Read BOOK I : CHAPTER IV of A History of England Principally in the Seventeenth Century‚ Volume I, free online book, by Leopold von Ranke, on


There is a very accurate correspondence in this epoch also between the general history of the Western world and events in England: these last form but a part of the great victory of the hierarchy and its advance in power, which marks the first half of the 13th century. By combining with the vassals the Popes had overcome the monarchy, and had then in turn overcome the vassals by combining with the monarchy and its endangered rights. It must not be regarded as a mere title, an empty word, if the Pope was acknowledged to be feudal Lord of England: his legates, Gualo, Pandulph, Otho, and with them some native prelates, devoted to him (above all that Peter des Roches, who, by his conduct when Bishop of Winchester, through the mistrust awakened, incurred almost the chief responsibility of the earlier troubles), spoke the decisive word in the affairs of the kingdom and crushed their opponents. It was reported that Innocent iv was heard to say, ’Is not the King of England my vassal, my servant? At my nod he will imprison and punish.’ Under this influence the best bénéfices in the kingdom were given away without regard to the freedom of election or the rights of patrons, and in fact mostly to foreigners. The Pope’s exchequer drew its richest revenues from England; there was no end to the exactions of its subordinate agents, Master Martin, Master Marin, Peter Rubeo, and all the rest of them. Even the King surrounded himself with foreigners. To his own relations and to the relations of his Provencal wife fell the most profitable places, and the advantages arising from his paramount feudal rights; they too exercised much influence on public affairs, and that in the interests of the Papal power, with which they were allied. Riotous movements occasionally took place against this system, but they were suppressed: men suffered in silence as long as it was only the exercise of rights once acknowledged. But now it happened that the Popes in their war with the last of the Hohenstaufen, whom they had resolved to destroy, proposed to employ the resources of England and in a very different manner than before. They awoke Henry III’s dynastic ambition by promoting the elevation of his brother to be King of the Romans, and destining his younger son Edmund for the crown of Naples and Sicily. King Henry pledged himself in return to the heaviest money-payments. It began to appear as if England were no longer a free kingdom, using its resources for its own objects: the land and all its riches was at the service of the Pope at Rome; the King was little more than a tool of the hierarchy.

It was at this crisis that the Parliaments of England, if they did not actually begin, yet first attained to a definite form and efficiency.

The opposition of the country to the ecclesiastico-temporal government became most conspicuous in the year 1257, when Henry, happy beyond measure in his son’s being raised to royal rank by the Apostolic See, presented his son to the Great Council of the nation, already wearing the national costume of Naples, and named the sum, to the payment of which he had pledged himself in return. The Estates at once refused their consent to his accepting the crown, which they considered could not be maintained owing to the untrustworthiness of the Italians, and of the Romish See itself, and the distance of the country; the money-pledge excited loud displeasure. Since they were required to redeem it, they reasonably enough gave it to be understood that they ought to have been consulted first. It was precisely the alliance of the Pope and the King that they had long felt most bitterly; they said truly, England would by such a joint action be as it were ground to dust between two millstones. As, however, despite all remonstrances, the demands were persevered with, for the King had taken on himself the debts incurred by Pope Alexander iv in the Neapolitan war, and the Pope had already referred to England the bankers entrusted with the payments, a storm of opposition broke out, which led to what was equivalent to an overthrow of the government. The King had to consent to the appointment of a committee for reforming the realm, to be named in equal proportions by himself and by the barons; from this, however, was selected a council of fifteen members, in which the King’s opponents had a decisive majority. They put forth Statutes, at Oxford, which virtually stripped the King of his power; he had to swear to them with a lighted taper in his hand. The Pope without hesitation at once condemned these ordinances; King Louis ix of France also, who was called in as arbiter, decided against them: and some moderate men drew back from them: but among the rest the zeal with which they held to them was thus only inflamed to greater violence. They had the King in their power, and felt themselves strong enough to impose their will on him as law.

