A Constitutional and Legal History of England

By Goldwin Smith | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VII
Magna Carta and beyond

YEARS OF DANGER

WHEN Stephen died in 1154 England was full of anarchy and anarchy nourishes nothing. When Henry II died in 1189 a profound revolution had taken place. Fertility had been the constant note of his rule. He had brought order. He had hammered out security. He had temporarily tamed the great feudatories. He had plucked the flower safety from the nettle danger. And soon the prospect was altered again.

The student who is not engrossed in the details of events sees emerging several salient features of law and government towards the end of the twelfth century. The power of the crown had been strengthened into predominance. The machinery of government had been increasingly centralized. The feudal council of great landed vassals was frequently summoned for aid and advice. Certain members of the council and the royal household formed a permanent body of administrators and justices to carry on the daily tasks of central government. From the efficient organs of the administrative offices and the courts the king's authority radiated into the local communities of the hundred and shire. Over the countryside the interests of the crown were guarded and expanded by the itinerant justices, the sheriffs, the coroners, the bailiffs.

In recent chapters we have been discussing the nature and momentum of the changes that brought this situation about before the death of Henry II. His departure marks the end of a phase of constitutional and legal history. Another begins as dark and rapid events loom over the horizons of the thirteenth century. This chapter is mainly about

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