An Essay Picked by blupete

"Introduction To Historical Essays"
By Ernest Percival Rhys

The main idea in this history-book is to trace the slow political growth of the common folk, from the folk-right assigned in the old "Dooms" of Alfred1 and Edgar2, to the fuller liberty given them by the "Acts" of Parliament in our time. It is a long record, covering many of those notable great events which Caxton3 said ought "most to be remembered among us English men"; but giving also from first-hand sources, or from the chroniclers and historians, a rough chart of our common rights and privileges, "as by law established." Along with them, and in part arising out of them, we gain a sense of the faith of the people in their country and in their true governors who could ordain like Edgar: "This is what I will -- that Every Man be worthy of folk-right, poor and rich alike, and that righteous dooms be judged to him."

In the same spirit Alfred decreed that English history should be truly set down in an English book. Thus, law by law, record by record, the prescriptive right of the folk to safe conduct in their life and work, and to justice at the hands of their rulers and governors, is asserted and reasserted. History, so understood, is the secular bible of each race, though only one race may have had the divine idea. It is, as we find in the Polychronicon, "a perpetual conservatrice" of the things done before this present time, both the things which were to be desired, and the things to be eschewed. It has a forward office too, as recognising in each predicament of the race a sign of its true political destiny -- one associated with its island condition, and sea-bound and sea-enlarged limits. The islands bred a notable people, already showing a marked bias and stout temper, before any Angle or Saxon had landed. We read in Tacitus4 that they would bear cheerfully " the service of government," if they were not ill-treated. For their subjection ran to obedience, but not to servitude. The same character is implicit in the dooms we have quoted and in Canute's law5 and his letter in the text. The Doomsday Survey might, it is true, be held to tell a tale of a whole country's systematic subjection by the strong hand. But in the year after it was made, we find the custom of the country again affirmed in the moot of the Witan or wise-men and the landholders, that William 1. held at Salisbury. The first charter of the City of London followed, and declared every citizen law-worthy, whom the king would let no one wrong.

In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle we have the word of the man who was put upon and oppressed by the Norman advener; and in it we realise how the Saxon stem, and the Norman graft, alike went to strengthen the English feudal system. The century's struggle between the kings and the old nobility, followed, ending with the last stand of the Norman barons against Henry II. The career of Thomas à Becket, who had the instinct of a fighting baron rather than of a saint, and who stood up armed for spirit liberty, makes the decisive comment on this time. It interesting to compare him with John Ball.6 One of Becket's last words was: "God's house shall be denied to no man"; while Ball said: "Now the time is come, appointed by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke." We see that in different ways they were moved by the same militant idea.

Pass now to a very solid staple landmark in the English scene -- London, whose first Commune, as it was called -- Communa Regis -- was, curiously enough, set up by law, while the king, Richard I., was on crusade and out of London and the kingdom. Stubbs7 leads us to view this incorporation of London as marking two significant changes: (1) the victory of the communal principle over the old shire organization, and (2) the triumph of the London merchant, over the noble. That was in the years 1191-1200; and already the law had let in the common man as a judicial asset in the jury ordered in criminal cases by the Assize of Clarendon.

The Great Charter follows, with its remedy of feudal abuses, and its special provisions for the safeguarding of the tenant, the heir at law, the king's labourer and the common man. "No man," it said, "is to be put in prison, outlawed, punished or molested, but by the judgment of his equals, or by the law of the land." But most of us, reading doubtfully backwards, do not realise how far the Great Charter was prepared for by the civil charter given to the citizens of London by Henry I. "... The said citizens shall take as Sheriff whom they will of themselves, -- and none other shall be justice over them; ... and the citizens of London shall not plead without the walls of London for any plea. And be they free from scot and lot and danegeld8, and of all murder, and none of them shall wage battle."

We see by this document that the Man of London is a freeman,'with a peculiar privilege, who can free himself by his own oath in his own domain. He is a pioneer, though locally and in a degree selfishly, of the greater citizenship to come.

