Source Problems in English History


World History


Some Antecedents of the House of Commons

Some Antecedents of the House of Commons


THE same conditions in society and central government which brought forth the jury system brought forth also the House of Commons.1 The beginnings of self-government were along these two lines. Judging of fact is doubtless the most important step in judicial procedure; and in England, by a striking and unprecedented combination of circumstances, this function, in the great civil and criminal cases, passed into the hands of representatives of the middle class. The circumstances which prepared the way for a central assembly of popularly elected representatives are equally interesting, and were surely as unaccompanied by any purposeful shaping in the direction of the final result.

Anglo-Saxon government had been characterized by the slightness of the connection between central and local institutions and the comparative unimaportance of the former. The later kings felt that they should do more, and were conscious of many of the gaps and weak places. But, for the most part, they were wanting in the necessary strength and resourcefulness; and the same futile methods were tried reign after reign. The perseverance and optimism of many of these sovereigns deserve commendation, but little else. Government was marking time. The sheriff, however, a purely royal official who did king’s business in the shire, was one substantial achievement in the attempt to bring the king into more effective touch with the localities. It was a hint of the long process that, after the Norman Conquest, made the constitution.

The Conqueror saw possibilities in the sheriff and retained him. In succeeding reigns he was used as never before, and the strong kings kept him, great local landed proprietor as he usually was, from traveling too far on the tempting road to feudal independence. But the king’s business was growing by leaps and bounds, and in Henry I.’s reign, partly to supplement the sheriff and partly to hold him in check, itinerant justices—the missi dominici of England—were developed. The anarchy of Stephen’s reign interrupted all good beginnings, and, had it lasted longer, much might have been lost past recovery. Then came Henry II. (with whose reign the documents of this Problem begin), a king endowed, if ever king was, with just the right qualities to meet the governmental problems and opportunities of his time. It is always pleasant to think of the young sovereign, scarce twenty-one when he came to the throne, with his rare appreciative deference for the great past of his grandfather’s reign, and perhaps already conscious of endless resources within himself.

Norman and Plantagenet rulers were learning much about local institutions and conditions—about hundred and shire courts, about tithing and frank-pledge, about the boroughs, about freeholders and knights. They saw always more work to do, more information to be sought, ways to develop their courts, to swell their revenue, to keep the country in peace. The work was so varied that all sorts of men, official and unofficial, might be employed. Some of it, indeed, could perhaps be better done by unofficial means; there were temporary and isolated jobs in plenty. And so in this turbulent time, when the crash of the Conquest had broken barriers and opened ways and England was making ready for her next great reach forward in civilization, these new relations between center and locality were big with possibilities. Knight and freeholder—the stuff out of which the House of Commons was made had entered upon their apprenticeship in public services; and many principles and devices were being hammered out in the daily practice of local administration which had an unguessed future before them in the broader sphere of national polity.


1. Inquest of Sheriffs.

Henry’s proceedings against his sheriffs is thus described in one of the chronicles of his reign:1 "When the Easter festival was ended he [the king] proceeded to London, and there held a great council concerning the coronation of his elder son Henry, and also concerning the affairs of his kingdom; and there he removed almost all the sheriffs of England and their bailiffs, because they had treated badly the men of his kingdom. And all of the sheriffs and their bailiffs found pledges for themselves that they would stand to justice, and that they would restore to the lord king and the men of the kingdom what they ought to restore of the things they had taken. And afterwards the king caused all the men of his kingdom, that is to say earls, barons, knights, freeholders, and also villeins, throughout the several counties, to take oath on the holy gospels that they would tell the truth: namely, what and how much the sheriffs and their bailiffs had taken from them, what by a judgment and what without a judgment, and for what kind of misdeed. But great evil came thence to the people of England; because, after the inquisition had been made, the king put back some of those sheriffs into their places, and these were afterwards much more cruel than they had been before." This important proceeding took place in 1170, after the king had been out of the country for four years. These were the four years following the Assize of Clarendon. Large quantities of property had been confiscated as a result of the criminal proceedings instituted by that Assize, and the sheriffs were evidently under suspicion of having appropriated some of this to their own use; the recent heavy aid which had been levied on the occasion of the marriage of the king’s eldest daughter also afforded opportunities to dishonest sheriffs; and it is clear that in very many ways the sheriffs had been growing corrupt and abusive. A thorough investigation of them and their subordinates, by the standard method of getting all local information, was determined on. But it is interesting to notice that, having gone so far, the king concluded that it would be a good time to make a general investigation of the whole local administration, private as well as public; and so the entire baronial system of courts and finance was included. Henry, who was so rapidly developing his own courts and who certainly had an eye to judicial income, was probably curious to find out how much the barons were realizing from theirs. It was to be a colossal inquest, perhaps the most extensive since Domesday; and, as Stubbs has remarked, if the report was ever made it "must have been a record of the most interesting kind conceivable."

