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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 51

Chapter III. — Our Oldest Nobility at Work

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Chapter III.

Our Oldest Nobility at Work.

Bleed, bleed, poor country!
Great tyranny, lay thou thy basis sure,
For goodness dare not check thee!

For more than eight centuries of dishonour the story of our Old Nobility is one of all but uninterrupted and, alas! generally successful crime. It divides itself naturally into four well-marked epochs.

In the first period, covering the times of Norman and Plantagenet royalty, they struggled fiercely to subjugate the monarchy to their purposes, and while thus engaged they occasionally forgot to oppress the people. Nay, they were even at times constrained to invoke their aid when the royal tyrant of the day proved too strong for them. At this stage in their career they were cruel, fierce, and bloody, like the robber horde from which they sprang. Eventually, in the War of the Roses, they succeeded in completely exterminating each other, literally verifying the profound saying of Christ, "He that taketh the sword shall perish by the sword."

A very different order of men were the lords of the Tudor and Stuart régimes. These were mostly parchment-made nobles, mean, crawling courtiers, who lived to register royal decrees, and to go cringingly to the block for any offence, real or imaginary, which it pleased royalty to lay to their charge. The kings oppressed them, and they in turn avenged themselves, to the best of their ability, by oppressing the people. When the latter rose against the tyranny of page 20 Charles Stuart, the peers had neither the courage to strike for the Crown nor for national freedom. They were the veriest poltroons that ever figured in a great constitutional crisis. Howbeit, adversity taught them not manly wisdom, but a species of low, aristocratic craft, which has stood them in good stead ever since. In 1688, when the third epoch began, they ventured on a make-believe, rose-water Revolution of their own. They contrived to convince the soft-headed mass that they were their best friends—the champions of every rational liberty. The power which they could not retain by force they rendered doubly secure by fraud. They stripped the Crown of nearly all its possessions, and made it a pauper on the bounty of the people. They pensioned themselves almost to a man for their services, and monopolised nearly every office of honour and emolument in Church, State, army and navy. To conceal their rogueries at home they plunged the nation into endless wars abroad.

In the fourth era, i.e., since the Reform Act of 1832, they have persistently obstructed and minimised every good measure, while intensifying the worst features of the worst Bills that have come before them. At all times they have been the unswerving foes of freedom to the full limit of their capacity. It is impossible for any one who knows their story and loves his country to regard them as other than public enemies of the most malignant type.

First Epoch (1066—1485).

William the Conqueror was not merely a man of blood and iron, he was one of the craftiest villains that ever breathed. When he invaded England, he actually contrived to figure in the character of a Crusader. He brought with him a banner consecrated by the Pope and a ring containing a hair of St. Peter! How he managed to possess himself of these important credentials it is not difficult to fathom. Edward the Confessor had an unfortunate early contracted partiality for Norman priests, whom he promoted with little discrimination to English benefices. They were animated by all the predatory instincts of their race, and soon became so universally odious that the Witan or Parliament met and outlawed the whole tribe. Robert, Archbishop of Canterbury, page 21 and William, Bishop of London, armed their retainers and fought their way to the coast "with apostolic blows and knocks." They carried their grievances to Rome, where they had no difficulty in inducing Christ's vicegerent to bestow his blessing on William's unhallowed enterprise. Had Christ himself been addressed on the subject he would probably have replied. "He that taketh the sword shall perish by the sword"—"My kingdom is not of this world." But then the Divine Democrat was so very unlike any of his professed followers that his judgments hardly count.

After the battle of Hastings and the death of Harold, William proceeded to carry fire and sword through the land in true Danish style. He burned Romney and massacred the inhabitants; he set fire to Dover and advanced on London. The great city, however would not open its gates. In revenge he burned down Southwark, and then proceeded to devastate Surrey, Sussex, Hampshire, and Berkshire with merciless fury.

Even his coronation in Westminster Abbey was a scene of massacre and arson. His followers set fire to the houses in the neighbourhood, and robbed and murdered the inhabitants to give due solemnity to the ceremonial.

Though deprived of all effective leadership by the death of Harold, the English were still formidable foes, and William had to proceed with caution. He did not confiscate the entire soil of England at a blow, as his rapacious horde urged him to do. He at first seized just enough to make the people revolt, and then he plundered them of their remaining possessions for revolting. To goad the people into insurrection he made his half-brother, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux—a more atrocious ruffian than himself, if that were possible—viceroy, and retired to Normandy, taking good care to carry with him as hostages all the leading Englishmen on whom he could lay his hands. To his accomplice, the Pope, he sent Harold's banner and a handsome share of the spoil.

