The Rise of the Democracy
by Joseph Clayton
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Author of "Leaders of the People" "Bishops as Legislators," etc. etc.

With Eight Full-Page Plates

Cassell and Company, Ltd. London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne 1911 All Rights Reserved


This short account of the rise of political democracy is necessarily but an outline of the matter, and while it is not easy to define the exact limits, there is no difficulty in noting omissions. For instance, there is scarcely any reference to the work of poets or pamphleteers. John Ball's rhyming letters are quoted, but not the poems of Langland, and the political songs of the Middle Ages are hardly mentioned. The host of political pamphleteers in the seventeenth century are excluded, with the exception of Lilburne and Winstanley, whose work deserves better treatment from posterity than it received from contemporaries. Defoe's vigorous services for the Whigs are unnoticed, and the democratic note in much of the poetry of Burns, Blake, Byron and Shelley is left unconsidered, and the influence of these poets undiscussed. The anti-Corn Law rhymes of Ebenezer Eliot, and the Chartist songs of Ernest Jones were notable inspirations in their day, and in our own times Walt Whitman and Mr. Edward Carpenter have been the chief singers of democracy. But a whole volume at least might be written on the part the pen has played in the struggle towards democracy.

Again, there is no mention of Ireland in this short sketch. A Nationalist movement is not necessarily a democratic movement, and the Irish Nationalist Party includes men of very various political opinions, whose single point of agreement is the demand for Home Rule. In India and Egypt the agitation is for representative institutions. Ireland might, or might not, become a democracy under Home Rule—who can say?

The aim of the present writer has been to trace the travelled road of the English people towards democracy, and to point out certain landmarks on that road, in the hope that readers may be turned to examine more closely for themselves the journey taken. For the long march teems with adventure and spirited enterprise; and, noting mistakes and failures in the past, we may surely and wisely, and yet with greater daring and finer courage, pursue the road, not unmindful of the charge committed to us in the centuries left behind.


HAMPSTEAD, September, 1911.



The British Influence—"Government of the People, by the People, for the People"—The Foundations of Democracy—British Democracy Experimental not Doctrinaire—Education to Democracy



The Great Churchmen—Archbishop Anselm and Norman Autocracy—Thomas a Becket and Henry II.—Stephen Langton and John—The Great Charter



Democracy and Representative Government—Representative Theory First found in Ecclesiastical Assemblies—The Misrule of Henry III.—Simon of Montfort, Leader of the National Party—Edward I.'s Model Parliament, 1295—The Nobility Predominant in Parliament—The Medieval National Assemblies—The Electors of the Middle Ages—Payment of Parliamentary Representatives—The Political Position of Women in the Middle Ages—No Theory of Democracy in the Middle Ages



General Results of Popular Risings—William FitzOsbert, 1196—The Peasant Revolt and its Leaders, 1381—Jack Cade, Captain of Kent, 1450—The Norfolk Rising under Ket, 1549



Parliament under the Tudors—Victory of Parliament over the Stuarts—The Democratic Protest: Lilburne—Winstanley and "The Diggers"—The Restoration



Government by Aristocrats—Civil and Religious Liberty—Growth of Cabinet Rule—Walpole's rule—The Change in the House of Lords—"Wilkes and Liberty"



The Witness of the Middle Ages—The "Social Contract" Theory—Thomas Hobbes—John Locke—Rousseau and French Revolution—American Independence—Thomas Paine—Major Cartwright and the "Radical Reformers"—Thomas Spence—Practical Politics and Democratic Ideals



The Industrial Revolution—The Need for Parliamentary Reform—Manufacturing Centres Unrepresented in Parliament—The Passage of the Great Reform Bill—The Working Class still Unrepresented—Chartism—The Hyde Park Railings, 1866—Household Suffrage—Working-class Representation in Parliament—Removal of Religious Disabilities: Catholics, Jews and Freethinkers—The Enfranchisement of Women



Local Government—The Workman in the House of Commons—Working-class Leaders in Parliament—The Present Position of the House of Lords—The Popularity of the Crown—The Democratic Ideals: Socialism and Social Reform—Land Reform and the Single Tax



East and West—Tyranny under Democratic Forms—The Obvious Dangers—Party Government—Bureaucracy—Working-Class Ascendancy—On Behalf of Democracy













Our business here is to give some plain account of the movement towards democracy in England, only touching incidentally on the progress of that movement in other parts of the world. Mainly through British influences the movement has become world wide; and the desire for national self-government, and the adoption of the political instruments of democracy—popular enfranchisement and the rule of elected representatives—are still the aspirations of civilised man in East and West. The knowledge that these forms of democratic government have by no means at all times and in all places proved successful does not check the movement. As the British Parliament and the British Constitution have in the past been accepted as a model in countries seeking free political institutions, so to-day our Parliament and our Constitutional Government are still quoted with approval and admiration in those lands where these institutions are yet to be tried.

The rise of democracy, then, is a matter in which Britain is largely concerned; and this in spite of the fact that in England little respect and less attention has been paid to the expounders of democracy and their constructive theories of popular government. The notion that philosophers are the right persons to manage affairs of state and hold the reins of Government has always been repugnant to the English people, and, with us, to call a man "a political theorist" is to contemn him. The English have not moved towards democracy with any conscious desire for that particular form of government, and no vision of a perfect State or an ideal commonwealth has sustained them on the march. Our boast has been that we are a "practical" people, and so our politics are, as they ever have been, experimental. Reforms have been accomplished not out of deference to some moral or political principle, but because the abuse to be remedied had become intolerable. Dissatisfaction with the Government and the conviction that only by enfranchisement and the free election of representatives can Parliament remove the grounds of dissatisfaction, have carried us towards democracy.


We have been brought to accept Abraham Lincoln's famous phrase, "Government of the people, by the people, for the people," as a definition of democracy; but in that acceptance there is no harking back to the early democracies of Greece or Rome, so beloved by the French democrats of the eighteenth century, who, however, knew very little about those ancient states—or any vain notion of restoring primitive Teutonic democracy.

The sovereign assemblies of Greece—the Ecclesia of Athens, and the Apella of Sparta—the Comitia Centuriata of Rome, have no more resemblance to democracy in the twentieth century than the Witenagemot has to the British Parliament; and the democracy which has arisen in modern times is neither to be traced for its origin to Greece or Rome, nor found to be evolved from Anglo-Saxon times. The early democracies of Athens and Sparta were confined to small states, and were based on a slave population without civic rights. There was not even a conception that slaves might or should take part in politics, and the slaves vastly outnumbered the citizens. Modern democracy does not tolerate slavery, it will not admit the permanent exclusion of any body of people from enfranchisement; though it finds it hard to ignore differences of race and colour, it is always enlarging the borders of citizenship. So that already in the Australian Commonwealth, in New Zealand, in certain of the American States, in Norway, and in Finland, we have the complete enfranchisement of all men and women who are of age to vote.

Apart from this vital difference between a slave-holding democracy and a democracy of free citizens—a difference that rent the United States in civil war, and was only settled in America by democracy ending slavery—ancient democracy was government by popular assembly, and modern democracy is government through elected representatives. The former is only possible in small communities with very limited responsibilities—a parish meeting can decide questions of no more than strictly local interest; for our huge empires of to-day nothing better than representative government has been devised for carrying out the general will of the majority.

As for the early English Witenagemot, it was simply an assembly of the chiefs, and, though crowds sometimes attended, all but the great men were the merest spectators. Doubtless the folk-moot of the tribe was democratic, for all free men attended it, and the English were a nation of freeholders, and the slaves were few—except in the west—and might become free men.[1] The shire-moot, too, with its delegates from the hundred-moots, was equally democratic. But with feudalism and the welding of the nation, tribal democracies passed away, leaving, however, in many places a valuable tradition of local self-government.


A steady and invincible belief that those who maintain the defence of the country and pay for the cost of government should have a voice in the great council of the nation, and the conviction that effective utterance can be found for that voice in duly chosen representatives, are the foundations on which democracy has built. Democracy itself comes in (1) when it is seen that all are being taxed for national purposes; and (2) the opinion finds acceptance that responsibilities of citizenship should be borne by all who have reached the age of manhood and are of sound mind.

To sketch the rise of democracy in England is to trace the steady resistance to kings who would govern without the advice of counsellors, and to note the growing determination that these counsellors must be elected representatives. Only when the absolutism of the Crown is ended and a Parliament of elected members has become the real centre of government, is it possible, without a revolution, for democracy to be established.

Much of this book is given up, then, to the old stories of kingly rule checked and slowly superseded by aristocracy. And all the old attempts at revolution by popular insurrection are again retold, not only because of the witness they bear to the impossibility in England of achieving democracy by the violent overthrow of government, but because they also bear witness to the heroic resolution of the English people to take up arms and plunge into a sea of troubles rather than bear patiently ills that were unseemly for men to endure in silence. Popular insurrection failed, but over and over again violence has been resorted to in the resistance to tyranny, and has been justified by its victory. If Wat Tyler, Jack Cade, and Robert Ket are known as beaten revolutionaries, Stephen Langton, Simon of Montfort, and John Hampden are acclaimed as patriots for not disdaining the use of armed resistance.

