CHAPTER IV. THE FIRST REFORMS

Henry began his work of reorganization by taking up the work which his grandfather had begun - that of replacing the mere arbitrary power of the sovereign by a uniform system of administration, and bringing into order the various conflicting authorities which had been handed down from ancient times, royal courts and manor courts, church courts, shire courts, hundred courts, forest courts, and local courts in special franchises, with all their inextricable confusion of law and custom and procedure. Under Henry I. two courts, the Exchequer and the Curia Regis, had control of all the financial and judicial business of the kingdom. The Exchequer filled a far more important place in the national life than the Curia Regis, for the power of the king was simply measured by the state of the treasury, when wars began to be fought by mercenaries, and justice to be administered by paid officials. The court had to keep a careful watch over the provincial accounts, over the moneys received from the king's domains, and the fines from the local courts. It had to regulate changes in the mode of payment as the use of money gradually replaced the custom of payments in kind. It had to watch alterations in the ownership and cultivation of land, to modify the settlement of Doomsday Book so as to meet new conditions, and to make new distribution of taxes. There was no class of questions concerning property in the most remote way which might not be brought before its judges for decision. Twice a year the officers of the royal household, the Chancellor, Treasurer, two Chamberlains, Constable, and Marshal, with a few barons chosen from their knowledge of the law, sat with the Justiciar at their head, as "Barons of the Exchequer" in the palace at Westminster, round the table covered with its "chequered" cloth from which they took their name. In one chamber, the Exchequer of Account, the "Barons" received the reports of the sheriffs from every county, and fixed the sums to be levied. In a second chamber, the Exchequer of Receipt, the sheriff or tax-farmer paid in his dues and took his receipts. The accounts were carefully entered on the treasurer's roll, which was called from its shape the Great Roll of the Pipe, and which may still be seen in our Record Office; the chancellor kept a duplicate of this, known as the Roll of the Chancery; and an officer of the king registered in a third Roll matters of any special importance. Before the death of Henry I. the vast amount and the complexity of business in the Exchequer Court made it impossible that it should any longer be carried on wholly in London. The "Barons" began to travel as itinerant judges through the country; as the king's special officers they held courts in the provinces, where difficult local questions were tried and decided on the spot. So important did the work of finance become that the study of the Exchequer is in effect the key to English history at this time. It was not from any philosophic love of good government, but because the license of outrage would have interrupted there turns of the revenue that Henry I. claimed the title of the "Lion of justice." It was in great measure from a wish to sweep the fees of the Church courts into the royal Hoard that the second Henry began the strife with Becket in the Constitutions of Clarendon, and the increase of revenue was the efficient cause of the great reforms of justice which form the glory of his reign. It was the fount of English law and English freedom.

The Curia Regis was composed of the same great officers of the household as those who sat in the Exchequer, and of a few men chosen by the king for their legal learning; but in this court they were not known as "Barons" but as "Justices," and their head was the Chief Justice. The Curia Regis dealt with legal business, with all causes in which the king's interest was concerned, with appeals from the local courts, and from vassals who were too strong to submit to their arbitration, with pleas from wealthy barons who had bought the privilege of laying their suit before the king, besides all the perplexed questions which lay far beyond the powers of the customary courts, and in which the equitable judgment of the king himself was required. In theory its powers were great, but in practice little business was actually brought to it in the time of Henry I; the distance of the court from country places, and the expense of carrying a suit to it, would alone have proved an effectual hindrance to its usefulness, even if the rules by which it was guided had been much more complete and satisfactory than they actually were.

The routine of this system of administration, as well as the mass of business to be done, effectually interfered with arbitrary action on the king's part, and the regular and methodical work of the organized courts gave to the people a fair measure of protection against the tyranny or caprice of the sovereign. But the royal power which was given over to justices and barons did not pass out of the hands of the king. He was still in theory the fount of all authority and law, and could, whenever he chose, resume the powers that he had granted. His control was never relaxed; and in later days we find that while judges on circuit who gave unjust judgment were summoned before the Curia Regis at Westminster, the judges of the Curia Regis itself were called for trial before the king himself in his council.