Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION 30: Henry the First was King of England by as good a Title as any of his Predecessors or Successors. - Discourses Concerning Government
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SECTION 30: Henry the First was King of England by as good a Title as any of his Predecessors or Successors. - Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government 
Discourses Concerning Government, ed. Thomas G. West (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1996).
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Henry the First was King of England by as good a Title as any of his Predecessors or Successors.
Having made it appear, as I suppose, that the ancient nobility of England was composed of such men as had been ennobled by bearing arms in the defence or enlargement of the commonwealth; that the dukes, earls, &c. were those who commanded them; that they and their dependents received lands for such services, under an obligation of continuing to render the like, and according to their several degrees and proportions, to provide and maintain horses, arms and men for the same uses; it cannot be denied that they were such gentlemen and lords of manors, as we now call commoners, together with the freeholders, and such as in war were found most able to be their leaders. Of these the micklegemotes, witenagemotes, and other publick assemblies did consist; and nothing can be more absurd than to assign the names and rights of duke, earl and viscount, which were names of offices, to those who have not the offices, and are no way fit for them. If our author therefore had said, that such as these who had always composed the great councils of our nation, had in favour of Henry the First, bestowed the crown upon him, as they had done upon his father and brother, I should agree with him: but ’tis the utmost extravagance to say, that he who had neither title nor possession, should give the power to those who had always been in the possession of it, and exercised it in giving to him whatsoever he had. But I most wonder he should so far forget himself, to call this Henry a usurper,1 and detract from the validity of his acts, because he had no title; whereas there neither is, was, or can be a usurper if there be any truth in his doctrine: for he plainly tells us, we are only to look to the power, and not at all to the means and ways by which it is obtained;2 and making no difference between a king and a tyrant, enjoins an equal submission to the commands of both. If this were only a slip of his pen, and he did really take this Henry to be a usurper because he had not a good title, I should desire to know the marks by which a lawful king is distinguished from a usurper, and in what a just title does consist. If he place it in an hereditary succession, we ought to be informed, whether this right must be deduced from one universal lord of mankind, or from a particular lord of every people: If from the universal lord, the same descent that gives him a right to the dominion of any one country, enslaves the whole world to him: if from the particular lord of one place, proof must be given how he came to be so: for if there was a defect in the first, it can never be repaired, and the possession is no more than a continued usurpation. But having already proved the absurdity of any pretence to either, I shall forbear the repetition, and only say, that if the course of succession may never be justly interrupted, the family of Meroveus could not have had any right to the crown of France; Pepin was a usurper, if it must forever have continued in the descendants of Meroveus, and Hugh Capet could have no title, if the race of Pepin might not be dispossess’d. I leave our author to dispute this point with the king of France; and when he has so far convinced him that he is a usurper, as to persuade him to resign his crown to the house of Austria claiming from Pharamond, or to that of Lorraine as descended from Pepin, I can give him half a dozen more knots which will not be with less difficulty untied, and which instead of establishing the titles of such kings as are known to us, will overthrow them all, unless a right be given to usurpation, or the consent of a people do confer it.
But if there is such a thing as a usurper, and a rule by which men may judge of usurpation, ’tis not only lawful but necessary for us to examine the titles of such as go under the name of kings, that we may know whether they are truly so or not, lest through ignorance we chance to give the veneration and obedience that is due to a king, to one who is not a king, and deny it to him, who by an uninterruptible line of descent is our natural lord, and thereby prefer the worst of men and our most bitter enemy before the person we ought to look upon as our father: and if this prove dangerous to one or more kings, ’tis our author’s fault, not mine.
If there be no usurper, nor rule of distinguishing him from a lawful prince, Filmer is the worst of all triflers and impostors, who grounds his arguments in the most serious matters upon what he esteems to be false: but the truth is, he seems to have set himself against humanity and common sense, as much as against law and virtue; and if he who so frequently contradicts himself, can be said to mean anything, he would authorize rapine and murder, and persuade us to account those to be rightful kings, who by treachery and other unjust means overthrow the right of descent which he pretends to esteem sacred, as well as the liberties of nations, which by better judges are thought to be so, and gives the odious name of usurpation to the advancement of one who is made king by the consent of a willing people.
But if Henry the First were a usurper, I desire to know whether the same name belongs to all our kings, or which of them deserves a better, that we may understand whose acts ought to be reputed legal, and to whose descent we owe veneration, or whether we are wholly exempted from all: for I cannot see a possibility of fixing the guilt of usurpation upon Henry the First, without involving many, if not all our kings in the same.
