Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VIII: State of the Sovereign in the primitive Anglo-Saxon Government. - An Historical View of the English Government
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CHAPTER VIII: State of the Sovereign in the primitive Anglo-Saxon Government. - John Millar, An Historical View of the English Government 
An Historical View of the English Government, From the Settlement of the Saxons in Britain to the Revolution in 1688, in four volumes, edited by Mark Salber Philips and Dale R. Smith, introduction by Mark Salber Philips (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006).
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State of the Sovereign in the primitive Anglo-Saxon Government.
The different parties of the Saxons, who invaded Britain, were each of them under the conduct of some adventurer, whose fortunes they had followed, either from personal attachment, or from a confidence in his abilities. After they had settled in the country, the same person continued to have the command of their forces, and became also the chief civil officer of the community. The longer he had remained in that high station, his possession of it was rendered more secure by the continuance of the same circumstances which had originally produced his elevation. His military talents, deriving lustre and importance from the distinguished point of view in which they were beheld, excited the admiration and respect of his followers; while the dangers with which they were surrounded, and a sense of their common interest, united<231> them in fighting under his banner. By every new expedition they became the more accustomed to submit to his direction; and the oftener they had found it necessary to solicit his protection and assistance, under those calamities to which they were exposed, they felt more sensibly the advantages derived from his favour, as well as the inconveniences arising from his displeasure.
In the early history of the Anglo-Saxons, the leader of every separate tribe or party, is accordingly represented as possessing a permanent office, with the title of herotoch or duke, in place of which that of king was afterwards assumed.
The king was in possession of a landed estate, acquired in the same manner with that of every inferior leader, by whose assistance the conquest had been made. As the booty arising from any successful enterprize, was divided among the free people or heads of families concerned in the adventure, and, as on those occasions, each individual obtained a portion, both of land and moveables, suited to his rank and abilities; it may easily be conceived that the property accumulated, in a<232> course of time, by the sovereign, would be much greater than that of any one of his subjects. His estate was naturally distributed among his dependents, according to the same plan which was adopted by every other landed proprietor. A part of it was bestowed upon his kindred or free retainers, under the condition of military service; and the remainder was cultivated by his villeins, or bondmen, for supporting the expence of his houshold. Over these two classes of people, he exercised the rights of a superior, and of a master. Throughout the rest of the kingdom, exclusive of his own particular estate, his authority was much more limited. Every allodial proprietor, unaccustomed to subjection, and supported by his own retainers, was more or less in a condition to maintain his independence; and those who had acquired considerable property, beholding with jealousy the superior dignity and pretensions of the king, were commonly ready to combine against him, either in resenting or opposing, whatever they deemed an infringement of their liberties.
The powers with which the sovereign came to be invested, either in the different states of<233> the Heptarchy, or in the subsequent monarchy which arose from the union of those kingdoms, were such as, in order to prevent confusion and promote the dispatch of public business, were tacitly devolved upon him, or as, from the nature of his situation, he had found encouragement to assume, and had, without opposition, been permitted to exercise. The dignity and office of the king, though higher in degree, were perfectly similar to those of the tythingman, the hundreder, and the earl; and he possessed nearly the same powers over the whole kingdom, which those inferior officers enjoyed in their own particular districts.
1. By having the command of the forces in the time of battle, the original source of his greatness, he was led to direct their movements on other occasions; to take preparatory steps for bringing them into the field; to suggest particular enterprizes, to plan the measures for conducting them, to execute treaties with foreign states, and in general to superintend the defence of the kingdom, and the whole course of its military operations.
2. In consequence of his being at the head of the military department, the king was led<234> also to exert his authority in suppressing internal disorders, in quelling tumults and insurrections, in restraining private rapine and violence, in seizing offenders, and preventing their escape from justice; in a word, he obtained the province of maintaining the ordinary police of the country, and the security of its inhabitants.
3. As, from these two branches of power, he became the prime mover, and proposer of public measures, and as, in matters of great moment, the concurrence of the Wittenagemote was necessary; he acquired, of course, the exclusive privilege of calling that assembly, and of presiding in all its deliberations. The influence which he thence obtained, with regard to its determinations, may easily be imagined. The president of every numerous assembly has many opportunities of moulding the business that comes before it, into such a shape as will promote his own designs; more especially, if by the permanent enjoyment of that office, he has leisure to form a regular plan of management; and if, by having a discretionary power of calling the particular meetings, he may regulate his motions according as<235> the assembly happens, in different conjunctures, to be attended by different members. But while, by these favourable circumstances, the sovereign was capable of advancing his political interest, he enjoyed the additional advantage of superior opulence and dignity; which put him in a condition to intimidate, as well as to over-reach opposition. To a prince, therefore, possessed of much prudence, and of popular talents, it was not difficult, in ordinary cases, to procure the consent of the Wittenagemote to those measures which he thought proper to suggest; and the resolutions of that assembly, while they appeared to limit and controul the power of the crown, were at bottom, very often directed by the monarch, and rendered subservient to his will.
