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

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so much as say they abuse me, though I know it. What
prejudice thensoever there were, the expression of my
opinion, I conceive, could add nothing to the remedy,
especially when for so much as lies in opinion or persuasion
of the people, it is wholly in their hands who so pretend
their own prejudice. Take these things, I beseech your
good lordship, into your consideration, and I trust they
will so clear me with your lordship of all imputation of
wilfulness, that your lordship shall not have cause to


lessen your most noble regard towards me, in intercession
to his majesty for my standing right in his favour ; to
whom as I owe all the humblest and most ready service
of a subject, so would I gladly ever abstain from fro-
wardly shewing any such weakness as might justly note
me for one unworthy any way to serve him*."

For this letter no one could find a reply, and his
opponents had the good sense to decline a rejoinder to
what was unanswerable.

There is probably now but little diversity of opinion as
to the title by which the tithes of Christendom are
claimed, and it must have been a gratification of
honourable pride to Selden to find that, but a few years
subsequently, the persecutors of his work sought and
found in it the best defence of their revenues. In
16.53, the House of Commons, inclining to the petitions
presented to them, began to inquire why they should
not abolish tithes, in order, as the Kentish petition
expressed it, " that that Jewish and Antichristian bondage
and burdens on the estates and consciences of the godly
might cease." In reference to this. Dr. Langbaine,
writing to Selden in the August of that year, said,
" Upon occasion of the business of tithes now under
consideration, some, whom it more nearly concerns, have
been pleased to inquire of me what might be said as
to the civil rights of them, to whom I was not able to

* Opera Omnia, iii. 1393—6.


give any better direction than by sending them to your
' History.' Haply it may seem strange to them, yet
I am not out of hopes, but that work (like Peleus' hasta)
which was looked upon as a piece that struck deepest
against the divine, will afford the strongest arguments
for the civil right ; and if that be made the issue, I do
not despair of the cause*."

Although no fault could be detected in the work,
although it is, as Selden states in the preface, "a mere
narrative, and the History of Tythes " — a collection of
authorities by a legal antiquary — yet the king and the
Court of High Commission were resolved that a lesson
should be taught to the people, that truth must be
suppressed if militating against their wishes.

The king, who had no knowledge of Selden but
through the misrepresentations of his courtiers, sum-
moned him by his secretary. Sir Robert Naunton, to
appear, with his work, at the Palace of Theobalds. *'I,"

* Leland's Collectanea, by Hearne, v. 291. Referring to this letter,
Selden said, and proud must he have been of the opportunity — " One
writ me word that my History of Tythes was now become like
Peleus's hasta, to wound and to heal. I told him in my answer I
thought I could fit him with a better instance. It was possible it might
undergo the same fate that Aristotle, Avicen, and Averroes did in
France, some five hundred years previously ; which were excommu-
nicated by Stephen, Bishop of Paris, because that kind of learning
puzzled and troubled their divinity. But finding themselves at a loss
some forty years after (which is much about the time since I writ my
History) they were called in again, and so have continued ever since."
Table Talk, s. Tithes.


says Seidell, " being then entirely a stranger to tin;
court, and known personally there to a very few, was
unwilling to go thither unaccompanied," and conse-
quently he obtained the attendance of his old friend
and fellow-templar, Edward Heyward, of Reepham, in
Norfolk, and of Ben Jonson, " princeps poetarum," to
introduce him to the king *.

Selden could not have made a more judicious choice than
he did when he selected Jonson to introduce him to the
offended James, for this monarch was very much attached
to the poet, who could adapt himself to so many of his
tastes. Jonson was a master of literature, and could
humour his pedantry ; he was a poet, and could offer
grateful incense ; he was a convivialist, and could add to
the pleasures of his carousals t. Jonson also employed

