Blackstone’s Commentaries with Notes of Reference (1803)
St. George Tucker
Of The Rise, Progress, And Gradual Improvements, of The Laws of England
BEFORE we enter on the subject of this chapter, in which I propose, by way of supplement to the whole, to attempt an historical review of the most remarkable changes and alterations, that have happened in the laws of England, I must first of all remind the student, that the rise and progress of many principal points and doctrines have been already pointed out in the course of these commentaries, under their respective divisions: these having therefore been particularly discussed already, it cannot be expected that I should re-examine them with any degree of minuteness; which would be a most tedious undertaking. What I therefore at present propose, is only to mark out some outlines of an English juridical history, by taking a chronological view of the state of our laws, and their successive mutations at different periods of time.
THE several periods, under which I shall consider the state of our legal polity, are the following six: 1. From the earliest times to the Norman conquest: 2. From the Norman conquest to the reign of king Edward the first: 3. From thence to the reformation: 4. From the reformation to the restoration of king Charles the second: 5. From thence to the revolution in 1688: 6. From the revolution to the present time.
I. AND, first, with regard to the ancient Britons, the aborigines of our island, we have so little handed down to us concerning them with any tolerable certainty, that our inquiries here must needs be very fruitless and defective. However, from Caesar’s account of the tenets and discipline of the ancient Druids in Gaul, in whom centered all the learning of these western parts, and who were, as he tells us, sent over to Britain, (that is, to the island of Mona or Anglesey) to be instructed; we may collect a few points, which bear a great affinity and resemblance to some of the modern doctrines of our English law. Particularly, the very notion itself of an oral unwritten law, delivered down from age to age, by custom and tradition merely, seems derived from the practice of the Druids, who never committed any of their instructions to writing: possibly for want of letters; since it is remarkable that in all the antiquities, unquestionably British which the industry of the moderns has discovered, there is not in any of them the least trace of any character or letter to be found. The partible quality also of lands, by the custom of gavelkind, which still obtains in many parts of England, and did universally over Wales till the reign of Henry VIII, is undoubtedly of British original. So likewise is the ancient division of the goods of an intestate between his widow and children, or next of kin; which has since been revived by the statute of distributions. And we may also remember an instance of a slighter nature mentioned in the present volume; where the same custom has continued from Caesar’s time to the present, that of burning a woman guilty of the crime of petit treason by killing her husband.
THE great variety of nations, that successively broke in upon, and destroyed both the British inhabitants and constitution, the Romans, the Picts, and, after them, the various clans of Saxons and Danes, must necessarily have caused great confusion and uncertainty in the laws and antiquities of the kingdom; as they were very soon incorporated and blended together, and therefore, we may suppose, mutually communicated to each other their respective usages,1 in regard to the rights of property and the punishment of crimes. So that it is morally impossible to trace out, with any degree of accuracy, when the several mutations of the common law were made, or what was the respective original of those several customs we at present use, by any chemical resolution of them to their first and component principles. We can seldom pronounce, that this custom was derived from the Britons; that was left behind by the Romans; this was a necessary precaution against the Picts; that was introduced by the Saxons, discontinued by the Danes, but afterwards restored by the Normans.
WHEREVER this can be done, it is matter of great curiosity, and some use: but this can very rarely be the case; not only from the reason above-mentioned, but also from many others. First, from the nature of traditional laws in general; which, being accommodated to the exigencies of the times, suffer by degrees insensible variations in practice:2 so that, though upon comparison we plainly discern the alteration of the law from what it was five hundred years ago, yet it is impossible to define the precise period in which that alteration accrued, any more than we can discern the changes of the bed of a river, which varies its shores by continual decreases and alluvions. Secondly, this becomes impracticable from the antiquity of the kingdom and its government: which alone, though it had been disturbed by no foreign invasions, would make it an impossible thing to search out the original of its laws; unless we had as authentic monuments thereof, as the Jews had by the hand of Moses.3
Thirdly, this uncertainty of the true origin of particular customs must also in part have arisen from the means, whereby Christianity was propagated among our Saxon ancestors in this island; by learned foreigners brought over from Rome and other countries: who undoubtedly carried with them many of their own national customs; and probably prevailed upon the state to abrogate such usages as were inconsistent with our holy religion, and to introduce many others that were more conformable thereto. And this perhaps may have partly been the cause, that we find not only some rules of the Mosaic, but also of the imperial and pontifical laws, blended and adopted into our own system.