4. As the Wittenagemote enacted laws, distributed justice in the last resort, and regulated the administration of public affairs; so the duty of enforcing the decrees and regulations of that assembly, and, in general, the executive part of the government, were naturally devolved upon the king. That great officer, who conducted the military force of the kingdom, could hardly fail to assume the province of<236> causing the punishments decreed against offenders to be regularly inflicted, and of compelling every individual to fulfil the decisions of the law. The same person was led to procure information with respect to the commission of heinous crimes, and to direct that they should be prosecuted before the proper tribunals. In these employments, the sovereign acted as the head and representative of the community. In the same capacity, he obtained the nomination of many inferior officers in church and state; the privilege of coining money, and of superintending weights and measures; together with the exercise of all those powers which, from their nature, could not be conveniently devolved upon a popular assembly.
These prerogatives, which, from the natural course of things, and probably without any formal or express regulation, were gradually annexed to the crown, became the source of such perquisites and emoluments, as more than compensated the trouble with which they were attended. The chief executive officer, who prosecuted a crime in the name of the public, had a plausible pretence, upon the same<237> account, for levying the fine or forfeiture arising from the conviction of the criminal. Besides, in government, as well as in religion, the bulk of men are commonly so engrossed by the image or picture, as to forget the original, and to bestow upon the representative the sentiments due to the object it represents. Thus the sovereign, who appeared to direct, and put in motion, all the wheels and springs of government, who enforced the laws, who vindicated offences, and took upon himself the whole burden of providing for the public safety, was apt to be considered as exercising, in his own right, those powers with which the community had invested him. Those laws which he enforced were conceived to be more immediately calculated for his own benefit: those officers whom he appointed were looked upon as the servants of the crown; and those crimes, which he prosecuted and punished, were regarded as crimes committed against him in particular, for which he was, therefore, entitled, of himself, to demand reparation.
The public revenue of the Anglo-Saxons, therefore, by which the rank of the sovereign was maintained, and out of which the various<238> expences of government were defrayed, consisted almost entirely of two branches; the original demesnes of the king, acquired in the same manner with the private estate of each allodial proprietor; and the various forfeitures and fines, whether of land or moveables, which, from time to time accrued, or were transmitted to him, as the head of the community. From this latter source he derived a continual accumulation of wealth. The disorder and violence, that prevailed so universally, gave occasion to the forfeiture of many rich individuals; and the king was commonly disposed to neglect no opportunity of seizing and improving such favourable conjunctures. In the greater part of crimes, as it frequently happens in the infancy of government, the criminal was not punished in a manner adequate to the purposes of public justice, but was admitted to atone for his offence, by making a pecuniary composition with the sufferer. In those cases, the king exacted a composition as well as the private party; and the profits arising to the crown, from the innumerable fines and amerciaments, to which this gave occasion, were one great cause of the<239> long continuance of that imperfect mode of punishing offences.
In this early stage of the constitution, the revenue above mentioned was sufficient for all the charges of public administration; which were then inconsiderable. There was no mercenary army to be paid by the king. The judges were either willing to determine differences among individuals, and to take cognizance of crimes, without any consideration for their trouble; or they obtained a compensation by exacting fees from the parties who came before them. Taxes therefore were almost entirely unknown. Their introduction belongs to the history of a more advanced period of society.
But even this primitive revenue of the crown appears to have laid a foundation for the Wittenagemote to interfere in the disposal of it; since the estate, acquired by the king, in the character of the chief executive officer, and as representing the community, was, in a proper sense, the estate of the public. This conclusion was not, indeed, applicable to the whole, though it undoubtedly was to a considerable part of the royal demesnes. But it was not<240> the genius of that age to make nice distinctions; and the interposition of the national council, in the management of some branches of the crown revenue, might easily be extended to others that were placed in different circumstances.
