John Forster.

The statesmen of the commonwealth of England; with a treatise on the popular progress in English history online

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Online LibraryJohn ForsterThe statesmen of the commonwealth of England; with a treatise on the popular progress in English history → online text (page 1 of 201)
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History triumpheth over Time, which, besides it, nothing but Eternity hath triumphed over ;
for it carrieth our knowledge over vast and devouring space for many thousands of years, and
giveth to our mind such fair and piercing eyes, that we plainly behold living now, as if we had
lived then, that great world, magni Dei sapiens opus. ... It is not the least debt which we owe
unto History, that it hath made us acquainted with our dead ancestors, and out of the depth
and darkness of the earth delivered us their memory and fame. Out of History we may gather
a policy no less wise than eternal, by the comparison and application of other men's forepast
miseries with our own like errors and ill deservings. — Walteb Raleigh.

F K E F A C E XS^Tinr.H^K.


American citizens can never be indifferent to the history of the struggles
' for freedom in the land of their fathers ; and there is no more appropriate '
study for our youth than a careful examination of the men and measures of i
that period which constituted the transition state of England, from the oppress- i
ive reigns of the Tudors and the Stuarts, to the Constitutional liberty which '
it afterward enjoyed. The close sympathy which was felt by our pilgrim ■
ancestors with Eliot, Hampden, Milton, and Vane, gave an origin to our na- {
tional existence, and planted the institutions of piety and learning on our :
shores. The Puritans were the conservators of civil and religious freedom,^
and to the days of the civil war we are indebted for the assertion of those ]
political truths which we now cherish as our dearest inheritance. The glories !
of the English nation in the seventeenth century are our rightful patrimony, ]
and New-Englanders, when they indulge a justifiable pride in the patriotism i
and statesmanship of Adams and Webster, may remember with exultation I
that they are the guardians of the same precious ark once watched over by '
Sidney, Russel, and their compeers. j

The great merit of Mr. Forster's Lives of the Statesmen of the Common- ;
wealth is, that he has afforded a life-like sketch of characters that will con- ^
tinue to appear more extraordinary to those who, by the march of time, are j
removed farther from the era in which they appeared on the stage of action. J
I mistake if this volnme does not quicken much thought into activity, for I
it holds up to view the real life — the stirring, glowing, argumentative Hfe of the i
days of the Protectorate. The thoughtful reader feels that he knows quite as i

much of the doings in St. Stephens at this period, as he does of the wrangling i

and personalities in the House of Representatives at Washington ; and if it ^

were possible for old Noll, or Eliot, or Pym to walk our globe again, he \

would not fail to recognise them. A perusal of this biography compels to the 1

reflection, that faith in eternal verities is as important to nations as to indi- i

viduals. The strong, earnest faith of England made her revolution at tiie I

death of Charles what it was, a blessing, then and forever, while the skepti- \

cism of France rendered the revolution at the death of Louis a living curse, J

a widespread damnation. The large sale of this work in America, not- :


withstanding the London edition in five volumes is so costly, affords gratify-
ing evidence that the public mind is called out to the investigation of this
period of time, and no part of English history is more deserving the profound
attention of the

" Sons of sires who baffled
Crouni'd and mitred tyranny," |

than the days of Charles I., and the devout, God-fearing, and strong-hearted
Oliver Cromwell.

A careful revisal has been given to the work, notes have been added, but
no alteration has been made in the text of the author.

John. Overton. Choules.

June, 1846.




