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- The History of England - 5/23 -

justification for the means he adopted. But John cloaked his tyranny with no specious pretences; his greed and violence spared no section of the community, and forced all into a coalition which extorted from him the Great Charter.

This famous document betrays its composite authorship; no section of the community entered the coalition without something to gain, and none went entirely unrewarded from Runnymede. But if Sir Henry Spelman introduced feudalism into England, his contemporary, Chief-justice Coke, invented Magna Carta: and in view of the profound misconceptions which prevail with regard to its character, it is necessary to insist rather upon its reactionary than upon its reforming elements. The great source of error lies in the change which is always insensibly, but sometimes completely, transforming the meaning of words. Generally the change has been from the concrete to the abstract, because in their earlier stages of education men find it very difficult to grasp anything which is not concrete. The word "liberty" affords a good illustration: in 1215 a "liberty" was the possession by a definite person or group of persons of very definite and tangible privileges, such as having a court of your own with its perquisites, or exemption from the duties of attending the public courts of the shire or hundred, of rendering the services or of paying the dues to which the majority were liable. The value of a "liberty" was that through its enjoyment you were not as other men; the barons would have eared little for liberties which they had to share with the common herd. To them liberty meant privilege and monopoly; it was not a general right to be enjoyed in common. Now Magna Carta is a charter not of "liberty," but of "liberties"; it guaranteed to each section of the coalition those special privileges which Henry II and his sons had threatened or taken away. Some of these liberties were dangerous obstacles to the common welfare--for instance the "liberty" of every lord of the manor to try all suits relating to property and possession in his own manorial court, or to be punished by his fellow-barons instead of by the judges of the king's court. This was what the barons meant by their famous demand in Magna Carta that every man should be judged by his peers; they insisted that the royal judges were not their peers, but only servants of the crown, and their demands in these respects were reactionary proposals which might have been fatal to liberty as we conceive it.

Nor is there anything about trial by jury or "no taxation without representation" in Magna Carta. What we mean by "trial by jury" was not developed till long after 1215; there was still no national, but only class taxation; and the great council, which was to give its assent to royal demands for money, represented nobody but the tenants-in-chief of whom it was composed. All that the barons meant by this clause was that they, as feudal tenants-in-chief, were not to pay more than the ordinary feudal dues. But they left to the king, and they reserved to themselves, the right to tallage their villeins as arbitrarily as they pleased; and even where they seem to be protecting the villeins, they are only preventing the king from levying such judicial fines from their villeins as would make it impossible for those villeins to render their services to the lords. It was to be no affair of the king or nation if a lord exacted the uttermost farthing from his own chattels; legally, the villeins, who were the bulk of the nation, remained after Magna Carta, as before, in the position of a man's ox or horse to-day, except that there was no law for the prevention of cruelty to animals. Finally, the provision that no one was to be arrested until he had been convicted would, if carried out, have made impossible the administration of justice.

On the other hand, the provisions for the fixing of the court of common pleas at Westminster, for standard weights and measures, for the administration of law by men acquainted with English customs, and some others were wholesome reforms. The first clause, guaranteeing that the church should be free from royal (not papal) encroachments, was sound enough when John was king, and the general restraint of his authority, even in the interests of the barons, was not an unmixed evil. But it is as absurd to think that John conceded modern liberty when he granted the charter of medieval liberties, as to think that he permitted some one to found a new religion when he licensed him to endow a new religious house (_novam religionem_); and to regard Magna Carta as a great popular achievement, when no vernacular version of it is known to have existed before the sixteenth century, and when it contains hardly a word or an idea of popular English origin, involves complete misunderstanding of its meaning and a serious antedating of English nationality.

At no time, indeed, did foreign influence appear more dominant in English politics than during the generation which saw Richard I surrender his kingdom to be held as a fief of the empire, and John surrender it to be held as a temporal fief of the papacy; or when, in the reign of Henry III, a papal legate, Gualo, administered England as a province of the Papal States; when a foreign freebooter was sheriff of six English shires; and when aliens held in their hands the castles and keys of the kingdom. It was a dark hour which preceded the dawn of English nationality, and so far there was no sign of English indignation at the bartering of England's independence. Resistance there was, but it came from men who were only a degree less alien than those whose domination they resented.