The conclusion is that a democratic revolution was not to be accomplished in England by a rising of the people, but that forcible resistance even to the point of civil war was necessary to guard liberties already won, or to save the land from gross misgovernment. But always the forcible resistance, when successful, has been made not by revolutionaries but by the strong champions of constitutional government. The fruit of the resistance to John was the Great Charter; of Simon of Montfort's war against Henry III., the beginning of a representative Parliament; of the war against Charles, the establishment of Parliamentary government. Lilburne and his friends hoped that the civil war and the abolition of monarchy would bring in democracy, though democracy was never in the mind of men like Hampden, who made the war, and was utterly uncongenial to Cromwell and the Commonwealth men. But the sanctity of monarchy received its death-blow from Cromwell, and perished with the deposing of James II.; and there has been no resurrection. To the Whig rule we owe the transference of political power from the Crown to Parliament. Once it is manifest that Parliament is the instrument of authority, that the Prime Minister and his colleagues rule only by the permission and with the approval of the House of Commons, and that the House of Commons itself is chosen by a certain number of electors to represent the nation, then it is plain that the real sovereignty is in the electors who choose the House of Commons. As long as the electors are few and consist of the great landowners and their satellites, then the constitutional government is aristocracy, and democracy is still to come.

And just as discontent with monarchy, and its obvious failure as a satisfactory form of government, brought in aristocracy, so at the beginning of the nineteenth century discontent with aristocracy was rife, and a new industrial middle-class looked for "Parliamentary reform," to improve the condition of England.


Resistance to royal absolutism, culminating in the acknowledged ascendancy of Parliament and the triumphant aristocracy of 1688, was never based on abstract principles of the rights of barons and landowners, but sprang from the positive, definite conviction that those who furnished arms and men for the king, or who paid certain moneys in taxation, were entitled to be heard in the councils of the king; and the charters given in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries—from Henry I. to Henry III.—confirmed this conviction. The resistance to the Stuarts was still based on the conviction that direct taxation conferred political privileges, but now the claim to speak in the great council of the realm had become a request to be listened to by the king, and passed rapidly from that to a resolution that the king should have no money from Parliament if he refused to listen. The practical inconvenience of a king altogether at variance with Parliament was held to be sufficient justification for getting rid of James II., and for hobbling all future kings with the Bill of Rights.

The dethronement of aristocracy in favour of democracy has proceeded on very similar lines. The mass of English people were far too wretched and far too ignorant at the end of the eighteenth century to care anything about abstract "rights of man," and only political philosophers and a few artisans hoped for improvement in their condition by Parliamentary reform. Agricultural England accepted the rule of landowners as an arrangement by providence. It was the industrial revolution that shattered the feudal notions of society, and created a manufacturing population which knew nothing of lowly submission to pastors and masters. A middle-class emerged from the very ranks of the working people. The factory system brought fortunes to men who a few years earlier had been artisans, and to these new capitalists in the nineteenth century the aristocracy in power was as irksome as the Stuarts had been to the Whigs. If, as the Whigs taught, those who paid the taxes were entitled to a voice in the government, then the manufacturing districts ought to send representatives to Parliament. It seemed monstrous that places like Manchester, Leeds, and Birmingham had no one in the House of Commons to plead for the needs of their inhabitants. The manufacturer wanted Parliamentary representation because he hoped through Parliament to secure the abolition of the political disabilities of Nonconformists, and to get financial changes made that would make the conditions of trade more profitable. And he felt that it would be better for the country if he and the class he represented could speak freely in Parliament.

The workman wanted the vote because he had been brought to believe that, possessing the vote, he could make Parliament enact laws that would lighten the hardships of his life. The whole of the manufacturing class—capitalist and workman alike—could see by 1820 that the House of Commons was the instrument of the electorate, and that to get power they must become electors. (Yet probably not one per cent. of them could express clearly any theory of popular sovereignty.) The old Whig families, kept out of office by the Tories whom George III. had placed in power, and who now controlled the House of Commons, supported reform and the enfranchisement of the middle class because they saw no way of getting back into power except by a new electorate and a redistribution of Parliamentary seats. At the beginning of the twentieth century the landowner, still Whig, though now, as a general rule enrolled with the Unionist Party, has not been excluded from political power, but the representatives of the middle-class and of the working people are predominant in the House of Commons. The claim of the House of Lords to reject the bills of the Commons has been, in our time, subjected to the criticism formerly extended to the royal prerogative, and an Act—the Parliament Act—has now been passed which formally requires the Lords to accept, without serious amendment, every Bill sent up from the Commons in three successive sessions.

The transition from monarchy to aristocracy in England was brought about at the price of civil war. In many countries democracy has been born in revolution, and the birth pains have been hard and bitter. But in England in the nineteenth century democracy was allowed to come into being by permission of the aristocracy, and has not yet reached its full stature. It is true that violence, bloodshed, loss of life, and destruction of property marked the passage of the great Reform Bill; that more than once riots and defiance of law and order have been the expression of industrial discontent; but on the whole the average Englishman is content to wait for the redress of wrongs by Parliamentary action. Women have quite recently defied the law, refused to pay taxes, and made use of "militant methods" in their agitation for enfranchisement. But the women's plea has been that, as they are voteless, these methods have been necessary to call attention to their demands. Democratic advance has often been hindered and delayed by government, and by a national disinclination from rapid political change; but as the character of government has changed with the changed character of the electorate and the House of Commons, so resistance to democracy has always been abandoned when the advance was widely supported, and further delay seemed dangerous to the public order.

The House of Lords is thus seen to yield to the popular representatives in the House of Commons, and the government, dependent on the House of Commons, to listen to the demand of women for enfranchisement.

While the House of Commons completes its assertion of political supremacy, and insists on the absolute responsibility of the chosen representatives of the electorate, the agitation for the enfranchisement of women is the reminder that democracy has yet to widen its borders. Progress to democracy in the last one hundred years is visible not only in the enlarged number of enfranchised citizens, but in the general admission that every extension of the franchise has been to the public good; not only in the fact that men of all classes and trades now have their representatives in Parliament, but in the very wide acknowledgment that women without votes cannot get that attention by members of the House of Commons that is given to male electors. That the majority of electors have expressed a decided opinion that the power of the House of Lords should be curtailed, as the power of the monarchy has been curtailed, and that the decisions of the House of Commons are only to be corrected by the House of Commons, is evidence that under our obviously imperfect Parliamentary system the will of the electors does get registered on the Statute Book.


Apart from the direct political education to democracy, it is well to note the other agencies that have been at work, preparing men and women for the responsible task of national self-government.

In the Middle Ages the religious guilds and the trade guilds, managed by their own members, gave men and women a training in democratic government. The parish, too, was a commune, and its affairs and finances were administered by duly elected officers.[2]

But the guilds, with their numerous almshouses and hospitals, were all suppressed early in Edward VI.'s reign, and their funds confiscated. As for the parish, it was shorn of all its property, save the parish church, in the same reign, and its old self-governing life dwindled away to the election of churchwardens.

It was not till the beginning of the nineteenth century that the working classes, by the formation of trade unions, once more took up the task of education in self-government. From that time onward, through trade unions, co-operative societies, and friendly societies, with their annual conferences and congresses, a steady training in democracy has been achieved; and our Labour Party of to-day, with its Members of Parliament, its members of county and district councils, and its Justices of the Peace, would hardly have been possible but for this training. Other agencies may be mentioned. The temperance movement, the organisation of working-men's clubs, and the local preaching of the Nonconformist Churches—particularly the Primitive Methodist denomination—have all helped to educate workmen in the conduct of affairs, and to create that sense of personal responsibility which is the only guarantee of an honest democracy.

* * * * *




We are far from any thoughts of democracy in the early struggles against the absolutism of the Crown. The old love of personal liberty that is said to have characterised the Anglo-Saxon had no political outlet under Norman feudalism. What we note is that three Archbishops of Canterbury were strong enough and brave enough to stand up against the unchecked rule of kings, and the names of these great Archbishops—Anselm, Thomas a Becket, and Stephen Langton—are to be honoured for all time for the services they rendered in the making of English liberties. Not one of the three was in any sense a democrat. It is not till the latter part of the fourteenth century that we find John Ball, a wandering, revolutionary priest, uttering for the first time in England a democratic doctrine. Anselm, Becket, and Langton did their work, as Simon of Montfort, and as Eliot and Hampden worked later, not for the sake of a democracy, but for the restriction of an intolerable autocracy. All along in English history liberties have been gained and enlarged by this process of restriction, and it was only when the powers of the Crown had been made subject to Parliament that it was possible, at the close of the nineteenth century, for Parliament itself to become converted from an assembly of aristocrats to a governing body that really represented the nation.

