The Reign of James I (Continued) page 13
The parliamentary committee inquiring into the abuses of office, recommended the house of commons to impeach the lord chancellor for bribery and corruption in the court over which he presided; and the commons accordingly presented to the upper house a bill of impeachment against him, consisting of two-and-twenty instances of bribery and corruption in his own person, and of allowing the same in his officers. The corruption of the chancellor was notorious; and out of doors it was asserted that he had received in presents no less than one hundred thousand pounds in the three years of his chancellorship. This he denied in a letter to Buckingham; but the charges brought against him by the commons, who were prepared to support them, were so formidable that they completely struck down the guilty man. He felt that his ruin was at hand, and either feeling or feigning sickness, he took to his bed. If he had not perceived sufficient indications of his impending fate from other quarters, the conduct of the king left him in no doubt. James informed the lords that he trusted the chancellor might clear himself, but that if he did not he would punish him with the utmost severity.
It must not be supposed, however, that Bacon was the first to introduce bribery into the court of chancery; it was an old and well-known practice, which had been both familiar to Elizabeth, and sanctioned by her. But Bacon ought to have had a soul above it, whereas he had indulged in the villainous custom the more profusely because his mode of living was so extravagant and ostentatious, that he saved not a penny of his enormous gain, but was always in need.
Bacon, on the presentation of the bill of impeachment, on the 21st of March, prayed for time to prepare his defence, and this was granted him, the house adjourning till the 17th of April. On the 24th of that month, the humbled statesman presented a general confession of his guilt, which was presented by prince Charles. In his letter he threw himself on the mercy of the house and the king, and pleaded, with a strange mixture of humility and ingenuity, his very crimes as meritorious, inasmuch as their punishment would deter others from them. He represented his spirit broken, his mind overwhelmed by his calamities; but he added that he found a certain gladness in the fact that "hereafter the greatness of a judge or magistrate shall be no sanctuary or protection to him against guiltiness; which is the beginning of a golden work - the purgation of the courts of justice. And," he added, "in these two points, God is my witness, though it be my fortune to be the anvil upon which these two effects are broken and wrought, I take no small comfort," After this edifying spectacle of exhibiting his punishment as a public benefit, he proceeded to apply that unctuous adulation to the sovereign and to the peers in which he was so unabashed a master. He implored mercy at the hands of the king - "a king of incomparable clemency, whose heart was inscrutable for wisdom and goodness - a prince whose like had not been seen these hundred years!" And then the lords were equally incensed, "compassion ever beating in the veins of noble blood;" not forgetting the bishops, "the servants of Him who would not bruise the broken reed, nor quench the smoking flax."
But all this creeping, to the crown, the coronet, and the mitre, did not serve him: he was required by the peers to make a separate and distinct answer to each charge. He complied fully with the demand, confessing everything; and when a deputation from the lords waited on him to know whether this was his own voluntary act - for they excused him the humiliation of appearing at the bar of the house - he replied with tears, "It is my act - my hand - my heart. Oh, my lords, spare a broken reed!" This full and explicit confession being read in the house, on the 3rd of May the commons, headed by their speaker, attended to demand judgment, which the lord chief justice, acting as speaker of the upper house, declared to this effect: - That the lord chancellor being found guilty of many acts of bribery and corruption, both by his own confession and the evidence of witnesses, he was condemned to pay a fine of forty thousand pounds, to be imprisoned in the Tower during the king's pleasure, to be dismissed from all his offices, and deemed incapable of either holding office again or sitting in parliament, and to be prohibited from coming within twelve miles of the seat of parliament.
The king remitted the fine, for the best of reasons - that Bacon had nothing to pay it with; he also liberated him from the Tower after a mere pro forma imprisonment of a few days, and Bacon retired to hide his dishonour at his house at Gorhambury, near St. Albans. Nor had his fall extinguished all admiration for him as a great lawyer and philosopher. Even in the house Sir Robert Philips, Sir Edward Sackville, and others, reminded the public of the lord chancellor's wonderful genius and acquirements; and as prince Charles returned from hunting one day, he beheld "a coach accompanied by a goodly troop of horsemen," whom he found were escorting the ex-chancellor to his house at Gorhambury.
