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Reign of Edward I. Part 2 page 3


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In these conflicts, good as well as evil was elicited, and the bravery and spirit of dominion which distinguish united Great Britain no doubt draw a large amount of their life from the mutual struggles and rivalries of the two peoples. In the very attempts, therefore, of Edward to add Scotland to the kingdom by force, as he did Wales, he may be said to have laid the foundation of much of the common greatness of the nation; but from incidental causes arising out of his military attempts, both in Scotland and Prance, and still more from his directly constructive talent and wisdom, we owe to him much which we are apt to lose sight of in the blaze of his wars and expeditions. He was as remarkable for his sturdy maintenance of the laws as for his military ambition. Simple and frugal himself, he was ever ready to support useful enterprises. He was liberal of his treasures on such occasions. Easy and affable to his courtiers and dependents, he was yet severe in restraining licence and punishing offenders. His fine person and skill in military exercises made him popular with the people, when he did not press too heavily on them by his expensive wars; and thus, relying on his sense of justice, they were not backward in expressing their opinions, as we have seen. Though he was extremely cruel to the Jews - a feature of his character springing from the prejudices of his age - and often forgot the magnanimity of a great monarch in his resentment against those who successfully thwarted his plans, as in the case of Sir William Wallace and others, his sense of. justice in his calmer moments and in his peaceful pursuits was so great that he not only encouraged an honourable administration of the laws, but he corrected and amended them, and added so many new ones, in accordance with the progress of society, that he has been termed the English Justinian. Sir Edward Coke, in his "Institutes," says that the statutes passed in his reign were so numerous and excellent, that they actually deserved the name of establishments, being more constant, standing, and durable than any made from his reign to the time of that great lawyer; and Sir Matthew Hale pays him the like compliment, declaring that down to his own day they had scarcely received any addition. He was the first to establish justices of the peace. He repressed robberies, and encouraged trade by giving merchants an easy method of recovering their debts. He abolished the office of chief justiciary, which he thought possessed too much power. He divided the court of exchequer into four distinct courts, each attending to its own branch, and independent of any one magistrate, while the several courts became rivals, not checks to each other; a circumstance tending greatly to improve the practice of law in England.

The grand obstacle to the impartial execution of justice in those times was the power of the great barons. These despots he strove to overawe and restrain; but while aiming at this, he at the same time allowed them to entail their estates, and thus preserved to them that influence in the constitution of the country which the aristocracy have ever since maintained. He has the honour, too, of being the first Christian prince who put a stop to the alarming absorption of the landed property of the country by the clergy, setting bounds to it by passing a statute of mortmain. In this, however, he was avowedly actuated by his wish to prevent the diminution of feudal services and emoluments, which became extinguished when lands passed from the laity to the Church. But, to compensate the clergy, he was the first to allow the levy of first-fruits.

Par greater, however, were the innovations which this monarch introduced into the British constitution - innovations of the mighty influence of which he could form no conception. He was the father and originator of the Parliament of England. Before his time the barons had met the sovereign to determine on peace or war, and to consent to the raising of the necessary funds. But Edward had occasion to make such frequent and extensive demands on his barons, that he frequently found them daring to reject his calls for money, and refusing even his summons to war, as in the case of Bohun, Earl of Hereford, and Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, who positively declined to follow him to his campaign in Flanders. The obvious means of at once creating a counterbalancing power to this overgrown one of feudal chiefdom, and of replenishing his coffers, was to elevate the people of the towns, who had now advanced to a considerable degree of wealth. His father had sought to supply the diminution of revenue and power which had occurred from the great feudal barons gradually, by one means or other, freeing themselves from their obligations, through summoning to Parliament the lesser barons and knights. Henry III. had made it an occasional practice to allow these lesser noblesse to choose a certain number of their order in each county to represent their whole body; hence our knights of shires. Edward established this as a fixed and uniform practice, and he went farther. He had been obliged, for his expedition into Poitou and the repression of the Welsh, to levy no less than a sixth of all the movables from the laity, and a moiety of all ecclesiastical benefices. He saw dearly this necessity must often recur if he prosecuted his great designs of national aggrandisement and he resolved to summon the representatives of all the boroughs to Parliament. Here, then, we have the origin of our House of Commons; and we come, in this fact, upon one;: the greatest epochs in our national history. This great event took place in the year 1295, in the twenty-third year of Edward I.'s reign, and is a date that should be for ever memorable.

The words of the preamble of the writ, by which this new power in the state was called into existence, are truly remarkable, and indicate a principle of liberal equity in the mind of the king worthy of a British monarch. "It is a most equitable rule," says this document, "that what concerns all should be approved of by all, and common dangers be repelled by united efforts."

But no party whatever had at the time the slightest ilea of the unparalleled importance of this innovation; of what a tree lay in this small acorn of popular life; - hat a colossus in this constitutional embryo. The king, with all his sagacity, did not grasp it in its full Titanic bulk and multiplicity of bearing; he was looking rather at his own necessities. The barons certainly did not, or they would have opposed it with all their power. Least of all did the people themselves comprehend the act which was calling them from the borders of serfdom to become the ruling power in the nations, the artificers and foster-fathers of the world's civilisation. It was to them the new birth from slavery, degradation, and contempt, into life, liberty, and greatness. Yet they shrank from it as a burdensome imposition, a repulsive duty. The people who resided in the country under the great barons still were treated as a very inferior class, and with much of that haughty rudeness and injustice which marked the earlier ages of Norman feudality. Those who had escaped into towns, and devoted themselves to trade, had acquired many privileges in comparison -with, those who still tilled the soil. They were endowed with liberty to trade; boroughs were erected by royal patent, in which, they were empowered to farm their own tolls and customs, to elect their own magistrates, and were freed from any attendance on the sheriffs or county courts. But they still bore about with them the traces of the iron of serfdom, which for so many ages had entered into their souls. They were rude in dress, in manners, and little enlightened on matters beyond their own immediate sphere. The people of London, as was seen when Edward attempted to impose on them in regard to the charter, were much in advance of the inhabitants of other towns, who retained a deep sense of their own humility, and a dread of the feudal lords.