But in considering the rise of democracy we can no more omit the early struggles against the absolutism of the Crown than we can pass over Simon of Montfort's Parliament, or the unsuccessful popular revolts, or the war with Charles I., or the Whig revolution of 1688. They are all incidents of pre-democratic days, but they are all events of significance. Democracy is no new order of society, conceived in the fertile mind of man; it has been slowly evolved and brought to birth after centuries of struggle, to be tried as a form of government only when other forms are outgrown, and cease to be acceptable.

All the great men—heroic and faulty—who withstood the tyranny of their day, not only wrested charters from kings, they left a tradition of resistance; and this tradition has been of incalculable service to a nation seeking self-government. It is easy to dismiss the work of Anselm and Becket as mere disputes between monarch and Churchman, to treat lightly the battle for the Great Charter as a strife between king and barons. Just as easy is it to regard the Peasant Revolt of the fourteenth century and Jack Cade's rebellion in the fifteenth century as the tumults of a riotous mob. The great point is to see clearly in all these contests, successful and unsuccessful, the movement for liberty, for greater security and expansion of life in England, and to note that only by a stern endurance and a willingness not to bear an irksome oppression have our liberties been won. In the winning of these liberties we have proved our fitness for democracy, for a government that will allow the fullest measure of self-development.

Now, what was it that Anselm contended for, first with William II. and then with Henry I.?


Anselm was sixty when, in 1093, William II. named him for the Archbishopric of Canterbury. In vain Anselm, who was Abbot of the famous monastery of Bec, in Normandy, protested that he was too old, and that his business was not with high place and power in this world. The King seemed to be dying, and the bishops gathered round the sick bed would not hear of any refusal on Anselm's part. They pushed the pastoral staff into his hands, and carried him off to a neighbouring church, while the people shouted "Long live the bishop!"

What everybody felt was that with Anselm as Archbishop things might be better in England, for Anselm's reputation stood very high. He had been the friend of Lanfranc, the late Archbishop; he had been an honoured guest at the Court of William the Conqueror; and he was known for his deep learning, his sanctity of life, and simple, disinterested devotion to duty. It was hoped that with a man of such holiness at Canterbury some restraint might be placed on the lawless tyranny of the Red King. Lanfranc had been the trusted counsellor and right hand of the Red King's father: why should not Anselm bring back the son to the paths of decency—at least? The Archbishop of Canterbury was the chief man in the realm next to the king, and for three years since Lanfranc's death the see had been kept vacant that William Rufus might enjoy its revenues for his own pleasure. It was not unreasonable that men should look to the appointment of Anselm as the beginning of an amendment in Church and State. The trouble was that William stuck to his evil courses.

The rule of William the Conqueror had been stern and harsh, and his hand had been heavy on the English people. But there had been law and justice in the rule; religion and morality had been respected, and peace and security obtained.

The rule of the Red King was not only grievous, it was arbitrary, capricious, cruel, and without semblance of law. The austerity of the Conqueror had been conspicuous; equally conspicuous was the debauchery of his son. The Conqueror had been faithful and conscientious in seeing that vacancies in the Church were filled up quickly and wisely. The Red King preferred to leave bishoprics and churches empty so that he might annex the profits. Lanfranc, a wise and just man, had been the Minister of the Conqueror; the Red King made Ranulf (nicknamed the Torch or Firebrand)—a clever, unprincipled clerk—Bishop of Durham and Justiciar. It was Ranulf who did the King's business in keeping churches and bishoprics vacant, in violation of law and custom; it was Ranulf who plundered the King's vassals and the people at large by every kind of extortion, thwarted the protests of Anselm, and encouraged William in his savage profligacies.

Meek and gentle as Anselm was, he had all the courage that comes of a lofty sense of responsibility to God, and he stood before kings as the Hebrew prophets of old had stood, calm and fearless. At Christmas, 1092, three months before his nomination to the See of Canterbury, Anselm was in England over the affairs of his monastery, and William invited him to Court and treated him with great display of honour. Then some private talk took place between the two, and Anselm said plainly that "Things were spoken daily of the King, openly or secretly, by nearly all the men of his realm, which were not seemly for the King's dignity." From that time Anselm stayed in England, for William refused to give him leave to return to Normandy.

Then in March, 1093 came the King's sickness, which most men expected to be mortal. Anselm was summoned, and on his arrival bade the King "make a clean confession of all that he knows that he has done against God, and promise that, should he recover, he will without pretence amend in all things. The King at once agreed to this, and with sorrow of heart engaged to do all that Anselm required and to keep justice and mercy all his life long. To this he pledged his faith, and made his bishops witness between himself and God, sending persons in his stead to promise his word to God on the altar. An edict was written and sealed with the King's seal that all prisoners should be set free in all his dominions, all debts forgiven, all offences heretofore committed pardoned and forgotten for ever. Further, good and holy laws were promised to the whole people, and the sacred upholding of right and such solemn inquest into wrongdoing as may deter others."[3]

William did not die, and his repentance was short-lived; but the one act of grace he did before leaving his sick bed was to fill up the empty throne at Canterbury by the appointment of Anselm—Anselm's protests of unfitness notwithstanding. Then, on the King's recovery, as though to make up for the penitence displayed, all the royal promises of amendment were broken without shame, and "all the evil which the King had wrought before he was sick seemed good by the side of the wrong which he did when he was returned to health." The prisoners who had been pardoned were sent back to prison, the debts which had been cancelled were re-claimed, and all legal actions which had been dropped were resumed. Anselm was now enthroned at Canterbury, and his appointment could not be revoked; but the King was quick to show his displeasure at the new Archbishop.

The first point raised by William was that those lands belonging to the See of Canterbury, which had been made over to military vassals of the Crown while the archbishopric was vacant, should remain with their holders. Anselm said at once that this was impossible. He was responsible for the administration of all the estates of Canterbury, and to allow these lands to be alienated to the Crown was to rob the poor and needy who, it was held, had a just claim on the property of the Church. Besides, Anselm saw that the lands would never be restored once an Archbishop confirmed their appropriation by the King's military tenants. There was no one in all England save Anselm who dared withstand the Crown, and had he yielded on this matter resistance to the tyranny of the Red King would only have been harder on the next occasion.

Then came the question of a present of money to the King, the customary offering. Anselm brought five hundred marks (L333), a very considerable sum in those days, and William, persuaded by some of his courtiers that twice the amount ought to have been given, curtly declined the present. Anselm, who disliked the whole business of these gifts to the Crown, for he knew that many a Churchman bought his office by promising a "free" gift after institution, solemnly warned William that money given freely as his was given was better than a forced tribute, and to this William answered that he wanted neither the Archbishop's money nor his preaching or company.

Thereupon Anselm retired and gave the money to the poor, determined that he, for his part, would make no attempt to purchase William's goodwill. Henceforth William was equally determined that Anselm should have no peace in England. It was hateful to the King that there should be anyone in the realm who acknowledged a higher authority than the Crown, and Anselm made it too plain that the Archbishop rested his authority not on the favour of the Crown, but on the discipline of the Christian religion. William was King of England indisputably, but there was a higher power than the King, and that was the Pope. William himself never dreamed of denying the divine authority of the Pope in spiritual matters; no one in all Christendom in the eleventh and twelfth centuries questioned that at Rome was a court of appeal higher than the courts of kings. Strong rulers like William the Conqueror might decline to submit to Rome on a personal question of marriage, but Rome was the recognised centre of religion, the headquarters of the Christian Church, and the supreme court of appeal. Apart from Rome there was no power that could curb the fierce unbridled tyranny of the kings of the earth, and the power of Rome was a spiritual weapon, for the Pope had no army to enforce his decisions. So Anselm, conscious of this spiritual authority, refused to bow to the lawless rule of the Red King; and his very attitude, while it encouraged men to lift up their hearts who erstwhile had felt that it was hopeless and useless to strive against William,[4] enraged the Red King to fury.

The things he wanted to forget were that the chief representative of the Christian religion was a greater person than the King of England, and that the Archbishop of Canterbury could be a Christian minister rather than a King's man.[5] And Anselm was the constant witness to the Christian religion, and, by his very presence, a rebuke to the crimes and cruelties of the Court of the Red King. William actually wrote to the Pope, naturally without any success, praying him to depose Anselm, and promising a large annual tribute to Rome if the request was granted.

For years the uneven contest was waged. The bishops generally avoided Anselm, and were only anxious to be accepted by the King as good servants of the Crown, with the result that William despised them for their servility. But the barons began to declare their respect for the brave old man at Canterbury.

At last, when Anselm was summoned to appear before the King's Court, to "do the King right," on a trumped-up charge of having failed to send an adequate supply of troops for the King's service, he felt the position was hopeless. Anselm's longing had been to labour with the King, as Lanfranc had laboured, to promote religion in the country, and he had been frustrated at every turn. The summons to the King's Court was the last straw, for the defendant in this Court was entirely at the mercy of the Crown. "When, in Anglo-Norman times you speak of the King's Court, it is only a phrase for the King's despotism."[6] Anselm took no notice of the King's summons, and decided to appeal to Rome. For a time William refused permission for any departure from England, but he yielded in 1097, and Anselm set out for Rome.