William's plan worked well. Odo and his advisers soon succeeded in driving the miserable English into insurrection. Their men-at-arms scoured the land from end to end, killing and robbing and offering such insults to the women as "turn the coward's heart to steel, the sluggard's blood to flame." Presently William returned with a fresh gang of Continental page 22 cut-throats, and what Ordericus Vitalis, William's panegyrist, aptly calls the "feralis occisio"—the dismal slaughter—began in earnest. The Norman "chivalry" were let loose on Northumbria. One honest Norman writer calls them a horde of "Normans, Burgolouns, thieves, and felons," and he was in a position to judge. From Durham to Hexham, from Wear to Tyne, William, surrounded by these choice originals of our Old Nobility, passed like another Tamerlane or Attila. Men, women, and children, and even the cattle, were indiscriminatingly butchered. From Durham to York not a town or hamlet escaped conflagration. Eighty years afterwards, when William of Malmesbury wrote, the whole region was one vast wilderness. "It was a horrible spectacle," says Roger Hoveden, "to see on the high roads and public places, and at the doors of houses, human bodies eaten by the worms; for there remained no one to cover them with a little earth." In their utter misery the people fed on putrid horseflesh, and even became cannibals. To escape from the pangs of hunger, they sold themselves and their wive§ and little ones as slaves to the very men who had robbed them of their all.

The churches shared the fate of less sacred edifices. They were laid in ashes, and the unhappy clergy fled to Holy Island. The monastery of Jarrow, hallowed by the memory of the Venerable Bede, was burned to the ground by this brigand king with the consecrated banner. Holinshed thus describes the terrible straits to which the country was reduced:—"He (William) nothing regarded the English nobility. They did now see themselves trodden under foot, to be despised and to be mocked on all sides, insomuch that many of them were constrained, as it were, for a further testimony of servitude and bondage, to shave their beards, to cut their hair, and to frame themselves as well in apparel as in service and diet at their tables after the Norman manner—very strange, and far differing from the ancient customs and old usages of their country. Others utterly refusing to sustain such an intolerable yoke of thraldom as was daily laid upon them by the Normans, chose rather to leave all, both goods and lands, and after the manner of outlaws get them to the woods, with their wives, children, and servants, meaning from thenceforth to live on the spoil of the country adjoining, and to take whatever came to hand. Whereupon it came to pass page 23 within a while that no man might tread in safety from his own house or town to his next neighbour; and every quiet and honest man's house became, as it were, a hold and fortress, furnished for defence with bows and arrows, bills, pole-axes, swords, clubs, and staves, and other weapons, the doors being kept locked and strongly bolted in the night season, as it had been in time of war and amongst public enemies. Prayers were said also by the master of the house, as though they had been in the midst of the seas in some stormy tempest; and when the windows, and doors should be shut in and closed, they used to say Benedicite, and others to answer Dominus in like manner, as the priest and his penitent were wont to do at confession in the church."

Among the miscreants who had worked this terrible ruin William parcelled out the fair soil of England. To his half-brother he gave no fewer than four hundred manors. William de Percy was made lord of eighty manors in wasted Northumbria; while William de Garenne was presented with twenty-eight villages. By the close of the Conqueror's reign nearly the whole country had passed into the hands of the filibusterers, who literally gorged themselves with spoil.

But, like thieves in general, they could not avoid quarrelling among themselves. William's authority was precisely that of a pirate chief—he ruled his felon gang by sheer terror. Many conspiracies were hatched against him. One broke-out at Norwich on the occasion of a famous wedding. "He is a bastard man of base extraction," shouted the Normans. "It is in vain that he calls himself a king; it is easy to see that he was never made to be one; and God has him not in his grace." "He poisoned our Conan, that brave Count of Brittany," yelled the Bretons. "He has invaded our noble kingdom, and massacred the legitimate heirs to it," cried the English.