A FARTHER reason may also be given for the great variety, and of course the uncertain original, of our ancient established customs; even after the Saxon government was firmly established in this island: viz. the subdivision of the kingdom into an heptarchy, consisting of seven independent kingdoms, peopled and governed by different clans and colonies. This must necessarily create an infinite diversity of laws: even though all those colonies, of Jutes, Angles, proper Saxons, and the like, originally sprung from the same mother country, the great northern hive; which poured forth its warlike progeny, and swarmed all over Europe, in the sixth and seventh centuries. This multiplicity of laws will necessarily be the case in some degree, where any kingdom is cantoned out into provincial establishments; and not under one common dispensation of laws, though under the same sovereign power. Much more will it happen, where seven unconnected states are to form their own constitution and superstructure of government, though they all begin to build upon the same or similar foundations.
WHEN therefore the West-Saxons had swallowed up all the rest, and king Alfred succeeded to the monarchy of England, whereof his grandfather Egbert was the founder, his mighty genius prompted him to undertake a most great and necessary work, which he is said to have executed in as masterly a manner. No less than to new-model the constitution; to rebuild it on a plan that should endure for ages; and, out of its old discordant materials, which were heaped upon each other in a vast and rude irregularity, to form one uniform and well connected whole. This he effected, by reducing the whole kingdom under one regular and gradual subordination of government, wherein each man was an answerable too his immediate superior for his own conduct and that of his nearest neighbors: for to him we owe that masterpiece of judicial polity, the subdivision of England into tithings, and hundreds, if not into counties; all under the influence and administration of one supreme magistrate, the king; in whom, as in a general reservoir, all the executive authority of the law was lodged, and from whom justice was dispersed to every part of the nation by distinct, yet communicating, ducts and channels: which wise institution has been preserved for near a thousand years unchanged, from Alfred’s to the present time. He also, like another Theodosius, collected the various custom that he found dispersed in the kingdom, and reduced and digested them into one uniform system or code of laws, in his dom-bec, or liber judicialis. This he compiled for the use of the court-baron, hundred, and county court, the court-leet, and sheriff’s town; tribunals, which he established, for the trial of all causes civil and criminal, in the very districts wherein the complaint arose: all of them subject however to be inspected, controlled, and kept within the bounds of the universal or common law, by the king’s own courts; which were then itinerant, being kept in the king’s palace, and removing with his household in those royal progresses, which he continually made from one end of the kingdom to the other.
THE Danish invasion and conquest, which introduced new foreign customs, was a severe blow to this noble fabric: but a plan, so excellently concerted, could never be long thrown aside. So that, upon the expulsion of these intruders, the English returned to their ancient law: retaining however some few of the customs of their late visitants; which went under the name of Dane-Lage: as the code compiled by Alfred was called the West-Saxon-Lage; and the local constitutions of the ancient kingdom of Mercia, which obtained in the counties nearest to Wales, and probably abounded with many British customs, were called the Mercen-Lage. And these three laws were, about the beginning of the eleventh century, in use in different counties of the realm: the provincial polity of counties, and their subdivisions, having never been altered or discontinued through all the shocks and mutations of government, from the time of its first institution; though the laws and customs therein used, have (as we shall see) often suffered considerable changes.
FOR king Edgar, (who besides his military merit, as founder of the English navy, was also a most excellent civil governor) observing the ill effects of three distinct bodies of laws, prevailing at once in separate parts of his dominions, projected and begun, what his grandson king Edward the confessor afterwards completed; viz. one uniform digest or body of laws, to be observed throughout the whole kingdom: being probably no more than a revival of king Alfred’s code, with some improvements suggested by necessity and experience; particularly the incorporating some of the British or rather Mercian customs, and also such of the Danish as were reasonable and approved, into the West-Saxon-Lage, which was still the groundwork of the whole. And this appears to me the best supported and most plausible conjecture (for certainty is not to be expected) of the rise and original of that admirable system of maxims and unwritten customs, which is now known by the name of the common law, as extending its authority universally over all the realm; and which is doubtless of Saxon parentage.
