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Reign of Henry III, Part 2 page 2

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Henry, finding that the barons indulged in the most unbridled tyranny towards their own vassals, without observing the laws they had imposed upon the crown, unhesitatingly followed the evil example set before him. In his administration the Great Charter was continually violated - a course of conduct which not only lessened his authority in the kingdom, but multiplied the sources of discontent against him, exposed him to affronts and even dangers, and provoked resistance to his remaining prerogatives.

Matthew Paris relates that, in 1244, when he desired a supply from parliament, the barons, complaining of the frequent violations of the Charter, demanded that in return for the money, he should resign the right of nominating the chancellor and great justiciary of the kingdom to them; and, if we may credit the same historian, they had formed further plans which, if successfully carried out, would have reduced the crown to a state of pupilage and dependence. The king, however, would consent to nothing but a renewal of the Great Charter, and a general permission to excommunicate all who might hereafter violate it. All he could obtain in return for his concession was a scutage of twenty shillings on each knight's fee for the marriage of his eldest daughter with the King of Scotland - an impost which was expressly provided for by their feudal tenures.

Four years afterwards, in full parliament, he was openly reproached for his broken word on having again violated his promises, and asked if he did not blush to desire aid from his people - whom he openly professed to despise and hate, and to whom he on all occasions preferred strangers and aliens - from a people who groaned under the exactions which he either exercised over them or permitted others to inflict. He was told that, in addition to insulting his nobility, by forcing them to contract unequal marriages with foreigners, no class of his subjects was too obscure to escape the tyranny of himself and his ministers; that even the food he consumed in his household, the clothes which himself and his servants wore, and the wine they drank, were all taken by violence from their lawful owners, and no kind of compensation ever offered; that foreign merchants, to the shame of the kingdom, shunned the English harbours as if they were infested by pirates; and that all commerce was being gradually destroyed by these acts of unprincipled violence.

Unhappily, this was no exaggerated picture. In his reckless proceedings Henry even added insult to injury, by forcing the traders whom he despoiled of their goods to carry them at their own expense to whatever place he chose to appoint. Even the poor fishermen could not escape his rapacity and that of his foreign favourites, till, finding they could not dispose of the fruit of their labours at home, they carried them to foreign ports.

The king, says Matthew Paris, gave the parliament only good words and fair promises in answer to these remonstrances, accompanied with the most humble submissions, which they had too often found deceitful to be gulled by; the consequence was, that they unanimously refused the supply he asked, to the great disappointment of his rapacious favourites.

In 1253, he again found himself obliged to apply to parliament, which he did under pretence of having made a vow to undertake a crusade.

The parliament hesitated to comply, and the ecclesiastical order sent a deputation to Henry, consisting of four prelates - the primate, and the Bishops of Winchester, Salisbury, and Carlisle - to remonstrate with him on his frequent violation of their privileges, the oppressions with which he had loaded them as well as the rest of his subjects, and the uncanonical and forced elections made to the vacant dignities in the Church. "It is true," replied the king, "I have been somewhat faulty in this particular: I obtruded you, my lord of Canterbury, on your see; I was obliged to employ both entreaties and menaces, my lord of Winchester, to have you elected; my proceedings, I confess, were very irregular, my lords of Salisbury and Carlisle, when I raised you from the lowest stations to your present dignities. I am determined henceforth to correct these abuses; and it will also become you, in order to make a thorough reformation, to resign your present benefices, and try to enter again in a more regular and canonical manner." The bishops, surprised at these unexpected sarcasms, replied that the question was not at present how to correct past errors, but to avoid them for the future. The king promised redress, both of ecclesiastical and civil grievances; and the parliament in return agreed to grant him a supply, a tenth of the ecclesiastical benefices, and a scutage of three marks on each knight's fee; but as they had experienced his frequent breach of promise, they required that he should ratify the great charter in a manner still more authentic and more solemn than any which he had hitherto employed. All the prelates and abbots were assembled; they held burning tapers in their hands; the great charter was read before them; they denounced the sentence of excommunication against every one who should thenceforth violate the fundamental law; they threw their tapers on the ground, and exclaimed, "May the soul of every one who incurs this sentence so stink and conrupt in hell!" The king bore a part in this ceremony, and subjoined, "So help me God, I will keep all these articles inviolate, as I am a man, as I am a Christian, as I am a knight, and as I am a king crowned and anointed." Yet was the tremendous ceremony no sooner finished, than his favourites, abusing his weakness, made him return to the same arbitrary and irregular administration, and the expectations and hopes of the nation were again eluded and disappointed.

