It was a king's greed for money which gave the English people their next help to a free government, though the king never suspected it and the people themselves hardly realized it. When you read this story, however, see if you do not think so.
The king was Henry III, John's son, and it all began with his fondness for foreigners. The English were weary of foreigners. Every century or two, from the landing of Julius Cæsar to the coming of William the Conqueror, a new people had crossed the waters that separated them from Europe, and had invaded and settled in their island, trying to manage those who were already living there. England had become a wonderful nation by the coming together of all these strong Teutonic peoples, but now it had had enough. The English people wanted to be left to govern and develop their island in their own way. But their new king was of just the opposite mind. He began by marrying a princess of Provence; he brought over Frenchmen to live at his court, offering them as a reward not only high positions in the government but also marriageable English ladies of great wealth as wives; last of all he married his sister Isabella to the Emperor of Germany. This was what got him into trouble, for Henry was so eager to make this fine match that he agreed to give his sister a dowry second to none in the world. All the old records are full of descriptions of the wonderful outfit with which Isabella started for Germany. "She shone forth with the greatest profusion of rings and gold necklaces and other splendid jewels, surpassing even kingly wealth. The bed which she took with her was beautiful beyond words, and last, what seemed superfluous to every one, all the cooking pots and saucepans, large and small, were of pure silver." This, you will remember, was in the thirteenth century, when the table dishes of most castles were only of pewter, and the common people ate out of wooden bowls.
Isabella went off to Germany with her silver sauce-pans and her jewels, and Henry began to wonder what he should do next. He held his court that year at Christmas in Winchester, and from there he sent out through all the borders of England royal writs directing all the barons and lords who had regard for the realm of England to come without fail to London for the purpose of royal business and matters touching the whole realm. The appeal sounded serious, and lords and barons obeyed the royal command at once, believing that they were to consider high matters of state. When they had taken their seats in the royal palace, they found that the king had spent all his money on his sister's dowry and his own wedding, and wanted more. This was the way the clerk of the king said it.
"Now, therefore, our lord the king, being wholly without money, without which any king is indeed desolate, humbly begs an aid from you."
He went on to say that the "aid" which the king requested was to be "one thirtieth of all the movables of England," which meant one thirtieth of everything which the lords and barons owned except their land and their castles, which were not "movable." The nobles, not expecting anything of this kind, murmured greatly, and answered angrily that they were constantly oppressed on every side.
"It would be unworthy of us," they said, "and injurious to us, to allow a king who is so easily led astray to extort so much money so often, and by so many arguments, from his natural subjects, as if they were slaves of the lowest condition."
The king excused himself by saying that he had spent so much money on his own and his sister's marriage.
Then they reminded him of the provisions of the Magna Charta, which he had confirmed when he came to the throne but which he seemed to have forgotten.
"All this was done without the advice of your subjects," they said, "and those who are free from the blame ought not to be sharers in the penalty."
The Magna Charta had said that the people must consent to a tax. These men went farther and said, "Whoever imposes a tax must tell the people what it is wanted for."
The council voted the king his money, for there was nothing else to do now that he had spent all that he had, but they made him promise that this should not happen again.
Five years later it was all to be done over. The king had broken all his promises. He had spent the money. Now he wanted more, and at the royal command the nobility of all England, prelates and earls and barons, assembled once more. Do you begin to see what this king's greed for money was doing? If the king had not wanted money, he would not have taken much notice of his nobles. Here we have, for the first time in history, an English king calling together a Parliament every few years and being forced, because he wanted their money, to listen while they told him what they thought of the way he was managing the kingdom.
This time the nobles were weary of the way their king was behaving. They complained to him that the money had all been used for foreigners and foreign wars and had contributed nothing to the advancement of king or kingdom, and they reproached him bitterly for thus scattering English money among foreigners, telling him that he should be ashamed to ask them for more. They gave him the right to impose a small tax, but before they separated they bound themselves by a solemn oath that they would give the king no more money.
"So the parliament dissolved," reads the record, "leaving fixed, but secret, anger in the hearts of either side."
Matters grew worse and worse in England. The king, as soon as he got his money, paid no attention to the warnings of the Parliament. There was a bad harvest one year, and the poor were without food. The Welsh rebelled against the king, and he did not have money enough in the treasury to pay for supplies for the army, and once again he was forced to call together his barons, who had been watching for another five years while the kingdom went from bad to worse.
At this Parliament of 1258, a great thing happened to the barons. Earl Simon of Montfort went over to their side. He was a foreigner by birth, a Norman, but he was at heart a better Englishman than their English king. He had married the king's sister, and had been at one time in high favor with Henry, who had given him provinces to govern in France. But when he went over to govern his provinces he had found that the king had no intention of backing him with money or help. He had given him the province. Earl Simon must manage it as best he could and try besides to extract from it money for the king. Not only had Henry treated him badly in many personal ways, but Earl Simon, when he returned to live in England, had seen the sad state of the land, and his sympathies were all with the protesting barons.