A DESIRE having been expressed that this
portion of a series of British statesmen,
originally published in the " Cabinet Cyclo-
paedia," should be given to the world in a
distinct form, that desire is here complied
with. I seize, at the same time, the occa-
sion it affords me of soliciting the reader's
attention, on the threshold of the work, to
some -considerations of historical interest
that may give greater completeness to its
design. It is scarcely possible — without
some such general view as history will
rarely give of the social, political, and re-
ligious influences which, in their gradual
action after the Norman Conquest, built up
what we call the Constitution of the state
— to understand the secret of the origin
and power of that remarkable race of men
by whom, on the awful stage of the old
English Revolution, events of such influ-
^ ence to succeeding ages were created and

Any notice of the Saxon period would
be foreign to this purpose, save in so far as
the revival of the national spirit, after the
Norman invasion, brought back the more
sturdy features of our old national charac-
ter with the better portions of free Saxon
usage. As little needful is it to describe
from its earlier beginnings the subversion
of the feudal system, which gradually de-
clined as towns arose, as municipal com-
munities were formed, as capital was ac-
cumulated, and the arts cultivated with
success. It is obvious that, with the en-
richment of a mercantile or manufacturing
class, the power of an aristocracy must de-
crease ; and our country formed no excep-
tipn to the rule. It will be more important
to explain briefly to the reader the secret
of that attachment to monarchy, which,
without question, continued to prevail
throughout the nation at the beginning of
the struggle for liberty described in this
volume, and a knowledge of which, while
it reveals the less obvious difficulties that
beset the struggle, and may refine and ex-
alt our perceptions of the policy and states-
manship of its leaders, marks also, with
singular precision, the commencement of
Popular Progress in the Norman period of
our history.

From no principle of passive obedience,
but out of the simple instinct of self-pres-

ervation, that attachment arose. It is
clearly indicated, in its relations both to
king and people, in one of the proclama-
tions of Henry the Third, first discovered
and partly quoted by Sir Robert Cotton.
From this we perceive that it was not till
majesty had been driven to extremities by
the barons that it bethought itself of the
expediency of securing the affections of the
people ; and we observe farther, that the
humble prostration of the commons before
the feet of sovereignty had at once its
motives and its reward in the assurance
of a full and sufficient protection against
the great lords. A common enemy had,
in fact, made common cause between the
highest and lowest states of the realm,
and the dormant political rights of the peo-
ple were suddenly roused into action on
behalf of the endangered security at once
of people and of king.

Gradual advances had been made in law
and jurisprudence during the reign of the
first in the great line of the Plantagenets,
the wise and powerful administration of
Henry the Second; the general adoption
of juries had given justice to the common-
alty, and the institution of circuits had car-
ried it to each man's door. The Crusades,
too, had served to reawaken the failing
spirits of men, had loosened more and
more the bondage of the feudal laws, and
had opened to the new and enterprising
race then peopling our English towns vari-
ous and most .profitable sources of com-
merce with other lands. Nor had a silently
growing but very potent influence of a
higher nature passed unheeded. The gay
resources of religious chivalry implied
nobler and more generous offices than the
mere relaxation of crusading knights, or
conciliation of their lady-loves. They
scattered the seeds of a national literature,
which, whether tracked through the wan-
dering paths of Troubadour or Dominican,
sprang up afterward, during the whole
period of the thirteenth century, in silent
but most significant places. Still had no
distinct recognition of the people been
heard. The thirteenth century opened,
and, as an order of the state, they were
still unknown.

But about then it was, and not till then,
that, happily in one sense, if unsuccessfully