2. Gesta Regis Henrici Secundi Benedicti Abbatis.

This is perhaps the greatest chronicle from an age of specially able chronicle-writing. The group of historians more or less identified with Henry II.’s court represents some of the best thought and practice in historical method in the middle ages, and constituted one of the many high influences from that period felt for long afterward. This chronicle covers Henry II.’s reign from 1170 and also three years of the reign of Richard I.; the writing of it began about 1172 and was carried on in very strictly contemporaneous fashion. Its style is remarkably simple and direct, its material well chosen, and its accuracy and fairness of statement have been proved in so many instances that it inspires confidence throughout. It is known that it was not written by Benedict, abbot of Peterborough, whose name has long been identified with it.

In the passage cited, the choice of the bishop and abbots was to be made in the way that had been regular since the famous compromise between Henry I. and Anselm—the election took place in the king’s presence and the king’s will was usually the predominant factor. But the king needed information and advice in regard to the available candidates, and used various ways to get it. The way shown here seems particularly effective and interesting.

3. The Assize of Arms, one of the great official acts of Henry II.’s reign, was a successful attempt to rehabilitate the ancient militia. The king was depending more and more upon mercenaries in his wars in France, and less and less upon the feudal levy for defense in England. The association of knights and non-noble freemen, urban and rural, in this militia ordinance shows that feudal distinctions and practices already had little vitality in England, and is very significant for the future. It is another evidence that England’s great and peculiar middle class was forming. The character of the arms purchased was to depend upon the amount of property which a man possessed, and article 9 is important in showing how information on this point was obtained.

4. Ordinance of the Saladin Tithe.

This is an illustration of a very important result of the later crusades, the development of new forms of taxation. Increasing attempts were made adequately to organize and finance these great expeditions, and necessity was the mother of many a new idea and device. The Saladin Tithe virtually introduced to England the taxation of revenue and movables; and taxation of this kind of property created a new problem in assessment. This ordinance was issued by Henry a few days after he and Philip of France had completed the preliminary arrangements for setting out on the third crusade.

5. Form of Proceeding on the Judicial Visitation.

This document was the commission given the justices who were sent out on circuit late in 1194. "The general business of the visitation," says Stubbs, "is of the usual mixed kind, judicial and financial, and should be compared with the Inquest of Sheriffs in 1170, as well as with the Assizes of 1166 and 1176." It should be remembered that much of this financial business closely touched the sheriffs, and the central power was here using the jury, not only on the great criminal and civil pleas which came before the justices in eyre, but also to learn the truth about local officials and administration. The coroners, who are mentioned in the twentieth article, were a class of officials first appointed in Henry II.’s reign. This was the earliest of a long series of royal experiments in transferring a part of the sheriff’s power and authority to a new officer. The very early coroners were local criminal justices who could try cases and impanel juries to make presentments. But soon their chief duty was to "keep the pleas of the crown." This meant that they held preliminary hearings and kept a record of local criminal matters for later use by sheriff or itinerant justice. It is clear that the king did not wish to have their selection in any way controlled by the sheriffs. It should be noticed from what classes of people they were drawn.