Yet a governing class, planted by Henry II, was striking root in English soil and drawing nourishment and inspiration from English feelings. It was reinforced by John's loss of Normandy, which compelled bi-national barons who held lands in both countries to choose between their French and English sovereigns; and those who preferred England became more English than they had been before. The French invasion of England, which followed John's repudiation of the charter, widened the cleavage; and there was something national, if little that was English, in the government of Hubert de Burgh, and still more in the naval victory which Hubert and the men of the Cinque Ports won over the French in the Straits of Dover in 1217. But not a vestige of national feeling animated Henry III; and for twenty-five wearisome years after he had attained his majority he strove to govern England by means of alien relatives and dependents.

The opposition offered by the great council was baronial rather than national; the revolt in which it ended was a revolt of the half-breeds rather than a revolt of the English; and the government they established in 1258 was merely a legalized form of baronial anarchy. But there was this difference between the anarchy of Stephen's reign and that of Henry III's: now, when the foreigners fell out, the English began to come by their own. A sort of "young England" party fell foul of both the barons and the king; Simon de Montfort detached himself from the baronial brethren with whom he had acted, and boldly placed himself at the head of a movement for securing England for the English. He summoned representatives from cities and boroughs to sit side by side with greater and lesser barons in the great council of the realm, which now became an English parliament; and for the first time since the Norman Conquest men of the subject race were called up to deliberate on national affairs. It does not matter whether this was the stroke of a statesman's genius or the lucky improvisation of a party- leader. Simon fell, but his work remained; Prince Edward, who copied his tactics at Evesham, copied his politics in 1275 and afterwards at Westminster; and under the first sovereign since the Norman Conquest who bore an English name, the English people received their national livery and the seisin of their inheritance.




In 1265, simultaneously with the appearance of English townsfolk in parliament, an official document couched in the English tongue appeared like a first peak above the subsiding flood of foreign language. When, three generations back, Abbot Samson had preached English sermons, they were noted as exceptions; but now the vernacular language of the subject race was forcing its way into higher circles, and even into literary use. The upper classes were learning English, and those whose normal tongue was English were thrusting themselves into, or at any rate upon the notice of, the higher strata of society.

The two normal ranks of feudal society had in England naturally been French lords and English tillers of the soil; but commerce had never accommodated itself to this agricultural system, and the growth of trade, of towns, of other forms of wealth than land, tended concurrently to break down French and feudal domination. A large number of towns had been granted, or rather sold, charters by Richard I and John, not because those monarchs were interested in municipal development, but because they wanted money, and in their rights of jurisdiction over towns on the royal domain they possessed a ready marketable commodity. The body which had the means to pay the king's price was generally the local merchant guild; and while these transactions developed local government, they did not necessarily promote popular self-government, because the merchant guild was a wealthy oligarchical body, and it might exercise the jurisdiction it had bought from the king in quite as narrow and harsh a spirit as he had done. The consequent quarrels between town oligarchies and town democracies do not, however, justify the common assumption that there had once been an era of municipal democracy which gradually gave way to oligarchy and corruption. Nevertheless, these local bodies were English, and legally their members had been villeins; and their experience in local government prepared them for admittance to that share in national government which the development of taxation made almost necessary.

Henry II's scheme of active and comprehensive administration, indeed, led by a natural sequence to the parliament of Edward I and further. The more a government tries to do, the more taxation it must impose; and the broadening of the basis of taxation led gradually to the broadening of the basis of representation, for taxation is the mother of representation. So long as real property only--that is to say, the ownership of land--was taxed, the great council contained only the great landowners. But Henry II had found it necessary to tax personalty as well, both clerical and lay, and so by slow steps his successors in the thirteenth century were driven to admit payers of taxes on personalty to the great council. This representative system must not be regarded as a concession to a popular demand for national self- government. When in 1791 a beneficent British parliament granted a popular assembly to the French Canadians, they looked askance and muttered, "_C'est une machine anglaise pour nous taxer_"; and Edward I's people would have been justified in entertaining the suspicion that it was their money he wanted, not their advice, and still less their control. He wished taxes to be voted in the royal palace at Westminster, just as Henry I had insisted upon bishops being elected in the royal chapel. In the royal presence burgesses and knights of the shire would be more liberal with their constituents' money than those constituents would be with their own when there were neighbours to encourage resistance to a merely distant terror.

The representation people had enjoyed in the shire and hundred moots had been a boon, not because it enabled a few privileged persons to attend, but because by their attendance the mass were enabled to stay away. If the lord or his steward would go in person, his attendance

The History of England - 5/23

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