* Opera Omnia, ii. 1422. Jonson thus speaks of his two friends: —

" O how do I count
Among- ray comings in, and see it mount,
The gain of two such friendships, Heyward
And Selden ! Two names that so much understand."
f It was probably at the Mermaid, in Friday-street, celebrated for
being the rendezvous of wits, that Selden and Jonson became acquainted ;
and, once acquainted, they would naturally be more than usually attracted
to each other, for besides the sympathy of genius, they would feel
mutually for each other, as having similarly won their way from indi-
gence to distinction. Jonson had another cause for sympathising with
Selden, for he had likewise suffered from .James's displeasure, for some
supposed satire upon the Scots, in the play of " Eastward Hoe." Having
united with Marston and Chapman to produce this drama, when they
were committed to prison on its account, he voluntarily accompanied
tl)em. At first a report was circulated, as he liimself tells us, tli-it tluy



liis interest in favour of Selden with the favourite,
BuckiMii'hain ; who moreover was his advocate with his
enemies the bishops.

woukl have their ears and noses cut. This rumour reached his mother,
and at an entertainment which he «^ave upon his deliverance, at which
entertainment Camden and Selden, among others, were present, " she
drank to him, and shewed him a paper which she designed, if the sen-
tence had taken effect, to have mixed with his drink, and it was strong
and lusty poison. To shew that she was no churl," adds Jonson,
" she designed first to have drank of it herself." — (Jonson's Works by
Gifford, 1. Ixxv.)

At the Mermaid Tavern, Sir W. Raleigh, in 1603, had established
a club, which exhibits in its sparkling list of members, Shakspeare,
Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher, Cotton, Carew, Martin, Donne, and
Selden, " whose names, even at this distant period, call up a mingled
feeling of reverence and respect. There, in full How and confidence of
friendship, the lively and interesting ' wit-combats' took place between
Shakspeare and Jonson ; and hither, in probable allusion to them,
Beaumont fondly lets his thoughts wander, in his letter to Jonson from
the country.

' What things have we seen
Done at the Mermaid ! Heard words that have been
So nimble, and so full of subtle flame,
As if that every one from whom they came
Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest.' "

(Jonson's works, 1. Ixvi.)
The intimacy and affection that existed between Selden and Jonson,
are shewn by many passages in their works. Jonson addressed to him
a long series of laudatory verses, in which he speaks of him with fond-
ness as a man, and with admiration as a " monarch of letters *. " James
created Jonson Poet Laureate, with the still more useful appendage of
one hundred marks' salary. Jonson, anxious to obtain all possible

* Selden repaid Jonson with his own merchandize, for he addressed
him in some Latin verses, entitled " Ad V. CI. Ben Jonsonium,
Carmen Protrepticon." (Opera Omnia, ii. 17 IG.)


When admitted to a conference with the king, his
majesty, as Selden reports, repeatedly descanted, some-
times learnedly, sometimes humorously, and at other
times angrily, upon various quotations from the work, but
chiefly upon the apostolic appointment of the anniversary
of Christ's nativity, the king telling him that he sus-
pected that he agreed with those contentious Scots, who
refused to celebrate the festival upon any particular day.
Selden replied, that so far from that being his opinion, he
considered the 25th of December might be demonstrated
by calculation to be the correct day. Upon which the king
commanded him to compose a treatise upon the subject,
a command which we shall see he promptly obeyed *.

Selden had two conferences with King James at
Theobald's, and one at Whitehall, and bears testimony in

information relating- to his title, applied to Selden, the result of which
application was, a long chapter, the 43rd, of his " Titles of Honour,"
" On the custom of giving Crowns of Laurel to Poets." This infor-
mation we have from the chapter itself, whose conclusion is — " Thus
have I, by no unseasonable digression, performed a promise to you, my
beloved Ben Jonson, — your curious learning and judgment may correct
where I have erred, and add where my notes and memory have left me

short. You are —

Omnia carmina doctus

Et calles mython plasmata et historiam."

Selden was a contributor to an unfinished History of Henry the Fifth,

written by Jonson, and destroyed by an accidental fire, which consumed

that poet's library. This we learn from the poet, who, lamenting his

loss in " An Execration on Vulcan," says of the History —

" Therein was oil, besides the succours spent.

Which noble Carew, Cotton, Selden sent."

^ Vindicia' Maris Clausi, 19.

