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Events Leading to Magna Carta in United Kingdom

The Great Charter is too often treated as the outcome of accidental causes; its sources are traced no deeper than the personal tyrannies and blunders of King John. That monarch’s misdeeds are held to have goaded into action a widespread opposition that never rested until it had achieved success; and the outcome of this success was the Great Charter of Liberties. The origin of Magna Carta lies too deep to be determined by any purely contingent phenomena. The source of the discontent fanned to flame by John’s oppressions must be sought in earlier reigns.

During a century of Norman rule, constant warfare was waged between two great principles—the monarchic, standing on the whole for order, seeking to crush anarchy, and the oligarchic or baronial, standing on the whole for local autonomy, protesting against the tyranny of autocratic power. Sometimes one of these gained the ascendant; sometimes the other.

William I. to Henry II.—Main Problem: the Monarchy

Three kings in particular contributed to this result—William the Conqueror, Henry Beauclerk, and Henry Plantagenet. In a sense, the work of all three was the same; to build up the central authority against the disintegrating effects of feudal anarchy. But the policy of each was modified by changing times and needs. The foundations of the edifice were laid by the Conqueror, whose character and circumstances combined to afford him an opportunity unparalleled in history.

The difficulties of his task, and the methods by which he secured a successful issue, are best understood in relation to the nature of the obstacles to be overcome. Feudalism was the great current of the age—a tide formed by many converging streams, all flowing in the same direction, unreasoning like the blind powers of Nature, carrying away or submerging every obstacle in its path. In other parts of Europe—in Germany, France, and Italy, as in Scotland—the ablest monarchs found their thrones endangered by this feudal current.

In England alone the monarchy stood firm. William I. refrained from any attempt to stay the torrent; but, while accepting it, he made it serve his own purposes. He watched and modified the tendencies making for feudalism, which he found in England, and he profoundly altered the feudal usages and rights transplanted from Norman soil. The special expedients used by him for this purpose are well known, and are all closely connected with his crafty policy of balancing Anglo–Saxon against Norman elements, and of selecting what suited him in either.

He encouraged the adoption in England of feudalism, considered as a system of land tenure and of social distinctions based on the possession of land; but he successfully checked the evils of its unrestrained growth as a system of local government and jurisdiction.

William’s policy was one of balancing. Not content to depend entirely on the right of conquest, he insisted on having his title confirmed by a body claiming to represent the Witenagemot, and alleged that he had been named successor by his kinsman, Edward Confessor, a nomination strengthened by the renunciation of Harold in his favour. Thus, to Norman followers claiming to have set him by force of arms on his throne, William might point to the election by the Witan, while for his English subjects, claiming to have elected him, the presence of foreign troops was an effective argument.

Throughout his reign, he played off the old English laws and institutions against the new Norman ones, with himself as umpire over all. He retained, too, the popular moots or meetings of the shire and hundred as a counterpoise to the feudal jurisdictions; the fyrd or militia of all free men as a set–off to the feudal levy; and whatever incidents of the Anglo–Saxon land tenures he thought fit.

Thus the Norman feudal superstructure was built on a basis of Anglo–Saxon usage and tradition. William, however, did not shrink from innovations where these suited his purpose. The great earldoms into which England had been divided, even down to the Norman Conquest, were abolished.

New earldoms were indeed created, but on a different basis. Even the great officers subsequently known as Earls Palatine, always few in number, never attained to the independence of the Anglo–Saxon Ealdormen. William was chary of creating even ordinary Earls, and such as he did create soon became mere holders of empty titles of honour, ousted from all real power by the Norman vicecomites or sheriffs. No English earl was a “Count” in the continental sense of a real ruler of a “County.” No earl was allowed to hold too large an estate within his titular shire.

