ABSTRACT

Students of English constitutional history have shown a tendency to regard the reign of Edward IV as of little consequence, except in so far as it was a preparation for the coming of the Tudor autocrats. Nor is this very surprising, since the twenty-two years during which Edward wore the crown are certainly not memorable for any striking constitutional innovations or developments. When the house of Lancaster gave place to the house of York in 1461, the shire courts, over which presided the sheriffs appointed by the crown and through which most of the work of local government was carried on, were already centuries old; the great financial and judicial organs of the central government, the Exchequer and the courts of King’s Bench, Common Pleas, and Exchequer, had long since emerged from that nebulous body of Norman days, the Curia Regis, and the itinerant justices, whose office welded local and central governments together, had been going their rounds since the days of Henry II. The legislative body of the kingdom had also taken on its final form long before Edward of York seized the throne. It was more than a century and a half since the meeting of “the Model Parliament,” and by this time England had grown accustomed to seeing knights of the shire and well-to-do burgesses reluctantly wending their way to Westminster, along with the nobles and great prelates of the land, to vote supplies to the crown. Even the electoral franchise in the counties had recently been determined by an act of parliament of the year 1430, which decreed that only men owning a freehold worth forty shillings a year should have the right to vote in the shire courts for the knights of the shire who were to represent them in parliament. And yet, even if no new institutions came into existence while Edward was king and no old ones underwent vital changes, his reign is not devoid of all interest for the constitutional historian. For the institutions 372which were the outcome of centuries of growth were put to a hard test in his day, and both their weakness and their strength were made manifest in a way that had its lessons for the kings who came after him, and also for the people over whom those kings ruled.