Feudal Britain: The Completion of the Medieval Kingdoms, 1066-1314

By G. W. S. Barrow | Go to book overview

PART V: ENGLAND IN THE THIRTEENTH CENTURY

CHAPTER XVI
CRITICISM, REFORM AND REBELLION, 1216-66

THE guiding theme of English history in the reign of Henry III ( 1216-72) is the difficulty which both Crown and baronage experienced in trying to adjust themselves to the revolution in government described in earlier chapters. As a result of this revolution, the king had gained power and the barons had lost it; but in the process both monarchy and baronage had learned to take a more advanced view of their obligations towards a wider society. The old, simple feudal allegiance between lord and man which had sufficed for the twelfth century was gradually giving place to the notion of a political "community of the realm" in which the king was sovereign directly and equally over all and the barons had become his principal subjects and counsellors and in some sense spokesmen for the community instead of merely his tenants-in-chief. If to this change are added the factors of a better-educated baronage, a more complex machine of government, a king bent upon an inept and extravagant foreign policy, and, finally, a run of bad harvests there will be present all the elements of a major political upheaval. It is a testimony to the conservatism of English life that the upheaval was delayed until 1258; it is a measure of the brilliant inventiveness of the age that when it did come it came as a reform movement which proved one of the most astonishing and constructive episodes of our history.

Because of the boyhood of the king and the occupation of half the country by foreign invaders, this central theme was held as it were in abeyance in 1216. In this chapter we shall see how three subsidiary processes, (i) the recovery of royal power at home, (ii) the defence of English lands in France, and (iii) the king's relations with the Papacy, all gradually forced the main issue upon the attention of the politically conscious community of the realm.

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