Зображення сторінки
PDF

FEUDALITY IN FEANCE.

19

In France, the royal authority was indeed inconsiderable: but this circumstance was by no means favourable to the general liberty. The lords were everything; and the bulk of the nation were accounted nothing. All those wars which were made on the king had not liberty for their object; for of this the chiefs already enjoyed too great a share: they were the mere effect of private ambition or caprice. The people did not engage in them as associates in the support of a cause common to all; they were dragged, blindfold, and like slaves, to the standard of their leaders. In the meantime, as the laws, by virtue of which their masters were considered as vassals, had no relation to those by which they were themselves bound as subjects, the resistance, of which they were made the instruments, never produced any advantageous consequence in their favour, nor did it establish any principle of freedom that was applicable to them.

The inferior nobles, who shared in the independence of the superior nobility, added the effects of their own insolence to the despotism of so many sovereigns; and the people, wearied out by sufferings, and rendered desperate by oppression, at times attempted to revolt. But, being parcelled out into so many different states, they could never perfectly agree either in the nature or the times of their complaints. The insurrections, which ought to have been general, were only successive and particular. In the meantime, the lords, ever uniting to avenge their common cause as masters, fell with irresistible advantage on men who were divided: the people were thus separately, and by force, brought back to their former yoke; and liberty, that precious offspring, which requires so many favourable circumstances to foster it, was everywhere stifled in its birth.*

At length, when by conquests, by escheats, or by treaties

focal courts was always dear to the hearts of the English under the Norman rule. The people were the offspring of many races; yet the speech of the great majority was Anglo-Saxon, and that speech, in which also the Anglo-Saxon clergy spoke to and inspired the people with hope, was always maintained, and finally prevailed until it became the general language of the nation, of the land, of the courts, and even of the palace.—Ed.

* It may be seen in Mezeray, how the Flemings, at the time of the great revolt which was caused, as he says, "by the inveterate hatred cf the several provinces came to be re-united* to the extensive and continually increasing dominions of the monarch, they became subject to their new master, already trained to obedience. The few privileges which the cities had been able to preserve were little respected by a sovereign who had himself entered into no engagement for that purpose; and, as the re-unions were made at different times, the king was always in a condition to overwhelm every new province that accrued to him with the weight of all those he already possessed.

As a farther consequence of these differences between the times of the re-unions, the several parts of the kingdom entertained no views of assisting each other. When some reclaimed their privileges, the others, long since reduced to subjection, had already forgotten theirs. Besides, these privileges, by reason of the differences of the governments under which the provinces had formerly been held, were also almost everywhere different: the circumstances which happened in one place thus bore little affinity to those which fell out in another; the spirit of union was lost, or rather had never existed; each province, restrained within its particular bounds, only served to ensure the general submission; and the same causes which had reduced that spirited nation to a yoke of subjection, concurred also to keep them under it.

Thus liberty perished in France, because it wanted a favourable culture and proper situation. Planted, if I may so express myself, but just beneath the surface, it presently expanded, and sent forth some large shoots; but, having taken no root, it was soon plucked up. In England, on the contrary, the seed, lying at a great depth, and being covered with an enormous weight, seemed at first to be smothered: but it vegetated with the greater force; it imbibed a more rich and abundant nourishment; its sap and juice became better assimilated, and it penetrated and filled up with its roots the whole body of the soil. It was the excessive

the nobles (lea gentils-hommes) against the people of Ghent," were crushed by the union of almost all the nobility of France.—See iiezeray, Ile,ffu of Charles VI.

* The word re-union expresses in the French law, or history, the reduction of a province to an immediate dependence on the crown.

FEUDAL GOVERNMENT OF ENGLAND.

21

power of the king which made England free, because it was this very excess that gave rise to the spirit of union, and of concerted resistance. Possessed of extensive demesnes, the king found himself independent: invested with the most formidable prerogatives, he crushed at pleasure the most powerful barons in the realm. It was only by close and numerous confederacies, therefore, that these could resist his tyranny; they even were compelled to associate the people in them, and make them partners of public liberty.

Assembled with their vassals in their great halls, where they dispensed their hospitality, deprived of the amusements of more polished nations —naturally inclined, besides, freely to expatiate on objects of which their hearts were full—their conversation naturally turned on the injustice of the public impositions, on the tyranny of the judicial proceedings, and, above all, on the detested forest laws.

Destitute of an opportunity of cavilling about the meaning of laws the terms of which were precise, or rather disdaining the resource of sophistry, they were naturally led to examine the first principles of society; they inquired into the foundations of human authority, and became convinced that power, when its object is not the good of those who are subject to it, is nothing more than the right of the strongest, and may be repressed by the exertion of a similar right.

