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The Progress of the Nation page 2

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This steady advance of prices of all articles is a sufficient test of the progress of the nation in general wealth and in notions of comfort and style of living; for though undoubtedly a vast mass of pauperism existed during this period, no people could go on paying higher and higher rates for everything, who had not the means of doing so. A poor nation might have suffered distress or scarcity, but could not have raised the means of living to such a degree as is here shown, if they had not had the money to purchase on such a scale. But we have abundant other means of demonstrating the progress of wealth in the nation from the splendour maintained by the Court, the cost in dress, jewellery, horses, and household establishments, the amount of taxation and revenue, the extent of shipping, of foreign commerce, and the rank and influence which the nation had assumed in Europe. We now proceed to notice these tokens of advance under their different heads.


The Tudors were a race who had the highest possible idea of their power and prerogative. Under Henry VIII. especially, the sentiment of Louis XIV. of France was thoroughly realised though the phrase was not yet coined, "L'etat c'est moi!" I am the State. By him the constitution appeared, if not utterly annihilated, yet reduced to a mockery and a mere machine, which moved only at his will. Yet in truth, paralysed as the nation appeared then, under the terror of the axe and the gallows, its spirit only waited, it was never extinguished; and under his successors it showed itself again unmistakably. It has been asserted by a modern author that the people in the time of Henry VIII. "were most cowardly, for that he had no means of maintaining his arbitrary course against them, as he had no standing army. But this is not altogether true, for though he had no actual standing army, he had such authority over the minds of both aristocracy and people, that - as we have seen on all occasions in which the people revolted, chiefly on account of religion, and when they were instigated and supported by the Roman Catholic nobles - he speedily mustered sufficient forces to put them down. In contemplating the strange mystery of the base submission of the Parliament and people to the reckless caprices and the, blood-thirsty despotism of Henry VIII., we must ever bear in mind that the whole nation was rent into two most antagonistic parts by the schism in religion. The Roman Catholics feared the loss of their estates, the Protestants were eager to secure them. Of the few noblemen remaining in the country, from the sanguinary decimation of the civil wars, some of the wealthiest remained stanch Roman Catholics, and were watched with greedy eyes by the host of poor but ambitious adventurers who were ready to second every scheme of spoliation meditated by the monarch. When the ancient Church was going to the ground, with all its proud establishments and enormous estates, the nobles who belonged to it felt the very earth shaking under their feet, and saw no means of safety but in the most implicit obedience. On the other hand, the numerous swarm of courtiers - whose only law was the word of the prince, and their only real creed the belief in plunder and in the acquisition of the lands of nobles, prelates, abbots,' and chantries, as the reward of subservience - were ever ready to rush to arms or to the execution of the most fierce and unconstitutional orders of the king. No mercy was shown by the members of one family to each other, where the terror of the monarch and the hope of his favour intervened. And at that day, when the country swarmed with vagabonds, who had no home and no ties, who had been increasing ever since the abolition of villenage, there was no difficulty in mustering any number of soldiers, where there was the chance of liberal pay and more liberal plunder.

This state of things, this facility of drawing forces to the field on the shortest notice, and on the most certain basis, was particularly provided for by Henry VII. He took care to save money by all means, and hoard it, so that though no man was more reluctant to spend, and none ever incurred so much odium by his parsimony where the military fame of the nation was concerned, yet he gained at least the reputation of ample means, and the credit for a disposition to punish promptly and severely any disloyalty or adverse claims on his Crown. He moreover passed two express statutes for the purpose of bringing his nobles and dependents rapidly to his standard on any emergency. By the Acts 2 Henry VII. c. 18, and 19 Henry VII. c. 1, every one who possessed any office, fee, or annuity, by grant from the Crown, was required to attend the king whenever he went to war, under penalty, in case of failure, of forfeiture of all such grants. There were, of course, certain exemptions. Some obtained the king's licence, for an equivalent consideration, to remain at home, and such as could prove any disqualifying infirmity were- excused. The clergy, as a matter of course, were exempt, also the judges and principal officers of the law; and by the latter Act this privilege was extended to the members of the king's Council, to such persons as had bought their patents for a certain sum, and to all persons under twenty and above sixty years of age. The exemptions extended to comparatively a small number of persons, the fear of forfeiture applied to the majority. To render this more effectual, Henry VII., as we have seen, was rigorous in prohibiting a large array of retainers by the nobles, whilst he was strenuous to enforce the attendance of the feofees of the Crown.

