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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 51

Chapter IV. — Runnymede and Magna Charta

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Chapter IV.

Runnymede and Magna Charta.

Shall the vile fox-earth awe the race
That stormed the lion's den?
Shall we who could not brook one lord
Crouch to the wicked ten?

To understand the History of England from the Norman Conqueror to the first Tudor, Henry VII., is not difficult if we keep one fact steadily before our minds, viz., that the Government had fallen into the hands of a gang of thieves, a leading aristocratic thief calling himself king, and a number of less fortunate aristocratic thieves who envied the leading thief his pre-eminence. The minor aristocratic thieves had two great objects in view during the whole of this period. Firstly, they wanted each in his own domain to exercise kingly authority; and secondly, there being but one England to divide among them, they constantly strove by conspiracies against the Crown to have it reconfiscated. If they could but dethrone one king and set up another, then the adherents of the defeated prince had their lands confiscated, and the successful faction divided the spoil. As for the interests of the governed, they were never for a moment consulted, except in so far as their support was indispensable to Crown or nobles. Down to the reign of King John that support was almost invariably, and with good reason, given to the Crown. It was better to be afflicted by one grand vulture than by a host of minor harpies under no control whatever. It was, moreover, the cue of the conquered English to side with the page 28 king with the worst title, because from him they were sure to secure the largest concessions.

William the Conqueror understood the character of his fellow-robbers perfectly, and to retain his hold over them he, contrary to feudal usage, exacted oaths of allegiance not merely from them, the direct tenants of the Crown, but from their sub-tenants also. By this means he hoped to cripple the barons whenever they should attempt to levy war against the monarchy, and the expedient was partly successful. It was, moreover, a measure favourable, undesignedly favourable, to liberty. In proportion as the sub-tenants were made dependent on the distant royal tyrant, they were rendered independent of the immediate local tyrant. The popularity of the English monarchy, a thing so unnatural in itself, may, in some measure, be accounted for in this way. As a bulwark against the nobles it possessed negative virtues, which the unthinking mass foolishly came to regard as positive advantages.

The great conspiracy against William in 1076 by the Norman Earls of Norfolk and Hereford and the English Wal the of had for its object the division of the entire kingdom among the three conspirators, one of whom was to be king.

The conspiracies against William Rufus in 1088 and 1096, the former headed by Odo of Bayeux, and the latter by Mowbray of Northumberland, were equally attempts on the part of the barons to free themselves from the restraints of the Crown. Had they succeeded there can hardly be a doubt that the country would have been ruined beyond the possibility of recovery. Ruffianly as were the Norman kings, they were gentlemen as compared with their leading nobles.

In the Reign of Henry I. the leader of these miscreants was one Robert de Belesme, of whom Henry happily rid the country after storming four of his robber strongholds, Nottingham and Tickhill, Bridgenorth and Shrewsbury. This choice specimen of our old nobility was about the only great inventor the aristocracy ever produced. He devoted his attention to the manufacture of new and ingenious instruments of torture, and delighted to witness the exquisite death-agonies of his numerous victims. In the art of impaling, the most "unspeakable Turk" would have had some- page 29 thing to learn from this fiend. "He was a man," says William of Malmesbury, "intolerable for the barbarity of his manners, remarkable besides for cruelty." Among other instances, he relates how for some trifling offence by its father he blinded his godchild, his hostage, by tearing out the helpless infant's eyes "with his accursed nails."