Without doubt they had the opinion of the country on their side. For the first time since the Conquest the insular spirit of England, which was now shared even by the conquerors themselves, manifested itself in a natural opposition to all foreign influence. The King’s half-brothers with their numerous dependents were driven out without mercy, their castles occupied, their places given to the foremost Englishmen. The Papal legate Guido, one of the most distinguished members of the Curia, who himself became Pope at a later time, was forbidden to enter England. Most foreigners, it mattered not of what station or nationality, were forced to quit the realm: it went hard with those who could not speak English. The leader of the barons, Simon de Montfort, was solemnly declared Protector of the kingdom and people; he had in particular the lower clergy, the natural leaders of the masses, on his side. When he was put under the ban of the Church his followers retorted by assuming the badge of the cross, since his cause appeared to them just and holy.

At this very juncture it was that the attempt was made to form a Parliamentary Assembly corresponding to the meaning of that word.

The Statutes or Provisions of Oxford contain the first attempt to effect this, by enacting that thrice every year the newly formed royal Council should meet together with twelve men elected by the Commonalty of England, and consult on the affairs of the kingdom. There is no doubt that these twelve belonged to the nobles and were to represent them: the decisive point lies in the fact that it was not a number of nobles summoned by the King, but a committee of the Estates chosen by themselves that was placed by the side of the Council. The Council and the twelve persons elected formed for some years an association that united the executive and legislative powers.

But this continued only as long as the King acquiesced in it. When he had the courage to resist, it is true that in the first encounter which ensued, he was himself taken prisoner: but his partisans were not crushed by this; and soon after his wife, who had collected about her a considerable body of mercenaries, in concert with the Pope and the King of France, thought herself strong enough to invade England. Simon felt that he needed a greater, in other words, a broader, basis of support. And the design he then conceived has secured him an imperishable memory. He summoned first of all representatives of the knights of the shires, and directly afterwards representatives of the towns and the Cinque Ports, to form a Parliament in conjunction with the nobles of the realm. This was not an altogether new thing in the European world; we know that in the Cortes of Aragon, as early as the 12th century, by the side of the high nobility and the ecclesiastics there appeared also the Hidalgos and the deputies of the Commons; and Simon de Montfort might well be aware of this, since his father had been in so many ways connected with Aragon. In England itself under King John men had come very near it without however carrying it through: not till afterwards did the innovation appear a real necessity. In opposition to the one-sided power exercised by the foreigners, nothing was so much insisted on in daily talk and in the popular ballads as the propriety of calling the natives of the land to counsel, since to them its laws were best known. This justifiable wish met with adequate satisfaction now that the Commons were summoned; the public feeling against the foreigners, on which Simon de Montfort necessarily relied, thus found expression. The assembly which he called together doubtless sympathised with his party views. As he invited only those nobles to it who remained true to him (they were not more than twenty-three in number), so he appears to have summoned those only of the towns which adhered to him unconditionally. But the arrangement involved more than was contemplated from his point of view.

Amid the storms he had called forth Simon de Montfort perished: the King was freed, the royal authority re-established. A new Papal legate entered London in the full splendour of his office, Cardinal Ottoboni; Guido having meanwhile himself obtained the tiara, and using every means to subdue the unbending spirits, from which danger even to the Church was dreaded. Yet the old state of things was not restored: neither the rule of foreigners, nor the absolute dependence on the Papal policy. The later government of Henry iii has a different character from the earlier: the legate himself confirmed Magna Charta in the shape finally accepted. It is not merely at the great national festivals that we find representatives of the towns present, whom the King has summoned; it is beyond a doubt that one of the most important statutes of the time was passed with their consent. Yet regulations for the summons of representatives from the towns were as little fixed by law as those for voting the taxes. It would by no means harmonise with the constitution of Romano-German states, that organic institutions should come into full force in mere antagonism to the highest authority. They must coincide with the interests of that authority, as was the case in England under Henry’s warlike son Edward I.