We find that, not only in England, but in the other states upon the continent of Europe, the arrangements which took place in the management of the king’s household, and private estate, had necessarily great influence upon the government of the kingdom. According as the sovereign advanced in opulence and dignity, he was led to employ a greater number of servants in the several branches of his domestic oeconomy; and the same persons, who enjoyed the chief confidence of their master in that private capacity, became, in course of time, his ministers in conducting the business of the nation. In all the European feudal kingdoms, the management of the king’s household was anciently divided into five principal departments, and fell under the inspection of so many great officers.
1. The first of these was the steward, or master of the household, called, upon the<241> continent, the major domo, the mayor of the palace, or seneschall; who had originally the care of the king’s table. Upon him was naturally devolved the business of gathering in the rents of the crown lands: for, as those rents were all payable in kind, and were intended for immediate consumption, it was most convenient, that they should be delivered into the hands of that person by whom they were afterwards to be laid out for the support of the king’s family.
We may easily believe that, from the nature of his office, the master of the houshold was in a condition to acquire much influence over all the tenants and vassals of the crown. He was the person with whom they were obliged to settle their accounts; and who, from his minute acquaintance with their circumstances, was the most capable of giving his master information concerning them. He was, therefore, the person most likely to be employed in adjusting their differences with one another; and in consequence of his being the deputy judge upon the royal demesne, he came, at a subsequent period, to be intrusted<242> by the crown, with a similar power over the whole kingdom.*
2. As the collection and management of the victuals, with which the king’s table was supplied, fell under the direction of the steward; so the care of the liquors was committed to a separate officer, the cup-bearer, or butler. In all the Gothic nations, persons of wealth and distinction lived in great splendor, and were much addicted to drinking; for which reason, it is not surprising that the accommodation of the sovereign, in this respect, was<243> exalted into a separate employment, and became an object of suitable importance.
3. The care of the chambers was committed to a third officer, the chamberlain; whose business it was to superintend the lodging of his master’s family. As this officer was entrusted with whatever required to be locked up in the house, for the future service of the houshold, he seems, upon this account, to have become the keeper of the wardrobe, and, at a subsequent period, when the crown rents were paid in money, the king’s treasurer or superintendant of the finances.*
4. Another of the king’s principal servants obtained the inspection of the stable, and was denominated the comes stabuli,1 or constable. When, by the keeping of many horses, this department was rendered extensive, it appears to have been divided into two branches; the one belonging to the chief groom, or constable; and the other to the mareschal, or smith. It is difficult to mark the period when this divi-<244>sion was completed: nor is it an easy matter to ascertain the relative degrees of importance and rank which might then be annexed to these two kindred employments.
When the use of cavalry in war became frequent, we may easily suppose, that the persons, who had been accustomed to rear and manage the king’s horses, would stand forth, as claiming superior distinction, and as having a peculiar title to be consulted. They were thus employed, under the sovereign, in conducting that important part of the troops; and, by an easy transition, acquired a jurisdiction in such controversies, as were either of a military nature, or had arisen in the army while it remained in the field.†
5. The writing of the king’s letters, and the executing of the charters, or other deeds, that issued from the crown, became also the subject of a distinct occupation, that of the secretary. In those times, when the clergy had acquired great influence, and when a pro-<245>ficiency in the art of writing supposed an uncommon degree of literary education, the only person likely to be qualified for this employment was the chaplain; who might be considered as, in some degree, the keeper of the king’s conscience; and who, from the nature of those religious offices which he performed, could seldom fail to acquire the confidence of his master.
When signatures were introduced, for ascertaining the authenticity of writings, the office of keeping the king’s seal, and of appending it to his deeds, was committed to the same person who had been employed in writing them.
