The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 51
Chapter II. — Blue Blood
"I will have never a noble, no lineage counted great;
Fishers, and choppers, and ploughmen shall constitute a state.
And to and behold! how these poor men shall govern the land and sea,
And make just laws beneath the sun as planets faithful be."
There is nothing more unaccountable than an Englishman's proverbial love for a lord. It is a sentiment condemned alike by the absurdity of the principle—if principle it can be called—of legislative heredity, and by the history of the peerage itself. It is equally repugnant to the precepts of Christianity and the dictates of common sense.
"There is more in names
Than most men dream of; and a lie may keep
Its throne a whole age longer if it skulk
Behind the shield of some fair-seeming name."
True, "my lord" is but a word; but words, though the slaves of the wise, are the tyrants of fools; and we have it on the high authority of the late Thomas Carlyle that the people of these islands are unfortunately "mostly fools." I know a member of the present Liberal Administration, in other respects by no means an imbecile, who habitually quotes the worthless opinions of worthless "lords" of his acquaintance as if they had just dropped from the lips of a Socrates, a Confucius, or a Marcus Aurelius. The haughty Earl of Chatham and the Laodicean Palmerston were equally the victims of this strange disease of aristocracy. A gracious word from the second bestial Guelph would transport the elder Pitt with unspeakable delight, while the displeasure of the late Prince Consort was enough to make case-hardened "Pam" weep like a baby.
Even at this moment it is but too evident that Ministers are anxiously seeking to devise means to extricate the Peers from the perilous position in which their insolent opposition to the enfranchisement of "two millions of capable citizens" has placed them. That Lord Hartington, the heir to a great dukedom, chiefly carved out of stolen Church property, should advise surrender to the peers is intelligible enough. But what said Mr. Chamberlain, the most democratic member of the Cabinet, at Hanley? "We begrudge the Lords nothing that rightly belongs to them—their rank and titles, their stars and garters—any power that they may secure by long prescription and high station," &c. The President of the Board of Trade has seemingly forgotten that noble Lords, inasmuch as "they neither toil nor spin," can have very little that "that rightly belongs to them." Is this the voice of Birmingham? This the doctrine of the Caucus? What the people had a right to expect Mr. Chamberlain as the Coming Man to say was—"We be-grudge the Lords whatever does not rightly belong to them: to wit, their rank and titles, their stars and garters, and any power secured by long prescription or high station." It is precisely against these usurped possessions that the people are striking at this moment. It is hard to say whether the social or the political influence of an aristocracy is more injurious to a nation. The former produces snobs, the latter serfs, and a snob is first cousin to a serf all the world over page 12 When Cromwell told a great Duke that England would never be well till his Grace was called plain Mr. Montagu he spoke the true language of democracy.
It was found next to impossible to keep the Israelites of old from relapsing into the most degrading forms of idolatry. So long as a "grove" or a "high place" was left in the land, so long must they follow after strange gods. And so with this deep-seated English malady of lord-worship. Until the great high place of aristocracy at St. Stephen's—the centre and source of the contagion—is utterly cast down, there is no hope of moral health for the English people. "When I was a child," said the apostle, "I thought as a child; but when I became a man I put away childish things." Shall it never be given to Englishmen to put away the childish things of aristocracy, and assert the imprescriptible Rights of Man?
In theory, no rational being can defend a government by hereditary legislators. Born law-makers, born law-obeyers! If Lord Salisbury and his fellow peers were born to rule the people, then it follows, as the night day, that the people were born to obey my Lord Salisbury and company. Hereditary bondsmen we! What is this but palpable tyranny? And worse, it is the most stupid and irrational tyranny that could possibly be invented.
See yonder birkie ca'ed a lord,
Who struts and stares and a' that;
Though hundreds worship at his nod,
He's but a coof for a" that.
The business of government, it will be generally conceded, demands some small degree of intelligence, knowledge, and wisdom; but the hereditary principle provides for none of these things. Our kings and peers—they are both in the same boat—inherit power over their fellows not because they are wiser and better than the multitude, but because they have, or are supposed to have, a certain pedigree like a prize ox or stallion. Englishmen are ruled, not by rational but by animal succession; and, strange to say, while all the world wonders and jeers, we go on pluming ourselves on this very "peculiar institution." We know very well that the peerage contains some of the greatest rascals and fools in the realm, but that signifies nothing. So long as they keep out of gaols and lunatic asylums, the Duke of Portland has page 13 explained to us, they have a divine commission to deprive "two millions of capable citizens" of the franchise, or any other right to which the subject multitude may lay claim.
Lord Salisbury has laid the country under a heavy debt of gratitude. He has made it plain to all men that the hereditary principle and the representative principle in government are absolutely antagonistic. He has arrayed the aristocracy against the people, the patricians against plebeians, the privileged few against the unprivileged many. Since the Revolution of 1688 it has been the cue of our hereditary rulers to absorb the energies of the English people in crushing the freedom of foreign States. They have now happily had the hardihood to call on us to fight for our own liberties at home. It is a battle worth fighting, and it behoves all good democrats to buckle on their armour for the fray.
