Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER V: General View of the kingly Power, from the Reign of Edward I. to that of Henry VII. - An Historical View of the English Government
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CHAPTER V: General View of the kingly Power, from the Reign of Edward I. to that of Henry VII. - 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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General View of the kingly Power, from the Reign of Edward I. to that of Henry VII.
The period of the English monarchy, from Edward the First to the accession of the house of Tudor, corresponds, with great exactness, to that of the French, from Philip the Fair to Lewis the Eleventh.1 About the beginning of these periods, the government, in each of those countries, assumed a degree of regularity unknown in former ages; and it afterwards continued, by similar steps, advancing towards maturity. The power of the king, and that of the nobles, formed, at this time, the only balance in the constitution; which came, in the natural course of things, to lean more and more to the side of the former. The nobility were too much divided among themselves, to be capable of prosecuting any regular plan for the aggrandisement of their own order. Their opulence, which, if collected in one great current, might have borne<147> down every obstacle before it, was deprived of its efficacy by being broken into many separate channels, and spent in various contrary directions. In order to make an effectual opposition to the crown, it was requisite that the greater barons should be firmly united in defence of their privileges; but such a union was not easily procured, and, for any length of time, could hardly ever be maintained. Distracted by mutual animosity, and actuated by private jealousies, or by opposite views of interest, these restless, but short-sighted chiefs, were, without much difficulty, persuaded to abandon any joint measures; and excited to employ their force in weakening and destroying one another. What they gained, therefore, upon some occasions, by a sudden and violent effort, was afterwards thrown away, from the want of perseverance or management; and the effect of a temporary combination was more than compensated by their usual tendency to disunion and dissension. But the crown was not capable of being divided against itself. Its property, being under the disposal of a single person, was always directed, however injudiciously, to the same end; and made subservient to<148> one political purpose; that of extending the royal prerogative. The revenue of the crown, therefore, created a degree of influence, which was continually extending itself, and which, by its uniform operation, afforded continual opportunities for increasing that revenue. While the aristocracy was thus remaining stationary, or left in a fluctuating state, according to the impulse of casual circumstances, the monarchy, by receiving regular supplies from every quarter, was gradually rising to a greater height, and overflowing its ancient boundaries.
It must, however, be admitted, that the period of English history, now under consideration, is distinguished by many powerful efforts of the nobility to support their privileges; and that the crown did not rise to the summit of dignity and splendor which it attained in the possession of the Tudor family, without surmounting a variety of obstacles, and without being frequently checked and retarded by unfavourable occurrences.
There is even good reason to believe, that, in England, the regal authority was more limited, about the time of Edward the First,<149> than it was in France, during the reign of Philip the Fair. Though the English crown was considerably exalted upon the accession of William the Conqueror, yet, under the succeeding reigns, its progress was apparently more slow and gradual. The barons, by taking advantage of particular conjunctures, and, in some cases, by proceeding to such extremities as threatened an immediate revolution, obtained from the sovereign the most important concessions; and, in little more than a century and a half, no fewer than six great charters were granted, some of them repeatedly, by six different princes. By these charters the power of the crown does not, indeed, seem to have been contracted within a narrower compass than immediately after the Norman conquest; but it was undoubtedly restrained in its advancement, and prevented from rising to that height which it would otherwise have attained. In France, on the other hand, the extension of the royal prerogative appears, from the time of Hugh Capet, to have scarcely met with any opposition. No formidable combination of the nobles, to withstand the incroachments of the kingly power! No series of charters, as<150> in England, relinquishing the supposed usurpations of the crown, and confirming the privileges of the aristocracy! The only deed of this nature, which we meet with in the French history, was near half a century posterior to the reign of Philip the Fair; and was extorted from king John in consequence of the difficulties under which he laboured from the invasion of his kingdom by the English monarch.*
To what causes may we ascribe this diffe-<151>rent spirit of the French from that of the English nobility? From what circumstances were the former disposed to look with so much tranquillity and indifference upon the exaltation of the crown, as never, but upon one occasion, to exert themselves in repressing it; while the latter discovered such a constant jealousy of the sovereign, and made so many and such vigorous attempts to restrain the progress of his authority? The importance of this question is obvious; for the efforts then made to resist the usurpations of the crown, may be regarded as the groundwork of those more precise limitations of the prerogative, which have been introduced in a later period.