Surfeited with spoil, and reeking with blood, many of William's principal followers deserted him, and returned to Normandy; among others being his brother-in-law, Hugh de Grantmesnil, Earl of Norfolk, and Humphrey Tilleuil, Warden of Hastings Castle. William promptly branded them as traitors, confiscated the immense estates he had given them, and called to his aid a new band of continental marauders. His halt-brother, Odo, he was obliged to imprison; and page 24 against his son Robert he was compelled to wage incessant war for the possession of Normandy. In all the doings of William and his wicked crew there is not to be found a single trace of patriotism, or regard for the interests of the English people. Their motives were in the last degree base. They are well illustrated by what the Conqueror's Secretary relates of his death:—"Barons, priests, and dukes mounted their horses and away almost before he was dead, to serve their interests with the living. The minor attendants rifled the apartments, and even carried off the royal clothes; and the body was left almost naked on the bare boards for a whole day." Their conduct was precisely that of a pack of hungry wolves, which, the moment one of their number is killed or disabled, turn upon the unfortunate and devour it. If "noble lords" find any comfort in being descended from such reprobates as William and his barons, they are truly strangely constituted.

But, happily, hardly one of them is so unfortunate in his ancestry. William Rufus, the Conqueror's successor, laid a heavy hand on those families that had profited most by his father's crimes. They conspired against him, and he cut them off without mercy. Among some of his victims were William of Alderic, the Earl of Shrewsbury, Walter de Lacy, and Odo, Earl of Holderness.

Henry I., who succeeded Rufus, all but completed the good work which his brother had begun. His title was defective, and he was obliged to lean on the vanquished English for support. He drove from the kingdom his deceased brother's boon companions, on the pretext that their lives were a public scandal. The supporters of his brother, Duke Robert of Normandy—the Surreys, the Lancasters, and Shrews-burys—he pursued with relentless rigour as disaffected subjects until it came to this—that scarcely a single representative of the desperadoes who had triumphed at Hastings was left alive or remained un-outlawed. They had taken the sword, and they had perished by the sword.

Such of our nobility, therefore, as have any claim to antiquity ought at once, for shame's cause, to say nothing more about their Norman extraction. It is a lie, to begin with; and, were it true, it would certainly not be a thing to boast of. It is as if one were to glory in descent from the impenitent thief or Judas Iscariot.

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But though the Rufuscs and the Henrys rid the country of the first gang of masterful robbers, they by no means abated the evils of aristocracy. In place of the outlawed Claude Duvals, they imported a baser stock of equally greedy and unscrupulous adventurers, whom they quartered on the un-happy people. This process went on for centuries; and so long as we have Saxe Weimars, Leiningens, and Battenbergs swarming into the country, we can hardly flatter ourselves that the era of spoliation has closed. England has been conquered, not once, but half a dozen times, in this way.

During the struggle between Stephen and Matilda for the throne the evil rose to an intolerable height. Henry II. ordered a whole legion of these beasts of prey to quit the kingdom in one day; and "we saw," says a contemporary writer with delight, "the Brabançons and Flemings cross the sea to return to the plough-tail, and become serfs after having been lords."

King John's noble companions were nearly all imported. Among these were Manleon the Bloody; Falco without Bowels; Godeschal the Iron-hearted; Sottim the Merciless; and Walter Buch the Murderer. The very names of these savages are sufficient to make one shudder. Yet they are unquestionably among the ancestors of our old nobility. John gave them large estates as rewards for their unheard-of barbarities, and they grew and flourished like a green bay-tree.

In all ages of the world kings and aristocrats have necessarily been public enemies. Their interests are ever opposed to the general welfare. The reason is obvious.

The watchword of democracy is equality of rights; the watchword of aristocracy is inequality. The English aristocracy is to-day what it has ever been—a predatory band. They are not permitted to murder, burn, and rob as in the good old times of Sottim the Merciless and Falco without Bowels. But they levy tribute on the whole people of these islands with merciless rigour. What they call rent is simply a private tax laid on the industry of the nation by a small gang of peers and other inheritors of the spoils of the Conquest, Rent is brigandage reduced to a system. So long as the English people are content to be tenants-at-will on their own soil and to pay for the privilege, they will remain virtually slaves, and page 26 the less they talk about freedom the better. America laughs at our delusions and ridiculous pretentions.

Aristocracy has eventually ruined every nation which has tolerated it, and there are many signs that England is not to escape the common fate. Already we are notoriously behind the age in many respects. There is but one remedy. By a supreme effort the intolerable incubus of kings and aristocrats must be thrown off once and for all. Thanks to the leader of the aristocracy, Lord Salisbury, a clear issue has at last been put before the nation. The peers have fairly thrown down the gauntlet to the people, and it is for the people to take it up. It is not now a question of No Surrender to noble lords; it is a question of No Quarter.

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