by Katherine Ashe
King Henry versus the Lords of England
|Simon de Montfort|
Source - BBC News/bbc.co.uk - © 2009 BBC*
Magna Carta, as we're taught in school, marked the beginning of the legal assertion of the rights of the people over the rights of their monarch. And in a limited way, that is true. Chiefly it granted very specific rights to the nobility in England such as the right of aristocratic widows to not have to marry against their wishes. But what was most important was Clause 61 which granted the lords the right to form a committee to receive complaints against the king, to present those complaints and, if they were not redressed within a limited time, to raise the entire country in legal rebellion against the king. King John made holy oath to uphold Magna Carta.
But a king's vow under duress is not worth the air that breathed it as the lords opposing John quickly found out. Civil war followed with the French adding their own attempt to seize the English Crown, just to complicate matters. John died in the midst of this chaos and the rebel lords, to forestall the French, quickly recognized his eldest son, age nine, as their legitimate monarch: Henry III.
By Richard Avery**
However, it was not forgotten. A few of the lords who had fought King John and won Magna Carta were still alive when, in 1258, King Henry's abuses of his powers reached such calamity that the lords rebelled again. Henry had amassed a history of incompetence, extravagance and flagrant injustice, but his failure as a monarch reached its apogee in the spring of 1258.
In an effort to obtain the Crown of Sicily for his second son Edmund, known as Crouchback, Henry had entered into a bargain with Pope Alexander IV. Sicily belonged to the Holy Roman Empire. The Emperor Frederic II, who was thoroughly hated by the Vatican, had died and so had his son Conrad (probably poisoned by Vatican agents.) Frederic's only remaining son, Manfred, offspring of one of the Emperor's mistresses and legitimized belatedly, now held Sicily as his headquarters.
The Pope offered King Henry a papal army to conquer Sicily on behalf of the infant Edmund. Henry agreed to finance the army, pledging the Crown of England as surety for the financing. Then he defaulted on the loan and Pope Alexander, as could be expected, threatened to seize England and offer its Crown to some more fiscally reliable monarch.
England's lords first learned of this deal and its imminent peril when Henry, at Eastertide in 1258, called a meeting of the lords and prelates to wring the needed money out of them in taxes. They were aghast at his bargain and refused to pay. The King resorted to blackmail and threats of imprisonment. In response, several lords, led by the Earl of Gloucester, Richard de Clare, formed a pact for their mutual protection, fled back to their home shires and returned with their knights.
Each of the principal lords of England held a specified number of knights, from 60 to 120, as sub-tenants. The lords were obliged to produce these knights whenever the king declared war. They were supposedly the royal army, but now a large number of them arrived in London loyal to and defending their lords against King Henry. The lords taking part in this venture, and who came to be known as the League, were six in number, including Simon de Montfort, the Earl of Leicester, the King's chief military strategist.
Arriving in arms and surrounded by their knights, the League did not seize the King but pledged their loyalty – while claiming their rights under Clause 61 of Magna Carta and producing an original copy of the great charter to prove it. Terrified, King Henry agreed to permit the lords and clergy to meet separately, at Oxford in June, where they could convene without his interference. His expectation was that they would produce the money he needed. But theirs was a very different agenda.
At that meeting, in keeping with Clause 61, the League circulated questionnaires (on wax tablets with styluses) to be filled out with complaints regarding King Henry's rule. To everyone's amazement, the most frequent complaint was not against the King and his taxes but against the local sheriffs who were running a lucrative system of graft.
If a lord or his steward, summoned by the local sheriff to attend a law court session, failed to attend he could be fined. The sheriffs were holding court sessions so frequently and at such far-flung sites that attendance was impossible. This dodge, apparently universally popular with the sheriffs, was pouring ill-gotten monies into their pockets while keeping the courts from functioning due to lack of adequate attendance. And, incidentally, it was depriving the Crown of the fines it would receive from properly tried criminals.
King Henry, sheltering in Windsor Castle in fear of what the Oxford meeting might produce, was overjoyed at this surprising discovery. Quite cheerfully he replaced all his sheriffs with candidates from a list drawn up by the lords at Oxford.
But at the Oxford meeting the question arose: how can we be sure the new sheriffs will remain honest? Some procedure for periodic reporting from the shires was needed. Two knights already were regularly selected from each shire to conduct the royal taxes to the Exchequer at London. Similarly, could not two knights provide systematic reporting to the government on the sheriffs and the condition of the country? But how to choose the honest knights? The Oxford meeting decided they should be elected by the common free men of each shire. (Men only, to be sure; 650 years would pass before women in Britain would achieve the right to vote.)
