The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 51
To the last of the Plantagenets, Richard III., succeeded the first of the Tudors, Henry VII., the victor of Bosworth Field. He was the grandson of Owen Tudor, an insignificant Welsh squire in the service of the widow of Henry V. Owen married this lady, or she him, and was sent to Newgate for his presumption; yet his descendants came nearer to establish an absolute despotism in England than any of their predecessors on the throne.
The Plantagenets, in their long struggle with the barons, had been reluctantly constrained to concede many popular rights. While the royal and aristocratic thieves were quarrelling, honest Englishmen had succeeded in getting some portion of what was their own, But no sooner had the old nobility met their doom in the Wars of the Roses and the hands of royalty were untied, than a determined and systematic effort was made to uproot every national liberty. The old Norman barons regarded themselves as the peers of the king. They owed their elevation to their swords. The new nobility, on the other hand, were the mere creatures of the king, made by his parchments. Their obsequiousness to his will in the Upper House affected the House of Commons so disastrously that parliament, under the Tudors, became little more than a court for registering royal decrees. Under the Plantagenet régime the kings had to commit their own murders, extortions, and illegalities, and stand to the consequences. The Tudors were more fortunate. They made parliament and the judges of the land sanction all their crimes, and bear the odium. So completely has Mr. Froude, page 42 the leading authority for this period of our history, misunderstood the spirit of the age, that he persistently represents Henry VIII.—a more execrable and capricious tyrant never breathed—as a high-souled Christian gentleman who had the misfortune to suffer from a plethora of wives deserving the halter!
From the time of Henry VII. to the Long Parliament the rack and other dreadful instruments for the torture of political prisoners were in constant use. Torture was introduced by royal warrant in 1468, and went on till 1640 without check, in flagrant defiance of the common law of the land. In countries where the Roman law prevailed torture was in regulated use. In England there was no rule but the caprice of the king. "The rack," says Selden, "is nowhere used as in England. In other countries it is used in judicature when there is semiplena probatio, or half-proof against a man. Then to see if they can make it full, they rack him if he will not confess. But here in England they take a man and rack him—I don't know why nor where—not in time of judicature, but when somebody bids."
The Tudor and Stuart kings rank as torturers with Nabis and Phalaris. So exquisite were the torments they invented that their victims, generally innocent, were wont "to wish and kneel in vain to die." Scores of royal torture warrants of the reigns of Edward VI., Mary, Elizabeth, James I., and Charles I. have happily, or unhappily, come down to us to illustrate the history of the monarchy of which Englishmen are so proud.
For nearly two hundred years there was scarcely a State trial that was not a judicial murder. To be accused of disloyalty was to be condemned. There are two, and perhaps only two, exceptions to this rule, one of them being that of Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, in the reign of Queen Mary. But the erring jury in that case got a lesson they were not likely to forget. Four of them repented of their verdict and were discharged, while five, more contumacious, lay in gaol for eight months, and were fined £200 a-piece, say, £2,400 in present currency.
The accused, altogether contrary to law, was seldom or never brought face to face with his accusers. The judges acted more frequently as public, or rather, royal, prosecutors page 43 than as impartial arbiters. Take the case of brave and accomplished Sir Walter Raleigh. Sir Walter, loquitur, "Good my lords, let my accuser come face to face. Were the case but a small copyhold you would have witnesses or good proof to lead the jury to a verdict, and I am here for my life." Popham, Chief Justice: "There must not such a gap be opened for the destruction of the king as would be if we should grant this; you plead hard for yourself, but the laws plead as hard for the king." Even in the time of James II., it was declared from the judicial bench that "the laws were the king's laws, that the king might dispense with his laws in case of necessity, and that the king was the judge of that necessity." When the Duke of Norfolk asked for the aid of counsel, being, as he said, "brought to fight without a weapon," Chief Justice Dyer replied, "All our books forbid allowing counsel in point of treason."
