If we turn again to the constitutional history of England from the accession of Edward the First we find a progress not less real but chequered with darker vicissitudes than the progress of our towns. A great transfer of power had been brought about by the long struggle for the Charter, by the reforms of Earl Simon, and by the earlier legislation of Edward himself. His conception of kingship indeed was that of a just and religious Henry the Second, but his England was as different from the England of Henry as the Parliament of the one was different from the Great Council of the other. In the rough rimes of Robert of Gloucester we read the simple political creed of the people at large.
"When the land through God's grace to good peace was brought For to have the old laws the high men turned their thought: For to have, as we said erst, the good old Law, The King made his charter and granted it with sawe".
[Authorities. - For Edward I. as before. For Edward II. we have three important contemporaries: on the King's side, Thomas de la More (in Camden, "Anglica, Brittanica, etc."); on that of the Barons, Trokelowe's Annals (published by the Master of the Rolls), and the Life by a monk of Malmes-bury, printed by Hearne. The short Chronicle by Murimuth is also contemporary in date. Hallam ("Middle Ages") has illustrated the constitutional aspect of the time].
But the power which the Charter had wrested from the Crown fell not to the people but to the Baronage. The farmer and the artisan, though they could fight in some great crisis for freedom, had as yet no wish to interfere in the common task of government. The vast industrial change in both town and country, which had begun during the reign of Henry the Third, and which continued with increasing force during that of his son, absorbed the energy and attention of the trading classes. In agriculture, the inclosure of common lands and the introduction of the system of leases on the part of the great proprietors, coupled with the subdivision of estates which was facilitated by Edward's legislation, was gradually creating out of the masses of rural bondsmen a new class of tenant farmers, whose whole energy was absorbed in their own great rise to social freedom. The very causes which rendered the growth of municipal liberty so difficult, increased the wealth of the towns. To the trade with Norway and the Hanse towns of North Germany, the wool-trade with Flanders, and the wine trade with Gascony, was now added a fast increasing commerce with Italy and Spain. The great Venetian merchant galleys appeared on the English coast, Florentine traders settled in the southern ports, the bankers of Florence and Lucca followed those of Cahors, who had already dealt a death-blow to the usury of the Jews. But the wealth and industrial energy of the country was shown, not only in the rise of a capitalist class, but in a crowd of civil and ecclesiastical buildings which distinguished this period.
Christian architecture reached its highest beauty in the opening of Edward's reign, a period marked by the completion of the abbey church of Westminster and the exquisite cathedral church at Salisbury. An English noble was proud to be styled "an incomparable builder," while some traces of the art which was rising across the Alps perhaps flowed in with the Italian ecclesiastics whom the Papacy was forcing on the English Church. In the abbey of Westminster the shrine of the Confessor, the mosaic pavement, and the paintings on the walls of minster and chapter-house, remind us of the schools which were springing up under Giotto and the Pisans.
But even had this industrial distraction been wanting the trading classes had no mind to claim any direct part in the actual work of government. It was a work which, in default of the Crown, fell naturally, according to the ideas of the time, to the Baronage. Constitutionally the position of the English nobles had now become established. A King could no longer make laws or levy taxes or even make war without their assent. And in the Baronage the nation reposed an unwavering trust. The nobles of England were no more the brutal foreigners from whose violence the strong hand of a Norman ruler had been needed to protect his subjects; they were as English as the peasant or the trader. They had won English liberty by their swords, and the tradition of their order bound them to look on themselves as its natural guardians. At the close of the Barons' war, the problem which had so long troubled the realm, the problem of how to ensure its government in accordance with the Charter, was solved by the transfer of the business of administration into the hands of a standing committee of the greater prelates and barons, acting as chief officers of state in conjunction with specially appointed ministers of the Crown. The body thus composed was known as the Continual Council; and the quiet government of the kingdom by the Council in the long interval between the death of Henry the Third and his son's return shows how effective this rule of the nobles was.
It is significant of the new relation which they were to strive to establish between themselves and the Crown that in the brief which announced Edward's accession the Council asserted that the new monarch mounted his throne "by the will of the peers." The very form indeed of the new Parliament, in which the barons were backed by the knights of the shire, elected for the most part under their influence, and by the representatives of the towns, still true to the traditions of the Barons' war; the increased frequency of these Parliamentary assemblies which gave opportunity for counsel, for party organization, and a distinct political base of action; above all, the new financial power which their control over taxation enabled them to exert on the throne, ultimately placed the rule of the nobles on a basis too strong to be shaken by the utmost efforts of even Edward himself.