Ingenious devices were used for checking the feudal excesses so prevalent on the Continent. Rights of private war, coinage, and castle–building, were jealously circumscribed; while private jurisdictions, although tolerated as a necessary evil, were kept within bounds. The manor was in England the normal unit of seignorial jurisdiction; the higher courts of Honours were exceptional. No appeal lay from the manorial court of one magnate to that of his over–lord, while, in later reigns at least, appeals were encouraged to the Curia Regis. The results of this policy have been aptly summarized as “a strong monarchy, a relatively weak baronage, and a homogeneous people.”

During the reign of William II. (1087–1100) the Constitution made no conspicuous advance. The foundations had been laid; but Rufus was more intent on his hunting and enjoyments, than on the deeper matters of statecraft. Minor details of feudal organization were doubtless settled by the King’s Treasurer, Ralph Flambard; but the extent to which he innovated on the practice of the elder William is matter of dispute. On the whole, the reign must be reckoned a time of comparative rest between two periods of advance.

Henry I. (1100–35) took up, with far–seeing statesmanship and much vigour, the work of consolidation. His policy shows an advance upon that of his father. William had been content to curb the main vices of feudalism. Henry introduced within the Curia Regis itself a new class of men, representing a new principle of government. The great offices of state, previously filled by holders of baronies, were now given to creatures of Henry’s own, men of humble birth, whose merit had raised them to his favour, and whose only title to power lay in his goodwill.

Henry’s other great achievement was the organization of the Exchequer, as a source of royal revenue, and as an instrument for making his will felt in every corner of England. For this great work he was fortunate to secure in Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, the help of a minister who combined genius with painstaking ability. At the Exchequer, as organized by the King and his minister, the sheriff of each county twice a year, at Easter and at Michaelmas, rendered account of every payment that had passed through his hands. His balance was adjusted before all the great officers of the King’s household, who subjected his accounts to close scrutiny. Official records were drawn up, one of which—the famous Pipe Roll of 1130—is extant at the present day.

As the sums received by the sheriff affected every class of society in town and country, these half–yearly audits enabled the King’s advisers to scrutinize the lives and conduct of high and low. These half–yearly investigations were rendered more effective by the existence at the Exchequer of a great record of every landed estate in England. With this the sheriffs’ returns could be compared and checked. Henry’s Exchequer thus found one of its most powerful weapons in the great Domesday Survey, the most enduring proof of the statesmanship of the Conqueror, by whose orders and under whose direction it had been compiled.

The central scrutiny conducted within the Exchequer was supplemented by occasional inspections conducted in each county. The King’s representatives, including among them the officers who presided over the half–yearly audit, visited, at intervals still irregular, the various shires. These Eyres, as they were called, were at first undertaken chiefly for financial purposes. The sheriffs’ accounts rendered at Westminster were checked locally on the scene of their labours. These investigations necessarily involved the trial of pleas. Complaints of oppression at the hands of the local tyrant were made and determined on the spot; gradually, but not until a later reign, the judicial business became equally important with the financial, and ultimately even more important.

Henry, before his death in 1135, seemed to have carried to completion the congenial task of building a strong monarchy on the foundations laid by William. Much of his work was, however, for a time undone, while all of it seemed in imminent danger of perishing for ever, because he left no male heir of his body to succeed him. His daughter’s claims were set aside by Stephen, son of the Conqueror’s daughter, and a cadet of the House of Blois, to whom Henry had played the indulgent uncle, and who repaid his benefactor’s generosity by constituting himself his heir.

Stephen proved unequal to the task of preserving the monarchy intact from the forces that beat around the throne. His failure is attributed by some to personal characteristics; by others, to the defective nature of his title, combined with the presence of a rival in the field in the person of his cousin, Henry’s daughter, the ex–Empress Matilda. The nineteen years of anarchy which nominally formed his reign did nothing—and worse than nothing—to continue the work of his great ancestors. The power of the Crown was humbled: England was almost torn in fragments by the claims of rival magnates to local independence.