The universal discontent which ensued afforded a pretext to Simon, de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, to attempt, by means of a revolution, to wrest the sceptre from the feeble and irresolute hands which held it. This powerful noble was the younger son of that Simon de Montfort who displayed so much skill and courage in the crusade against the unfortunate Albigenses, but who tarnished his fame by the most execrable cruelty; for the history of religious persecution does not present a darker page than the one in which the suffering of the Albigenses is recorded.

It was a short-sighted policy which induced the Church of Home to draw the sword against these seceders from her pale. The blood of the martyrs for conscience' sake never sinks into the soil like barren seed; it is sure to germinate and bring forth fruit in time, and ha who sheds it is doomed to the contempt and execration of mankind.

A large inheritance in Britain had fallen to the victorious crusader, whose eldest son, unable to perform fealty to the Kings of France and England, had transferred it to his younger brother Simon, who came over and did homage for his lands, and the title of Earl of Leicester.

In 1238 he married Eleanor, the king's sister, the widow of William, Earl of Pembroke; but the union of the princess with a subject and a foreigner, though contracted with Henry's consent, was loudly complained of, not only by the Earl of Cornwall, but most of the English barons. The bridegroom, however, was protected against their violence by his brother-in-law, who little imagined the ungrateful return he would meet with.

No sooner had Leicester succeeded in establishing himself in his new possessions and dignities, than he acquired, by insinuation and address, great popularity and influence with the nation, gaming the affections of all orders of men - a circumstance which lost him the friendship of the feeble monarch, who first banished him from court, then weakly recalled him, and finally, to rid himself of his presence, entrusted him with the government of Guienne, where, to do the earl justice, he did good service, and acquired great honour.

Instead of being rewarded, as he had every reason to expect, he was once more exiled. Henry called him a traitor to his face; on which the haughty noble gave him the lie, and told him that, if he were not his sovereign, he would soon make him repent the insult.

This second quarrel was, however, accommodated, either through the good nature or fear of Henry, and the offender admitted once more to some share of favour and authority. With all his defects, Leicester appears to have been of too noble and independent a nature to observe a compliance with his brother-in-law's capricious humours, or to act iu subserviency to his minions. Perhaps he found it more to his advantage to cultivate the good opinion of the people, and to inflame the general discontent against the wretched administration of the kingdom. He filled every place with his complaints against the violations of the great charter, the acts of violence committed on the people, the iniquitous combination between the Pope and the king in their mutual acts of tyranny and extortion, and the neglect shown to his native subjects and barons by Henry.

In this last complaint, although a foreigner himself, he was more zealous than any other noble in the realm, in representing the indignity of submitting to be governed by strangers. By hypocritical and politic pretensions to devotion, he succeeded in obtaining the favour of the clergy, whilst, at the same time, he secured the affections of the people. He carefully cultivated the friendship of the barons by pretending an animosity against the favourites, which animosity served as the basis of union between himself and that powerful order.

A violent quarrel which broke out between Leicester and William de Valence, Henry's half-brother and chief favourite, brought matters to extremity, and determined the former to give full scope to his long-cherished schemes of ambition, which the laws and the royal authority had hitherto with no little difficulty restrained,

He secretly called an assembly of the most powerful nobles, particularly Humphrey of Hereford, high constable; Roger of Norfolk, earl marshal; and the Earls of Warwick and Gloucester - men who, by their exalted rank and immense possessions, stood first in the rank of English nobility.

