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William Shepherd.

Systematic education: or Elementary instruction in the various departments of literature and science; with practical rules for studying each branch of useful knowledge (Volume 1) online

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remains inscribed with Runic characters, none of which are
imagined to have existed longer than the eleventh century.

In Russia, the ancient monuments are neither numerous, nor
aflford much variety. There are to be met with the tombs of
their pagan ancestors, containing weapons and ornaments.
From tlie writings of Herodotus, we learn that the Scythians
regarded the cemeteries of their princes with singular venera-
tion ; the Sarmatians or Slavons seem to have imbibed the
Same ideas. The idols of Pagan Russia, are sometimes found
cast in bronze ; and Dr. Guthrie has given a good account of
the Slavonic mythology, to whose " Dissertations sur les An-
tiquites de Russie," we refer the reader.

It is not necessary, nor would it accord with our limits, to
go farther into this subject, than to add, that Reland has ex-
pressly treated on Sacred Antiquities Fabricius on Hebrew .
and Ecclesiastical Antiquities Bingley on Christian Antiquities
-Bishop Stillingfleet on the Antiquities of the British
Churches Cave' on Apostolic Antiquities Neineccius on
such of the Roman as illustrated the civil law Mallet on
Northern, and Bishop Kennet on Parochial Antiquities.



CHAP. XXVI.



ON THE BRITISH CONSTITUTION.



Civil and political institutions, the growth of time Rise and progress of the
British Constitution Romans Picts Saxons Danes Revenues Of
the King Parliament divided into Two Houses.

In the natural world, it seems to be the general ordinance of
Providence, that what is remarkable for soUdity and durability,
should be slow in growth. While the more succulent plants
proceed rapidly to maturity, a long series of years revolves
before the oak attains to its appropriate state of perfection.
In many instances, the same law appears to be established in
the moral world. Civil and political institutions, however
skilfully contrived they may seem to be, are seldom the result
of a single effort of mind, employed in sketching and completing
a pre-conceived plan. These too are generally the growth of
time, the products of human skill as exercised at intervals, ac-
cording to the course of passing circumstances.

This is eminently the case with regard to the British Con-
stitution. " The wisdom of our ancestors," is an expression
familiar to our lips ; and it is indeed to Britons a subject of
legitimate pride, that they are descended from forefathers, who,
on various occasions, evinced the utmost sagacity in taking ad-
vantage of events for the assertion of their rights, and for the
promotion of the general welfare. But we shall form a very
. VOL. I. c



386 BRITISH CONSTITUTION.

erroneous judgment, if we imagine that the glorious fabric of
our Constitution was organized centuries ago ; or that it was
at once erected in all its just proportions. On the contrary,
it was raised by almost imperceptible degrees, and happily
surviving the period of rudeness and barbarity, it has, from time
to time, received those improvements and embellishments,
which, in concurrence with the solidity of its foundation, have
rendered it the wonder of the civilized portion of the globe.

A brief, but perspicuous review of those circumstances
which have given rise to the happy form of government, un-
der which the British Isles have risen to so distinguished an
eminence among the nations of the earth, will at once give
the clearest view of the principles of our Constitution, and de-
monstrate the fallacy of those appeals to fanciful standards
and maxims in politics, which have tended to mislead the
zeal of party, and to bewilder the minds of honest inquirers
after correctness of principle.

In tracing the rise and progress of the British Constitution,
it is necessary to revert to the time when the Romans with-
drew from these islands. By the Lords of the World the abo-
riginal Britons had been reduced to subjection ; but to com-
pensate the loss of independence, they had received from their
conquerors the comforts and blessings of civilized life. As,
however, the Romans had, during the period of their sove-
reignty, monopolized all offices civil and military, and had
carefully excluded their British subjects from all participation
in the management of public affairs : when the exigencies of
the empire induged them to abandon this extremity of their
dominions, our unwarlike ancestors became the prey of anar-
chy, and gave themselves up to the most abject despair. Of
this their weakness, their turbulent neighbours, the Picts and
the Scots, eagerly availed themselves, to spread far and wide
the ravages of devastation. It must not, however, be supposed,
that these barbarian incursions experienced no opposition.
Tlie larger landed proprietors, from time to time summoned
tiieir dependants to take the field against the common foe.



