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Years 1399-1485 page 2

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The rest of the clergy were summoned regularly to meet in convocation at the same time as the lay Parliament, and all matters affecting them, such as the levying of taxes, were sent to them to receive their sanction.

In 1429 universal suffrage, which till then prevailed, was restrained, and confined to the forty-shilling freeholders in the counties, as remains to the present day. The electors were to be possessed of " free land as tenements to the value of forty shillings by the year at least, above all deductions." What was the limit in cities and boroughs does not appear. In some it is supposed that the burgesses at large elected the representatives; in others that the corporations only elected.

The qualification for a county member was the possession of a freehold of 40 a year, equivalent to 400 at the present time. There were to be two for each county. The sheriffs themselves could not be elected. Henry IV. prohibited all lawyers from being elected, but this was deemed an unconstitutional exception, and was abandoned. In the last century we showed that already very corrupt practices had crept into the elections for Parliament; and these, spite of the popular resistance, still prevailed. The sheriffs, probably bribed or acted upon by the aristocracy, were very arbitrary and remiss in issuing their writs to the different boroughs. They appear often to have sent to just such boroughs as they pleased, and passed over others without notice. The Parliament of 1444 passed an Act to put an end to this abuse. It states '' that diverse sheriffs of the counties of the realm of England, for their singular avail and lucre, have not made due elections of the knights, nor in convenient time nor good men and true returned, and sometimes no return of the knights, citizens, and burgesses to come to the Parliament; but such knights, citizens, and burgesses have been returned as were never duly chosen, and other citizens and burgesses than those which, by the mayors and bailiffs, were to the said sheriffs returned. And sometimes the sheriffs have not returned the writs which they had to make of elections of knights to come to Parliament, but the said writs have embisiled, and, moreover, made no precept to the mayor and bailiff, or to the bailiff or bailiffs, where no mayor is, of cities and boroughs, for the election of citizens and burgesses to come to Parliament."

We see in this passage the shapes of various abuses which the nobility were already practising on the commons to serve their own purposes. To remedy some of these, the candidate, who was, to his astonishment, omitted after due election in the sheriff's return, and found another person occupying his place, was authorised, by an Act of King Henry IV., of 1409, to sue the sheriff before the judge of assize; and the sheriff, if convicted, was to pay a fine of 100 to the king - equal to 1,000 at this day - and the false member returned was to lose his 38. This not proving sufficient check to this abuse, the sheriff, by an Act of 1429, was, besides this fine, to be imprisoned for a year. This again was made still more severe in 1444: the sheriff, besides the regal fine and the year's imprisonment, was condemned to pay 100 to the unjust candidate, thus making his punishment equal to a year's imprisonment and 2,000 at the present period. The reason for this great severity was, that Parliaments, seldom enduring more than one or two sessions, the sheriff had a great chance of escaping the due penalty before the proper member recovered his seat. Yet, notwithstanding all these penalties and precautions, there existed many strange violations of all law in Parliamentary elections. In Yorkshire the great nobility, by the extent of their estates, set the lesser freeholders at defiance, and returned the county members, by their agents, at their pleasure, as many of them have continued to do even in our day. In 1447 this evil was wholly or partially remedied by express enactment. In 1460 the Parliament of Coventry was summoned by Henry VI., in utter violation of the constitution. There was no election at all, but the members were nominated by the king, and returned by the sheriffs, who were afterwards protected by a bill of indemnity.

The peers attended Parliament at their own proper cost, for this was a service contingent on the holding their baronies. But all the members of the Commons received regular wages. These were fixed, in the reign of Edward III., at 4s. a day for a knight of the shire, and 2s. a day for a citizen or burgess; and this rate of payment continued so long as the payment of members continued at all. This was an admirable means for ensuring a full attendance during the whole session; and as it would amount at this day, at the same rate, to 2 per day by the county members, and 1 per day for borough members, would probably, even now, throw a telling weight in the scale opposite to grouse, pheasants, and legislative indifference.