Let us see, then, who are our antagonists. Whence their origin? What their antecedents? According to themselves, they "came over at the Conquest" with Norman William, and, for the nonce, I shall take them at their word.
In "The New Book of Kings," to which this booklet is a sequel, it was shown that this William was a blood-stained ruffian of the deepest dye, who seized on the throne of England without a jot or tittle of legal or moral right. He pretended that the last English king—Edward the Confessor—had left him his heir by will, but he never could be induced to produce the document, and it is certain that Edward, with his last breath, recommended Harold as his successor to the Witan, or National Council, by whom he was unanimously elected king.
To begin with, therefore, every man who accompanied William in his filibustering expedition was simply an undisguised robber. Plunder was the sole object.
But were they not high-class robbers? Were they not Norman chivalry? To this the answer is that, as a rule, they were neither Normans nor chivalrous. An entire wing of William's army at Senlac consisted of Bretons, another was composed of Gascons. Thierry, in his "Histoire de la Conquête de l'Angleterre," throws a flood of light on the origin of our "Old Nobility." "William," he tells us,' "looked far beyond the confines of Normandy for soldiers of fortune to page 14 assist him in his great attempt. He had his ban of war published in all the neighbouring countries. He offered good pay to every tall, robust man who would serve him with lance, sword, or crossbow. A multitude flocked to him from all parts, from far and near, from the north and from the south. They came from Maine and Anjou; from Poitou and Bretagne; from the country of the French king and from Flanders; from Acquitaine and from Burgundy; from Piedmont beyond the Alps, and from the banks of the Rhine. Adventurers by profession, the idle, the dissipated, the profligate, the enfans perdus of Europe, hurried at the summons. Of these some were knights and chiefs in war, others simple foot-soldiers. Some demanded regular pay in money, others merely their passage across the Channel, and all the booty they might take. Some demanded territory in England—a domain, a castle, a town; while others simply wished to receive a rich Saxon lady in marriage. All wild wishes, all the pretensions of human avarice, were awakened into activity. William repulsed no one, but promised and pleased all so far as he could."
But though the bulk of the invaders thus consisted of the moral debris of Europe, it is undoubtedly true that the nucleus of the expedition was Norman, or, to be strictly accurate, Danish. For centuries the Danish pirates had been the scourge of Christendom. They were justly dreaded more than wolves, famine, and pestilence combined, and the Conquest of England was in reality their greatest and most disastrous outrage on humanity. "Make up your minds to fight valiantly," William told his followers at Hastings, "and slay your enemies. A great booty is before us; for if we conquer, we shall all be rich. What I gain, you will gain. If I take this land, you will have it in lots among you. Know ye, however, that I am not come hither solely to take what is my due, but also to avenge our whole nation for the felonies, perjuries, and treacheries of these English. They massacred our kinsmen, the Danes—men, women, and children—on the night of St. Bryce," &c.
From the bloody Danes, then—a name of horror and detestation throughout Christendom—our hereditary rulers, according to their own showing, are descended. Credulous historians—and no country was ever cursed with a body of page 15 more incompetent and self-deluded annalists than England—of course contrive to conceal this damning fact in regard to the origin of the peerage. They pretend that in their Neustrian home these incarnate Danish fiends suddenly acquired the humanity of Christians and the refinement of gentlemen. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Mr. Freeman, who is not altogether free from the superstition that the Normans were "chivalrous," gives the following account of William de Belesme, surnamed Talvas, a typical specimen of the people "whose peculiar mission it was," according to Mr. Froude, "to govern men;"—"With Ivo the virtue of his race seems to have died out, and his descendants appear in Norman and English history as monsters of cruelty and perfidy, whose deeds aroused the horror even of that not over-scrupulous age. Open robbery and treacherous assassination seem to have been their daily occupation. The second of the line of William of Belesme had rebelled against Duke Robert, and had defended his fortress of Alencon against him. His eldest son, Warren, murdered a harmless and unsuspecting friend, and was for this crime, so the men of the age said, openly seized and strangled by the fiend. Of his other sons, Fulk, presuming to ravage the ducal territory, was killed in battle. Robert was taken prisoner by the men of Le Mans, and beheaded by way of reprisal for a murder committed by his followers. The surviving heir of the possessions and of the wickedness of his race was his one remaining son, William Talvas. This man, we are told, being displeased with the piety and good manners of his first wife, Hildeburgis, hired ruffians to murder her on her way to church. At his second wedding feast he put out the eyes and cut off the nose and ears of an unsuspecting guest. This was William, the son of Geroy. A local war ensued, in which William Talvas suffered an inadequate punishment for his crimes in the constant devastation of his lands. At last a more appropriate avenger rose from his own house. The hereditary wickedness of his line passed on to his daughter Mabel and his son Arnulf. Arnulf rebelled against his father, and left him to die wretchedly in exile. An act of wanton rapacity was presently punished by a supernatural avenger. Arnulf, like his uncle Warren, was strangled by a demon in his bed. page 16 Such was the character of the family whose chief, first in power and in crime among the nobility of Normandy, stood forth as the mouthpiece of that nobility to express the feelings with which the descendants of the comrades of Rolf looked on the possible promotion of the tanner's grandson to be their lord." Ab uno disce omnes.
