royal supremacy. But this supremacy must not be exaggerated. Henry did not

usurp ecclesiastical jurisdiction; he wanted to see that the clerical courts did their duty; he claimed the

power of moving them in this direction; and he hoped to make the crown the arbiter of disputes between

the rival spiritual and temporal jurisdictions, realizing that the only alternative to this supreme authority

was the arbitrament of war. He also contended that clergy who had been unfrocked in the clerical courts

for murder or other crimes should be handed over as laymen to be further punished according to the law

of the land, while Becket maintained that unfrocking was a sufficient penalty for the first offence, and

that it required a second murder to hang a former priest.

Next, he sought to curb the barons. He instituted scutage, by which the great feudatories granted a money
payment instead of bringing with them to the army hordes of their sub-tenants who might obey them

rather than the king; this enabled the king to hire mercenaries who respected him but not the feudatories.

He cashiered all the sheriffs at once, to explode their pretensions to hereditary tenure of their office. By

the assize of arms he called the mass of Englishmen to redress the military balance between the barons

and the crown. By other assizes he enabled the owners and possessors of property to appeal to the

protection of the royal court of justice: instead of trial by battle they could submit their case to a jury of

neighbours; and the weapons of the military expert were thus superseded by the verdicts of peaceful


This method, which was extended to criminal as well as civil cases, of ascertaining the truth and deciding
disputes by means of juratores, men sworn to tell the truth impartially, involved a vast educational

process. Hitherto men had regarded the ascertainment of truth as a supernatural task, and they had

abandoned it to Providence or the priests. Each party to a dispute had been required to produce oath-

helpers or compurgators and each compurgator's oath was valued according to his property, just as the

number of a man's votes is still proportioned to some extent to his possessions. But if, as commonly

happened, both parties produced the requisite oath-helpers, there was nothing for it but the ordeal by fire

or water; the man who sank was innocent, he who floated guilty; and the only rational element in the

ritual was its supervision by the priests, who knew something of their parishioners' character. Military

tenants, however, preferred their privilege of trial by battle. Now Henry began to teach men to rely upon

their judgment; and by degrees a distinction was even made between murder and homicide, which had

hitherto been confounded because "the thought of man shall not be tried, for the devil himself knoweth

not the thought of man."

In order to carry out his judicial reforms, Henry developed the curia regis, or royal court of
justice. That court had simply been the court of the king's barons corresponding to the court of his tenants

which every feudal lord possessed. Its financial aspect had already been specialized as the exchequer by

the Norman kings, who had realized that finance is the first essential of efficient government. From

finance Henry I had gone on to the administration of justice, because justitia magnum

, the administration of justice is a great source of profit. Henry II's zeal for justice
sprang from similar motives: the more justice he could draw from the feudal courts to his own, the

greater the revenue he would divert from his unruly barons into the royal exchequer. From the central

stores of the curia regis he dispensed a justice that was cheaper, more expeditious, and more

expert, than that provided by the local courts. He threw open its doors to all except villeins, he

transformed it from an occasional assembly of warlike barons into a regular court of trained lawyers -

mere servants of the royal household, the barons called them; and by means of justices in eyre he brought

it into touch with all localities in the kingdom, and convinced his people that there was a king who meant


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