Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XIV: Alterations in the State of the Wittenagemote. - An Historical View of the English Government
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CHAPTER XIV: Alterations in the State of the Wittenagemote. - 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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Alterations in the State of the Wittenagemote.
The progressive changes in the state of property, and in the constitution and circumstances of the people, of which an account has been given, must have contributed, in many particulars, to alter the constitution and procedure of the Wittenagemote. As this national counsel was composed of all the allodial proprietors of land, whose estates, according to the primitive distribution of property, were generally of small extent, there can be no doubt that, upon the union of the different kingdoms of the Heptarchy, it formed a very numerous, and, in some degree, a tumultuary meeting. The measures which came under its deliberation were proposed, it should seem, by such of its members as were distinguished by their influence or abilities; and its determinations were signified, not by collecting exactly the number of suffrages, but by a promiscuous acclamation, in which the<359> by-standers, it is not unlikely, were accustomed frequently to join with those who had the right of voting. This, in all probability, is what is meant by the early historians, when they speak of the people being present in the ancient Wittenagemote, and of their assisting, and giving their consent, in forming the resolutions of that assembly.
It cannot escape observation, that this early constitution of the national council, while it contained a mixture of democracy and aristocracy, was, in some respects, favourable also to the interests of the crown. In so numerous and disorderly an assembly, there was great room for address, in managing parties, and in conducting the subjects of public deliberation; so that the king, the chief executive officer, had many opportunities of promoting the success of a favourite plan, as well as of parrying, and removing out of sight, those measures which were disagreeable to him.
The frequent resignations of land which, during the progress of the Saxon government, were made by the small allodial proprietors, in order to shelter themselves under the protection of a feudal superior, necessarily withdrew those<360> individuals from the Wittenagemote; and reduced them under the jurisdiction and authority of that particular thane whom they had chosen for their protector. As they became his military servants, they were bound, on every occasion, to espouse his quarrel, and to follow his banner. They were bound, at the same time, to attend his baron-court, and to assist in deciding causes, as well as in making regulations, with regard to his vassals. In consistency with that subordinate station, they could not be permitted to sit in the same council with their liege lord, to deliberate with him upon public affairs; but, on the contrary, were understood to be represented in the Wittenagemote by the person who had undertaken to protect them, and to whom they owed submission and obedience.
Thus, according as the vassals of the nobility, throughout the kingdom, were multiplied, the constituent members of the Wittenagemote became less numerous; and the right of sitting in that assembly was more and more limited, to a few opulent barons, who had acquired the property of extensive districts,<361> and reduced the inhabitants under their dominion.
This change of circumstances was no less unfavourable to the king, on the one hand, than it was, on the other, to the great body of the people. For although the vassals of the crown were, by the gradual resignations of allodial property, increased in the same, or even in a greater proportion than those of particular noblemen, the sovereign was not thence enabled to preserve his former weight in the determination of public measures. The more the national council had been reduced to a small junto of nobles, it was the more difficult to impose upon them, or by any stratagem to divert them from prosecuting their own views of interest or ambition. By the accidental combination of different leaders, they sometimes collected a force which nothing could resist; and were in a condition, not only to defend their own privileges, but even to invade the prerogative. It was often vain for the sovereign, in such a situation, to appeal to the sword from the decisions of the Wittenagemote. Those haughty and ambitious subjects were generally prepared for<362> such a determination; and, as they came into the assembly, supported by their vassals, armed and ready to take the field, they got frequently the start of his majesty. To give way, therefore, to their demands, and to wait for some future opportunity of recovering what had been yielded, was in many cases unavoidable.
In that early period of the Anglo-Saxon state, when the allodial proprietors were numerous, and when their estates were generally small, they were understood to be all of the same rank and condition. Although some persons might be distinguished above others, by their abilities, or military reputation, the superiority derived from thence, being accidental and temporary, was not productive of any permanent authority or privileges. But when, from the causes which have been mentioned, a few great lords had become masters of an extensive landed property, their exaltation in power and dignity was a necessary consequence. Those individuals, on the contrary, who remained in the possession of small estates, though by any fortunate concurrence of events they had been enabled to retain their independence, were degraded in proportion to<363> their poverty. They could maintain but few retainers to support their influence. Hardly in a condition to defend themselves, and afraid of every contest which might endanger their property, and their personal safety, they were deterred from claiming political consideration, and from interfering in public business. It was their interest to live upon good terms with their neighbours, and, by their peaceable and inoffensive behaviour, to shun every ground of jealousy and resentment. If they came into the Wittenagemote, their voice was but little heard; or if they ventured to differ from others, of greater opulence, it was likely to be treated with neglect, or with derision. They had but small encouragement, therefore, to attend the meetings of that assembly; where, at the same time that they incurred an expence not suited to their fortunes, they were subjected to continual mortification, and were incapable of procuring respect. In these circumstances, it is probable that the allodial proprietors, whose estates were inconsiderable, appeared but seldom in the Wittenagemote; and that, unless upon extraordinary occasions, when great unanimity was of the highest importance,<364> their absence was either dispensed with, or in a great measure overlooked.
It was to be expected that this very unequal distribution of property, as it produced a real difference in the consideration and importance of individuals, would come at length to be accompanied with corresponding marks of distinction; and that so much wealth as enabled the possessor to live according to a certain standard of magnificence, might become the foundation of suitable dignity. Thus, in the latter part of the Anglo-Saxon government, such of the nobles as enjoyed an estate, extending to forty hides of land, were distinguished in rank and condition from those who possessed an inferior property. This appears from a passage in the register of Ely, in which mention is made of a person who, “though he was a nobleman, could not be numbered among the proceres,1 because his estate did not amount to forty hides of land.”* <365>
From this passage, political writers have been led to advance two conjectures, to which it gives no countenance whatever. They consider the rank or privileges, attached to the possession of forty hides of land, as having existed from the original settlement of the Anglo-Saxons; although the writer of that passage speaks only, and that by the by, of what was established in the reign of Edward the confessor. They also maintain, that persons whose estates were below forty hides of land, were entirely excluded from the right of sitting in the Wittenagemote. But the passage referred to makes no mention of the right of sitting in the Wittenagemote, nor gives the least hint concerning it; but only points out the extent of property which entitled a person to be ranked among the proceres. There is no reason to believe, either from this, or from any other ancient author, that, even in the latter part of the Anglo-Saxon government, the proprietors of such great estates were the only members of the national assembly; though it is, no doubt, highly probable, that they would be more apt, than persons of a lower station, to give a punctual attendance upon its meetings.<366>
The superior dignity, however, enjoyed, in the reign of Edward the confessor, by such of the nobility as were possessed of a certain extent of property, is the more worthy of attention, as it became still more remarkable after the Norman conquest, and laid the foundation of that noted distinction between the greater and smaller barons, which was productive of important changes in the constitution.
As the Wittenagemote was diminished by the reduction of many allodial proprietors into a state of vassalage; it may be questioned whether it did not, on the other hand, receive a gradual supply of new members, by the advancement of the churles, who, in consequence of the law of king Athelstane, were, upon the acquisition of five hides of land, admitted to the privileges of a thane. Concerning this point the following observations will occur. 1st. That though many of the peasants appear, in the latter periods of the Anglo-Saxon government, to have become free, and even opulent, it is probable that they held their possessions upon the footing of vassalage, rather than of allodial property; in consequence of which, they could only be ranked, from the<367> law above-mentioned, among the lesser thanes, who had no right of sitting in the Wittenagemote: 2dly, Supposing that any of these churles acquired allodial estates, and that they were strictly entitled to a voice in the Wittenagemote; yet, about the time when this privilege was bestowed, a much greater property than five hides of land, the quantity specified in the law of king Athelstane, was required for giving the proprietor any weight or consideration in that assembly, or for making his attendance upon it a desirable object. This was a privilege, therefore, which they would be more apt to decline from its inconveniencies, than to exercise, or to boast of, on account of its advantages.
It may also be a question, whether those merchants who performed three voyages into a foreign country, and who, by another law of the same prince, are said to have obtained the rights of a thane, were admitted into the Wittenagemote. But, as these mercantile adventurers were not required to possess any estate, real or personal, it is not reasonable to suppose that they could be allowed to participate, with the ancient nobility, in the delibe-<368>rations of the supreme national council. It has already been observed, that by the privileges of a thane, bestowed as an encouragement to a certain degree of enterprize in trade, were probably understood those of a lesser thane, or vassal; who, though not a member of the Wittenagemote, was of a condition greatly superior to that of the original peasants and mechanics.
As it does not appear that individuals among the merchants had, independent of any landed estate, the privilege of sitting in the Wittenagemote; so there is no evidence that, collectively, the trading interest were, even in the latter part of the Anglo-Saxon history, entitled to send representatives to that assembly. Of this we may be satisfied from the particulars, relative to the constitution of the national council, which have been formerly mentioned. The facts which were then adduced, in order to shew that in the Saxon Wittenagemote there were no representatives, either from towns, or from the small proprietors of land, appear conclusive with regard to the whole period of the English government before the Norman conquest. If the<369> original constitution of that assembly admitted of no representatives from either of those two classes of men, it must be supposed, that the subsequent introduction of them, more especially if it had happened near the end of the Saxon period, when historical events are better ascertained, would have excited the attention of some historian or other, and have been thought worthy of transmission to future ages. But upon this point, of so much importance in the political system, and so unlikely to pass without notice, the later as well as the early Saxon historians are entirely silent.
