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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 51

Chapter I. — The Origin of the Lords

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Chapter I.

The Origin of the Lords.

"As far, at least, as our race is concerned, freedom is everywhere older than bondage. It is liberty that is ancient; tyranny that is modern."

E. A. Freeman.

When the great St. James's Hall meeting—the most intelligently revolutionary that has been held in the metropolis for half a century—unanimously voted in August last that the "House of Peers in Parliament is useless and dangerous, and ought to be abolished," it was noted by the Times, as a small crumb of consolation, that the naughty agitators had, after all, like true Englishmen, fallen back on a precedent more than two centuries and a quarter old. It was so, and so it always will be, in this "land of just and old renown." We cannot and do not wish to get beyond our precedents. It is the Peers and their apologists that are the dangerous innovators. We Revolutionists stand by the most ancient polity of the English People.

What was that polity towards which, during more than eight centuries of struggle, the soundest portion of the nation has ever striven consciously or unconsciously, to revert? Its rough outlines we now fortunately know, thanks to the devoted labours of a little band of learned historic investigators.

In England, before the Norman Conquest, there were practically three orders of men—the Thanes, the Ceorls, and page 4 the Slaves. Neither the Thanes nor the Slaves were a numerous class. Any Ceorl might become a Thane by acquiring five hides of land (600 acres), with whatever privileges attached to Thaneship. The slaves were either conquered Celtic Britons or Saxon felons judicially condemned to penal servitude.

The really important class were the Ceorls, most of whom owned and cultivated their own little farms, like the American homesteaders of the present day, the basis of their tenure, however, being mostly communal. "They were," says Hallam, "the root of a noble plant, the free socage tenants or English yeomanry, whose independence has stamped with peculiar features both our constitution and our national character." Alas! where are the yeomanry of England to-day? Swallowed up in the devouring maw of the aristocracy, five hundred of whom, calling themselves peers or hereditary legislators, have possessed themselves of from one-sixth to one-fifth of the entire national soil! Out of 509 Peers 438 hold 14,250,000 acres. To these 438 untoiling lilies of the field the cultivators, or rather the consumers of agricultural produce, pay a yearly tribute called rent, of £12,000,000 sterling!

Verily, if the Lords court destruction, they cannot do better than appeal to antiquity and precedent. They are careful, however, never to go beyond the hateful period of the thirteenth century, when the systematic oppression of the English people first became a hereditary trade on the part of kings and aristocrats.

Even in Saxon England it is not to be concealed that the fatal virus of aristocracy had begun to circulate through the veins of society. According to the earliest records, many of the Ceorls had become annexed to the lands of the more powerful Thanes, to whom they were bound to render certain services. But in other respects the most dependent of the Ceorls were personally freemen and citizens. They were as "law-worthy" as the Thanes. The weregild, or composition for the slaying of a Ceorl, was 200s., payable to his family and not to his lord, as in the case of a slave. He was a legal witness. He had the right to bear arms. He was eligible for every magisterial office, and, as has been said, no barrier of birth or rank prevented him from becoming a Thane. He enjoyed in full all the local franchises in mark, hundred, page 5 and shire, and he was, at all events constructively, represented in the Grand National Council or Witanagemôt (the Assembly of the Wise).

The powers of the Witan were most extensive: (1.) They elected kings. (2.) They deposed kings if their rule was injurious to the people. (3.) They and the king appointed to vacant sees. (4.) They regulated eeclesiastical income and expenditure. (5.) They and the king levied the taxes. (6.) They and the king raised land and sea forces. (7.) They controlled the use of the national domain (folcland). (8.) They forfeited the lands of offenders and intestates. (9). They could revise every public act of the king. (10.) They considered, and with the king, promulgated every new law. (11). They made treaties. (12.) They were the Supreme Court of Justice civil and criminal.

The unit of ancient English Society was the mark or township. Then came the hundred, consisting of an uncertain aggregate of townships. Similarly the shire embraced so many hundreds, and the entire kingdom was made up of the totality of shires. In the Moot, Gemot, or Council, of mark, hundred, shire, and kingdom, every freeman had a right to an equal voice. On this all-important point there is hardly the vestige of a doubt. Universal suffrage is the birth-right of which more than "two millions of capable citizens" are at this moment shamefully deprived by their Hereditary Rulers.

