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LECTURE 25 - 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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Summary of the history of the Parliament from the death of Richard II. ~ to the accession of the House of Stuart. ~ Progress of the forms of procedure, and of the privileges of Parliament. ~ Liberty of speech in both Houses. ~ Inviolability of members of Parliament. ~ Judicial power of the House of Lords. ~ Decadence of the Parliament during the wars of the Roses, and under the Tudor dynasty. ~ Causes of this decadence and of the progress of royal authority, from Henry VII. to Elizabeth. ~ Conclusion.
It is impossible to comprehend the entire scope of the character and influence of great events. Some occurrences, which procure order and liberty for the present, prepare the way for tyranny and confusion in the future; while others, on the contrary, establish absolute power at first, and subsequently give birth to full political freedom. We cannot fail to be struck by this reflection when we consider the prodigious difference which exists between the immediate results and the remote consequences of the deposition of Richard II. It delivered England from an arbitrary, insolent, and disorderly government; but sixty years afterwards it gave rise to the wars of the Red and White Roses, and to all those cruel internal distractions which facilitated the establishment of the Tudor despotism: so that the decay of English liberties, from 1461 to 1640, had its primary source in the event which, in 1399, had consummated their triumph.
In considering the general character of the state of the government from 1399 to 1461, under the first three kings of the House of Lancaster, Henry IV., Henry V., and Henry VI., we must admit that this period was remarkable neither for the unchangeableness nor for the progress of institutions. During this epoch, the Parliament gained none of those signal victories which distinguished the reigns of Edward III. and Richard II.; no really new right, no fundamental and previously unknown guarantee, were added to those already possessed. Neither did arbitrary power again assume the offensive, and obtain the advantage; and the crown and Parliament engaged in no serious conflict calculated to compromise the existence of either party, or notably to change their degree of political importance. In truth, the work of this period was to regularize the results of previous struggles. The Parliament exercised, without much opposition, the right for which it had fought during the fourteenth century, viz., the voting of taxes, the appropriation of the subsidies, the investigation of the public accounts, intervention in the legislature, and the impeachment of the great officers of the crown. The kings, though frequently seeking to elude the application of these rights, never ignored them completely, or braved them openly. The whole of the political machine remained almost unaltered; but though it underwent no great revolutions, it received many important developments in its internal organization. Practical ameliorations were sought after and attained; further consequences were deduced from established principles; and this epoch is more remarkable for various improvements in the springs of parliamentary government, than for the conquest of great rights, or the formation of fundamental institutions.
The internal constitution of the Parliament, especially during the course of this period, made important progress; from this time we may date, with some degree of accuracy, its principal forms of procedure and its most essential privileges.
One of the most essential is, certainly, liberty of speech. During the reign of Henry IV., we find the speaker of the House of Commons demanding it of the king at the opening of every session. One of the first acts of the first Parliament held during this reign, in 1399, was to obtain the revocation of the sentence passed upon Thomas Haxey, in the reign of Richard II. Every circumstance proves that, under Henry IV., the Commons used greater liberty of speech than they had previously enjoyed. It was, indeed, made a subject of special praise to Sir John Tibetot, speaker in the Parliament of 1406. The king soon manifested great distrust of the extension given to this right, which was probably exercised with all the rudeness which characterized the manners of that time. In 1410, he told the Commons that he hoped that they would no longer use unbecoming language, but act with moderation. In 1411, the speaker, Sir Thomas Chaucer, having made the usual demand at the opening of the session, the king replied that he would allow the Commons to speak as others before had done, but that “he would have no novelties introduced, and would enjoy his prerogative.” The speaker requested three days to give a written answer to this observation, and then replied “that he desired no other protestation than what other speakers had made; and that if he should speak anything to the king’s displeasure, it might be imputed to his own ignorance only, and not to the body of the Commons,”* which the king granted.
We meet with no infringement upon the liberty of speech enjoyed by the Commons until the Parliament of 1455, at which time a deputy from Bristol, Thomas Young, complained that he had been arrested and imprisoned in the Tower, six years before, on account of a motion which he had brought forward in the House. The object of this motion had been to declare that, as the king then had no children, the Duke of York was the legitimate heir to the throne. The Commons transmitted this petition to the Lords, and the king commanded his council to do whatever might be judged fitting on behalf of the petitioner.
In all official transactions with the king and the lords, the Speaker was the mouthpiece of the House of Commons, and for him especially liberty of speech was then demanded. He acted in the name, and on the behalf, of the House, on almost all occasions. In 1406, we find him giving his consent, in this capacity, to the act which regulated the succession of the crown.