He stayed at Rome and at Lyons till William was dead, for the Pope would not let him resign Canterbury, and could do nothing to bring the King to a better mind. Then, on the urgent request of Henry I., he returned to England, and for a time all went well. Henry was in earnest for the restoration of law and religion in England, and his declaration, at the very beginning of his reign—the oft-quoted "charter" of Henry I.—to stop the old scandals of selling and farming out Church lands, and to put down all unrighteousness that had been in his brother's time, was hailed with rejoicing.

Anselm stood loyally by Henry over the question of his marriage with Edith (who claimed release from vows taken under compulsion in a convent at Romsey), and his fidelity at the critical time when Robert of Normandy and the discontented nobles threatened the safety of the Crown was invaluable. But Henry was an absolutist, anxious for all the threads of power to be in his own hands; and just when a great Church Council at the Lateran had decided that bishops must not be invested by kings with the ring and staff of their office, because by such investiture they were the king's vassals, Henry decided to invite Anselm to receive the archbishopric afresh from the King's hands by a new act of investiture. To Anselm the abject submission of the bishops to the Red King had been a painful spectacle; and now Henry was making a demand that would emphasise the royal supremacy, and the demand was intolerable and impossible. Again Anselm stood practically alone in his resistance to the royal will, and again the question in dispute was whether there was any power in England higher than the Crown. The papal supremacy was no more under discussion than it had been under William. All that Henry wanted was that the archbishops and bishops should acknowledge that their authority came from the Crown; and at Henry's request Anselm, then 70 years old, again journeyed to Rome to lay the matter before the Pope.

Pope Paschal was fully alive to the mischief of making the bishops and clergy mere officers of kings, and it was soon seen there could be no dispensations from Rome even for Henry. All that the Pope would allow was that bishops might do homage to the Crown for their temporal rights, and with this Henry had to be content.

It was three years later before Anselm returned, and his course was now nearly run. He died at peace on April 21st, 1109, having wrought to no small purpose for religious liberty and the independence of the clergy. (The demand for political and social independence always follows the struggle for independence in religion.) Anselm spent the greater part of his life after his enthronement at Canterbury in battling for independence of the Crown; a century later Archbishop Stephen was to carry the battle still further, and win wider liberties for England from the Crown.

Of Anselm's general love of liberty and hatred of all tyranny many stories are told. One fact may be recalled. The Church Synod, which met at Westminster in 1102, at Anselm's request, attacked the slave trade as a "wicked trade used hitherto in England, by which men are sold like brute animals," and framed a Church rule against its continuance.

In spite of this decree, serfdom lingered in England for centuries, but hiring superseded open buying and selling of men. (The African slave trade was the work of the Elizabethan seamen, and was excused, as slavery in the United States was excused, by the Protestant Churches on the ground of the racial inferiority of the negro.)


Resistance to autocracy is often more needed against a strong and just king than it is against an unprincipled profligate. Henry II.'s love of order and peace, the strength and energy he spent in curtailing the power of the barons, and in making firm the foundations of our national system of petty sessions and assize courts have made for him an enduring fame. Henry II. was a great lawyer; he was "the flower of the princes of his world," in contemporary eyes; but it was as an autocrat he would rule. Against this autocracy Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, protested, and the protest cost him five years of exile, and finally his life. The manner of his death earned for the Archbishop the title of martyr, and popular acclamation required him to be canonised as a saint,[7] and his name to be long cherished with deep devotion by the English people. Both Henry and Thomas stand out honourably, but the former would have brought all England under one great centralised authority, with the Crown not only predominant but absolute in its supremacy, and the Archbishop contended for the great mass of poor and needy people to mitigate the harshness of the law, and to maintain the liberties of the Church against the encroachments of sovereignty. "Nothing is more certain," as the old writer put it, "than that both strove earnestly to do the will of God, one for the sake of his realm, the other on behalf of his Church. But whether of the two was zealous in wisdom is not plain to man, who is so easily mistaken, but to the Lord, Who will judge between them at the last day."

Becket was the first English-born Archbishop of Canterbury since the Norman Conquest. Henry, on his accession, clove to him in friendship, made him Lord Chancellor in 1155, and on Archbishop Theobald's death, the monks of Canterbury at once accepted Henry's advice and elected him to the vacant see. Becket himself knew the King too well to desire the appointment, and warned Henry not to press the matter, and prophesied that their friendship would be turned to bitter enmity. But Henry's mind was made up. As Chancellor, Becket had shown no ecclesiastical bias. He had taxed clergy and laity with due impartiality, and his legal decisions had been given without fear or favour. Henry counted on Becket to act with the same indifference as Archbishop, to be the King's vicegerent during the royal absence in France. And here Henry, wise as he was in many things, mistook his man. As Chancellor of England Becket conceived his business to be the administration of the laws: as Archbishop he was first and foremost the champion of the Christian religion, the protector of the poor, and the defender of the liberties of the Church. All unwilling, like his great predecessor, St. Anselm, to become archbishop, from the hour of his consecration to the See of Canterbury, in 1162, Becket was as firm as Anselm had been in resisting the absolutism of the King. To the King's extreme annoyance the Chancellorship was at once given up—the only instance known of the voluntary resignation of the Chancellorship by layman or ecclesiastic,[8] and all the amusements of the Court and the business of the world were laid aside by the new archbishop. The care of his diocese, the relief of the poor and the sick, and attendance at the sacred offices of the Church were henceforth the work of the man who had been Henry's best-loved companion, and within a year of his enthronement friendship with the King was broken.

The first point at issue was whether there should be one common jurisdiction in all the land, or whether the Church courts should still exist. These Church courts had been set up by William the Conqueror and Lanfranc, in order that the clergy should not be mixed up in ordinary law matters, and should be excluded strictly from the common courts. No penalty involving bloodshed could be inflicted in the Church courts, and all the savage barbarities of mutilation, common enough as punishments in the King's court, were forbidden. Henry II., apart from his strong desire for centralisation in government, wanted these Church courts abolished, because every clerk who offended against the law escaped ordinary punishment, no matter what the charge might be. Archbishop Thomas saw that in the Church courts there was some protection, not only for the clergy, but for all minor ecclesiastics, and for widows and orphans, against the horrible legal cruelties of the age. "It must be held in mind that the Archbishop had on his side the Church or Canon Law, which he had sworn to obey, and certainly the law courts erred as much on the side of harshness and cruelty as those of the Church on that of foolish pity towards evil doers."[9]

Before this dispute had reached its climax Thomas had boldly taken measures against some of the King's courtiers who were defrauding the See of Canterbury; and he had successfully withstood Henry's plan for turning the old Dane-geld shire tax, which was paid to the sheriff for the defence of the country and the up-keep of roads, into a tax to be collected by the Crown as part of the royal revenue. Thomas told the King plainly that this tax was a voluntary offering to be paid to the sheriffs only "so long as they shall serve as fitly and maintain and defend our defendants," and said point blank that he would not suffer a penny to be taken off his lands for the King's purposes. Henry was obliged to yield, and this is the first case known of resistance to the royal will in the matter of taxation.

The case of clerical offenders, and the jurisdiction of the courts came before a great council at Westminster in 1163. Henry declared that criminous clerks should be deprived of their office in the Church courts, and then handed over to the King's courts for punishment. Thomas replied that the proposal was contrary to the religious liberties of the land, but he met with little support from the rest of the bishops. "Better the liberties of the Church perish than that we perish ourselves," they cried in fear of the King. Henry followed up his proposal by calling on the bishops to abide by the old customs of the realm, as settled by his grandfather, Henry I., and to this they all agreed, adding "saving the rights of our order."

A list of the old customs was drawn up, and sixteen Constitutions, or articles, were presented to the bishops at the Great Council of Clarendon, in January, 1164. To many of these Constitutions Thomas objected; notably (1) That clerks were to be tried in the King's courts for offences of common law. (2) That neither archbishops, bishops, nor beneficed clerks were to leave the kingdom without royal permission. (This would not only stop appeals to Rome, it would make pilgrimages or attendance at General Councils impossible without the King's consent.) (3) That no member of the King's household was to be excommunicated without the King's permission. (4) That no appeals should be taken beyond the Archbishop's court, except to be brought before the King. (This definite prohibition of appeals to Rome left the King absolute master in England.) The last article declared that neither serfs nor the sons of villeins were to be ordained without the consent of the lord on whose land they were born. Against his own judgment Thomas yielded to the entreaties of the bishops, and agreed to accept the Constitutions of Clarendon, but no sooner had he done so than he bitterly repented, and wrote off to the Pope acknowledging his mistake. Pope Alexander III. was mainly anxious to prevent open hostilities between Henry and the Archbishop, and wrote calmly that he was absolved, without suggesting any blame to the King.

Henry now saw that the Archbishop, and only the Archbishop, stood in the way of the royal will, and when another Council met at Northampton, in October, 1164, the King was ready to drive Thomas out of office. Before this Council Thomas was charged with having refused justice to John, the Treasury-Marshall, and with contempt of the King's court, and was heavily fined. It was difficult to get sentence pronounced, for the barons declined to sit as judges on an archbishop; but at length, Henry, Bishop of Winchester, on the King's order, declared the sentence. Henry followed up the attack next day by calling upon Thomas to account for 30,000 marks spent by him while Chancellor. In vain he proved that the Justiciar had declared him free of all claims when he laid down the Chancellorship, that the charge was totally unexpected; the King refused to stay the proceedings unless Thomas would sign the Constitutions of Clarendon.

