CHAPTER VI. THE ASSIZE OF CLARENDON
In the pitiless routine of their work, however, the barons of the Exchequer were at this early time scarcely regarded as judges administering justice so much as tax-gatherers for a needy treasury. Baron and churchman and burgher alike saw every question turn to a demand of money to swell the royal Hoard; jurors were fined for any trifling flaw in legal procedure; widows were fined for leave to marry, guardians for leave to receive their wards; if a peasant were kicked by his horse, if in fishing he fell from the side of his boat, or if in carrying home his eels or herrings he stumbled and was crushed by the cart-wheel, his wretched children saw horse or boat or cart with its load of fish which in older days had been forfeited as "deodand" to the service of God, now carried off to the king's Hoard; if a miller was caught in the wheel of his mill the sheriff must see the price of it paid to the royal treasury. In the country districts where coin was perhaps scarcely ever seen, where wages were unknown, and such little traffic as went on was wholly a matter of barter, the peasants must often have been put to the greatest straits to find money for the fines. Year after year baron as well as peasant and farmer saw his waggons and horses, or his store of honey, eggs, loaves, beer, the fish from his pond or the fowls from his yard, claimed by the purveyors who provided for the judges and their followers, and paid for by such measures and such prices as seemed good to the greedy contractors. The people at large groaned under the heavy burden of fines and penalties and charges for the maintenance of an unaccustomed justice. When in the visitations of 1168 the judges had to collect, besides the ordinary dues, an "aid" for the marriage of the king's eldest daughter, the unhappy tax-payers, recognizing in their misery no distinctions, attributed all their sufferings to the new reform, and saw in their king not a ruler who desired righteous judgment, but one who only thirsted after gain. The one privilege which seemed worth fighting for or worth buying was the privilege of assessing their own fines and managing their own courts. Half a century later we see the prevailing terror at a visit of the judges to Cornwall, when all the people fled for refuge to the woods, and could hardly be compelled or persuaded to come back again. Yet later the people won a concession that in time of war no circuits should be held, so that the poor should not be utterly ruined.
Oppression and extortion had doubtless been well known before, when the sheriff carried on the administration of the law side by side with the lucrative business of "farming the shires;" but it was at least an irregular and uncertain oppression. The sheriff might himself at any moment share the fate of one of his own victims and a more merciful man stand in his place; in any case bribes were not unavailing, and there was still an appeal to the king's justice. But against the new system there was no appeal; it was orderly, methodical, unrelenting; it was backed by the whole force of the kingdom; it overlooked nothing; it forgot nothing; it was comparatively incorruptible. The lesser courts, with their old clumsy procedure, were at a hopeless disadvantage before the professional judges, who could use all the new legal methods. If a man suffered under these there was none to plead his cause, for in all the country there was not a single trained lawyer save those in the king's service. However we who look back from the safe distance of seven hundred years may see with clearer vision the great work which was done by Henry's Assize, in its own day it was far from being a welcome institution to our unhappy forefathers. There was scarcely a class in the country which did not find itself aggrieved as the king waged war with the claims of "privilege" to stand above right and justice and truth. But all resistance of turbulent and discontented factions was vain. The great justiciars at the head of the legal administration, De Lucy and Glanville, steadily carried out the new code, and a body of lawyers was trained under them which formed a class wholly unknown elsewhere in Europe. Instead of arbitrary and inflicting decisions, varying in every hundred and every franchise according to the fashion of the district, the judges of the Exchequer or Curia Regis declared judgments which were governed by certain general principles. The traditions of the great administrators of Henry's Court were handed down through the troubled reigns of his sons; and the whole of the later Common law is practically based on the decisions of two judges whose work was finished within fifty years of Henry's death, and whose labours formed the materials from which in 1260 Bracton drew up the greatest work ever written on English law.