The different orders of the feudal government, as established in England, being connected by tenures exactly similar, the same maxims which were laid down as true against the lord paramount, in behalf of the lord of an upper fief, were likewise to be admitted against the latter, in behalf of the owner of an inferior fief. The same maxims •were also to be applied to the possessor of a still lower fief: they farther descended to the freeman and to the peasant: and the spirit of liberty, after having circulated through the different branches of the feudal subordination, thus continued to flow through successive homogeneous channels; it forced a passage into the remotest ramifications; and the principle of primeval equality became everywhere diffused and established: a sacred principle, which neither injustice nor ambition can erase; which exists in every breast, and to exert itself, requires only to be awakened among the numerous and oppressed classes of mankind!

But when the barons, whom their personal consequence had at first caused to be treated with caution and regard by the sovereign, began to be no longer so,—when the tyrannical laws of the Conqueror became still more tyrannically executed,—the confederacy, for which the general oppression had paved the way, instantly took place. The lord, the vassal, the inferior vassal, all united. They even implored the assistance of the peasants and cottagers; and the haughty aversion with which on the continent the nobility repaid the industrious hands that fed them, was in England compelled to yield to the pressing necessity of setting bounds to the royal authority.

The people, on the other hand, knew that the cause they were called upon to defend was a cause common to all; and they were sensible, besides, that they were the necessary supporters of it. Instructed by the example of their leaders, they spoke and stipulated conditions for themselves: they insisted that, for the future, every individual should be entitled to the protection of the law; and thus did those rights with which the lords had strengthened themselves, in order to oppose the tyranny of the crown, become a bulwark which was in time to restrain their own.*

* In tracing the history of the constitution of England, we find that from its original Saxon and Scandinavian source, it flowed on, acquiring breadth and strength, through the reigns of Alfred and Edward the Confessor; that like a powerful river which for a part of its course disappears beneath rocks and earth, it seemed invisible during the reigns of the two first Norman kings; that it faintly reappeared under the third; and that it became the law of the realm by humbling a tyrant, less than two years before the death of John, who may be considered the last king of the Norman period of British history. Erom that time it has at different periods acquired those buttresses of solidity which have secured the civil and political liberties of the British nation. Even more, the faithful transcripts of the laws and institutions which originated in the Saxon age, and which gradually acquired strength by resistance to oppression, have passed over the Atlantic Ocean and have taken firm root in the soil of America. They grew strong in its invigorating fertility; and in accordance with the generous nature of the original plant, the Anglo-Americans have matured and consolidated the most free and perfect republican government that has ever been framed; securing and extending its benefits to a present generation of more than 26,000,000 of intelligent, active, powerful and thriving people, who speak the language of, and enjoy nearly the same laws and institutions as, the people of England.—Ed.

[blocks in formation]

CHAPTER II.

A SECOND ADVANTAGE ENGLAND HAD OYER FBANCE :—IT POEMED ONE UNDIVIDED STATE.

It was in the reign of Henry the First, about forty years after the conquest, that we see the above causes begin to operate. This prince having ascended the throne to the exclusion of his elder brother, was sensible that he had no other means to maintain his power than by gaining the affection of his subjects; but at the same time he perceived that it must be the affection of the whole nation: he, therefore, not only mitigated the rigour of the feudal laws in favour of the lords, but also annexed as a condition to the charter he granted, that the lords should allow the same freedom to their respective vassals. Care was even taken to abolish those laws of the Conqueror which lay heaviest on the lower classes of the people.*

Under Henry the Second, liberty took a farther stride; and the ancient trial by jury, a mode of procedure which is at present one of the most valuable parts of the English law, made again, though imperfectly, its appearance.f

* Amongst others, the law of the Curfeu.—It might be matter of curious discussion to inquire what the Anglo-Saxon government would in process of time have become, and of course the government of England be at the present time, if the event of the conquest had never taken place; which, by conferring an immense as well as unusual power on the head of the feudal system, compelled the nobility to contract a lasting and sincere union with the people. It is very probable that the English government would at this day be the same as that which long prevailed in Scotland (where the king and nobles engrossed, jointly or by turns, the whole power of the state) ; the same as in Sweden, the same as in Denmark,—countries whence the Anglo-Saxon came.

t Although it has been contended that trial by jury was essentially of Saxon origin, this is not the fact. It was common to the Normans also, and to all the Teutonic or Gothic nations; the number twelve also, jurati, or members of the Jurata (jury) as compurgators were even known among the Anglo-Saxons in the trial by wager of battle, and though in disuse was only abolished in 1833: but this was entirely different from the jury. Some writers, Hukes, Beeves, and Palgrave, contend that William the Conqueror introduced trial by jury, and juries are certainly more discernible in the more ample Norman than

« НазадПродовжити »