The inviolability of the members of Parliament was a right of no less importance than liberty of speech. The ancient Saxon laws granted protection and security to the members of the Wittenagemot, in going and returning from the place of meeting, provided they were not notorious robbers and brigands. From the formation of the new Parliament, the same right was claimed by its members, who, as they came to transact the business of the king in his national council, were entitled to exemption from arrest or hindrance. In 1403, Sir Thomas Brooke repaired to Parliament as a representative of Somersetshire; and one of his suite, Richard Cheddre, was maltreated and beaten by John Salage. A statute ordained that Salage should pay double damages to Cheddre, according to the award of the Court of Queen’s Bench; and “moreover, it is granted by the said Parliament that the same shall be done in times to come, in similar cases.” This circumstance gave rise to a petition of the Commons, who prayed that all lords, knights, citizens, and burgesses, coming to Parliament and residing there, might be, as well as their followers and domestics, under the special protection and defence of the king, until their return home; and that they might be arrested for no debt, contract, or suit, or imprisoned in any manner during that time, under penalty of a fine to be paid to the king, and damages to the person injured. The king replied that provision should be made to this effect. The statute of 1403 was renewed in 1433, during the reign of Henry VI.
In 1430, a complaint was laid before the House of Commons on account of the imprisonment, for debt, of William Lake, the servant of William Mildred, one of the members for London. He was set at liberty by a special act of Parliament.
In 1453, the Commons complained to the king and to the lords of the imprisonment of Thomas Thorpe, their speaker, who had been arrested for debt at the suit of the Duke of York. The Lords referred the matter to the judges, who replied through Sir John Fortescue: “That it was not their part to judge of the Parliament’s actions, who were judges and makers of the laws themselves; only they said there were divers supersedeas of privilege of Parliament brought into courts; but a general supersedeas, to suppress all proceedings, there was not. For, if there should, it would seem as if the High Court of Parliament, that ministered all justice and equity, should hinder the process of the common law, and so put the party complainant without remedy, inasmuch as actions at common law are not determinable in Parliament; but if any member of Parliament be arrested for such cases as are not for treason, felony, or surety of the peace, or for a judgment had before Parliament, it was usual for such person to be quitted of such arrest, and set at liberty to attend his service in Parliament.”*
Notwithstanding this answer of the judges, the Lords decided that Thorpe should remain in prison: and ordered the Commons, in the king’s name, to elect another speaker, which they did. But this was a party quarrel; Thorpe was attached to the House of Lancaster, and the Duke of York was then in the ascendant. The privilege then existed, but still in a precarious manner, and a special act of Parliament was necessary on every occasion to ensure its being put into practice.
It was also during this period that the right of parliamentary initiative superseded the right of petition. We have already noticed the abuses originated by the initiative which the House of Commons exercised by means of its petitions; and that the petitions were not always faithfully reproduced in the statutes which they had suggested. We have also seen what efforts had already been put forth by the Commons to prevent these trickeries. In 1414, during the reign of Henry V., they complained of them in a special petition, to which the king replied by promising that in future the statutes should correspond exactly to the petitions granted. But this guarantee was very insecure, and the Commons had already begun to obtain more effectual securities by accustoming themselves to draw up in the form of complete bills, the statutes which they had previously suggested by petitions; and sending them to the House of Lords, that they might be discussed and adopted by that House, before they were presented to the king, who then had nothing more to do than to give or refuse his sanction. It is impossible to indicate with precision the period at which this important change took place; for it was accomplished gradually, and was not remarked by the historians of the time. The usage of petitions co-existed for some time with that of bills. The following facts indicate the progress of the change. Under Richard II., in 1382 (and I have already alluded to this fact), the Commons attempted to obtain the opinion of the Lords, upon a certain question, before bringing under the notice of the king. The attempt was repulsed by the Lords, who staked their honour upon not separating from the king, and upon receiving simultaneously and in concert with him, the propositions of the Commons. The complete initiative of the Houses of Parliament arose, naturally and necessarily, from the voting of taxes. Originally, as you have seen, each class of deputies voted alone those taxes which were destined to weigh especially upon themselves; and the knights of the shire deliberated and voted upon this matter with the Lords. When the knights of the shire had fully combined with the deputies of the boroughs—when the House of Commons deliberated and voted, in a body, upon the same taxes—it became necessary that the votes on such matters should receive the consent of the Lords, who would also have to bear the consequences. Bills passed in reference to subsidies were thencefor-ward discussed and voted by both Houses before they were laid before the king; and the initiative, in its present form, was thus fully established in this particular case. In 1407, a remarkable incident brought this form of proceeding to light, gave it final sanction, and deduced from it at the same time two other parliamentary rights of great importance. In consequence of a debate which arose between the House of Lords and the House of Commons with regard to the initiative of subsidies, three principles were recognised, and have since remained firmly established: 1. Parliamentary initiative in its present form; 2. The exclusive initiative of the Commons in the matter of subsidies; 3. The right of the Houses, that the king should take no cognizance of the subject of their deliberations until they had come to a decision upon it, and were in a position to lay it before him as the desire of the Lords and Commons in Parliament assembled.