To this assembly he exposed the necessity of reforming the state, and entrusting the execution of the laws to other hands than those which had proved themselves, by bitter experience, so totally unfitted for the charge confided to them. In his harangue he did not forget to inveigh against the oppression exercised against the lower orders, or exaggerate on the violations of the privileges of the barons, and the depredations committed on the clergy; and, in order to aggravate the enormity of his brother-in-law's conduct, he appealed to the great charter, which Henry had so often sworn to maintain and so frequently violated.

This violation, he urged, with great show of justice, of privileges which their ancestors had wrung from the crown by an enormous sacrifice of blood and treasure, ought not to be endured, unless they were prepared to set the seal upon their own degeneracy by permitting such important advantages to be torn from them by a weak prince and his insolent foreign favourites. To all suggestions of a remonstrance the speaker replied by observing that the king's word had been too frequently broken, although confirmed by oaths, ever again to be relied upon, and that nothing short of his being placed in a position of utter inability to violate the national privileges could henceforth ensure the regular observance of them.

These complaints, which were founded in truth, accorded so entirely with the sentiments of the assembly, that they produced the desired effect, and the barons pledged themselves to a resolution of reducing the public grievances, by taking into their own hands the administration of the kingdom.

Henry having summoned a parliament, in expectation of receiving supplies for his Sicilian project, the barons appeared in the hall, clad in complete armour, and with their swords by their side. The king, on his entry, struck with the unusual appearance, asked them what was their purpose, and whether they intended to make him their prisoner. Roger Bigod replied, in the name of the rest, that he was not their prisoner, but their sovereign; that they even intended to grant him large supplies, in order to fix his son on the throne of Sicily; that they only expected some return for this expense and service; and that, as he had frequently made submissions to the parliament, had acknowledged his past errors, and still allowed himself to be carried into the same path, which gave them such just reason of complaint, he must now yield to more strict regulations, and confer authority on those who were able and willing to redress the national grievances. Henry, partly allured by the hopes of supply, partly intimidated by the union and martial appearance of the barons* Agreed to their demand; and promised to summon another parliament at Oxford, in order to digest the new plan of government, and to elect the persons who were to be entrusted with the chief authority. This parliament, which the royalists, and even the nation, from experience of the confusions that attended its measures, afterwards denominated the mad parliament, met on the day appointed; and as all the barons brought along with them their military vassals, and appeared with an armed force, the king, who had taken no precautions against them, was in reality a prisoner in their hands, and was obliged to submit to all the terms which they were pleased to impose upon him. Twelve barons were selected from among the king's ministers, twelve more were chosen by parliament: to these twenty-four, unlimited authority was granted to reform the state; and the king himself took an oath that he would maintain whatever ordinances they should think proper to enact for that purpose. Leicester was at the head of this supreme council, to which the legislative power was thus in reality transferred; and all their measures were taken by his secret influence and direction. The first step bore a specious appearance, and seemed well calculated for the end which they professed to be the object of all these innovations: they ordered that four knights should be chosen by each county; that they should make inquiry into the grievances of which their neighbourhood had reason to complain, and should attend the ensuing parliament, in order to give information to that assembly of the state of their particular counties - a nearer approach to our present constitution than had been made by the barons in the reign of King John, when the knights were only appointed to meet in their several counties, and there to draw up a detail of their grievances. Meanwhile the twenty-four barons proceeded to enact some regulations as a redress of such grievances as were supposed to be sufficiently notorious: they ordered that three sessions of parliament should be regularly held every year, in the months of February, June, and October; that a new sheriff should be annually elected by the votes of the freeholders in each county; that the sheriffs should have no power of fining the barons who did not attend their courts or the circuits of the justiciaries; that no heirs should be committed to the wardship of foreigners, and no castles entrusted to their custody; and that no new warrens or forests should be created, nor the revenues of any counties or hundreds be let to farm. Such were the regulations which the twenty-four barons established at Oxford, for the redress of public grievances.

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