During the reign of Stephen our old nobility actually succeeded in establishing in England their ideal of good government. During the struggle for the throne between the king and the Empress Matilda, every baron did what was good in his own eyes. Their hour was come. The Bishop of Winchester alternately cursed his brother Stephen and Matilda. "Neither King nor Empress," says William of Newbury, "was able to act in a masterful way or show vigorous discipline. But each kept their own followers in good temper by refusing them nothing lest they should desert them. . . And because they were worn out by daily strife, and acted less vigorously, local disturbances of hostile lords grew the more vehement; castles, too, rose in great numbers in the several districts, and there were in England, so to speak, as many kings, or rather tyrants, as lords of castles. Individuals took the right of coining their private money and of private jurisdiction." "All England," say the Gesta Stephani, " wore a face of woe and desolation. Multitudes abandoned their beloved country to wander in a foreign land; others, forsaking their houses, built wretched huts in the churchyard, hoping that the sacredness of the place would afford them some protection." "Every powerful man," says the Saxon Chronicle, "made his castles and held them against him (Stephen), and they filled the land with castles. They cruelly oppressed the wretched men of the land with castle works. When the castles were made they filled them with devils and evil men. Then they took those men that they imagined had any property, both by night and by day, peasant men and women, and put them in prison for their gold and silver, and tortured them with unutterable torture; for never were martyrs so tortured as they were. They hanged them up by the feet and smoked them with foul smoke; they hanged them up by their thumbs or by the head and hung fires on their feet; they put knotted strings about their heads, and writhed them so that it went to the page 30 brain. They put them in dungeons, in which were adders, and snakes, and toads, and killed them so. Some they put in a 'cruset hus,'—that is, in a chest that was short and narrow and shallow, and put sharp stones therein, and pressed the man therein, so that they break all his limbs. In many of the castles were instruments called a 'lao (loathly) and grim;' these were neck-bonds, of which two or three men had enough to bear one. It was so made,—that is, it was fastened to a beam, and they put a sharp iron about the man's throat and his neck, so that he could not in any direction sit, or lie, or sleep, but must bear all that iron. Many thousands they killed with hunger; I neither can nor may tell all the wounds or all the tortures which they inflicted on wretched men in this land; and that lasted the nineteen winters while Stephen was King; and ever it was worse and worse. They laid imposts on the towns continually, and when the wretched men had no more to give, they robbed and burned all the towns, so that thou mightest well go all a day's journey, and thou shouldest never find a man sitting in a town, or the land tilled. Then was corn dear, and flesh, and cheese, and butter; for there was none in the land. Wretched men died of hunger; some went seeking alms who at one while were rich men; some fled out of the land. Never yet had more wretchedness been in the land, nor did the heathen man ever do worse than they did; for everywhere at times they forebore neither church or churchyard, but took all the property that was therein, and then burned the church and all together. Nor forbore they a bishop's land, nor an abbot's nor a priest's, but robbed monks and clerks, and every man another who anywhere could. If two or three men came riding to a town, all the township fled before them, imagining them to be robbers. The bishops and clergy constantly cursed them, but nothing came of it, for they were all accursed, and foresworn, and lost. However a man tilled, the earth bore no corn; for the land was all foredone by such deeds, and they said openly that Christ and His saints slept."

"As another instance of these bitter fruits of conquest," says that great glorifier of antiquity, Sir Walter Scott, "and perhaps the strongest that can be quoted, we may mention that the Empress Matilda, though a daughter of the King of page 31 Scotland, and afterwards both Queen of England and Empress of Germany, the daughter, the wife, and the mother of monarchs, was obliged, during her early residence in England, to assume the veil of a nun as the only means of escaping the licentious pursuit of the Norman nobles. ... It was a matter of public knowledge that, after the conquest of King William, his Norman followers, elated by so great a victory, acknowledged no law but their own wicked pleasure, and not only despoiled the conquered Saxons of their lands and goods, but invaded the honour of their wives and of their daughters with the most unbridled license."

Had these days of unlimited aristocratic tribulation not been providentially shortened, all English flesh must have perished. It was in memory of the chief actors that Lord John Manners devoutly wrote his ever memorable lines:—

Let wealth and commerce, laws and learning die,
But leave us still our old nobility.

No sooner did Henry II. ascend the throne than he set himself determinedly to demolish the numerous strongholds—some 1,100, it is said—that had been erected in his predecessor's reign. The people backed him manfully, and something like order and settled government was again restored. The people and the king together were more than a match for the barons.

But a time speedily came when the overgrown power of the Crown made its wearer, King John, equally intolerable to people, clergy, and barons. Then, for the first time since the Conquest, was seen the strange spectacle of the barons figuring as patriots, and obtaining the credit of wresting from the royal tyrant that Magna Charta which has sent our historians into such ecstasies. It was but the other day that the Earl of Carnarvon told us that this achievement of theirs entitled the peers to rank as the champions and perpetual guardians of English liberty. Let us see, therefore, how far this contention has any basis in fact.