Without doubt Edward, who once more revived in the East the reputation of the Plantagenet Kings for personal valour, would have preferred to fight there for the interests of Christendom, he even speaks of it in his will; or else he would have wished to recover from the French crown the lands which his father had inherited, and which had passed into French possession; but neither the one nor the other was possible; another object was assigned to his energy and his ambition, one more befitting an English king: he undertook to unite the whole island under his sceptre.

In Wales, the conquest of which had been so often attempted and so often failed, there lived at this time Prince Llewellyn, whose personal beauty, cunning, and high spirit fitted him to be a brilliant representative of the old British nationality. The bards, reviving the old prophecies, promised him the ancient crown of Brutus; but when he ventured out of the mountains, he was overpowered and fell in a hand-to-hand conflict. The English crown was not to fall to his lot, but Edward transferred the title of Prince of Wales to his own son. The great cross of the Welsh, the crown of Arthur, fell into his hands: he no longer tolerated the bards: their age passed away with the Crusades.

From Wales Edward turned his arms against Scotland. There Columban had in former days anointed as king a Scottish prince, who was also of Keltic descent; how the German element nevertheless got the upper hand not merely in the greatest part of the country, but also in the ruling family, is the great problem of early Scottish history: a thoroughly Germanic monarchy had arisen, but one which after it had once given a home to the Anglo-Saxons who fled before the Normans, thought its honour concerned in repelling all English influences. A disputed succession gave Edward I an opportunity of reviving the claims of his predecessors to the overlordship of Scotland: he gave the Scotch a king, whom the Scotch rejected simply because he was the English King’s nominee. The war, which sometimes seemed ended there were times at which Edward could regard himself as the Lord of all Albion, ever blazed out again; above all, the support the Scotch received from the King of France brought about complications which filled all Western Europe with trouble and war; but it was in the home politics of England that their effect was destined to be greatest.

Compelled to make incessant efforts, which exhausted the resources of the crown, Edward appealed to the voluntary assistance of his subjects. He laid down to them the principle, that their common perils should be met with their united strength, that what concerns all must also be borne by all. In the war against Wales he had gathered together the representatives of the counties and the towns, to hear his demands and to act accordingly; chiefly to vote him subsidies. After the victory he had called an assembly of nobles, knights, and towns, to take counsel with them about the treatment of the captives and the country. Similarly he drew together the representatives of the towns in order to decide the affairs of Scotland. With especial emphasis did he call for their united help against Philip the Fair of France, who thought to destroy the English tongue from off the earth: knights and towns were pledged to help in carrying out the resolutions thus adopted by common consent.

In spite of all this appealing to free participation in public matters, Edward I did not refrain from the arbitrary imposition of taxes, and those the most oppressive: the eighth, even the fifth part of men’s income. For the campaign in Flanders he summoned the under-tenants as well as the tenants in chief. We find instances of arbitrary seizure of whatever was necessary for the war.

King Edward excused this by his maxim that the interests of the land must be defended with the resources of the land, but we can conceive how, on the boundary line between two different systems, acts of violence, which combined the arbitrariness of the one with the principles of the other, caused a general agitation. In the year 1297 the spiritual lords under their archbishop, as well as the temporal ones (who denied the obligation to serve beyond the sea) under the Constable and Marshal, set themselves energetically to oppose the King. The people, which had the most to suffer from the arbitrary exactions, took their side with cordial approval. They set forth all the grievances of the country, and insisted on their immediate and final redress.

To avoid the pressure, the King had already quitted England, to carry on his campaign in Flanders: the demand was laid before the Councillors whom he had left behind as assessors to his son, who was named Regent. They however were in great perplexity, partly from the trouble of this agitation itself, but mainly from the revolt in Scotland which had broken out in a formidable manner. William Walays, like one of those Heyduck chiefs who rise in Turkey against the established order of things, the right of which they do not recognise, had come down from the hill country, at the head of the fugitives and exiles, a robber-patriot, of gigantic bodily strength and innate talent for war. His successes soon increased his band to the size of an army; he beat the English in a pitched battle, and then swept over the borders into the English territory. If the royal commissioners would oppose a strong resistance to this inroad, they must needs ratify a provisional concession of the demands brought forward. The King, who had meanwhile reached Flanders, which the French had entered from two sides, could not possibly yield to the Scottish movement whether he wished to carry on the war or make a truce: nothing therefore remained to him but to confirm the concessions made by his councillors.

