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

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dered vexations and sorrows as abundant as the pleasures of
life, still a discontented people usually continue to suffer,
until some accident, like a pebble falling into the Geyser,
rouses its excited though slumbering energy into activity.
England had participated in the general improvement of
Europe ; and, like other countries of this division of the
globe, it suffered silently beneath the despotism of its
government, until it was roused from its apathy, in the
17th century, by its unkinglike monarch James ; and in
vindicating its liberty set a noble example, which no
other country has imitated, except in its most melancholy

The peers willingly, and the commons pusillanimously,
submitted to the absolute sway which was coveted and
employed by the house of Tudor ; and so accustomed had
the latter become to the infringement of their liberties,
that when Queen Elizabeth imprisoned four of their
members for speaking of a topic with which she had
forbidden them to interfere, when she ordered " that the


House of Coinmoijs should not deal or meddle with any
matters touching her person, or estate, or church-govern-
ment," that the house agreed not to petition for their
release, fearing they should " make their case the worse*."

Submission to such thraldom was a tacit sacrifice of
their power to that of the sovereign ; and it requires no
argument to show, that the king who dictates to a
parliament what shall be the subjects of their deliberations,
and imprisons those of its members who depart from the
rule he prescribes, may occasionally benefit by its advice,
but is totally uncontrolled by its power.

At the very commencement of the reign of James
the First, the House of Commons showed a resolution to
be less submissive than in the previous reign. To form a
just estimate of the merits of the two great contending
parties, in the conflict between whom Selden became inti-
mately involved, it will be requisite to trace the struggle
from its opening.

In the first parliament that James summoned, the
Commons rejected an attempt of the crown and of the
House of Lords to interfere in their determination of a
disputed return for Buckinghamshire. They were suffi-
ciently moderate to listen and to reply to the arguments
of the judges, who maintained that the decision of such
causes appertain to the Court of Chancery ; and although
a yielding on either side was rendered unnecessary by one

* Pailiaineiilarv History, iv. 230 — 365.


of the candidates resigning, yet it was a novelty for the
Commons, in opposition to the crown, to take even the first
step to conquest— the resolution to oppose. Moderation
attended the dispute to its close, but the moderation did
not degenerate into pusillanimity.

The house passed several acts for the improvement of
ecclesiastical government ; and Sir Edwin Sandys suc-
ceeded in a motion to petition the king to part with
homage, tenures in capite, and other feudal prerogatives of
the crown. It is true this petition was abandoned after a
conference with the Lords, but it is memorable as the first
effort of the Commons to diminish the oppressive privileges
of the kingly office *.

James, ruled by his favourites, extravagant in his ex-
penses, and lavish in his bounties, was continually in want
of money ; and the House of Commons evinced its sense
of his ruinous weakness, by resolving that the bill which
granted him a liberal subsidy should not be presented
until the Petition of Grievances could accompany it. The
examination and search into these national oppressions
were so diligent and particular, that the king complained
that " they had sent an Oijes through the nation to find

them I ."

The above were transactions of the year 1605. Four
years subsequently the same anxiety of the House of
Commons to remove the oppressive prerogatives of the

* Parliamentary Hist. v. 85 — 103. t Ibid. 154


crown is similarly apparent, and whoever will dispas-
sionately read their address to the king, must admit, that
there is in it no request or expression militating against
the spirit of true loyalty. It justly asserts that their
privileges and liberties are their right and due inhe-
ritance, as fully as their lands and goods ; and that they
cannot be withheld or impaired without wrong being
done proportionably to the whole realm*. This was no
unnecessary, or uncalled for declaration, for James had
more than once expressed his conviction of his own abso-
lute power, and this doctrine of despotism was still farther
propagated by one of the court civilians. Dr. Cowell, who
in a work called " The Interpreter," maintained the
king's superiority to the law. This was too bold a
declaration for even the king to sanction ; but, though
he ordered the work to be suppressed, he took the author
under his protection ; and though both the Houses of Par-
liament severely censured its author, his majesty screened
him from further punishment t. Altogether the proceed-
ings of the parliament were much too uncompromising
of the liberty of the subject to be agreeable to the king,
and his displeasure is apparent in the abruptness of its
dissolution, which he said in the proclamation was "for
many good considerations known to himself t."