In the first place, Magna Charta was not a new Bill of popular rights. It was little more than an embodiment of the Charters of King Canute, of Edward the Confessor, and more particularly of Henry I. The last-named instrument was even in some respects more liberal.

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The soul of the whole business was Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, a very different sort of Primate to any of our modern successors of St. Augustine. John had driven him with contumely from his see, and Langton never forgave him. But he had public injuries to redress as well as private, and it would be utterly unjust to say that he was spurred to action by sentiments of private resentment alone. Indeed, like Simon, Earl of Leicester, he was a statesman whose conceptions of popular right and just government were ages ahead of his time and order. The clergy were very largely recruited from the lower ranks of the free-men and even of the villeins, and it was impossible for them to be altogether negligent of the interests of the class from which they sprang.

Langton read and explained the Charter of Henry I. to the rude, unlettered barons, and urged them to take vengeance on the common tyrant. They had only too good cause. On them even more than on Holy Church had John's hand been unendurably heavy. He had heaped on them injuries worse than death. Not merely had he seized their castles and gifted their estates to his foreign mercenaries, his Merciless Sottims, his Bowel-less Falcos and Company, but he had outraged their wives and daughters without number, and boasted of his licentious achievements. Yet they exhibited no real pluck or patriotism in bringing this second Nero to book. John they knew was a ruffian of the highest ability, and they quailed before him.

Their first effort against the tyrant was a complete failure, though they appeared in the field as the army of God and Holy Church. John withstood their assault in Northampton Castle, and in a fortnight's time they retired with their retainers to Bedford, crestfallen and humiliated. But here came the turning-point. John had already in vain appealed to the freemen for aid against the barons. With a correct instinct, the people for the first time sided with the barons against the Crown. Bedford received them with open arms, and London enthusiastically proffered succour. The Scots in the north made a powerful diversion, as they have so often done when English freedom has hung in the balance, and the cause was won by the English people. The barons had in reality behaved with great pusillanimity, and their subsequent page 33 conduct showed how Utterly unpatriotic their motives really were. The important rights guaranteed by the Charter to the freemen were the price of their indispensable support. As for the sole provision benefiting the villeins—benefiting them to the extent of not fining them for petty offences—to the deprivation of their tools—its insertion may be fairly set down to the credit of the good Langton.

But though John quailed before this great uprising of the nation, and signed the Great Charter, he never had the smallest intention of observing its provisions. He at once sent off to the Pope, whose feudatory he had ignominiously become, with the approval of most of the baronial heroes of Runnymede, and induced his over-lord to cancel the entire Charter and lay the City of London under an interdict. Langton was ordered to excommunicate the king's enemies, but this the great statesman flatly declined to do.

From Poitou, Gascony, and Brabant a horde of ruthless mercenaries was summoned, and with these John proceeded to efface the provisions of the Charter in blood. He swept the country from end to end, and even drove back the King of Scots to the gates of Edinburgh. London alone maintained the cause of freedom with a noble constancy.

Again the wretched barons lost heart. The sight of their lands and castles in the grasp of John's mercenaries made them lose every sentiment of patriotism, if ever they had any. In their despair, they offered the crown of England to Louis, the son of the French king. The offer was accepted, and Louis landed with a strong force. The barons joined his;, standard, but the people wisely held aloof.

At this critical moment King John providentially expired, and England was saved from an occupation which must have ended in her becoming an appanage of the French crown. The people determined to set Prince Henry, John's son, on the throne, and in a year's time Louis and the barons were thoroughly beaten, the Charter reaffirmed, and the nation saved from a greater misfortune than even the Norman Conquest.

It was afterwards divulged that, if Louis had succeeded in his enterprise, he meant to destroy the entire English baronage, after the manner of the Conqueror. From this well-merited fate they were saved by the patriotism of Hugh page 34 de Burgh's sailors and William de Collingham's bowmen. Their conduct, in truth, was as unintelligent as it was unpatriotic. In their haste to get out of the frying-pan of King John, they merely leapt into the fire of King Louis without the least regard for the national welfare.