We pass on to Oxford, in the days of the no-king, Henry III., in the "Mad Parliament," when the hard struggle of Simon de Montfort9 took form. And we note that in the two bodies of the Fifteen and the Twenty-four, set up by the Provisions of Oxford, we have a link between the Witenagemot and the Lords and Commons to come. Six years again, and the Council of the Fifteen is turned with De Montfort's hand in the conversion-into the Council of Nine. To the mean king succeeds the strong, in Edward I., in the latter half of whose reign we have the first complete Parliament of the Three Estates. With that we reach a point when the liberties of the Commons axe yet more decisively marked off, taking up the prescriptive right given long before to the folk under the Saxon king." In all parliaments and assemblies which should be made in the realm of England for ever" -- so runs the provision (7 Edward 1., 1279) -- "Every-man shall come without all force and armour, well and peaceably to the honour of us and the peace of our realm."

In the year of that Parliament, 1295, the summons sent to the barons by the king to bid them repair to Westminster, "for considering, ordaining and doing," as may be needed to meet the dangers, "which in these days are threatening"; and the summons sent to the shires and towns-two knights, two citizens, two burgesses-read very significantly to us. They show that the country and realm were not fair-weather craft then, any more than nowadays; and that they needed good governing, and the collective sense and conscience of the best brains, to keep the king in countenance. All these prescripts and documents bear a double reference -- to the mind of the men, noble or common, who were aware of their liberty, and to the mind of the king who had, in all his wish for autocratic power, to reckon with their consciousness of their legal claim to be delegates and agents of the community at large. This powerful sense of "just, ancient and fundamental rights," as a much later royal document, that was not strictly followed, has it, viz. the Declaration of Breda. in indeed like the red thread in the cloth of the commonwealth, which was sometimes covered up but never altogether lost.

To the York and Lancaster vendetta, we are able to mark the reaction of two forces which are far more vital in the realm than the play of those two royal factions. Hall's Chronicle10 offers us a memorable account, keenly delivered which shows us how parliament could be used and abused, and made an instrument by either faction. In one year, 1454, Richard, Duke of York, is given by the Parliament at Coventry a limited protectorate; in the next year the Westminster Parliament declared the previous one "a devilish council, only celebrate for the destruction of the nobility." Moreover -- and here comes in the real damnatory clause, over the old rights to open council, the very principle of the folk-moot -- it was declared "no lawful parliament, because they which were returned according to the due order of the law were secretly by them that desired more the destruction, than the safeguarding of the public wealth."

Meanwhile. to take the real feeling of the commonwealth, we have often to turn back to the people themselves, and to those who found Parliament too slow and official -- too much an instrument of those in power -- for their needs. We have Jack Cade11 putting up his head between the Red Rose and the White; we have the Pilgrimage of Grace; and we have the episode of a hero like Captain Pouch who in Shakespeare's time and shire starts up, a figure of trouble in interlude of revolt. Among his followers we hear the murmur of the religious non-contents, and the political have-nots, dying away in an angry unappeased grumble.

Captain Pouch has carried us a little, however, out of our commission. His resistance to authority was another result of the doings of another and greater, and indeed royal, rebel -- Henry VIII., in whose reign came the Seven Years' Parliament, which was a step towards making it independent of the old yearly tenure confirmed by popular election. It first met in 1529, and it was in a degree Henry's weapon in his bold acts of rebellion and reformation. It passed the act disseizing the Pope in England; and gave the powers to dissolve the religious houses, great and small. In that Reformation, Cobbett saw only menace to the welfare and the rights of the common folk; and hard and bitterly he protested as a stout protestant against the Protestant Reformers, whose reforms made them rich even if they waxed more self-supporting and independent of foreign authority.

The paramount question affecting the rights, moral and spiritual, and in a degree political, of the English people, was centred from this time to the end of Elizabeth's reign in the religious struggle. There is something offensive in the Statute against Books in the year 1519 (3 Edward VI.). "Be it therefore enacted," it says, "that all books called antiphoners, missals, grailes, processionals, manuals, legends, pies, portuasses, primers in Latin or English, couchers, journals, ordinals, or other books or writings heretofore used in service of the Church, other than such as are or shall be set forth by the King's Majesty, shall be by authority of this present Act clearly and utterly abolished, extinguished, and forbidden for ever to be used or kept in this realm."

When one thinks how precious a book may become to its owner, who has had it in use for years, the tyranny this implies is not to be set aside because it was part of a Reformation that was declared by its prime movers a step, towards religious freedom.

