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Uniting the Kingdoms? 1066-1603

 
   

England

Governing the Realm

Since the Norman Conquest in 1066, the evolution of central government has hinged upon the ability of the monarch to control his realm and magnatesGlossary term - opens in a pop-up window. When the crown was weak, anarchy and civil war were the result, as in the reigns of Stephen (1135-54) and Henry VI (1422-60, 1471). A sense of 'partnership' between monarch and magnates originated from the protests against King John's government that culminated in Magna CartaGlossary term - opens in a pop-up window.

The principle that the crown was not above the rule of law quickly became entrenched at all levels of society. Henry III's failure to maintain these standards initiated the Barons' WarGlossary term - opens in a pop-up window, which saw him temporarily supplanted by Simon de MontfortGlossary term - opens in a pop-up window and his supporters. Their regime strengthened the development of representative government with the 'Parliament'Glossary term - opens in a pop-up window of 1265.

 

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Magna Carta

 

Parliament at work

 

The fate of Simon de Montfort

From Anglo-Saxon times, the main instrument of royal administration in the localities was the sheriffGlossary term - opens in a pop-up window, who effectively governed a county or group of counties in the king's name and protected royal rights and revenues. The latter were paid in to the ExchequerGlossary term - opens in a pop-up window. This was primarily a financial institution, but it also enjoyed vast powers that could be used to force individuals into royal debt as a means of political control. However, certain parts of England were virtually exempt from royal authority, in particular the Palatinates of Chester and Durham and the Duchy of Lancaster.

For more on Magna Carta and the Exchequer, visit our Treasures exhibition.

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The development of the common lawGlossary term - opens in a pop-up window and a central, codified legal system under Henry II (1154-89) incorporated local custom and tradition into a new 'national' framework for dealing with crime and punishment. The reality for most people was the local manorial court, which dealt with day-to-day matters on the manor. However, from the thirteenth century onwards, first justices in eyreGlossary term - opens in a pop-up window and then of assizesGlossary term - opens in a pop-up window became the most important regional courts for serious offences. Lesser crimes were later increasingly tried by justices of the peace in the quarter sessionsGlossary term - opens in a pop-up window.

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Detail from Parliament at Work. By permission of the British Library.
 
Detail from Parliament at Work. By permission of the British Library.