1. There occurs one remarkable difference between the situation of the French and the English kings; that in France, the crown was, without interruption, transmitted directly from father to son, during a period of more than three hundred years; that is, from the time of Hugh Capet to that of Philip the Long;2 including a series of eleven different reigns; whereas in England, during the same period, we meet with no less than five deviations from the lineal course of succession; and about one<152> half of the reigning princes, who, however their title might be recognized by parliament, or their pretensions might be supported by the prevailing party, were, according to the common notions of that age, considered in the light of usurpers. In France, therefore, the crown passed, with perfect tranquillity, from one sovereign to another; and each of those princes, when he mounted the throne, having no competitor to obstruct his immediate possession, no flaw in his title to weaken or disturb the general prepossession in his favour, succeeded, of consequence, to all that hereditary influence which had been accumulated by his predecessors. To render the succession still more secure, Hugh Capet introduced the precaution, which had been in some measure suggested by the Roman emperors, of crowning his heir in his own lifetime; and the same practice was uniformly observed by six of the succeeding monarchs; that is, till the reign of Philip Augustus,3 when, from the superior stability of the throne, any ceremony of this kind was become superfluous.
In England, on the contrary, the succession of those princes, whose title was ill founded or<153> disputable, gave always occasion to dissatisfaction and complaint, if not to direct opposition, and open resistance; and, as the nobles were invited to lay hold of these opportunities for maintaining or extending their privileges, the king was obliged to compound for the possession of sovereignty, by submitting to limitations in the exercise of it. The personal authority of William the Conqueror, produced a submission to William Rufus, though in preference to his elder brother Robert, a man of popular character; but Henry the First, and Stephen, may be said to have purchased the crown, by the respective great charters which they granted to their vassals. With respect to Henry the Second, it must be acknowledged, that, though he was a foreigner, and though he had in some measure fought his way to the throne, yet in the end his accession was agreeable to the whole nation. But after having suffered a variety of disappointments, and having been exposed to much uneasiness from the unnatural behaviour of his own children, he appears to have confirmed the two preceding charters, from a disposition to guard against any future accident, by securing the good-will of his<154> people. The usurpation of John, accompanied with the murder of the lawful heir, had excited against that prince an indignation and resentment, which his future conduct, instead of removing, tended only to confirm; and the concessions which he made to his subjects, were plainly extorted from him by the accumulation of distress and embarrassment under which he laboured. Henry the Third, though there were no objections to his title, inherited, while he was yet a minor, a civil war from his father; and afterwards, by his imbecility and imprudence, was involved in calamities, from which nothing less than the good fortune, and the great abilities, of his son Edward the First could have extricated him. The charters granted by the former of those two princes were evidently the fruit of these difficulties.*
2. Another circumstance which, in that early period, produced a peculiar exaltation of the monarchy in France, was the forfeiture of Normandy by the king of England, and the reduction of that extensive country into an<155> immediate fief of the French crown.4 This forfeiture, though the particular time when it happened might be accidental, was to be expected from the situation of that country, with respect to the king of England, the immediate superior, and to the king of France, the lord paramount. The effect of so great an accession of revenue and influence to the French crown was visible; and Philip Augustus, in whose reign it happened, became evidently possessed of much more authority than his predecessors.
No acquisition of equal importance was made to the crown of England at this early period; for the settlement which was effected in Ireland, by Henry the Second, and which the historians have been pleased to dignify with the splendid appellation of a conquest, was productive neither of wealth nor of authority to the English monarch; nor does it appear, for several centuries, to have yielded any advantage whatever.
3. The insular situation of Britain may be considered as a general cause of the slower advancement of the royal prerogative in Eng-<156>land, than is to be found in the greater part of the modern kingdoms upon the continent of Europe. As, in the infancy of government, the kingly office arose from the necessity of having a general to command the united forces of the state, it was to be expected, that the oftener any sovereign had occasion to act in this capacity, his authority and dignity would sooner arrive at maturity. During the time of a military enterprize, when the national forces, the great body of the people, were placed under the immediate direction of the king, they acquired habits of submitting to his orders; their admiration was excited by his high station or distinguished prowess; and they were taught by experience to look up to him as the principal source of honours and preferment. In times of peace, on the contrary, when the members of different baronies, or tribes, had retired to their several places of abode, they were, in a great measure, withdrawn from the influence of the king, and were accustomed to no other jurisdiction or authority but that of the baron or chief by whom they were protected. Even after the<157> feudal governments had attained some degree of regularity, and when the sovereign had acquired numerous branches of civil power, it still was in the field that his pre-eminence attracted superior attention, and that he had the best means of procuring popularity.
