Classic History Books


The History of England by A. E. Pollard

to govern with their help.

These experts had a free hand as regards the law they administered. The old Anglo-Saxon customs which
had done duty for law had degenerated into antiquated formalities, varying in almost every shire and

hundred, which were perforce ignored by Henry's judges because they were incomprehensible. So much

as they understood and approved they blended with principles drawn from the revived study of Roman

law and with Frankish and Norman customs. The legal rules thus elaborated by the king's court were

applied by the justices in eyre where-ever their circuits took them, and became in time the common law

of England, common because it admitted no local bars and no provincial prejudices. One great stride had

been taken in the making of the English nation, when the king's court, trespassing upon local popular and

feudal jurisdiction, dumped upon the Anglo-Saxon market the following among other foreign legal

concepts - assize, circuit, suit, plaintiff, defendant, maintenance, livery, possession, property, probate,

recovery, trespass, treason, felony, fine, coroner, court, inquest, judge, jury, justice, verdict, taxation,

charter, liberty, representation, parliament, and constitution. It is difficult to over- estimate the debt the

English people owe to their powers of absorbing imports. The very watchwords of progress and

catchwords of liberty, from the trial by jury which was ascribed to Alfred the Great to the charter

extorted from John, were alien immigrants. We call them alien because they were alien to the

Anglo-Saxons; but they are the warp and woof of English institutions, which are too great and too

complex to have sprung from purely insular sources.

In spite of the fierce opposition of the barons, who rebelled in 1173, and of disputes with his fractious
children which embittered his closing years, Henry II had laid the foundations of national monarchy. But

in completing one part of the Norman Conquest, namely, the establishment of royal supremacy over

disorderly feudatories, he had modified the other, the arbitrary rule of the barons over the subject people.

William had only conquered the people by the help of his barons; Henry II only crushed the barons with

the help of lower orders and of ministers raised from the ranks. It was left for his sons to alienate the

support which he had enlisted, and to show that, if the first condition of progress was the restraint of the

barons, the second was the curbing of the crown. Their reigns illustrate the ineradicable defect of

arbitrary rule: a monarch of genius creates an efficient despotism, and is allowed to create it, to deal with

evils that yield to no milder treatment. His successors proceed to use that machinery for personal ends.

Richard I gilded his abuse of his father's power with the glory of his crusade, and the end afforded a

plausible justification for the means he adopted. But John cloaked his tyranny with no specious

pretences; his greed and violence spared no section of the community, and forced all into a coalition

which extorted from him the Great Charter.

This famous document betrays its composite authorship; no section of the community entered the
coalition without something to gain, and none went entirely unrewarded from Runnymede. But if Sir

Henry Spelman introduced feudalism into England, his contemporary, Chief-justice Coke, invented

Magna Carta: and in view of the profound misconceptions which prevail with regard to its character, it is

necessary to insist rather upon its reactionary than upon its reforming elements. The great source of error

lies in the change which is always insensibly, but sometimes completely, transforming the meaning of

words. Generally the change has been from the concrete to the abstract, because in their earlier stages of

education men find it very difficult to grasp anything which is not concrete. The word "liberty" affords a

good illustration: in 1215 a "liberty" was the possession by a definite person or group of persons of very

definite and tangible privileges, such as having a court of your own with its perquisites, or exemption

from the duties of attending the public courts of the shire or hundred, of rendering the services or of

paying the dues to which the majority were liable. The value of a "liberty" was that through its enjoyment

 

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