George William Johnson.

Memoirs of John Selden : and notices of the political contest during his time online

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Online LibraryGeorge William JohnsonMemoirs of John Selden : and notices of the political contest during his time → online text (page 1 of 23)
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There is no period of our national History more
crowded with interesting events, or in which more worthy
characters shone forth than in the first half of the
seventeenth century.

In that period came forward the struggle that determined
the just limits of the Crown's prerogative and of the
People's liberty : — that struggle which stained England
for the last time with the bloodshed of civil war: — that
struggle in which one Monarch died upon the scaffold,
and another was ejected from the throne; — in which the
nation escaped from one tyranny but to yield to another
and then returned to its former o])pression before it could
attain the just equipoise of freedom.

It was a period of eventful transition. — The birthtime
of discussions some of which even at the present period


continue to be agitated. Tithes — Church Government — ■
Episcopal Legislators — the forms of the Liturgy — the
privileges of the Peerage — the rights of the Universities
— equitable Taxation — and many others of various degrees
of importance, were then for the first time and repeatedly

That period embraced the lives-time of Hampden,
Strafford, Pym, Clarendon, Selden, Falkland, Charles the
First, Cromwell — and many others of as varied degrees of
character and worth — who with mind, and hand, and
voice strove for their different creeds of political right,

All dauntless souls erect, who smiled on death.

To the history of those times, and of those characters,
the author of these pages has long delighted to devote his
leisure; and the Plumian library in his immediate vicinity,
many private collections, and the stores of the British
Museum, have been sedulously examined by him for relative

His reason for selecting the biography of Selden, as
the centre round which to gather his information, will
appear in the course of the work. At all events the


greatest scholar, and the most disinterested patriot of a
period fertile in learned and noble characters, would not
have been unworthy of a more able memorialist.

How the author has executed his task, is for others to
determine. Whatever they may decide, — should criti-
cism commend more than castigate his work — still he
will heartily and sincerely join any one who shall say
"would it were worthier" — and to that end, should it
pass to another edition, a very great obligation will be
conferred upon him by any one who will point out its
deficiencies, or who will impart additional information.

For one endeavour, however, he will not be satisfied
with restricted praise — the effort to be correct. In every
possible instance, following Selden's advice not to rely
upon " visual beams refracted through another's eye," he
has referred to original authorities, and in attestation that
he would not willingly mislead, he has as generally been
particular in naming them. Some able writers, covetous
of all the praise due to them for original research, have
withheld this satisfactory testimony. But though he has
no lack of desire for worthy fame, and would claim
tribute where it is due, he thinks it much more important


for a writer to secure the confidence of his readers than to
risk it in an endeavour to guard against the annoyance of
seeing little minds commit petty depredations upon his
literary gatherings.

Throughout he has endeavoured to be moderate and
just in estimating the stirring characters and incidents
he has had to notice. To declare that he is totally
unbiassed would be to arrogate to himself a superhuman
acc^uirement. However, he has been watchful in his
efforts to be impartial ; but fears, in spite of himself, it
must have peeped out in some passages, that he would
willingly find palliations for those who he is reluctant
to confess often erred. Notwithstanding, he is indeed
deceived if he is a partisan of extreme political opinions,
and will confess himself much self-mistaken if any proof
can be adduced that he does not without equivocation or
reserve unite with De Foe, in the conviction that, " as
there is but one hiterest in the nation," so that there
ought to be *' but one party — a party adhering to un-
biassed justice."











The political history of every nation, during every age,
informs us of the division of its people into two great
parties — those who covet an alteration of its constitution
and policy, and those who are opposed to such a change.
These antagonist parties always have and always will exist,
for no government can so happily proceed as to please
every citizen ; or be so generally profligate and oppres-
sive as to have no friends. However, upon the acts
of the government depends which party shall einl)race
the majority of the people — for no facts in history are
more certain than that no agitator, however eloquent,
can make a people anxious for change, if they really have



just cause for contentment; and that no partisan can
render them satisfied, if the sources of their unhappiness
are pressing around them. Temporary excitements may-
be produced — passions may be casually excited ; but the
common sense of a nation always ultimately prevails,
and common sense can never be made to confound the
characteristics of good government and misrule. The
party opposed to change, and in this country they have
been known as courtiers, cavaliers, tories, and conser-
vatives, usually have fallen into the great error of being
opposed too indiscriminately to all reforms. — Upon tw^o
great constitutional points, the Royal Prerogative and
the Established Church, they have ever held opinions
bigotedly opposed to all alterations, and our history
records that they have maintained and fought for the
most absurd reliques of feudal seigniory, and for the
continuance of ecclesiastical immunities and pluralities,
with an energy that could not be excelled if the struggle
was to decide the fate of monarchy and Christianity.