F 2


several parts of his after-writings to the ability and
courtesy of his majesty. These conferences were in the
December of 1618, and Selden had reason to believe, from
his favourable reception by the monarch, that the storm
of persecution was passed aside. In this he was mistaken,
for, on the 28th of the following month*, he was called
before some members of the High Commission Court,
being Abbot, Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishops of
London, Winchester, and Rochester, and three laymen.
He had been examined previously by the Privy Council.
In the presence of those prelates, he signed the following
declaration : —

"My good Lords — I most humbly acknowledge the
error which I have committed in publishing the History
of Tithes ; and especially in that I have at all, by shewing
any interpretations of Holy Scriptures, by meddling with
councils, fathers, or canons, or by what else soever occurs
in it, offered any occasion of argument against any right
of maintenance, jure divino, of the ministers of the
gospel ; beseeching your lordships to receive this inge-
nuous and humble acknowledgment, together with the

* Camden thoug-ht it of sufficient importance to deserve a note in
his Annals, that Selden's " trouble" concerning his History of Tithes,
beg-an on the 22nd o fDecember, 1618. (Camden's Ann. Apparatus,
Jac. I. p. 397.) Another authority, Dr. Tillesley, states that Selden
was before the High Commissioners on the 28th of the previous
October. I have not been able to ascertain which date is correct, and
indeed it matters but little whether, in this exercise of tyranny, the
king or the commissioners had precedence.


unfeigned protestation of my grief, for that through it I
have so incurred both his majesty's and your lordships'
displeasure conceived against me in behalf of the Church

of England."

Selden's enemies did not fail to trumpet this forth as a
confession of delinquency, and a recantation of error ;
but whoever considers the document attentively, will
appreciate that it was drawn up by some friendly hand as
a middle course that would prevent any collision, and yet
entitle neither party to a claim of victory. Selden's own
estimate of the transaction is open to no censure. He
savs, " I confess that I did most willingly acknowledge,
not only before some lords of the High Commission (not
in the High Commission Court), but also to the lords of
his majesty's Privy Council, that I was most sorry for the
publishing of that history, because it had offended ; and
his majesty's most gracious favour towards me received
that for satisfaction of the fault in so untimely printing
it. And I profess still to all the world that I am sorry
for it, and so should I have been, if I had published a
^nost orthodox catechism that had offended. But is there
I syllable in it of less truth because I am sorry for the
publishing of it?" He then states that the declaration
he signed was drawn up purposely through the favour of
some of the lords of the High Commission, in order that
he might not suffer from the misrepresentation of any
verbal acknowledgment he might utter, and he concludes
by declaring of the work to which it related, that " there


is not a passage in it, but that I did ever think, and now
do think to be most constant truth, as I have there
delivered it*."

The most tyrannical of the proceedings against Selden,
were the suppression of his work by the Court of High
Commission t, and that whilst any one was at liberty to
assail it, he was strictly forbidden to write in its defence ;
"If," said King James to him, "you or your friends
write anything against Dr. Montague's confutation, I will
throw you into prison t ! " So that Selden could only
write his replies secretly, and circulate them among his
friends. Even this imperfect justice was earned with no
small danger. These prohibitions failed, as they always
have failed, and always will fail, to suppress the dis-
semination of truth. The work remains one of the
monuments of the accuracy and learning that charac-
terised the author, whilst the records of James's despotism
survive only as a warning of the imbecility of misdirected

In his History of Tythes, Selden had spoken of " the
unlimited liberty " and " confident daring " of contempo-
rary writers, in interpreting that passage of St. John's
Revelation, which assigns 666 as the number of " the
beast ; " and he farther praised the judgment and modesty
of Calvin, who had declared that he could not understand
so obscure a writing as that book of the Holy Scriptures.

* Opera Omnia, iii. 1371. f Opera Omnia, iii. 1451.

X Vindicise Maris Clausj, ibid. ii. 1423.