A charter of Æthelstan, A.D. 931, was confirmed "totâ plebis generalitate ovante" (by the whole body of exulting Commons); while another Act, passed by the Witan sitting at Winchester in 934, is described as being executed "totâ populi generalitate" (by the entire body of the people). With regard to such declarations as the latter, the learned and cautious Kemble observes:—"Whether expressions of this kind were intended to denote the actual presence of the people on the spot, or whether populus was used in a strict and technical sense—that sense which is confined to those who enjoy the full franchise—or, finally, whether the assembly of the Witan making laws is considered to represent, in our modern form, an assembly of the whole people, it is clear that the power of self-government is recognised in the latter." Indeed, so much was this the case, that even after the Conquest, in 1086, in the reign page 6 of the Conqueror, and again in 1116, in the reign of Henry I., Gemôts, Communia Concilia, or Parliaments (so called for the first time in 1246), were convened on Salisbury Plain, consisting of all the land-owners of the realm, whether tenants of the Crown (in capite) or sub-tenants. On the former occasion it was computed that no fewer than 60,000 hon. members put in an appearance!

But this was precisely the weak point in the early English democracy. Such assemblies might sanction laws; they could not make them. They had all the vices of the Roman Comitia, which inevitably lost their authority, to the destruction of every popular liberty, just in proportion as the dominions of Rome were extended. A form of government in which every freeman represented himself was perfectly feasible in the moot of the mark, of the hundred, or even of the shire; but in the moot of the nation it was bound, for the most obvious reasons, to fail.

Yet, in the light of modern experience, this failure, fraught with its baleful train of all but ineradicable evils, was susceptible of easy prevention. Though every free man could not be personally present in the grand council of the nation, he might, from the earliest times, have been so by his delegate; and nothing is more astonishing, in the whole political history of the human race, than that this seemingly obvious expedient was never seriously tried till the immortal Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, made it current coin. One almost grudges this bright particular star to the aristocracy. It is some consolation, however, to reflect that he was a Frenchman by birth.

In 1265 this great man, convoking the first genuine House of Commons, solved a problem which had baffled the best intellect of Greece and Rome, and which, left unsolved, would, in all human probability, have found the England, and indeed the Europe, of to-day the hopeless prey of kings, priests, and aristocrats—that grand trinity of social and political evil. What Earl Simon did was to reduce the abstract right of every Englishman to a voice in the Grand Council of the nation—a right which had never been abrogated—to something like a practical reality. The Commons—the communitas communitatum of boroughs and shires—is the true Witanagemôt of pre-Norman England, and not the House of Lords, which page 7 is but an ugly wen or defacement of comparatively recent growth.

Let us now see through what national misfortunes, by what crafty devices, Englishmen have come to be saddled with the crushing load of royalty and aristocracy, which to this day weighs them down body and soul. Our forefathers' failure to discover the true principle of national representation was the grand opportunity of kings, priests, and aristocrats. They took upon themselves to manage the people's affairs—not, of course, in the people's interest, but their own. The kings, whose office was originally strictly elective and revocable by the Witan—amounting, in fact, to little more than a republican presidency—first laid claim to the whole kingdom and all its inhabitants as a hereditary fief, and ultimately, under the Stuarts, as a gift to them and their ancestors from Almighty God. The king's comitates, or courtiers, were not slow to follow so excellent an example. They set up as hereditary peers and oppressors of the people, each in his own corner of the unfortunate country, which had at one time so richly promised to become the chosen home of freedom. It was but the other day that the Duke of Portland gravely announced the divine right of dukes to legislate for the people!

