Reign of Henry the Eighth - (Continued) page 2
The Commons chose, as was supposed through the influence of the Court, Sir Thomas More as speaker. Sir Thomas was not only a man of profound learning, but a felicitous genius, and extremely witty. His conversation was greatly relished by the queen, who had introduced him to the private suppers with the king, who became as much fascinated by his society. Sir Thomas was evidently well aware of the difficult part which he would have to sustain in such a post, for he hung back from it, declaring how unfit he was for it. But Wolsey, who calculated greatly on his genius, protested that he was qualified for it by his great abilities and judgment more than almost any man. After a few days' session of Parliament, Wolsey went down to the House, contrary to all custom and privilege, and presented a royal message, to the effect that Francis, by his conduct, had made a war absolutely necessary, that the honour of the country was deeply concerned, and that it was a fine opportunity for England to recover all that it had lost in that country. He concluded his address by recommending them to vote immediately a property-tax of twenty per cent., which would raise the sum of £800,000.
Such a sum had never before been asked by any English king in his widest dreams of foreign conquest. The House sat as thunderstruck, and in profound silence. Wolsey had imagined that his presence, surrounded by all the symbols of his grandeur, would completely overawe the House; and that with a Court favourite of such distinction as Sir Thomas More, he should carry the monstrous demand by surprise. He had, therefore, come environed by his pompous retinue of prelates and nobles, and with his silver pillars and crosses, his maces, his pole-axes, and with his hat and great seal borne before him. But not all his magnificence moved the Commons where its privileges had been thus grossly invaded, and its money was thus boldly demanded. The whole House sat as silent as the senate of Rome when Brennus and his savage Gauls burst in upon it. Wolsey gazed upon them in amazement, looking from one to another. The proud cardinal then addressed a member by name. The member arose, bowed, and sat down again without uttering a word. Still more surprised at this dumb show, Wolsey called upon another member for an explanation, but obtained none. Growing wrathful, for he was not accustomed to such treatment, he broke out: - "Masters, as I am sent here by the king, it is not unreasonable to expect an answer. Yet, unless it be the manner of your House, as very likely it may, by your speaker only in such cases to express your mind, here is, without doubt, a most marvellous silence."
Whilst he said this, he looked fixedly and angrily at Sir Thomas More, unquestionably expecting different conduct from him. But Sir Thomas, dropping on his knee, said that the House felt abashed in the presence of so great a personage; which, he added, was enough to amaze the wisest and most learned men of the realm. That the House, according to its ancient privileges, was not bound to return any answer; and as for himself, unless all the members present could put their several thoughts into his head; he was unable to give his grace an answer on so weighty a matter. The cardinal then retired, very much displeased with the House, and still more with the speaker.
After the great minister had retired, the House went into a warm debate. Some of the members affirmed that there was not above £800,000 of cash in the kingdom; and if all the money were gathered into the king's hands, no trade could be carried on except by barter. The courtiers urged all the ingenious arguments that they could invent, or with which they were supplied, to show the necessity of the grant; and the king was in such a rage that he is said to have even threatened some of the members with death. It was, in fact, one of the most determined stands for privilege of Parliament, and resistance, to oppression of the people, which has ever been made in this country. The feeling and spirit in the House were taken up and new everywhere out of doors. Henry beheld the popular agitation with infinite wrath and. indignation, "that people should talk about his affairs;" and Wolsey was equally irate that "no sooner was anything said or done in the House than it was blown abroad in every ale-house." In the Commons the debate went on cay after day; and we may obtain some idea of the heat to which it rose, from a letter written by a member to the Earl of Surrey, whilst in the north watching the Scots. "Since the beginning of this Parliament, there hath been the greatest and sorest hold in the lower House for the payment of two shillings in the pound that was ever seen, I think, in any Parliament. This matter hath been debated and beaten for fifteen or sixteen days together; the highest necessity being alleged on the king's behalf to us, as was ever heard of; the highest poverty confessed as well by knights, squires, and gentlemen of every quarter, as by commoners, citizens, and burgesses. There hath been such hold that the House was like to have been dissevered."
