The Progress of the Nation page 3
The laws of Henry VIII. regarding gaming were strict and rational, and afford a striking contrast to those of the so-called moral princes of Germany in our own day. No person, by himself, or his servant, or other person, for his gain, hiring, or living, was to keep any house, alley, or place of bowling, quoits, tennis, dicing-table, cards, or any other unlawful game, under penalty of forty shillings per day, and of six and eightpence to every such person playing. All justices, mayors, and head officers were empowered to enter any house and search for such offenders, and commit them till they gave security not to offend again. Officers were to make a strict search once a month, or were themselves to suffer a penalty of forty shillings. Workmen, apprentices, and husbandmen were only allowed to play at such games during Christmas, and then only in their masters' houses or presence.
Another statute of this reign introduces the earliest notice of a singular people - the gipsies. It was enacted in the 22 of Henry VIII. that persons calling themselves "Egyptians," who had lately come into the country, used no trade, and practised no handicraft, but wandered from shire to shire in great companies, pretending to tell fortunes, and committing many felonies and robberies, should be allowed sixteen days to depart, and if found in it after that time, should be imprisoned and deprived of all their goods and chattels; and all sheriffs and justices of the peace were commanded to seize all such Egyptians thereafter coming into the country, if they did not depart within fifteen days, and appropriate their effects to the king's use. The continuance of this nomadic tribe on our heaths and commons to the present day decides that the statute of Henry took no effect upon them.
But the laws of Henry were rarely so rational or innocent as these. We have seen, in tracing the events of his reign, that, to stop the mouths of his subjects regarding his many criminal deeds, the cruel calumnies on and divorces of his wives, followed by their execution, and the perpetration of fresh marriages equally revolting, he was continually creating new species of treasons, and loading the statute book with the most atrocious specimens of legislation which ever disgraced the annals of any nation, Christian or pagan.
The first of these extraordinary enactments was the statute 25 Henry VIII., c. 22, passed on the occasion of his divorce of Catherine of Arragon, and his marriage of Anne Boleyn. In this he declared that any one who dared to write, print, or circulate anything to the prejudice of this marriage, or the queen herself, or the issue of such marriage, should be guilty of high treason. The same was to be the fate of any one who endeavoured to dispute this alliance by advocating the validity of the former marriage with Catherine, and every one was to take an oath to obey this Act fully; and if any refused to take such oath, they were to be also guilty of misprision of treason. As, however, the tyrant could not prevent people thinking and speaking their minds in private, the next session he got from his pliant Parliament a fresh Act, forbidding all persons to speak or even think a slander against the king; for if they thought, they could have the oath put to them, and must either deny their very thought, or be found guilty of treason.
But by the twenty-eighth year of his reign the fickle despot had cut off the head of this very queen, against whom nobody had on any account been allowed to whisper the slightest fault, on peril of their lives. The marriage with her, as well as that with Catherine, was declared utterly void, and never to have been otherwise; the issue of both was pronounced illegitimate, and the same penalties were enacted against every one who called in question the present marriage with Jane Seymour. Thus, on every occasion that this Royal sensualist thought fit to destroy or divorce a wife and marry another, did he compel the whole of his subjects to swear and forswear at his pleasure; to perjure themselves over and over - to sanction the thing they had lately condemned, and to condemn the thing which lately it was death by his decree to call in question. In a statute of the thirty-first of his reign, c. 8, he clearly enunciated that doctrine of Divine right which the Stuarts, his successors, wielded to their perdition. It is worthy of note, too, that by abolishing the authority of the Pope, to serve his own selfish ends, he let loose the human mind from its long thraldom, and prepared the way - a necessary sequence - for that political rebellion which was certain to be assumed by a people who had once triumphed in a religious one. Thus was political freedom, the consequence of this lawless monarch's attempt to crush it, as much as the Reformation was that of his rejection of the Papacy for the gratification of his passions; a triumph of omnipotent Providence over the blind selfishness of despots, which should teach us never to despair of the darkest times.