It seems reasonable to conclude, therefore, that, upon the continent of Europe, where every sovereign found his dominions surrounded by bordering nations, whom he was frequently tempted to invade, and against whom he was obliged to be constantly upon his guard, the most ample scope was afforded him for displaying those talents, and for availing himself of those situations which were best calculated for extending his authority. In England, on the other hand; a country in which there were fewer inducements to undertake a national war, and in which the military operations of the sovereign were chiefly employed in quelling the disturbances excited by his rebellious barons, or in repelling the inroads of the Scots, which were not of much more importance than the insurrection of particular<158> barons, he had fewer opportunities of exciting a national spirit in his favour, and consequently found it more difficult to reduce the nobility into a state of dependence.
The prosperous reign of Edward the First had undoubtedly a considerable effect in confirming and exalting the prerogative. This prince was equally distinguished by his policy in the cabinet, and by his activity, courage, and conduct in the field; at the same time that he does not appear, by any scrupulous regard to the principles of honour or justice, to have been, on any occasion, prevented from directing those talents to the pursuit of his own grandeur or emolument. By the conquest of Wales he not only gained an enlargement of dominion, but freed himself from the vexatious depredations of a troublesome neighbour.5 Had he lived somewhat longer, it is more than probable that he would also have completed the entire conquest of Scotland; in which case, there is good ground to believe, that the reduction of the northern and southern parts of the island into one monarchy, would have been productive of such advantages to both<159> countries, as might in some measure have atoned for the perfidy and injustice by which it was accomplished.
The reign of Edward the Second6 was no less adverse to the influence of the crown, than that of his father had been favourable to it. By the total deficiency of that prince, in vigour and military capacity, he soon lost all the acquisitions which his father had made in Scotland; and saw the independence of that kingdom completely re-established. For the internal administration of government he was equally disqualified. The nobility of that age were, with difficulty, reconciled to the dignity and pre-eminence of the sovereign; but they could not endure, that any person of inferior condition should, by the favour of the monarch, be exalted over them, and be invested with the exercise of the prerogative. The extreme facility of Edward subjected him, however, to the constant dominion of favourites, in supporting whom he excited the indignation of the nobles; and the queen, whose affections had been seduced by Mortimer,7 and who seems to have thought herself better entitled than any other person to govern her husband, hav-<160>ing joined the malcontents, the king was formally deposed by a meeting of parliament; was kept for some time in confinement; and at length barbarously murdered. The fate of this unhappy prince cannot fail to move compassion, as it proceeded from the weakness of his understanding, and even from the gentleness of his disposition, more than from ambition, or any passion for arbitrary power: while it afforded a salutary lesson to his successors, by exhibiting a striking example of the authority of parliament, to controul, and even to punish, the sovereign.
The same power of the nobles, which had deposed Edward the Second, advanced to the throne his son Edward the Third, while yet a minor. The early indications of genius, and of a martial disposition, discovered by this prince, dispelled very quickly the gloom which had for some time hung over the nation, and gave a total change to the aspect of public affairs. He soon freed himself from the direction of the queen his mother, and put to death her favourite Mortimer,8 with little ceremony, and without much regard to the forms of justice. His first military enterprise was<161> directed to the recovery of what his father had lost in Scotland, in which, from the weak and disorderly state of that country, he met with little obstruction; but he was prevented from the execution of this plan, by another object, which was thought of much greater importance, and which, during the remainder of his reign, ingrossed his whole attention. This was his pretension, in right of his mother, to the crown of France;9 a claim which, though founded neither in justice nor expediency, was yet sufficiently plausible to palliate that love of extensive dominion, with which not only princes, but even the people in all ages and countries, have been almost constantly intoxicated. The conduct of Edward, in asserting this claim, was probably such as every monarch of spirit, in that age, must have held, and in so doing was sure of meeting with the general approbation of his subjects. As the undertaking, therefore, was crowned with unexpected and amazing success, it is no wonder that the splendid victories obtained by this king, and by his son the Black Prince,10 who acted so conspicuous a part in those scenes, procured them the admiration as well as the affections of the<162> whole English nation. While these two princes flattered the national vanity, by the prospect of conquering so great a kingdom as France, they displayed all the talents and virtues which, in those times, were supposed to enter into the composition of the most complete military character. Even at this day, when we contemplate the gallantry of the Black Prince, and the humanity and generosity with which he treated the king of France, his prisoner, we must acknowledge that they are surpassed by nothing either in ancient or modern story.11 Without detracting from the merit of this distinguished personage, we are led at the same time to conceive an exalted idea of the institutions and manners of chivalry, which, in so rude a state of society, were capable, among people of the better sort, of promoting so much delicacy of sentiment, and of encouraging any individual to form such a perfect model of propriety and refinement.
In the course of his long war against France, the king obtained, more and more, an ascendant over those nobles who followed his banner, and were smitten by an universal enthusiasm to distinguish themselves in that illustrious<163> field of national glory. His administration at home was equally prudent and vigorous, and calculated to restrain injustice, as well as to command respect. Though not disposed to relinquish any part of his prerogative, he appears to have had a real regard for the ancient constitution; and though he acquired greater authority than was possessed by the former kings of England, he confirmed, on many occasions, the great charters of his predecessors. He was under the necessity of making large and frequent demands of money from his subjects; but, as he endeavoured, in most cases, to procure it by the concurrence of parliament, and as the nation entered heartily into the views which gave occasion to so much expence, the supplies which he required were commonly furnished without any complaint. His numerous applications to the national assembly contributed, besides, to ascertain its powers and privileges, as well as to establish and reduce into order the forms and method of its procedure.
It merits attention, that, notwithstanding the alacrity with which the English nation supported the claim of their sovereign to the<164> crown of France, the parliament seem to have been alarmed at the idea of their falling under the government established in that country: and, to remove this apprehension, a statute was made, in which the king expressly declares, that the realm and people of England “shall not, in any time to come, be put in subjection nor in obeisance of us, nor of our heirs nor successors, as kings of France, nor be subject nor obedient, but shall be free and quit of all manner of subjection and obeisance aforesaid, as they were wont to be in the time of our progenitors, kings of England, for ever.”* From this precaution, it may be inferred, that the parliament understood the French monarchy, at this time, to be more absolute than the English; and were afraid that their monarch, if he came to the possession of that kingdom, might be led to exercise over them a power inconsistent with the constitution of England.
The reign of Richard the second12 is, in many respects, a repetition of the same disgusting and melancholy scenes, which that of<165> his great grandfather, Edward the second, had exhibited. In each of them we behold a young prince ascending the throne with great advantages; regarded by the nation with a partiality and affection derived from paternal connections; incurring the general contempt and indignation, by his folly and misconduct; governed, through the whole course of his administration, by favourites; dethroned at length by parliament, imprisoned, and brought to a tragical end. But the occurrences, in the time of Richard, were accompanied with circumstances which, in a review of the English government, are more particularly worthy of observation.
This reign affords a memorable example of the interference of parliament for the removal of the king’s ministers. To the address which was presented for this purpose, Richard is said to have answered, that, at the desire of parliament, he would not remove the meanest scullion of his kitchen. Having occasion for a subsidy, however, which could not otherwise be obtained, he was obliged to comply with their demand: the earl of Suffolk,13 the chancellor, was not only removed from his office, but im-<166>peached, and found guilty of misdemeanours; an inquiry was ordered into the disposal of the public revenue; and a commission was granted by parliament to fourteen persons, for the space of a twelvemonth, to concur with the king in the administration of government.
To these regulations Richard submitted no longer than till he thought himself in a condition to oppose them; and it soon became evident, that he had formed a resolution of extending his prerogative beyond its ancient limits. For this purpose he consulted with the principal judges and lawyers of the kingdom, from whom he found no difficulty in procuring an unanimous opinion agreeable to his wishes. Whatever may be the virtue of individuals, it is not to be expected that a body of men, sprung very frequently from a low origin; bred up in the habits of a gainful profession; whose views must be continually directed towards preferment, and the emoluments of office; soldiers of fortune, and whose fortune depends chiefly upon the favour of the crown; will be disposed to stand forth in critical times, and expose themselves to much hazard in maintaining the rights of the people.<167>
This design was frustrated by the vigour and activity of the nobles, who levied a great army, and defeated that of the crown. The king’s ministers made their escape; but in their absence were impeached, and their estates confiscated. Two persons of note, one of whom was the famous Tresilian, chief justice of the king’s bench, who happened to be caught, were tried and executed. The rest of the judges, who had concurred in the opinions above-mentioned, were banished to Ireland.14
The behaviour of the king in this situation was abject and mean, in proportion to his former haughtiness. At an interview with the nobles, he is said to have answered their reproaches with a flood of tears. But Richard was possessed of a high degree of obstinacy; a quality which is frequently connected with inferiority of understanding: whether it be that the same stupidity which leads men into error, puts them out of the reach of conviction by reasoning; or that, in proportion as they are incapable of examining objects on every side, they are commonly self-conceited and opinionative.<168>
The parliament being then composed of two houses, as will be mentioned more fully hereafter, it was perceived by the advisers of this infatuated prince, that the easiest method of carrying his views into execution, was by dividing that assembly, and, in particular, by procuring a majority in the house of commons. We accordingly find, that by adhering invariably to the same plan; by directing the nomination of sheriffs, and of the principal magistrates of boroughs; and by employing the interest and address of all those different officers in the election and return of representatives, this object was, in a few years, entirely accomplished. The king now ventured to avow his pretensions to absolute power; and in a meeting of parliament, in the year 1397, the opinions of the judges, which had been formerly condemned, were approved of and ratified; the chief heads of the aristocracy were put to death, or banished; the duke of Glocester, the king’s uncle, was privately murdered; and, to supersede the necessity of calling the national assembly for the future, a committee was appointed, consisting of twelve peers and<169> six commoners, upon whom the authority of both houses was devolved.15
This expedient of the crown, to pack the house of commons, is the first of the kind that occurs in our history; and it must be considered as forming a remarkable aera in the British constitution. It shows, in the first place, the limited nature of our ancient government; since, notwithstanding the late advances of the regal authority, the king, in order to carry his measures, was obliged to employ such indirect means for procuring the concurrence of parliament.
It proves also, that political consideration was not, at this period, confined to the greater nobility; but that men of small property, and of inferior condition, the representatives of counties and boroughs, were possessed of so much interest as enabled them, by throwing their weight into the scale of the sovereign, to bestow upon him an entire ascendant over the national council.
From the consequences which followed this undue influence, acquired by the king over the house of commons, we may plainly perceive that a spirit of liberty, or, if you will, of<170> opposition to the tyranny of the crown, was even then diffused, in some measure, over the nation. Finding that he was now master of the resolutions of parliament, Richard supposed the dispute was at an end; was therefore lulled in perfect security; and abandoned himself to the dictates of his own arbitrary will. But the people saw with concern, that they had been betrayed by their own representatives; their indignation and resentment were excited, and they became ripe for a general insurrection. The leaders of the malcontents cast their eyes upon the duke of Hereford, the eldest son of the duke of Lancaster,16 who, by the injustice of the king, had been sent into exile, and afterwards excluded from the inheritance of his father’s large possessions. This nobleman, the most distinguished by his rank and accomplishments, was invited to put himself at the head of the conspiracy, for the purpose of redressing his own private injuries, no less than of delivering the nation from tyranny and oppression. Richard, mean while, went over to Ireland, in order to quell the disturbances of that country, and thus gave to his enemies the opportunity which they wanted<171> of executing their designs. The general sentiments of the people were made abundantly evident by the events which followed. The duke of Hereford landed at Ravenspur, in Yorkshire, with no more than eighty attendants; but in a short time found himself at the head of an army amounting to sixty thousand. The duke of York,17 on the other hand, who had been left regent of the kingdom, assembled a body of troops to the number of forty thousand; but these, from disaffection, were unwilling to fight; and being therefore disbanded, they immediately joined the enemy. Another army having been transported by the king from Ireland, were infected with the same spirit, and the greater part of them deserted the royal standard.
Richard, abandoned by the whole nation, was forced to subscribe an instrument of resignation, in which he acknowledged himself unworthy to govern the kingdom. An accusation for misbehaviour, consisting of no less than thirty-five articles, was preferred against him to parliament, and universally approved of: after which, this prince was solemnly deposed by<172> the suffrages of both houses; and the crown was conferred on the duke of Hereford.
It is remarkable, according to the observation of an eminent writer, “that these extremities fell upon Richard the second, at a time when every thing seemed to contribute to his support, in the exercise of that arbitrary power which he had assumed. Those whom he had most reason to fear, were removed, either by violent death or banishment; and others were secured in his interest by places, or favours at court. The great offices of the crown, and the magistracy of the whole kingdom, were put into such hands as were fit for his designs; besides which, he had a parliament entirely at his devotion; but all these advantageous circumstances served only to prove, that a prince can have no real security against the just resentments of an injured and exasperated nation; for, in such governments as that of England, all endeavours used by the king to make himself absolute, are but so many steps towards his own downfal.”* <173>
The right of Henry the fourth to the crown of England was derived from the authority of parliament, confirmed by the voice of the whole kingdom. No transaction of the kind was ever compleated with greater unanimity. But although, in that age, the people gave way to their natural feelings in dethroning an arbitrary and tyrannical prince, they were probably little accustomed to reason upon those philosophical principles, by which, in cases of extreme necessity, the right of doing so may be vindicated. Even so late as the revolution, in the year 1688, when the necessity and propriety of the settlement, which then took place, was universally understood, the parliament were unwilling to avow, in express terms, that power which they were determined to exercise; they had recourse to childish evasions, and fictitious suppositions; and the absurd pretext of an abdication was employed to cover the real deposition of the sovereign. It is not surprising, therefore, that, in the days of Richard the second, the speculative opinions of men, concerning points of this nature, were loose and fluctuating. Henry appears to have been sensible of this; and<174> founds his claim to the throne upon three different circumstances; upon the mal-administration of Richard; upon the right of conquest; and upon a popular, though probably a groundless tradition, that, by his mother, he was descended from Henry the third, by an elder brother of Edward the first, who, on account of his personal deformity, had been excluded from the succession to the crown. These particulars, however, are jumbled together, in a manner calculated to avoid a minute investigation. “In the name of Fadher, Son, and Holy Ghost,” says he, “I Henry of Lancaster challenge this rewme of Ynglande, and the crown, with all membres and appurtenances; als I that am descendit by right line of the blode, coming fro the gude King Henry therde, and throge that right that God of his grace hath sent me, with helpe of kyn, and of my friends, to recover it; the which rewme was in poynt to be ondone by defaut of governance, and ondoying of the gude lawes.”
As no credit seems due to this connection with Henry the third; so it must be admitted, that, supposing it necessary to set aside<175> Richard the second, for defaut of governance, Henry the fourth was not, according to the established rules of succession, the next heir of the crown. He was the grandson of Edward the third, by the duke of Lancaster, third son of that monarch. But the duke of Clarence, Edward’s second son, had left a daughter, who was married into the house of Mortimer,18 and whose grandson, the earl of Marche, now a boy of seven years of age, was the representative of that family.
In examining this point, however, it ought to be remembered, that by the rules of succession established among rude and warlike nations, what is called the right of representation is unknown, and the nearer descendants of a family are frequently preferred to the more distant; as also, that, upon similar principles, female relations are usually excluded by the males. According to the early laws of almost all Europe, the title of Henry the fourth to the crown was therefore preferable, from both of these considerations, to that of the earl of Marche. A contrary custom, indeed, in consequence of more improved manners, had undoubtedly been gaining ground, before this<176> competition became an object of attention; but we must not suppose that it had yet become universal, or had acquired such a degree of stability, as the peaceful situation, and the scientific views of a polished age, have since bestowed upon it.
But whatever might be the opinions of parliament, or of the people, upon this point, the preference of Henry to any other competitor was, at this time, a matter of the highest expediency, if not of absolute necessity. To dethrone a prince, who had for years been establishing a system of absolute power, and who had given proofs of his violent and sanguinary disposition, was a measure no less dangerous than it was difficult; and the successful execution of it could only be expected under a leader of great popularity, weight, and abilities. Henry appears to have been the only person in the kingdom qualified for conducting such an enterprise, and likely to secure the public tranquillity under the new establishment. To depose Richard, and at the same time to commit the reins of government to a person who, in that extraordinary exigence, was manifestly incapable of holding them,<177> would have been to attempt the abolition of despotism by substituting anarchy in its place; and wantonly to introduce a revolution at the hazard of much bloodshed and injustice, but with no reasonable prospect that it could be productive of any lasting advantages.
Henry the fourth enjoyed, however, but little tranquillity in the possession of that sovereign power which was thus conferred upon him. The great lords, who had taken a distinguished part in placing him on the throne, and who probably over-rated their services, became dissatisfied with that share of the royal favour and confidence which he thought proper to bestow upon them; and were disposed to believe they might easily pull down that fabric which they themselves had erected. The persevering activity, the deliberate valour, and sound policy, displayed by this monarch, through the whole of his conduct, enabled him to crush those frequent conspiracies which were formed against him; although it must be admitted, that his uncommon talents, which were uniformly exerted for this purpose, during a reign of thirteen years, were hardly sufficient to recover the prerogative<178> from the shock which it had received by the deposition of his predecessor.
The splendid character of Henry the fifth;19 his courage and magnanimity; his clemency, moderation, and humanity; his engaging appearance and deportment; his affability, address, and popular manners; together with his renewal of the claim to the kingdom of France, and his invasion of that country, accompanied with most astonishing success; these circumstances revived the flattering and delusive prospects entertained by the English in the days of Edward the third; and, by seizing the national enthusiasm, reinstated the crown in that authority and dignity which it had formerly maintained.
But the death of that monarch produced a sad reverse in the state of the kingdom. By the long minority of Henry the sixth,20 and his total incapacity, after he came to be of age; by the disasters which befel the English in prosecuting the war with France; and by their entire expulsion from that country, without the least hope of recovering it;21 the people were filled with discontent; were inspired with contempt of their sovereign; and of<179> course were disposed to listen to any objections against the title by which his family had obtained the crown. In the preceding reign those objections were held to be of so little moment, that Henry the fifth discovered no jealousy or apprehension of the Earl of Marche, the lineal heir of Richard; and there even subsisted between them an intercourse of mutual confidence and friendship; a circumstance which reflects great honour both upon the king and upon that nobleman. As the right of the governing family had been confirmed by a possession of three successive reigns, it would not, in all probability, have now been called in question, had not the weakness and misfortunes of the present administration destroyed all respect to the government, and excited uncommon dissatisfaction.
Upon the death of the earl of Marche without heirs male, the duke of York, in right of his mother, was now become the representative of that family; and from the extensive property possessed by this nobleman, together with his powerful connections, in consequence of various alliances among the principal nobility, he found himself in a condition to assert<180> that claim to the crown, which had been over-ruled by the prevailing ascendant of the house of Lancaster. It is needless to enter into particulars of the famous contention between those two branches of the royal family; which was continued through the reigns of Henry the sixth, of Edward the fourth, and of Richard the third; and which, during a period of about five-and-thirty years, filled the kingdom with disorder and with blood.22 That this long continued civil war, in which different princes were alternately set up and dethroned by the different factions, and in which all public authority was trampled under foot, was extremely unfavourable to the prerogative, will readily be admitted. It cannot, however, escape observation, that, in the course of this violent contention, the nobles were not, as in some former disputes, leagued together in opposition to the king; but, by espousing the interest of different candidates, were led to employ their whole force against one another. Though the crown, therefore, was undoubtedly weakened, the nobility did not receive proportional strength; and the tendency of this melancholy situation was not so much to<181> increase the aristocracy, as to exhaust and impoverish the nation, and to destroy the effect of all subordination and government.
When we consider, in general, the state of the English constitution, from the accession of Edward the first, to that of Henry the seventh,23 we must find some difficulty to ascertain the alterations produced in the extent of the regal authority. That the powers of the monarch were, upon the whole, making advances during this period, it should seem unreasonable to doubt; but this progress appears to have been slow, and frequently interrupted. If, in the vigorous and successful reigns of Edward the first, of Edward the third, and of Henry the fifth, the sceptre was remarkably exalted, it was at least equally depressed by the feeble and unfortunate administration of Edward the second, of Richard the second, and of Henry the sixth. By what circumstances the prerogative acquired additional strength, under the princes of the Tudor family, we shall afterwards have occasion to examine.<182>
[1. ]The period from 1272 to 1485. Philip IV, the Fair (r. 1285–1314); Louis XI (r. 1461–83).