The contest grew to such a pitch that the cardinal, fearful of the result, determined to go to the House a second time, notwithstanding the clear intimation given him that his presence was considered a breach of privilege. He made them a speech, going over all the arguments which had been advanced by the opposition, and then begged them to tell him what they had to object; but they only returned him the answer, through the speaker, that they would hear his grace with humility, but could only reason amongst themselves; and he was obliged to go away as he came.
When he had departed, they resumed the debate; and at length, at the earnest entreaty of the speaker, they voted two shillings in the pound on all who enjoyed twenty pounds a year or upwards; one shilling on all who possessed from two pounds to twenty; and on all subjects with incomes below that scale, a groat a head. This was not a moiety of what the king had demanded, and the payment was spread over four years, so that it did not really amount to above sixpence in the pound. The lesson which Henry here received did not incline him to call another Parliament speedily. He had summoned none for eight years before; and there is no doubt that he asked for this extravagant sum that he might dispense with Parliament for another term as long. He did not, as it was, call another for seven years.
The king, in his anger at the Commons, boasted to the mayor and aldermen of London that he should find a very different spirit amongst the clergy; but even these he tried beyond their patience. He demanded no less than fifty per cent, of the incomes of their benefices, to make up the deficiency from the laity. But the clergy were not disposed to be mulcted of half their incomes at a blow; they made as stout a resistance as the House of Commons. Wolsey, to make sure of them, summoned the convocations of the two provinces, which had met in their usual manner, by his legative authority, to assemble in a national synod in Westminster Abbey. But there the proctors declared that they had only power to grant money in regular convocation, not in synod; and he was obliged to permit them to depart, and vote in their ordinary way. The convocation of the cardinal's own province of York waited to see what Canterbury would first do, which were more independent of Wolsey's power. In. the lower House the resistance was resolute, and was kept alive by the eloquence of a preacher of the name of Philips, till he was won over to the Court by substantial promotion. In the higher House, the Bishops of Winchester and Rochester animated the prelates to such opposition, that the grant was not carried for four months, and then being spread over five years, amounted, not to fifty, but only to ten per cent.
The money voted had yet to be levied; and there were many who entertained great fears of what might occur in that unpleasant process. "I beseech Almighty God," writes a member of the Parliament, "it may be well and peaceably levied, and surely paid unto the king's grace without grudge, and without losing the good-will and true hearts of the subjects." This view of the danger had been impressed on the members of the Commons by the excitement abroad during their debates. As they had passed to and fro to the House, people in the streets had caught them by the sleeve, saying, "Sirs, will ye grant four shillings in the pound? Do it, and take our curses and our threats home with you to your households!" But the king, incensed at the opposition shown, ordered the whole, which was voted for four years, to be collected at once, and thus excited the most menacing disturbances in various parts of the kingdom. The five northern provinces were exempt from the tax, on account of the Scottish war; the Cinque Ports, in virtue of their charter; and Ludlow, in consequence of a grant from Edward IV., confirmed by both Henry's father and himself; but in Kent, Essex, Huntingdonshire, Suffolk, London, and other places, the people refused to pay the tax-gatherers, and in some parts resisted them arms in hand.
The money obtained at all this cost of difficulty in Parliament, and unpopularity with the people, was lavishly expended in repelling the attempts of the Scots, in furnishing aid to the allies in Italy, and in preparing for another expedition into France. It was of the first importance, before sending the army across the Channel, to obtain security on the side of Scotland. To this end Henry made fresh overtures to his sister, Queen Margaret, offering to place her at the head of the Government, and to enable her to put down the party of Albany, who was now absent in France collecting fresh means for maintaining the war. He sent the Earl of Surrey, son of the victor of Flodden Field, to co-operate with her, to win over as many as possible of the nobles with money, and to lay waste the borders, so that they should be incapable of furnishing supplies to an invading army.