in another, monarchy appealed to them in
its despair. It was the weak and power-
less John who first stretched out his hands
to them, in fear of his barons, and im-
plored them to lift up a distinct voice in
the arrangement of public affairs. Strange
and memorable for all ages were the events
that followed. The success of the barons
in the struggle was far from a popular suc-
cess ; but it was secretly acted upon by
those passing, powerful, and silently ex-
panding influences to which allusion has
been made, and which shaped the mere
exclusive claims of a powerful faction, as
against their feudal lord, into an uncon-
scious but eternal record of general rights,
inalienable and imperishable, nor ever af-
terward to be denied to even the meanest
Englishman. Little known to its framers
were the mighty secrets included in the
great Charter. Little did they suspect
that, under words that were intended to
limit the relations of feudal power, many
of the grandest equitable truths of polity
lay concealed, as though afraid to show
themselves till a milder and more auspi-
cious day. They denied protection to serfs,
and knew not that the swords which gave
them that very power of denial had already
cut through forever the bonds of English
serfdom. They protested against the
power of taxation in a prince, while they
reserved it in limitation for themselves,
ignorant that the formidable principle would
bear down the weak exception. They de-
manded the regular summoning of a great
council to control the king, whether in im-
position of new laws or administration of
old ; but they dreamed not that within fifty
years the mere tenants of the crown, to
whom they limited the commons' portion
of that council, would almost insensibly
yield to the admission of burgesses and
knights by the forms of popular election.
Of incalculable importance, for these rea-
sons, is it to consider this great charter
justly. A truth has not its fair side and
its foul. A principle is not a convertible
thing; nor could these iron barons of Mer-
ton, all-powerful as they were, claim its
operation in the one case, and control it in
the other. All was not done when their
part was done. It was enough for them
to have conceived the prudent thought that,
when once the rustofthe Norman Conquest
had been worn out of the souls of men, the
various and discordant elements of England
could never be moulded into any safe polit-
ical form without a distinct admission,
however limited, of political privileges to
every rank, and a nominal concession,
however unfairly hampered, of civil rights
of liberty and property to every class.
The selfishness in which that thought be-
gan has not availed to check the reverence
now fairly due to it. It was for future time
to purge the selfishness and leave the

greatness. It was for a posterity that has
heaped upon these men praise they would
have trampled on as insolence to demon-
strate the inherent force and inexhaustible
power of the simple spirit of resistance to
irresponsible tyranny, whether lodged in
the honest and manly warmth of a peasant's
jerkin, or within the harsh and selfish links
of a baron's mail. The five centuries that
followed the scene at Runnymede were
filled with the struggles of freedom, and
never, at any new effort, were the provis-
ions of that feudal charter appealed to in
vain. Even when silent in themselves, the
spirit out of which they were born still
gave itself forth irresistibly in accents of
warning and terror, of strength and con-
solation. Whether our thoughts have turn-
ed to the terrible death-field o( Simon de
Montford ; to the gray discrowned head of
the second Richard ; to the miserable fato
of the first Charles ; to the stakes of Rid-
ley and Cranmer, or the as sublime suffer-
ings of More ; to the prisons of Eliot or
of Marten ; to the scaffold of Strafford or
of Vane; to the glorious fall of Hampden,
or the hopeless and irretrievable ascent
of Cromwell ; whether our hopes for Eng-
lish liberty beat high with the eloquence
of Pym, or have been composed to a more
sober assurance beneath the wigs of Som-
ers, of Danby, or of Halifax, we have yet
borne witness, at every new emotion, to the
presence of that spirit of Magna Chart a.

Ignorant of the extent of good which had
been thus achieved for them, and still, by
the influences I have named, controlling
the power of the barons by dint of their
superior attachment to the monarchy, the
English people found themselves now, with
the passage of each successive reign, more
and more distinctly recognised as a power
and a resource in the government. They
were formally summoned to the legislature
by John's successor; many of Henry the
Third's writs for their election, directing
"the sheriffs to elect and return two knights
for each county, two citizens for each city,
and two burgesses for every borough in the
country," were discovered by Prynne ; and
in the reigns of the first and second Ed-
wards and their successors, we find them
a strong and efficient branch of the state.

That the compact was no slavish one by
which the popular rights were thus revived
and secured, sufficiently appears in a glance
at these succeeding reigns. The sturdiest
free Saxon need not have blushed, could
he have lived them over. In all affairs of
peace and war, in the marriages of princes,
in a direct control of the domestic govern-
ment, and in the formal tenure of the pub-
lic purse, the commons of England, even
thus early, claimed and accomplished the
privilege of being consulted. Their exist-
ence once recognised, all else followed in
its course. Not a reign passed that did



not give them a more decisive position.
With the help of the wiser princes, in de-
spite of the weaker, their power still grew.