Consultation with the bishops brought no help. "The King has declared, so it is said, that he and you cannot both remain in England as king and archbishop. It would be much safer to resign everything and submit to his mercy"; thus spake Hilary, of Chichester, and his fellow-bishops all urged resignation or submission.

Two days later the Archbishop came into the Council in full robes with the Cross in his hand. Earl Robert, of Leicester, rose to pass sentence upon him and at once the Archbishop refused to hear him. "Neither law nor reason permit children to pass sentence on their father," he declared. "I will not hear this sentence of the King, or any judgment of yours. For, under God, I will be judged by the Pope alone, to whom before you all here I appeal, placing the Church of Canterbury under God's protection and the protection of the Pope."

There were shouts of anger at these words, and some tore rushes from the floor and flung at him, but no one dared to stop the Archbishop's passage as he passed from the hall. It was useless to look for help or justice in England, and that very night Thomas left England for Flanders to appeal to Rome.

But Pope Alexander could do no more for Thomas than his predecessor had done for Anselm; only he would not allow any resignation from Canterbury. Henry himself appealed to the Pope in 1166, fearing excommunication by the Archbishop; "thus by a strange fate it happened that the King, while striving for those 'ancient customs' by which he endeavoured to prevent any right of appeal (to the Pope), was doomed to confirm the right of appeal for his own safety." The Pope did what he could to arrange a reconciliation, but it was not till 1170 that the King, seriously alarmed that Thomas would place England under an interdict, agreed to a reconciliation.

On December 1st the exile was over, and Thomas landed at Sandwich, and went at once to Canterbury. There were many who doubted whether there could be lasting peace between the King and the Archbishop, and while the bishops generally hated the Primate's return, the nobles spoke openly of him as a traitor to the King.

The end was near. Thomas, asked to withdraw the sentence of excommunication he had passed against the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of London and Salisbury for violating the privileges of Canterbury, answered that the matter must go before the Pope. The bishops, instead of going to Rome, hastened to Henry, who was keeping his Court at Bur, in France.

Henry, at the complaint of the bishops, broke out into one of those terrible fits of anger which overcame him from time to time, and four knights left the Court saying, "All this trouble will be at an end when Thomas is dead, and not before." On December 29th these knights were at Canterbury, and at nightfall, just when vespers had begun, they slew Archbishop Thomas by the great pillar in the Cathedral. So died this great Archbishop for the liberties of the Church, and, as it seemed to him, for the welfare of the people.

Henry was horrified at the news of the Archbishop's death, and hastened to beg absolution from Rome for the rash words that had provoked the murder. In the presence of the Papal legate he promised to give up the Constitutions of Clarendon, nor in the remaining eighteen years of his reign did Henry make any fresh attempt to bring the Church under the subjection of the Crown.

To the great bulk of English people Thomas was a saint and martyr, and numerous churches were dedicated in his name. More than three hundred years later Henry VIII. decided that St. Thomas was an enemy of princes, that his shrine at Canterbury must be destroyed, and his festival unhallowed. But the fame of Thomas a Becket has survived the censure of Henry VIII., and his name shines clearly across the centuries. Democracy has been made possible by the willingness of brave men in earlier centuries to resist, to the death, an absolutism that would have left England bound and chained to the king's throne.


Stephen Langton was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury in June, 1207, on the nomination of Pope Innocent III.; the monks of Canterbury, who had proposed their own superior, consenting to the appointment, for Langton had a high reputation for learning and was known to be of exalted character. But King John, who had wanted a man of his own heart for the archbishopric—John of Gray, Bishop of Norwich, commonly spoken of as "a servant of Mammon, and an evil shepherd that devoured his own sheep"—was enraged, and refusing to acknowledge Langton, defied the Pope, drove the monks out of the country, and declared that anyone who acknowledged Stephen Langton as archbishop should be accounted a public enemy. So it came about that the great English statesman who broke down the foulest and worst tyranny the land had known, and won for England the Great Charter of its liberties, was a nominee of the Pope, and was to find himself under the displeasure of the Papal legate when the Charter had been signed! For six years John kept Stephen out of Canterbury, while England lay under an interdict, with its King excommunicate and outside the pale of the Church. Most of the bishops fled abroad, "fearing the King, but afraid to obey him for dread of the Pope," and John laid hands on Church property and filled the royal treasury with the spoils of churchmen and Jews. But in 1213 John's position had become precarious, for the northern barons were plotting his overthrow, and the Pope had absolved all his subjects from allegiance, and given sentence that "John should be thrust from his throne and another worthier than he should reign in his stead," naming Philip of France as his successor. John was aware that he could not count on the support of the barons in a war with France, and a prophecy of Peter, the Wakefield Hermit, that the crown would be lost before Ascension Day, made him afraid of dying excommunicate. Accordingly John decided to get the Pope on his side. He agreed to receive Pandulf, the Papal legate; to acknowledge Stephen; make good the damage done to the Church, and, in addition, voluntarily ("of our own good free will and by the common counsel of our barons") surrendered "to God and to the Holy Mother Church of Rome, and to Pope Innocent and his Catholic successors," the whole realm of England and Ireland, "with all rights thereunto appertaining, to receive them back and hold them thenceforth as a feudatory of God and the Roman Church." He swore fealty to the Pope for both realms, and promised a yearly tribute of 1,000 marks.

This abject submission to the Pope was a matter of policy. John cared nothing for any appearance of personal or national humiliation, and as he had broken faith with all in England, so, if it should suit his purpose, would he as readily break faith with Rome. But the immediate advantage of having the Pope for his protector seemed considerable. "For when once he had put himself under apostolical protection and made his realms a part of the patrimony of St. Peter, there was not in the Roman world a sovereign who durst attack him or would invade his lands, in such awe was Pope Innocent held above all his predecessors for many years past."[10]

Stephen landed in June, 1213, and at Winchester John was formally absolved and the coronation oaths were renewed. It was very soon seen what manner of man the Archbishop was. In August a great gathering of the barons took place in St. Paul's, and there Langton recited the coronation charter of Henry I., and told all those assembled that these rights and liberties were to be recovered; and "the barons swore they would fight for these liberties, even unto death if it were needful, and the Archbishop promised that he would help with all his might." The weakness of the barons hitherto had been their want of cohesion, their endless personal feuds, and the lack of any feeling of national responsibility. Langton laboured to create a national party and to win recognition of law and justice for all in England; and the Great Charter was the issue of his work.

The state of things was intolerable. The whole administration of justice was corrupt. The decisions of the King's courts were as arbitrary as the methods employed to enforce sentence. Free men were arrested, evicted, exiled, and outlawed without even legal warrant or the semblance of a fair trial. All the machinery of government set up by the Norman kings, and developed under Henry II., had, in John's hands, become a mere instrument of despotic extortion, to be used against anybody and everybody, from earl to villein, who could be fleeced by the King's servants.

John saw the tide rising against him, and endeavoured to divide barons from Churchmen by proclaiming that the latter should have free and undisturbed right of election when bishoprics and other ecclesiastical offices were vacant. But the attempt failed. Langton was too resolute a statesman, and his conception of the primacy of Canterbury was too high for any turning back from the work he had set himself to accomplish. The rights of election in the Church were important, but the restoration of justice and order and the ending of tyranny were, in his eyes, hardly less important. John, who had been at war in France, returned defeated from his last attempt to recover for the Crown the lost Angevin provinces, to face a discontent that was both wide and general. The people, and in especial the barons and knights whom for fourteen years John had robbed, insulted, and spurned, and whose liberties he had trampled upon, were ready at last under wise leadership to end the oppression.

In November, 1214, the Archbishop saw that the time was come for action, and again the barons met in council. Before the high altar in the Abbey Church of St. Edmundsbury they swore that if the King sought to evade their demand for the laws and liberties of Henry I.'s charter, they would make war upon him until he pledged himself to confirm their rights in a charter under royal seal. "They also agreed that after Christmas they would go all together to the King and ask him for a confirmation of these liberties, and that meanwhile they would so provide themselves with horses and arms that if the King should seek to break his oath, they might, by seizing his castles, compel him to make satisfaction. And when these things were done every man returned to his own home."[11]

John now asked for time to consider these requests, and for the next six months worked hard to break up the barons' confederacy, to gain friends and supporters, and to get mercenaries from Poitou. It was all to no purpose. As a last resource he took the Cross, expecting to be saved as a crusader from attack, and at the same time he wrote to the Pope to help his faithful vassal. The Pope's letters rebuking the barons for conspiracy against the King were unheeded, and the mercenaries were inadequate when John was confronted by the whole baronage in arms.