As in determining law-suits, it was found expedient, in many cases, to take down the sentence of the judge in writing, the secretary was naturally employed for this purpose; and became keeper of the records of the king’s court. From this branch of his duty, he got the appellation of chancellor; which is said to have originally denoted a scribe, or notary; being derived from cancella, the place under the Roman government, allotted to persons<246> of that profession for carrying on their business.*
As this arrangement in the domestic administration of the sovereign, supposes considerable wealth and magnificence; it was probably of a later origin in England than in several of the kingdoms upon the continent. It is reasonable to suppose that the whole of the king’s houshold was at first committed to one principal servant; whose business having been, by little and little, augmented and rendered more burdensome, was at length divided into these five different departments. A similar plan of administration, in a more limited sphere, was adopted by every great landed proprietor; who naturally multiplied his chief domestics, in proportion to the extent of his wealth; and often followed the example of the king, by dividing the affairs of his houshold into the same number of branches.†
The longer these great officers had been<247> established, they rose to higher degrees of consideration; and their authority was farther extended, from the superintendence of the king’s houshold, to the direction and management of the kingdom. As, for the most part, they were originally chosen by the sovereign, upon account of their superior wealth, or abilities, which rendered them capable of supporting his dignity in the execution of the business committed to them; so the trust and confidence which he reposed in them, together with the share of public administration which they enjoyed, afforded them numberless opportunities of augmenting their private fortunes, and of increasing their influence. In proportion to their advances in wealth and<248> power, they were in a condition to render their offices more permanent. They were originally nominated by the king during pleasure; but that superiority, which had been the inducement to their first promotion, became commonly more and more conspicuous during the continuance of their employments. It was, therefore, seldom found convenient to displace them: and, even after their decease, the heir of that estate, which they had acquired, was naturally regarded as the person best qualified, and who had a preferable claim to inherit their dignity. By long usage, these offices were thus rendered hereditary in particular families. To this observation, however, the office of chancellor, in most European countries, is an exception. As the chancellor was unavoidably a clergyman, who held his rank in the church, and the estate connected with it, only during life, he had commonly neither any opportunity of securing the office to his family, nor any desire of annexing it to his ecclesiastical dignity.
Of the influence established by the great officers of the king’s houshold, the political constitution of Germany affords a remarkable<249> instance. When the dominions of that empire, by the conquest of large territories in Italy, and in the southern part of France, had been so enlarged as to comprehend three distinct kingdoms, the emperor was induced, in that situation, to appoint three different secretaries.* The officers of his houshold were, upon this account, increased to the number of seven. In the progress of the German government, the power of these great officers advanced, as that of the emperor declined; and after the imperial dignity had become intirely elective, they assumed the privilege of proposing, to the national assembly, the successor to the crown; from which they at length proceeded to claim the sole right of electing him. Hence the origin of that precise number of persons who composed the primitive German electors.
The steward was originally the officer of the greatest importance in the king’s houshold;<250> because the supplying of his majesty’s table with provisions was regarded as the chief concern of the family. We accordingly find that, in several countries of Europe, the person who enjoyed this hereditary office, attained a degree of rank and opulence which rendered him formidable to the sovereign. In France, the mayors of the palace, after having for a long time possessed the real power and authority of the crown, were at length emboldened to throw off the mask, and openly to mount the throne.
When the use of cavalry in war had become very extensive, and when that part of the feudal armies had the principal share in deciding the fate of battles, the constable, or marishal, was frequently in a condition to dispute the superiority with the steward or mayor of the palace. Thus, in Germany, when the throne happened to be vacant, the Elector Palatine, the mayor of the palace, was anciently appointed, for preventing the bad consequences of an inter-regnum, to be the vicar of the empire. But in a subsequent period, this high dignity was claimed by the elector of Saxony, the constable; and, after<251> violent disputes, and various determinations of the diet,2 was at last divided between those powerful competitors.
In the ages of greater civility and improvement, when, from the complicated connexions of society, its laws became numerous and of difficult interpretation, and when, from the anxiety of individuals to ascertain their rights, the charters and writings proceeding from the crown were multiplied in proportion, the secretary, or chancellor, to whom the king committed that branch of business, was invested with powers of the greatest consequence, and therefore was exalted to the highest rank.
In those opulent and polished nations which have long been reduced under an equal and regular government; in which the impartial distribution of justice is looked upon as almost a matter of course; and in which the sovereign is accustomed to govern by influence, more than by the exertion of his prerogative; in such nations, the person who presides over the public treasury, who may be regarded as the substitute of the chamberlain, becomes the great channel through which the revenue<252> of the state is conveyed, and by which the authority of the crown is maintained.
It is hardly necessary to remark, that this distribution of the business in the king’s household, into five departments, reaches far below the simple period of the Anglo-Saxon government which we are now considering. But, on the other hand, it merits attention, that when the exaltation of the sovereign had multiplied the occupations belonging to these different branches, it became expedient, in some of them, to appoint a variety of deputies; many of whom, in particular kingdoms, rose by degrees to such consideration and rank, as to appear no longer in a subordinate station, and even to make the origin of their appointment be forgotten. This circumstance must not be overlooked in perusing the enumeration, given by many historians, of the principal officers in the court, or houshold, of particular princes.
