The Plantagenets


A New Dynasty



Henry, Count of Anjou and Maine, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, set foot for the first time on English soil as King of England on 8th December 1154 probably at Wareham. From there, in the company of his queen, Eleanor, he progressed to Winchester where he received the oath of fealty from many of the nobles of England. One source says he was crowned at Winchester but this is wrong; he was crowned alongside Eleanor at Westminster on 19 December.

    Henry began his reign as King of England with three great advantages. The first was that he was the undisputed successor to the throne. It was not necessary for him to make concessions to win friends and buy support. The charter which he issued to his subjects immediately after his coronation was brief and explicit. He confirmed all concessions, grants, liberties and free customs which King Henry, his grandfather, had granted and conceded; and he foreswore in the name of himself and his heirs all those evil customs which his grandfather had abolished. It was a proclamation of respect for good law, something England had had little of in proceeding years. At the same time it implicitly made void all the concessions and grants of King Stephen. It was as if Stephen had never existed.

    His second advantage was weariness. England, in modern terms, was a failed state. Almost twenty years of civil war had destroyed its legal system, its government and its economic life. Every petty baron and lord had his own court, prison and gallows. A man may find judgement but he rarely received justice. This could be bought and paid for to supplement a lord’s income to pay his private army. The vast majority of England was covered in forest and moorland and it was here that ordinary people sort refuge. When villages were burned and livestock slaughtered the peasants fled to the safety of the forest and hills. The country was rife with bands of outlaws and brigands. In the Welsh Marches there were bands of outlaws the size of small armies. These would raid the surrounding countryside and return to their well defended base high in the hills. The so called powers of law and order had little means or inclination to oppose them. The civil war may have come to an end but the country was not disarmed and violence might easily break out again if the reconciliation of rivals and the settlement of conflicting claims were mismanaged. The widespread desire for an end to the disorder enabled Henry to take bold decisions for the restoration of royal authority which at any other time would have been unpalatable and insupportable. People were just desperate for peace.

    The third advantage which Henry enjoyed was the lapse of a year between the treaty of Winchester in 1153 and Stephen’s death in 1154. Had he been called upon to take the throne immediately after Winchester (see The Great Anarchy 5) he would have had to rely too heavily on those who had served him as Duke of Normandy. Henry had little knowledge of England apart from a limited number of military campaigns. The gap gave Henry the time to plan and consider his options. The measure of a great leader is his ability to pick men and seek advice from the right quarter. As a young man of twenty-one years Henry Plantagenet had these skills in abundance. Henry was able to allay anxieties and appoint as chief ministers England men who were neither friends nor partisans, a clear indication that the period when he was heir presumptive had been well spent in stocktaking, consultation and planning. Immediately after his coronation he appointed to high office three men drawn from each of the three elements which were crucial to control of the realm; the baronage, the clergy and the administrative service of the late King Stephen.

    From among Stephen’s servants Henry selected, to be in charge of the royal administration, a man who had recently fought against him at Oxford – Richard de Lucy. His social background was that of the knightly class, middle class, but he had become a man of substance by making himself useful to both the crown and to members of the baronage. His precise status under Stephen is uncertain but he was undoubtedly, in the later years of the reign, sheriff and royal justice in Essex and held custody of the Tower of London and of Windsor Castle. This would imply that he had extensive authority under the king’s name. Whether he was also, as has been suggested, already in charge of the exchequer and supervisor of all the king’s officers, with the title of justiciar, is more doubtful. According to the writings of Robert de Torigny, he was certainly one of the more experienced and trusted of Stephen’s servants.

    It was common sense to use the services of a man who already had intimate knowledge of England’s administration. There was, however, a problem in appointing Robert de Lucy. Henry’s grandfather, old King Henry I, had put Roger, bishop of Salisbury at the head of his exchequer. Roger was a commoner and the nobility resented so much power in the hands of someone other than one of their own. While the first Henry had the power to ignore such murmurings, the second Henry had to tread more lightly. To offset this danger of alienating the baronage Henry gave Richard de Lucy a colleague, a co-justiciar. Henry appointed Robert de Beaumont, Earl of Leicester, who, since the death of Earl Ranulf of Chester, was probably the most powerful baron in England. If the name is familiar, you would be right (see The Great Anarchy 2). The influence of Earl Robert and his twin brother Waleran, Count of Meulan, upon King Stephen in the early year of the reign had been unfortunate and they had slipped from favour as the war progressed. It seems, however, that Robert was always the more sober and practical of the two, and as he matured he began to reveal more statesmanlike qualities than the rest of his class. He quickly came to realise that the barons had as much to lose as the Crown by the continuance of anarchy. He tried to mitigate the effects of the numerous private wars in the midlands by concluding treaties and marriage alliances which cut across political allegiances. He never bartered his allegiance to the highest bidder as others did but, as a search for a lasting solution to the country’s conflict, he gave his support to the then Duke Henry in the spring of 1153. Robert was well educated for a layman and received his schooling at the abbey of Abingdon. He is said to have astonished the College of Cardinals with his precocious learning when in 1119 he accompanied Henry I to a meeting with the Pope at Gisors.

    As co-justiciar he was noted for his prudence and discretion by John of Salisbury. Since, until his death in 1168, he is more frequently mentioned as justiciar than Richard de Lucy, it has been assumed that he overshadowed his colleague. This is not the case. Robert’s social standing ensured him prominence and it was probably deliberate policy that he should appear publicly as the King’s deputy. Richard was a man to work behind the scenes while Robert worked with the delicate egos of the nobility.