With the accession of Henry II. (1154) the tide quickly turned, and turned for good. Of the numerous steps taken by him to complete the work of the earlier master–builders of the English Monarchy, only a few need here be mentioned. Ascending the throne in early manhood, he brought with him a statesman’s instinct peculiar to himself, together with the unconquerable energy common to his race.

He rapidly overhauled every institution and every branch of administration. The permanent Curia Regis was not only restored to working order, but improved in each of its many aspects—as the King’s household, as a financial bureau, as the administrative centre of the kingdom, and as the vehicle of royal justice. The Exchequer, which was originally merely the Curia in its financial aspect, received the re–organization so urgently needed after the terrible strains to which it had been subjected. The Pipe Rolls were revived and financial reforms effected.

The old popular courts of hundred and county, and the feudal jurisdictions were brought under more effective control of the central government by the restoration of the system of Eyres with their travelling justices, whose visits were now placed on a more systematic basis. Equally important were the King’s care in the selection of fit men for the duties of Sheriff, the frequent punishment and removal from office of offenders, and the restored control over all in authority.

Henry was strong enough to employ more substantial men than the novi homines of his grandfather without suffering them to get out of hand. Another expedient for controlling local courts was the calling up of cases to his own central feudal Curia, or before those benches of professional judges, the future King’s Bench and Common Pleas, that formed as yet merely committees of the Curia as a whole.

New system of procedure

Closely connected with these innovations was the new system of procedure instituted by Henry. The chief feature was that each litigation must commence with an appropriate royal writ issued from the Chancery. Soon for each class of action was devised a special writ, and the system came to be known as “the writ system.” A striking feature of Henry’s policy was the bold manner in which he threw open the doors of his royal Courts of Law to allcomers (excepting villeins), and provided there—always in return for hard cash, be it said—a better article in name of justice than could be procured elsewhere in England, or, for that matter, elsewhere in Europe.

Thus, not only was the Exchequer filled with fines and fees, but, insidiously and without the danger involved in a frontal attack, Henry sapped the strength of the great feudal magnates, and diverted the stream of litigants from manorial courts to his own. The same policy had a further result in facilitating the growth of a body of common law, uniform throughout the length and breadth of England, opposed to the varying usages of localities and individual baronial courts.

Assize of Arms

The reorganization of the army was another reform that helped to strengthen the throne of Henry and his sons. This was effected in various ways:

a) Partly by the revival and more strict enforcement of obligations connected with the Anglo–Saxon fyrd, under the Assize of Arms (1181), which compelled every freeman to maintain at his own expense weapons and warlike equipment suited to his station in life.

b) Partly by the ingenious method of increasing the amount of feudal service due from Crown tenants, based upon an investigation instituted by the Crown and upon the written replies returned by the barons, known to historians as “the Cartae of 1166”; and partly by the development of the principle of scutage, a means whereby unwilling military service, limited as it was by annoying restrictions as to time and place, might be exchanged at the option of the Crown for money, with which a more flexible army of mercenaries might be hired.

By these expedients and many others, Henry raised the English monarchy, always in the ascendant since the Conquest, to the very zenith of its power, and left to his sons the entire machinery of government in perfect working order, combining high administrative efficiency with great strength.

Full of bitter strifes and troubles as his reign of thirty–five years had been, nothing had interfered with the vigour and success of the policy whereby he tightened his hold on England. Neither the long struggle with Becket, ending as it did in Henry’s personal humiliation, nor the unnatural warfare with his sons, which hastened his death in 1189, was allowed to interfere with his projects of reform in England.

Source: Part 1. Magna Carta: A Commentary on the Great Charter of King John, with an Historical Introduction, by William Sharp McKechnie (Glasgow: Maclehose, 1914).

See Also

Magna Carta
History of Magna Carta
William Sharp McKechnie
English Court System

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  • Article Name: Events Leading to Magna Carta
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  • Description: The Great Charter is too often treated as the outcome of accidental causes; its sources are traced no deeper than the [...]

This entry was last updated: May 29, 2015

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