So in this Parliament he made a great speech of protest against the king's methods, and called on the barons to take measures for the protection of the land from this king, who, as the chronicler puts it, "with open mouth was thus greedily gaping after money."
Henry did his best to win over his nobles, but they had become too strong. On the altar of the church he finally swore that he would correct his errors; but the nobles had learned the value of the king's promises. To obtain the money he needed, the king had to agree to adjourn the Parliament for one month, when it should meet again and should appoint a commission of twenty-four of its members, twelve to be chosen by the king and twelve by the barons, to draw up a plan of reform for the kingdom. This Parliament was to meet at Oxford. In the month between the two meetings the barons made many preparations. They suspected that the king would hire foreign troops to help him put down the "rebels" as he called them. So they garrisoned the five great harbors opposite to the French coast. They also sent word to their homes that all who owed them knightly service might accompany them to this gathering. Thus they had a strong force of men to defend them, should the king plan to attack them with his troops.
The king dared do nothing. The Parliament met. It appointed councils whom the king should consult, and the king promised to make no move without them. It planned many reforms, and last of all it decreed that the king's castles which were held by foreigners should be given up by them. The foreigners protested, but in vain. The barons were firm, and the foreigners, seeing that the day when they could live in ease and idleness on English money was gone, fled from the country. Before it separated, the Parliament voted that henceforth it should meet not only at the call of the king, but regularly three times a year. That was the beginning of our modern system of regular governing assemblies of the people.
In all these councils Earl Simon was the leader. How the king hated and feared him is shown by a story of an accidental meeting between the two, one month after the Parliament had closed.
The king one day had left his palace at Westminster and gone down the Thames in a boat to take his dinner out of doors, when the sky clouded over and a thunderstorm came on, with lightning and heavy rain. Now the king feared a storm of this kind more than anything, so he directed them to land him at once. The boat happened to be opposite to the stately palace of the bishop of Durham, where Earl Simon was staying. On hearing of the king's arrival the earl went gladly to meet him and, greeting him with proper respect, said by way of reassurance, "What is it that you fear? The storm is now passed."
To this the king, not in jest but seriously, answered with a severe look, The thunder and lightning I fear beyond measure, but thee I fear more than all the thunder and lightning in the world."
The king did not keep his promises. This is not to be wondered at. He was too much used to ruling in his own way to submit to the council of the barons. England was once more oppressed, and the common people began to sing a song of which this was the first verse,
"Earl Simon, now, of Montfort,
Thou powerful man and brave,
Bring up thy strong battalions,
Thy country now to save."
"In the year 1261," reads the chronicle, "the king was turned aside from the compact which he had made with the barons. He retired to the Tower of London, and strengthened it. He broke open the treasure that was stored there, and he also commanded that the city be guarded with bolts and bars. The heralds of the king went out and proclaimed that those who would fight for the king should come forward and be supported at his expense . . . When the barons heard this, they assembled from all quarters with great hosts of soldiers outside the city walls."
That was the beginning of the struggle. The barons, with Simon of Montfort leading them, sent word to the king in a last message, that if he would have pity on the land and grant them good laws, they would serve him well with foot and hand. The king replied that he cared nothing for their service.
"We care not for your protection nor love," the message read, "but defy you as being enemies of us and of our people."
Thus the king returned to the earls and lords the oath of fealty which they had sworn to him, declaring that he considered them enemies.
Both sides prepared for battle, and at Lewes the king and his troops met the forces of the barons, and were defeated, the king being taken prisoner.
Earl Simon marched to London to take up the government, and the hopes of men were high for England's freedom.
"Now does fair England breathe again, hoping for liberty, And may the grace of God above give her prosperity!"
So reads one of the songs of the people in that day.
Earl Simon summoned a Parliament, and for one thing about that Parliament he will be remembered with honor forever. He announced that there should be summoned to the Parliament not only the nobility of the realm, earls and barons and lords, but also "four discreet knights from each county," and "two discreet, loyal, and honest men" from each city. Thus he established the principle that every class of people should be represented in the government, which is the principle of every Congress and Parliament and Assembly to-day.
The barons did not keep supremacy in England. King Henry's son, Prince Edward, escaped from their custody and raised an army, which defeated the barons within a year, and by the battle of Evesham restored his father to the throne. In this battle Earl Simon of Montfort was killed, but the song was true which said,
"But by his death earl Simon hath
In sooth the victory won,"
for a very wonderful thing happened. When King Henry died and the crown of England passed to his son, Edward did not go back to the old way of governing, but took up Earl Simon's way and summoned just such Parliaments of the people as Earl Simon had gathered. So the prince who had defeated him carried on Earl Simon's work, and all Anglo-Saxon people give honor to this day to
"Simon of the mountain strong,
Flower of knightly chivalry,
Thou who death and deadly wrong
Barest, making England free."