Though Henry's taxes were vexatious and never-ending, though his subservience to the pope and his flighty interference in foreign politics were ever irritating the magnates condition and the people, and though outbreaks of turbulence of England were not unknown during his long period of personal under rule, it would yet be a mistake to regard the central years of the 13th century as an unprosperous period for England. Indeed it would be more correct to regard the period as one of steady national development in wealth, culture and unity. The towns were growing fast, and extending their municipal liberties; the necessities of John and the facile carelessness of Henry led to the grant of innumerable charters and privileges.

As was to be seen again during the first period of the reign of Charles I, political irritation is not incompatible either with increasing material prosperity or with great intellectual development. The king's futile activity led to ever more frequent gatherings of the Great Council, in which the theory of the constitution was gradually hammered out by countless debates between the sovereign and his subjects. Every time that Henry confirmed the Great Charter, the fact that England was already a limited monarchy became more evident. It is curious to find that like his father John he himself contributed unconsciously to advances towards representative government. John's writ of 1213, bidding discreet men from each shire to present themselves at Oxford, found its parallel in another writ of 1253 which bids four knightly delegates from each county to appear along with the tenants-in-chief, for the purpose of discussing the king's needs. When county members begin to present themselves along with the barons at the national assembly, the conception of parliament is already reached. And indeed we may note that the precise word parliament first appears in the chroniclers and in official documents about the middle of Henry's reign. By its end the term is universally acknowledged and employed.

We may discern during these same years a great intellectual activity. This was the time of rapid development in the universities, where not only were the scholastic philosophy and systematic theology eagerly studied, but figures appear like that of the great Roger Bacon, a scientific researcher of the first rank, whose discoveries in optics and chemistry caused his contemporaries to suspect him of magical arts. His teaching at Oxford in 1250-1257 fell precisely into the years of the worst misgovernance of Henry III. It was the same with law, an essentially 13th-century study; it was just in this age that the conception of law as something not depending on the pleasure of the king, nor compiled from mere collected ancestral customs, but existing as a logical entity, became generally prevalent, The feeling is thoroughly well expressed by the partisan of Montfort who wrote in his jingling Latin verse:

Dicitur vulgariter ut rex vult lex vadit:
Veritas vult aliter: nam lex stat, rex cadit.

Law has become something greater than, and independent of, royal caprice. The great lawyers of the day, of whom Bracton is the most celebrated name, were spinning theories of its origin and development, studying Roman precedents, and turning the medley of half-understood Saxon and Norman customs into a system.

Intellectual growth was accompanied by great religious activity; it is no longer merely on the old questions of dispute between church and state that then were straining their minds. The reign of Henry III saw the invasion of England by the friars, originally the moral reformers of their day, who preached the superiority of the missionary life over the merely contemplative life of the old religious orders, and came, preaching holy poverty, to minister to souls neglected by worldly incumbents and political prelates (see Mendicant Movement). The mendicants, Dominican and Franciscan, took rapid root in England; the number of friaries erected in the reign of Henry III is astounding. For two generations they seem to have absorbed into their ranks all the most active and energetic of those who felt a clerical vocation. It is most noteworthy that they were joined by thinkers such as Grosseteste, Adam Marsh, Roger Bacon, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. Still more striking is the fact that the friars threw themselves energetically into the cause of political reform, and that several of their leading brothers were the close friends and counsellors of Simon de Montfort.

Architecture and art generally were making rapid strides during this stirring time. The lofty Early English style had now completely superseded the more heavy and sombre Norman, and it was precisely during the years of the maladministration of Henry III that some of the most splendid of the English cathedrals, Salisbury (1220-1258) and Wells (1230-1239), were built. The king himself, when rearing the new Westminster Abbey over the grave of Edward the Confessor, spent for once some of his money on a worthy object. It may be noted that he showed a special reverence for the old English royal saint, and christened his eldest son after him; while his second bore the name of Edmund, the East Anglian martyr. These were the first occasions on which princes of the Angevin house received names that were not drawn from the common continental stock, but recalled the days before the Conquest. The reappearance of these old English names bears witness to the fact that the vernacular was reasserting itself. Though French was still the language of the court and of law, a new literature was already growing up in the native tongue, with such works as [Layamon|Layamon's Brut and the Ormulum as its first fruits. Henry III himself on rare occasions used English for a state document.

All these facts make it sufficiently clear that England was irritated rather than crushed by Henry's irregular taxation and thriftless expenditure. The nation was growing and prospering, despite of its master's maladministration of its resources. On several occasions when he endeavoured to commit parliaments to back his bills and endorse his policy, they refused to help him, and left him to face his debts as best he might. This was especially the case with the insane contract which he made with Pope Innocent IV in 1254, when he bound the realm of England to find 140,000 marks to equip an army for the conquest of Naples and Sicily. Henry lacked the energy to attempt to take by force what he could not obtain by persuasion, and preferred to break his bargain with the pope rather than to risk the chance of civil war at home.


Text extracted from the entry for ENGLISH HISTORY in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.

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