SAXONS. 387

and this circumstance gave rise to an influential body of aristo-
cracy, from the members of which, upon extraordinary occa-
sions, was chosen a chief, who was vested with that degree of
temporary power which the exigency might seem to demand,
or which his superior abilities might wrest from the suffrages
of his compeers.

One of these chieftains of the name of Vortigern, being
hard pressed by the incursions of the Scots and Picts, and lis-
tening to the counsels of fear, had recourse to the refuge of
weak minds, and adopted the perilous resolution of relying
for protection on foreign aid. He accordingly looked for
succour to the wilds of Germany ; and at his instance, in the
year 449, Hengist and Horsa, twc^ Saxon chiefs, came to tlie
assistance of the Britons, at the head of a small band of auxi-
liary troops. These were soon followed by numerous bodies
of their countrymen, who efFectualiy restrained the northern
invaders, but soon turned their arms against those whom they
had covenanted to protect; and at the end of about onehun>
dred and seventy years, in spite of the obstinate resistance of the
Britons, the Saxons made themselves masters of the fairest por-
tion of the Island. Under their domination were established
seven independent principalities, known by the general name
of the Heptarchy ; but by a variety of fortunate contingen-
ces, in the year 827, these seven principalities were united
under the sway of Egbert, when the kingdom then assumed
the appellation of England.

In their native country, the Saxons had been addicted to
the pursuits of the pastoral life. For the purpose of aflford-
ing mutual assistance and protection, they had been accus-
tomed to herd together in rudely fortified villages. The fa-
milies of which these villages were composed, being incited
by a sense of common interest and common danger, appointed
a chieftain, whose sole function was to lead them in war.
The determination of affairs, mterestiiig to the welfare of the
community at large, was left to a general council, composed
of the heads of families, who, on important occasions, assem-



388 BRITISH CONSTITUTION.

bled for the purpose of free debate, and whose deciidon was
final and conclusive.

This circumstance must be noted as of the utmost import-
ance. It had a decisive effect upon the future destinies of
our island. For the Saxons brought with them into this
country the maxims of civil polity, by which they had been
guided in their original establishments. The principles of
freedom by which they had been actuated on the shores of
the Bailie, they proudly enforced on their own behalf, when
they became the masters and possessors of Britain, and these
principles, repressed or expanded according to the course of
events, have continued to be the animating spirit of our na-
tional institutions to the present day.

The grand circumstance which gives a particular character
to political institutions is the tenure and the distribution of
property. On the arrival of the Saxon chiefs in Britain, they
found the inhabitants of the country much more advanced
than themselves in the science and practice of agriculture;
and enforcing with their swords the right of the strongest, they
took possession of cultivated districts, of which tliey had dis-
possessed the former proprietors. By degrees ihey incorpo-
rated themselves with the vanquished, and, in consequence of
tliis circumstance, and of the country being over-run by a suc-
cession of chieftains, followed by their particular partizans,
the captured lands were at first seized in comparatively small
portions. Of the estates which were thus acquired, the pro-
prietors held a part in their own hands other parts they let
out to villeins and others they allotted to their relatives and
dependents, under the designation of vassals, to be held on
the tenure of miUtary service. The lands which were pos-
sessed by independent proprietors in their own right, were
termed allodial lands, whilst those which were held by vassals,
were distinguished by the epithet of feudal; and the posses-
sion of lands by these tenures, respectively conferred upon
their proprietors the api)ellation of Greater and Lesser Thanes.
In this slate of society, the peasantry were for a long pe-
/



WITTENAGEMOT. 389

riod doomed to a condition little short of mitigated slavery.
They originally consisted of such persons as had been taken
captive during the struggle which took place between the
Britons and the Saxons ; and though their situation was gra-
dually meliorated, under the appellation of ceorles, or churis,
they were left in a great degree subject to the caprice of
their lords.