    Henry II’s third major appointment was to the office of chancellor. The chancellor was the master of the royal chapel and head of the king’s secretariat. In modern language the post would be terms as the king’s chief of staff. The position not only made the occupant the king’s confidant but also responsible for the translation of the royal will into charters, letters and writs. Although the office was vital to the smooth running of the royal household, it did not bring great prestige. However, it did bring great influence. The king’s chancellor was the closest person to the king beyond his own blood, and frequently closer. For this most important position Henry turned for advice to the wisest man in England, Theobold, Archbishop of Canterbury. Theobold recommended a young member of his own household, an archdeacon of Canterbury. Clerks and administrators within the church usually took lower grade holy order, short of full priesthood, to protect themselves against civil action. If a man was accused of a crime, and he had taken holy orders, he could claim the right to be tried in a church court where the penalties were less severe. Theobold’s candidate was a Norman by birth and his father, Gilbert, had become a prosperous merchant in London, serving a term as one the two sheriffs of the city. The son was born in Cheapside in 1117, had been educated at Merton Priory and Paris and had been for a time clerk and accountant to the sheriffs of London before entering the service of the Archbishop.

    The name of the young man in question was Thomas Becket.

April 2012


Henry and the Law


Back in Anglo-Saxon England the country had the good fortune to have an effective and relatively efficient system of justice. It was based on the jury that varied in number, often knew the parties, who considered the evidence, made a decision and established a penalty. The penalty in all but the most serious of cases was usually a monetary fine. This penalised the offender and compensated the victim. If the offender could not pay the fine, he would become the property of the victim until the fine was paid off. This was swept away with the Norman Conquest.

     Norman law was based on feudalism. All things stemmed from the King. The king’s tenants in chief, the most powerful nobles, held their land from the king; lesser nobles held their lands from the tenants in chief; the knight who held one or two manors held them from the lesser noble lords; finally the peasant held his land from his local lord or knight. The courts of law worked in a similar fashion. For the vast majority of the population, the peasants, their only source of justice was their local lord. If a man’s dispute was with his local lord then it does not talk a genius in juriste prudence to predict the decision of the manorial court. The ancient continental custom of trial by ordeal also entered the English legal system with the Normans. This was wrapped up in superstition and had nothing to do with justice. An accused person would be forced to complete an ordeal such as carrying a red-hot piece of iron a stipulated number of paces. The resulting wound would be bandages and then inspected after a designated number of days. If the wound had healed, the person was innocent, if it had not, the person was guilty and, on doubt, hanged. Variations on this theme included trial by combat and trial by water in which a person was placed in a sack and thrown in the local pond or lake. If they sank they were innocent, if they floated they were guilty. The theory was that if a person was innocent, God would intervene and declare his judgement in the result. With civil war between the Empress Maud and King Stephen even this some what questionable system of justice collapsed.

     With the accession of Henry Plantagenet new ideas of justice and procedures came to England. The civil war had built up and initiated a vast number of legal cases over the ownership and the holding of land. The religious houses in the form of abbeys and monasteries had lost land during the conflict. The strong had taken from the weak. At first Henry relied on the local shire courts and hundred courts to deal with most of these cases. He even heard some of the more important cases himself. This process was far from perfect and in many cases claimants were unable to pursue their claims effectively. During the first years of his reign Henry was preoccupied with other political issues and even finding the king for a court hearing could mean travelling across the Channel to locate him. However, he would not hesitate in intervening in cases which he felt had been mishandled. Henry had a great interest in the law but he had yet to establish a coherent policy on the subject.

     It was not until 1163, after dealing with pressing political matters on the continent, that Henry returned to England, intent on reforming the role of the royal courts. He initiated the seizing of the belongings of thieves and fugitives and sent out travelling justices to the north and Midlands to hear cases under his authority. Henry’s exchequer court in Westminster, which had up till now only heard cases connected with matters of royal revenue, began to take a wider range of civil cases on behalf of the king.

     1166 saw the enactment of the Assize of Clarenden. This began the transformation of the legal system away from trial by ordeal to that of an evidence based model in which evidence and inspection of the facts by trained and experienced laymen would determine the outcome. This act greatly fostered the methods that would eventually be known in common law as “trial by jury.” Incidentally the Assize takes its name from Clarendon Place, Wiltshire, the royal hunting lodge at which it was formulated.

     In around 1176 Henry created the General Eyre. This involved the dispatching of groups of royal justices to visit all the counties in England over a given period of time, with authority to cover both civil and criminal cases. This was the beginning of the Assize courts we have today. The centralisation of justices under the king’s authority greatly aided continuity in the dispensing of the law. Local juries were used but directed by the king’s justice. While trial by ordeal and trial by combat continued to a limited extent (trial by combat was not outlawed by Parliament until 1819), evidence based procedures were becoming the normal way of determining a case. Henry also brought in laws to regulate the inheritance of land and particularly protected the rights of widows.

     In making these reforms Henry both challenged the traditional rights of barons in dispensing justice without reference to the king and greatly increased royal power in England. No other continental monarch held such control over his subjects.

     There was, however, one very large fly on the ointment – church courts. If a person had taken holy orders of any kind, be it as a priest or a mere deacon, they had the right to claim they be given a trial in a church court. Here the penalties were far less severe. In the royal court a man might hang for a crime while in a church court he might receive a far lesser penalty for the same offence. To Henry this was unacceptable; to the church it was an exercise in their independence from the civil powers. Church courts would assume massive significance when Henry went head to head with the church, a contest that would eventually create a saint and, briefly, humiliate a king.

     More of that next month.


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