To break the power of the nobles, he enacted in the fourth year of his reign the Statute of Fines, in fact, a renewal of the law of Edward IV., by which entails could be cut off at pleasure, and thus the great landowners were enabled to divide their estates amongst their children, or to bequeath or sell them. This was a powerful means of breaking down those enormous estates which had heretofore maintained the overgrown barons, to the danger and continual disturbance of the throne. This process was carried farther, by the free use of attainders, by Henry VIII., by which, at will, he struck down the most wealthy and exalted nobles, and appropriated their demesnes; so that eventually there was not a foot of land in the kingdom nor an individual life which was not held at the king's mercy.

But still more than the Statute of Fines, and the passing of attainders, were the lives, liberties, and property of the people submitted to the will of the king, by the institution of the Court of "La Chambres des Estayers," or "des Esteils," the Star Chamber. This court set aside all other courts at will, and by abandoning the use of juries in it, laid Magna Charta, and the life and fortune of every man, at the foot of the throne. From the moment, in fact, that this court was formally erected by the 2 Henry VII., 1487, there was an end of the constitution, the privilege of Habeas Corpus was suspended, and Parliament legislated in vain. The king was the State, and ruled in this arbitrary court by the officers of his Privy Council!

This court was so called, it has been generally supposed, from the stars which ornamented the ceiling of the room in which it met, but these would seem to have been originated by the name, not the name from them. It was the place where the Jewish contracts were deposited by Richard L, and which were called "starra," or stars, a corruption of the Hebrew word "shitar." No star was deemed valid except it was found in that depository, and they remained there till the banishment of the Jews by Edward I. This Royal tribunal had been employed by monarchs previously to Henry, but he was enabled to make it legal by Act of Parliament, during the depressed condition of both Parliament and aristocracy. It became speedily the great instrument of the oppression and extortion of the subject and the terror of the whole realm, till it was abolished in the 16 Charles L, 1641. The judges, the members of the Royal Council, amounted to from twenty-six to forty-two, the lord chancellor having the casting voice. Bishops as well as judges sate in this court, but the lord chancellor, the treasurer, and privy seal were the chief authorities till the 21 Henry VIII., when the president of the Council was added to them.

Henry VII., in his original enactment, plainly avows his reason for establishing this court to be, that he may reach and punish such persons as by one means or another escaped sentence in the ordinary courts, through the bribery or "remissness" of juries. That is, that where juries were too independent to condemn the innocent at the royal pleasure, the royal pleasure could remedy that defect, and bring the offender into this safe tribunal, where it reigned paramount. Once established, there was no waiting for any other court, but all persons as the king or Council thought fit, were at once summoned by writ or privy seal, and dealt with and punished as, says the Act, "they ought to be if they were convicted by due order of the law."

This convenient creed being established had but one inconvenience; it necessitated the bringing of offenders to the capital. To obviate this, and extend the Star Chamber over the whole kingdom, in 2nd Henry VII. a statute was obtained, empowering all justices of assize and of the peace to hear and determine without a jury all offences, except treason, murder, and felony, which were, perpetrated against any statute unrepealed. The object of this was to subject every one who was possessed of property to the arbitrary demands of the Crown. Informers overran the country, and few who had wealth escaped being charged with the violation of some obsolete statute. It was this Act which enabled Dudley and Empson to prosecute their horrible exactions, to the signal enrichment of the Crown and of themselves, till their oppressions rendered the people clamorous in their outcries, and compelled Henry VIII. to repeal the Act, and hang the two vile tools of his father's cupidity.