It is not absolutely certain how far these had gone; one word of discussion may be allowed on the matter.

The historians of the time have maintained that the right of voting the taxes was granted to the Estates, and in fact conjointly to the nobles whether spiritual or temporal, and the representatives of the counties and towns: the copy of a statute is extant, in which this is very expressly stated. But since the statute does not exist in an authentic shape, and is not to be found in the Rolls of the Realm, we cannot safely base any conclusion on it. As to the date too at which it may have been passed, our statements waver between the twenty-eighth and the thirty-fourth year of Edward. On the other hand we find in the collection of charters an undoubted charter of confirmation given at Ghent and dated 5 November 1297, in which not merely are the Great Charter of Henry iii and the Forest Charter confirmed, but also some new arrangements of much importance guaranteed, and confirmed by ecclesiastico-judicial regulations. According to it the grants of taxes and contributions which had been hitherto made to the King for his wars were not to be regarded as binding for the future. He reserves only the old customary taxes: to the higher clergy, the nobility, and the commons of the land the assurance is given, that under no circumstances, however pressing, should any tax or contribution or requisition not even the export duty on wool be levied except by their common consent and for the interests of all. In the Latin text all sounds more open and less reserved: but even the words of the authentic document include a very essential limitation of the prerogative of the crown, which hitherto had alone exercised the right of estimating what the state needed and of fixing the payments by this standard. The King was averse at heart to the limitation even in this form. When he came back from Flanders after concluding a truce with France, and army and people were met together at York, to carry out a great campaign against Scotland, he was pressed to confirm on English soil the concessions which he had granted on foreign ground. He held it advisable that the campaign should be first carried through; four of his confidential friends swore in his stead (since an oath in person was thought unbecoming to the King), that, the campaign ended, the confirmation should not be wanting. The enterprise was most successful, it led to a great victory over the Scots, and it was the leaders of the English aristocracy who did the best service there; nevertheless, when they met together next Lent (1299) in London, the King strove to avoid an absolute promise: he wished to expressly reserve the undefined ‘rights of the crown.’ But this delay aroused a general storm: and as he was quite convinced that he could not, under this condition, reckon on further support in the war which still continued, he at last submitted to what was unavoidable, and allowed his clause to drop.

I do not know whether I am mistaken in ascribing to these concessions a different character from that of the earlier ones. It was not a sovereign defeated and reduced to the deepest humiliation who made them, nor did the barons obtain articles which aimed at securing their own direct supremacy: the concessions were the result of the war, which could not be carried on with the existing means. When Edward I laid stress on the necessity of greater common efforts, the counter-demand which was made on him, and to which he yielded, merely implied that a common resolution should be previously come to. His concessions included a return for service already done, and a condition for future service. It did not abase the royal authority; it brought into clear view the unity of interests between the crown and the nation.

Another great crisis united them for the second time. As Edward led the forces of England year by year across the Tweed, to compel the Scots to acknowledge his overlordship by the edge of the sword, the Pope who assumed himself to be the Suzerain of the kingdoms of the world, Boniface viii, met him with the assertion that Scotland belonged to the Church of Rome, the King therefore was violating the rights of that Church by his invasions. To confront the Pope, King Edward thought it best, as did Philip the Fair of France about the same time, to call in his Estates to his aid, since without them no answer to the claim was possible. The Estates then in a long letter not merely maintain the right of the English crown, but also reject the Pope’s claim to decide respecting it as arbiter, as incompatible with the royal dignity: even if the King wished it, yet they would never lend a hand to anything so unseemly and so unheard of. The King, without regard to the Pope, continued his campaigns against Scotland with unabated energy.