The protection of the persons of the representatives was also in full existence at this time, and both their wages, their privileges, and their attendance commenced and terminated at the same time. They commenced as many days prior to the meeting of Parliament as were requisite to travel to the place of meeting, and so for returning, and not a day longer. That the Commons were already alive to the maintenance of their privileges, is demonstrated by the petitions to the Lords or to the crown, which are yet extant on the rolls of Parliament. These wages had no slight influence on the duration of the parliamentary sessions, for the constituents became very restive when they continued long, on account of the amount of payment to the members. In the Parliament of the twenty-third of Henry VI., which lasted four sessions - a total of 178 days - the payment by each county for its two members amounted to 142 8s. - equal to 1,424 of to-day. These expenses were a sharp spur to the dispatch of business, and under such a system the constituents would never have tolerated the enormous speeches of modern Members of Parliament. The numbers of representatives constituting the Commons of England about this period would seem to be about 254, being 180 from 90 boroughs, and 74 knights of shires.

There were other stimulants to hasten the Parliaments of those times. The country was generally so unsettled that numbers, both of the Peers and Commons, were naturally anxious not to be absent from their own neighbourhoods and their estates longer than was absolutely needful. The peers and gentry were, moreover, still passionately attached to their field sports. Yet, notwithstanding all this, the legislators of this century made about fifty systems, or bodies, of laws, some of them containing only a few, and others as many as twenty or thirty statutes, on a great variety of subjects. Amongst the most important of these statutes, were the confirmation of the great charter and the charter of the forests, by Henry IV. and Henry V.; the enactments of the same monarchs against the Wycliffites, condemning them, at the demand of the clergy, to the flames. The powers of justices of peace were augmented, and their qualifications and duties better defined. The laws relating to commerce and foreign merchants were still very impolitic and harsh towards strangers who settled in England, especially to the Welsh and Irish, till the reign of Edward IV., who himself being addicted to commerce, soon perceived the folly and injustice of many of the old regulations, and abolished them.

One of the most influential legal measures during this century was that which confirmed, in the reign of Edward IV., the practice of cutting off entails by the process of a "common recovery." The better to enable the estates of the party which happened to be foiled at arms to pass under forfeiture to the crown, this legal fiction of "recovery" was adopted. The person to whom the crown granted such entailed estates by private agreement brought an action against the grantor for unjustly claiming such hereditary right, which was permitted to go by default, and then the entail was declared lost. The fee simple of the property thus recurring to the possessor, the property could be divided and disposed of at option. And this practice still continues, by which the possessor and the next heir can, in conjunction, destroy entails at pleasure.

Simultaneously came into general practice the device of uses. This legal fiction was introduced by the clergy towards the end of the reign of Edward III., to evade the operation of the statutes of mortmain. As no lands could be left to the religious houses, the donors were now instructed to grant the property in trust for the use of the religious houses; and this form of bequest not only became general in such cases, but during the wars of the Roses was applied to all descriptions of property. When attempts were made to confiscate the estates of different nobles and gentlemen, they were found to be held by them only for the uses of different parties, and were thus beyond the power of the crown to confiscate. By this means men provided against the accidents of war and party, and in favour of their families in those times of perpetual change.

The statutes of Richard III. were the first that were written in English, and the first which were printed - two most important improvements. The courts of law continued much the same as in the former century. The judges varied in number. Sometimes there were five, and sometimes as many as eight, in the Court of Common Pleas. The chief-justice of the King's Bench had 160 a-year, or 1,600 of our money value; the chief-justice of the Common Pleas 130, or 1,300 of present value. The other judges had 100, or 1,000 of our money. They had also their robes allowed them. Every judge, on entering on his office, swore "That he would not receive any fee, pension, gift, reward, or bribe, of any man having suit or plea before him, saving meat and drink, which should be of no great value."