AMONG the most remarkable of the Saxon laws we may reckon, 1. The constitution of parliaments, or rather, general assemblies of the principal and wisest men in the nation; the wittena-gemote, or commune concilium of the ancient Germans; which was not yet reduced to the forms and distinctions of our modern parliament: without whose concurrence however, no new law could be made, or old one altered. 2. The election of their magistrates by the people; originally even that of their kings, till dear bought experience evinced the convenience and necessity of establishing an hereditary succession to the crown. But that of all subordinate magistrates, their military officers or heretochs, their sheriffs, their conservators of the peace, their coroners, their port-reeves, (since changed into mayors and bailiffs) and even their tithingmen and borsholders at the leet, continued, some till the Norman conquest, others for two centuries after, and some remain to this day. 3. The descent of the crown, when once a royal family was established, upon nearly the same hereditary principles upon which it has ever since continued: only that perhaps, in case of minority, the next of kin of full age would ascend the throne, as king, and not as protector; though, after his death, the crown immediately reverted back to the heir. 4. The great paucity of capital punishments for the first offense: even the most notorious offenders being allowed to commute it for a fine or weregild, or, in default of payment perpetual bondage; to which our benefit of clergy has now in some measure succeeded. 5. The prevalence of certain customs, as heriots and military services in proportion to every man’s land, which much resembled the feudal constitution; but yet were exempt from all its rigorous hardships: and which may be well enough accounted for, by supposing them to be brought from the continent by the first Saxon invaders, in the primitive moderation and simplicity of the feudal law; before it got into the hands of the Norman jurists, who extracted the most slavish doctrines, and oppressive consequences, out of what was originally intended as a law of liberty. 6. That their estates were liable to forfeiture for treason, but that the doctrine of escheats and corruption of blood for felony, or any other cause, was utterly unknown amongst them. 7. The descent of their lands was to all the males equally, without any right of primogeniture; a custom, which obtained among the Britons, was agreeable to the Roman law, and continued among the Saxons till the Norman conquest: though really inconvenient, and more especially destructive to ancient families; which are in monarchies necessary to be supported, in order to form and keep up a nobility, or intermediate state between the prince and the common people. 8. The courts of justice consisted principally of the county courts, and in cases of weight or nicety the king’s courts held before himself in person, at the time of his parliaments; which were usually held in different places, according as he kept the three great festivals of Christmas, Easter, and whitsuntide. An institution which was adopted by king Alonso VII of Castile about a century after the conquest: who at the same three great feasts was wont to assemble his nobility and prelates in his court; who there heard and decided all controversies, and then, having received his instructions, departed home.4 These county courts however differed from the modern ones, in that the ecclesiastical and civil jurisdiction were blended together, the bishop and the ealdorman of sheriff sitting in the same county court; and also that the decisions and proceedings therein were much more simple and unembarrassed: an advantage which will always attend the infancy of any laws, but wear off as they gradually advance to antiquity. 9. Trials, among a people who had a very strong tincture of superstition, were permitted to be by ordeal, by the corsned or morsel of execration, or by wager of law with compurgators, if the party chose it; but frequently they were also by jury: for, whether or no their juries consisted precisely of twelve men, or were bound to a strict unanimity; yet the general constitution of this admirable criterion of truth, and most important guardian both of public and private liberty, we owe to our Saxon ancestors. Thus stood the general frame of our polity at the time of the Norman invasion; when the second period of our legal history commences.
II. THIS remarkable event wrought as great an alteration in our laws, as it did in our ancient line of kings: and, though the alteration of the former was effected rather by the consent of the people, than any right of conquest, yet that consent seems to have been partly extorted by fear, and partly given without any apprehension of the consequences which afterwards ensued.
1. AMONG the first of these alterations we may reckon the separation of the ecclesiastical courts from the civil: effected in order to ingratiate the new king with the popish clergy, who for some time before had been endeavoring all over Europe to exempt themselves from the secular power; and whose demands the conqueror, like a politic prince, thought it prudent to comply with, by reason that their reputed sanctity had a great influence over the minds of the people; and because all the little learning of the times was engrossed into their hands, which made them necessary men, and by all means to be gained over to his interests. And this was the more easily effected, because, the disposal of all the episcopal sees being then in the breast of the king, he had taken care to fill them with Italian and Norman prelates.
