A Constitutional and Legal History of England

By Goldwin Smith | Go to book overview
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Enterprise and decay


THERE were found Norman kings of England: William I ( 1066- 1087), William II ( 1087-1100), Henry I ( 1100-1135), and Stephen ( 1135-1154). The ablest of these were William I, some of whose achievements have already been described, and his talented son Henry I. William II was evil and reckless and he constructed nothing. The reign of Stephen, following the shining chapters of Henry I's enterprise, brought decay and disintegrating feudal anarchy. This chapter describes the main features of legal and constitutional development in the years before Stephen's death in 1154. We begin with an examination of the structure of central government.

At the three annual feasts when the king wore his crown the great council of England assembled. The members met at Easter in Winchester, at the festival of Whitsuntide (seven weeks after Easter) in Westminster, and at Christmas in Gloucester. This council was the king's feudal court, the curia regis, the nucleus of future parliaments, the ancestor of the modern House of Lords and the departments of state. In this impressive council the whole nation was conceived to be present. Membership in a feudal age was based upon landholding, not upon the criterion of personal importance as in the case of the Anglo-Saxon witan. The principle of composition was thus new to England, an importation from the Frankish world quite dissimilar to Saxon arrangements.

The king was lord of all the vassals in a kingdom that was, after all, the greatest of feudal honors. He summoned the mighty barons, including the abbots and bishops, and the duty to attend was sometimes enforced by penalties. The king, of course, could summon to


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A Constitutional and Legal History of England


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