The party comprising the advocates of reform, known
in this country by the names of Precisians, Roundheads,
Levellers, Whigs, and Radicals, have similarly been prone
to an extreme error, by combating for subversion when
amendment alone has been necessary. They abolished
monarchy and episcopacy when their corruptions only
required to be removed.

The contests between these two great parties are the
events which usually engage the notice of the historian.


The leaders, of these opponents are those who mostly obtain
the notice of the biographer. This is no cause of wonder,
for it is the collision of extreme partisans that produces
the greatest displays of eloquence, the most important
intrigues, and the ultimate appeal to arms. It is such
that cause and are identified with the most dazzling and
the most exciting achievements of life.

But such are not necessarily the most important of
events ; such are not necessarily the most influential of
individuals. At all times, and even during the most
hostile contest of the two parties, there is a third and
always eventually prevailing party, who may justly be
called the Moderators. — To the efforts of this party, as it
existed in the time of Charles the First, the following
work is especially devoted. Such a party always consists
of those members of both parties who would rectify
abuses without subverting the institutions to which they
are incident; because they revere those institutions
without a fondness that canonizes even their faults. The
opinions of these men upon the great political questions
of their time, in the aggregate are generally correct, and
though, during the excitement of their immediate era,
their sober opinions may be too often neglected for others
more decidedly marked by the spirit of party ; yet when
the contest is over, whichever extreme may triumph,
those sober opinions are acknowledged to be correct by
the sure evidence — that they are invariably adopted. " In
troubled water," said Selden, " you can scarce see your

B 2


face ; so in troubled times you can see little truth.
'When they are settled and quiet then truth appears."

This class of politicians being aware that every national
change is productive of some evil, are proportionately
circumspect and reluctant to incur the responsibility
Avhich devolves .upon all who are its voluntary inducers.
If they hesitate to cause a present evil, for the securing
of a present superior good, they pause still longer if that
good is only prospective and far distant ; for statesmen,
like trustees, have no right to hazard the property of the
cestui-que use for the uncertain chance of its improve-
ment. Their discretion induces them occasionally to
support measures that curtail the powers of the executive ;
and at other times to restrain the increased influence of
the democratic part of the constitution ; but whichever
line of policy they may be pursuing, they are guided by
the desire of preserving that medium which is most
conducive to the happiness and safety of the whole — and
no sarcasms, no taunts, no authority will convince them
that, having once entered upon a political path, they ought
ever to tread in any other, though to continue in their
course would conduct them further from their object.
They will always attend to the motives of those who
propose a change, and view the measure with less sus-
picion, if it is urged by the remonstrances of friends, than
if it is enforced by the censures of enemies : for they
justly estimate that the object of the first is to amend,
that of the second is to destroy; and they will not be


inconsistent if they oppose a measure supported by the
hitter, and advocate it when proposed by the former,
if for this reason only, that they would not add strength
by their countenance, even for a season, to those whose
aim is known to be destruction.

The friends of rational freedom, they will ever view
with suspicion the advocates of extravagant liberty ; for
history records that few ever aimed or arrived to be
a tyrant, that did not subvert the existing government as
a vehement clamourer for freedom. It is true, that the
Independents in the time of Charles, and the Republicans
in the later period of Louis the Sixteenth, probably had
respectively no intention to establish the tyranny of
Cromwell, or of Robespierre ; but this affords a reason so
much the more powerful why the statesman should oppose
rather than promote the noisy declaimers for liberality ;
for if he joins them it is impossible to be secure that he
can control them ; and no one can say how far they will
proceed who avow that they aim at extremes ; for there
are fanatics in politics as there are in religion.

Finally, the moderators in politics are those who act
from a conviction that man in society has duties to
perform, whose claims upon his attention are far greater
than those of his mere will — these are his duties to God
and to his fellow-creatures. These duties are tauaht him
by his Bible, and as that authority declares that society is
instituted for the general happiness of mankind, he will
endeavour to establish laws that shall really be " bene-


ficence acting by a rule." He will not endeavour to
doubt, but strive to be steady and immoveable in his
opinions concerning these duties, knowing that they were
imposed upon him as rules of conduct, not as themes for
casuistical contention.

An English statesman of this class will view our
constitution as it is — " the result of the thoughts of
many minds in many ages ; as no simple, no superficial
thing, nor to be estimated by superficial understandings. —
It takes in too many views, it makes too many combi-
nations, to be so much as comprehended by shallow minds.
Profound thinkers will know it in its reason and spirit.
The less inquiring will recognise it in their feelings and
their experience. Rational and experienced men tolerably
well know, and have always known, how to distinguish
between true and false liberty ; and between the genuine
adherence and the false pretence to what is true. But
none, except those who are profoundly studied, can com-
prehend the elaborate contrivance of a fabric fitted to unite
private and public liberty with public force, with order,
with peace, with justice, and, above all, with the contri-
vances formed for bestowing permanence and stability
through ages upon this invaluable whole*."