In May a list of articles to be signed was sent to John; and on his refusal the barons formally renounced their homage and fealty and flew to arms. John was forced to surrender before this host. On June 15th he met the barons at Runnymede, between Staines and Windsor, and there, in the presence of Archbishop Stephen and "a multitude of most illustrious knights," sealed the Great Charter of the Liberties of England.

This Great Charter was in the main a renewal of the old rights and liberties promised by Henry I. It set up no new rights, conferred no new privileges, and sanctioned no changes in the Constitution. Its real and lasting importance is due to its being a written document—for the first time in England it was down in black and white, for all to read, what the several rights and duties of King and people were, and in what the chief points of the Constitution consisted.

The Great Charter is a great table of laws. It marks the beginning of written legislation, and anticipates Acts of Parliament. Unwritten laws and traditions were not abolished: they remain with us to this day; but the written law had become a necessity when "the bonds of unwritten custom" failed to restrain kings and barons. The Great Charter also took into account the rights of free men, and of the tenants of the King's vassals. If the barons and knights had their grievances to be redressed, the commons and the freeholding peasants needed protection against the lawless exactions of their overlords.[12]

Sixty-three clauses make up Magna Charta, and we may summarise them as follows:—

(1) The full rights and liberties of the Church are acknowledged; bishops shall be freely elected, so that the Church of England shall be free.[13]

(2-8) The King's tenants are to have their feudal rights secured against abuse. Widows—in the wardship of the Crown—are to be protected against robbery and against compulsion to a second marriage.

(9-11) The harsh rules for securing the payment of debts to the Crown and to the Jews (in whose debts the Crown had an interest) are to be relaxed.

(12-14) No scutage or aid (save for the three regular feudal aids—the ransom of the King, the knighting of his eldest son, and the marriage of his eldest daughter) is to be imposed except by the Common Council of the nation; and to this Council archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, and greater barons are to be called by special writ, while all who held their land directly from the King, and were of lesser rank, were to be summoned by a general writ addressed to the sheriff of the county. Forty days' notice of the meeting was to be given, and also the cause of the assembly. The action of those who obeyed the summons was to be taken to represent the action of all.[14] (This last clause is never repeated in later confirmations of the Great Charter.)

(15-16) The powers of lords over their tenants are limited and defined.

(17-19) A Court of Common Pleas is to be held in some fixed place so that suitors are not obliged to follow the King's Curia. Cases touching the ownership of land are to be tried in the counties by visiting justices, and by four knights chosen by the county.

(20-23) No freeman is to be fined beyond his offence, and the penalty is to be fixed by a local jury. Earls and barons to be fined by their peers; and clerks only according to the amount of their lay property.

(24-33) The powers of sheriffs, constables, coroners, and bailiffs of the King are strictly defined. No sheriff is to be a justice in his own county. Royal officers are to pay for all the goods taken by requisition; money is not to be taken in lieu of service from those who are willing to perform the service. The horses and carts of freemen are not to be seized for royal work without consent. The weirs in the Thames, Medway, and other rivers in England are to be removed.

(34-38) Uniformity of weights and measures is directed. Inquests are to be granted freely. The sole wardship of minors who have other lords will not be claimed by the King, except in special cases. No bailiff may force a man to ordeal without witnesses.

(39-40) No free man is to be taken, imprisoned, ousted of his land, outlawed, banished, or hurt in any way save by the judgment of his peers, or the law of the land. The King is not to sell, delay, or deny right or justice to anyone.

(41-42) Merchants may go out or come in without paying exorbitant customs. All "lawful" men are to have a free right to pass in and out of England in time of peace.

(44-47) An inquiry into the Forest Laws and a reform of the forest abuses are promised. All forests made in present reign to be disforested, and all fences in rivers thrown down.

(49-60) The foreign mercenaries of the King, all the detested gang that came with horses and arms to the hurt of the realm, are to be sent out of the country. The Welsh princes and the King of Scots (who had sided with the barons) are to have justice done. A general amnesty for all political offences arising from the struggle is made.

The last three articles appointed twenty-five barons, chosen out of the whole baronage, to watch over the keeping of the Charter. They were empowered to demand that any breach of the articles should at once be put right, and, in default to make war on the King till the matter was settled to their satisfaction. Finally there was the oath to be taken on the part of the King, and on the part of the barons that the articles of the Charter should be observed in good faith according to their plain meaning.

The Great Charter was signed, and then in a wild burst of rage John shouted to his foreign supporters, "They have given me five-and-twenty over-kings!"

Within a week of Runnymede the Great Charter was published throughout England, but neither King nor barons looked for peace. John was ready to break all oaths, and while he set about increasing his army of mercenaries, he also appealed to the Pope, as his overlord, protesting that the Charter had been wrested from him by force.

Langton and the bishops left for Rome to attend a general council. Pope Innocent declared the Charter annulled on the ground that both King and barons had made the Pope overlord of England, and that consequently nothing in the government could be changed without his consent. But with Langton, the bishops, and the Papal legate all away at Rome, there was no one to publish the Papal repudiation of the Charter, and the King and barons were already at civil war. Pope Innocent III. was dead in the spring of 1216, and John's wretched reign was over when the King lay dying at Newark in October.

Stephen Langton was back again at Canterbury in 1217, and for eleven more years worked with William the Marshall and Hubert of Burgh to maintain public peace and order during Henry III.'s boyhood. At Oxford, in 1223, the Charter was confirmed afresh, and two years later it was solemnly proclaimed again when the King wanted a new subsidy. As long as the great statesmen were in office Henry III. was saved from the weakness that cursed his rule in England for nearly forty years. But William the Marshall died in 1219, Archbishop Stephen in 1228, and Hubert was dismissed from the justiciarship in 1234. A horde of greedy aliens from Poitou fed at the Court of Henry and devoured the substance of England, until men arose, as Langton had arisen, to demand the enforcement of charters and a just administration of the laws.

Again a national party arises under the leadership of Simon of Montfort, and in their victory over the King we get the beginnings of Parliamentary government and popular representation. Every step forward is followed by reaction, but the ground lost is recovered, and the next step taken marks always a steady advance. Over and over again it has seemed that all the liberties won in the past were lost, but looking back we can see that there has been no lasting defeat of liberty. Only for a time have the forces of oppression triumphed; it is soon found impossible in England to rest under tyranny, or to govern without the consent of the governed. And every fresh campaign for the restriction of kingly power brings us nearer the day of democratic government.

* * * * *




To-day democracy takes the form of representative government in civilised countries; and for representative government contend the nations and peoples seeking democracy.

The weak spots in all popular electoral systems are obvious, and the election of representatives is always a subject for jokes and satire. It could hardly be otherwise. For the best machinery in the world needs some sort of sympathetic intelligence in the person who manipulates it, and the machinery of popular elections can only be worked successfully with a large measure of sincerity and good will. In the hands of the ambitious, the self-seeking, and the unscrupulous, democratic politics are a machine for frustrating popular representation, and as this state of things is always prevalent somewhere, the humorist and the satirist naturally treat politics without respect.

But in spite of all its faults and failings—glaring as these are—mankind can at present devise nothing better than representative government, and the abuse of power, the cunning, roguery, and corruption that too often accompany popular elections and democratic administration, rather stir honest men to action than make them incline to dictatorship and absolutism.

The present notion about representative government is that it makes possible the expression of popular will, and can ensure the fulfilment of that will. In the thirteenth century, when we get the beginnings of representative government, there is no question of the people making positive proposals in legislation, but there is a distinct belief that the consent of the governed ought to be obtained by the ruling power. The mere legal maxim from the Code of Justinian, that "that which touches all shall be approved by all,"[15] "becomes transmuted by Edward I. into a great political and constitutional principle."[16]


More than a century earlier the first recorded appearances of town representatives are found in the Spanish Cortes of Aragon and Castile.[17] St. Dominic makes a representative form of government the rule in his Order of Preaching Friars, each priory sending two representatives to its provincial chapter, and each province sending two representatives to the general chapter of the Order.

In England, Simon of Montfort, the son of Simon, the great warrior of the Albigensian wars and the warm friend of Dominic, was in close association with the friars. Hence there was nothing so very remarkable in Earl Simon issuing writs for the Full Parliament of 1265 for the return of two burgesses from each city and borough. He had seen representative government at work among the friars in their chapters. Why should the plan be not equally useful in the government of the country?[18] There is no evidence that the summons to the burgesses was regarded as a revolutionary proposal—so lightly comes political change in England.

The name of Simon of Montfort, Earl of Leicester, must always be associated with the beginning of representative government in England. Let us recall how it was the great Earl came to be in power in 1265.


Henry III. was always in want of money, and his crew of royal parasites from Poitou drained the exchequer. Over and over again the barons called on the King to get rid of his favourites, and to end the misrule that afflicted the country; and the King from time to time gave promises of amendment. But the promises were always broken. As long as Henry could get money he was averse from all constitutional reform. In 1258 the barons were determined that a change must be made. "If the King can't do without us in war, he must listen to us in peace," they declared. "And what sort of peace is this when the King is led astray by bad counsellors, and the land is filled with foreign tyrants who grind down native-born Englishmen?"

