Изображения страниц

reign, began to be no longer so,-when the tyrannical laws of the Conqueror became still more tyrannically executed, the confederacy, for which the general oppression had paved the way, instantly took place, the lord, the vassal, and inferior vassal, all united. They even implored the assistance of the peasants and cottagers, and the haughty aversion with which on the continent the nobility repaid the industrious hands that fed them, was in England compelled to yield to the pressing necessity of setting bounds to the royal authority."


The people, on the other hand, knew that the cause they were called upon to defend was a cause common to all; and they were sensible besides that they were the necessary supporters of it. Instructed by the example of their leaders, they spoke and stipulated conditions for themselves; they insisted that for the future every individual should be entitled to the protection of the law: and thus did those rights with which the lords had strengthened themselves, in order to oppose the tyranny of the crown, become a bulwark which was in time to restrain their own. France the reaction took an opposite turn; the nobles, intent only on maintaining the power which they so greatly abused over the lives and fortunes of the peasants, lost sight of the real danger which threatened their independence; the princely domains of Normandy, Anjou, Languedoc, and Touraine had already been reunited to the crown, and Brittany and Champagne were soon to follow. In Spain a similar process had been going on,—the twelve kingdoms had been united into three,-Aragon, Castile, and Granada, which were at no distant period to be absorbed under the powerful rule of Ferdinand and Isabella; while in Germany a still worse fate awaited the miserable inhabitants, for though the elective character of the empire prevented the emperors from consolidating their power, as in the hereditary kingdoms of France and Spain, yet the greater barons, uncontrolled by the power of the crown, became independent princes and usurped the sole right of election, so that they governed without even the ordinary check of popular disaffection; for the central government, which was too feeble to defend the personal liberty of the subject, was strong enough to enforce unconditional obedience to its subordinates by the power it derived from the whole; and thus the petty princes of Germany were, in the most unlimited sense, arbitrary kings. As the power of the nobles on the continent declined, the influence of the assemblies of the estates first dwindled into insignificance, and then ceased altogether to be consulted; for the third estate was not like the English house of commons, based on popular representation, capable of expanding with the increasing power of the nation, and supplying the

place which the nobles had lost, but was composed of the merchants and wealthy citizens of the towns, who had little or no connection with the rest of the country, and looked down with disdain on the rural population. But to compare correctly the progress of society in England and on the continent, we must recollect that from the earliest times many great and influential cities had existed in England: London, Winchester, and York, though second to none in Europe, formed no separate communities within themselves; they possessed local jurisdiction, and even monopolized certain trades, but they were not exempted by special immunities, and all who wished might become denizens of their corporations. It was not so on the continent in the middle ages,-the towns were insulated from the provinces in which they were situated, and for the most part inhabited by a population of different origin and different sentiments, so that no kindred interests, as in England, united the whole power of the state to resist arbitrary encroachments. Nor was this opposition of town and country confined to the political relations of society; it entered into the sphere of private life and produced a marked result in the character of continental civilization. Instead of the peasant and the farmer looking up to their county-town as the head of the district in which they lived and the source from which they drew their political knowledge, the farmer regarded the towns with almost hostile dread, for they were surrounded by walls and guarded by soldiers, and every one who passed within their gates was subjected to the most oppressive interference; even the necessaries of life were taxed, and the peasant who brought his produce to market was molested at every turn by tolls and dues, as if he had entered a foreign country; while by means of their guilds the citizens closed every branch of trade, and restricted the number of workmen; thus sustaining the rate of wages at the expense of labour, and condemning the countryman without the walls to a life of serfdom, as tyrannical as the feudal system, which made the peasant the prisoner of the manor on which he was born. This state of things stood as a barrier to the progress of civilization and blighted the prospects of society; for although learning, literature, and wealth progressed to a large extent within the towns, the country remained stationary, and the majority of the people were discontented with a system which confined wealth and power in the hands of the few: that this insulation of the towns should have subsisted for generations, while almost every other relation of society had been altered, is perhaps one of the most curious facts of history.

The last and perhaps the greatest difference between the condition of society in England and on the continent in the fourteenth


175 and fifteenth centuries, was the absence in the former of an inferior nobility distinguished by invidious immunities from the mass of the people, and deriving their station not from superior intelligence or wealth, but solely from hereditary descent; whereas in England the difference of thane and ceorl, which in some measure corresponded with the inferior nobility of the continent, had been swept away at the Conquest, and the Normans, who supplanted the native aristocracy, formed no distinct class, their nobility depended upon the personal power and consideration of its possessor; the holder of a peerage was alone noble, his sons and his brothers, not even excepting the eldest, were commoners, and as such, when elected by the people, sat and voted with the squires and burgesses in the lower house. "To this peculiarly democratic element in the English constitution," observes lord John Russell,* "I am firmly persuaded the English monarchy is mainly indebted for its gradual growth, its long continuance, and present vigour." Not even the popular Revolution of 1688 succeeded in annihilating the English aristocracy or changing the form of the constitution, for the nobles were not estranged like those of the continent, from the people, by separate interests, but took part in every struggle whether for liberty or against unjust taxation, and thus were looked up to by the commonalty as their natural leaders and guides. Such were some of the inherent causes which contributed to the establishment of free institutions in England : these incentives to liberty were further augmented by the conduct of the Plantagenet kings, who for near three centuries and a half ruled England with a degree of vigour and moderation scarcely equalled by any other line of princes who have reigned in Europe.

