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LECTURE 5 - François Guizot, The History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe 
The History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe, trans. Andrew R. Scoble, Introduction and notes by Aurelian Craiutu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002).
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The Wittenagemot; its business and power. ~ Method of its convocation. ~ Vicissitudes of its character and importance. ~ The kingly office among the Anglo-Saxons. ~ Extent and progress of the royal power.
We have already considered the origin and composition of the Wittenagemot, or general assembly of the Anglo-Saxons, it now remains for us to speak of its attributes and method of convocation.
In the infancy of society, everything is confused and uncertain; there is as yet no fixed and precise line of demarcation between the different powers in a state; and thus we find that the attributes of the Wittenagemot were rather indefinite. There was no settled boundary at which its power ceased, and that of the monarchy commenced; both united to transact all the business of the nation, and, if we would ascertain the part actually taken by the Wittenagemot in this business, we must inquire of history what were its real attributes.
The defence of the kingdom was the chief business of the national assemblies. We must not suppose that the obligation of military service is coeval only with feudalism; independently of every feudal bond, it was an obligation imposed on every freeman in the nation, just as at the present day every French citizen is bound to present himself for conscription. The Wittenagemot ordered levies of the landowners, who, in their turn, convoked the freemen resident on their estates.
The Wittenagemot also imposed taxes; at that period, however, there were hardly any public taxes; the first was levied in consequence of the Danish invasion, and the law which imposed it expressly states that it received the consent of all the members present in the Wittenagemot.
The county-courts, as we have seen, provided for the maintenance of the public roads, bridges, and forts. We learn from the deliberations of the Anglo-Saxon national assembly, that such matters fell under its cognizance also.
As the right of coining money did not belong exclusively to the king, but was also possessed by the church and by many powerful subjects, the Wittenagemot had the oversight of this matter, and prevented the debasement of the coinage.
We also find it ratifying or annulling those acts of county-courts which had reference not to private matters, but to affairs of general importance.
The principle of the responsibility of the agents of power was not more clearly and firmly established in the Anglo-Saxon monarchy than the other great principles of free government; but it was, nevertheless, confusedly practised. A vague feeling of justice pervaded these national assemblies; they repressed great abuses, but frequently punished injustice by injustice.
The Wittenagemot in England possessed a power which was not generally exercised by corresponding assemblies on the Continent; it had the oversight of the royal domain. Originally, the kings lived, like other landowners, on the income derived from their own private estates. Their property was a private domain, which they managed as they pleased. As time rolled on, this domain became very largely augmented by confiscations; but the kings, compelled to defend their tottering authority from the frequent attacks to which it was subjected, were incessantly diminishing their estates by gifts to powerful and formidable chiefs. Frequently, also, when they were strong, they resumed the gifts which necessity had extorted from them. The little reliance to be placed upon these purely royal donations, unless they were ratified by the consent of the national assembly; and the knowledge that, if the king were permitted these forced dilapidations of his own domains, the Wittenagemot would one day be obliged to repair them, and compensate the monarch for the loss of his private estates—were the reasons which led to the interference of the national assembly in the administration of the royal domain. In France, this domain did not fall so soon under the influence of the national assemblies, but remained for a much longer period the private property of the kings.
One of the most important attributes of the Wittenagemot was the direction of ecclesiastical affairs. The abbots and bishops, indeed all the high clergy, were members of this assembly. In France, although the clergy formed a part of the national assemblies, they treated of their own affairs as a separate body, and communicated directly with the king. In England, ecclesiastical matters, like all other business, were discussed in the general assembly. For instance, when missionaries from Rome came to invite the kings of the Heptarchy to embrace the Christian religion, the kings replied that they must ask the consent of the Wittenagemot. In Sweden, the king, who had already become a convert himself, proposed to the assembled Diet to adopt Christianity. The Diet sanctioned the new religion, but retained the old creed, and this simultaneous practice of the two religions lasted for a considerable time. The Wittenagemot had not always to discuss such important matters as the conversion of the nation; it appointed bishops, and ordained or sanctioned the foundation of abbeys and monasteries.1
The last business of the Anglo-Saxon national assembly was to receive complaints and petitions in denunciation of abuses. It thus became sometimes a judicial court, adjudicating on the appeals of large landowners; but it seldom appears in this character: it was especially a political assembly, whilst, on the Continent, the national assembly frequently acted as a judicial tribunal.
