Page images



"Nostra respublica non unius esset ingenio, sed multorum ; nec una hominis vita, sed aliquot constituta saculis et ætatibus." -- CICERO.

MONTESQUIEU says of the stern government we sketched in the last chapter, that it was a mixture of aristocracy and of monarchy, having this inconvenience, that the subjects were slaves. It was a good government which had within it the capacity of becoming better. *

It will be our object in this chapter to trace the first step towards what Montesquieu considered its melioration. There are at this time three secular powers in the state : the crown, the aristocracy, and the commons. The second generally possesses the sovereign power, the monarch being only the head of the nobles, entrusted with that part of the executive which can be performed better by a single person than by an assembly. The commons are of two classes, a few men who are free, though not possessing full civil rights; and the bulk of the people, who are serfs.

As many as six courses have been adopted. First : The hereditary reigning family dies out, or by aristocratic influence is expelled ; or, if the sovereign has been elected, the habit of election ceases, and the aristocrats resume that portion of their power which they originally entrusted to the reigning family. This in itself causes no advance in the national progress, although an advance may happen to be simultaneously proceeding by the rise of the commons, but as yet they have not suflicient power to have a voice in public affairs. This resumption of complete power by the aristocracy took place all over Greece, Sparta proving almost, if not quite, the only exception. “Kingship was abolished, and an oligarchy took place, a council deliberating collectively, deciding general matters by the majority of voices, and selecting some individuals of their own body as temporary and accountable administrators. It was always an oligarchy which arose on the defeasance of the heroic kingdom ; the age of democratical movement was yet far distant, and the condition of the people — the general body of freemen --- was not immediately altered, either for better or worse, by the revolution ; the small number of privileged persons, among whom the kingly attributes were distributed and put in rotation, being those nearest in rank to the king himself, perhaps members of the same large gens with him, and pretending to a common divine or heroic descent.”*

* Esp. des Lois, lib. xi. c. 8.

Second: The crown succeeding in its contest with the aristocracy, while the commons are not sufficiently powerful to make a declaration of independence, it by means of standing armies, and the right of taxation, establishes its supremacy.

This was the case in France; the power that went from the feudal barons was all wrested by the crown.

The commons rebelled from King John of France, but after short fits, almost of anarchy, the contest ended in the establishment of uncontrolled monarchical power. No more than one charter was obtained from the kings of France before the revotion. The States-General lost their opportunity during the wars with England of demanding to tax those whom

On the gradual resumption of

Grote, Hist. of Greece, iii. 21. power, see Niebuhr, H. R. i. 509.


they represented, and Charles VII. carried the point in favour of absolute monarchy, by the provision of a military force, and the allotment of a perpetual tax to support it.

When Machiavel wrote* he took France as his instance of a country of independent barons with their little circle of subjects, and contrasted it with the centralised functionarism of Turkey. But Richelieu and Mazarin did their utmost to reduce the baronial and increase the regal power, and Louis XIV. was able to say with truth, l'état, c'est moi. At this moment the government of France is more centralised than that of Turkey.t

Either of these courses may be followed while the crown and the aristocracy are the only two elements in the state having any real political power; and in fact no important social change is directly effected by these readjustments among the dominant order. The elevation of the commons and their demand of a share of power is the chief cause, as it is the sign of a transition to another social stage. This transition is effected by various causes.

The principal are the quarrels between the nobles, the contests between the king and the nobles, and the foundation of towns. The Athenian people obtained their first step towards political ascendancy by the necessities of the weaker faction among the nobles ; for Kleisthenes being vanquished in a party contest became the advocate of popular rights. So the quarrels of Robert and Henry caused many privileges to be granted to the conquered Saxons, and Philippe de Comines notes as a trait of national character the humanity with which the English nobles treated the people in the civil wars. In fact, the first feuds after a nation is founded by an aristocracy, are nearly always between the rival houses of the nobility, in which the common people as such take no part, but from which they eventually benefit *; and the first step towards giving the people political power, is their being invoked by one of the parties in these civil feuds.

* Prince, ch. iv.

† There is a very remarkable passage the nineteenth chapter of the “ Prince " praising the growth of a parliamentary regime in France similar in the main respects to ours.

5 Grote, Hist. of Greece, iii. 168.

Kings, again, in their contests with the nobles have often shown themselves the most ardent demagogues. Frederic Barbarossa, Ferdinand of Arragon, Louis XI., and Louis XIV. present signal instances of a policy common among monarchs of raising the populace, and more particularly if they are fortunate enough to possess one, of raising the bourgeois class of their subjects to a share of political power. Perhaps the first great stroke of policy taken by the Norman kings to win the favour of the Saxons in case of a contest with the nobles, was the marriage of Henry, in 1101, with a woman of Saxon race, the niece of Edgar. The ecclesiastical quarrels had also a salutary effect in a temporal point of view. Anselm and A'Beckett (the latter of Saxon origin), when they bearded the Norman kings proclaimed themselves advocates of the Saxon cause. The Tudor dynasty, always anxious to depress the baronial power, placed their great reliance on the affections of the middle classes, and sought the ratification of Parliament for even their most tyrannical acts. The Star Chamber was confirmed by statutes, and the proceedings of Empson and Dudley were sanctioned by Parliament.

Three measures especially, which we owe to the monarchical ambition of Henry VII., and the exhaustion of the nobles by the civil wars, may be mentioned as forming very marked steps in the diminution of aristocratic absolutism in England. The first, a series of enactments, one being passed nearly every session, limited the number of the noblemen's retainers, and thus converted a large host of their armed servants into agricultural labourers or town traders ; the second* required the keeping up of farmhouses, and prevented inclosures, thus providing for the maintenance of a sturdy and comparatively independent agricultural population ; and the thirdt empowered the nobility to bar entails and alienate their estates, a proceeding which being resorted to by some of the indigent families, enabled commoners who had made money by trade to acquire landed property, and with it some share of the political power lost by the nobles. Thus, in the early history of England, as of other countries, the monarchical policy was to raise the commons and depress the nobles. In England, too, more than in other countries, the commons were appealed to by the nobles themselves. The power of the Norman kings was greater in England than the power of feudal monarchs in other countries ; and the nobles therefore, from the time of Magna Charta downwards, have frequently stood forward as the champions of freedom both for themselves and the commons against the aggressions of the sovereign. Whichever party therefore, whether nobles or king, wished to gain an advantage, found it necessary to enlist the sympathies of the commons.


* See Niebuhr, H. R. i. 124.

The principal method by which the commons have advanced to a share of power has always been, in modern times, the foundation of towns. This has either taken place naturally with the increase of population and the influx of strangers, or is caused by the zeal of the monarch who, in order to raise up a body of men independent and hostile to the nobles, creates and gives charters to fortified towns. In England if villeins—that is serfs of a noblecame to any of the chartered towns, and enjoyed its immunities for a certain time, they became free, and looked to the king as their protector against the noble from whom they had run away, and all his fellows. Immigrants from foreign countries, instead of going to some noble and


* 4 II. 7, cap. 19.

† 4 II. 7, cap. 24.

« PreviousContinue »