The measures, adopted by the latter for their mutual
defence, gave occasion to a system of internal regulations
which continues to modify, at least, the language of the pre-
sent day. The association of a few allodial proprietors and
their dependents for their common security, gave rise to the
institution of Tythings. The connexion of a number of vil-
lages, or towns formed upon the same principle, constituted a
Hundred; and the association of a reasonable number of
Hundreds constituted a Shire. Though these associations
originated in military views, they were soon rendered subser-
vient to civil purposes, and especially to the administration of
justice, and even to the making of legislative provisions ; in
which processes, each, in the order in which they have been
mentioned, was liable, upon appeal, to the control of the
other.

But all these subordinate courts were subject to the re-
straint of a still greater assembly, namely, the Wittenagemot.
During the continuance of the Heptarchy, each of the seven
kingdoms had its own legislative body, distinguished by that
appellation, in which all the allodial proprietors had a right
to sit and to deliberate. The powers of the Wittenagemot
were ample and extensive. It was authorized to provide for
the defence of the country to superintend the coinage to
act as a hi^jh court of judicature to decide upon the quarrels
which took place between the great lords and, in general, to
redress grievances, and to correct abuses in the administration
of government.

As in the rudest state of society occasions must often arise,
when it is expedient to concentrate, as it were, the power of



390 BRITISH CONSTITUTION.

the state, and to delegate to some efficient individual the
execution of the general will, this circumstance naturally
gives rise to the appointment of a chief magistrate. In the
early history of the Anglo-Saxons, tliis magistrate vvas entitled
herctoc, or duke, ui place of which appellation, was after-
wards assumed that of king. This high distinction was ori-
ginally the meed of valour a homage paid to power. Its
natural tendency was, to increase the possessions of him who
was thus elevated, and to extend his influence. The power
of the Saxon kings was, however, limited, and yet it was
tolerably extensive. In their own domains their authority
was absolute. The command of the troops, and the main-
tenance of the police, gave them extensive sway, and their
privilege of summoning the Wittenagemot, and presiding over
its deliberations, afforded to prudent and politic sovereigns
the means of becoming in a manner the directors of its deci-
sions in addition to all which, it may be observed, that as
their powers were not defined, as occasions arose, they were
materially extended^

During the period of which we have been treating, the
clergy constituted a kind of separate body in the state, pur-
suing its peculiar views, and possessing a jurisdiction of its
own.

From the time when Egbert became sole monarch of Eng-
land, A. D. 828, to the Norman Conquest, A. D. 1066, the
English were engaged in a course of hostilities with the
Danes. Though these hostilities retarded the progress of im-
provement, and though the country was subdued by Canute
the Great, the victor made no alteration in the civil pohty of
the kingdom. But what was not effected by violence, was
brought about by the natural course of events. Bv a certain,
but gradual progress of change, after all England fell under
the dominion of one sovereign, the bent of civil pohty in-
clined to the creation of an aristocracy. This was chiefly oc-
casioned by a practice, which now became prevalent, of the
smaller allodial lords, for the sake of protection, surrendering



TRIAL BY JURY. 391

(lieir lands to the more powerful ones, and consenting to hold
them as their vassals. Hence the greater nobles, surrounded
by their retainers and dependants, became so powerful, that
they were not unfrequently enabled to brave the authority of
the crown itself. One consequence of this accession of in-
fluence to the aristocracy was, that the offices of tythingmarij
hundreder, &c. which were formerly elective, became here-
ditary, and this circumstance accelerated the conversion of
allodial into feudal property. The property, however, which
had been thus converted, continued to be hereditary under
certain stipulations. Another still more important conse-
quence of the changes to which we have been referring, was,
that the Wittenagemot, which, on its primitive institution, was
numerously attended, became a select body of powerful ba-
rons, who, whenever under the influence of the " esprit de
corps," they made common cause with each other, exercised
a degree of authority formidable both to the people and the
king.

Among the most valuable of the political institutions of
our Anglo-Saxon ancestors, may be mentioned the trial by
jury. The precise date of the establishment of this invaluable
mode of legal decision is uncertain ; but it may be easily con-
ceived, that it would naturally arise from the circumstances
of allodial proprietors, who not only felt an interest in the
general defence against a common enemy, but also in com-
posing, by their personal interference, those disputes which
put to hazard the peace and safety of their several com-
munities.

