Sidebilder
PDF
ePub

Edward, who had never yet confirmed the charters of the previous reigns, resorted to measures of the most violent nature to provide the necessary funds. Without the consent of Parliament he levied tallages on all personal property, both of barons and commons, made an arbitrary tax on wool, and demanded of merchants loans equal to the full value of their cargoes. A strong spirit of resistance was aroused. Henry Bohun, Earl of Hereford, and Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, resisted the exactions of the king and so intimidated the officers of the crown as to compel them to desist. They even refused to allow troops to be mustered for the expedition into France, alleging that the levy was unlawful, they not being bound to render military service otherwise than in attendance on the royal person, and declaring that they would not go unless the king himself went. Indignant at this unexpected opposition to his will, Edward is said to have exclaimed to Hereford, “ By the eternal God, sir earl, you either go or hang !" " By the same oath, sir king," said the undaunted noble, “I will neither go nor hang !" With this defiancè the two earls departed to their castles and many of the barons followed their example. Edward's affairs admitted no delay; and having endeavored to win over the populace of London, and to conciliate the clergy to his cause, he departed into Flanders. Thereupon the clergy sided with the country, and ere long the war. like Edward was by force of circumstances driven to subscribe a confirmation of the charters of the previous reigns; and moreover to assent to the important Statute de tallagio non concedendo, which provided that no tallage or aid should be levied without the consent of the lords and commons assembled in Parliament; that in future no seizure of wool, hides or other merchandise should be made to the crown, and that no tolls or customs should be levied contrary to the charters. The better to secure the observance of these important provisions, it was enacted that copies of the charters should be sent to the sheriff, and justices in Eyre; that they should be publicly read in the cathedrals and sheriff courts, accom. panied by a solemn sentence of excommunication against all who should presume to violate their sanctity; and that knights should be indifferently chosen in every shire to inquire into every abuse and infringement of these statutes, and to grant redress where it was not otherwise provided by law. From this time forth we may consider that the right of parliamentary representation was so firmly established in the English constitution, that no tax could be assessed on any portion of the people, lords or commons, laity or clergy, without the express assent of the class or order to be taxed; and it was fortunate that this admission was conceded by so powerful and great a prince as Edward. Hitherto concessions from the crown had been extorted from unwise and weak kings ; so that even in the people's own minds there was still a doubt whether those solemn acts were permanently and unalterably established. But when they were ratified by Edward, who, by his contemporaries no less than by posterity was admitted to be one of the most wise, sagacious, powerful, and determined monarchs of his age, no doubt remained that they would stand forever.'

" From this period” says Lord Brougham, “we may truly say, that the constitution of Parliament, as now established, took its origin ; and however that body may have occasionally had to struggle for its privileges, how often soever it may have submitted unworthily to oppression, how little soever it may

have hown a determination to resist cruelty and injustice, and even the disposition to become the accomplice in such acts, we must allow that, generally speaking, it has ever since the end of the thirteenth century, formed a substantive and effective part of the constitution, and that the monarchy then assumed the mixed form which it now wears. The English nation," continues the same noble author, “ought piously to hold in veneration the memory of those gallant and virtuous men who thus laid the foundation of a constitution to which they are so justly attached. The conduct of the barons in John's reigo is indeed above all praise, because it was marked by as much moderation and wisdom as firmness of purpose and contempt of personal danger.” “But to withstand the measures of Edward, a prince unequalled by any who had reigned in England, since the Conqueror, for prudence, valor and success, required a far more intrepid patriotism ;” it is therefore to the sacred names of Henry Bohun, Earl of Hereford and Essex, and Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, that we must award the meed of praise as the greatest patriots England has produced : and it is to the reign of Edward that we must refer the firm and final settlement of the great prin. ciples of constitutional liberty in England."

It is easier to lose than to win back. From the conquest by the Normans to the confirmation of the charters by king Edward I., and the enactment of the statute de tallagio, two hundred and thirty years of wrong, oppression, usurpation, rebellion, civil discord, and intestine war were suffered; and nearly four hundred years of contest and vicissitude had yet to pass, before the rights so long acknowledged and so clearly understood, were to be quietly enjoyed :—a lesson which the freemen of all nations should not fail to bear in mind when they are tempted, on whatever grounds, to sacrifice their liberties to a supposed necessity.

NOTES.

1. Tone of English Government from Magna Charta to Henry VI.-Although the restraining hand of Parliament was continually growing more effectual, and the notions of legal right acquiring more precision from the time of Magna Charta to the wars under Henry VI., we must justly say that the general tone of administration was not a little arbitrary. The whole fabric of English liberty rose step by step, through much toil and many sacrifices; each generation adding some new security to the work, and trusting that posterity would perfect the labor, as well as enjoy the reward. A time, perhaps, was even then foreseen, in the visions of generous hope, by the brave knights of Parliament, and by the sober sages of justice, when the proudest ministers of the crown should recoil from those barriers which were then daily pushed aside with impunity.