6. Summons of Juries to St. Albans.

This is a contemporary chronicler’s transcript of a writ which is not itself extant. It therefore lacks the authority of an official document, but there is little reason to doubt that the transcript gives the substance of the writ itself. The king had just become reconciled with the church after their long quarrel. It was immediately incumbent upon him to make good, as far as possible, the damages and losses which he had for five years been inflicting on church property. This could best be done on the basis of an assessment by local juries acquainted with the details of the seizures and injuries. In 1208, when the first and greatest seizures of church property had been made, the confiscated property was intrusted to the keeping of men in neighboring vills, undoubtedly vills on the king’s demesne. This accounts for the use of demesne-vill juries for the assessment of 1213. It may be added that the assessment was not carried out according to the plan of this writ. About two months later a series of local inquests was undertaken on the initiative of the church, and the king co-operated.

7. Summons to a Great Council.

In this case the official text of the writ of summons has come down to us. Notice the different purposes for which the several elements were summoned. Whether or not the proposed assembly met and what was the business to be transacted are matters upon which there is no information. The autumn of 1213 was a time of much anxiety and activity on John’s part. He was preparing for his last great effort to regain his lost lands in France and was hampered at every turn by the English barons whom he had alienated by years of abusive rule.

8. Magna Carta.

This most notable document in English history was based upon a list of articles (Articuli Baronum) presented to John by the army of victorious barons at Runnymede on Monday, June 15, 1215. These articles, which the king was forced to grant, were the result of a series of attempts, running through the spring of 1215, to draw up a comprehensive list of the points of abuse and misgovernment upon which the barons proposed to treat with him. During the four or five days following this eventful Monday, the articles were carefully reworded and expanded, and the whole document cast in the form of a permanent charter or grant of the king. This final form was no doubt due in large part to the coronation charter of Henry I., which figured prominently in some meetings of the barons where plans of action against the king were discussed.

9. Writ for Assembling the County Court before the Itinerant Justices.

This very inclusive county assembly was only held once in several years; it was the court summoned to meet the itinerant justices when they were sent out with one of their general commissions, and was much larger and more formal than the ordinary monthly county court of this time. "The justices who were sent out on such visitations had tremendous commissions; they not only tried all sorts of cases, but were still, as in the earlier time, collectors of revenue, and might be charged to attend to any kind of king’s business. Henry III. got a great revenue by their means. They put local juries on oath for a great variety of purposes, their visitation being a prolonged inquiry into every matter that could possibly concern the king." It was this great variety and amount of business and the necessity for having on hand the materials for making up a jury for almost any purpose, administrative or judicial, that account for the very inclusive summons illustrated in this document.

10. Writ for the Collection of a Carucage.

The methods of assessing and collecting taxes varied much in detail during this period. But one element in them approached stability. This was the employment of local knights. The number, the method of choice, the precise way in which they were to conduct the assessment or were to co-operate with sheriff or royal commissioners changed from time to time and from tax to tax; but the knights usually bore the burden of work and responsibility. This royal writ for the carucage of 1220 furnishes as typical an instance as any, and its very emphatic account of some features of the procedure is interesting. The carucage was a land tax assessed on the "ploughland" or "plough." This measure of land approximated 100 acres, the amount which the regular plough team was supposed to work in a season.

11. Distraint of Knighthood.

This is the first of a long series of attempts, known under the general term "distraint of knighthood," to make all who had the property qualifications for knighthood assume its name and insignia, and, what was of vastly more consequence, its burdens. Ten years later, a similar writ was issued, but applying only to those who held knights’ fees of the king. The king received no small revenue from the fines and confiscations resulting from the enforcement of these writs. Much is heard of distraint of knighthood in the following reign.