In that beautiful retreat, it was in Bacon's power to have so lived and so written, that his disgrace as a statesman would have been soon lost in the splendour of his genius and the dignified wisdom of his latter years. But unfortunately Bacon was stamped to the core with the love of worldly greatness, and the five years that he lived were rendered still more miserable and still more contemptible, by his incessant hankering after restoration to place and honour, and his persevering and cringing importunities to the king and' Buckingham for these objects. To such a length did the wretched man proceed, that his letters became actually impious. He told the prince that as the king, his father, had been his creator, he had hoped that he would be his redeemer. The works which he completed after his disgrace were only such as could result from so miserable a condition of mind. They were suggested to him by the king, but were not executed with the zest of his own inclination. They consisted chiefly of a life of Henry VII., a revision of his former works, and the superintendence of a Latin translation of them. At length, finding all his efforts vain to move the king towards his restoration, his health and temper have way, and he died on the 9th of May, 1626, the melancholy victim of an unworthy ambition.
The commons had rendered a great public service by these impeachments of public men, and one which has since then operated as a precedent in the hands of parliament to check and punish on a large scale the too daring and unprincipled servants of the crown. But, as if carried beyond themselves by their success, they now fell into a grievous error, and displayed a spirit as aggressive in themselves, as it was cruel, bigoted, and unconstitutional. One Edward Floyde, a catholic barrister, a prisoner in the Fleet, was reported to have exulted in the success of the catholics in Germany over the elector palatine. This being mentioned in the commons, that august body took immediately such violent offence, that it was proposed by members to nail him by the ears, bore him through the tongue, set him in the pillory, &e. On inquiry, all that could be substantiated against him was, that he had said "that goodman palsgrave and good wife palsgrave had been driven from Prague."
For this paltry offence - which would not now attract a passing notice in a newspaper - the commons adjudged Floyde to pay a fine of one thousand pounds, to stand in the pillory in three different places, and to be carried from place to place on a horse without a saddle, and with his face to the tail. The commons had clearly stepped out of their jurisdiction to adjudge a man who was no member of their house, and Floyde instantly appealed to the king against the proceeding. James, who had so often been checked in his prerogative by the commons, did not neglect this grand opportunity of rebuking their error. He sent the very next morning to demand by what authority they condemned one who did not belong to them, nor had committed any breach of their privileges; and still more, by what right they sentenced him without evidence taken on oath?
This was a posing inquiry: the house was greatly disconcerted, for they were clearly in the wrong, and the king in the right. It was a hard matter, however, to confess their fault: the case was debated warmly for several days; but at length it was agreed to confer with the peers, who asserted that the commons had invaded their privilege of pronouncing judgment in such cases. The commons still contended that they had a right to administer an oath, and therefore to pass judgment. But the lords would not admit this, and it was agreed that the lords should sentence Floyde, which they proceeded to do, as exercising their own exclusive right, the commons contending that the lords now judged him by a similar right by which they had already judged him. The sentence was severe enough to satisfy the commons, for it augmented the fine from one to five thousand pounds, to be flogged at the cart's tail from the Fleet to Westminster Hall, to sit in the pillory, to be degraded from the rank of a gentleman, to be held infamous, and to be imprisoned in Newgate for life.