It marks the character of Edward I that he nevertheless did not break with the Papacy on this account; so too he still raised taxes that had not been voted, and held Parliaments in the old form: when representatives of the counties and towns were summoned it is not always clear whether they were elected or named. Edward I could not free himself from the habits of arbitrary rule and the old ideas connected with them. But with all this it is still undeniable that under him the monarchy took a far more national position than before; it no longer stood in a hostile attitude as against the community of the land, but belonged to it.

And his successors soon saw themselves forced to complete still further the foundations of a new state of things, which had been thus laid.

Under Edward ii the old ambition of the barons to take a preponderant part in the government reappeared once more with the greatest violence. The occasion was afforded by the weakness of this sovereign, who allowed his favourite, the Gascon Gaveston, a disastrous influence on affairs. Discontented with this, the King’s nearest cousin, Thomas of Lancaster, placed himself at the head of the great nobles, as indeed he was believed to have sworn to his father in law (whose rich possessions passed to him, and who feared a return of the foreign influences), that he would adhere to the interest of the barons, which was also that of the country. In the fourth year of his government Edward was obliged to accept all the regulations made by a Committee of the Nobles called the ‘Ordainers.’

Without advice of the nobles he was forbidden either to begin a war, or to fill up high offices of State, or even to leave the country: the officers of the crown were to be responsible to them. Gaveston had to pay for his short possession of influence by death without mercy.

It was long before the King found men who had the courage to defend the lawful authority of the crown. At last the two Hugh Despencers undertook it: under their leadership the barons were defeated, and Thomas of Lancaster in his turn paid for his enterprises with his life. For in England, if anywhere, the assumption of power led inevitably to the scaffold.

It is hardly needful to say that the regulations of the Ordainers were now revoked. But must not some means be also thought of, to prevent similar acts of violence for the future? It was deemed necessary to declare even the form, under cover of which they had been ratified, invalid for all time. And so an enactment was now made, in which the first definite idea of the Parliamentary Monarchy becomes visible. It was declared that never for the future should any ordinance affecting the King’s power and proceeding from his subjects be valid, but only that should be law which was discussed, agreed on, and enacted in Parliament by the King with the consent of the prelates, the earls and barons, and the commonalty of the realm. For it was above all things necessary to withdraw the legislative authority for ever from the turbulent grandees. The monarchy opposed to them its alliance with the commonalty of the realm, as it was expressed by the representatives of the knights and the commons. Among the founders of the English constitution these Hugh Despencers, through whom the legislative power was first transferred to the united body of King Lords and Commons, take a very important position.

This thought was however rather one left for the future to carry out, than one which swayed or contented the English world at the time. Edward ii fell before a new attack of the revolted barons, with whom even his wife was allied: he had to think it a piece of good fortune that, on the ground of his own abdication, his son was acknowledged as his successor. The latter however could only obtain real possession of the royal power by overthrowing the faction to which his father had succumbed. While he restored the memory of the two Despencers, who had been condemned and executed by the barons, he also decided to carry on a Parliamentary government; it is the first that existed in England.

For the general course of the development it is significant that the rights of Parliament in relation to the voting of taxes, and now also to legislation as a whole, were acknowledged before an appropriate form was found for its consultations. In the first years of Edward iii its four constituent parts, prelates, barons, knights, and town deputies, held their debates in four different assemblies; but gradually the two first were fused into an Upper, the two last into a Second House, without any definite law being laid down to that effect: the nature of things led to the custom, the custom in course of time became law.

That which had been already preparing under the first Edward came under the third for the first time into complete operation, viz. the participation of the Estates in the management of foreign affairs and of war.

In the year 1333 the Parliament advised the King to break the peace with Scotland, which the barons had concluded of their own authority according to their own views, not to put up with any more outrages, and not merely to take back the lost border-fortress of Berwick, but to force the Scots to acknowledge the supremacy of England.

