Billeder på siden

sors over the mass of the conquered population was such as to employ them in raising those magnificent edifices now the pride of our chief cities, yet it must not be concluded that the elements of civilisation had germinated in the community. Like the vast structures we have mentioned in Egypt and Rome, they evinced the absolute power of the monarch, not the civilisation of the people.




Magna Charta of little Service at the Time it was granted. Useful in Theory but not in Practice.—Immorality of the Feudal Barons. Degraded and ignorant Lower Class. No Constitutional Form of Government in existence.

ONE of the most conspicuous events in the early part of the History of England, subsequent to the Norman Conquest, was the grant by King John of Magna Charta Communium Libertatum (the Great Charter of Common Liberties). It is well known that he conceded this not from any sense of justice in his own bosom: it was extorted by his fear of the barons, who made a formidable hostile demonstration. These men, though of Norman descent, "had, by degrees," says Rapin, "put on the English genius, were wholly addicted to liberty, and wished to have the Saxon laws re-established; more probably from selfish views than desire to benefit the community, though it might seem politic, in their stipulations, to affect a regard for the latter. "Accordingly they demanded, in plain and express terms, a return to the obsolete laws of Edward the Confessor, with the other rights and privileges contained in the disregarded charter of Henry I., which

[ocr errors]

had been vainly confirmed by his grandson Henry II. They alleged, moreover, that they required only what John himself had promised with a solemn oath, before he received his absolution." This oath was taken at the Chapter-house at Winchester, when, anxious for a reversal of the excommunication under which he laboured, John swore, "That he would, to the utmost of his power, love, defend, and maintain the holy Church; that he would reestablish the good laws of his ancestors, especially those of King Edward (the Saxon), and destroy such as were wicked; that he would judge all his subjects according to the just judgment of his court, and restore to every man his right."

Being thus reminded of an old and solemn promise, and menaced by the military array of barons

"A charter granted in 1100, by Henry I., confirming divers privileges enjoyed under the Saxon kings, and renouncing all those unjust prerogatives usurped by the two late kings. The charter included a very material article, no less satisfactory to the Normans than to the English, which was, the confirmation of the laws of King Edward (the Confessor), that is, of the laws in force during the empire of the Saxon kings, and entirely laid aside or expressly abolished since the Conquest. The native English could not but be extremely well pleased to see their ancient laws restored; and the Normans were no less gainers by it. Hitherto they held their estates at the will of the Conqueror, and consequently were liable to be dispossessed at his pleasure. But by this charter of Henry I., which confined the royal authority within its ancient bounds, they were settled in their possessions, and screened from the violence of arbitrary power."- Rapin, vol. i. p. 191.

† Ibid. vol. i. p. 275.

at Runnymede (the place of meeting), John signed Magna Charta, containing several covenants in favour of the interests of the nobility and clergy, and of a portion of the inferior community. The lower classes in England were at this time mere serfs and bondsmen, living in the slavery of feudal tenure. The rise of towns, however, contributed to the abatement of villainage. "It was a privilege," says a recent author, "early granted to burghs in England, that any slave taking refuge in one of them, and residing there for a year and a day, became thereupon free. These free towns or burghs accordingly were, at the time when Magna Charta was granted, the only places in the kingdom where any considerable number of the commonalty was to be found not in a state of bondage. To the clauses of the charter, therefore, which refer to the towns, we are principally to look for the degree in which it established or extended popular freedom. Certainly none of the parties concerned in the transaction entertained any idea of a general emancipation of the villains. Those composing this part of the population were universally considered as mere goods or chattels, and, as such, not comprehended in the community at all. By one of the articles, indeed, of this very charter of the common liberties, the labourers by whom the land was cultivated are classed along with the cattle and instruments of husbandry; the guardian of an heir who is a minor, it is declared, shall manage his estate without de

struction and waste either of the men or goods.* It is undeniable, therefore, that Magna Charta neither abolished slavery in England, nor contained any provision tending in that direction; and it may therefore in one sense be asserted to have left the great body of the people in the same condition in which it found them. But in regard to the free population, the case was otherwise. One of the clauses assures to all cities, burghs, towns, and ports, the enjoyment of their liberties and free customs both by land and water, for which, till now, they had been all regularly in the practice of paying a yearly tax or bribe to the crown. A considerable part of the royal revenue was derived from this source. Other articles promulgated various enactments, decidedly favourable to the interests of commerce."

But shortly after signing this document, John repented of his deed, and strove hard to nullify it. An old chronicler declares, that the King intended not to bind himself with chains of parchment. Certain persons about him, feeling that this charter, and another granted at the same time respecting the liberties of the forest, must be prejudicial to them, never ceased representing to him the injury he had done himself in signing them. In short, all their

"The warden of the land of such heir, who shall be under age, shall take of the land of such heir only reasonable issues, reasonable customs, and reasonable services; and that without destruction and waste of the men or things." — Magna Charta, Art. v.

« ForrigeFortsæt »