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folly and cowardice. One is surprised at the forbearance displayed by the barons, till they took up arms at length in that confederacy which ended in establishing the great charter of liberties. As this was the first effort toward a legal government, so is it beyond comparison the most important event in our history, except that Revolution, without which its benefits would have been rapidly annihilated. The Constitution of England has indeed no single date from which its duration is to be reckoned. The institutions of positive law, the far more important changes which time has wrought in the order of society, during six hundred years subsequent to the great charter, have undoubtedly lessened its direct application to our present circumstances. But it is still the keystone of English liberty. All that has since been obtained is little more than a confirmation or commentary; and if every subsequent law were to be swept away, there would still remain the bold features that distinguish a free from a despotic monarchy. It has been lately the fashion to depreciate the value of the Magna Charta, as if it had sprung from the private ambition of a few selfish barons, and redressed only some feudal abuses. It is indeed of little importance by what motives those who obtained it were guided. The real characters of men most distinguished in the transactions of that time are not easily determined at present. Yet if we bring these ungrateful suspicions to the test, they prove destitute of all reasonable foundation. An equal distribution of civil rights to all classes of freemen forms the peculiar beauty of the charter. In this just solicitude for the people, and in the moderation which infringed apon no essential prerogative of the monarchy, we may perceive a liberality and patriotism very unlike the selfishness which is sometimes rashly imputed to those ancient barons. And so far as we are guided by historical testimony, two great men, the pillars of our church and state, may be considered as entitled beyond the rest to the glory of this monument: Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury, and William, earl of Pembroke. To their temperate zeal for a legal government, England was indebted during that critical period for the two greatest blessings that patriotic statesmen could confer: the establishment of civil liberty upon an immovable basis, and the preservation of national independence under the ancient line of sovereigns, which rasher men were about to exchange for the dominion of France.
“ But the essential clauses of Magna Charta are those which protect the personal liberty and property of all freemen, by giving security from arbitrary imprisonment and arbitrary spoliation.
No freeman' (says the 29th chapter of Henry III.'s charter, which, as the existing law, I quote in preference to that of John, the variations not being very material) 'shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseized of his freehold, or liberties, or free customs, or be outlawed or exiled, or any otherwise destroyed; nor will we pass upon him, por send upon him, but by lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or delay to any man justice or right.' It is obvious that these words, interpreted by any honest court of law, convey an ample security for the two main rights of civil society. From the era therefore of King John's charter, it must have been a clear principle of our Constitution, that no man can be detained in prison without trial. Whether courts of justice framed the writ of habeas corpus in conformity to the spirit of this clause, or found it already in their register, it became from that era the right of every subject to demand it.
That writ, rendered more actively remedial by the statute of Charles II., but founded upon the broad basis of Magna Charta, is the principal bulwark of English liberty; and if ever temporary circumstances, or the doubtful plea of political necessity, shall lead men to look on its denial with apathy, the most distinguishing characteristic of our Constitution will be effaced.”—HALLAM's Middle Ages, vol. ii. p. 322 et seq.
1. The Former Charters.—"A charter of Henry I., the authenticity of which is undisputed, though it contains nothing specially expressed but a remission of unreasonable reliefs, wardships, and other feudal burdens, proceeds to declare that he gives his subjects the laws of Edward the Confessor, with the emendations made by his father with consent of his barons. The charter of Stephen not only confirms that of his predecessor, but adds, in fuller terms than Henry had used, an express concession of the laws and customs of Edward. Henry II. is silent about these, although he repeats the confirmation of his grandfather's charter. The people, however, had begun to look back to a more ancient stand. ard of law. The Norman conquest, and all that ensued upon it, had endeared the memory of their Saxon government. Its disorders were forgotten, or rather were less odious to a rude nation than the coercive justice by which they were afterward restrained. Hence it became the favorite cry to demand the laws of Edward the Confessor; and the Normans themselves, as they grew dissatisfied with the royal administration, fell into these English sentiments. But what these laws were, or, more properly perhaps, these customs subsisting in the Confessor's age, was not very distinctly understood.”—HALLAM's Middle Ages, vol. ii. p. 320.
2. Langton's Discovery of the Charter of Henry I. to the Barons.-" The barons, finding that John was only temporizing with them, convened a general assembly of the peers and ecclesiastics at St. Paul's, when Langton, the archbishop, stood up and addressed the convocation in these terms: ‘Ye have heard, when at Winchester, before the king was absolved, I compelled him to swear that the existing evil statutes should be destroyed, and that more salutary laws, namely, those of King Edward the Confessor, should be observed by the whole kingdom. In support of these things are ye now convened; and I here disclose to you a newly discovered charter of King Henry I. of England, the which if ye are willing to support, your long-lost liberties may be restored in all their original purity of character.' The prelate then proceeded to read the charter with a loud voice, which so animated the minds of all present, that with the greatest sincerity and joy they swore, in the archbishop's presence, that at a proper season their deeds should avouch what they had then declared, and that even to death itself they would defend those liberties. Langton, on the other hand, promised his most faithful assistance in the execution of their arduous undertaking, and at the same time assured them that the covenant then made would reflect honor on their names through successive generations. This, then, was the conclusion of the first meeting for securing the king's consent to the Magna Charta ; from the decisions of which none of that assembly for a moment withdrew their support until the object which they had so long sought was obtained, and the liberties which preceding kings refused to grant were entirely and wholly theirs.”—Thompson's Magna Charta, p. 12, 13.