The subsequent expedients for raising money adopted

* Petyt's Jus Parliament. 227, contains it at large.

t Petyt's Miscellanea Parliamentaria, 64. Parliament. Hist. v. 225-

:j: Ibid. 269.



by James and his ministers were various. He took an
aid of his subjects, to which the feudal right of the
crown entitled him, upon the marriage of his daughter.
A new dignity was created, entitled a Baronetcy, and
two hundred of these satires upon honorary distinction
were sold for 1000^. each* These resources, as well as
the more iniquitous one of raising the value of the gold
coin, and the impolitic institution of a state lottery,
the first in England, all failed in affording a sufficient
revenue, and consequently in 1614, another parliament
was reluctantly summoned.

The whole tenor of James's treatment of his parliament
justifies the remark of Wilson, who was a contemporary
and dispassionate historian, " that the king required
none of their advice, he wanted only their money t.'*
Archbishop Usher affords similar testimony ; for, when
he was selected by the House of Commons to preach
before them, the king told him " he had an unruly flock
to look unto next Sunday," and concluded some good
hints as to the subjects the bishop might enforce in his

* James was lavish of honours as well as of money, and the former
were dispensed so plentifully as gifts as well as bargains, that a pasqui-
nade was exhibited at St. Paul's Cross, announcing that a system of
mnemonics had been discovered, which would assist the memory " to a
competent knowledge of the names of the nobility." This prostitution
of noble distinctions was deprecated in a more serious remonstrance,
addressed to the king by thirty-three English peers.— (Wilson's James
the First, 7—187.

t Ibid. 177.


discourse, by telling him to remind them JSis dat qui cito
dat*. Waller also related a curious conversation, that
occurred in his presence, which is illustrative of the court
feeling upon the point. James was at dinner, whilst
Dr. Neale, the Bishop of Durham, and Selden's friend
Dr. Andrews, the Bishop of Winchester, stood behind his
chair. " My lords," said the king, " cannot I take my
subjects' money when I want it, without all this forma-
lity in parliament?" The sycophantic Neale replied,
" God forbid. Sir, but you should; you are the breath of
our nostrils." Upon which the king turned to Dr.
Andrews, with, " Well, my lord, what say you ?" " Sir,"
replied the bishop, " I have no skill to judge of parlia-
mentary cases." " No puts off, my lord,'' retorted the
king, " answer me presently." " Then, Sir," said the
bishop, " I think it lawful for you to take my brother
Neale's money, for he offers itt." The king's idea of the
office proper to a parliament is further illustrated by his
treatment of the one he had just summoned. Having de-
layed for some time to vote him any money, he sent them
word by their Speaker, " that unless they forthwith pro-
ceeded to treat of his supply, he would dissolve them ;" — a
threat that was executed immediately afterwards^. The king

* Parr's Life of Usher, 18.

t Biog. Britan., in vita Andrews.

\ Wilson says, that such members as had rendered themselves
obnoxious to the court, were committed to the Tower, and otherwise
punished, (Life of James the First, 78,) biit Camden does not mention
this instance of oppression.

G 2


now endeavoured to replenish his exchequer by a bene-
volence. A proclamation directed to the sheriff of each
county, commanded them to obtain from the inhabitants
such sums as they chose to give ; but as the significant
order was inserted, that the names of those who refused
to contribute were to be made known to the king, it was
well observed, that this "'free gift was urged against
their wills*."

The dislike James acquired towards the parliament was
deep and enduring. He was indignant at their attempts
to regulate the prerogative of the crown, as well as at
their tardy grant to him of money. His feelings towards
the representatives of the people were truly expressed,
when he told his courtiers — " I am but one king, but
there are five hundred in the House of Commons t."
However, trusting that the people's anxiety to recover
the palatinate for his daughter would induce them to open
to him their purses, he again assembled a parliament
in 1620 1; but it was as uncompromising as its prede-
cessors, and at length, yielding to the united desires of
both houses, he gave his assent to the correction of the
obnoxious grievances. A supply was immediately granted

to him§.