As the period of the feudal and papal power in England may be said to terminate with the Plantagenet dynasty, we shall take a brief sketch of the social and political condition of the people as it appeared at the close of the fifteenth century. The form of the constitution was then complete; the government of England consisted of an hereditary monarchy, amenable and subject to the laws, and of a general assembly of the nation or parliament, constituting two houses, the lords spiritual and temporal, and the commons, embracing every rank and profession in the state, and co-operating with the sovereign in the government of the country; but the peculiar feature of the constitution was the complete separation of the executive and legislative functions, for while the execution of the laws was entrusted to the king, who was for this purpose invested with the whole power of the state, the making and repealing of them belonged solely to the parliament, of which the king formed a constituent part.

* Essay on the English Constitution, p. 12.

"I know not," says Mr. Hallam,* "whether there are any essential privileges of our countrymen, any fundamental securities against arbitrary power, so far as they depend upon positive institution, which may not be traced to the time when the house of Plantagenet filled the English throne." We should, however, form a wrong estimate of the condition of society, did we not recollect that at the end of the fifteenth century the working of the constitution still showed many irregularities. The sources of revenue were uncertain—the prerogatives of the crown doubtful -the commons not yet accustomed to the exercise of their rights, while the nobles were too powerful to be restrained within the ordinary jurisdiction of law.

With regard to the constitution of parliament in the fifteenth century, it was essentially the same as at present; I shall therefore confine my remarks to the few instances in which it differed. Instead of meeting regularly, the parliament was absolutely dependent on the king, by whom it was summoned and prorogued at pleasure; but as the crown possessed no power to enact laws or levy taxes without the consent of the nation, this body was secure of being frequently consulted, and its main strength lay in the power to grant or withhold supplies according as the king accepted or rejected its petitions. The weight of the house of lords was much more considerable than at present, owing to the personal influence of the barons who composed it, and the greater proportion of national wealth it represented. Another peculiarity was the excess of spiritual peers in the upper house; for while England was Roman catholic, the mitred abbots and heads of religious foundations, as well as the bishops, were entitled to sit in parliament: this, however, was not felt to be an evil, it being in general the interest of the Vatican to side with the weaker party in order to maintain its own power;- -so long therefore as the commons were subject to the tyranny of the nobles and the crown, the influence of the church was generally found on the side of popular liberty, and it was only after the close of the fifteenth century, when the power of the commons became paramount, that her line of policy was reversed. The personal influence of the king in parliament was much more considerable than at present, for instead of simply giving his sanction to the measures of parliament, it was customary for the sovereign to be present at the debates of the lords, advising with them on the public business, and signifying the causes which led him to approve or reject their measures. It was on one of these occasions, when Henry IV. was present, that the famous debate arose on the exclusive right of the commons to originate money bills, and through his influence * Hallam, Middle Ages, ii. chap. viii. Part 111. p. 332.

it was finally settled that money bills must originate with the commons, and that the lords must either accept or reject their vote without alteration or emendation, and that the king ought not to interfere in matters pending in parliament till brought before him by the speaker of the house of commons. In turning to the consideration of the lower house a difficulty presents itself as to the nature of the constituencies which originally returned members to parliament; for while some legal authorities maintain, that in accordance with the statute 7 Henry IV.* the elective franchise was not confined to any particular class or section of the people, but was common to all who attended the county court,others, drawing their conclusions from the known practice of the feudal system, assert that the privilege of voting was originally restricted to the immediate tenants of the crown, who returned their representatives, instead of personally appearing at the king's council as they were bound to do by the form of tenure of their lands; and that the baronial tenantry only acquired the right through the negligence and inadvertency of the sheriffs' officers who made the returns. This point, however, is of minor importance, since it is universally acknowledged that the elections were mainly directed by the wealthy and influential inhabitants, whose interests the decisions of parliament were thought most materially to affect the statute of 8 Henry VI. confined the franchise to holders of lands and tenements of the yearly value of forty shillings, which is the present qualification. Instead of the exercise of their political rights being looked upon by the people of England as a blessing, under the house of Plantagenet it was often regarded as a burden onerous to endure, although impossible to avoid; and several of the smaller boroughs, when not able to avoid returning members to parliament by neglect of the sheriffs' writs, obtained charters of exemption. Even those upon whom the choice of the county fell, frequently declined the honour on account of the difficulty and expense attending a residence in town, although an allowance was made to every knight of four shillings a day, and to a burgess of two shillings, so long as the session continued, to aid in defraying their charges. But towards the close of the fifteenth century a more healthy spirit is manifest, and several statutes were found requisite to restrain the frequency of false returns; which, with other circumstances, conspire to show the rising importance of the house of commons, and the greater value attached to a seat in that house. As the influence of the commons increased, the question of parliamentary privileges began to excite serious consideration: besides immunity from arrest, which had


*"All who are there present, as well suitors duly summoned for that cause as others."-7 Hen. IV. cap. 15.

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »