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Reign of Queen Anne page 8

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It was at this moment that the house of lords, determining to search Boucher to the bottom, excited so fiercely the wrath of the commons by demanding that he and Sir John Maclean should be brought to their bar. Nothing, however, could be extracted from Boucher. He pleaded that he was tired of living out of his native country, and had determined to throw himself on the mercy of the queen. He contended that, during the wars in Ireland as well as in Flanders, he had been extremely attentive to all English prisoners, and he produced so much effect that he was allowed to retire, and died soon after in Newgate.

The year 1704 opened amid these inquiries. The queen laid before the house of lords the papers concerning the Highland plot, with one exception, which the earl of Nottingham asserted could not yet be made public without tending to prevent a further discovery. This only stimulated the lords, who addressed the queen, praying that the whole of the papers might be submitted to them. The queen replied that she did not expect to be pressed in this manner, but she ordered the papers in question to be delivered to them under seal. The peers pursued the inquiry with renewed vigour, and soon issued a report that it appeared to them that there had been a dangerous conspiracy carried on for raising a rebellion in Scotland, and invading that kingdom with French power, in order to subvert her majesty's government and bring in the pretended prince of Wales, and that they were of opinion that nothing had given so much encouragement to this conspiracy as the Scots not coming into the Hanover succession as fixed in England. They therefore besought the queen to procure the settlement of the crown of Scotland on the princess Sophia, and when that was done they would use all their influence for a union of the two kingdoms.

Anne expressed her entire concurrence in these views, and the lords then presented another address in answer to the second address of the commons. They charged the commons with manifesting a want of zeal for the queen's safety, and with showing a strange reluctance that the particulars of the plot should be brought to light, obstructing all through, as much as in them lay, the necessary inquiry; and fresh fuel was immediately furnished to the flame already blazing betwixt the two houses. One Matthew Ashby, a freeman of Aylesbury, brought an action against William White and others, the constables of Aylesbury, for preventing his exercising his franchise at the last election. This was an unheard-of proceeding, all matters relating to elections being from time immemorial referred to the house of commons itself* The circumstances of the case, however, furnished some reason for this departure from the established rule. It appeared that four constables made the return, and were well known to bargain with a particular candidate, and so manage that the election should be his. In appeals to the house of commons the party which happened to be in power had in a most barefaced manner always decided in favour of the man of their own side. Ashby, therefore, Sought what he hoped would prove a more impartial tribunal. He tried the cause at the assizes, and won it; but it was then moved in the Queen's Bench to quash these proceedings as novel and contrary to all custom. Three of the judges were opposed to hearing the case, the matter belonging notoriously to the house of commons; and they argued that, if this practice were introduced, it would occasion a world of suits, and make the office of returning members a very dangerous one. The lord chief justice Holt alone was in favour of it. He contended that there was a great difference betwixt the election of a member and a right to vote. The decision of the election undoubtedly belonged to the commons, but the right to vote being founded upon a forty shilling freehold, upon burgage land, upon a prescription, or the charter of a borough, was clearly establishable by a court of law. The judges at length permitted the trial, but, being three against one, the decision was for the constables. This aroused the indignation of the whole whig party, and the cause was removed by a writ of error to the house of lords. The lords, after a full hearing, and taking the opinions of the judges, confirmed the judgment given in favour of Ashby at the assizes.

The commons now took up the affair with great warmth. They passed five resolutions, namely, that all matters relating to elections and the right of examining and determining the qualifications of electors belonged solely to them; that Ashby was guilty of a breach of their privileges, and they denounced the utmost weight of their resentment against all persons who should follow his example and bring any such suit into a court of law, as well as against all counsel, attorneys, or others who should assist in such suit. They ordered these resolutions to be affixed to the gates of Westminster Hall. The lords took instant measures to rebut these charges. They appointed a committee to draw up a statement of the whole case, resolved upon its report " that every person being wilfully hindered from exercising his right of voting might seek for justice and redress in common courts of law against the officer by whom his vote had been refused; that any assertion to the contrary was destructive of the property of the subject, against the freedom of election, and manifestly tending to the encouragement of bribery and corruption: and finally that the declaring Matthew Ashby guilty of a breach of privilege of the house of commons was an unprecedented attempt upon the judicature of parliament in the house of lords, and an attempt to subject the law of England to the will and votes of the commons."