The reign of Charles the First, by general consent, is
considered to be the most interesting period of our
history; it was the period in which the just prerogative
of the crown, and of the liberties of the people, were

* Burke's New Whigs to the Old Whigs, 114.


defined ; it involved the determination of constitutional
points — of political differences — of legal details that were
of the utmost national importance, and many of which are
especially interesting at the present period.

It was the misfortune of James the First and of his
son to live at the period when the people were become
too enlightened to require or to suffer a despotic sove-
reignty ; and, being educated in a school that instilled
into their minds the firmest conviction of the absolute
power and divine right of kings, those two monarchs
ruinously opposed themselves to the popular claims.

In tracing the progress of this contest, the biography
of Selden has been selected as an appropriate vehicle.
Selden was a scholar, a lawyer, and a philosopher ; and
the learning and mental discipline which his requisite
studies insured, prepared him to act a temperate and
thoughtful part as a legislator and a patriot. — He was
a chief of the moderate party ; and with him co-operated
a band of true lovers of their countrv, who, less known
than the Hampden, and Cromwell, the Buckingham and
Strafford of their day, deserve a far more great renown,

if moderation and consistency in virtuous principle are
the best endowments of the human character.

Previously to proceeding with the Memoirs of Selden,
and of the great national transactions with which he was
connected, it will be neither uninteresting, nor useless, to
glance over the leading features of the lives of a few of
those firm and moderate statesmen with whom he co-


operated, and whose names will so frequently occur in
future pages.

Sir John Eliot was descended from a family of gentle
blood long resident in Devonshire, but he was born in
Cornwall in 1592. His family, just previous to this
event, had purchased from the Champernov^nes very
considerable estates in his native county. Among these
was the Priory of St. Germalns and its demesne, w^hich
subsequently descended to Sir John, under the name,
which they still retain, of Port Eliot*.

He became a gentleman commoner of Exeter College,
Oxford, in l607, but left it without a degree after a
residence of three years, and addressed himself to the
study of the law. Although admitted to the bar, he does
not appear to have practised, but to have pursued the
study rather with the view of fitting himself for the still
higher office of a legislator. Previously to making an
effort to obtain a seat in parliament, he passed some time
in a continental tour, and here met with George Villiers,
whose youthful and engaging manners then gave no
indication of the after character he acquired. Alike in
age, and similarly ardent in their temperament, they
united in the pursuit of pleasure ; and there is scarcely a
reason to doubt that the knighthood and vice-admiralty of
Devonshire, obtained by Eliot in 1618, w^ere the boons
conferred by Villiers, who had then begun to rise in

* The Earl of St. Germpihs is a lineal descendant from Sir John,
and is possessed of these estates.


court favour. Buckingham, as lord high admiral, would
influence the appointment of correllative officers, and a
letter exists, written by Selden in November 1628, convey-
ing his opinion whether Sir John's patent of knighthood
was made void by the death of the grantor. Buckingham
fell in that year.

From the time of his return from abroad until the period
of his death. Sir John Eliot was the representative of
Cornwall, or some one of its boroughs, in every parliament.

Every action of his life demonstrated the ardour of his
temperament. He carried off the daughter of Sir Daniel
Norton, then under the protection of the court of wards,
for which it fined him 4000/. ; and this sum was well spent,
for it was the purchase price of a domestic happiness that
was undisturbed but by death ; and the two sons who
were the issue of this marriage, he found the chief solace
and support of his most tried and afflicted hours.

In a moment of excited wrath, kindled by the memory
of old family quarrels, and by recent personal offence, he
nearly killed an opponent, Mr. Moyle, with his rapier.
For this he made all the atonement in his power ; he
lamented the infirmity of his nature, and magnanimously
conquering the pride that chokes the confession of error,
he sought forgiveness of his opponent, and asked and
obtained his friendship publicly*.

* Mr. D'Israeli, in his Commentaries on the Life of Charles the
I'irst, has taken an imperfect view of the transaction. Full particulars
are given in Miss Aikin's work relating' to the same monarch, and in
Lord Nugent'^ Memorials of Hampden.


Equals in ardour, and in firmness of purpose, Villiers
and Eliot now took different paths ; one became the
parasite of the crown, and the distender of its arbitrary
power — the other became the advocate of the people, and
the defender of the supremacy of the laws.

From that period they became the most inveterate
enemies. Eliot, who has been well termed " the Junius
of his era,'* pursued Buckingham with all the powers of
his mind, enforced by the most powerful and chaste
eloquence. In vain did the king threaten and punish ;
the patriot was irrefragable. He was thrown into the very
dungeon which, by a curious coincidence, became the place
of confinement for Buckingham's assassin — a criminal,
probably, who would have never been roused to action
had his victim taken warning from the voice of Eliot.