2. ANOTHER violent alteration of the English constitution consisted in the depopulation of whole countries, for the purposes of the king’s royal diversion; and subjecting both them, and all the ancient forests of the kingdom, to the unreasonable severities of forest laws imported from the continent, whereby the slaughter of a beast was made almost as penal as the death of a man. In the Saxon times, though no man was allowed to kill or chase the king’s deer, yet he might start any game, pursue, and kill it, upon his own estate. But the rigor of these new constitutions vested the sole property of all the game in England in the king alone; and no man was entitled to disturb any fowl of the air, or any beast of the field, of such kinds as were specially reserved for the royal amusement of the sovereign, without express license from the king, by a grant of a chase or free warren: and those franchises were granted as much with a view to preserve the breed of animals, as to indulge the subject. From a similar principle to which, though the forest laws are now mitigated, and by degrees grown entirely obsolete, yet from this root has sprung a bastard slip, known by the name of the game law, now arrived to and wantoning in its highest vigor: both founded upon the same unreasonable notions of permanent property in wild creatures; and both productive of the same tyranny to the commons: but with this difference; that the forest laws established only one mighty hunter throughout the land, the game laws have raised a little Nimrod in every manor. And in one respect the ancient law was much less unreasonable than the modern: for the king’s grantee of a chase or free-warren might kill game in every part of his franchise; but now, though a freeholder of less than 100£, a year is forbidden to kill a partridge upon his own estate, yet nobody else (not even the lord of the manor, unless he has a grant of free-warren) can do it without committing a trespass, and subjecting himself to an action.
3. A THIRD alteration in the English laws was by narrowing the remedial influence of the county courts, the great seats of Saxon justice, and extending the original jurisdiction of the king’s justiciars to all kinds of causes, arising in all parts of the kingdom. To this end the aula regis, with all its multifarious authority, was erected; and a capital justiciary appointed, with powers so large and boundless, that he became at length a tyrant to the people, and formidable to the crown itself. The constitution of this court, and the judges themselves who presided there, were fetched from the duchy of Normandy: and the consequence naturally was, the ordaining that all proceedings in the king’s courts should be carried on in the Norman, instead of the English, language. A provision the more necessary, because none of his Norman justiciars understood English; but as evident a badge of slavery, as ever was imposed upon a conquered people. This lasted till king Edward the third obtained a double victory, over the armies of France in their own country, and their language in our courts here at home. But there was one mischief too deeply rooted thereby, and which this caution of king Edward came too late to eradicate. Instead of the plain and easy method of determining suits in the county courts, the chicanes and subtleties of Norman jurisprudence had taken possession of the king’s courts, to which ever cause of consequence was drawn. Indeed that age, and those immediately succeeding it, were the era of refinement and subtlety. There is an active principle in the human soul, that will ever be exerting its faculties to the utmost stretch, in whatever employment, by the accidents of time and place, the general plan of education, or the customs and manners of the age and county, it may happen to find itself engaged. The northern conquerors of Europe were then emerging from the grossest ignorance in point of literature; and those, who had leisure to cultivate its progress, were such only as were cloistered in monasteries, the rest being all soldiers or peasants. And, unfortunately, the first rudiments of science which they imbibed were those of Aristotle’s philosophy, conveyed through the medium of his Arabian commentators; which were brought from the east by the Saracens into Palestine and Spain, and translated into barbarous Latin. So that, though the materials upon which they were naturally employed, in the infancy of a rising state, were those of the noblest kind; the establishment of religion, and the regulations of civil polity; yet, having only such tools to work with, their execution was trifling and flimsy. Both the divinity and the law of those times were therefore frittered into logical distinctions, and drawn out into metaphysical subtleties, with a skill most amazingly artificial; but which serves no other purpose, than to show the vast powers of the human intellect, however vainly or preposterously employed. Hence law in particular, which (being intended for universal reception) ought to be a plain rule of action, became a science of the greatest intricacy; especially when blended with the new refinements engrafted upon feudal property: which refinements were from time to time gradually introduced by the Norman practitioners, with a view to supersede (as they did in great measure) the more homely, but more intelligible, maxims of distributive justice among the Saxons. And, to say the truth these scholastic reformers have transmitted their dialect and finesses to posterity, so interwoven in the body of our legal polity, that they cannot now be taken out without a manifest injury to e substance. Statute after statute has in later times been made, to pare off these troublesome excrescences, and restore the common law to its pristine simplicity and vigor; and the endeavor has greatly succeeded: but still the fears are deep and visible; and the liberality of our modern courts of justice is frequently obliged to have recourse to unaccountable fictions and circuities, in order to recover that equitable and substantial justice, which for a long time was totally buried under the narrow rules and fanciful niceties of metaphysical and Norman jurisprudence.
4. A FOURTH innovation was the introduction of the trial by combat, for the decision of all civil and criminal questions of fact in the last resort. This was the immemorial practice of all the northern nations; but first reduced to regular and stated forms among the Burgundi, about the close of the fifth century: and from them it passed to other nations, particularly the Franks and the Normans; which last had the honor to establish it here, though clearly an unchristian, as well as most uncertain, method of trial. But it was a sufficient recommendation of it to the conqueror and his warlike countrymen, that it was the usage of their native duchy of Normandy.
5. BUT the last and most important alteration, both in our civil and military polity, was the engrafting on all landed estates, a few only excepted, the fiction of feudal tenure; which drew after it a numerous and oppressive train of servile fruits and appendages, aids, reliefs, primer seizins, wardships, marriages, escheats, and fines for alienation; the genuine consequences of the maxim then adopted, that all the lands in England were derived from, and held, mediately or immediately, of the crown.
THE nation at this period seems to have groaned under as absolute a slavery, as was in the power of a warlike, an ambitious, and a politic prince to create. The consciences of men were enslaved by four ecclesiastics, devoted to a foreign power, and unconnected with the civil state under which they lived: who now imported from Rome for the first time the whole farrago of superstitious novelties, which had been engendered by the blindness and corruption of the times, between the first mission of Augustin the monk, and the Norman conquest; such as transubstantiation, purgatory, communion in one kind, and the worship of saints and images not forgetting the universal supremacy and dogmatical infallibility of the holy see. The laws too, as well as the prayers, were administered in an unknown tongue. The ancient trial by jury gave way to the impious decision by battle. The forest laws totally restrained all rural pleasures and manly recreations. And in cities and towns the case was no better; all company being obliged to disperse, and fire and candle to be extinguished, by eight at night, at the sound of the melancholy curfew. The ultimate property of al lands, and a considerable share out of the present profits, were vested in the king, or by him granted out to his Norman favorites; who, by a gradual progression of slavery, were absolute vassals to the crown, and as absolute tyrants to the commons, unheard of forfeitures, talliages, aids, and fines, were arbitrarily extracted from the pillaged landholders, in pursuance of the new system of tenure. And, to crown all, as a consequence of the tenure by knight-service, the king had always ready at his command an army of sixty thousand knights or milites: who were bound, upon pain of confiscating their estates, to attend him in time of invasion, or to quell any domestic insurrection. Trade, or foreign merchandise, such as it then was, was carried on by the Jews and Lombards; and the very name of an English fleet, which king Edgar had rendered so formidable, was utterly unknown to Europe: the nation consisting wholly of the clergy, who were also the lawyers; the baron, or great lords of the land; the knights or soldiery, who were the subordinate landholders; and the burghers, or inferior tradesmen, who from their insignificancy happily retained, in their socage and burgage tenure, some points of their ancient freedom. All the rest were villeins or bondmen.
FROM so complete and well concerted a scheme of servility, it has been the work of generations, for our ancestors, to redeem themselves and their posterity into that state of liberty, which we now enjoy: and which therefore is not to be looked upon as consisting of mere encroachments on the crown, and infringements of the prerogative, as some slavish and narrow-minded writers in the last century endeavored to maintain; but as, in general, a gradual restoration of that ancient constitution, whereof our Saxon forefathers had been unjustly deprived, partly by the policy, and partly by the force, of the Norman. How that restoration has, in a long series of years, been step by step effected, I now proceed to inquire.
WILLIAM Rufus proceeded on his father’s plan, and in some points extended it; particularly with regard to the forest laws. but his brother and successor, Henry the first, found it expedient, when first he came to the crown, to ingratiate himself with the people; by restoring (as our monkish historians tell us) the laws of king Edward the confessor. The ground whereof is this: that by charter he gave up the great grievances of marriage, ward, and relief, the beneficial pecuniary fruits of his feudal tenures; but reserved the tenures themselves, for the same military purposes that his father introduced them. He also abolished the curfew,5 yet it is rather spoken of as a known time of night (so denominated from that abrogated usage) than as a still subsisting custom. There is extant a code of laws in his name,6 consisting partly of those of the confessor, but with great additions and alterations of his own; and chiefly calculated for the regulation of the county courts. It contains some directions as to crimes and their punishments, (that of theft being made capital in his reign) and a few things relating to estates, particularly as to the descent of lands: which being by the Saxon laws equally to all the sons, by the feudal or Norman to the eldest only, king Henry here moderated the difference; directing the eldest son to have only the principal estate, “primum patris feudum” the rest of his estates, if he had any others, being equally divided among them all. On the other hand, he gave up to the clergy the free election of bishops and mitred abbots; reserving however these ensigns of patronage, conge d’eslire, custody of the temporalties when vacant, and homage upon their restitution. He lastly united again for a time the civil and ecclesiastical courts, which union was soon dissolved by him Norman clergy: and, upon that final dissolution, the cognizance of testamentary causes seems to have been first given to the ecclesiastical court. The rest remained as in his father’s time: from whence we may easily perceive how far short this was of a thorough restitution of king Edward’s, or the Saxon, laws.