No just writer would voluntarily dwell on the infamous origin and history of the hereditary branch of the legislature. Birth implies neither merit nor demerit on the part of him that is born. It is an event for which the Lord of Hatfield and the meanest beggar that ever ventured to knock at his gate—if any beggar ever had the presumption—are equally irresponsible. "'Tis only noble to be good," as Lord Tennyson has most truly taught us.
"Not all that heralds rake from coffined clay,
Nor florid prose nor honied lies of rhyme,
Can blazon evil deeds or consecrate a crime."
Still, though 'the Grand old Gardener and his wife may smile at Lady Clara Vere de Vere's claims of long descent,' they are an exceptionally rational British couple. Suffice it for such to know that "God has made of one blood all the nations of the earth;" that there is no family in the land that can lay claim to a higher antiquity than Adam or the anthropomorphic ape; and that he is indeed a wise child who knows his own father.
But unfortunately even now the Executive Government of the country, when it summons a man for the first time to the Upper House of the Legislature, ignores every dictate of reason, experience, and common sense. It not only creates one more irresponsible legislator, but it is stoutly affirmed by lords and lawyers that not even the Crown can prevent the new peer's representatives, be they fools or knaves, from ruling over the people as hereditary legislators down to the latest generation. In these singular circumstances it becomes a public duty to show that the lordly offspring of this extraordinary State arrangement have for the most part been fools or knaves, totally unworthy of the respect of any thinking man or woman.
There is not a crime against public liberty nor an offence against private morality that cannot be laid at the door of page 17 the Peers in their collective or individual capacity. It would puzzle the cleverest advocate of the hereditary principle to point to a single act of self-sacrifice or disinterested patriotism that can fairly be ascribed to the Peers during their long monopoly of power and place from the Conquest down to the present day.
"Long prescription," so far as individual families are concerned, is a fiction; the pride of birth is a mere childish conceit; pedigrees are the fables of the College of Heralds. We know the history of 2,500 peerages which neither the ingenuity of the heralds nor the theory of Malthus has been able to save from extinction.
Every man for certain has had one mother, two grandmothers, four great grandmothers, eight great-great-grandmothers, and so on. Indeed, if the progression is worked backwards for a few thousand years, it will be pretty evident that all the daughters of Adam have been powerfully co-operating to bring any individual man of this generation into being. But as to fathers—or, at all events, as to grandfathers—it is no cynicism to affirm that there is nothing but profound uncertainty. Where are the Miltons, Shaksperes, Bacons, Newtons—nay, whither have the Carlyles and Mills vanished? Talk of coming over at the Conquest! There is not an English peerage in existence that has any but the most fanciful or mendacious claim to come within five centuries of that disastrous event. George III. alone was responsible for 522 creations!
According to a current analysis of the peerage, 5 creations are of the thirteenth century; 6 of the fourteenth; 11 of the fifteenth; 18 of the sixteenth; 45 of the seventeenth; 126 of the eighteenth; and 293 of the nineteenth. But such reputedly old peerages as those of Hastings and De Ros (1264) are in reality quite modern creations. The true De Ros line, after the most extraordinary wanderings and pirouettings among Mannerses, Cecils, and Villierses, was so completely extinguished with the second Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, that even the heralds of that day could not discover an heir to the title. George III., however, in 1806 was equal to the occasion. He found the long-lost De Ros straying about disconsolate somewhere, and restored him to his functions of hereditary page 18 ruler. His descendant was convicted of card-cheating thirty years ago.
The Hastings imposture was even more flagrant. The true Hastings had disappeared for centuries of usurping Le Stranges, Yelvertons, Stubbses, Cokes, Calthorps, Norths, Pratts, Stylemans, and Watlingtons, when Queen Victoria had the sagacity to detect in one Jacob Astley a descendant of a certain Sir John Hastings, who was favoured with a writ from Edward I. Indeed the antiquity of the peers is from beginning to end a gigantic hoax, credited by none but the most credulous, foolish, and vain of mankind. Like other superstitions of a less mundane character, it dies hard.
"Almost the whole town," observes Mr. Byends in the Pilgrim's Progress, "are my kindred, but in particular my Lord Turnabout, my Lord Time-server, my Lord Fair-speech; also Mr. Smoothman, Mr. Facing-both-ways, Mr. Anything; and the parson of our parish, Mr. Two Tongues, was my mother's own brother by father's side; and to tell you the truth, I am become a gentleman of good quality; yet my great-grandfather was but a waterman, looking one way and rowing another, and I got most of my estate by the same occupation."