Such is the outline of the civil polity of our Saxon ances-
tors. If their institutions are carefully examined, it will be
found that they contain excellent principles of government,
which were developed and matured in after-times; but we
ehall be much mistaken if we imagine, that, in reference to
the community at large, they were calculated in any peculiar
manner to secure the liberty and rights of mankind. Accord-
ing to their provisions, as it has justly been remarked by a



392 BRITISH CONSTITUTION.

celebrated writer,* " the sovereign was, indeed, at no time
invested with absolute power. The supreme authority in
the state was originally possessed by a numerous body of
landed proprietors ; but the rest of the community were either
slaves, or tenants at the will of their master." It is also a
circumstance carefully to be noted, that by the natural ten-
dency to the conversion of allodial into feudal tenures, the
numbers of those who took a share in legislation and govern-
ment, towards the end of the Anglo-Saxon dynasty, were con-
siderably diminished ; and several of the great lords acquired
a degree of power, the abuse of which rendered them rebels
to the king, and oppressors of the people.

One of these, Harold, the son of Earl Godwin, was en-
couraged by his numerous retainers to lay claim to the throne
which was vacated by the death of Edward the Confessor.

Upon the particulars of tlie contest between this nobleman
and his competitor, William, Duke of Normandy, sumamed
the Conqueror, it is inconsistent with the object of this essay
to dwell. But the political changes which were effected by
tlie accession of the Norman line of kings, claim our especial
attention. It has already been remarked^ that immediately
before this event, the paramount property of the country had
fallen into the hands of a few individuals. Of these, many
lost their estates in consequence of the forfeitures which were
enforced against the friends of Harold, and against the discon-
tented barons, who, from time to time, raised insurrections
against the Conqueror. The remainder were so much inti-
midated by the growing power of the cro\vn, and so much
weakened by their internal dissensions, that they deemed it
expedient to throw themselves under the king's protection,
and to descend from the rank of allodial proprietors to that of
vassals. Thus was the feudal system by degrees completed,
and " the whole kingdom was united in one extensive barony,
of which the king became the superior, and, in some degree,
the ultimate proprietor."

MUUr,



HEVENUKS OF THE SOVEREIGN. 393

As wealth constitutes the sinews of power, it is obvious to
remark, that when the sovereign thus became the paramount
proprietor of the land of the whole realm, his revenues were
considerably increased by the casual emoluments, called inci-
dents, which constituted a distinguishing feature of the feudal
system. The principal of these incidents are, 1 . that of non-
entry, or the profit obtained by the king on holding estates,
during the interval which sometimes occurred between the
death of a vassal and the appearance of his heir. 2. That
of wardship, or the emolument derived from the management
of the lands which descended to the heir of a former vassal
during the period of his non-age. 3. That of marriage, or a
pecuniary fee or fine paid by a vassal on his entering into the
state of matrimony. 4. That of aids, a benevolence, or a
tax which in certain cases the superior had a right to exact,
5. That of escheat, or forfeiture of estates on the failure of heirs,
or on the neglect of performing covenants. 6. That of the
fine of alienation on a premium paid to the lord for the pri-
vilege of selling the whole, jor any part of a feudal estate. To
these was added, in the reign of Henry II. the Incident of scu-
tage, or a sum of money paid by the vassal, for relief from the
burden of military service.

The influence of the crown being thus extended as it were
into all the ramifications of the community, it might have
been expected that its influence would at an early period have
been matured into the despotism of arbitrary power. Such
indeed was the natural tendency of its exercise. But this
tendency was checked by the dubious title of some of our
monarchs, the consideration of which induced them to court
the good will of the people at large, by making concessions
in favour of public liberty ; and by the feeble character of
others, which incapacitated them from resisting even the en-
croachment of a turbulent aristocracy. In consequence of
the remonstrances of the principal nobility, which were not
unfrequently backed by the power of the sword, charters were
from time to time granted by our kings, which, though they



394 BRITISH CONSTITUTION.

were violated without scruple, by active and ambitious princes,
operated upon the whole as a check upon the prerogative.
Notwithstanding also these charters provided -only for the
welfare of the superior ranks of the comnumity, yet as indus-
try increased, and arts and manufactures gradually promoted the
-accumulation of property in qnarters where it had not antece-
dently been found, there was a gradual increase in the num-
bers of those who were interested in their provisions.