Without conceding a single point Eliot was released
from prison ; but the parliament being dissolved, and he
refusing to pay the loan imposed by the king without its
sanction, he was again incarcerated ; and again unbent
was he restored to liberty, to resume his labours in parlia-
ment. Fresh efforts in the cause of national liberty were
met by the court party by fresh repetitions of outrage.
Eliot was committed to the King's Bench, and thence
to the Tower, from which prison he never was again
released. He refused to submit to the degrading and
unjust terms offered by the court, and prepared, with his
usual energy, to endure that confinement which he foresaw
would be for the residue of his life. He had, some years


previous to liis first imprisonment, assigned over all his
estates, with provident forethought, in trust for the use of
his children ; and now, when informed that he was
sentenced to pay a fine of 2000/. he replied, " I have
two cloaks, two suits, two pair of boots and galla-shees,
and a few books ; that is all my present substance, and if
they can pick out of that 2000/. much good may it do

In the solitude of his prison he continued to act a
part consistent with his more active life. In letters still
remaining among the papers of the St. Germajin family,
we have his own assurance that, though " faint and feeble,"
he did " not 'bate a jot of heart and hope." He wrote
to Hampden and other friends, as well as to his sons. He
warned the latter that the only overwhelming sorrow that
could come upon him, would be a knowledge of their
unworthiness, by which he pathetically observes, " I shall
then receive that wound, which, I thank God, no enemy
could give me ; — sorrow and affliction of mind, and that
from them from whom I expected the contrary." — He
further occupied his monotonous leisure by composing
a treatise upon the " Monarchy of Man," which is
preserved among the Harleian manuscripts, and is an
eloquent expressing of learning and religion, applicable
to our conduct in life.

Imprisonment slowly completed its work of death.

His legal adviser related, that he " found him the same
cheerful, healthful, undaunted man as ever ; " but he was


gradually sinking. His native county petitioned for his
release ; he applied to the court of king's bench, but the
Lord Chief Justice Richardson, coldly remarking "that
though brought low in body, Sir John was as high and
lofty in mind as ever," directed him to petition the king.
Sir John conveyed a request for a release to Charles —
and (my hand trembles whilst I write it) the king made
answer — " It is not humble enough ! " The petition was
reworded, but still the unbroken spirit of Eliot spoke in
Avords that were uncringing, and there came to it no
reply ! !

The patriot rose to meet his impending fate. — He sent
for a painter, that his descendants might know the
lineaments of their ancestor, who died for the legal
freedom of their country — " Let it be preserved," was his
desire, " as a perpetual memorial of my hatred of tyranny."
It still exists at Port Eliot, and well expresses the
features pale and contracted by the inroads of consump-
tion. Some few letters of this his dying period remain,
and they have the most eloquent expressions of resigna-
tion and of hope. He said he had now nothing remaining
in this world, " but the contestation between an ill body
and the air, that quarrel and make friends as the summer
winds affect them ; " but he was contented, and looked
forward with fearless and enthusiastic delight to the
arrival of the period of his departure to that eternal
home " where the weary are at rest."

He died in the third week of November, 1632. But


Stuart hatred was not yet satiated. Let the iincommented
fact be recorded, and terminate this notice. Sir John's
son petitioned to be allowed to convey the body of his
father into Cornwall ; and the inexorable, the obeyed
answer was — " Let Sir John Eliot's body be buried in
the church of that parish where he died." His ashes rest
in the Tower chapel*.

It has been observed, that a work by Sir John Eliot
remains unpublished (Harleian MSS. 2228. 60. B.). It
is entitled " The Monarchy of Man. A treatise philoso-
phical and moral, wherein some questions of the politics
are obviously discussed."

This treatise was written whilst its author suffered
under the dreary certainty of an imprisonment that would
have no mitigator but death. Yet viewing it as the will
of God, he was content, and has recorded his resignation
on the title-page of his work in this submissive motto : —
" Deus nobis hsec otia."

The following extracts will serve to record his delibe-
rate opinions of government. Having argued, both from
reason and experience, that a monarchy assisted by a
senate, and regulated by known laws, is the best form of
government, he proceeds : " We must note that monarchy
is a power of government and rule for a common good
and benefit, not an institution for private interest and

* Prince's Worthies of Devon, ed. 1810, 128. Bliss's Wood's Athen.
Oxon. ii. 478. D'Israeli's Curiosities of Literature. Sloane MSS.

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Online LibraryGeorge William JohnsonMemoirs of John Selden : and notices of the political contest during his time → online text (page 1 of 23)