It is needless to follow Henry VIII. through the still repeated progress of those contradictory oaths as ho slew or wedded fresh wives. It was the same in the divorce of Anne of Cleves, on the decapitation of Catherine Howard; but growing perfectly frantic with wrath and shame on finding himself married to an unchaste woman whom he had proclaimed an angel, he went a step further, and denounced the terrors of high treason against any woman who should dare to marry him if she had been incontinent before marriage, and against all such persons as should know of this and should not warn the king in time. When to these unexampled statutes we add that of 31 Henry VIII., c. 14, which abolished all "Diversity of opinions," and that of 34 and 35 Henry VIII., c. 1, for the " Advancement of true religion and abolishment of the contrary," we have exhibited the most perfect example of what a man may become by the intoxication of unlimited power.
Besides particular laws, Henry VIII. erected two new courts of justice - the Court of the Steward of the Marshal-sea, for the trial of all treasons, murders, manslaughters, and blows by which blood was shed in any of the palaces or houses of the king during his residence there; and the Court of the President and Council of the North. This latter court was established in the thirty-first year of his reign to try the rioters who had risen against his suppression of the lesser monasteries; but it included all the powers vested in the king's own council, and not only decided such civil cases as were brought before it, but was armed with authority, by secret instructions from the crown, to inquire into presumed illegalities, and to bring before it alleged offenders against the prerogatives of the king; and was made such oppressive use of by Strafford in the time of Charles I. as led to its abolition in the sixteenth year of that reign. As to the actual administration of the laws under the great Tudor despot, Reeve in his History of the Laws of England, says: - " If we are to judge of the criminal law in this reign by the trial which have come down to us, it appears that the lives o: the people were entirely in the hands of the crown. A trial seems to have been nothing more than a formal method of signifying the will of the prince, and of displaying his power to gratify it. The newly-invented treasons, as they were large in their conception, and of an insidious import, by giving a scope to the uncandid mode of inquiry then practised, enlarged the powers of oppression beyond all bounds."
To the honour of Edward VI. and his counsellors, all these arbitrary acts of his father were abolished by him: the law of treason was restored to its state under the statute of 25 Edward III.; religion was again set free, and proclamations by the king in council were declared to have no longer the force of Acts of Parliament. A few years, however, introduced Queen Mary, and a reversal of the state religion and all its laws. That dreadful persecution which we have narrated, and which is one of the darkest spots in the history of the world, was carried on to force the human mind into its former thraldom; and an attempt was made by the Spanish power which was then introduced to restore arbitrary rule by a singular suggestion. Charles V. of Spain presented, through his ambassador, a book to the queen, in which the principle was laid down that as she was the first queen regnant, none of the limitations which had been set to the prerogative of her ancestors the kings of England, applied to her, but to kings only; and that by consequence she was free and absolute. This book Mary showed to Gardiner, and asked his opinion of it, which was that it was a pernicious book, and could work her no good. Thereupon Mary threw the book into the fire; and Gardiner, on the plea of defining and establishing her authority, brought in an act, which, giving her the same powers as the kings before her possessed, consequently restrained her within the same limits.
Mary confirmed the act of her late brother, confining the law of treason to the statute of the 25th of Edward III.; nor does she seem to have created fresh treasons, except in one instance - making it treasonable to counterfeit not merely the coin of the realm, but also such coins as circulated there by Royal consent.