THE usurper Stephen, as the manner of usurpers is, promised much at his accession, especially with regard to redressing the grievances of the forest laws, but performed no great matter either in that or in any other point. It is from his reign however, that we are to date the introduction of the Roman civil and canon laws into this realm: and at the same time was imported the doctrine of appeals to the court of Rome, as a branch of the canon law.
BY the time of king Henry the second, if not earlier, the charter of Henry the first seems to have been forgotten: for we find the claim of marriage, ward, and relief, then flourishing in full vigor. The right of primogeniture seems also to have tacitly revived, being found more convenient for the public than the parceling of estates into a multitude of minute subdivisions. However in this prince’s reign much was done to methodize the laws, and reduce them into a regular order; as appears from that excellent treatise of Glanvil: which, though some of it be now antiquated and altered, yet, when compared with the code of Henry the first, it carries a manifest superiority.7 Throughout his reign also was continued the important struggle, which we have had occasion so often to mention, between the laws of England and Rome; the former supported by the strength of the temporal nobility, when endeavored too be supplanted in favor of the latter by the popish clergy. Which dispute was kept on foot till the reign of Edward the first; when the laws of England, under the new discipline introduced by that skillful commander obtained a complete and permanent victory. In the present reign, of Henry the second, there are four things which peculiarly merit the attention of a legal antiquarian: 1. The constitutions of the parliament at Clarendon, A. D. 1164. whereby the king checked the power of the pope and his clergy, and greatly narrowed the total exemption they claimed from the secular jurisdiction: though his farther progress was unhappily stopped, by the fatal event of the disputes between him and archbishop Becket. 2. The institution of the office of justices in eyre, in itinere; the king having divided the kingdom into six circuits (a little different from the present) and commissioned these new created judges to administer justice, and try writs of assize, in the several counties. These remedies are said to have been then first invented: before which all causes were usually terminated in the county courts, according to the Saxon custom; or before the king’s justiciaries in the aula regis, in pursuance of the Norman regulations. The latter of which tribunals, traveling about with the king’s person, occasioned intolerable expense and delay to the suitors; and the former, however proper for little debts and minute actions, where even injustice is better than procrastination, were now become liable to too much ignorance of the law, and too much partiality as to facts, to determine matters of considerable moment. 3. The introduction and establishment of the grand assize, or trial by a special king of jury in a writ of right, at the option of the tenant or defendant, instead of the barbarous and Norman trial by battle. 4. To this time must also be referred the introduction of escuage, or pecuniary commutation for personal military service; which in process of time was the parent of the ancient subsidies granted to the crown by parliament, and the land tax of later times.
RICHARD the first, a brave and magnanimous prince, was a sportsman as well as a soldier; and therefore enforced the forest laws with some rigor; which occasioned many discontents among his people: though (according to Matthew Paris) he repealed the penalties of castration, loss of eyes, and cutting off the hands and feet, before inflicted on such as transgressed in hunting; probably finding that their severity prevented prosecutions. He also, when abroad, composed a body of naval laws at the isle of Oleron; which are still extant, and of high authority: for in his time we began again to discover, that (as an island) we were naturally a maritime power. But, with regard to civil proceedings, we find nothing very remarkable in this reign, except a few regulations regarding the jews, and the justices in eyre: the king’s thoughts being chiefly taken up by the knight errantry of a crusade against the Saracens in the holy land.