They ordered the lord keeper to send copies of the case and their votes to all the sheriffs of England, to be by them communicated to all their boroughs in their respective counties. The house of commons was greatly enraged at this, but it had no power to prevent it, and it had the mortification to see that the public feeling went entirely with the lords, who certainly were the defenders of the rights of the subject, whilst the commons, corruptly refusing a just redress to such appeals, endeavoured to prevent the sufferers obtaining it anywhere else.

We now come to one of the most striking and meritorious acts of the reign of Anne - the grant of the first-fruits and tenths of church livings to the poor clergy. The tenths amounted to about eleven thousand pounds a year, and the first-fruits to about five thousand pounds. These monies had been collected by the bishops since the reformation and paid over to the crown. They had never, says Burnet, "been applied to any good use, but were still obtained by favourites for themselves and friends, and in king Charles's time went chiefly amongst his women and children. It seemed strange that, whilst the clergy had much credit at court, they had never represented this as sacrilege unless it were applied to some religious purpose, and that during archbishop Laud's favour with king Charles I., or at the restoration of king Charles II., no endeavours had been used to appropriate this to better uses, sacrilege was charged on other things on very slight grounds, but this, which was more visible, was always forgot." But it was too convenient a fund for favourites to get assignations upon. It is much to the credit of Burnet that he managed to divert this desecrated fund from the impure clutches of courtiers and mistresses, to the amelioration of the condition of the unhappy working clergy. He proposed the scheme first to William, who listened to it readily, being assured by Burnet that nothing would tend to draw the hearts of the clergy so much towards him, and put a stop to the groundless clamour that he was the enemy of the clergy, Somers and Halifax heartily concurred in the plan; but the avaricious old Sunderland got an assignation of it upon two dioceses for two thousand pounds a year for two lives, which frustrated the advance of the business. Burnet, however, succeeded better with Anne. He represented that ther£> were hundreds of cures that had not twenty pounds a year, and some thousands that had not thirty pounds, and asked what could the clergy be or do under such circumstances? Therefore, on the 7th of February, 1704, Sir Charles Hedges, the secretary of state, announced to the commons that her majesty had remitted the arrears of the tenths to the poor clergy, and had resolved to grant in future the whole of the first-fruits and tenths for the augmentation of small livings. The commons replied in an address, expressing their sense of her pious care for the church, and brought in a bill to enable her to alienate this branch of the revenue, and to create a corporation by charter, to apply the money according to the queen's intention, in increasing the wretched stipends of the poorer clergy. There was an attempt made to relieve the clergy altogether from the payment of first-fruits and tenths, and to devote some other fund to the relief of the poor clergy; but as Anne's intention was not to relieve the rich but to comfort the poor, she would not listen to it. The statute of mortmain was also relaxed by a provision of the bill, so far as to allow individuals to make augmentations to benefices by deed of gift or by bequest. The bishops were unanimous for the bill, and addresses of thanks from all the clergy of England were presented to Anne on the occasion of this noble gift of what has been ever since known as "Queen Anne's Bounty." It is only due to an impartial judgment of Anne, that we are bound at the same time to say that she was far from being so generous to dissenters, or to any other church of the United Kingdoms. On the contrary, she had just before allowed the parliament of Ireland to stop the poor sum of twelve hundred pounds per annum, which had been paid by the late king to the indigent presbyterian ministers of Ulster, who had so manfully defended the north of Ireland against James.