From the foregoing imperfect sketch of the powers of the sovereign, as well as of the constitution and privileges of the Wittenagemote, we may be enabled, notwithstanding the darkness of our ancient history, to form an idea of<253> the original English constitution. How remote this was from an absolute monarchy, must be apparent to every one, who considers that the privilege of legislation, together with that of determining peace and war, and even that of controlling the executive power, was lodged in the national assembly. Neither can this government be deemed in a high degree aristocratical; since the national council was composed, not of a small junto3 of nobles, but of all the landed proprietors, comprehending a great proportion of the whole people. It seems, in fact, to be that sort of political system which is likely to be established in all rude and extensive countries; before a few individuals have accumulated so much wealth as enables them to domineer over their inferiors; and before the king, in consequence of his high station and prerogatives, has had leisure to acquire a revenue sufficient to overthrow and bear down any opposition that can be apprehended from the most opulent of his subjects. It cannot, however, escape observation, that, although the powers committed to the monarch by the early Saxon constitution were small, they were not accurately de-<254>fined; and that, in the exercise of them, he enjoyed, upon this account, a good deal of latitude. Accurate limitations of power, and a regular system of subordination, the fruit of experience and foresight, cannot be expected to characterize the institutions of a simple people, who are usually guided by their feelings more than by reflection, and who attend more to the immediate effects of any measure, than to its remote consequences. As the Anglo-Saxon princes were entrusted with every branch of public administration, in which the Wittenagemote did not think proper to interfere; their conduct was directed, in a great measure, by particular conjunctures, and by the different unforeseen events which accidentally required their interposition. We need not be surprised, therefore, if in perusing the history of that period, while we discover strong marks of the weakness of the crown, we should also meet with some extraordinary exertions of the prerogative, and should at the same time observe, that these were suffered to pass without censure, or even without notice. It is a common source of mistake, among political writers, to con-<255>sider these extraordinary exertions as proofs of the ordinary state of the government; and to adduce as an illustration of the general practice, what is only the random and casual exercise of a power, not yet brought to a regular standard. We shall now examine the changes produced in the English constitution from the reign of Egbert to the Norman conquest.<256>
[* ]Spelman, v. major domo. This author supposes three different orders of major domo in the houshold of the Gothic monarchs. The first, who had the care of the king’s table: the second, who presided over the whole houshold: and the third, who was employed under the king as chief executive officer of the kingdom. It seems evident, however, that these officers were originally derived from one, who, as he became great, appointed deputies to discharge the inferior branches of duty incumbent upon him.
[* ]It is probable that the butler [pincerna] was, for a long time, not separated from the steward; and in the early history of England neither he nor the chamberlain seem to have been much distinguished.
[1. ]Attendant in charge of the stable.
[† ]This officer was known to the Anglo-Saxons under the name of Stallarius. [[Master of the horse (“staller”). Spelm. Gloss. v. Constabularius. The mareschal seems to have been considered as the deputy of the constable.]]
[* ]This officer is clearly distinguishable in the Anglo-Saxon government. Spelm. v. Cancellarius.
[† ]Pasquier in speaking of these great officers of the houshold observes, that they were gradually established in the families of the great lords and gentlemen. “Parquoy estoient dessus tous, cinq estats plus estimez, le chancelier, grand chambellan, grand maistre, grand eschançon, que nos anciens appelloient grand bouteéller, et connestable. Nous estant par cecy monstrée une grand oeconomie: car aussi n’y a il maison qui vueille tant soit peu parôitre, en laquelle ces cinq estats ne se trouvent estre nécessaires, encore que ce ne soit avec tiltres de telle splendeur.” Recherches de la France, liv. ii. chap. 12. [[“For this reason there were five offices respected above all others: the chancellor, the grand chamberlain, the grand master, the grand cup-bearer, whom our ancestors called the grand butler, and the constable. Thus was the model of a grand household provided for us, for as a consequence there is no house with aspirations to put on even the smallest display in which these five offices are not felt to be necessary, albeit without titles of such magnificence.” For a modern edition, see Etienne Pasquier, Les recherches de la France, ed. Marie-Madeleine Fragonard and François Roudaut (Paris, 1996), 1:436–37.]]
[* ]The first was the secretary for Germany, properly so called; the second for Italy, and the third for Arles. It is remarkable that these chancellors, having become secular princes, their offices have been attached to their ecclesiastical dignity.
[2. ]The assembly of the Holy Roman Empire.
[3. ]From Spanish junta, a cabal, council, or committee. The term was applied by contemporaries to a small group of aristocratic Whig politicians who wielded great influence in a series of ministries at the turn of the eighteenth century.