I have now pointed out the various functions of the Wittenagemot, and you have been able, from the acts of that assembly, to form a tolerably accurate idea of it. As regards its convocation, originally its meetings were frequent, but in order not to fatigue its members too much, it became necessary to reduce the meetings to two, held in spring and autumn, as on the Continent. The right of convoking the Wittenagemot became, ere long, one of the prerogatives of the crown. This abandonment of so important a privilege is very characteristic of an age in which political prudence is unknown, and distrust is manifested only at rare intervals, and then by revolt. It seemed natural that the king, the direct centre of all the interests and necessities of the nation, should convoke the assembly for exigencies with which he was better acquainted than any other person; at his death, the large landowners assembled spontaneously, to deliberate on a change of dynasty or the arrangement of the succession.
The inviolability of the members of the Wittenagemot was recognized from the day on which they set out to attend the assembly, till the day on which they returned home again, provided they were not notorious brigands.
Summing up what I have said, the general assembly of the Anglo-Saxons, as of most of the German nations, was, in Germany, composed of every freeman; after the conquest, it consisted only of the landowners; and, towards the end of the monarchy, it was attended by none but the most wealthy proprietors. Each man came in his own right, and on his own behalf; according to a charter of King Athelstane, he might send a proxy in his place. This irrefragable mark of individual right still exists in England. In the House of Peers, every peer may vote by proxy and in his own name. It is from the Wittenagemot, in this last phase of its existence, and from the rights of suzerainty which Norman feudalism conferred on the king over the great barons, who held their titles directly from him, that the English House of Peers, as it now exists, derives its origin. In the Wittenagemot of the last age of the Anglo-Saxon monarchy, we can discern neither of the two elements which composed the House of Commons at a later period. The towns had hardly any existence, and could not, therefore, send deputies: the counties had never sent any. The Wittenagemot was only an assembly of the powerful men of the state, who came on their own account, and in their own personal right. Most other persons neglected rights which were too difficult for them to exercise, and the real impotence of which they felt; by neglecting to exercise them, they eventually lost them; and when the exigencies of liberty occurred to agitate a more advanced and less contented state of society, a new labour was necessary to restore to the citizens, rights which they had allowed to perish, through the want of necessity and capacity.
The second of the central institutions of the Anglo-Saxons, was the kingly office. An important fact has distinguished the formation of all states of Germanic origin, and this is, the speedy establishment of hereditary monarchy—which was the dominant character of this institution at this period, whatever mixture of election may be discerned therein. The causes of this are simple. In warlike tribes, there is, in war at least, a single chieftain; the man of greatest valour and largest experience, says to his comrades, “Come with me—I will lead you where you may obtain rich booty”; his proposition is accepted, and by common consent he becomes the leader of the expedition. Thus, at the origin of society, power is not conferred; he who is able to do so, assumes it by the consent of the others. There is no election properly so called, but only a recognition of authority. The leader who has conducted one or more fortunate expeditions, obtains great importance by success; his influence increases with time, and he hands down to his family the influence and power which he has acquired. This family, thus invested with an actual superiority, gains a natural habit of command, which the others soon grow accustomed to acknowledge. Among the Germans, moreover, the idea of religious filiation contributed powerfully to the establishment of hereditary monarchy. It was almost a national duty to choose kings from the divine race; and all the royal families were descendants of Odin.2
Thus hereditary monarchy prevailed among these peoples; but choice among the members of the royal family long existed. It was indispensably necessary that the king should be a capable man, in a state of society in which men were as yet ignorant of the artificial means which supply the deficiencies of royal incapacity. Thus Alfred himself did not simply found his right to the throne on a will of his father, and an agreement with his brother; but he based it especially upon the consent of all the large proprietors of the kingdom of Wessex. Force sometimes gave severe checks to hereditary right; but the usurpation of the throne was always associated with the idea of the violation of a right, and the usurpers invariably strove to atone for this violation, by marriage with one of the legitimate race.