Perhaps so atrocious a sentence was never pronounced for so trivial an offence. It showed how little either the lords or commons were yet to be trusted with the lives and liberties of the subject, and how ill-defined were still their functions. The public expressed its abhorrence of the barbarous proceeding, and prince Charles exerted himself to procure a mitigation of the punishment, but could only succeed in obtaining the remission of the flogging. The commons having executed so much justice and so much injustice, but making no approach to a vote of further supplies, James adjourned parliament on the 4th of June to November. Vehement as had been the wrath of the commons against a disrespectful allusion to the palsgrave, they had done nothing towards the defence of his territory. As the public were by no means so indifferent on this point, the fear of their constituents suddenly flashed on the commons, and they then made a declaration that if nothing effectual was done during the recess for the restoration of the prince palatine and the protestant religion, they would sacrifice their lives and fortunes in the cause. This was not only carried by acclamation, but Coke, falling on his knees, with many tears and signs of deep emotion, read aloud the collect for the king and royal family from the book of common prayer.
Parliament being adjourned, James proceeded to appoint a new lord chancellor in the place of Bacon. There were three public candidates for the office - Ley and Hobart, the two chief-justices, and lord Cranfield, the treasurer, who had been originally a city merchant, but had risen by marrying a relative of Buckingham's. But there was another arid still more extraordinary occupant, determined on by Buckingham and James for the chancellorship - no other than a clergyman - Williams, late dean of Westminster, and now bishop of Lincoln. That a clergyman should be placed at the head of the court of chancery instead of a lawyer, was enough to astonish not only the members of the legal profession, but the whole public, Williams himself was openly professing to support the claims of Cranfield, and expressed astonishment when the post was offered to him. He declared his sense of his incapacity for the office, being inexperienced in matters of law, so strongly, that he would only accept of it on trial for eighteen months, and. on condition that two judges should sit with him to assist him, Yet this most extraordinary appointment was actually made, the real cause out of doors being assigned that "his too grate familiarity with Buckingham's mother procured him thesse grate favors and preferments one a suddaine." It was some time ere the barristers would plead before him.
But not the less did another event confound the dignitaries of the church. Abbot, the archbishop of Canterbury, hunting with lord Zouch in Bramshill Park, in Hampshire, accidentally shot the keeper of the park in aiming at a buck. The verdict of the coroner's inquest was unintentional homicide; but still the clergy contended that by the canon law the shedding of blood had disqualified him for discharging any ecclesiastical functions. Much censure was also expressed on his engaging in hunting at all; and as there were just then four bishops elect who awaited consecration, they refused to receive it at his hands. Amongst these were Williams, the lord-keeper, and Laud, bishop of St David's, who were supposed to be partly influenced by a hope of securing the primacy, if Abbot were pronounced disqualified. A commission, however, of prelates and canonists proposed that the archbishop should be absolved from all irregularity, and James, as head of the church, granted him a pardon, and appointed eight bishops to give him absolution; but from this time forward he seldom appeared at court.
During the recess, the king performed an act calculated to conciliate the commons. By the advice, as it was said, of Williams, the lord-keeper, he had abolished thirty-seven of the most oppressive of the patents and monopolies, of which the commons had so long complained. But the effect of this was totally neutralised by other measures of a contrary tendency. Complaints had been made of the growing audacity of the Algerine pirates, who had not only seized several English merchant ships in the Mediterranean, but even on the British coast. James solicited Spain, which also was a sufferer from these robbers, to join in an expedition to burn all their ships and destroy Algiers itself. Sir Robert Monsell was sent with a squadron for this purpose, but the Spaniards did not join him, and he was said to have a royal order not to risk his ships. Under such circumstances, nothing very vigorous was to be expected, yet on the 24th of May Monsell sailed up to the fort, and the sailors set fire to the ships, and then retired. No attack was made on the town, and the firing of the vessels was so imperfectly done, that the Algerines soon put out the flames, and threw booms across the harbour to prevent the re-entrance of the English. Only two of the pirate vessels were consumed, and the Algerines, like a swarm of hornets irritated in their nest, but not injured, rushed forth soon afterwards in such force and fury, that they speedily captured no less than five-and-thirty English merchantmen. Loud and bitter were the complaints in the country of this worse than useless proceeding.
<<< Previous page <<<
>>> Next page >>>
Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 <13> 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21