The elected knights could make report regularly to the government at a specific date and place set three times a year. Thus a plan for what would later be called the House of Commons was born. Although some celebrants this year might like to think it, Simon de Montfort did not single-handedly propose this revolutionary inclusion of the common man; it came almost by chance from committee meetings determined to keep watch over the sheriffs.
While King Henry was gleefully approving the removal of his sheriffs, appointing new sheriffs from the Oxford meeting's lists -- and new royal bailiffs as well for it appeared the bailiffs, too, were engaged in graft -- unknown to him the committees at Oxford were busily drawing up a complete reform of the government.
To be certain that he acted to redress the wrongs the shire knights reported, the committees decided that King Henry should be served by a Council of Nine and be attended constantly by three Counselors. These men were chosen, not by Henry, but by election within the Oxford committees.
The gathering of knights from the shires was to be met at the three annual visits by the Council and a convocation of all the lords and prelates. Here the modern concept of Parliament, the form of most governments today, came into being. The executive branch (King and Council), the House of Lords and the House of Commons; or call it the President and Cabinet, the Senate and the House of Representatives.
To secure the powers of the three Counselors attendant upon the King, the heads of the two offices essential to the government's functioning also were to be subject to Parliament’s choice. The Chancellor, who was the keeper of the royal seal without which nothing from the Crown was official, and who also was receiver and disburser of all government monies, had control of the mint. And the Justiciar was the head of the royal courts of law and castellan of the Tower of London.
These moves would insure that the monarch could do nothing but what was approved by Parliament. This at a time when the power of kings was becoming absolute under the aegis of the papacy and supported by the hierarchical theology of Thomas Aquinas. King Henry, secluded at Windsor with his partisan messengers who'd brought the happy news of the sheriffs, knew nothing of what was being planned for him.
This program for an entirely new form of government was codified by the Oxford meeting of lords and clerics as The Provisions of Oxford.
The meeting concluded with oaths to support the Provisions – the lords all swearing to give support even with their lives if necessary. A midnight feast followed, provided by the Oxford students in celebration of the lords' and clerics' achievement. The Provisions, no more than a heap of notes on wax tablets, still waited copying and publication.
At this vulnerable moment, but for the Earl of Leicester Simon de Montfort, the plan that would give rise to modern government would have been utterly lost. Here is the beginning of the Earl's actions that rightly earn for him the title of the Father of Democracy.
For what happened at that feast and afterward is an example of the utterly bizarre waywardness of events. We have the Chronica Majora of the charmingly detailed chronicler Matthew Paris to thank for this insight into the actual circumstances of the birth of Parliament.
Just returned from Windsor were King Henry's half-brothers, known collectively as the Lusignan (from their father's lineage in southern France.) They were shocked by the proceedings. At some time during the feast, they fled. When their absence was called to the attention of Earl Richard de Clare, who had played the leading part during the meetings, he was stricken with the idea that they might reach France and raise an army. Rallying the lords to join him in pursuit, he rushed off into the night. The wax tablets with the Provisions' notes were left behind.
But the Earl Montfort, the military strategist, alone of the leading lords remained at Oxford. He no doubt knew that, whether the Lusignan reached France or not, attack from abroad must be inevitable. The Provisions would be seen by every king as an attack upon the essence of monarchy – and the meeting had refused to pay Pope Alexander the money King Henry had pledged for the conquest of Sicily.
|Westminster Hall in the early 19th century**|
Undoubtedly Simon expected that the lords with Clare would soon return and some decision would be made regarding whose name these documents to the sheriffs should bear. But the lords did not return.
Clare and his followers found the Lusignan at Winchester and besieged them in the castle there. The Lusignan had been besieged before, by King Louis in France, and had escaped by poisoning Louis and his entire army. Soon at Winchester the besiegers were sickening and dying. (A few months later a poison was found in the London home of one of the brothers – a poison the symptoms of which matched the illnesses at Winchester.) The chief lords of England in a single calamity were removed -- except for Simon de Montfort.
For months Montfort was the sole lordly member of the League and partisan of the Provisions who was not desperately ill or dead. In this void he took on personal responsibility, issuing the orders to the sheriffs under his own name and "the King's Council." Henry of course had no say in this Council whose priestly members and Simon, alone, remained standing.
Montfort The Revolutionary, 1253 to 1260.
The principal sources for the above are the Chronica Majora as it is found in Matthew Paris’s English History, vol. V, translated by J.A. Giles, Henry Bohn, London, 1852. For the Provisions of Oxford see Annals of Burton in the Annales Monastici, Vol I, H.R. Luard, 1864.