12. Writ Summoning Four Knights of the Shire.

In June, 1226, a writ similar to this had been sent to eight counties—Gloucester, Dorset, Somerset, Bedford, Buckingham, Westmoreland, Northampton, and Lincoln. The meeting was to have been held at Lincoln the following September. But the king, finding that he could not be present on the day set, sent out word on September 2 that the meeting was not to be held, and hence it would not be necessary to elect the knights. Nothing further is heard of the matter until the next year, when the writ here printed was sent out on August 13. Evidently these local disputes about provisions in Magna Carta had spread and become more serious, so that now it was thought necessary to hold a nation-wide hearing on the subject. The king wished to hear the people’s story from their own elected representatives. It was probably before the king and his council that the knights and sheriffs were to appear at Westminster.

13. Writ Summoning Representatives of Seven Boroughs.

The first five towns mentioned in this writ are the Cinque Ports, the ancient group of southeastern ports, charged with special burdens of defense and enjoying compensating honors and privileges. There are several instances during the first part of the thirteenth century in which the king transacted business with the Cinque Ports by methods similar to that shown here. But in this case the two "ancient towns" of Rye and Winchelsea were included in the summons. The very critical relations with France just at this time were probably the occasion of the meeting.

14. Writ Summoning Two Knights of the Shire.

As the king was conducting the campaign in Gascony, this writ was sent out by the authority of the queen and the king’s brother, the Earl of Cornwall. A great council had just been held (January 27) and the prelates had on that occasion refused to make any engagements on behalf of the lower clergy. Indeed they mentioned some concessions which they believed would have to be made in order to secure a money grant for the present purpose. But they promised to use all diligence and zeal in setting forth the king’s need and in obtaining as liberal a grant as possible. So, on the same day that the writ here printed was sent out to the counties, writs having the same object were sent to the several bishoprics, suggesting diocesan meetings of the clergy for the presentation and discussion of the matter; and from these meetings "discreet men" were to come up to Westminster to certify the king’s council of the local actions. As to the attitude of the laymen, the regents wrote to the king three days after these writs were sent that they did not believe he would obtain an aid from them unless he were able in some way to convince them of his bona-fide intention to observe and enforce the charter of liberties. This was already an old grievance. Magna Carta had thus early acquired a great name and was an object of reverence, and, often as Henry III. had broken faith, his solemn promise to keep the charter was the surest way to win money from his people.

15. Writ Summoning Three Knights of the Shire.

In April, 1261, Henry had been released by papal bull from the oath which bound him to observe the Provisions of Oxford; and he forthwith proceeded to restore the government as rapidly as possible to the old basis. This of course greatly alarmed the baronage, for they saw all the fruits of their victory and great labor in 1258 slipping away from them. The pressing danger did a great deal to heal the feuds that success had bred in the barons’ ranks, especially the feud between the earls of Leicester and Gloucester; and during the summer and autumn, something of the former unity of action was restored. The barons evidently felt the need of a broader backing, and, in this new crisis, proposed to consult the gentry. This seems to have been the purpose of the summons referred to in the king’s writ here printed, and this is all that is known of it. But the king’s party could not allow the opposition the advantage of this conference, and hence attempted to forestall it. There is nothing to show Whether or not either of these rival meetings was held.

16. Writ Summoning Four Knights of the Shire.

The battle of Lewes, in which Simon de Montfort and his followers won their great victory, was fought in May, 1264. It left Simon in substantial authority, but writs were issued and all other business done in the name of the captive king. Three weeks after the battle the writ here printed was issued. The proposed assembly was held, and transacted important business relating to a provisional scheme of government under which the country was to be ruled until the points in controversy could be settled in some permanent way.

17. Writs Relating to the Assembly of January, 1265.

Most of the summoning writs for this assembly were issued in December of the same year as the preceding; but the writs to the Cinque Ports appear not to have been issued until the very day of assembling, unless, as there is some evidence, there was postponement or delay of a week. From June to December, Simon had been fully occupied in securing the fruits of victory, and in attempting to subdue or reconcile many half-conquered or discontented elements. He had no united baronage back of him; he led a faction. He had before this shown a disposition to seek a broad foundation of counsel and support in the English middle classes, and the present situation carried him much further in the same direction. The assembly which met in January continued well into March, and, for the most part, served its expected purpose. The form of government proposed in the assembly of the previous June was confirmed and very favorable terms were made with the king’s son, Edward, the strongest man on the royal side. It may perhaps be said that during the days of this assembly Simon’s fortunes were at their height; and yet the bitter quarrel with the Earl of Derby was itself an indication of the sources of the swift and complete overthrow which was impending.


