« ForrigeFortsett »
having the pope as well as the king for their adversary; but they had already ad vanced too far to recede from their pretensions, and their passions were so deeply engaged, that it exceeded even the power of superstition itself any longer to control them. They also foresaw, that the thunders of Rome, when not seconded by the efforts of the English ecclesiastics, would be of small avail against them ; and they perceived, that the most considerable of the prelates, as well as all the inferior clergy, professed the highest approbation of their cause. Besides that these men were seized with the national passion for laws and liberty, blessings of which they themselves expected to partake; there concurred very powerful causes to loosen their devoted attachment to the apostolic see. It appeared, from the late usurpations of the Roman pontiff, that he pretended to reap alone all the advantages accruing from that victory, which, under his banners, though at their own peril, they had every where obtained over the civil magistrate. The pope assumed a despotic power over all the churches. Their particular customs, privileges, and immunities, were treated with disdain. Even the canons of general councils were set aside by his dispensing power; The whole administration of the church was centered in the court of Rome; all preferments ran of course in the same channel; and the provincial clergy saw, at least felt, that there was a necessity for limiting these pretensions. The legate, Nicholas, in filling those numerous vacancies which had fallen in England during an interdict of six years, had proceeded in the most arbitrary manner, and had paid no regard, in conferring dignities, to personal merit, to rank, to the inclination of the electors, or to the customs of the country. The English church was universally disgusted; and Langton himself, though he owed his elevation to an encroachment of the Romish see, was no sooner established in his high office, than he became jealous of the privileges annexed to it, and formed attachments with the country subjected to his jurisdiction. These causes, though they opened slowly the eyes of men, failed not to produce their effect: They set bounds to the usurpations of the papacy: The tide first stopped, and then turned against the sovereign pontiff; and it is otherwise inconceivable, how that age, so prone to superstition, and so sunk in ignorance, or rather so devoted to a spurious condition, could have escaped falling into an absolute and total slavery under the court of Rome. About the time that the Pope's letters arrived in England, the malcontent barons on the approach of the festival of Easter, when they were to expect the king's answer to their petition, met by agreement at Stamford; and they assembled a force consisting of above two thousand knights, besides their retainers and inferior persons without number. Elated with their power, they advanced in a body to Brackley, within fifteen miles of Oxford, the place where the court then resided; and they there received a message from the king, by the archbishop of Canterbury and the earl of Pembroke, desiring to know what those liberties were which they so zealously challenged from their sovereign. They delivered to these messengers a schedule containing the chief articles of their demands; which was no sooner shown to the king, than he burst into a furious passion, and asked, why the barons did not also demand of him his kingdom ; swearing that he would never grant them such liberties as must reduce them to slavery. No sooner were the confederated nobles informed of John's reply, than they chose Robert Fitz-Walter their general, whom they called the Mareschal of the army of God and of holy church; and they proceeded without further ceremony to levy war upon the king. They besieged the castle of Northampton during fifteen days, though without success; The gates of Bedford castle were willingly opened to them by William Beauchamp, its owner; They advanced to Ware in their way to London, where they held a correspondence with the principal citizens; They were received without opposition into that capital ; and finding now the great superiority of their force, they issued proclamations, requiring the other barons to join them ; and menacing them, in case of refusal or delay, with committing devastation on their houses and estates. In order to shew what might be expected from their prosperous arms, they made incursions from London, and laid waste the king's parks and palaces; and all the barons, who had hitherto carried the semblance of supporting the royal party, were glad of this pretence for openly joining a cause which they always had secretly favoured. The king was left at Odiham, in Hampshire, with a poor retinue of only seven knights; and after trying several expedients to elude the blow, after offering to refer all differences to the pope alone, or to eight barons, four to be chosen by himself, and four by the confederates, he found himself at last obliged to submit at discretion.
A conference between the king and the barons was appointed at Runnemede, between Windsor and Staines; a place which has ever since been extremely celebrated, on account of this great event. The two parties encamped apart, like open enemies; and after a debate of a few days, the king, with a facility somewhat suspicious, signed and sealed the charter which was required of him. This famous deed, commonly called the Great Charter, either granted or secured very important liberties and privileges to every order of men in the kingdom; to the clergy, to the barons, and to the people.
The political history of John may be read in the most durable of antiquities— the Records of the kingdom. And the people may read the most remarkable of these records whenever they please to look upon it. Magna Charta, the great charter of England, entire as at the hour it was written, is preserved, not for reference on doubtful questions of right, not to be proclaimed at market-crosses or to be read in churches, as in the time of Edward I, but for the gratification of a just curiosity and an honest national pride. The humblest in the land may look upon that document day by day, in the British Museum, which more than six hundred years ago declared that “no freeman shall be arrested or imprisoned, or dispossessed of his tenement, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any manner proceeded against, unless by the legal judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land.” This is the foundation of the statute upon statute, and of what is as stringent as statute, the common law, through which for six hundred years we have been struggling to breathe the breath of freedom, -and we have not struggled in vain. The Great Charter is in Latin, written in a beautiful hand.