The Commons effectually pursued the patentees and

* Wilson and Camden, in anno 1617.

f R. Coke's Detection of the Court, &c. 100.

\ Rushworth's Collection, i. 20.

§ Ibid. 24. Parliament. Hist. v. 334—349. •


monopolists to whom had been illegally sold permis-
sion to grow wealthy at the expense of their fellow-
subjects. The most prominent of these were Sir Francis
Mitchell, and Sir Giles Mompesson, the supposed type of
Massinger's character of Overreach. These were not
the worst of the public delinquents. Corruption had
tainted the administration of justice, and the remainder
of the session was occupied by the impeachment of the
highest offender. Lord Bacon. This princely merchant
in knowledge, but bankrupt in firmness and principle,
was one of the friends of Selden, and as there will be no
other occasion in these pages to refer to this illustrious
delinquent, the few records of their intimacy that remain
may be here accumulated.

It is universally true that the majority of courtiers are
parasites : they attach themselves to the monarch with the
intention of abstracting from him all the benefits they
can, and one reign differs in this respect from another only
in the profuseness with which the monarch ministers to
their insatiable demands. The reign of James the First
stands prominent among those that are infamous for this
lavish expenditure, and the corrupt modes that were
vmblushingly adopted to supply the requisite means.
Profligate expenditure was the prevailing vice, and such
unregulated waste usually induces a profligate supply;
for the integrity that does not check extravagance seldom
shrinks from corruption. Monopolies enriched the indi-
viduals who enjoyed them, but oppressed the people in


general : patents of privileges preserved the patentee from
expenditure, if they did not directly increase his funds,
and in every instance they impeded the administration of
justice. Bribery was notorious ; the administrators of
the laws were not beyond the reach of corruption ; and
this canker infected the highest as well as the lowest
officers of the state.

To escape the seductions of vice is at all times difficult,
and that, perhaps, is the hardest to avoid which we see
yielded to by others without compunction and without
punishment. " I may be frail," said Lord Bacon, pleading
to the king, " and partake of the abuses of the times^'*
and surrounded as he was by a system of extravagance,
corruption, and bribery, this is the only plea that can be
allowed to mitigate our reprehension of this otherwise
great man. It is the only one that can be urged in
defence of Selden, for accejjting the price for which he
was enabled to sell the registrarship of Westminster
College, a place given to him by Lord Keeper Williams
solely for the purpose of sale *.

* Racket's Memoir of L. K. Williams, 69. Wilson states the
following- examples of the emulation in extravagance, and of the pre-
valence of corruption even in the disposal of the highest offices. When
the Earl of Northumberland heard that the favourite Buckingham, rode
in a coach drawn by six horses, he immediately employed eight for a
similar purpose. " In the late queen's reign," adds the historian,
" there were no coaches, and the first had but two horses." After-
wards, when Buckingham introduced sedan chairs, " the people would
rail on him in the street, loathing that men should be brought to as
servile a condition as horses."


Bacon, pursuing the observations from which an
extract has been just made, adds, " I am resolved, when I
come to my answer, not to trick up my innocence by
cavillations or voidances, but to speak the language that
my heart speaketh to me in excusing, extenuating, or
ingenuously confessing." When the period for his reply
arrived, in conformance with this resolution, he pleaded
guilty to all the facts stated in the charges against him,
and sought refuge in the mercy of his judges. The true
penitent pouring out a confession of error, urged only
by conviction, and resolving to tread an onward path of
rectitude, must command our pity, and even a kinder
feeling ; but the confessions of Bacon are abject rather
than ingenuous, and savour more of the hope of pardon
than of repentance of error. Making every allowance
for the adulatory language so common to the period, still
the style of his confession, and of his subsequent letters to
the king, is grovelling and whining ; betraying a desire of
restoration to power and office, that would prevent any
meanness being considered too degrading if it were the
purchase-price of that advancement. Our contempt is
not mitigated by finding that though he confessed his
guilt, he had serious thoughts and a desire to avoid the
judgment against him by a mere technical objection ;

Sir Henry Montague was said to have given twenty thousand jiounds
for the office of Lord Treasurer, and he probably was expected to make
the most he could of his bargain. — (Wilson's James the First,


tempting us to conclude that the penalty was more
severely felt, than the consciousness of the crimes that
merited it.