In the reign of the first Edward, when
so many great improvements in the laws
were effected, that the somewhat too lofty
title of the English Justinian has been
claimed for that prince, they gave the res-
idents of the various counties in which, at
last, the jury system had been finally con-
solidated, the power, which was afterward
lost, of electing their own sheriffs. They
also claimed at this period a security for
free and uninfluenced elections — sure evi-
dence of a growing importance ; and a re-
markable statute, which dates in the third
year of Edward, runs in these words : " And
because elections ought to be free, the king
commandeth, upon great forfeiture, that no
man, by force of arms, nor by malice, or
menacing, shrill disturb any to make free
election." The power of the purse was a
more formidable claim ; but, having wrest-
ed it in the weak government of this great
monarch's •successor, they always after-
ward, or at least with rare exceptions, made
money supplies conditional, not only that
the specific services for which they were
voted might be secured, but that, as the
voluntary gift of lords and commons, they
should not by any pretence be drawn into
forced precedents. In Edward the Second's
time, we find them voting as a distinct
house, apart from the temporal and spirit-
ual barons. It is curious and significant,
too, to mark in this short reign the icom-
mencement of the system of government
boroughs. Edward the Second's counsel-
lors, acting upon a regular plan of strength-
ening the regal influence, erected no less
than twenty-two new boroughs ; and then
it was that the lower house not only claim-
ed, in a memorable statute, equal legislative
power with the other estates of the realm,
but declared that power to be a fundament-
al usage of England. " The matters," they
said, " to be established for the estate of
the king and of his heirs, and for the estate
of the realm and of the people, shall be
treated, accorded, and established in Parlia-
ment by the king, and by the assent of the
prelates, earls, and barons, and the com-
monalty of the realm, according as hath been
hefore accustomed.'''' Then, too, the great
Charter was again confirmed, and with the
striking addition of " Forasmuch as many
people be aggrieved by the king's ministers
against right, in respect of which grievan-
ces no one can recover without a common
Parliament, we do ordain that the king
shall hold a -Parliament once in the year,
or tvvice, if need be." Six different statutes
in the succeeding reign still more confirm-
ed and enlarged its provisions. But the
historical student should pause with pride
at the name of Edward the Third.

During the brilliant fifty years' reign of

that famous sovereign, seventy Parlia-
ments were summoned, and by one of
them, which in this may express the spirit
of all, it was insisted that the nomination
of the chancellor and other great public
officers should be committed to itself; a
claim which, though tolerated in effect in
modern days, would, if formally advanced
among us, be condemned as an invasion of
regal prerogative. Then, too, was passed
one of the most popular laws conceded
by any prince, one of the most advan-
tageous achieved by any people. This
was the statute of treasons, which lim-
ited the crime, before vague and uncer-
tain, to three principal heads : the conspi-
ring the death of the king, the levying war
against him, the adhering to his enemies ;
and which prohibited the judges, if any
other cases should occur, from inflicting
the penalty of treason without application
to Parliament. Without a struggle, this
famous statute was won. For Edward
himself, he always conceded freely what
weaker sovereigns would have perilled life
to hold. He was too wise to mistake in
any case a shadow for a substance, and too
powerful to fear concessions that had a
tendency, without danger to the throne, to.
conciliate the other authorities of the realm-
Peace, therefore, had her victories fpr him>
not less renowned than even war. He
could compose or amuse his restless lords
by a politic foundation of their order of the
Garter, as he would propitiate his discon-
tented commons by a frank redress of their
complaint or grievance. No manlier prince,
and none more prudent or successful, oc-
cupied the English throne. No influence
more brilliant or powerful, or having plain-
er tendencies to popular cultivation, sur-
vived to a succeeding age. It was Ed-
ward's object always to interest men in?
himself, but for no apparently selfish rea-
sons ; to justify his own ambition by the
ambition of a common country ; to aggran-
dize his own glory, but as the summit of
the greater glory of the nation ; and in this
he rarely failed. Even his palaces taught
something of elevation to his people. The
magnificent structures of Westminster
Hall and Windsor rank justly with the in-
tellectual influences that were then diffu-
sed, and, as though an era of so much that
was great should not pass without a mark
to distinguish it among even the greatest
of all future time, the poet Chaucer arose
to charm and instruct his countrymen, and,
by the purification of their native tongue,,
to complete the national glory. In the
thirty-sixth of the third Edward, an act was
passed declaring that the language so en-
nobled should be in future used as the lan-
guage of legislation.