Now it unfortunately happened, that King James had
written a bulky interpretation of this part of the New
Testament, and had taken upon himself to declare the
probable meaning of the mystic number. The monarch
called upon Selden to explain more fully what he intended
by his observations upon these subjects, and Selden
adroitly replied, that he did not say, or intend, that all
were guilty of unlimited liberty and trifling boldness in
their interpretations ; and that, in saying Calvin was
modest and judicious in declining the task, he did not
intend that others, more comjjetent, were impudent
and without judgment to attempt it. So far, Selden
obeyed the rules of courtesy blamelessly, but there are
unnecessary compliments and expressions of admiration
included in these two short explanations, that " cannot
be read without a very painful sense of the degradation
incurred by literature, when brought in collision with
power, unless supported by a proj)er sense of its own
dignity*." When Selden spoke of the monarch's com-
position as being "the clearest sun among the lesser
lights," and as a performance " most divine and kingly,*'
he condescended to a self-degradation of his own judgment
that was totally unworthy.

We have seen, that the king suspected from a passage
in the History of Tythes, that Selden doubted, whether the
25th day of December was really the natal day of our

* Aikin's Life of Selden, 37.


Saviour. This excited his majesty's especial displeasure,
because a similar disbelief was entertained bv the Puri-
tans, — a sect, above all others, the objects of his dislike ;
and he was unwilling that they should profit by the
authority of Selden.

The passage to which the king referred, is in the
Appendix or Review of the 4th chapter of the History.
It is very far from implicating Selden in the opinion ; but
in accordance with the direction of the king, he wrote a
treatise " Of the Birth-day of our Saviour.''* It is an
elaborate work, equally convincing in its authorities and
reasoning, and it is satisfactory to know, that such a man
as Selden considered that our correct observance of the
anniversary is proved " by rational inference, by express
testimony of the ancients, and by common and continual
practice of several churches : " — " by authorities derived
from the eldest of the Christian times and apostolical tra-
dition, received even from the practice of the disciples * "
It is satisfactory, inasmuch as that accuracy is always
desirable, otherwise, if we gratefully celebrate the event,
it is of very minor importance whether we commemorate
it on the correct anniversary.

* Opera Omnia, iii. 1409—1450,










Selden is an instance, among many others, that
persecution usually defeats its own object. The intention
of the court party, in visiting him with an outstretch of
its power, was to check the tide of inquiry and I'eforma-
tion, that was now setting in strong against all the illegal
and unreasonable aggressions of the executive, both in its
civil and ecclesiastical regime. If Selden had been allowed
to record his opinions unnoticed, his habits and tempera-
ment were too retired for it to be probable, that he would
ever have pressed himself forward into the turmoil of
political opposition. However, the man that was con-
sidered important enough to be oppressed by the court,
was necessarily presented to its opj)onent.s as worthy of


their encouraging attention, and they found in Selden a
supporter, who ever after ranked among the halistce of
their party.

Whoever has studied modern history, must have
noticed the intellectual energy that began to inspire,
generally, the inhabitants of Europe, in the fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries. The revival of the Aristotelian
Philosophy, of Mathematical Science, and the newly-
created pursuit of natural and experimental research, were
results, perhaps, as much as they subsequently became
the promoters, of the mental vigour of the age. The
mind of man can never be subjugated ; knowledge may
be withheld from the majority of a nation, and for a series
of centuries ; it may be effected that it shall be deficient
in information, and ignorant of its rights, but no tyranny
can prevent some gatherer of knowledge being secretly at
work, or conquer the courage that will urge the acquirer
to reveal his acquisitions to mankind. Such was the case
in the two centuries to which I have alluded, and it soon
appeared that the human mind, though long deprived of
knowledge, was still desirous of its acquirement, and
correct in its estimate of that which is to be preferred.
Cardinal Casa, who lived in a part of those periods,
observed " that in all things there was a desire to be in a
better state, than the condition in which they were exist-
ing*." The newly discovered art of printing aided the

* Docta Ignor. 1.


rapid Scatisfaction of this desire ; the centres from which
knowledge emanated were numerous, and as if roused
and guided by some invisible agency which everywhere
operated, mankind emerged to a superior condition, felt
that they were actuated by a superior impulse, and could
not and did not continue what they had been *.