Lord Bacon asked Selden whether the judgment
against him was good, as the proclamation that sum-
moned the parliament styled it a convention^ and not a
session^ as is usual ; but Selden gave no countenance to
such an idea. " Admitting," he said, " that it vras no
session, but only a convention, yet the judgments given
in the Upper House, if no other reason be against them,
are good ; for they are given by virtue of that ordinary
authority which they have as the supreme Court of
Judicature." He suggested that the judgment might be
of no force because it was not recorded *.

It has been stated that Lord Bacon testified his esteem
for Selden's learning and judgment in his last will, b)
directing that his advice should be taken concerning the
publishing or suppression of his manuscript treatises.
There is no such direction in the copy of the will
extracted from the registry of the Prerogative Court of
Canterbury, given in Bacon's Works f.

In the year 1621 the House of Commons commenced
the session by again preparing a detail of the national
grievances. Their reasons for so doing, were now even

* Selden's Letter, dated February the 14th, 1621, with some notes
indorsed upon it by Lord Bacon, is in Bacon's Works, vi. 308.
Edition, 1824.

t Ibid. 411.


more urgent than before. The claims of the king were
more lavish than previously, and there were increased
reasons for fearing the establishment of the Papal

The king possessed none of those brilliant qualities
that dazzle a people, and make them willing to excuse an
extravagance that arises from the more generous emotions
of our nature. He was neither young, courteous, open-
hearted, or brave ; but on the contrary old, unwilling to
be seen by his people, hypocritical, and cowardly. The
man of common reason knows that exterior deformity and
deficiency of grace are of very trivial consideration in
forming an estimate of mankind, but he also knows that
it has great influence with the majority of individuals,
and there is no doubt that the personal appearance of
James did much in increasing the disgust his misrule pro-
duced. He neither acted nor looked like a king : he was
awkward and rickety in his movements, bulky in person,
and with a tongue too large for his mouth, he slobbered
out his words, which were additionally mutilated by a
broad Scotch accent. Education had not improved him :
learned, but deficient in useful endowments, he was a
pedantic, blustering poltroon. He was ridiculed at home
and abroad for that weakness, which made him conceive
that he could deceive his people by proclamations, and
foreign nations by his ambassadors. The first, says
Wilson, were current coins a great while, till the multi-
tude of them lessened their valuation ; and the estimate,


on the continent, of his foreign policy, is evinced by a satiri-
cal speech in a contempoiary Spanish comedy. A messenger
is represented as arriving in great haste with the news that
a formidable army would soon march to the relief of the
Palatinate, for the king of Denmark was about to furnish
it with 100,000 pickle herrings; the Dutch with
100,000 butter boxes ; and England would send 100,000

Proclamations were such favourite compositions of this
monarch, that the same author tells us it was intended
to publish them in a volume, for the more full informa-
tion of his subjects. However, he wished, like Henry
the Eighth, to endue them with more authority than they
possessed, by obtaining to them the obedience paid to
leo-islative enactments. In 16 10, Sir Edward Coke was
summoned before the privy council, and asked, whether
the king by his proclamation could prohibit the erection
of buildings in and near London, and the making of
starch from wheat. In favour of such an increase of
power to proclamations, Lord Chancellor Ellesmere
observed, that every precedent had a first commencement ;
and all the council, considering that at that time it was
necessary to strengthen the king's prerogative, advised
Coke and his brother judges to give a favourable opinion.
The great author of the Institutes, with unwavering
firmness, replied, " The king cannot change, without

* Wilson's James the First, 11—192.


parliament, any part of the common law, nor create any

oftence by his proclamation which was not an offence

before*." This disclosure of the secret history of the

period, shows that the jealousy entertained of the despotic

intentions and desires of James by the parliament was no

unjust suspicion of popular faction, for could he have

obtained his wish, he would have been the most absolute

of kings. No monarch can be more absolute than the

one whose proclamations are laws ; and a parliament

would never be needed when a mere regal prescript could

create crimes, command supplies, and embody troops.