Every advance in intellect, how slight
sover, unerringly marks the advance of a
people. There are tens of thousands of


listeners for every new thought, all sure
to find it in their own good time, no matter
where it was first dropped, or in what ob-
scure corner lodged. WichfF lived in this
reign. Michael Scot and Duns Scotus had
preceded him ; and Friar Bacon had pro-
claimed the advent of the true philosophy,
as the morning star the day.

An imbecile prince succeeded, but the
strong or the weak would have been alike
powerless in an age upon which such migh-
ty agencies as those of the sway of Edward
had, in so direct a shape, descended. The
beginning and the close of that reign were,
therefore, not unworthy of all that had pre-
ceded it. The one was marked by a wide
revolt of the serf class, and the other by
the formal deposition of a rightful king.
This last event estabHshed on an irremove-
able base the political importance of the
English people. A king was formally ar-
raigned, with at least the nominal co-oper-
ation of the constituted authorities of his
empire, for treason to the trust reposed in
him ; was convicted, and was punished.
The terms of " divine right," or indefeasi-
>ble power," were, from that instant, struck
out for ever from the dictionary of the
state. "I confess," said that humbled
prince, to the men who had sternly and
calmly laid down their allegiance, " I rec-
ognise, and, from certain knowledge con-
scientiously declare, that I consider myself
to have been, and to be, insufficient for the
government of this kingdom, and for my
notorious demerits not undeserving of dep-
osition." Nor was the voluntary abdica-
tion held sufficient. The houses of lords
and commons, in solemn conclave in the
hall at Westminster, made Richard the
Second's renunciation of his crown their
own compulsory act, and, amid the enthu-
siastic shouts of thousands of the common
people who had there assembled, Henry
of Lancaster was conducted to the vacant

The popular power was, perhaps, seen
and felt in more visible action on that mo-
mentous occasion than at any preceding
period, even among the Saxons. It was
only some years before that the exclusive
pretensions of the barons had been inva-
ded by admission of regal writs of sum-
mons into their hereditary house ; and here
they were now themselves inducting a new
sovereign to the seat of supreme power,
with less guarantee that he would found
his future pretensions on the fidelity of
their swords, than that he would rest it
rather on even those commonest shouts
of the people. From such shouts, in which
the old Saxon liberty again seemed pealing
through the air, there no doubt fell more
safety on the ear of even the haughty Bo-
lingbroke, than from the clanking armour
of the barons who led him to Richard's
chair. May we not even realize the

thought which is left us by the poet whose
genius takes rank with history, and sup-
pose the new sovereign of the house of
Lancaster, for years before this crowning
day, an earnest and suppliant candidate
for the popular shouts that now hailed, at
last, the downfall of the family of York?
" Ourself and Bushy, Bagot here, and Green,
Observed his courtship to the common people
How he did seem to dive into their hearts,
With humble and familiar courtesy ;
What reverence he did throw away on slaves,
Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles,
And patient underbearing of his fortune,
As 'twere to banish their affects with him.
Off goes his bonnet to an oyster wench ;
A brace of draymen bid . . God speed him well .

Online LibraryJohn ForsterThe statesmen of the commonwealth of England; with a treatise on the popular progress in English history → online text (page 1 of 201)