However, the human mind had not, even in the seven-
teenth century, escaped from all its grosser weaknesses ;
and though it delighted more than formerly in acquiring
real knowledge, yet the prevalence of superstition confesses
it was yet greatly deficient, and the taste for learning
Av^as still too immature, not to delight in some of the
puerilities of wit. That source of inquietude, an atten-
tion to omens, infected all classes. Archbishop Laud
registered his dreams, and a grave annalist of that time
records that a wing of the dove on the sceptre was broken
off, and was " a maim on the emblem of peace." Another
historian considered the coronation dress being of an
unusual colour, and the chaplain's unlucky text (Rev. ii.
10) as premonitions of Charles being deprived of the
regal office, and of his premature death. That monarch
consulted astrologers as guides to his times of action, and
his cousin and conqueror Cromwell had faith in lucky
days. Selden, in his first prefaces, has frequent allusions
to the science of the stars, and even ascribed his recovery
from a dangerous illness to the skill of Dr. Robert Floyd,

* Turner's Hist, of Edward VI. &c. iii. 27.


who, better known by the names of Fludd and de Fluc-
tibus, was a distinguished Rosicrucian philosopher, and
insured the efficacy of his nostrums by the mystical
incantations which he muttered over his patients. In the
literature of the period the same imbecility is apparent,
among other symptoms, in the prevalence of anagrams.
When such men as Roger Bacon, Huygens, Galileo, and
Newton, condescended to conceal their discoveries from
the world by giving them an anagram matic form, we
may more readily excuse that affectation of modesty
which appeared in such Scriptores mbiores, as gave their
names transposed in the title-pages of their ephemerae —
a pretence of concealment that showed a willingness to be
known. This love of anagram was linked with the
superstition of the age ; for passing by the thousands of
names of which no rational transposition could be made,
if one occurred that bore any relation to the bearer's
fortunes, it was viewed as a species of prophetic revelation.
Lady Davies, widow of the Irish Attorney-General, in the
reign of James the First, laid a claim to the gift of
prophecy, and supported her pretensions by observing,
that her name, Eleanor Davies, formed the anagram
"■' Reveal O Daniel.'' She was brought before the Court
of High Commission, but still persisted in her claims to
the prophetic spirit. At length. Dr. Lamb overcame her
with " an arrow borrowed from her own quiver," for he
shewed her that a more correct anagram of her name was
'^ Never so mad a Ladie'' and ridicule effected that


in which reason failed; '* for," says Heylin, "she after-
wards grew wiser, or was less regarded *." The acute
and elegant James Howell remarks, when noticing
the Attorney-General, William Noye, " I never heard a
more j)ertinent anagram than was made of his name /
moyle in laivf." Dr. Tillesley, in the course of his
animadversions upon Selden's History of Tythes, remarked
in this spirit of anagrammatic trifling that his name trans-
posed signified nothing — quasi needless. Selden retorted,
" By virtue of a like way of wit (that I confess I will
never make an example to mine), some take it for needles
that have pricked the Doctor. I remember the schoolboys
had this trick when I was a child, and we commonly so
called each other with turning our names backwards, and
so the boys then called me. Would the Doctor but allow
me such a piece of boy's play, I could give him a signifi-
cant anagram of his own name ; / tell lies makes it
exactly t."

In the science of government, in the reciprocal duties
and rights of the ruler and the governed, up to this period
there alone seems to have been no commensurate improve-
ment. This is no cause for astonishment or for censure; for
though tlie difficulties attending alterations in the system
of government are imaginary rather than real, yet these

* Life of Laud, 266.

•j- What would lie have thought of that of Horatio Nelson — Honor
est a Ni/o !

J Opera Omnia, iii. 1386.


anticipated difficulties arise from some of the best feelings
.of our nature. We are attached to the legislature and
executive under which we have long enjoyed domestic
happiness ; and even when we feel that our property and
liberty have been invaded unnecessarily, yet religion,
habit, and respect for constituted authorities, combine to
make us patient, and active to hope for a change of mea-
sures, rather than prompt in the effort to alter the cause.
Even when the tyranny of an evil government has ren-

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Online LibraryGeorge William JohnsonMemoirs of John Selden : and notices of the political contest during his time → online text (page 5 of 23)