It was agreed that Surrey should march into the country to support the queen, who, on her part, should proceed to Edinburgh, and there proclaim her son as king, though he was only twelve years old. These plans were defeated by the return of Albany from France, who landed at Dumbarton on the 23rd of December, with 2,000 soldiers, and a great quantity of stores, arms, artillery, and ammunition. Surrey had just laid the large town of Jedburgh in ashes; but he found it necessary to retire before the impending storm. At the summons of the Scottish Parliament, the whole nation new to arms. Sixty thousand men flocked to the standard of Albany on the Burrow Moor, whilst Surrey had not more than 9,000. In this situation, he dispatched messengers in all haste to the council, urging instant reinforcements. He wrote to the king, praying him to send to him all the young lords who were wasting their time at Court in cards, dice, and balls; and as he regarded his position as very critical, he commended to the royal notice his family. He requested the king to send him, amongst the other troops, a body of 4,000 Germans, who were somewhere in Henry's service, that they might teach the English to observe the order of battle, and, remembering the effect of the Scotch pikemen at Flodden, that he might be able to oppose pikemen to pikemen.
The Earl of Surrey was promptly responded to by the Court, and he soon found his army swelled from 9,000 to 50,000 men. With these he garrisoned the castles of Berwick, Norham, and Wark, and fixed his head-quarters at Belford. Albany, on the other hand, posted himself at Eccles, and laid siege to Wark. He had made a breach, and penetrated to the interior court, when the storming party were repulsed; and, hearing that Surrey was on the march to take him in the rear, he retired to Lauder, in the night, during a heavy fall of snow. Albany, indeed, seems to have been utterly destitute of the courage or the talents of a general. This disgraceful transaction, bringing with it the memory of his former one, completely destroyed his influence: he returned to France, and never came again to Scot-and.
Margaret now had every opportunity which a woman of spirit and reputation could wish. She was strongly supported by the power of England, and her great opponent was for ever defeated. She proclaimed her son, and assumed the regency; but her worst enemy was herself. She fell into her old habits; and her scandalous attachment to Henry Stuart, the son of Lord Evandale, soon ruined her prospects. Henry once more abandoned her, and raised her husband, the Earl of Angus, to the chief power. It was in vain that Margaret applied for assistance to Francis I., and humiliated herself so far as to solicit the return of Albany. From this moment there was more tranquillity in Scotland. The French faction, seeing support from France hopeless, were compelled to remain quiet. Truce after truce was established with England; and for eighteen years the borders rested from hostilities.
The position of the King of France was, at this crisis, becoming more and more critical. His kingdom was environed with perils, and menaced with ruin, which could only be averted by singular courage and address. Against him was arrayed a most formidable confederacy of the Pope, the emperor, the King of England, and the various states of Italy. He had not a single ally, except the King of Scotland, a minor, and without authority. The internal condition of France was extremely discouraging. The wars of Francis in Italy and at home, his gay life and expensive pleasures, with his extravagant grants to his favourites, had exhausted his treasury, and involved him in great embarrassments. The troops were ill-paid, and, as is usual in such cases, became disorderly and infested the highways, plundered the peasantry, and filled the whole kingdom with alarm and discontent. The Court partook of the licence and distraction of the nation; it was rent by faction, and the most dangerous secret conspiracy was at work in it.
Francis himself, amid these hosts of enemies, external and domestic, was undaunted, and even resolved to march into Italy, to recover his possessions there. "All the world," said the intrepid monarch, "have conspired against me, but I fear them not. The emperor has no money, the English cannot penetrate far into my kingdom, the militia of the Low Countries can do me little harm. I will march into Italy, subdue my enemies there, and return soon enough to recover what I may have lost in France." He appointed his mother, Louise of Savoy, regent of the kingdom, put himself at the head of his army, and commenced his march. But he had advanced no further than Lyons, when he was overtaken by despatches from his mother of so serious a nature, that he gave the command of his troops to his favourite the gallant Bonivet, the Admiral of France, who led them on to Italy.
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