So much for the achievements of the deathless heroes of Runnymede, about which so much nonsense has been said and sung. Never, in point of fact, was there a more selfish or mean-spirited pack of fellows, if we except the Scots nobles in the struggle for Independence against Edward I. While Wallace and the Scottish people were fighting with unsurpassed gallantry to save Scotland from the fate of unhappy Ireland, the whole of the nobles, with the single exception of Lord Soulis, sold their country, not once, but several times, to preserve their private estates. The "Ragman's Roll" is a record of such infamy that one can only wonder how liberty-loving Scotsmen have allowed themselves to be rack-rented and evicted by "lairds" and "factors" so long. If they had ever suffered from a calamity like the Norman Conquest, one could understand such unmanly tolerance; but though they never bowed to the Conqueror's yoke, they have yet tamely accepted from their rascally lawyers the Conqueror's feudal law. For a people that have justly earned a world-wide reputation for shrewdness, the facility with which they have permitted themselves 'to be robbed by goose-quills of a soil that swords could never wrest from them, is one of the most unaccountable facts in modern history. A Highland crofter, who will fight like a lion in the ranks of the Black Watch against any odds, in any quarter of the globe, will cringe like a beaten hound before the eye of an evicting "laird's factor." This by the way.

But if our Old Nobility had no other virtue, personal courage and prowess have generally been conceded to them without demur. Now, like predatory animals in general, it is perfectly certain that at all stages of their history the aristocracy have exhibited the strongest taste for blood. But a taste for blood does not necessarily imply love of danger, and I am disposed to think that there is a good deal of the cowardly prairie cayote in our Old Nobility. Nothing but cowardice, or, at all events, a very commendable regard for a whole skin, could have induced anyone with the faintest page 35 sense of the ridiculous to don an ancient coat of mail. Rather than appear in such a garb, really courageous men would have run any reasonable risk of being killed on the spot. Once down, they could not get up for the sheer weight of iron in which they were encased. When they attempted charges, before the archers had done their deadly work, as they did at Falkirk and in several of the battles in France, they failed and floundered most ignominiously. Nor have the scions of aristocracy ever been good for much in the more recent days of the "gunpowder and glory business." In the Crimean War they were sorely incommoded, as we all know, "by urgent private business." One Lord Forth declared himself a coward, and refused to enter the trenches. The British Army the First Napoleon described as a host of lions led by asses, and his verdict has been confirmed by all subsequent experience. Yet H.R.H. the Prince of Wales is a field-marshal, and cousin George is Commander-in-Chief! "Always a wonderful people, the English!"

In the years 1348 and 1349 the Black Death visited England, and carried off, it is estimated, from one third to one half of the entire population. The immediate result was an enormous increase in the value of labour. The demand far exceeded the supply, but noble lords were equal to the occasion. A royal proclamation was issued "by the advice of our prelates, and nobles, and other skilled persons, that every able-bodied man and woman of our kingdom, bond or free, under sixty years of age, not living by trading, shall, if so required, serve another for the same wages as were the custom in the twentieth of our (Edward III.'s) reign." By a subsequent Statute of Labourers, the nobles and other skilled persons established a regular scale of wages and ordered stocks to be set up "betwixt this and the Feast of Pentecost," in every town in England, to enforce the penalties of the Act.

Nor was this enough; the labourers were so unreasonable as to escape from one county to another in quest of better hire, To cure this evil there was passed, in 1361, a downright Fugitive Slave Act, which ordained, among other severities, that fugitive workmen, "in token of falsity, should be burned in the forehead with an iron formed and made to the letter F." This being so, it is not difficult to understand page 36 that working men were forbidden to hunt, hawk, or joust, or appear in any dress not suitable to their lowly condition. Noble lords actually supervised the tailoring of the working class by Act of Parliament. But all would not do.

In the beginning of Richard the Second's reign, rural England rose in insurrection under the heroic Wat Tyler, and the aristocracy were for a time beside themselves with terror. Their cowardice was only exceeded by their treachery and cruelty. The demands of the insurgents were most reasonable. They were only four in number:—
1.The total abolition of serfdom.
2.The reduction of the rent of arable land to fourpence per acre—then a good price.
3.Full freedom to buy and sell like other men in fair or mart.
4.A general pardon.

