Sidebilder
PDF
ePub

of John was but the shadow of a representative assembly. It is true that Magna Charta promises that the greater barons shall be summoned to Parliament by special writ, while all other tenants in chief are to be summoned in gross, and that this distinction of the barons into greater and lesser, obscure as it is, may be the first hint of a representation of the commons. But yet none were ad. mitted to the parliamentary assembly but tenants in chief of the crown, whether their tenures were great or small. All subfeudatories were excluded. Parliament was, therefore, less a national assembly than the feudal council of the immediate vassals of the king. We are now briefly to trace its gradual development into the present Parliament of England.

The long and weak reign of Henry III., from 1216 to 1272, with all its indiscretions, was eminently favorable to the progress of free institutions. Had the reign of such a prince as Edward I. succeeded that of John, the charter might have been suppressed; but Henry's long minority, his folly, and his weakness gave the barons every opportunity to strengthen and confirm the privileges they had won from John. Moreover, the continued civil war which soon arose between the barons and the king, revealed the fact that either side, in order to success, must gain the affections of the commons. Hence the commons were invited to take part in Parliament by chosen representatives, and in the following reign the principle of popular representation came to be a fundamental principle of the English constitution.

At the accession of this prince in 1216, the Earl of Pembroke, the great advocate of the popular cause, was by the Parliament, appointed governor of the kingdom, and through his influence the charter of King John was revised and confirmed. In 1223, Henry was declared of age, and being utterly incapable of governing the kingdom, the supreme power was entirely exercised by his justiciary, Hubert de Burgh. In 1225, when war with France broke out, De Burgh was forced to apply to Parliament for an extraordinary aid ; and one-fifteenth of all movables was granted by the barons, on condition that the king should now, in his majority, ratify and confirm the charters. This was done. But the war terminating in disaster, Parliament refused to grant another aid, and popular indignation hurled the justiciary from power. During the discontents which followed the disaster of the English forces, Henry added greatly to the disaffection of the people by marrying a French princess, Eleanor of Provence, and by introduction into the chief places of the court and kingdom of her foreign relatives. Enraged at being governed by a band of foreign favorites, the barons more than once took arins against the king, who just as often swore to dismiss the obnoxious persons, and as often broke his oaths. The spirit of dissatisfaction reached its culminating point with the defeat of Henry in the French war he had undertaken contrary to the advice of Parliament, which forthwith peremptorily refused further supplies. The loss of the king's French possessions proved of immense advantage to England. The king could no longer threaten one part of his dominions with a foreign force to be brought from the rest : the barons, separated from their continental associations, now regarded themselves as English peers rather than as Norman nobles; and the distinction of the Normans from the English began gradually to disappear. "The two races," says Macauley," so long hostile, soon found that they had common interests and common enemies; both were alike grieved by the tyranny of a bad king-both were alike indignant at the favor shown by the court to the natives of Poitou and Aquitainė. The grandsons of those who had fought under William, and the great-grandsons of those who had fought under Harold, began to draw near to each other in friendship;" and, as the great charter had been the first pledge of their reconciliation, so the formation of a representative government was the consummation of their identity.