Runnemede,-or Runingmede, as the Charter has it, was, according to Matthew of Westminster, a place where treaties concerning the peace of the kingdom had been often made. The name distinctly signifies a place of council. Ruene-med is an Anglo-Saxon compound, meaning the Council-Meadow. We can never forget that Council-Meadow, for it entered into our first visions of Liberty:—
“Fair Runnemede! oft hath my lingering eye
Paus'd on thy tufted green and cultur'd hill;
Of lofty dreams, which on thy bosom lie.
Dear plain! never my feet have pass'd thee by,
To soul-ennobling thoughts of liberty.
Thou dost not need a perishable stone
These are commonplace rhymes—schoolboy verses; but we are not ashamed of having written them. Runnemede was our Marathon. Very beautiful is that narrow slip of meadow on the edge of the Thames, with gentle hills bounding it for a mile or so. It is a valley of fertility. Is this a fitting place to be the cradle of English freedom? Ought we not, to make our associations harmonious, to have something bolder and sterner than this quiet mead, and that still water, with its island cottage Poetry tells us that “rocky ramparts” are
“The rough abodes of want and liberty."—GRAY.
But the liberty of England was nurtured in her prosperity. The Great Charter, which says, “No freeman, or merchant, or villain shall be unreasonably fined for a small offence,—the first shall not be deprived of his tenement, the second of his merchandise, the third of his implements of husbandry,” exhibited a state far more advanced than that of the “want and liberty” of the poet, where the iron race of the mountain cliffs
“Insult the plenty of the vales below.”
Runnemede is a fitting place for the cradle of English liberty. Denham, who from his Cooper's Hill looked down upon the Thames, wandering past this mead to become “the world's exchange,” somewhat tamely speaks of the plain at his feet:
“Here was that Charter seal’d, wherein the crown
Our liberty was not so won. It was wrested from kings, and not given by them; and the love we bestow upon those who are the central point of our liberty is the homage of reason to security. That security has made the Thames “the world's exchange;” that security has raised up the great city which lies like a mist below Cooper's Hill; that security has caused the towers of Windsor, which we see from the same hill, to rise up in new splendour, instead of crumbling into ruin like many a stronghold of feudal oppression. Our prosperity is the child of our free institutions; and the child has gone forward strengthening and succouring the parent. Yet the iron men who won this charter of liberties dreamt not of the day when a greater power than their own, the power of the merchants and the villains, would rise up to keep what they had sworn to win, upon the altar of St. Edmundsbury. The Fitz-Walter, and De Roos, and De Clare, and De Percy, and De Mandeville, and De Vescy, and De Mowbray, and De Montacute, and De Beauchamp, these great progenitors of our English nobility-compelled the despot to put his seal to the Charter of Runnemede. But another order of men, whom they of the pointed shield and the mascled armour would have despised as slaves, have kept, and will keep, God willing, what they won on the 15th of June, in the year of grace 1215. The thing has rooted into our English earth like the Ankerwyke Yew on the opposite bank of the Thames, which is still vigorous, though held to be older than the great day of Runnemede.
Magna Charta is a record. Bishop Nicholson says, “Our stores of public records are justly reckoned to excel in age, beauty, correctness, and authority, whatever the choicest archives abroad can boast of the like sort.” Miles, nay, hundreds of miles, of parchment are preserved in our public offices, which incidentally exhibit the progress of the nation in its institutions and its habits, and decide many an historical fact which would otherwise be matter of controversy or of speculation. Nothing can more truly manifest the value of these documents than the fact that the actual place in which this said king John was, on almost every day, from the first year of his reign to the last, has been traced by a diligent examination of the Patent Rolls in the Tower of London. Mr. Hardy has appended to his curious Introduction to these Rolls, published by authority of the Record Commission, the “Itinerary of king John.” A most restless being does he appear to have been, flying about in cumbrous carriages to all parts of England; sailing to Normandy; now holding his state in his palace at Westminster, now at Windsor; and never at ease till he was laid in his tomb at Worcester. We extract an instructive passage from Mr. Hardy's Introduction:—
“Rapin, Hume, Henry, and those English historians who have followed Matthew Paris, state that, as soon as king John had sealed the Great Charter, he became sullen, dejected, and reserved, and shunning the society of his nobles and courtiers, retired, with a few of his attendants, to the Isle of Wight, as if desirous of hiding his shame and confusion, where he conversed only with fishermen and sailors, diverting himself with walking on the sea-shore with his domestics; that, in this retreat, he formed plans for the recovery of the prerogatives which he had lately relinquished; and meditated, at the same time, the most fatal vengeance against his enemies; that he sent his emissaries abroad to collect an army of mercenaries and Brabaçons, and dispatched messengers to Rome, for the purpose of securing the protection of the papal see ; and that, whilst his agents were employed in executing their several commissions, he himself remained in the Isle of Wight, awaiting the arrival of the foreign soldiers.