Tyler perished by the hand of the assassin Mayor of London, Walworth, and the boy-king undertook to be the leader of the simple-hearted peasants. By the advice of the panic-stricken nobles, Richard gave the people a Charter guaranteeing them all they asked, a general pardon included. They dispersed, trusting to the honour of Richard and his aristocratic advisers. They had but too good reason to repent of their credulity. The nobles rallied, and the mask was dropped. "Rustics ye have been and are," the perfidious Richard declared, "and in bondage shall ye remain; not such as ye have heretofore known, but in a condition incomparably more vile." In spite of Charter, in spite of pardon, no fewer than 15,000 good men and true were hanged, drawn, and quartered, according to Holinshed, by this perjured boy and the vile crew of Old Nobility that surrounded his throne. Richard, it appears, had some qualms about the heinous part he was made to play, but his noble lords had none. He asked them if they would consent to enfranchise the serfs. "Consent," they replied, "we have never given, and never will give, were we all to die in one day." Nevertheless, by the mere pressure of economic laws, both villeinage and the statutes regulating wages were practically at an end within fifty years of Tyler's rising. The change was great and beneficent. The Black Death was stronger than our Old Nobility. Indeed, it is not too much to say that no page of page 37 English history records a single triumph of civilization that has not been achieved in spite of the aristocracy.

In the Wars of the Roses we have such a revolting picture of aristocracy as fills the soul with loathing and horror. In all the other struggles in which the aristocracy have been engaged they have generally managed to reap some advantage at the expense either of the people or the monarch; but in the York versus Lancaster episode they positively laid violent hands on themselves. They literally committed suicide, like the swine in the Gospel, rushing headlong down a steep place into the sea, where they perished almost to a man.

The prime object of Warwick the King-maker was, of course, to lay hold of the Crown, which he really overshadowed. No fewer than 30,000 persons are said to have lived habitually at his board in the numerous castles which were his by inheritance or by skilful matrimonial alliances. His ruling passion was a mad ambition, in the pursuit of which he displayed an unmatched disregard of every principle of justice, of every sentiment of humanity. In Warwick aristocracy attained its apotheosis, or rather its supreme diablery.

He pulled down Henry VI. and set up Edward IV. Then he pulled down Edward and set up Henry again. Eventually he died fighting against that very Edward for whom he had deluged England in blood. In all the windings of this bloody tragedy Warwick's one discernible motive seems to have been to get his daughters so united to royalty by matrimonial alliances as to ensure that some grandchild of his, some Neville, should be monarch of England. To accomplish this paltry end, he tried first to exterminate the Lancastrian barons, and then in turn to extirpate the Yorkists. He acted on the horrible principle of giving no quarter in the field, and the opposing side, of course, adopted his tactics.

In the sickening shambles of St. Albans, Bloreheath, Northampton, Wakefield, Mortimer's Cross, the first and second battles of Barnet, Towton, Hedgeley Moor, Hexham, Edgecote, Erpingham, and Tewkesbury, there perished over 100,000 Englishmen, literally sacrificed to this devouring demon of aristocracy. We read in ancient fable of fearful monsters who exacted such tribute from men; but here we have an aristocratic ogre, with a maw more capacious and gory than any conception of myth or legend.

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Warwick, his father Salisbury, and his brother Lord Montacute, all perished. In the battle of Wakefield the Duke of York was slain, and his son, the Earl of Rutland—a boy of thirteen—was brutally murdered by Lord Clifford. Somersets, Exeters, Buckinghams, Northumberlands, Devons, Shewsburys, Pembrokes, and scores on scores of similar bloodthirsty miscreants, died sword in hand, or were sent to the block. In the battle of Northampton alone three hundred knights bit the dust.

Public slaughter was amply supplemented by private murder. Henry VI. was privately murdered. His only son Edward was murdered. Clarence—"false, fleeting, perjured Clarence"—was murdered by his brother, Edward IV. Richard III. murdered his two nephews, the sons of Edward IV. He subsequently wanted to marry their sister, his niece, and the young woman was in raptures with the prospect. The amiable Richard she called "the master of her heart and thoughts." She sighed for the death of Anne (Richard's wife), the daughter of the King-maker. "The better part of February is past, and the queen still alive. Will she never die? "—and allow her to be Queen of England, and her uncle's wife 1

With the Wars of the Roses the first era of English aristocracy comes to an end—an era of blood and iron, tyranny and rapine, cruelty and treachery, almost without a paralle in the annals of mankind.

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