Yet the administration of justice appears to have been very corrupt. The judges complained that their salaries were too small for their station, and as they held their appointments at the option of the crown, they were easily influenced. The clergy, by their exemptions, were almost beyond the power of the law, and the laity could with difficulty obtain any justice from their spiritual guides. Perjury was a great vice of the age, and the Convocation of Canterbury of 1439, declared that numbers of people had no other trade than that of hiring themselves as witnesses, and taking bribes when they were od juries. But, more than all, the violent factions of the times enabled those who were in the ascendant to set law totally at defiance. The great number of sanctuaries in all parts of the kingdom made it the easiest thing in the world to escape from creditors, as well as enemies. The high constable in those times exercised a kind of arbitrary power. He could, and frequently did, from the authority of his commission, put great political offenders, or those deemed such, to death without any form of law. Torture was also applied by him when he wished to have some evidence according to his own purpose. The famous rack in the Tower was invented by the Duke of Exeter when he was high constable, and thence was called "the Duke of Exeter's daughter."

But the "Paston Letters," which have let a flood of light in upon the social condition of the fifteenth century, show us that where great men desired to have their own will, they still occasionally passed entirely by all the forms and courts of law, and endeavoured to seize with the strong hand the property of their neighbours. These letters range over sixty years of the century, proceeding to its close. They reveal to us various modes by which the strong man was enabled to turn the scale against the weak one at law; but the most extraordinary relation concerning the family itself is one which occupies more than a volume, and details the actual war made upon them by the Duke of Norfolk. The celebrated general Sir John Fastolf left Sir John Paston the estate of Caistor, in 1459; but the Duke of Norfolk came forward and declared that Sir John Fastolf had given him the estate in his lifetime. Had he had a proper deed of gift, no doubt he would have produced it, and soon settled the matter in a court of law; but, instead of this, he marched out and laid regular siege to the place. For ten years this contest was carried on - each brought forward his tenants, and attacked and defended the place by cannon and handguns, and by every art and stratagem of war. By this time the duke had exhausted all the resources of his enemy. The gunpowder and the provisions for the garrison failed, and the place was surrendered. It was only recovered, after the death of the duke, by an appeal to the king in council.

The royal prerogative, especially as it regarded the raising of money, was much more limited in this century than it was in the former one. We hear no more of arbitrary subsidies imposed by the king's council. No legitimate tax could be imposed without the consent of Parliament. The king, indeed, could impress soldiers and sailors for his service, and even musicians, goldsmiths, embroiderers, and artificers of all kinds, but he could not touch their money, except by legislative means. We hear, moreover, far less of the nuisance of purveyance. That had been retained solely to supply the royal household, and the officers were bound to make prompt payment for whatever was taken. Hence the kings of this period were often reduced to great straits. We shall find them, when we come to speak of the coinage, debasing that, being slow to learn that a coin of less value can only purchase less goods.

The total revenue of Henry Y. appears to have been only 55,754. After paying his civil and military expenses, his salaries to the collectors of taxes and customs, and his pensions to dukes, earls, knights, &c., the sole remainder was only 3,507. Out of this he had to defray the charges of his household, his wardrobe, his embassies, and various other matters, while his household alone required 20,000, or more than six times the amount. We cease, therefore, to wonder at the debts which he left to his son, after all his wars, which amounted to 372,000, or nearly 4,000,000 of our money.

Parliament having well secured the power of granting or withholding supplies, the monarchs were compelled to resort to what they call benefices, or free gifts. They saw that the merchants had become very wealthy, and they took this means of easing them of a part of their substance. It argues a strange state of affairs, however, when a monarch could intimidate wealthy men into ruining themselves; for, according to the Act of Richard III. for abolishing this system, this was the effect. "Many worshipful men of this realm," says the preamble to that Act, "were compelled, by occasion of that benevolence, to break up their households, and live in great penury and wretchedness, their debts unpaid, their children unpreferred, and such memorials as they had ordained to be done for the wealth of their souls., were anentized and annulled," &c. There must have been great compulsion of some kind, in extracting these free gifts, for men do not ruin themselves voluntarily, and the injustice of it must have been crying; for Edward IV., on his deathbed, was wofully troubled by the memory of it, and wished restitution to be made.

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