After his serious repulse, Henry endeavored to conduct his government without advice or aid from Parliament, but his necessities compelled him in 1253 to meet the barons, who solemnly but firmly asked for a redress of grievances. The clergy seconded the barons. When they assembled in Westminster Hall, the bishops and abbots in their robes went in a solemn procession to the king with lighted tapers in their hands, and the archbishops then pronounced the fearful sentence of excommunication against whoever should have violated the great charter. Terror-stricken, the weak-minded king exclaimed, “ So help me God, I will keep the charters inviolate, as I am a man, as I am a Christian, as I am a knight, as I am a king !" It was in vain. The king's devotion was as temporary as it doubtless was sincere; and his imprudence now led him to an act which might have brought about the ruin of his family, but fortunately had the happier result of furnishing the occasion for establishing the representative assembly of the English Commons. At the instigation of Pope Innocent III., Henry undertook the conquest of Sicily for his son Edmund, and the pope supplied him with the sum of 14,000 marks on a mortgage of his kingdom. Mortgages to popes in those days were no empty form; for the successors of St. Peter were good stewards of the patrimony of the apostolic fisherman. When Sicily was conquered, the then reigning pope, Alexander IV., demanded the immediate completion of their contract under threat of excommunication of the king, and interdict of the whole kingdom. Driven to despair, he called upon his Parliament to aid him in the payment of his debt. They were astonished at the impudence of the demand that they should pay so vast a debt, which they had never authorized him to contract; and they insisted that a committee should be appointed by the Parliament to administer the affairs of the kingdom, which their sovereign obviously was unfit to govern. The king consented, and the Parliament appointed twenty-four persons to conduct the government; and it was furthermore resolved, that four knights should be elected in each county to represent the grievances of their constituents in the next Parliament. But the barons were determined on more sweeping reforms. They had learned by long experience how little confidence could be reposed in kingly faith or prudence, and they determined once for all to cleanse the kingdom from the corruption which had grown upon it. For the sake of greater efficiency, Simon de Montfort, the ruling spirit among the barons, caused twelve instead of twenty-four to be appointed to the task of reformation, who forthwith dismissed the whole of the king's officers and advisers. The king himself became a cipher in the state ; and in a monarchy, as Mr. Hallam justly says, a king divested of prerogatives by his people, soon appears even to themselves an injured party The decision and promptness of De Montfort and the twelve barons doubtless carried with it an air of usurpation which strengthened the hands of the the royalists; and Prince Edward flew to arms to vindicate the lost prestige of royalty. He was speedily defeated, the king prince were taken prisoners, and de Montfort, who had no desire to found a tyranny, determined to summon a parliament which should give a constitutional sanction to the acts he was determined to accomplish. The royalists of course were chiefly in the ranks of the nobility; while the citizens of London, and the commons generally, were enthusiastic for the cause of Leicester. It was obviously the policy of Leicester to call the citizens and commons to his aid. Writs were therefore issued, ordering the Sheriff to elect and return two knights for each county, and two burgesses and citizens for each borough and city respectively, and thus the principle of representation was established in the English Government, and the foundation of the present House of Commons laid.'

The conduct of the commons in this Parliament was a striking proof that the people of a country are always more ready to endure the government to which they are accustomed, while it is in any degree tolerable, than to fly into the uncertainties of revolution. Much as they had suffered at the hands of Henry, and deeply as they sympathized with Leicester, they had no desire to overturn the throne or change the constitution of their country. On the contrary, while they were firm in their demand for the redress of grievances, and stipulated that the chief authority should rest with Leicester, yet they no less steadily demanded the restoration of the king and the enlargement of the prince. Their wishes were accomplished; and the first result was that Prince Edward, making his escape, gathered an army, overthrew Simon, the son of Leicester, in the battle of Kenilworth, and turning to meet Leicester, who was hastening to the succor of his son, surrounded and destroyed his army, giving no quarter to any rank. Leicester himself was slain, but long lived in the affections of his countrymen, especially of the commons, as the champion of liberty and equal rights. He was for generations known among them as Sir Simon the Righteous; and though he died excommunicate, the popular credulity believed that notable miracles were wrought at his tomb.

For once the king now acted with prudence. Conscious of his weakness, notwithstanding the late triumph, he appears to have shown no disposition to trample on the charters or to reassert those ancient claims of prerogative which would have plunged the king. dom once more into revolt. Measures of retribution against the late rebels were left to Parliament; but the rigorous acts of this assembly, consisting as it now did of those barons only who had been the steady partisans of Henry, produced such disturbances that Henry wisely overruled them. Nor did bis moderation end here. His most powerful partisan, the Earl of Gloucester, taking umbrage at some measures of the court, rose in rebellion and seized the tower of London. The disturbance was, by a mild course, soon brought to an end; the earl was freely pardoned, and the kingdom was restored to quiet. But the king was sensible that he must now concilitate the commons also to his cause, if he would hold his kingdom in tranquillity; for with them remained the balance of power in any discord between him and the barons. He accordingly determined by the advice of his council to convene a Parliament on the plan of Leicester, in which counties, cities, and boroughs should be duly represented : and this body, from which many good laws--called the Statutes of Malbridge-emanated, having been assembled by the free will of the king and barons, with a distinct concession of a right of parliamentary representation to the Commons, is justly regarded as the first body of constitutional English legislators, in which the House of Commons was a constituent part.

During the rest of Henry's reign he lived in peace; and having in a period of bloodshed and rebellion, reaped the bitter fruits of violence and usurpation, he at length enjoyed in quiet, honor, and security, the blessings which could only have been won for him and his distracted kingdom by a course of prudence, moderation, and conciliation. But the fiery Edward who succeeded him was made of sterner stuff than the weak Henry; and in other circumstances this great sovereign might have swept away the limitations of the royal power which had been made during the last two reigns. But his own energy embarrassed him. His victorious wars in England and Scotland speedily impoverished his treasury; and when affairs upon the Continent demanded an immediate expedition into France,

« ForrigeFortsett »