It was natural that that which was practised with regard to subsidies should soon extend to all matters; and that the propositions of Parliament, whatever might be their object, should reach the king as emanating from both Houses instead of being merely the petitions of one of them. Mr. Hallam affirms, without giving any particulars, that this practice became general during the reign of Henry VI., and from this period he dates the real division of the legislature into three branches. I am inclined to think that this practice had commenced at an earlier date, although it was rarely carried into effect; and it is certain, from the very constitution of Parliament at this epoch, that it did not become constant and general until a later period.
In 1406, I find the Commons demanding, by the mouth of the speaker, Sir John Tibetot, the right of withdrawing their bills from the House of Lords, at any stage of the deliberation upon them, in order to introduce amendments; which was granted. The Commons were therefore already in the habit of occasionally drawing up their petitions in the form of bills, and of passing them through the House of Lords before presenting them to the king.
At this period, the House of Lords was still regarded as the great council of the king, and as a sort of intermediary between the privy council and the entire Parliament; and a number of propositions on matters of government, and even of legislation, still emanated from the Commons alone, and were presented, in the form of petitions, to the king and lords. The practice of initiative by way of bills adopted by both Houses could not, therefore, have been general. The periods of the king’s minority or absence tended increasingly to impart the character of a great council of government to the House of Lords. Accordingly these epochs, and especially the reign of Henry VI., abound in propositions or petitions of the Commons to the Lords. It was at a later period, when the king and his privy council had regained a more independent power than their predecessors had enjoyed—that is to say, under the Tudor dynasty—that the Upper House became entirely disjoined from the government properly so called, and found itself placed, with respect to the king, in almost the same position as the House of Commons. Then alone did the practice of proceeding by bills discussed in both Houses before they were laid before the king, assume a constant and general character, that is to say, the parliamentary initiative was definitively substituted for the ancient right of petition possessed by each House, and especially by the Commons.
With regard to the order of the debates in Parliament, it was an ancient custom that the king should not reply to the petitions of the Commons until the last day of the session; which rendered it impossible to make the concession of subsidies dependent upon the king’s answers. They endeavoured to reverse this order, probably during the reign of Richard II.; for the sixth question which he proposed to the judges was whether, when the king had called the attention of Parliament to any subject, the Parliament might attend to other matters before deciding upon the propositions of the king. The judges replied that such a proceeding was an act of treason. The answers of the judges of Richard II. having been declared illegitimate in the Parliament of 1399, the foregoing dictum was comprised in the general reprobation. Accordingly, in 1401, the Commons maintained that it was not their custom to grant any subsidy until the king had replied to their petitions, and they demanded that this course should be pursued. The king said that he would confer on the subject with the Lords, and on the last day of the session, he replied “that there was never such use known, but that they should first go through with all other business before their petitions were answered; which ordinance the king intended not to alter.” We do not find that the Commons then resisted, or attempted to procure the recognition, in a general manner, of the principle which they asserted. But this principle was frequently put into practice in subsequent Parliaments, and the king was forced not to throw any hindrance in its way. In 1407, Parliament opened on the 20th of October. On the 9th and 14th of November, the Commons presented themselves before the king, explained their numerous grievances, received his answer, and granted no subsidies until the 2nd of December following. In 1410, Parliament met on the 27th of January; and it was not until the 9th of May, after it had obtained satisfaction on several points, among others on the dismissal of two members of the privy council, that it granted a subsidy. This practice became almost constant during the reign of Henry VI. We find an evident proof of this in the Parliament held in November 1455. The Commons sent several times to demand of the Lords the appointment of a Protector for the kingdom, on account of the imbecility of Henry VI.; and the Archbishop of Canterbury urged the Lords to give a definitive answer, “for it is well known that the Commons will not give attention to any affairs of the Parliament until they have obtained an answer, and satisfaction of their request.”
