From 1107 onward Henry was freed from both the dangers which had threatened him in his earlier years, and was free to develop his policy as he pleased. He had yet twenty-eight years to reign, for he survived to the age of sixty-seven, an age unparalleled by any of his predecessors, and by all his successors till Edward I.
It is to Henry, aided by his great justiciar, Roger, bishop of Salisbury, that England owed the institution of the machinery of government by which it was to be ruled during the earlier middle ages. This may be described as a primitive kind of bureaucracy, which gradually developed into a much more complicated system of courts and offices. Around the sovereign was his Curia Regis or body of councillors, of whom the most important were the justiciar, the chancellor and the treasurer, though the feudal officers, the constable and marshal, were also to be found there. The bulk of the council, however, was composed of knights and clerks selected by the king for their administrative or financial ability. The Curia, besides advising the king on ordinary matters of state, had two special functions. It sat, or certain members of it sat, under the presidency of the king or the justiciar, as the supreme court of justice of the realm. In this capacity it tried the suits of tenants-in-chief, and all appeals from the local courts.
But Henry, not contented with this, adopted the custom of sending forth certain members of the Curia throughout the realm at intervals, to sit in the shire court, along with or in place of the sheriff, and to hear and judge all the cases of which the court had cognizance. From these itinerant commissioners (justices in eyre) descend the modern justices of assize. The sheriff, the original president of the shire court, was gradually extruded by them from all important business.
But there were other developments of the Curia. The justiciar, chancellor and treasurer sat with certain other members of the council as the court of exchequer, not only to receive and audit the accounts of the royal revenue, but to give legal decisions on all questions connected with finance. Twice in every year the sheriffs and other royal officials came up to the exchequer court, which originally sat at Winchester, with their bags of money and their sheaves of accounts. Their figures were subjected to a severe scrutiny, and the law was laid down on all points in which the interests of the sheriff and the king, or the sheriff and the taxpayer, came into conflict. In this way the exchequer grew into a law court of primary importance, instead of remaining merely a court of receipt. Though its members were originally the same men who sat in the Curia Regis, the character of the question to be tried settled the capacity in which they should sit, and two separate courts were evolved. (See Exchequer.)
Under the superintendence of the Curia Regis and the exchequer, the sheriff still remained the king's factotum in local affairs. He led the shire-levies, collected the royal revenues both feudal and non-feudal, and presided in the shire court as judge, till in the course of years his functions in that sphere were gradually taken over by the itinerant justices. On his fidelity the king had to rely both for military aid in times of baronial revolt and for the collection of the money which formed the sinews of war. Hence the position was one of the highest importance, and Henry's new nobility, the men of ability whom he selected and promoted, found their special occupation in holding the office of sheriff. It was they who had to see that the shire court, and in minor affairs the hundred court, did not allow cases to slip away into the jurisdiction of the feudal courts of the baronage.
Henry I must count not merely as the father of the English bureaucracy, but as a fosterer of the municipal independence of the towns. He gave charters of a very liberal character to many places, and in especial to London, where the citizens were allowed to choose their own sheriff, and to deal directly with the exchequer in matters of revenue. He even farmed out to them the charge of the taxes of the whole shire of Middlesex, outside the city walls. Such a grant was exceptional, though Lincoln also seems to have been granted the privilege of dealing directly with the exchequer. But in many other smaller towns the first grants the smaller beginnings of autonomy may be traced back to this period (see Borough).
Though Henry was an autocrat, and governed through bureaucratic officials who were entirely under his hand, yet a reign of law and order such as his was indirectly favorable to the growth of constitutional liberty. It was equally favorable to the growth of national unity: it was in his time that Norman and English began to melt together: intermarriage in all classes became common, and only thirty years after his death a contemporary writer could remark that it was hard for any man to call himself either Norman or English, so much had blood been intermingled.
Text extracted from the entry for ENGLISH HISTORY in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.