3. Case of De Vesci.—"Henry Knighton, a canon-regular of Leicester abbey, who lived in the time of Richard II., relates an improbable circumstance (to others the affair appears extremely probable) particularly connected with this baron-De Vesci-wherein he affirms that the incontinence of John was the real cause of the general insurrection of the peerage against him, charging him with vitiating their wives, and then deriding them. He adds, too, that Eustace de Vesci, having married a very beautiful woman-Margaret, daughter of Wil. liam, king of Scotland—whom he kept far distant from the court, John became enamored of her, and carefully considered how he might possess her. Sitting one day at table with the baron, King John, observing a ring he wore, took it from him, and said that he had a similar stone, which he would have set in gold of the same pattern; and having thus procured it, he immediately sent it in De Vesci's name to his wife, charging her by that token instantly to come to him, if she ever expected to see him alive. Believing this message, she speedily de parted to the court, but on her arrival there, she met her husband, who happened to be riding out; and an explanation having taken place, a disguised courtesan was sent to the king as her substitute. Upon John's discovery of this deceit, he was so enraged that De Vesci Aled into the north, destroying some of the king's houses in his passage ; whilst many of the nobles who had experienced the same treatment, going with him, they seized upon the king's castles, and at length were joined by the citizens of London. As this baron was so inveterate an enemy to King John, it is not surprising to find him a principal leader in the insurrection that followed.”—THompson's Magna Charta, p. 291.
4. Simplicity of the Charter.—It is observable that the language of the great charter is simple, brief, general without being abstract, and expressed in terms of authority, not of argument; yet commonly so reasonable as to carry with it the intrinsic evidence of its own fitness. It was understood by the simplest of the unlettered age for whom it was intended. It was remembered by them; and though they did not perceive the extensive consequences which might be derived from it, their feelings were, however, unconsciously exalted by its generality and grandeur.
It was a peculiar advantage that the consequences of its principles were, if we may so speak, only discovered gradually and slowly. It gave out on each occasion only as much of the spirit of liberty and reformation as the circumstances of succeeding generations required, and as their character would safely bear. For almost five centuries it was appealed to as the decisive authority on behalf of the people, though commonly so far only as the necessities of each case demanded. Its effect in these contests was not altogether unlike the grand process by which nature employs snows and frosts to cover her delicate germs, and to hinder them from rising above the earth till the atmosphere has acquired the mild and equal temperature which insures them against blights. On the English nation, undoubtedly, the charter has contributed to bestow the union of establishment with improvement. To all mankind it set the first example of the progress of a great nation for centuries, in blending their tumultuary democracy and haughty nobility with a fluctuating and vaguely limited monarchy, so as at length to form, from these discordant materials, the only form of free government which experience had shown to be reconcilable with widely extended dominions. Whoever, in any future age, or unborn nation, may admire the felicity of the expedient which converted the power of taxation into the shield of liberty, by which discretionary and secret imprisonment was rendered impracticable, and portions of the people were trained to exercise a larger share of judicial power than was ever allotted to them in any other civilized state, in such a manner as to secure instead of endangering public tranquillity ;-whoever exults at the spectacle of enlightened and independent assemblies, who, under the eye of a well-informed nation, discuss and determine the laws and policy likely to make communities great and happy ;—whoever is capable of comprehending all the effects of such institutions, with all their possible improvements upon the mind and genius of a people, is surely bound to speak with reverential gratitude of the authors of the great charter. To have produced it, to have preserved it, to have matured it, constitute the immortal claim of England on the esteem' of mankind. Her Bacons and Shakspeares, her Miltons and New. tons, with all the truth which they have revealed, and all the generous virtue which they have inspired, are of inferior value, when compared with the subjection of men and their rulers to the principles of justice ; if, indeed, it be not more true that these mighty spirits could not have been formed, except under equal laws, nor roused to full activity without the influence of that spirit which the great charter breathed over their forefathers.—Mackintosh's England, i. 219-222.
6. Effect of the giving of the Charter on King John. -A celebrated English historian speaks in the following terms concerning the manner in which the late grant of Magna Charta preyed upon the health and the disposition of John : "Great reioising,” says Holinshed, “was made for this conclusion of peace betwixt the king and his barons, the people iudging that God had touched the king's heart, and mollified it, whereby happie daies were come for the realm of England, as though it had beene delivered out of the bondage of Ægypt; but were much deceived, for the king having condescended to make such grant of liberties, farre contrarie to his mind, was right sorrowful in his heart, cursed his mother that bare him, the houre that he was borne, and the paps that gave
him sucke, wishing that he had received death by violence of sword or knife, in steed of naturall norishment: he whetted his teeth, he did bite now on one staffe, and now on an other, as he walked, and oft brake the same in pieces when he had done, and with such disordered behauior and furious gestures he uttered his greefe in such sort that the noblemen verie well perceiued the inclination of his inward affection concerning these things, before the breaking up of the councell, and therefore sore lamented the state of the realme, gessing what would become of his impatiencie and displeasant taking of the matter.”
If this melancholy description was a real picture of John's mind after the conclusion of Magna Charta, he was indeed reduced to a miserable state; and this in a twofold sense, for he was not only bent under the weight of his present evils, but his peers, perceiving how much his extorted concession oppressed his thoughts, and fearful of his swerving from it, were prepared to resort to the same violent methods for its preservation as those which they had already made use of to gain it. The future actions of John's life were then smouldering in his breast, like the sleeping, yet unsubdued fires of a volcano: his intentions were how