From the first the King struggled fruitlessly against this overpowering influence; and his sympathies must have been stirred by the revolution on the other side of the Channel, where the French kings were crushing the power of the feudal baronage, and erecting a royal despotism on its ruins. Edward watched jealously over the ground which the Crown had already gained against the nobles. Following the policy of Henry II., at the very outset of his reign he instituted a commission of enquiry into the judicial franchises still existing, and on its report itinerant justices were sent to discover by what right these franchises were held. The writs of "quo warranto" were roughly met here and there. Earl Warenne bared a rusty sword, and flung it on the justices' table. "This, sirs," he said, "is my warrant.
By the sword our fathers won their lands when they came over with the Conqueror, and by the sword we will keep them." But the King was far from limiting himself to the plans of Henry II.; he aimed further at neutralizing the power of the nobles by raising the whole body of landowners to the same level; and a royal writ ordered all freeholders who held land of the value of twenty pounds to receive knighthood at the King's hands. While the political influence of the baronage as a leading element in the nation mounted, in fact, the personal and purely feudal power of each individual on his estates as steadily fell. The hold which the Crown had gained on every noble family by its rights of wardship and marriage, the circuits of the royal judges, the ever narrowing bounds within which baronial justice was circumscribed, the blow dealt by scutage at their military power, the prompt intervention of the Council in their feuds, lowered the nobles more and more to the level of their fellow subjects.
Much yet remained to be done. Different as the English baronage, taken as a whole, was from a feudal noblesse like that of Germany or France, there is in every military class a natural drift towards violence and lawlessness, which even the stern justice of Edward found it difficult to repress. Throughout his reign his strong hand was needed to enforce order on warring nobles. Great earls, such as those of Gloucester and Hereford, carried on private war; in Shropshire the Earl of Arundel waged his feud with Fulk Fitz Warine. To the lesser and poorer nobles the wealth of the trader, the long wain of goods as it passed along the highway, was a tempting prey. Once, under cover of a mock tournament of monks against canons, a band of country gentlemen succeeded in introducing themselves into the great merchant fair at Boston; at nightfall every booth was on fire, the merchants robbed and slaughtered, and the booty carried off to ships which lay ready at the quay. Streams of gold and silver, ran the tale of popular horror, flowed melted down the gutters to the sea; "all the money in England could hardly make good the loss." Even at the close of Edward's reign lawless bands of "trail-bastons," or club-men, maintained themselves by general outrage, aided the country nobles in their feuds, and wrested money and goods by threats from the great tradesmen.
The King was strong enough to fine and imprison the Earls, to hang the chief of the Boston marauders, and to suppress the outlaws by rigorous commissions. During Edward's absence of three years from the realm, the judges, who were themselves drawn from the lesser baronage, were charged with violence and corruption. After a careful investigation the judicial abuses were recognized and amended; two of the chief justices were banished from the country, and their colleagues imprisoned and fined.
The next year saw a step which remains the great blot upon Edward's reign. Under the Angevins the popular hatred of the Jews had grown rapidly in intensity. But the royal protection had never wavered. Henry the Second had granted them the right of burial outside of every city where they dwelt. Richard had punished heavily a massacre of the Jews at York, and organized a mixed court of Jews and Christians for the registration of their contracts. John suffered none to plunder them save himself, though he once wrested from them a sum equal to a year's revenue of his realm. The troubles of the next reign brought in a harvest greater than even the royal greed could reap; the Jews grew wealthy enough to acquire estates, and only a burst of popular feeling prevented a legal decision which would have enabled them to own freeholds. Their pride and contempt of the superstitions around them broke out in the taunts they levelled at processions as they passed their Jewries, sometimes as at Oxford in actual attacks upon them.
Wild stories floated about among the people of children carried off to Jewish houses, to be circumcised or crucified, and a boy of Lincoln who was found slain in a Jewish house was canonized by popular reverence as "St. Hugh." The first work of the Friars was to settle in the Hebrew quarters and attempt their conversion, but the tide of popular fury rose too fast for these gentler means of reconciliation. When the Franciscans saved seventy Jews from death by their prayers to Henry the Third the populace angrily refused the brethren alms. The sack of Jewry after Jewry was the sign of popular hatred during the Barons' war. With its close, fell on the Jews the more terrible persecution of the law. Statute after statute hemmed them in. They were forbidden to hold real property, to employ Christian servants, to move through the streets without the two white tablets of wool on their breasts which distinguished their race. They were prohibited from building new synagogues, or eating with Christians, or acting as physicians to them. Their trade, already crippled by the rivalry of the bankers of Cahors, was annihilated by a royal order, which bade them renounce usury under pain of death.
At last persecution could do no more, and on the eve of his struggle with Scotland, Edward, eager at the moment to find supplies for his treasury, and himself swayed by the fanaticism of his subjects, bought the grant of a fifteenth from clergy and laity by consenting to drive the Jews from his realm. Of the sixteen thousand who preferred exile to apostasy few reached the shores of France. Many were wrecked, others robbed and flung overboard. One shipmaster turned out a crew of wealthy merchants on to a sandbank, and bade them call a new Moses to save them from the sea. From the time of Edward to that of Cromwell no Jew touched English ground.