On the 3rd of April the queen prorogued parliament till the 4th of July. The convocation had during this time kept up its bitter controversy, and had done nothing more except thank the queen for the grant of the first-fruits and tenths, and the commons for having espoused their cause.

The earl of Nottingham, having endeavoured in vain to get the dukes of Somerset and Devonshire dismissed from the ministry, resigned the seals. Other changes in the cabinet followed. The earl of Jersey and Sir Edward Seymour were dismissed, the earl of Kent being appointed chamberlain, and Harley secretary of state.

Meantime Simon Frazer had again reached St. Germains, and made a very fine report of his mission both in the Highlands and the Lowlands. According to his memorial of Mary of Modena, he had won over both the chiefs of clans and the ministers of the crown. But his impudence was not proof to the vigilance of Middleton, who had watched his proceedings, and pronounced him an arrant traitor. He said that Frazer had described to him Queensberry, Argyll, and Leven as the three worst enemies of the king, and yet these were the very first men to whom he had gone, and revealed the whole of his mission. Queensberry himself had furnished him with his passport to get back again to France, so that it was plain as daylight that he was employed as a spy by him. The consequence was, Simon Frazer was shut up in the Bastille. In England Lindsay was condemned to die for returning from France without a pass or license, and being therefore deemed to be engaged in treasonable designs. He was, however, offered pardon if he would make a full disclosure of the conspiracy; but he denied any knowledge of such a conspiracy as Frazer stated there was. He was drawn to Tyburn to frighten him into confession: he still continued firm, and was taken back to Newgate, where he remained a prisoner for some years. At length he was banished, and died of hunger in Holland.

The Scottish parliament was opened on the 6th of July. Ministers had exerted themselves to induce a sufficient number to vote for the supplies for the war, and to settle the succession, but they were doomed to be disappointed. The Scotch had objects of their own to gain, and they determined to make no compliances till they were yielded. A letter from the queen, instead of an opening speech, was read, in which she implored them to avoid all contentions, and to settle the succession in the protestant line, so that their enemies should have no further motives for sending their secret emissaries amongst them. On her part, she declared that she was ready to grant them anything that they could reasonably desire.

The duke of Hamilton replied to these promises by point- blank declaring that they would not name a successor to the crown until a good treaty concerning commerce and other things was agreed upon. This was plain enough, but Fletcher of Saltoun went much further, and made a very lamentable description of the many hardships and impositions which the Scotch had suffered since the union of the kingdoms under one crown, and he called upon the parliament to grant no concessions till they had secured their own rights. He had willing listeners, who were smarting under the recollection of their Panama enterprise. The earl of Rothes moved that the parliament should not even discuss the duke of Hamilton's proposal for a treaty of commerce till they had first taken all necessary precautions for the security of the nation's rights, liberties, and independence. Accordingly, on the motion of Sir James Falconer, it was resolved that they would not proceed to the nomination of a successor till they had previously settled the treaty with England, and that they would not name the successor till the necessary limitations on the crown had been macb. This was immediately followed by a motion of the duke of Athol, who was at the bottom of all this violent policy, demanding that her majesty should be desired to send down all the papers relating to the late conspiracy, in order that all those unjustly accused might be able to clear themselves. The object of the duke, however, was less to clear himself than to condemn the duke of Queensberry, who had been notoriously in secret intercourse with Frazer, who had before done Athol the most mortal injury, and ought to have been seized as a traitor the moment he had presented himself, whereas, on the contrary, he had been permitted to aim a still more ominous blow at the duke's head. The marquis of Tweeddale replied that he had already written for these papers, and would write for them again. Nothing, however, came of it: the people out of doors continued to cry that many of their countrymen had been unjustly condemned in England as accomplices in this conspiracy, and the queen's ministers as perseveringly ignored the demand, knowing that it could only tend to excite a great flame in Scotland. It was, however, deemed a matter of prudence to dismiss Queensberry from his office.

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