William of Rishanger, a contemporary writer, expressed the popular feeling in well-known verses:

"The King that tries without advice to seek his country's weal Must often fail; he cannot know the wants and woes they feel. The Parliament must tell the King how he may serve them best, And he must see their wants fulfilled and injuries redressed. A King should seek his people's good and not his own sweet will. Nor think himself a slave because men hold him back from ill."

"The King's mistakes call for special treatment," said Richard, Earl of Gloucester.


So that year a Parliament met in Oxford, in the Dominican Priory. It was called the "Mad Parliament," because the barons all came to it fully armed, and civil war seemed imminent. But Earl Simon and Richard of Gloucester carried the barons with them in demanding reform. Henry was left without supporters, and civil war was put off for five years.

The work done at this Parliament of Oxford was an attempt to make the King abide loyally by the Great Charter; and the Provisions of Oxford, as they were called, set up a standing council of fifteen, by whom the King was to be guided, and ordered that Parliament was to meet three times a year: at Candlemas (February 2nd), on June 1st, and at Michaelmas. Four knights were to be chosen by the King's lesser freeholders in each county to attend this Parliament, and the baronage was to be represented by twelve commissioners.

It was an oligarchy that the Provisions of Oxford established, "intended rather to fetter the King than to extend or develop the action of the community at large. The baronial council clearly regards itself as competent to act on behalf of all the estates of the realm, and the expedient of reducing the national deliberations to three sessions of select committees betrays a desire to abridge the frequent and somewhat irksome duty of attendance in Parliament rather than to share the central legislative and deliberative power with the whole body of the people. It must, however, be remembered that the scheme makes a very indistinct claim to the character of a final arrangement."[19]

For a time things went better in England. The aliens at Henry's Court fled over-seas, and their posts were filled by Englishmen. Parliament also promised that the vassals of the nobles should have better treatment, and that the sheriffs should be chosen by the shire-moots, the county freeholders.

But Henry's promises were quickly broken, and war broke out on the Welsh borders between Simon of Montfort's friend Llewellyn and Mortimer and the Marchers. Edward, Prince of Wales, stood by the Provisions of Oxford for a few years, but supported his father when the latter refused to re-confirm the Provisions in 1263. As a last resource to prevent civil war, Simon and Henry agreed to appeal to King Louis of France to arbitrate on the fulfilment of the Provisions. The Pope had already absolved Henry from obedience to the Provisions, and the Award of Louis, given at Amiens and called the Mise of Amiens, was entirely in Henry's favour. It annulled the Provisions of Oxford, left the King free to appoint his own ministers, council, and sheriffs, to employ aliens, and to enjoy power uncontrolled. But the former charters of the realm were declared inviolate, and no reprisals were to take place.

To Simon and most of the barons the Award was intolerable, and when Henry returned from France with a large force ready to take the vengeance which the Award had forbidden, civil war could not be prevented. London rallied to Simon, and Oxford, the Cinque Ports, and the friars were all on the side of the barons against the King.

On May 14th, 1264, a pitched battle at Lewes ended in complete victory for Simon, and found the King, Prince Edward, and the kinsmen and chief supporters of the Crown prisoners in his hands.

Peace was made, and a treaty—the Mise of Lewes—drawn up and signed. Once more the King promised to keep the Provisions and Charters, and to dismiss the aliens. He also agreed to live thriftily till his debts were paid, and to leave his sons as hostages with Earl Simon.

Simon at once set about the work of reform. The King's Standing, or Privy, Council was reconstituted, and the Parliamentary Commissioners were abolished, "for Simon held it as much a man's duty to think and work for his country as to fight for it." A marked difference is seen between Simon's policy at Oxford and the policy after Lewes. The Provisions of 1258 were restrictive. The Constitution of 1264 deliberately extended the limits of Parliament. "Either Simon's views of a Constitution had rapidly developed, or the influences which had checked them in 1258 were removed. Anyhow, he had genius to interpret the mind of the nation, and to anticipate the line which was taken by later progress."[20] What Simon wanted was the approval of all classes of the community for his plans, and to that end he issued writs for the Parliament—the Full Parliament—of 1265.

The great feature of this Parliament was that for the first time the burgesses of each city and borough were summoned to send two representatives. In addition, two knights were to come from each shire, and clergy and barons as usual—though in the case of the earls and barons only twenty-three were invited, for Simon had no desire for the presence of those who were his enemies. The Full Parliament sat till March, and then two months later war had once more blazed out. Earl Gilbert of Gloucester broke away from Simon, Prince Edward escaped from custody, and these two joined Lord Mortimer and the Welsh Marchers.

On August 4th Edward surprised and routed the army of the younger Simon near Kenilworth, and then advanced to crush the great Earl, who was encamped at Evesham, waiting to join forces with his son. All hope of escape for Earl Simon was lost, and he was outnumbered by seven to two. But fly he would not. One by one the barons who stood by Simon were cut down, but though wounded and dismounted, the great Earl "fought on to the last like a giant for the freedom of England, till a foot soldier stabbed him in the back under the mail, and he was borne down and slain." For three hours the unequal fight lasted in the midst of storm and darkness, and when it was over the Grey Friars carried the mangled body of the dead Earl into the priory at Evesham, and laid it before the high altar, for the poorer clergy and the common people all counted Simon of Montfort for a saint.

"Those who knew Simon praise his piety, admire his learning, and extol his prowess as a knight and skill as a general. They tell of his simple fare and plain russet dress, bear witness to his kindly speech and firm friendship to all good men, describe his angry scorn for liars and unjust men, and marvel at his zeal for truth and right, which was such that neither pleasure nor threats nor promises could turn him aside from keeping the oath he swore at Oxford; for he held up the good cause 'like a pillar that cannot be moved, and, like a second Josiah, esteemed righteousness the very healing of his soul.' As a statesman he wished to bind the King to rule according to law, and to make the King's Ministers responsible to a Full Parliament; and though he did not live to see the success of his policy, he had pointed out the way by which future statesmen might bring it about."[21]

In the hour of Simon's death it might seem that the cause of good government was utterly lost, and for a time Henry triumphed with a fierce reaction. But the very barons who had turned against Simon were quite determined that the Charters should be observed, and Edward was to show, on his coming to the throne, that he had grasped even more fully than Simon the notion of a national representative assembly, and that he accepted the principle, "that which touches all shall be approved by all."

Henry III. died in 1272, and it was not till two years later that Edward I. was back in England from the crusades to take up the crown. It was an age of great lawgivers; an age that saw St. Louis ruling in France, Alfonso the Wise in Castile, the Emperor Frederick II.—the Wonder of the World—in Sicily. In England Edward shaped the Constitution and settled for future times the lines of Parliamentary representative government.


For the first twenty years Edward's Parliaments were great assemblies of barons and knights, and it was not till 1295 that the famous Model Parliament was summoned. "It is very evident that common dangers must be met by measures concerted in common," ran the writ to the bishops. Every sheriff was to cause two knights to be elected from each shire, two citizens from each city, two burgesses from each borough. The clergy were to be fully represented from each cathedral and each diocese.

Hitherto Parliament, save in 1265, had been little else than a feudal court, a council of the King's tenants; it became, after 1295, a national assembly. Edward's plan was that the three estates—clergy, barons, and commons: those who pray, those who fight, and those who work—should be represented. But the clergy always stood aloof, preferring to meet in their own houses of convocation; and the archbishops, bishops, and greater abbots only attended because they were great holders of land and important feudal lords.

Although the knights of the shire were of much the same class as the barons, the latter received personal summons to attend, and the knights joined with the representatives of the cities and boroughs. So the two Houses of Parliament consisted of barons and bishops—lords spiritual and lords temporal—and knights and commons; and we have to-day the House of Lords and the House of Commons; the former, as in the thirteenth century, lords spiritual and temporal, the latter, representatives from counties and boroughs.

The admission of elected representatives was to move, in course of time, the centre of government from the Crown to the House of Commons; but in Edward I.'s reign Parliament was just a larger growth of the King's Council—the Council that Norman and Plantagenet kings relied on for assistance in the administration of justice and the collection of revenue. The judges of the supreme court were always summoned to Parliament, as the law lords sit in the Upper House to-day.

Money, or rather the raising of money, was the main cause for calling a Parliament. The clergy at first voted their own grants to the Crown in convocation, but came to agree to pay the taxes voted by Lords and Commons, And Lords and Commons, instead of making separate grants, joined in a common grant.

"And, as the bulk of the burden fell upon the Commons, they adopted a formula which placed the Commons in the foreground. The grant was made by the Commons, with the assent of the Lords spiritual and temporal. This formula appeared in 1395, and became the rule. In 1407, eight years after Henry IV. came to the throne, he assented to the important principle that money grants were to be initiated by the House of Commons, were not to be reported to the King until both Houses were agreed, and were to be reported by the Speaker of the Commons' House. This rule is strictly observed at the present day. When a money bill, such as the Finance bill for the year or the Appropriation bill, has been passed by the House of Commons and agreed to by the House of Lords, it is, unlike all other bills, returned to the House of Commons."[22] The Speaker, with his own hand, delivers all money bills to the Clerk of Parliaments, the officer whose business it is to signify the royal assent.

