To establish full control over his kingdom, Henry VII had to establish his authority at a local level and especially on local government. At a local level both Henry and local magnates had a similar desire – to control the local populace so that it was obedient, which would, in turn, ensure social stability. The king’s authority at a local level was extended via a system of local officials such as Justices of the Peace and Sheriffs. The king communicated with them via a series of writs – written orders that were not open, kin theory, to interpretation.
Edward IV had used a system whereby he appointed certain favoured and loyal nobles to effectively govern at a local level on his behalf. This was reasonably successful but it led to a situation where certain nobles who felt that they had shown loyalty to the king believed that they were left out and had no chance of breaking into this inner circle. These noble men became discontented and a potential source of trouble for Edward. Those who were in this inner circle, though seemingly loyal to the king, became very powerful in their own areas and their power seemed to be greater than that of the king’s.
When Henry became king, he recognised that the system used by Edward had its strengths in an era when communication was very slow and unreliable. However, while having the king’s men at a local level appealed to Henry, he did not want a situation whereby they became overly powerful. Henry only put his most trusted nobles in positions of power. Lord Stanley had control over south Lancashire and Cheshire; the Duke of Bedford was the most powerful noble in Wales and the Earl of Oxford was given East Anglia. Men such as these were trusted by Henry and knew the outcome if they showed any disloyalty to him. The Marquess of Dorset had been in control of south-west England but Henry could not trust him and the region was taken away from him. There were also nobles who were on the edge of not being trusted. The Earl of Northumberland remained as Lieutenant of the North but had his powers curtailed. When he died in 1489, his heir was a minor and Henry used this opportunity to replace Northumberland’s family with the trusted Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, who became Lieutenant of the North but had no land in that region. Surrey had no vested interest in the north and any power base that he might have created would have had to be built from scratch. In 1501, Surrey himself was replaced by a council under the Archbishop of York. When the Duke of Bedford died he was also replaced by a council led by the Bishop of Lincoln who also had no power base in Wales.
The move away from one individual having control over a region was a shrewd move by Henry as no one individual had the opportunity to build a regional power base.
However, Henry’s main desire was to forge far greater links between central and local governments but with central power being the dominant. Did he achieve this?
Justices of the Peace (JP’s) owed their offices to the king. By the reign of Henry VII, Justices of the Peace had superseded the local power of Sheriffs and were the chief local government officers. JP’s were responsible for the maintenance of public order in their area of jurisdiction. They were also responsible for executing legislation that had been introduced in London. JP’s were appointed from local land owners and they therefore had a vested interest in implementing legislation that ensured greater social cohesion at a local level. The average number of JP’s per county was 18. The most senior JP in a county was usually a bishop. The other JP’s followed in terms of seniority dependent on their social precedence within their locality. JP’s relied on knights and squires to enforce decisions that had been made by JP’s and once every three months all JP’s in a county met at Quarter Sessions. It was at Quarter Sessions that serious court cases were dealt with. This would include everything except any cases involving treason. The criminal cases that were considered too difficult for JP’s to deal with went to the Assize Courts. An Assize Court was held in each county every six months. These were controlled by judges under special commission from the Crown.
JP’s did not receive an income for their work as it was felt that part of the responsibility of being a land owner was to maintain law and order and social order. It was also believed that merely being a JP was honour enough.
Henry VII preferred to select his JP’s from the second tier of a county’s landowners. This was all part of his campaign to restrict the power of the great magnates as the JP’s were answerable to the king and they would be a useful source of information with regards to any magnate that was becoming too powerful. Henry wanted his JP’s to be responsible to him and not to the magnates in their counties. Henry continued the policy of Edward IV of extending the power of the JP’s. In 1487, JP’s were given the power to grant bail to those awaiting trial. In 1495, JP’s were given the authority to deal with juries that were considered to be tainted by loyalties to a magnate. In the past, members of a jury sympathetic to a local magnate had been used by that magnate to escape justice for offences committed. Now JP’s could remove members of a jury who was believed to be suspect in cases involving local nobility. JP’s were also given the power to act without a jury except in cases that involved the possible passing of the death sentence. JP’s were also allowed to reward informers.
How did a JP extend his authority over his area? Each county was divided into hundreds and by law each hundred had to have a High Constable and every parish a Petty Constable. However, JP’s found it difficult to find appointments at every level in a county as many people resented those who held these positions simply because they were seen as the visible side of law enforcement. Punishment as this time was harsh even for petty crimes and many in rural England still poached as a way of getting sufficient food for their families. JP’s adjudicated over those caught poaching and High and Petty Constables enforced their authority in areas where they almost certainly lived.
The power of a JP was balanced however. The Court of the King’s Bench could override any decision made at a Quarter Session and from 1485 on all JP’s had to start a session of the Quarter Court by reading out a proclamation that grievances against a JP or a decision taken by a JP could be referred to an Assize Court or to the king. However, the evidence does suggest that this form of appeal rarely happened.
Did Henry achieve what he set out to at a local level? While paid officials (as in France) would have been more effective as they would have been more cemented to central government, the king’s finances did not allow for this. However, the system that Henry built on seems to have worked as well as it could for the time when communications were poor and slow. With the exception of specific rebellions such as the Simnel and Warbeck examples which were dynastic based, law and order was generally maintained. Only in Yorkshire and Cornwall were there rebellions based on issues other than family – both cases were caused by taxation. To compliment local government authority, Henry also had to reform central government so that both functioned in a manner that best served the king.