Monday, March 17, 2014

Part II: The Provisions of Oxford: Parliament and Modern Democracy

On June 11, 1258 the university town of Oxford was filled with armed men. The barons, convening with the high clergy of England to arbitrate their grievances with King Henry III, had brought their knights with them. King Henry was permitting the lord to raise their knight for war against the Welsh. The date for commencement of the war was so close to that of the Oxford meeting that Henry unwittingly had raised the army of England not only to be ready for war in Wales -- but to be available to enforce the outcome of the rebellious meeting.

King Henry excused himself from attending. Oxford already had a reputation for being a risky place for kings. To preserve the chastity of the Oxford abbess Friswitha, God had broken the neck of the Mercian King Athelbald. So superstitious monarchs never set foot in Oxford. Henry stayed away from Oxford perhaps from mystical dread, more likely from good sense. Behind the safe and not too distant walls of Windsor castle he awaited news of the meeting.

Of course there were representatives of the king: half the members of the Oxford committee of arbitration were of Henry’s choosing: his own half-brothers of Lusignan, William and Guy, notorious bullies and flouters of the law but dearly loved by Henry; the Queen’s uncles Peter of Savoy whom Henry had elevated to Earl of Richmond and was noted for graft, and young Boniface whom Henry had forced upon the monks of Canterbury as their Archbishop despite his ignorance of Latin and the liturgy; Henry of Alemaine the King’s nephew, the most decent member of the royal family; the Bishop of London and the Abbot of Westminster, both deeply beholding to Henry for the building of Westminster Abbey church – that magnificent structure where kings and queens are crowned but which drained off the money Henry should have used for England’s greater needs; the earls of Warwick and Surrey who were notably biddable; and three royal clerks in Henry’s employ. 

On the lords’ side were the members of the League that had been formed to resist Henry’s abominated taxes: the leader of the League Richard de Clare Earl of Gloucester; Roger Bigod Earl of Norfolk and Marshal of England; Hugh Bigod, his brother; Simon de Montfort Earl of Leicester, the King’s brother-in-law and military strategist; John Fitzgeoffrey, England’s Justiciar in Ireland: and several new but hearty partisans: Humphrey de Bohun Earl of Hereford, four knights and the Bishop of Worcester.

That a committee comprised of these two sets of people could have come to any consensus is astonishing. The King’s relatives and the lords of the League hated each other and had been enemies for decades. Yet this committee of arbitration, the general meeting of all the lords and clergy and the many committees they spawned created a constitution that established elective government by the common people. 

This was five hundred years before the Enlightenment and the American and French revolutions would place such an idea in a setting of acceptable philosophy.

How did it happen? By chance, it would seem.

The committee of arbitration got off to a predictably difficult start. At first the King’s side predominated with the choosing of one of Henry’s clerks to continue in his position of Chancellor, keeper of the royal seals that make commands official.

It was the general meeting that apparently opened the way to change. The assembled lords and clergy were asked what was most troublesome in Henry’s government. Instead of citing outrageous taxes – the issue that caused the meeting – the chief complaint concerned the royal sheriffs. 

Sheriffs had the duty of summoning courts to hear cases of law. The local lord or abbot was required to preside – and if he failed he was fined, with the money going to the sheriff. Most lords and abbots held numerous fiefs scattered over several shires. The sheriffs had found a handy source of profit in summoning courts so frequently that it was impossible for the lord or abbot to attend. The result was not only wealth to the sheriffs, but the failure of the courts to meet, and cases going unresolved.

The Oxford meeting recommended to King Henry that the sheriffs be replaced, and drew up a list of suggested candidates.

With the law courts failing to meet, judgments weren’t given and fines, which went to the King, weren’t collected. Here was a fund-raising means that everybody liked. Henry’s half-brothers and Peter of Savoy rushed this happy petition to Windsor and remained there for a day or so as Henry reviewed the list, sent orders for the recall of all the royal sheriffs and their replacement by the candidates on the list.

This welcome result from Oxford’s general meeting was quickly followed by another. At times of emergency such as war or famine, the royal bailiffs were empowered to seize goods remaining unsold in market stalls at the end of the day. But the bailiffs were making a regular practice of seizing all left over goods. Their families set up sales booths of their own to sell the goods at discount – stifling legitimate sales and keeping the 100% profits to themselves.

Henry gleefully replaced his royal bailiffs with those proposed by the meeting’s list.

Soon all the royal sheriffs in England were replaced with men who owed their new positions to the Oxford meeting and its partisans. And the new royal bailiffs too now were beholding to Oxford.

But much more was to result from the King’s members of the committee of arbitration going off with their good news to Windsor. In their absence the lords’ faction predominated. New committees were elected in which the King’s friends notably were not included: a Committee for the King’s Aid to deal with the taxes; a committee for England’s defense, and a Council to be with the King always to advise and oversee his actions.

And a development in the general meeting was truly revolutionary. It arose, innocently enough, out of the issue of the honesty of sheriffs. How could it be guaranteed that the new sheriffs wouldn’t be tempted to corruptions just like the old ones?

There already existed a system for choosing four knights from each shire to escort taxes to London. It was decided to these men chosen by election by the common free men of the shire; to empower them to do an audit of the sheriffs and report their findings to the King and Court at a set place and date three times a year; and also to report whatever problems had arisen in the shire.

This seemed not a revolutionary step but a practical one, providing a serviceable link between the monarch and the people for the prompt communication of problems. But it dovetailed with the sixty-first clause of Magna Carta which said that the King must redress any wrongs reported by four knights to a committee of the lords who had won the great charter. If the king failed, the lords were within their rights in raising all of England in arms against him.

The clause, signed by King John at Runnymede, had brought him unending civil war. But forty three years had elapsed since Runnymede. The lords specified had died off and clause 61 had been removed from further issues of the Charter.

But the League, with a copy of the original Magna Carta of 1215 in hand, had reminded King Henry and the lords of this clause. Now, with an excellent mechanism in place for reporting wrongs, the question was how to force the King to give redress?

In the absence of Henry’s supporters, a committee of lords and clergy was designed specifically to meet with the knights arriving from the shires at their appointed times. Thus the modern Parliament was fashioned with its two Houses: Lords, and representatives elected by the Commons.

With Magna Carta’s clause 61 to back it up, the King was required to hear the complaints of his people and to redress those complaints as Parliament and his Counsel (chosen by the lords) advised.

Kings had summoned meetings to consult with their vassals from time immemorial. In England such meetings had occasionally even been called “parliaments.” But the Parliament fashioned at Oxford and described in the document titled The Provisions of Oxford was utterly different. It met at a regularly appointed time and place; it included a body of representatives chosen by the common people – and, most importantly, this Parliament was not merely an advisor. It had power to compel the King to do as it required.

The Parliament created by the Provisions of Oxford was the first true modern democracy.

Katherine Ashe is the author of the Montfort series, including Montfort the Revolutionary 1253 to 1260  

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