The most important changes which took place in con-
sequence of the Norman conquest, occurred in the constitution
of the great council of the nation. In the reign of William I.
the Wittenagemot, which, as has been before observed,
consisted of allodial proprietors, was, upon the change of
tenures from allodial to feudal, of course abolished, and in
its place was instituted the High Court of Parliament, This
assembly was composed of the immediate vassals of the crow n,
that is to say, of the superior clergy, nobility and great land-
holders. It was convened as the Wittenagemot had been,
either at the three great festivals of Christmas, Easter and
Whitsuntide, or upon particular emergencies. Though it was
generally summoned for some express purpose, and though
its deliberations were in a great degree regulated and controled
by the royal authority ; its influence in public affairs soon
became considerable in suggesting improvements in govern-
ment, and especially in checking the abuses of administration.

The powers of the Parliament were indeed for some time
vague and unsettled ; and its organization was at first, as might
have been expected, extremely imperfect. But in die reign
of Edward I. the English government began to be conducted
with greater regularity ; and our constitution assumed a more
definite form, an improvement for which we are indebted to
the progress of civilization, and the diffusion of property. It
appears by Domesday book, that in the reign of William I.
so extensive were the domains which were allotted to the
feudal tenants, who held immediately under the crown, that
the number of these lordly vassals did not exceed six hundred.



KNIGHTS OF THE SHIRE. 395

While this was the case, the business of internal regulation
could, without much inconvenience, be transacted by them in
person. At least, upon important occasions they could be
assembled without difficulty, while the more ordinary business
was conducted by committees selected from their number, to
which may be traced the origin of our superior courts of
law. But various circumstances occurred, by the operation of
which, the estates of these overgrown landholders were sub-
divided, and conveyed into the possession of more numerous
proprietors. Hence by insensible degrees there arose a class
of smaller barons, who, not being able to vie with the wealthier
nobles in splendour and authority, regarded attendance in
parliament, to which, however, at the king's requisition, they
were bound, as an inconvenience and a grievance. Thus
circumstanced, they no doubt received as a boon from ' the
crown, permission to absent themselves as a body, and to send
a sufficient number of representatives to discharge the duties
of parliament on their behalf. As these representatives would
be most conveniently nominated by districts, they were natur-
ally referred to the subsisting division of the kingdom into
counties, and hence the origin of Knights of the Shire, or
the representatives of the minor barons and smaller landholders
of the realm.

In the mean time, by the progress of civilization, agricul-
turalists became wealthy ; and as they ceased to make for
themselves articles of necessity and luxury, artizans and manu-
facturers were collected in towns and cities, some of which,
in consequence of the advantages of their situation on the
sea-coast, or on the banks of navigable rivers, became flourish-
ing by means of commerce. As the avarice of power is
ever vigilant, these rising communities soon attracted the notice
of the executive government, and were summoned to bear the
burden of taxation. Hence, with a view of promoting the
facility of paying to the sovereign the revenue which he claim-
ed from particular towns, corporations were instituted, which
were in a manner responsible to the king for his demands, and



396 BRITISH CONSTITUTION.

were empowered to make the requisite assessments within
tlieir respective limits. And when in process of time extra-
ordinary aids were wanted by the crown, these corporate
towns or borouglis sent delegates to Parliament, whose prin-
cipal business was to report the capacity and the views of
their constituents, as to the share which they ought equitably to
sustain of the public burdens. Such was the origin of that
important branch of the English legislature, the Citizens and
Burgesses in Parliament assembled.

At first the Clergy, the Barons, the Knights of the Shire,
and the Burgesses, sat and deliberated in one chamber ; but
as it was soon found, that the nobles who sat in their own



Online LibraryWilliam ShepherdSystematic education: or Elementary instruction in the various departments of literature and science; with practical rules for studying each branch of useful knowledge (Volume 1) → online text (page 32 of 44)