There is a material distinction to be taken between the exercise of the king's undeniable prerogative, however repugnant to our improved principles of freedom, and the abuse or extension of it to oppressive purposes. For we cannot fairly consider as part of our ancient constitution, what the Parliament was perpetually remonstrating against, and the statute book is full of enactments to repress. Doubtless the continual acquiescence of a nation in arbitrary government, may alternately destroy all privileges of positive institution, and leave them to recover, by such means as opportunity shall offer, the natural and imprescriptible rights for which human societies were established. And this may, perhaps, be the case at present with many European kingdoms. But it would be necessary to shut o eyes with deliberate prejudice against the whole tenor of the most unquestionable authorities, against the petitions of the commons,

the acts of the legislature, the testimony of historians and lawyers, before we could assert that England acquiesced in those abuses and oppressions, which, it must be confessed, she was unable fully to prevent.--HALLAM's Middle Ages, vol. iii. p. 146.

2. Hume, on Charter of Henry III.—“Thus these famous charters were brought very nearly to the shape in which they have ever since stood ; and they were, during many generations, the darling of the English nation, and esteemed the most sacred rampart to national liberty and independence. As they secured the rights of all orders of men, they were anxiously defended by all, and became the basis, in a manner, of the English monarchy, and a kind of original contract, which both limited the authority of the king, and ensured the conditional allegiance of his subjects. Though often violated, they were still claimed and recalled by the nobility and people; and as no precedents were supposed valid that infringed them, they rather acquired than lost authority from the frequent attempts made against them in several ages by regal and arbitrary power.”

3. Leicester's Parliament.—The commencement of the year 1265 is rendered forever memorable by a measure destined to have the most important infuence on the development of the British constitution; and which, as it has been elegantly expressed, has “afforded proof from experience that liberty, order, power and wealth are capable of being blended together in a degree of harmony which the wisest men had not before believed to be possible.” Hitherto the great councils of the nation had consisted only of the prelates, barons, and tenants in chief of the crown; but Leicester, in the summons for a parliament at this time, directed the “sheriffs to elect and return two knights for each county, two citizens for each city, and two burgesses for each borough in the county; thus establishing the principle of representation, and giving the people of the towns, who had hitherto been taxed at will, a share in the legislature of the realm. By a fortunate chance also, they were allowed to sit along with the knights of the shire and not in a separate chamber; a circumstance which greatly contributed to give them dignity and importance. That Leicester could have foreseen the full effects of what he was doing is not to be supposed. The measure was one which, in the natural course of things, must inevitably have occurred within a few years; deputies for the towns had sitten for the last century in the Cortes of Spain; towns were everywhere rising into importance, and becoming of too great weight in the balance of states to be any longer subject to the arbitrary power of princes and nobles. Leicester may, doubtless, have seen much of this, but his probable motive was merely to the parliament members who he knew would be wholly devoted to himself, and the ready agents of his will."-KEIGHTLEY's History of England, vol. i. p. 221.

4. Admission of Borough Representatives to Parliament.-Separation of the two Houses.—There is no great difficulty in answering the question why the deputies of boroughs were finally and permanently ingrafted upon Parliament by Edward I. The government was becoming constantly more attentive to the wealth that commerce brought into the kingdom, and the towns were becoming more flourishing and more independent. But, chiefly, there was a much strong. er spirit of general liberty, and a greater discontent at violent acts of prerogative, from the era of Magna Charta ; after which authentic recognition of free principles, many acts which had seemed before but the regular exercise of authority, were looked upon as infringements of the subject's right. Among these the custom of setting tallages at discretion would naturally appear the most intol. erable;

and men were unwilling to remember that the burgesses who paid them were indebted for the rest of their possessions to the bounty of the crown. In Edward I.'s reign, even before the great act of confirmation of the charters had rendered arbitrary impositions absolutely unconstitutional, they might perhaps excite louder murmurs than a discreet administration would risk. Though the necessities of the king, therefore, and his imperious temper, often led bim to this course, it was a more prudent counsel to try the willingness of his people, before he forced their reluctance, and the success of his innovation rendered it worthy repetition. Whether it were from the complacency of the commons at being thus admitted among the peers of the realm, or from a persuasion that the king would take their money if they refused it, or from inability to withstand the plausible reasons of his ministers, or from the private influence to which the leaders of every popular assembly have been accessible, much more was granted in subsidies, after the representation of the towns commenced, than had ever been extorted in tallages.

It has been a very prevailing opinion, that Parliament was not divided into two houses at the first admission of the commons. If by this is only meant that the commons did not occupy a separate chamber till some time in the reign of Edward III., the proposition, true or false, will be of little importance. They may have sat at the bottom of Westminster Hall, while the lords occupied the upper end. But that they were ever intermingled in voting, appears inconsistent with likelihood and authority. The usual object of calling a parliament was to impose taxes; and these, for many years after the introduction of the commons, were laid in different proportions upon the three estates of the realm. Thus, in the 23 E. I., the earls, barons, and knights gave the king an eleventh, the clergy a tenth, while he obtained a seventh from the citizens and bur gesses; in the twenty-fourth of the same king, the two former of these orders gave a twelfth, the last an eighth ; in the thirty-third year, a thirtieth was the grant of the barons and knights and of the clergy, a twentieth of the cities and towns; in the first of Edward II., the counties paid a twentieth, the towns a fifteenth ; in the sixth of Edward III., the rates were a fifteenth and a tenth. These distinct grants imply distinct grantors; for it is not to be imagined that the commons internieddled in those affecting the lords, or the lords in those of the commons. In fact, however, there is abundant proof of their separate existence long before the seventeenth of Edward III., which is the epoch assigned by

« ForrigeFortsett »