The advancement of arts and manufactures, towards the end of the Saxon line, was, indeed, so considerable, as to have enlarged particular towns, and to have exempted the inhabitants from those precarious duties and services to which they had anciently been subjected. They were permitted to form societies, or gilds, for the benefit of their trade; which appear to have at length suggested the practice of incorporating the whole of a town with particular privileges and regulations.* By a series of progressive improvements, the trading people were thus gradually prepared<370> and qualified for that political consideration which they afterwards acquired by the establishment of representatives in the national council. But the acquisition of this important privilege was the work of a later period, when they rose to a higher pitch of opulence and independence.
The original meetings of the Wittenagemote in England, as well as those of the national council, in most of the kingdoms upon the neighbouring continent, appear, as was formerly observed, to have been held regularly at two seasons of the year; at the end of spring, for deliberating upon the military operations of the summer, and at the beginning of autumn, for dividing the fruit of those depredations. The same times of meeting were, for similar reasons, observed, in the courts belonging to the several shires and baronies of the kingdom. But as, in England, from her insular situation, military enterprizes against a foreign enemy were less regular than upon the continent of Europe, those meetings fell soon into disuse; and as, on certain great festivals, the king was accustomed to appear, with great pomp and solemnity, among his nobles; it was found convenient, on those oc-<371>casions, to call the Wittenagemote. Hence the meetings of that council came to be held uniformly at three different seasons; at Christmas, at Easter, and at Whitsuntide.2
The increase of the national business, particularly with respect to the distribution of justice, a consequence of the gradual progress of authority in the public, made it necessary that the Wittenagemote should be held more frequently than in former times; and therefore, in any extraordinary exigence, which arose between the different festivals above mentioned, a particular meeting of that council was called by the king. Thus there came to be two sorts of Wittenagemote; the one held by custom; and at three stated periods; the other called occasionally, by a special summons from the king.* Both were composed of the same persons, if they chose to attend; but commonly a much less regular attendance was given in the latter than in the former. At the occasional meetings of the great council, such of the nobility as lived at a distance were seldom at the trouble of appearing; and the business, of course, devolved upon those mem-<372>bers who happened to be in the king’s retinue, and who might be said to compose his privy council.
For this reason, the occasional meetings of the Wittenagemote usually confined themselves to matters of less importance than were discussed in the old customary meetings. The chief employment of the former was the hearing of appeals from inferior courts: but legislation, and other weighty transactions, were generally reserved to the latter.
If, however, it was found necessary, in the interval between the three great festivals, to deliberate upon public business of importance, the king issued an extraordinary summons to his nobles; in which he expressly required their attendance, and specified the cause of their meeting.†
It may here be proper to remark, that the smaller occasional meetings of the Wittenagemote appear to have suggested the idea of the aula regis;3 a separate court, which, after the Norman conquest, was formed out of parliament for the sole purpose of deciding law-suits.
As the occurrences which demanded the immediate interposition of the Wittenagemote<373> could not be foreseen, the king was led to determine the particular cases in which the deliberation of that assembly was requisite; and in the exercise of this prerogative, he was originally under no restraint. The powers exercised by the crown seem, at first, to have been all discretionary; and to have remained without limitation, until experience had shewn the danger of their being abused.
We shall afterwards have occasion to observe, that, under the princes of the Norman and Plantagenet race, the ancient and regular meetings of the national council were more and more disregarded, and at length entirely disused; in consequence of which the whole parliamentary business came to be transacted in extraordinary meetings, which were called at the pleasure of the sovereign. The attempts to limit this important branch of the royal prerogative will be the subject of future discussion.
Conclusion of the Saxon Period.
Such appear to be the outlines of the English government under the administration of the Anglo-Saxon princes. To the subjects of Britain, who consider the nature of their<374> present constitution, and compare it with that of most of the nations upon the neighbouring continent, it seems natural to indulge a prepossession, that circumstances peculiarly fortunate must have concurred in laying the foundation of so excellent a fabric. It seems natural to imagine, that the government of the Anglo-Saxons must have contained a proportion of liberty, as much greater than that of the neighbouring nations, as our constitution is at present more free than the other European governments.
