His assembly of the ministers, the higher permanent officials, and the law officers of the Crown, for the first time reserved to itself in its judicial capacity the correction of all breaches of the law which the lower courts had failed to repress, whether from weakness, partiality, or corruption, and especially of those lawless outbreaks of the more powerful baronage which defied the common authority of the judges. Though regarded with jealousy by Parliament, the jurisdiction of the Council seems to have been steadily put in force through the two centuries which followed; in the reign of Henry the Seventh it took legal and statutory form in the shape of the Court of Star Chamber, and its powers are still exercised in our own day by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. But the same duty of the Crown to do justice where its courts fell short of giving due redress for wrong expressed itself in the jurisdiction of the Chancellor. This great officer of State, who had perhaps originally acted only as President of the Council when discharging its judicial functions, acquired at a very early date an independent judicial position of the same nature. It is by remembering the origin of the Court of Chancery that we understand the nature of the powers it gradually acquired.
All grievances of the subject, especially those which sprang from the misconduct of government officials or of powerful oppressors, fell within its cognizance, as they fell within that of the Royal Council, and to these were added disputes respecting the wardship of infants, dower, rent-charges, or tithes. Its equitable jurisdiction sprang from the defective nature and the technical and unbending rules of the common law. As the Council had given redress in cases where law became injustice, so the Court of Chancery interfered without regard to the rules of procedure adopted by the common law courts, on the petition of a party for whose grievance the common law provided no adequate remedy. An analogous extension of his powers enabled the Chancellor to afford relief in cases of fraud, accident, or abuse of trust, and this side of his jurisdiction was largely extended at a later time through the results of legislation on the tenure of land by ecclesiastical bodies. The separate powers of the Chancellor, whatever was the original date at which they were first exercised, seem to have been thoroughly established under Edward the First.
In legislation, as in his judicial reforms, Edward renewed and consolidated the principles which had been already brought into practical working by Henry the Second. Significant acts announced his determination to carry out Henry's policy of limiting the independent jurisdiction of the Church. He was resolute to force it to become thoroughly national by bearing its due part of the common national burthens, and to break its growing dependence upon Rome. The defiant resistance of the ecclesiastical body was answered in an emphatic way. By falling into the "dead hand * or "mortmain" of the Church land ceased to render its feudal services; and the Statute "of Mortmain" nowforbade the alienation of land to religious bodies in such wise that it should cease to render its due service to the King. The restriction was probably no beneficial one to the country at large, for Churchmen were the best landlords, and it was soon evaded by the ingenuity of the clerical lawyers; but it marked the growing jealousy of any attempt to set aside what was national from serving the general need and profit of the nation. Its immediate effect was to stir the clergy to a bitter resentment.
But Edward remained firm, and when the bishops proposed to restrict the royal courts from dealing with cases of patronage or causes which touched the chattels of Churchmen he met their proposals by an instant prohibition. His care for the trading classes was seen in the Statute of Merchants, which provided for the registration of the debts of traders, and for their recovery by distraint of the debtor's goods and the imprisonment of his person. The Statute of Winchester, the greatest of Edward's measures for the enforcement of public order, revived and reorganized the old institutions of national police and national defence. It regulated the action of the hundred, the duty of watch and ward, and the gathering of the fyrd or militia of the realm as Henry the Second had moulded it into form in his Assize of Arms. Every man was bound to hold himself in readiness, duly armed, for the King's service in case of invasion or revolt, or to pursue felons when hue and cry were raised after them. Every district was made responsible for crimes committed within its bounds; the gates of each town were required to be closed at nightfall, and all strangers to give an account of themselves to its magistrates.
As a security for travellers against sudden attacks from robbers, all brushwood was to be destroyed for a space of two hundred feet on either side the public highway, a provision which illustrates at once the social and physical condition of the country at the time. To enforce the observance of this act knights were appointed in every shire under the name of Conservators of the Peace, a name which, as the convenience of these local magistrates was more sensibly felt and their powers more largely extended, was changed for that which they still retain of "Justices of the Peace." The great measure which is commonly known as the Statute " Quia Emptores " is one of those legislative efforts which mark the progress of a wide social revolution in the country at large. The number of the greater barons was diminishing every day, while the number of the country gentry and of the more substantial yeomanry was increasing with the increase of the national wealth. This increase showed itself in the growing desire to become proprietors of land.
Tenants of the greater barons received under-tenants on condition of their rendering them similar services to those which they themselves rendered to their lords; and the baronage, while duly receiving the services in compensation for which they had originally granted their lands in fee, saw with jealousy the feudal profits of these new under-tenants, the profits of wardship or of reliefs and the like, in a word the whole increase in the value of the estate consequent on its subdivision and higher cultivation, passing into other hands than their own. The purpose of the statute was to check this process by providing that in any case of alienation the sub-tenant should henceforth hold, not of the tenant, but directly of the superior lord. But its result was to promote instead of hindering the transfer and subdivision of land. The tenant who was before compelled to retain in any case so much of the estate as enabled him to discharge his feudal services to the over-lord of whom he held it, was now enabled by a process analogous to the modern sale of "tenant-right," to transfer both land and services to new holders.