In just a few weeks time, it will be the 750th anniversary of one of the most important events in English legal history.

On the 7th April 1258, there was a confrontation between King Henry III and his barons in Parliament at Westminster over the power of the crown. Although no formal concession was agreed at that Parliament, the King was forced to agree to a meeting at Oxford a couple of months later to discuss reforms of the Royal power.

The nine years following this event are one of the most important but least understood periods in English history. Before eventually spiralling into a bitter civil war, a significant section of England’s baronage attempted to transform the governance of the realm by imposing a programme of reform that was more far more radical and wide ranging than Magna Carta in 1215. Its radicalism was such that nothing like it was to recur until the political upheavals of the seventeenth century.

Henry had became embroiled in funding a war in Sicily on behalf of the Pope, a state of affairs which made many barons fearful that Henry was following in the footsteps of his father, King John and needed to be kept in check, just as King John had. De Montfort became leader of those who wanted to reassert Magna Carta and force the king to surrender more power to the baronial council.

In 1258 seven leading barons forced Henry to agree to the Provisions of Oxford which effectively abolished the absolutist Anglo-Norman monarchy, giving power to a council of fifteen barons to deal with the business of government and providing for a three yearly meeting of parliament to monitor their performance. The Provisions are generally considered to be the first stages of a written constitution in England.

The key significance was that, for the first time, the English Crown was forced to recognize the rights and powers of Parliament.

In the following years, those supporting de Montfort and those loyal to the king grew more and more polarised; Henry obtained a papal bull in 1261 exempting him from his oath and both sides began to raise armies, the Royalists under Edward Longshanks, Henry’s eldest son. Civil war followed and lasted until 1267 when the rebels and King Henry III of England agree to peace terms as laid out in the Dictum of Kenilworth – which also abolished the Provisions of Oxford.

The Provisions of Oxford were also noted for being the first significant document published in English – in addition to Latin and French, making it as accessible as possible to the people.

Study Day at the National Archives (pdf link)


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