In the year 1337 and afterwards the Parliament more than once approved the King’s plan of asserting the claim he had through his mother on the French throne by force of arms and through alliances with foreign princes, and promised to support him in it with their lives and properties; it was all the more ready for this, as France had been repeatedly threatening England with a new Conquest. In the year 1344 the Peers, each in his own name, called on the King to cross the sea and not let himself be hindered by any one, not even by the Pope, from appealing to the judgment of God by battle. The clergy imposed on themselves a three-years’ tenth, the counties a fifteenth, the towns two tenths; the great nobles followed him in person with their squires and horsemen, without even alluding to their old remonstrances. So that splendid army made its appearance in France, in which the weapons of the yeomen vied with those of the knights, and which, thanks chiefly to the former, won the victory of Cressy. Whilst the King made conquests over the French, his heroic Queen repelled the Scotch. In these wars the now united nation, which put forth all its strength, came for the first time to the feeling of its power, to a position of its own in the world and to the consciousness of it. The King of Scotland at that time, and the King of France some years later, became prisoners in England.

A period followed in which England seemed to have obtained the supremacy in Western Europe. The Scots purchased their King’s freedom by a truce which bound them to long and heavy payments, for which hostages were given as a security. A peace was made with the French by which Guienne, Gascony, Poitou, and such important towns as Rochelle and Calais were surrendered to the English. The Prince of Wales, who took up his residence at Bordeaux, mixed in the Spanish quarrels with the view of uniting Biscay to his territories in South France. As the result of these circumstances and of the well-calculated encouragement of Edward iii, we find that English commerce prospered immensely and, in emulous alliance with that of Flanders, began to form another great centre for the general commerce of the world. It was still chiefly in the hands of foreigners, but the English made great profits by it. Their riches gained them almost as much prestige in the world as their bravery. The more money-resources the towns possessed, and the more they could and did support the King, the greater became their influence on the affairs of the realm. No language could be more humble than that of these ‘poor and simple Commons,’ when they address themselves to ’their glorious and thrice gracious King and lord.’ But for all that their representations are exceedingly comprehensive and pressing; their grants are not to take effect, unless their grievances are redressed; they never leave out of sight the interests of their staple; they assail the exactions of the officials or the clergy with great zeal. The regard paid to them gives the whole government a popular character.

On an attempt of the King to exercise the legislative power in his great council, they remonstrated; they had no objection to the ordinances themselves, but insisted that valid statutes could only proceed from the lawfully assembled Parliament.

Now too the relations to the Papal See came again into consideration. Seated at Avignon under the influence of the French crown, the Popes were natural opponents of Edward III’s claims and enterprises; they sometimes thought of directing the censures of the Church against him. On the other hand, the complaints in England against the encroachments and pecuniary demands of the Curia were louder than ever, without however coming to a rupture on these points. But at last Urban V renewed the old claim to the vassalage of England; he demanded the feudal tribute first paid by King John, and threatened King and kingdom, in case they were not willing to pay it, with judicial proceedings. We know the earlier kings had seen in the connexion with Rome a last resource against the demands of the Estates: on the King’s side it required some resolution to renounce it. But the very nature of the Parliamentary government, as Edward iii had settled it, involved a disregard of these considerations for the future. It was before the Parliament itself that he laid the Papal demands for their consent and counsel. The Estates consulted separately: first the spiritual and lay lords framed their resolution, then the town deputies assented to it. The answer they gave the Pope was that King John’s submission was destitute of all validity, since it was against his coronation-oath, and was made without the consent of the Estates; should the Pope try to enforce satisfaction of his demand by legal process or in any other manner, they would all dukes earls barons and commons oppose him with their united force. The clergy only assented to the declaration of invalidity; to threaten the holy father with their resistance, they considered unbecoming. But the declaration of the lay Estates was in itself sufficient for the purpose: the claim was never afterwards raised again.

The Estates had often been obliged to contend against the King and the Roman See at the same time; now the King was allied with them against the Papacy. Now that the Parliamentary constitution was established in its first stage, it is clear how much the union of the Crown and the Estates in opposition to external influence had contributed to it. It was destined however shortly to undergo yet other tests.