Once more the reformed religion was restored on the accession of Elizabeth; and, like her father, she was not only declared supreme head of the Church, but she assumed all his claims of supreme authority in the State. She frequently told her Parliament that it existed entirely by her will and pleasure; and when the members entered on matters disagreeable to her, she snubbed them in language which sounds oddly enough in these days of high Parliamentary privilege. By the very first statute passed in her reign, she proceeded to set up a new Court, ignored everything like Magna Charta and the right of jury, making her own will the entire law, and placing every subject, with his life and property, at her mercy. This was the Court of High Commission, which assumed all the pretensions of the Star Chamber, but was directed more especially to ecclesiastical affairs. The queen was empowered to appoint by letters patent, whenever she thought proper, such persons, being natural-born subjects, as she pleased, to execute all jurisdiction concerning spiritual matters, and to visit, reform, and redress all errors, heresies, schisms, abuses, offences, &c., which by any ecclesiastical authority might be lawfully ordered or corrected. The Reformers were only too eager to put this formidable engine into her hands, because it was to crush the Romish hierarchy; but they did not reflect that it could on occasion be employed against themselves, as Laud and Strafford afterwards demonstrated to their children. This inquisitorial court was armed with authority to employ torture to effect the necessary confessions, and its jurisdiction was extended to the punishment of breaches of the marriage vow, and all misdemeanours and disorders in that state. It was, therefore, sanctioned in forcing its operations into the very bosom of social and domestic life, and presents an aspect most fearful, and calculated effectually to lay the subject prostrate at the feet of the sovereign.
Elizabeth, indeed, was fully as arrogant and despotic as her father; and nothing but her lion-like resolution, her choice of able and unscrupulous ministers, and the cunning of her government, could have enabled her to maintain her sway so successfully as she did. The homage due to her sex no doubt also contributed essentially to this result. Yet not all these circumstances could prevent her clearly perceiving that her power was silently and even rapidly waning before that of the public. She frequently had to tell persons that they dared not have done or said certain things in her father's time. She had repeatedly to concede the point to the pertinacity of her Parliament; especially so when, towards the end of her reign, the House of Commons called so boldly upon her to abolish the monstrous list of monopolies which had been granted to her favourites, commencing from the seventeenth year of her reign. Amongst these monopolies were those for the exclusive sale of salt, currants, iron, powder, cards, calf-skins, felts, poledavy (a kind of canvas), ox shin-bones, train-oil, lifts of cloth, potash, anise-seed, vinegar, sea-coal, steel, aqua-vitae, brushes, pots, bottles, saltpetre, lead, accidences (or books of the rudiments of Latin grammar), oil, calamine stone, oil of blubber, glasses, paper, starch, tin, sulphur, new drapery, dried pilchards; the exportation of iron, ham, beer, and leather; the importation of Spanish wool and Irish linen; and, in fact, such an astonishing list, that when it was read over in the Commons in 1601, but two years before her death, a member in amazement asked, as already stated, whether bread was not of the number.
These grants had been obtained from her by her courtiers through the weak side of the woman; but in the expenses of her government, considering the aid she had to render to her Protestant allies in Scotland, France, and the Netherlands, and the enemies she had to contend with, necessitating expensive armaments and navies, her administration shows most favourably. She would never incur debt, but paid off that incurred by her predecessors, Edward and Mary. Instead of debasing the coin, like her father, she increased its purity; and the annual outlay of her government averaged only about £653000 per annum.
In fact, the more we recede from the personal history of Elizabeth, which no sophistry now can render fair, and approach her great political measures, the more we perceive the true evidences of her glory. She was courageous, beyond the power of a world in arms to terrify her; she was moderate in her demands on her subjects, though vain in her person and showy in her court; shrewd in her choice of ministers, though weak in her indulgence of favourites; she was ambitious of the reputation of her country, though staining her own character with the darkest; crimes; and she rendered to the labouring people their birthright in the land, which her father had stripped them of in levelling the monastic institutions, by enacting the Poor Law, the celebrated statute of the forty-third of her reign, on which yet rests the whole fabric of parochial right to support in age and destitution. In nothing did she display her governmental sagacity so much as in her repeated declaration that money in her subjects' purse was as good as in her own exchequer. It was better, for there it would be growing tenfold in the ordinary augmentation of traffic, ready to yield the State proportionate interest on any real emergency.
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