The process by which the aristocracy accomplished their nefarious ends was simple enough. Meetings of the Common Council of the Realm, both before and after the Conquest, were frequent enough; but, except on occasions of the greatest importance, they were unattended except by the king, the ealdormen (governors of shires) the king's thanes, the bishops and abbots, and the inhabitants of the immediate neighbourhood—Winchester, Gloucester, and Westminster generally—in which the assembly was held. Poverty and distance prevented even the lesser thanes from ordinarily participating in the national councils in any numbers. "The largest list of signatures," says Kemble, "which I have yet observed is 106; but numbers varying from 90 to 100 are not uncommon, especially after the consolidation of the monarchy." Every freeman had the right to attend, and in theory every freeman, present or absent, did give his consent, his "Yea, yea," or his "Nay, nay." But "such right of attendance," says Freeman, with reason, "of course became purely nugatory. The mass of the people could not attend: page 8 they would not care to attend; they would find themselves of no account if they did attend. They would, therefore, without any formal abrogation of their right, gradually cease from attending. ... By this process an originally democratic assembly, without any formal exclusion of any class of its members, gradually shrunk up into an aristocratic assembly."

Thus, by degrees, under the Norman Kings, the People's Land (Folcland) became the King's Land (Terra Regis), and the Council of the Wise (Witanagemôt) became the King's feudal Court (Curia Regis). Those councillors honoured with a personal writ, the "majores barones," became Hereditary Peers; while those summoned generally by the sheriff fell back into the unprivileged mass.

The division of Parliament into two Houses, which constitutionalists would have us believe is an almost divine arrangement, had its origin in the meanest and most selfish of human motives.

At first, after Earl Simon's reforms, the barons and the knights of shires voted and probably deliberated together, the clergy by themselves and the burgesses by themselves. Each order assessed itself. In 1333 the barons, knights, and clergy each contributed one-fifteenth of their substance, while the burgesses gave one-tenth. On this occasion the knights and burgesses deliberated together, but voted separately. There was no fixed order of procedure. The barons are believed to have assembled at the top of Westminster Hall, and the burgesses at the foot. After 1347 the knights and burgesses habitually deliberated together, and the clergy and barons together. Mutual jealousy, and not statesmanlike foresight, thus divided Parliament in two.

But if the existence of a Second Chamber in any form is, so to speak, an unconstitutional departure from the One-Chamber Legislative system of our forefathers, a House of Hereditary Legislators is a still more extraordinary and unwarrantable innovation. How could such a monstrously irrational claim ever have come to be set up? Who is responsible for it? As usual, the lawyers. These unscrupulous allies of wealth and power in all ages of the world's history, came to lay down the singular doctrine that if the Crown once summon a man to the National Council, it must go on summoning his page 9 representatives, however unfit, morally or intellectually, down to the latest generation. "Woe unto you lawyers! for ye have taken away the key of knowledge." Yet, strange to say, Mr. Gladstone, wielding the prerogative of the Crown, might make every elector, and, for matter of that, every non-elector, in England a peer to-morrow; and, according to the lawyers, all the first-born males of such noble lords would be entitled to succeed them as hereditary legislators. In Magna Charta, chapter xiv., King John stipulated as follows:—"We shall cause the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls "(then governors of counties), "and greater barons to be separately summoned by our letters. And we shall cause our sheriffs and bailiffs to summon generally all others who hold of us in chief." It would thus appear that even at the date of the charter (1215) men were summoned to the Commune Concilium Regni by virtue of office and by classes, and not in consequence of birth.

Indeed it was not till the reign of Richard II. (1377-99) that we find the absurd principle of heredity in full swing. The introduction of representative members into Parliament by Simon de Montfort doubtless suggested to the usurping oligarchy the idea of a hereditary chamber as an invincible barrier to further democratic progress.

The privileged simulacrum should have been abolished when Earl Simon resuscitated the old popular assembly of our pre-Norman forefathers. It has not even so much as a historic raison d'etre. The House of Lords is merely a standing embodiment of the usurpation and confiscation of ancient democratic rights by the greater barons, Court officials, and ecclesiastics, who alone were able, in consequence of their superior wealth and leisure, to attend the national council with some degree of regularity. It is merely a gigantic national fraud.

If the Peers and not the Commons are the old Witanagemôt as has been asserted, then historically every British elector, however humble, has a right to claim a seat in the Gilded Chamber. In throwing out the Franchise Bill, they should have done so totâ plebis generalitate.

Having thus briefly traced the origin of the so-called Upper Chamber of the Legislature, I shall in subsequent chapters show in some historic detail that it is not less objectionable in practice than it is irrational in theory.