A Constitutional and Legal History of England

By Goldwin Smith | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VIII
The Rise of Parliament

HENRY III: CROWN VERSUS BARONS

ONE of the most remarkable features of Magna Carta was its essentially conservative character. The barons did not make any serious or sustained attempt to alter the machinery of government established by the monarchy in the past. True, restrictions were placed on the crown. The expansion of royal justice was temporarily impeded until the king's lawyers found technical means of wriggling out of some of the binding clauses of the Charter. Then there continued once again the diversion of jurisdiction in land disputes from feudal to royal courts. The right of rebellion was legalized because that was the best method the barons could find to make the king obey the law and refrain from infringing the clauses of the Charter. Nevertheless, these and other provisions were not calculated to damage or disturb the mechanism of government. The structure of government at the accession of Henry III was essentially that of his grandfather Henry II. It had survived many storms and was destined to sail unscathed through more.

No sensible man can say what might have happened to the course of history if King John had not died within sixteen months of the drama at Runnymede. His son, Henry III, was a minor and that fact was of great importance. Between 1216 and 1227 England was ruled by a regency and regencies seldom brought advantage and order in the Middle Ages.

The men who carried on the government in the new circumstances were necessarily members of the baronage. The thankless office of regent was first held by the able, honest, blunt, and respected William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke. As soon as Marshal took control he set

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