When, therefore, representatives were called for from their body to attend Parliament, every one shrank from the appointment. They heard with consternation, of their election; and it was found necessary, says Brady, in his "History of Boroughs," for the aldermen and councils of the towns to take sureties from these deputies of the people for their due attendance, To them a journey to London at that day was a most formidable enterprise, both from the perils and toils of the way and the great expense. Their charges were therefore borne by the respective corporations. They had so little idea of the honour or benefit of appearing as legislators, that they regarded the function as destitute of both profit and repute. They knew that they should be looked on with scorn, if not direct insult, by the great lords with whom they had to assemble. And, in fact, these proud men, both barons and knights, disdained to mix with so mean a throng as they regarded them. They compelled them to sit apart; and these unhonoured legislators were glad to hasten away and get them home again the moment they had voted the necessary sums.

Little were these primeval commoners aware of what they were to grow into; that within 300 years they would rise to be virtually and avowedly the chief power of the state; that they would not only hold the purse-strings of the nation, but would have called before them, arraigned, condemned, and executed the very monarch of the realm on a charge of high treason against the people; that, having given a fresh trial to this monarch's family, they would, on finding it incurably despotic, have driven its representative from the throne, and issued a new national charter, under the title of a Bill of Eights, declaring that the people were the source of all power. The contempt of the aristocracy, compelling them to sit apart, was the deciding cause of their becoming a distinct house - the House of the Commons; and this House of Commons has risen, in about four centuries and a half - though still too neglectful of its great powers - to the noblest position of any senate which the world ever saw, its words listened to by the proudest kings as most potent for peace or war, and felt in every region of the earth as the hope of the enslaved, the terror of the despot, the central citadel of civilisation and freedom. Thus, the English House of Commons can point to a history as glorious as its origin was humble.

Yet even in the time of the first Edward the vigour inherent in the people began to manifest itself in these their representatives. As the royal necessities continued to increase, and the king's demands for money and men to become proportionably heavy, the Commons plucked up courage, and began, though not allowed to legislate, to present petitions of their grievances. To these petitions the king, from perceiving his dependence on the growing wealth and resources of this class, was obliged to listen with attention and at least external respect. With his growing difficulties these petitions became more frequent and more bold in tone. They were referred to the judges, and, when sanctioned by them, were submitted to the king, and frequently to the barons, and eventually became laws. Here was the young lion beginning to feel his strength and to put it forth, had the upper classes and the court been able to see it; but it yet came forward in too modest a shape. This power was next greatly augmented by the knights of the shires being, as a representative and not an hereditary body, removed from the baronial assembly, and by the king appointed to meet with the other representative class - that from the boroughs. This common feature of delegation made the transition natural and easy. The knights and country gentlemen made now no scruple to assemble with the burgesses of the towns on this common principle, and all distinction was soon lost in the lower house, which thenceforth assumed a place and dignity worthy of its functions.

There was another institution which arose simultaneously with the House of Commons, and from precisely the same causes, the king's necessities and his admirable sense of political justice. He was obliged to levy contributions from the clergy; and he deemed it absolutely necessary that, as a body, they should also send up representatives to an assembly of their own to impose the taxes on their own order. This great king was 500 years in advance of the legislators of the reign of George III., who lost an empire rather than admit the doctrine that there should be no taxation without representation. He not only voluntarily avowed the principle, but immediately acted upon it. The inferior clergy, for the first time in English history, therefore, met by delegation as a lower house of convocation.

Yet Edward was not so liberal where his own prerogative was concerned; and this reign presents the narrative of a great contest for the confirmation of the Great Charter of the nation, and the lesser charter, that of the forests. In both cases, however, the king was compelled to give way, and under him the Great Charter was finally and fully established. From that day, whatever might be the arbitrary encroachments on the liberties of the people, whether it were the erection of the Star Chamber, imprisonment by warrants from the Privy Council, martial law, or practices of a similar stamp, these have always been looked upon as violations of the constitution; and the validity of the Great Charter as the basis of English government, and the sure touchstone of every act of government, has never since been formally disputed.

All these circumstances marked the reign of Edward I. as one of the most important in our history. The organic principles which he introduced into our constitution struck deep and indestructible roots there, and have, by their permanent and progressive operation, made us in a great measure, as a nation, what we are.

Edward had a numerous family by his two wives, but a great many of his children died in their infancy. By his first wife, Eleanor of Castile, Edward, his heir and successor, was the only son, out of four, who survived him. Of eleven daughters by the same queen, four only I appear to have lived. Joan was married, first to the Earl of Gloucester, and after his death to Ralph de Monthermer. Margaret married John, Duke of Brabant. Elizabeth married first, John, Earl of Holland; and secondly, the Earl of Hereford. Mary was Abbess of Ambresbury. By his second wife, Margaret of France, he had a daughter who died in infancy, and two sons - Thomas, created Earl of Norfolk and Mareschal of England; and Edmund, made Earl of Kent by his brother, Edward II.

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