[* ]“The opportunity of the states general, assembled in the year 1355,” says the count de Boulainvilliers, “is favourable to my design; since, upon their remonstrances, king John gave a declaration which irrevocably established the right of those assemblies, and which, upon that account, might justly be compared to the great charter granted to the English by a prince of the same name; were it not unfortunately too true, that it has been buried in oblivion for above two hundred years past, even so far that there is no public instrument of it remaining, except one copy preserved in the king’s library; from whence I took that of which I shall give you an extract in the course of this letter.” [Boulainv. account of the ancient parliaments of France.] See a full account given by this noble author, of that famous French charter, which in reality has a great resemblance to the English charter above mentioned.
[2. ]The period from 987 to 1322. For Hugh Capet, see p. 11, note 5. Philip V, “the Tall” (r. 1316–22).
[3. ]Philip II Augustus (r. 1179–1223).
[* ]It appears, that one of the charters granted by Henry III. was subscribed by his son Edward. Blackstone, History of the Great Charters.
[4. ]King John lost Normandy to the French in 1203.
[5. ]By Edward I’s conquest of Wales (1276–84), the English established complete control over the region. With the Statute of Wales of 1284, Wales was brought within the government of England.
[6. ]Edward II (r. 1307–27). The English were expelled from Scotland after the victory of Robert I, the Bruce (r. 1306–29) at Bannockburn in 1314.
[7. ]Roger Mortimer (ca. 1287–1330), baron of Wigmore and earl of March, was the lover of Queen Isabella. In league with young Edward (III), king of England (r. 1327–77), he captured Edward II in Wales in 1326. Edward was coerced into abdicating in 1327 and was killed shortly thereafter upon Mortimer’s orders.
[8. ]Edward III had Mortimer put to death in 1330.
[9. ]Edward’s maternal grandfather was Philip IV, the Fair. His aggressive pursuit of this claim initiated what is traditionally called the Hundred Years’ War, beginning in the year 1338.
[10. ]Edward, the Black Prince (1330–76): Edward III’s eldest son.
[11. ]John II, the Good, king of France (r. 1350–64) was held for ransom by the English 1356–60. The legend of the Black Prince, to which Millar refers, was popularized by Jean Froissart (b. 1337) author of the Chroniques, written between 1369 and 1400.
[* ]14 Edw. III.
[12. ]Richard II (r. 1377–99) was the son of Edward, the Black Prince, and the grandson of Edward III.
[13. ]Michael de la Pole (ca. 1330–89), earl of Suffolk, was appointed chancellor in 1386.
[14. ]This uprising, which occurred in 1386, was raised by Thomas, duke of Gloucester, the earl of Arundel, Thomas Beauchamp, the earl of Warwick, Thomas Mowbray, the earl of Nottingham, and Henry Bolingbroke, the duke of Hereford and Richard’s cousin [later Henry IV, king of England (r. 1399–1413)]. Sir Robert Tresilian and Nicholas Brembre, lord mayor of London, were executed as traitors in 1388.
[15. ]Gloucester, Arundel, and Warwick were arrested in 1397. Shortly thereafter, Gloucester and Arundel were killed, and Warwick banished to the Isle of Man. Mowbray was exiled for life and Bolingbroke for ten years, a sentence later extended to life.
[16. ]Afterward Henry IV, king of England. See note 14.
[17. ]Edmund Langley, duke of York (1341–1402).
[* ]Remarks upon the History of England by H. Oldcastle. [[Millar quotes this passage from Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, Remarks on the History of England, from the Minutes of Humphrey Oldcastle, Esq. (London, 1743), 74–75.]]
[18. ]Edmund Mortimer, earl of March (1391–1425).
[19. ]Henry V (r. 1413–22). Chief among his victories was the rout of the French forces at Agincourt in 1415.
[20. ]Henry VI (r. 1422–61; 1470–71) was nine months old when he inherited the English throne.
[21. ]The English were expelled from France in 1453, ending the Hundred Years’ War. Among the English defeats was the fall of Orleans to the army of Jeanne d’Arc in 1429.
[22. ]Edward IV (r. 1461–70; 1471–83); Richard III (r. 1483–85). The Wars of the Roses, the conflict between the houses of York and Lancaster, lasted ca. 1450–87. The Lancastrian faction proved victorious at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.
[23. ]Henry VII (r. 1485–1509): the first monarch of the Tudor dynasty.