The principle had, therefore, become a fact, and was generally admitted as a fact.
It was also during the course of this period that elections to Parliament, and the rights of Parliament in the matter of elections, began to be regulated. I have already observed in treating of the formation of the Parliament, that the electoral system had been definitively established by statutes of Henry IV. in 1405, and of Henry VI. in 1429 and 1432. Many facts prove that at this date the importance of the House of Commons had become so great, that the elections were a subject of frequent frauds. A number of statutes of detail, during the reign of Henry VI., were passed to prevent such frauds, and to regulate the procedure by which they should be investigated and punished. Then also, for the first time, we find conditions imposed on the choice of the electors. The ancient spirit of electoral institutions required that the persons elected should be inhabitants of the county or town which they were chosen to represent. This was converted into an express law by a statute of Henry V. in 1413, which was renewed by a statute of Henry VI., in 1444 ; but the law has fallen into desuetude by the force of circumstances, without ever having been formally repealed.
The judgment of elections continued to belong, during this period, to the lords and the king’s council, who were frequently urged to exercise this prerogative by petitions from the Commons.
It was also at this epoch that the judicial power, which originally resided in the entire Parliament, was declared to belong exclusively to the House of Lords. This declaration was made in 1399, at the suggestion of the Commons themselves, and by the mouth of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who said: “That the Commons were only petitioners, and that all judgment belonged to the king and lords; unless it was in statutes, grants of subsidies, and such like.” Since this period the Commons, when they desired to interfere in judgments otherwise than by impeachment, were obliged to employ the means of bills of attainder. They adopted this plan in the case of the Duke of Suffolk in 1450, and very frequently afterwards.
These are the most notable marks of progress made, during this period, by the constitution and forms of Parliament. If we now consider Parliament, no longer in itself and its own internal proceedings, but in its relations to the government properly so called, we shall find that its rights and influence in matters of taxation, legislation, and public administration were the same as it had won under Edward III. and Richard II., and that it merely exercised them with greater assurance and less opposition. Henry IV. tried more than once to resist the power of the House of Commons; but it had set him upon the throne, and felt itself in a position to confine him within the limit of his authority. In 1404, it demanded of him the dismissal of four officers of his household; and he replied with singular humility “that he knew no cause why they should be removed, but as the Lords and Commons judged it for the interest of the kingdom and his own advantage, he would remove them, and would do as much in future to any minister who should incur the hatred of his people.” In 1406, the Commons submitted for the approbation of the king thirty articles which, they said, they had drawn up to ensure the better administration of public affairs, and which they demanded that the king’s officers should swear to observe. These articles, though of a temporary nature, were intended to repress many existing abuses, and to restrict the royal prerogative in certain respects. The king thought that he could not refuse his assent. Towards the end of his reign, Henry IV. appeared more bold, and less disposed to yield unresistingly to the control of the Parliament; but his death prevented all serious conflict. The glory of Henry V. and the passion for wars with France filled up his somewhat brief reign; the Parliament sustained him in all his measures, and even went so far as to grant him, in 1415, a subsidy for life, with power to use it arbitrarily and at his pleasure. During the minority of Henry VI., or rather during all that part of his reign which was not stained with civil war, and was in fact a long minority, the power of Parliament reached its climax, and absorbed the entire government. All matters were decided between the Lords and Commons; but it was too soon for the nation, thus left to its own guidance, to provide itself with a regular government. Violent factions arose among the aristocracy, which the House of Commons was not in a condition to repress. That great development of public institutions and liberties which had commenced under king John, and continued with such regularity since the reign of Edward III., was suddenly interrupted, and England plunged into the violent anarchy of the wars of the Red and White Roses, to emerge only into the despotism of the House of Tudor.
How came it that institutions, already so strong and active, at least in appearance, decayed so rapidly? How came it that parliamentary government, which seemed in possession of all its essential rights and principles, paused in its progress, and yielded for more than a century to the rule of an almost absolute monarchy? Now that I have reached the conclusion of this course of lectures, I cannot investigate with you the causes of this apparently singular fact; but they may be discerned in another very remarkable fact—in the analogy which prevails between the history of England and the history of France at this period. In France, also, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, we discern the appearances of attempts at representative government; these incoherent and superficial essays were succeeded by the wars of religion, the League, and the great disorders of the sixteenth century; and order was not restored, France did not regain repose and vigour, until the establishment of absolute power by Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIV., and by the annihilation, as a political power, of that ancient feudal aristocracy who had been able neither to procure for the country, nor to assume for themselves, in the government of France, their legitimate and lasting position.