We cannot separate the autocratic temper of the great churchmen and others of the period from the temper of the Tudors themselves. It was heard from Henry VIII.; it was heard from Elizabeth in her reign and on her death-bed: "I told you my seat had been the seat of kings, and I will have no rascal to succeed me." It was the growing that "the rascal" was imminent, perhaps, which gave the House of Stuart a contrary bias so strong as to be dangerous, and in Charles I. fatal, to its assertors. The turn of the rascal came with a vengeance. James I. said that the king was the fount of all power -- "the power flows always from himself." He was above the law, and above the voice of the Commons. Political psychology may teach us how inevitable then was the Petition of Rights in 1628, which reaffirmed "The Great Charter of the Liberties of England," and the rights, freeholds or liberties and free customs of the freeman under "the law of the land."

A tract of 1642, summing up the discontent of the common folk puts a series of damaging queries about the non-compliance of the king with the articles in the Petition. Why, it was asked, was it violated by the imprisoning of sundry members of parliament which cost some of them their lives? Why were parliaments themselves put under a royal ban or inhibition? Why the levies of ship-money and coal-and-conduct money? Why the attempt to make all England a forest, and the people into "so many deer for Nimrods to hunt"? When Charles I., in refusing to plead before the High Court, quoted Ecclesiastes in reasserting the Divine Right: "Where the word of a king is, there is power; and who may say unto him, 'What dost thou?'" he was virtually putting the accent on the very words that were to decide his own fate.

Some years later, when the unlucky king had gone his way, the Agreement of the People, drawn up in January 1648-9; the forty-two articles of the Instrument of Government, December 1653, and the Petition of May 1657, supply a series of notable documents. In them, says Professor Carleton Lee, the further constitutional and development of Great Britain and of the United States of America is directly or indirectly indicated. In spite of the too great insistence upon the authority of the Lord Protector, who at points seems to be taking over some of the prestige of his tragic royal inductor, the Instrument Of 1653 is an expression, if not quite as Prof. Lee says, a type, of "the highest development of constitutional theory" yet reached in English history.

With the Restoration, we have in the Declaration of Breda, wherein Charles II. wrote his princely profession, a significant compromise between the old royalty and the new: "Nor do we desire more to enjoy what is ours, than that all our subjects may enjoy what by law is theirs "; and again, for the enunciation of spiritual freedom: "We so declare a liberty to tender consciences, and that no man shall be disquieted or called in question for differences of opinion in matters of religion, which do not disturb the peace of the kingdom." It was in 1672 that the Great Seal -- constitutional symbol of powers that gain a too strong official hold by unchecked use -- first passed into the king's hands, and then was put into those of Earl Shaftesbury, with the title of Lord Chancellor of England. He to be sure was head of the "Cabal," and his family name, Cooper, gave the first letter to that new word of doubtful omen.

We do not always remember the somewhat paradoxical fact that under Charles II. we had in 1679 the great Habeas Corpus Act -- "for the better securing the Liberty of the Subject," both at home and beyond the seas. It is of course a document intended for a special provision of justice to the, subject who comes under,the criminal writ, but its principle of liberty is clear; and where it failed, the Bill of Rights, twenty-one years later, and the Act 1812 for "more effectually securing the Liberty of the Subject," made good the defensive structure.

The struggle for the same principle goes on, with some marked reactionary episodes, all through the Stuart time. It shifts again from the secular to the religious plane under the second James, who forgot the second Charles's promise in the Declaration of Breda. Rightly or wrongly, the instinct of the common folk rebelled against the greed-in-authority of King Stork, and reversing the fable, inclined instead to King Log. They could sit upon King Log, and that session was the real beginning of Constitutional Monarchy. It was in fact the next step towards the government by a people's Prince under the seeming of a Royal Republic.

We turn naturally to Burke for the final sanction of liberty assured, as he expressed it in his famous Address to the King, in 1777, which regarded the safeguard of freedom, in England and America, as interdependent and closely resting upon one and the same base. He spoke in it of the danger of the only substitute for civil liberty -- "a military government" -- and he spoke of the time of revolution when the people re-entered into their original rights. That was later than John Wilkes and No. 45 of The North Briton, which ended by quoting " the fine words of Dryden -- Freedom is the English subject's Prerogative."