In addition to voting money, the Commons, on the assembly of Parliament, would petition for the redress of grievances. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, they were not legislators, but petitioners for legislation; and as it often happened that their petitions were not granted in the form they asked, it became a matter of bitter complaint that the laws did not correspond with the petitions. Henry V. in 1414 granted the request that "nothing should be enacted to the petition of the Commons contrary to their asking, whereby they should be bound without their assent"; and from that time it became customary for bills to be sent up to the Crown instead of petitions, leaving the King the alternative of assent or reaction.


In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the power of Parliament was strong enough to force the abdication of two kings—Edward II. and Richard II.—but not strong enough to free the land of the turbulent authority of the nobles. This authority went down in the struggles of the Lancastrians and Yorkists.

"The bloody faction fights known as the Wars of the Roses brought the Plantagenet dynasty to a close, weeded out the older nobility, and cleared the way for a new form of monarchy."[23]

"The high nobility killed itself out. The great barons who adhered to the 'Red Rose' or the 'White Rose,' or who fluctuated from one to the other, became poorer, fewer, and less potent every year. When the great struggle ended at Bosworth, a large part of the greatest combatants were gone. The restless, aspiring, rich barons, who made the civil war, were broken by it. Henry VII. attained a kingdom in which there was a Parliament to advise, but scarcely a Parliament to control."[24]

It is important to note the ascendancy of the barons in the medieval Parliaments, and their self-destruction in the Wars of the Roses. Unless we realise how very largely the barons were the Parliament, it is difficult to understand how it came about that Parliament was so utterly impotent under the Tudors. The Wars of the Roses killed off the mighty parliamentarians, and it took a hundred years to raise the country landowners into a party which, under Eliot, Hampden, and Pym, was to make the House of Commons supreme.

"The civil wars of many years killed out the old councils (if I might so say): that is, destroyed three parts of the greater nobility, who were its most potent members, tired the small nobility and gentry, and overthrew the aristocratic organisation on which all previous effectual resistance to the sovereign had been based."[25]

To get an idea of the weakness of Parliament when the Tudors ruled, we have but to suppose at the present day a Parliament deprived of all front-bench men on both sides of the House, and of the leaders of the Irish and Labour parties, and a House of Lords deprived of all Ministers and ex-Ministers.


Before passing to the Parliamentary revival of the seventeenth century, there still remain one or two points to be considered relating to the early national assemblies of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

(1) Who were the electors in the Middle Ages?—In the counties, all who were entitled to attend and take part in the proceedings of the county court had the right of electing the knight of the shire; and "it is most probable, on the evidence of records, on the analogies of representative usage, and on the testimony of later facts, that the knights of the shire were elected by the full county court."[26]

The county court or shire-moot not only elected knights for Parliament; it often enough elected them for local purposes as well. The county coroner was elected in similar fashion by the county. All the chief tenants and small freeholders were therefore the county electors; but the tenants-in-chief (who held their lands from the Crown) and the knights of the county had naturally considerably more influence than the smaller men. "The chief lord of a great manor would have authority with his tenants, freeholders as they might be, which would make their theoretical equality a mere shadow, and would, moreover, be exercised all the more easily because the right which it usurped was one which the tenant neither understood nor cared for."[27]

It is difficult to decide to what extent the smaller freeholders could take an active interest in the affairs of the county. As for the office of knight of the shire, there was no competition in the thirteenth or fourteenth century for the honour of going to Parliament, and it is likely enough that the sheriff, upon whom rested the responsibility for the elections, would in some counties be obliged to nominate and compel the attendance of an unwilling candidate.

(2) Payment of Parliamentary Representatives.—The fact that Members of Parliament were paid by their constituents in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries[28] made certain small freeholders as anxious not to be included in the electorate as others were anxious not to be elected to Parliament. It was recognised as "fair that those persons who were excluded from the election should be exempt from contribution to the wages. And to many of the smaller freeholders the exemption from payment would be far more valuable than the privilege of voting."[29] But the Commons generally petitioned for payment to be made by all classes of freeholders, and when all allowance has been made for varying customs and for local diversities and territorial influence, it is safe to take it that the freeholders were the body of electors.

In 1430, the eighth year of Henry VI., an Act was passed ordering that electors must be resident in the country, and must have free land or tenement to the value of 40s. a year at least; and this Act was in operation till 1831.

The county franchise was a simple and straightforward matter compared with the methods of electing representatives from the boroughs. All that the sheriff was ordered to do by writ was to provide for the return of two members for each city or borough in his county; the places that were to be considered as boroughs were not named. In the Middle Ages a town might have no wish to be taxed for the wages of its Parliamentary representative, and in that case would do its best to come to an arrangement with the sheriff. (It was not till the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that a considerable increase of boroughs took place. The Tudors created "pocket" and "rotten" boroughs in order to have the nominees of the Crown in Parliament.) The size of the borough bore no relation to its membership till the Reform Act of the nineteenth century, and as the selection of towns to be represented was arbitrary, so the franchise in the towns was equally unsettled. One or two places had a wide franchise, others confined the vote to freemen and corporation members. But in spite of the extraordinary vagaries of the borough franchise, and the arbitrary selection of towns to be represented, these early medieval Parliaments really did in an imperfect way represent the nation—all but the peasants and artisans.

"Our English Parliaments were unsymmetrical realities. They were elected anyhow. The sheriff had a considerable licence in sending writs to boroughs, that is, he could in part pick its constituencies; and in each borough there was a rush and scramble for the franchise, so that the strongest local party got it whether few or many. But in England at that time there was a great and distinct desire to know the opinion of the nation, because there was a real and close necessity. The nation was wanted to do something—to assist the sovereign in some war, to pay some old debt, to contribute its force and aid in the critical juncture of the time. It would not have suited the ante-Tudor kings to have had a fictitious assembly; they would have lost their sole feeler, their only instrument for discovering national opinion. Nor could they have manufactured such an assembly if they wished. Looking at the mode of election, a theorist would say that these Parliaments were but 'chance' collections of influential Englishmen. There would be many corrections and limitations to add to that statement if it were wanted to make it accurate, but the statement itself hits exactly the principal excellence of these Parliaments. If not 'chance' collections of Englishmen, they were 'undesigned' collections; no administrations made them, or could make them. They were bona fide counsellors, whose opinion might be wise or unwise, but was anyhow of paramount importance, because their co-operation was wanted for what was in hand."[30]

(3) The political position of women in the Middle Ages.—Abbesses were summoned to the convocations of clergy in Edward I.'s reign. Peeresses were permitted to be represented by proxy in Parliament. The offices of sheriff, high constable, governor of a royal castle, and justice of the peace have all been held by women. In fact, the lady of the manor had the same rights as the lord of the manor, and joined with men who were freeholders in electing knights of the shire without question of sex disability.[31] (A survival of the medieval rights of women may be seen in the power of women to present clergy to benefices in the Church of England.)

In the towns women were members of various guilds and companies equally with men, and were burgesses and freewomen. Not till 1832 was the word "male" inserted before "persons" in the charters of boroughs. "Never before has the phrase 'male persons' appeared in any statute of the realm. By this Act (the Reform Bill), therefore, women were technically disfranchised for the first time in the history of the English Constitution. The privilege of abstention was converted into the penalty of exclusion."


The years of Simon of Montfort and Edward I., which saw the beginnings of a representative national assembly, were not a time of theoretical discussion on political rights. The English nation, indeed, has ever been averse from political theories. The notion of a carefully balanced constitution was outside the calculations of medieval statesmen, and the idea of political democracy was not included among their visions.

"Even the scholastic writers, amid their calculations of all possible combinations of principles in theology and morals, well aware of the difference between the 'rex politicus' who rules according to law, and the tyrant who rules without it, and of the characteristics of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, with their respective corruptions, contented themselves for the most part with balancing the spiritual and secular powers, and never broached the idea of a growth into political enfranchisement. Yet, in the long run, this has been the ideal towards which the healthy development of national life in Europe has constantly tended, only the steps towards it have not been taken to suit a preconceived theory."[32]

Each step towards democracy has been taken "to suit the convenience of party or the necessities of kings, to induce the newly admitted classes to give their money, to produce political contentment."

The only two principles that are apparent in the age-long struggles for political freedom in England, that are recognised and acknowledged, are: (1) That that which touches all shall be approved by all; (2) that government rests on the consent of the governed. Over and over again these two principles may be seen at work.

* * * * *




Popular insurrection has never been successful in England; a violent death and a traitor's doom have been the lot of every leader of the common people who took up arms against the Government. The Civil War that brought Charles I. to the scaffold, and the Revolution that deposed James II. and set William of Orange on the throne, were the work of country gentlemen and Whig statesmen, not of the labouring people.

But if England has never seen popular revolution triumphant and democracy set up by force of arms, the earlier centuries witnessed more than one effort to gain by open insurrection some measure of freedom for the working people of the land.

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