The private manners of the court, and the public crimes

of the courtiers, increased the discontent, contemjit, and

hatred of the people. The very ladies of the palace were

licentious and intemperate. The king was disgustingly,

if not criminally, fond of his male favourites, whom he even

pardoned for the murders they had plotted within his

palace ; whilst their guilt was rendered more apparent by

the trials and executions that were permitted of their less

criminal accomplices. To his favourites he was lavishly

extravagant of gifts, for he gave away without any check

of reason to the impulse of the moment. " What says

he? — What says he?" said this monarch to one of the

grooms of the bedchamber, to whom Sir Henry Rich was

whispering. Upon being informed that the latter wished

* 12 Coke's Reports, 74, 2nd edition.


he had the 3000/. which some porters had just brought
for the king's use, he immediately gave it to him, saying,
" I am more delighted to think how much I have pleasured
you in giving this money, than you can be in receiving
it." This was a generous sentiment, and probably was
the issue of a generous impulse, but the king should have
remembered that his income came from his people, and
that what he lavished would have to be resupplied at
their expense. That it was a thovightless impulse we
may the more readily believe, because when he had
as recklessly directed 5000/. to be given to Viscount
Rochester, his trusty and wise treasurer the Earl of
Salisbury, had that sum in silver coin heaped upon the
table by which the king necessarily passed. James paused
before the glittering heaps, and inquired for whom they
were provided ; being informed, he said that it was too
much for one man, and reduced his gift more than one
half *. Another instance of his extravagance is furnished
in the following extract, from one of his own letters to his
Lord Treasurer Cranfield, in 1622. " I fynde Bucking-
hame, muste paye twentie thousandie powndis for his
lande at Burghlie ; and the provisions for his wyfe's
lying in and meubling are lyke to coste teime thousande ;
besydes three thousande for his own newe house. Doe

* Wilson's James the First, 76—61.


quicklie thairfore quhat ye are to doe for him, and re-
member that a thing done in tyme is twice done*."

The king was now intent with immoveable earnestness
upon marrying his son Charles to the Spanish Infanta.
Between the government of Spain and James there had
long previously passed mutual declarations and instances
of good-will t. Sir Walter Raleigh had been sacrificed to
auspiciate the same court ; the Palatinate had been lost
by machinations springing from the same source ; a
proclamation had been issued permitting sports and pas-
times on Sundays ; and the increase of the number and
boldness of avowed Papists, was a subject of very marked
notoriety. These facts justified and confirmed a very
prevalent opinion, that James secretly favoured the Roman
Catholics, and that in the next reign the papal religion
would be re-established.

Before the House of Commons could despatch their
messengers with their Petition of Grievances, in which
their fear of the Papists, and the complaints of extra-
vagance were prominent features, the king was made
acquainted with its contents ; and he immediately wrote
to the speaker of the House forbidding its presentation.
Notwithstanding this command, the Commons persisted in
sending it, together with a remonstrance, by the hands of
twelve of their members, for whom, when James heard of

* Harleian MSS. 6987, art. 1.

t Watson's Philip the Third, i. 153.


their approach, he is said to have ordered twelve chairs,
" for there were twelve kings coming*."

The king refused to receive the petition, and to the
remonstrance he returned a harsh reply. Eventually,
finding the House resolved not to grant him any supplies
unless their complaints were attended to, he adjourned
and finally dissolved the parliament, accompanying the
dissolution with a lengthy proclamation of his reasons.

Previous to the adjournment, the House of Commons
inserted the following protest in their journals.

" The Commons now assembled in parliament being
justly occasioned thereunto, concerning sundry liberties,
franchises, and privileges of parliament, amongst others
here mentioned, do make this protestation following:—
" That the liberties, franchises, privileges, and jurisdictions
of parliament are the ancient and undoubted birth-right
and inheritance of the subjects of England ; and that the

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Online LibraryGeorge William JohnsonMemoirs of John Selden : and notices of the political contest during his time → online text (page 6 of 23)