From that time onwards we are on more accustomed ground. We have a few more landmarks -- the Emancipation Bill of 1829, whose backers supported their case by the appeal to the rights of citizenship and equal liberties before the law. The Jewish emancipation followed the Catholic, at a generation's remove; and the Oaths Act was passed in the same year, 1858.

Meanwhile the struggle for the first Reform Bill in 1831 led to the Chartist Petition of 1838, which was the natural rider to that bill. It left the people, the petitioners declared, "as helpless as before. Our slavery has been exchanged for an apprenticeship of liberty," which only meant hope further deferred. The repeal of the Corn Laws marks another economic crisis -- to which the eloquence of John Bright and the plain good sense of Cobden gave effect. At this point too we are made aware that the voice of the folk-moot has gained a new vehicle in the newspaper-report, which reaches by quick circulation the whole available intelligence of the people.

The last pages of the record trace the events that gave the political chart of the nineteenth century its crowded detail and revision marks. The coming of the railways, the growth of the cities and seaports; the changes marked by the Franchise Bill of '84 and the Factory Act of '91, or by the Co-operative and Trade Union movements, and the various Education measures -- these form a strange induction to the amazing catastrophe of the Great War. But even that may prove to be the means of a new awakening of the common political sense, leading to the sure belief that only by the collective intelligence of all the peoples upon earth, determined on the greatest common measure of efficiency, civil right, good order, happiness and personal liberty, can the ancient folk-right asserted in the folk-moot be carried to its right human fulfilment.

-- Ernest Percival Rhys (1859-1946)

This piece was written by Rhys as an introduction to The Growth of Political Liberty (1921) published by J. M. Dent in London. We would recognize Dent as the publisher of "Everyman's Library." Rhys, while born in London, spent much of his youth in Carmarthen, Wales. Rhys first started out as a mining engineer, but, in 1886, turned to full time writing, first he freelanced but then was to be on the staff of Walter Scott's publishing house, and, too, an editor for the "Everyman's Library" of classics. Rhys' writing efforts were mostly reflected in volumes of romantic verse.


1 Alfred, "The Great" (849-900), who defeated the Danes in 878 and within a few years of that brought all of England under his rule. Much has been attributed to Alfred; most of it, untrue (see Chambers), as, for example that he was the founder of Oxford. Alfred did, however, compile or collect together the best enactments of the former kings, and, too, gathered together the old histories and works of the philosophers.

2 Edgar (944-975): another ancient king of England whose reign "was one of peace and prosperity."

3 William Caxton (c.1422-c.1491) was England's first printer. Having learned his trade (art) in Europe, Caxton set up his wooden press at Westminster in 1476 where Tothill Street now is. Caxton's first book: History of Troy.

4 Tacitus (c.55-120) was a Roman historian.

5 Canute (c.994-1035) was the king of the "English, Danes, and Norwegians." Canute had a ruthless temper which he regularly displayed on his way to the top; but, he "became a wise, temperate, devout, and law abiding ruler."

6 John Ball was a priest who was executed with Wat Taylor (d.1381). Wat Taylor led the "Peasants' Revolt" of 1381.

7 William Stubbs (1825-1901): Stubbs studied and taught at Oxford. Among his works was the monumental, three volumed, Constitutional History of England "which put constitutional origins on a firm basis ..." (Chambers.)

8 "Scot and lot" was a tax levied by a municipal corporation in proportionate shares upon its members for the defraying of municipal expenses. The "danegeld" was levied as a land-tax by the Norman kings.

9 Simon de Montfort (c.1208-65) led the English baron against his brother-in-law, Henry III. These battles led to two settlements made in January and May of 1264, called the Mise [Agreement] of Amiens and Mise of Lewes respectively. These agreements determined that the composition of parliament should, in part, be made up of representatives of all the towns and shires; this model parliament of Montfort's held the germ of out modern day parliament.

10 Edward Hall (c.1499-1547) wrote, in 1542, Union of the noble Families of Lancaster and York.

11 Jack Cade, of Irish birth, led a short lived insurrection in 1450 bringing with him 40,000 followers who gave London a few days of unrest.


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