The Provisions of Oxford - 1258
The Provisions of Oxford was a document outlining reforms to English Common Law. The reforms reinforced and refined many of the principles laid down in the Magna Carta, paving the way for greater rights and freedoms for free men under the laws of the realm. Under the Provisions, royal authority was curtailed, foreign advisors expelled, corrupt officials exposed, and a system of advisors set in place to 'assist' the king in governing the realm.
To understand the Provisions of Oxford and the events that followed it, one must look back to the origins of Norman England. When William the Conqueror vanquished the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, he parceled out much of the Saxon lands to his followers. Many of these followers thus held lands on both sides of the Channel, in what would become the nations of England and France. For many long years, the barons of England maintained this split identity, as lords over territory in both countries.
Over the course of many years much of the lands in France were gradually lost, with the result that many of the most powerful lords in England began to regard themselves less as transplanted Normans, and more as powerful Englishmen. When the policies of King John led to the loss of most English territory in France, the die was cast. The English nobility began to turn their attentions inward, to England. They became less and less willing to fight on the continent, and much more resistant to crown policy that encouraged foreign influence in their English affairs. The monarchy, however, in the person of the Plantagenet kings, held onto the dream of a trans-Channel empire.
Henry III refined the political structure of England, and put into place structures of central government that were to last for hundreds of years. But in so doing, he trod on the influential toes of the baronage. The great lords of the realm preferred to control local government themselves; they were like petty kings in their own shire fiefdoms, and they wanted no crown interference in their rights and privileges. The barons wanted crown officers to be publicly accountable, which the king was loathe to accept.
At its most basic, the barons and the king were wrestling for control of local government. Each side, however, took the high moral and religious ground in the disagreement. The king saw himself as God's vicar, with responsibility to minister to the welfare of his people, while the barons cast themselves as representatives of the 'community of the realm'.
There things might have remained but for Henry III's disastrous foreign policy. Henry accepted the invitation from Pope Innocent IV that Henry's son Edward become King of Sicily. In exchange for the kingship, Henry promised to support the papacy in its struggle against the Hohenstauffen dynasty. That support came in the form of huge grants of money, which strained the English treasury to the breaking point. The barons, under the leadership of Simon of Montfort, were livid with anger at Henry's actions. The 'Mad Parliament' of 1258 called vociferously for Henry to be accountable for his actions. The document laying out the grievances, and suggestions for redress, were the Provisions of Oxford.
The Provisions called for sweeping reform of government, in particular, the establishment of a number of advisory councils and committees to oversee political administration. It is too easy, perhaps, to think of these councils as a step towards democracy; the members of the councils were drawn from a very few powerful families, and they were uninterested in applying the same principles of government reform and accountability to the administration of their own estates and governance of the shires.
Henry agreed to the Provisions of Oxford, he had little choice but to do so, and confirmed his adherence to them on numerous occasions, but it is doubtful whether he ever had any intention of observing them. Ultimately, the struggle for control of the government polarized the nobility into those who supported the king and those who supported Simon de Montfort. The struggle ultimately led to the outbreak of the Baron's War.
Henry III and Edward II