If his title was not good because his brother Robert was still living, that of Rufus is by the same reason overthrown; and William their father being a bastard could have none. This fundamental defect could never be repair’d; for the successors could inherit no more than the right of the first, which was nothing. Stephen could deduce no title either from Norman or Saxon; whatsoever Henry the second pretended, must be from his mother Maud, and any other might have been preferred before her as well as he. If her title was from the Normans, it must be void, since they had none, and the story of Edgar Atheling is too impertinent to deserve mention. But however, it could be of no advantage to her; for David king of Scotland, brother to her mother from whom only her title could be derived, was then alive with his son Henry, who dying not long after, left three sons and three daughters, whose posterity being distributed into many families of Scotland, remains to this day; and if proximity of blood is to be consider’d, ought always to have been preferr’d before her and her descendants, unless there be a law that gives the preference to daughters before sons. What right soever Henry the second had, it must necessarily have perished with him, all his children having been begotten in manifest adultery on Eleanor of Gascony, during the life of Lewis king of France her first husband: and nothing could be alleged to colour the business, but a dispensation from the pope directly against the law of God, and the words of our Saviour, who says, That a wife cannot be put away unless for adultery, and he that marrieth her that is put away committeth adultery.3 The pollution of this spring is not to be cured; but tho it should pass unregarded, no one part of the succession since that time has remained entire. John was preferred before Arthur his elder brother’s son: Edward the third was made king by the deposition of his father: Henry the fourth by that of Richard the 2d. If the house of Mortimer or York had the right, Henry the 4th, 5th, and 6th, were not kings, and all who claim under them have no title. However, Richard the third could have none; for the children of his elder brother the duke of Clarence were then living. The children of Edward the fourth may be suspected of bastardy; and tho it may have been otherwise, yet that matter is not so clear as things of such importance ought to be, and the consequence may reach very far. But tho that scruple were removed, ’tis certain that Henry the 7th was not king in the right of his wife Elizabeth, for he reigned before and after her; and for his other titles, we may believe Philippe de Comines, who says, He had neither cross nor pile.4 If Henry the eighth had a right in himself, or from his mother, he should have reigned immediately after her death, which he never pretended, nor to succeed till his father was dead, thereby acknowledging he had no right but from him, unless the parliament and people can give it. The like may be said of his children. Mary could have no title if she was a bastard, begotten in incest; but if her mother’s marriage was good and she legitimate, Elizabeth could have none.
Yet all these were lawful kings and queens; their acts continue in force to this day to all intents and purposes: the parliament and people made them to be so, when they had no other title. The parliament and people therefore have the power of making kings: Those who are so made are not usurpers: We have had none but such for more than seven hundred years. They were therefore lawful kings, or this nation has had none in all that time; and if our author like this conclusion, the account from whence it is drawn may without difficulty be carried as high as our English histories do reach.
This being built upon the steady foundation of law, history and reason, is not to be removed by any man’s opinion; especially by one accompanied with such circumstances as Sir Walter Raleigh was in during the last years of his life: And there is something of baseness, as well as prevarication, in turning the words of an eminent person, reduced to great difficulties, to a sense no way agreeing with his former actions or writings, and no less tending to impair his reputation than to deceive others. Our author is highly guilty of both, in citing Sir Walter Raleigh to invalidate the Great Charter of our liberties, as begun by usurpation, and shewed to the world by rebellion;5 whereas no such thing, nor anything like it in word or principle can be found in the works that deserve to go under his name. The dialogue in question, with some other small pieces published after his death, deserve to be esteemed spurious: Or if, from a desire of life, when he knew his head lay under the ax, he was brought to say things no way agreeing with what he had formerly profess’d, they ought rather to be buried in oblivion, than produced to blemish his memory. But that the publick cause may not suffer by his fault, ’tis convenient the world should be informed, that tho he was a well qualified gentleman, yet his morals were no way exact, as appears by his dealings with the brave Earl of Essex. And he was so well assisted in his History of the World, that an ordinary man with the same helps might have perform’d the same things. Neither ought it to be accounted strange, if that which he writ by himself had the tincture of another spirit, when he was deprived of that assistance, tho his life had not depended upon the will of the prince, and he had never said, that the bonds of subjects to their kings should always be wrought out of iron, and those of kings to their subjects out of cobwebs..6
[Patriarcha, ch. 30, p. 117.]
[Ibid., ch. 26, p. 106.]
Mem. de Commin. [Philippe de Comines, Memoires, bk. 6, ch. 9.]
[Patriarcha, ch. 30, p. 117, citing Raleigh’s Dialogue on the Prerogative of Parliaments, in Works, vol. 8, pp. 157–222.]
See Sir W. Raleigh’s Epistle to King James.