When we examine, at the same time, the state of our country, in that remote age; the uniform jurisdiction and authority possessed by every allodial proprietor; the division of the country into various districts, subordinate one to another; the perfect correspondence between the civil and ecclesiastical divisions; the similarity in the powers exercised by the meetings of the tything, the hundred, and the shire, in their respective territories, and those of the Wittenagemote over the whole kingdom; the analogy between the office of the tythingman, the hundreder, and the earl, in their inferior departments, and that of the sovereign in his more exalted station; when,<375> I say, we examine these, and other particulars relating to the Anglo-Saxon government, in which we may discover so much order and regularity, such a variety of regulations, nicely adjusted to one another, and calculated for the most beneficial purposes; it is natural to suppose, that the whole has originated in much contrivance and foresight; and is the result of deep laid schemes of policy.
In both of these conclusions, however, we should undoubtedly be mistaken. When we look round and examine the state of the other European kingdoms about the same period; and when we observe, in each of them, the close and minute resemblance of its political system to that of England, how little soever the apparent intercourse of the inhabitants; we feel ourselves under the necessity of abandoning our former supposition, and of acknowledging that the regulations established in all of these countries proceeded from no artificial or complicated plans of legislation; but were such as occurred successively to the people, for the supply of their immediate wants, and the removal of incidental inconveniencies; in a word, every where, a kind of natural growth, produced by<376> the peculiar situation and circumstances of the society.
Neither was the Anglo-Saxon government calculated, in any peculiar manner, to secure the liberty and the natural rights of mankind. The sovereign, indeed, in the long period during which this government subsisted, and through all the successive alterations which it underwent, was at no time invested with absolute power. The supreme authority in the state was originally possessed by a numerous body of landed proprietors; but the rest of the community were either slaves, or tenants at the will of their master. The number of those who enjoyed a share in the government was afterwards greatly diminished: at the same time that, upon this advancement of the aristocracy, the lower part of the inhabitants became somewhat more free and independent. The encrease of political power in men of a superior class was thus compensated by some little extension of privileges in the great body of the people.
end of vol. i.
SETTLEMENT OF THE SAXONS IN BRITAIN
THE REVOLUTION IN 1688.
To which are subjoined,
SOME DISSERTATIONS CONNECTED WITH THE
HISTORY OF THE GOVERNMENT,
From the Revolution to the Present Time.
BY JOHN MILLAR ESQ.
Professor of Law in the University of Glasgow
IN FOUR VOLUMES
printed for j. mawman, no 22 in the poultry.
By T. Gillet, Salisbury-Square
OF THE ENGLISH GOVERNMENT FROM THE REIGN OF WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR, TO THE ACCESSION OF THE HOUSE OF STEWART.
The political history of this extensive period may be subdivided into three parts;1 the first extending from the Norman conquest to the end of the reign of Henry the third; the second, from the beginning of the reign of Edward the first, to the accession of Henry the seventh; and the third, comprehending the reigns of the Tudor family. In each of these parts we shall meet with progressive changes in the English constitution, which appear to demand a separate examina-<2>tion, and which, being analogous to such as were introduced, about the same time, in the other European governments, may be regarded as the natural growth and development of the original system, produced by the peculiar circumstances of modern Europe.<3>
[1. ]Chief men, nobles, magnates.
[* ]Habuit enim (speaking of the abbot of Ely) fratrem Gudmundum vocabulo, cui filiam praepotentis viri in matrimonium conjungi paraverat. Sed quoniam ille quadraginta hidarum terrae dominium minime obtineret, licet nobilis esset, inter proceres tunc numerari non potuit; eum puella repudiavit. Historia Eliensis, lib. ii. cap. 40. [[“For he had a brother by the name of Gudmundus to whom he had made preparations to marry the daughter of a very powerful man. But since Gudmundus did not possess an estate of forty hides, even though he was a noble he could not be counted among the greater thanes, and so the girl rejected him.” For a modern edition of the History of Ely and the above passage, see Liber Eliensis, ed. E. O. Blake (London: Royal Historical Society, 1962), 167.]]
[* ]Madox firma burgi.
[2. ]The season of Whit Sunday (fifty days after Easter) and the days immediately after, a celebration of the descent of the Holy Ghost.
[* ]The former were called courts de more, being founded upon immemorial custom.
[† ]Gurdon’s History of the high court of Parliament.
[3. ]Court of the royal household. The aula regis or curia regis was the grand justiciary established by William at the conquest.
[1. ]Millar’s subdivision of this period comprises three eras: (1) 1066–1272; (2) 1272–1485; (3) 1485–1603.