The kings, under the Anglo-Saxon monarchy, were at first called Heretogs, leaders of armies; but it is a mistake to explain and limit their prerogatives by the name which they bore. The power of arms was then so great, and all other powers seemed so inferior and subject to it, that they all fell under the generic term which contained within itself nearly every idea of force and empire. The most different powers were embraced under this single denomination, and we must not suppose that the kings limited their functions to those which it seems to indicate; the Anglo-Saxon kings were not merely military leaders; they managed all the internal administration of the realm, in concert with the Wittenagemot. Their attributes were not more determinate than those of that assembly. With it, they directed all the affairs of the nation; and their surveillance, being perpetual, was more close and active. They were addressed as the highest authority, and also as possessing the most information on public affairs. Thus the right of presiding over the general assemblies and proposing the subjects for deliberation, belonged exclusively to them.
The royal authority, however, not being sustained by a strong and regular organization, decreased in power in proportion as the great proprietors increased in influence and became firmly established in their domains. Towards the end of the Anglo-Saxon monarchy, the large landowners, sole masters on their own estates, began to do everything by themselves. They coined money, administered justice, and levied soldiers. And we must not imagine that this assumption of sovereign rights by local chieftains was regarded, by the people, as an act of iniquity and violence: it was a necessity of the social condition of the country. Royalty was no more capable of wielding all the central power, than the nation was of maintaining and exercising all its liberties.
[1. ]The comparison between England and France is a major theme in HORG. In his Memoirs, Guizot explained: “Ce fut à cette époque que je m’adonnai sérieusement a l’étude de l’Angleterre, de ses institutions et des longues luttes qui les ont fondées. Passionnément épris de l’avenir politique de ma patrie, je voulais savoir avec précision à travers quelles vérités et quelles erreurs, parquels efforts persévérants et quelles transactions prudentes un grand peuple avait réussi à conquérir et à conserver un gouvernement libre” (Mémoires, Vol. I, Paris: Michel Lévy Frères, 1870, p. 318). Like Madame de Staël and Benjamin Constant, Guizot wanted to understand why England and France had followed two different patterns of development and what had made possible the consolidation of moderate constitutional monarchy across the Channel. In Guizot’s view, the key point was to look at the relations and alliances between the monarch, the nobles, and the commons in the two countries. In England, the king could not, as in France, make use of the Commons to annihilate the political rights and privileges of the aristocracy, without substituting new liberties in their place. A portion of the feudal class united with the people in order to defend their liberties against the monarch (Tocqueville developed this idea in Old Regime and the Revolution). Guizot admired the division of powers in England, the tradition of self-government, the effective limitation of sovereignty, and the absence of absolute power; for more details, see HORG, pp. 89, 221–30, 247, 357–58, 377–81, 433–35. In his History of Civilization in France, Guizot argued that “English civilization has been especially directed toward social perfection; toward the amelioration of the external and public condition of men; toward the amelioration, not only of their material but also of their moral condition; toward the introduction of more justice, more prosperity into society; toward the development of right as well as of happiness” (I quote from François Guizot, Historical Essays and Lectures, ed. Stanley Mellon, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972, p. 271). For a comprehensive discussion of the image of England in nineteenth-century French political thought, see Pierre Réboul, Le mythe anglais dans la littérature française sous la Restauration (The English Myth in the French Literature During the Restoration) (Lille: Bibliothèque Universitaire, 1962).
[2. ]In Guizot’s view, power and excellence (i.e., exquisite talent, qualities, and abilities) were connected; power had always been granted to “the most brave and courageous ones,” and had never been based on a social contract among equals. Note that Guizot did not equate superior force with superior virtue; he only claimed that, in virtue of a natural law sui generis, the most assertive and brave individuals had always managed to impose their will and extend their domination. Guizot developed this idea in Des moyens de gouvernment et d’opposition dans l’état actuel de la France (On the Means of Government and Opposition in the Actual State of France) (Paris: Ladvocat, 1821), pp. 163–64.