“That these statements are partially if not wholly unfounded will appear by the attestations to the royal letters during the period in question.
“Previously to the sealing of Magna Charta, namely, from the 1st to the 3rd of June, 1215, the king was at Windsor, from which place he can be traced, by his attestations, to Odiham, and thence to Winchester, where he remained till the 8th. From Winchester he went to Merton; he was again at Odiham on the 9th, whence he returned to Windsor, and continued there till the 15th : on that day he met the barons at Runnemede by appointment, and there sealed the great charter of English liberty. The king then returned to Windsor, and remained there until the 18th of June, from which time until the 23rd he was every day both at Windsor and Runnemede, and did not finally leave Windsor and its vicinity before the 26th of the same month; John then proceeded through Odiham to Winchester, and continued in that city till the end of June. The first four days of July he passed at Marlborough, from which place he went to Devizes, Bradenstoke, and Calne ; reached Cirencester on the 7th, and returned to Marlborough on the following day. He afterwards went to Ludgershall, and through Clarendon into Dorsetshire, as far as Corfe Castle, but returned to Clarendon on the 15th of July, from which place he proceeded, through Newbury and Abingdon, to Woodstock, and thence to Oxford, where he arrived on the 17th of that month ; and in a letter dated on the 15th of July, between Newbury and Abingdon, the king mentions the impossibility of his reaching Oxford by the 16th, according to his appointment with the barons.”
89.--THE FIRST NAVAL VICTORY. SouTHEY.
Amid all his disputes with the Pope and with his barons, John never neglected his naval concerns, and, unpopular as he was with other classes, never lost the good-will of his seamen. In the seventh year of his reign, with the advice of his council, he prepared for attempting to recover Normandy, of which Philip Augustus had possessed himself; a strong national feeling was manifested in favour of this just enterprise, the barons vied with each other in their preparations, and so large a fleet was collected at Portsmouth, that it was believed so many ships had never been brought together before ; the number of mariners on board is stated at 14,000, who had come from all parts of the kingdom to serve their country. But when all things were ready, and all in heart and hope, the Archbishop Hubert and the Earl of Pembroke, for reasons which have not been explained, compelled, rather than persuaded him to abandon his intention. Bitter curses were breathed by the sailors against the evil counsellors, as they deemed them, who had frustrated this mighty preparation; and John himself was “pinched so near the heart,” by the disgrace and disappointment, that having got to Winchester, he repented him of having yielded, turned back to Portsmouth, embarked, sailed out of the harbour, and for two days kept hovering off, in hopes that the troops which had been dismissed would, when they heard this, follow his example; but it was too late. An effort was made with more effect when Philip Augustus, under the Pope's sanction, prepared, as the champion of the Papal Church, to invade England, and depose an excommunicated king. Philip had long been provided for such an enterprise, little caring under what pretext he might undertake it. The possession of Normandy had given him more ships and seamen than any former king of France had ever commanded ; and, collecting them from other ports, wherever they were to be obtained, he had brought together, in the three harbours of Boulogne, Calais, and Gravelines, not less than 1700 vessels. His army, too, was most formidable in number. Distracted as England was with internal troubles, greater vigour was never shown in its counsels than at this time. An embargo had been laid upon all ships capable of carrying six or more horses; in whatever ports they might be found, they were, if laden, to be unladed, and sent round to Portsmouth, well provided with good seamen, and well-armed ; and the bailiffs of the respective ports were to see that they were properly furnished with moveable platforms for embarking and disembarking the horses. The fleet which he assembled is said to have been far stronger than the French king's, but this probably means in the size and equipment of the ships, and in the skill of the sailors, not in numbers. And, “he had got together such an army of men out of all the parts of his realm,.... both of lords, knights, gentlemen, yeomen, and other of the commons, .... that notwithstanding all the provision of victuals that might possibly be recovered, there could not be found sufficient store to sustain the huge multitudes of those that were gathered along the shore.” A great number of the commons, therefore, were discharged, and sent home, retaining only the men-at-arms, yeomen, and freeholders, with the cross-bowmen or arbalisters, and archers. Even after this reduction, 60,000 men were assembled on Barham Downs; so that the chronicler might well say, “If they had been all of one mind, and well bent towards the service of their king and defence of their country, there had not been a prince in Christendom but that they might have defended the realm of England against him.” The land preparations were rendered unnecessary, by John's submission to the legate, Pandulph; when he surrendered his crown, and, receiving it again from him, as the Pope's representative, swore fealty to the Church of Rome, and bound his kingdom, by a