In the reign of Henry VII. the privilege of benefit of clergy was greatly modified. This privilege, which originally exempted all clergymen from the authority of lay tribunals, had become extended to all such laymen as could read, and were, therefore, capable of becoming "clerks." To restrict this abuse, Henry VII., in the fourth year of his reign, enacted that such privilege should be allowed to laymen only once; and afterwards, when a man had murdered his master, a statute was passed to deprive all murderers of their lords and masters of benefit of clergy. Where it was admitted, the culprit, if a layman, did not entirely escape punishment, for he was burnt with a hot iron in the brawn of the left thumb.

The statutes in this reign were drawn up in English, and printed as they came out, by De Worde, Pynson, and Faques, a signal step in progress towards a public knowledge of the laws.

Under Henry VIII. the principle of arbitrary government arrived at its culmination. The freedom from restraint which his father had prepared for him, the passionate and imperious nature of this prince led him to exercise to the utmost. By the means which we have described - the terror of death to those who offended, and the participation in the spoils of nobles and the Church, and in new honours to those who served him regardless of law or conscience - he put himself above all control of Parliament or statute, and ruled as royally, according to his own fancy, as any Eastern despot. Out of this monstrous evil came, nevertheless, much good to the nation. Tyrants do that by a single volition, a single blow, which constitutional monarchs attempt in vain. By his own daring act he broke up the ancient system of the Church, with all its accumulated wealth, superstitions, and abuses, and cleared the ground for a new and more liberal state of things. By the distribution of this property he founded a new and influential class of freeholders, and enabled the affluence of trade to flow into land, and to give to the mercantile class a new status and influence. His motive was his own selfishness, but the result was the public good.

Among the useful statutes which he passed may be mentioned the Statute of Uses and the Statute of Bankruptcy. By the former he put an end to a most mischievous practice of conveying property for the use of certain parties or corporate bodies, which had been introduced to evade the statute of mortmain. So many secret modes of conveyance, so many legal fictions had been introduced into the transfer of this property, that it became difficult to ascertain the real owner; and creditors thus became defrauded, widows were deprived of their dowers, and husbands of their estates, by the courtesy. But above all, the great feudal lords were equally defrauded of their dues on wardships, marriages, and reliefs. By an Act of the twenty-seventh year of his reign, it was decreed that whoever was found in the possession of such property should be deemed its bona fide owner, and liable to the charges leviable upon it. By this means the dubious and fraudulent practice of uses was abolished, and the lawyers were compelled to resort to the simpler and more tangible theory of trusts. The nature of the tenure still remained the same, for the use was but a trust; but it was simplified, and brought more into the region of common sense and common observation. By the preamble to the Statute of Bankruptcy, we find that the progress of commerce had led to great frauds. Men by means of credit got the property of others into their hands and absconded with it. In the 34 and 35 of Henry VIII., therefore, it was enacted that the chancellor or keeper of the great seal, with the lord treasurer, lord president, privy seal, and others of the privy council, and chief justices, or any three of them - the chancellor, keeper, president, or privy seal being one - should have power to constitute a court, before which, on complaints from a party aggrieved, they should summon the defaulter, should take possession of all property in his possession, should hear all necessary evidence on oath, and should make a distribution of his effects amongst the creditors according to their claims. Persons concealing effects of the offender were to forfeit double their value; and claimants making fraudulent claims were to forfeit double the amount demanded.

This was the first outline and foundation of our court and law of bankruptcy, the main principles of which are still in force, but considerably modified by the greater development of the action of trade, and a spirit of increased enlightenment and humanity. The bankrupt is no longer treated necessarily as a criminal, but as one who has suffered from misfortune; and where he is Innocent of dishonest conduct, is discharged from such obligations as he has no means of fulfilling, and the way opened for future enterprise.

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