The Tudors and Stuarts not merely set themselves above the law, but they employed armies of spies to incriminate unwary persons who might express disapprobation of their conduct or even be suspiciously silent regarding it. In the reign of James I (1614), Peachman, an aged clergyman, was accused of treason, and the virtuous Lord Bacon was one of the commissioners who examined him "before torture, in torture, between torture, and after torture." The old man, it was alleged, had in his possession a sermon, which he had neither preached nor published, disrespectful to the British Solomon!
Another and still more effectual method of crushing disaffection was to proceed by Bill of Attainder in parliament. Against this weapon it was absolutely useless to contend. Under the Tudors the Commons were no longer the representatives of the people. They were the slaves of the king. The rack had cowed them to such a degree that they behaved more like spaniels than men.
The Crown made new boroughs and revived old ones—an entirely usurped function—and took care so to manipulate the electorates that the return of its own nominees was assured. Edward VI., Mary, and Elizabeth made or revived no fewer than sixty-three boroughs returning one hundred and twenty-three royal nominees, while James I. and Charles I. were hardly less active in divesting parliament of what- page 44 ever representative character it possessed. The key to the entire policy of the Tudors and Stuarts is their fixed determination to reduce the English people to slavery more degrading than that of Turks or Muscovites. When parliament took the life of Charles I., it acted, if not with policy, with unquestionable logic, for Charles most certainly would have taken the life of parliament if he could.
Some historians have professed to see in Henry VII. a ruler of exceptional talent and virtue, but the evidence of such characteristics is singularly defective. If to be morose and suspicious, and passionately addicted to money making and match-making, is to be a statesman then he was a statesman. Parliament voted him a large supply to enable him to conquer France. He landed with a great army; but the French king, knowing Henry's weakness, offered him a large sum and a pension to desist. Henry joyfully agreed to the terms, thus succeeding, as was pungently observed, in making profit out of his subjects for the war, and out of his enemies for the peace.
To increase his hoard he employed two unscrupulous lawyers, Empson and Dudley, to prey on his defenceless people. Their methods of extortion were so successful that the royal treasure soon amounted to £1,800,000, a sum at least twelve times more valuable than now. His annual income was £14,000, or, say, £168,000 current value, but out of that sum he contrived not only to maintain the royal household but to pay his body-guard, and play the host to foreign ambassadors. Is there not here, at all events, a lesson for the hermit of Balmoral and Osborne?
The whole reign was filled with plots, treasons, impostures, and executions. Sir William Stanley, the Lord Chancellor, to whom more than any other man he owed the Crown he caused to be put to death because, in a private conversation, Sir William had said that he would not bear arms against Perkin Warbeck if he were satisfied that Warbeck was really the son of King Edward.
A still more infamous act was the execution of the young Earl of Warwick, the last of the Plantagenets. This prince had been kept in close confinement from his infancy, and had sunk into such a state of fatuity that, according to the chronicler, he "could not discern a goose from a cap on." page 45 He tried to escape from the Tower, and for that presumption his head was forfeited. As an additional reason for the crime, Henry pleaded the unwillingness of Ferdinand of Arragon to give his ill-starred daughter Catherine, in marriage to Prince Arthur of England while a Plantagenet prince remained alive.
His thorough baseness was still more clearly exhibited in his treatment of the Earl of Suffolk, nephew of Edward IV. Suffolk, who had displeased the tyrant, took refuge in the Low Countries. The ruler of that region, the Archduke Philip, being driven into Weymouth by a tempest, was compelled, as the price of his own liberty, to give up Suffolk, whose life it was however stipulated should be spared. Henry kept his word, but enjoined on his successor to put him to death, a congenial task, which, needless to say, Henry VIII. performed with true filial devotion. Henry, who was a very pious man, had evidently in this matter profited by the politic instructions given to Solomon by David with respect to the sons of Zeruiah. He died in the odour of sanctity.