CHAPTER XXI. THE GREAT CHARTER

The king of France may have been acting, as he would have the world believe, as the instrument of heaven to punish the enemy of the Church, but he did not learn with any great rejoicing of the conversion of John from the error of his ways. Orders were sent him at once to abstain from all attack on one who was now the vassal of the pope, and he found it necessary in the end to obey, declaring, it is said, that the victory was after all his, since it was due to him that the pope had subdued England. The army and fleet prepared for the invasion, he turned against his own vassal who had withheld his assistance from the undertaking, the Count of Flanders, and quickly occupied a considerable part of the country. Count Ferdinand in his extremity turned to King John and he sent over a force under command of his brother, William Longsword, Earl of Salisbury, which surprised the French fleet badly guarded in the harbour of Damme and captured or destroyed 400 ships. If Philip had any lingering hope that he might yet be able to carry out his plan of invasion, he was forced now to abandon it, and in despair of preserving the rest of his fleet, or in a fit of anger, he ordered it to be burned.

The Archbishop of Canterbury landed in England in July, accompanied by five of the exiled bishops, and a few days later met the king. On the 20th at Winchester John was absolved from his excommunication, swearing publicly that he would be true to his agreement with the Church, and taking an additional oath in form somewhat like the coronation oath, which the archbishop required or which perhaps the fact of his excommunication made necessary, "that holy Church and her ministers he would love, defend, and maintain against all her enemies to the best of his power, that he would renew the good laws of his predecessors, and especially the laws of King Edward, and annul all bad ones, and that he would judge all men according to just judgments of his courts and restore to every man his rights." It is doubtful if we should regard this as anything more than a renewal of the coronation oath necessary to a full restoration of the king from the effects of the Church censure, but at any rate the form of words seems to have been noticed by those who heard it, and to have been referred to afterwards when the political opposition to the king was taking share, a sure sign of increasing watchfulness regarding the mutual rights of king and subjects.[79]

The king was no longer excommunicate, but the kingdom was still under the interdict, and the pope had no intention of annulling it until the question of compensation for their losses was settled to the satisfaction of the bishops and others whose lands had been in the hands of the king. That was not an easy question to settle. It was not a matter of arrears of revenue merely, for John had not been content with the annual income of the lands, but he had cut down forests and raised money in other extraordinary ways to the permanent injury of the property. In the end only a comparatively small sum was paid, and in all probability a full payment would have been entirely beyond the resources of the king, but at the beginning John seems to have intended to carry out his agreement in good faith. There is no reason to doubt the statement of a chronicler of the time that on the next day after his absolution the king sent out writs to all the sheriffs, ordering them to send to St. Albans at the beginning of August the reeve and four legal men from each township of the royal domains, that by their testimony and that of his own officers the amount of these losses might be determined. This would be to all England a familiar expedient, a simple use of the jury principle, with nothing new about it except the bringing of the local juries together in one place, nor must it be regarded as in any sense a beginning of representation. It has no historic connexion with the growth of that system, and cannot possibly indicate more than that the idea of uniting local juries in one place had occurred to some one. We have no evidence that this assembly was actually held, and it is highly probable that it was not. Nor can anything more be said with certainly of writs which were issued in November of this year directing the sheriffs to send four discreet men from each county to attend a meeting of the council at Oxford. John himself was busily occupied with a plan to transport the forces he had collected into Poitou to attack the king of France there, and he appointed the justiciar, Geoffrey Fitz Peter, and the Bishop of Winchester, Peter des Roches, as his representatives during his absence. These two held a great council at St. Albans in August at which formal proclamation was made of the restoration of good laws and the abolition of bad ones as the king had promised, the good laws now referred to being those of Henry I; and all sheriffs and other officers were strictly enjoined to abstain from violence and injustice for the future, but no decision was reached as to the sum to be paid the clergy.