In England, as you have just seen, representative government, originating in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries did not confine itself to incoherent and feeble essays; but established itself upon its essential foundations, and speedily obtained considerable development. The sanguinary conflicts for the succession to the throne, the protracted dissensions of the Red and White Roses, abruptly arrested its progress. Just as in France, from the reign of Louis XI., we hear nothing of attempts at the establishment of free institutions, so in England, during the reigns of Edward IV. and Richard III., the Parliament has no history. In the intervals of the civil war, it appears only as the instrument of the vengeance of the victorious party, and to pass bills of attainder against the leaders of the vanquished faction. It voted a few taxes, but this was the only one of its rights which it still maintained, and even this was eluded by the practice of Benevolences, or gifts in appearance voluntary, but in reality compulsory, of which we meet with a few examples in antecedent times, but which received great extension under Edward IV. Finally, more than once several years elapsed without a Parliament being convoked, especially from 1477 to 1482 ; such a suspension had been unprecedented since 1327.
The civil wars of the fifteenth century, however, are only the superficial, and as it were, external cause of this sudden decadence of representative government in England; in order to discover its true cause, we must penetrate deeper into the state of society.
Until this period, the three great forces in English society—the royal power, the aristocracy, and the Commons—had maintained intimate and continual relations amongst themselves, and had served each other by turns, either as an obstacle or as a means of success. It was by the aid of the great barons that the Commons had been enabled to win their liberties. The royal power, though strong in itself, had nevertheless been obliged to resort sometimes to the barons, and sometimes to the Commons. From the political concurrence of these three great social forces, and from the vicissitudes of their alliances and fortunes, the progress of representative government had resulted. Liberty can be established only where there does not exist in the State any constituted power sufficiently preponderant to usurp absolute authority.1
In the latter half of the fifteenth century, the equipoise of these three forces ceased. The royal power disappeared in some sort, in consequence of the imbecility of Henry VI. and afterwards by the uncertainty of the right of succession to the crown. The government fell into the hands of the high aristocracy, who were divided and distracted by their intestine quarrels. The Commons were not in a condition to act the part of mediators between these terrible factions, and to impose upon them respect for public order. The knights of the shire took part in the train of the great barons with whom they were still dependently connected by a multitude of ties: and the towns, thus left alone, could do nothing, but were carried away in the general stream. In this state of disorder and violence, the Commons disappeared, or if they were not materially annihilated, their political power vanished. The high aristocracy worked its own dissolution; many great families were destroyed, and many more were ruined. Henry VII., at his accession, found only the wreck of that nobility which had made his predecessors tremble. The great barons, wearied with their own excesses, and stripped of a great part of their resources, were no longer inclined or able to continue that struggle against the royal power, which had been headed by their ancestors ever since the days of king John. On this side therefore, the royal power no longer had any powerful antagonists. On the other side, the Commons, wasted and enervated by civil war, were not in a condition to take the place of the high aristocracy in the struggle against the royal authority. They had taken part in the government as followers of the nobles; and when they found themselves standing almost alone in presence of the crown, it did not even occur to them that this interference was their right: they, therefore, contented themselves with defending a few special rights, particularly that of consenting to large subsidies; and, in other respects, they allowed themselves to be governed. Hence arose the government of Henry VIII., and at a later period, that of Elizabeth.
More than a century was requisite to enable the English Commons—reinvigorated and strengthened, in a material point of view, by long years of order and prosperity, and in a moral point of view, by the reformation of religion—to acquire sufficient social importance and intellectual elevation to place themselves, in their turn, at the head of the resistance against despotism, and to draw the ancient aristocracy in their train. This great revolution in the state of society broke out in the reign of Charles I., and determined that political revolution, which, after fifty years of conflict, finally established representative government in England.
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[* ]Parliamentary History, vol. i. p. 313.
[* ]Parliamentary or Constitutional History of England, vol. ii. p. 287.
[1. ]This is yet another illustration of Guizot’s emphasis on antagonism and competition in a free society. It will be recalled that for Guizot, it was the equilibrium between various political powers and principles of social organization that had led to the preservation and strengthening of liberty in England. He concludes his historical investigation by arguing that liberty can be established only when there is no single power capable of stifling the development of others to the point of usurping authority and becoming absolute. The same idea can be found in HCE: “Nothing but the general freedom of all rights, all interests, and all opinions, the free manifestation and legal coexistence of all these forces, can ever restrain each force and each power within its legitimate limits, prevent it from encroaching on the rest” (HCE, p. 244).