The effort, however, to revive the old personal attendance of the lesser baronage, which had broken down half a century before, could hardly be renewed at a time when the increase of their numbers made it more impracticable than ever; but a means of escape from this difficulty was fortunately suggested by the very nature of the court through which alone a summons could be addressed to the landed knighthood. Amidst the many judicial reforms of Henry or Edward the Shire Court remained unchanged. The haunted mound or the immemorial oak round which the assembly gathered (for the court was often held in the open air) were the relics of a time before the free kingdom had sunk into a shire, and its folk-moot into a County Court. But save that the King's reeve had taken the place of the King, and that the Norman legislation had displaced the Bishop and set four Coroners by the Sheriff's side, the gathering of the freeholders remained much as of old. The local knighthood, the yeomanry, the husbandmen of the county, were all represented in the crowd that gathered round the Sheriff, as, guarded by his liveried followers, he published the King's writs, announced his demand of aids, received the presentment of criminals and the inquest of the local jurors, assessed the taxation of each district, or listened solemnly to appeals for justice, civil and criminal, from all who held themselves oppressed in the lesser courts of the hundred or the soke.
It was in the County Court alone that the Sheriff could legally summon the lesser baronage to attend the Great Council, and it was in the actual constitution of this assembly that the Crown found a solution of the difficulty which we have already stated. For the principle of representation by which it was finally solved was coeval with the Shire Court itself. In all cases of civil or criminal justice the twelve sworn assessors of the Sheriff, as members of a class, though not formally deputed for that purpose, practically represented the judicial opinion of the county at large. From every hundred came groups of twelve sworn deputies, the "jurors," through whom the presentments of the district were made to the royal officer, and with whom the assessment of its share in the general taxation was arranged. The husbandmen on the outskirts of the crowd, clad in the brown smock frock which still lingers in the garb of our carters and ploughmen, were broken up into little knots of five, a reeve and four assistants, who formed the representatives of the rural townships. If, in fact, we regard the Shire Courts as lineally the descendants of our earliest English folk-moots, we may justly claim the principle of parliamentary representation as among the oldest of our institutions.
But it was only slowly and tentatively that this principle was applied to the recon-stitution of the Great Council. As early as the close of John's reign there are indications of the approaching change in the summons of "four discreet knights" from every county. Fresh need of local support was felt by both parties in the conflict of the succeeding reign, and Henry and his barons alike summoned knights from each shire "to meet on the common business of the realm." It was no doubt with the same purpose that the writs of Earl Simon ordered the choice of knights in each shire for his famous parliament of 1265. Something like a continuous attendance may be dated from the accession of Edward, but it was long before the knights were regarded as more than local deputies for the assessment of taxation, or admitted to a share in the general business of the Great Council. The statute "Quia Emptores," for instance, was passed in it before the knights who had been summoned could attend. Their participation in the deliberative power of Parliament, as well as their regular and continuous attendance, dates only from the Parliament of 1295. But a far greater constitutional change in their position had already taken place through the extension of electoral rights to the freeholders at large.
The one class entitled to a seat in the Great Council was, as we have seen, that of the lesser baronage; and of the lesser baronage alone the knights were in theory the representatives. But the necessity of holding their election in the County Court rendered any restriction of the electoral body physically impossible. The court was composed of the whole body of freeholders, and no sheriff could distinguish the "aye, aye " of the yeoman from the" aye, aye " of the lesser baron. From the first moment therefore of their attendance we find the knights regarded not as mere representatives of the baronage, but as knights of the shire, and by this silent revolution the whole body of the rural freeholders were admitted to a share in the government of the realm.
The financial difficulties of the Crown led to a far more radical revolution in the admission into the Great Council of representatives from the boroughs. The presence of knights from each shire was, as we have seen, the recognition of an older right, but no right of attendance or share in the national "counsel and consent" could be pleaded for the burgesses of the towns. On the other hand, the rapid developement of their wealth made them every day more important as elements in the national taxation. The towns had long since freed themselves from all payment of the dues or fines exacted by the King, as the original lord of the soil on which they had in most cases grown up, by what was called the purchase of the " farm of the borough"; in other words, by the commutation of these uncertain dues for a fixed sum paid annually to the Crown, and apportioned by their own magistrates among the general body of the burghers. All that the King legally retained was the right enjoyed by every great proprietor of levying a corresponding taxation on his tenants in demesne under the name of " a free aid," whenever a grant was made for the national necessities by the barons of the Great Council. But the temptation of appropriating the growing wealth of the mercantile class proved stronger than legal restrictions, and we find both Henry the Third and his son assuming a right of imposing taxes at pleasure and without any authority from the Council even over London itself.