[In answering the questions on this problem, the student is expected to use also, when necessary, the sources printed for Problem II.]

1. In the cases of sworn inquest from Henry II.’s reign or earlier, from what classes were men most frequently selected? What were their chief qualifications?

2. Why were so many different classes asked questions in the Inquest of Sheriffs? With what general lines of information was the king concerned here?

3. How did the Assize of Arms involve taxation? Just what was the function of the sworn inquest here? In what other document or documents was it used in substantially the same way?

4. Enumerate the instances here shown for the twelfth century in which the sworn inquest was used entirely apart from court procedure. Find a case or cases in which the same group was questioned on both judicial and non-judicial matters.

5. In what reign was there the greatest activity in applying the sworn inquest to new kinds of business?

6. In what ways besides the sworn inquest was the king employing men in local governmental affairs? Did any of these involve an official position?

7. When did the method of choosing men for inquests or other local purposes begin to change? What proves that there was a change? What does it seem likely was the earlier method? When first is the new method found in its completed form? How generally does the new method seem to have been adopted? Can you suggest any reason for the change?

8. What is the clearest example of the principle of representation in the reign of Henry II.? In what sense were the men on a sworn inquest acting in a representative capacity?

9. What was the first instance of the king’s purposing to gather jurors from various parts of the country to one place? What had been the earlier method of dealing with scattered juries which were to be questioned on the same matter? Suggest some reasons for the change.

10. When first did the king summon a fixed number of men from each county to a central assembly? For what purpose did he summon them?

11. When were popularly-elected knights from each county first summoned to a central assembly? On what business were they summoned? Did they come as representatives? What arguments pro or con can you make on this last point?

12. What was the second instance of concentration of popularly-elected knights of the shire? Make a careful comparison of these two cases from the point of view of the functions and representative character of the elected knights. Is there anything to show, in either case, before whom the knights were expected to appear?

13. How does the knights’ previous history account for the king’s use of them in these instances? Can you suggest any reason for the measures known as "distraint of knighthood"?

14. Of what local representative assembly do you find evidence? To just what extent was it representative? Give reasons for or against the view that this assembly suggested the practice of summoning local representatives to the center.

15. Is there any respect in which the 1261 assembly represents an advance over previous ones? The 1264 assembly?

16. From what sources may Simon de Montfort have received suggestions for the new element in his assembly of 1265?

17. What was done about the counties which failed to return knights to this 1265 meeting? How does this measure illustrate the undeveloped state of these practices?

18. In which instance is there evidence that knights were paid wages or expenses for representing their counties in a central assembly?

19. In which of the central assemblies does information seem to have been the chief thing wanted from the local representatives? In which was counsel wanted?

20. In which assemblies is there evidence that the local representatives acted with, or in any way became a part of, a great council of barons? Is there anything which shows whether or not such association was considered normal or desirable?

21. Where does it seem to you lay the responsibility or initiative in the various practices which led up to these assemblies?

1 It is suggested that the student reread here the "Historical Setting" of Problem II.

1Gesta Regis Henrici Secundi, I, 4–5.


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Chicago: "Some Antecedents of the House of Commons," Source Problems in English History in Source Problems in English History, ed. Albert Beebe White and Wallace Notestein (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1915), 71–87. Original Sources, accessed December 6, 2022,

MLA: . "Some Antecedents of the House of Commons." Source Problems in English History, in Source Problems in English History, edited by Albert Beebe White and Wallace Notestein, New York, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1915, pp. 71–87. Original Sources. 6 Dec. 2022.

Harvard: , 'Some Antecedents of the House of Commons' in Source Problems in English History. cited in 1915, Source Problems in English History, ed. , Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, pp.71–87. Original Sources, retrieved 6 December 2022, from