IN king John’s time, and that of his son Henry the third, the rigors of the feudal tenures and the forest laws were so warmly kept up, that they occasioned many insurrections of the barons or principal feudatories: which at last had this effect, that first king John, and afterwards his son, consented to the two famous charters of English liberties, Magna Carta, and carta de foresta . Of these the latter was well calculated to redress many grievances, and encroachments of the crown, in the exertion of forest-law: and the former confirmed many liberties of the church, and redressed many grievances incident to feudal tenures, of no small moment at the time; though now, unless considered attentively and with this retrospect, they seem but of trifling concern. But, besides these feudal provisions, care was also taken therein to protect the subject against other oppressions, then frequently arising from unreasonable amercements, from illegal distresses or other process for debts or services due to the crown, and from the tyrannical abuse of the prerogative of purveyance and preemption. It fixed the forfeiture of lands for felony in the same manner as it still remains; prohibited for the future the grants of exclusive fisheries; and the erection of new bridges so as to oppress the neighborhood. With respect to private rights: it established the testamentary power of the subject over part of his personal estate, the rest being distributed among his wife and children; it laid down the law of dower, as it has continued ever since; and prohibited the appeals of women, unless for the death of their husbands. In matters of public police and national concern: it enjoined an uniformity of weights and measures; gave new encouragements to commerce, by the protection of merchant-strangers; and forbad the alienation of lands in mortmain. With regard to the administration of justice: besides prohibiting all denials or delays of it, it fixed the court of common pleas at Westminster, that the suitors might no longer be harassed with following the king’s person in all his progresses; and at the same time brought the trial of issues home to the very doors of the freeholders, by directing assizes too be taken in the proper counties, and establishing annual circuits: it also corrected some abuses then incident to the trials by wager of law and of battle; directed the regular awarding of inquests for life or member; prohibited the king’s inferior ministers from holding pleas of the crown, or trying any criminal charge, whereby many forfeitures might otherwise have unjustly accrued to the exchequer; and regulated the time and place of holding the inferior tribunals of justice, the county court, sheriff’s turn, and court-leet. It confirmed and established the liberties of the city of London, and all other cities, boroughs, towns, and ports of the kingdom. And, lastly, (which alone would have merited the title that it bears, of the great charter) it protected every individual of the nation in the free enjoyment of his life, his liberty, and his property, unless declared to be forfeited by the judgment of his peers or the law of the land.
HOWEVER, by means of these struggles, the pope in the reign of king John gained a still greater ascendant here, than he ever before had enjoyed; which continued through the long reign of his son Henry the third: in the beginning of whose time the old Saxon trial by ordeal was also totally abolished. And we may by this time perceive, in Bracton’s treatise, a still farther improvement in the method and regularity of the common law, especially in the point of pleadings.8 Nor must it be forgotten, that the first traces which remain, of the separation of the greater barons from the less, in the constitution of parliaments, are found in the great charter of king John; though omitted in that of Henry III: and that, towards the end of the latter of these reigns, we find the first record of any writ for summoning knights, citizens, and burgesses to parliament. And here we conclude the second period of our English legal history.
III. THE third commences with the reign of Edward the first; who may justly be styled our English Justinian. For in his time the law did receive so sudden a perfection, that Sir Matthew Hale does not scruple to affirm,9 that more was done in the first thirteen years of his reign to settle and establish he distributive justice of the kingdom, than in all the ages since that time put together.
IT would be endless to enumerate all the particulars of these regulations but the principal may be reduced under the following general heads. 1. He established, confirmed, and settled, the great charter and charter of forests. 2. He gave a mortal wound to the encroachments of the pope and his clergy, by limiting and establishing the bounds of ecclesiastical jurisdiction: and by obliging the ordinary, to whom all the goods of intestates at that time belonged, to discharge the debts of the deceased. 3. He defined the limits of the several temporal courts of the highest jurisdiction, those of the king’s bench, common pleas, and exchequer; so as they might not interfere with each other’s proper business: to do which, they must now have recourse to a fiction, very necessary and beneficial in the present enlarged state of property. 4. He settled the boundaries of the inferior courts in counties, hundreds, and manors: confining them to causes of no great amount, according to their primitive institution; though of considerably greater, than by the alteration of the value of money they are now permitted to determine. 5. He secured the property of the subject, by abolishing all arbitrary taxes, and talliages, levied without consent of the national council. 6. He guarded the common justice of the kingdom from abuses, by giving up the royal prerogative of sending mandates to interfere in private causes. 7. He settled the form, solemnities, and effects, of fines levied in the court of common pleas; though the thing itself was of Saxon original. 8. He first established a repository for the public records of the kingdom; few of which are ancienter than the reign of his father, and those were by him collected. 9. He improved upon the laws of king Alfred, by that great and orderly method of watch and ward, for preserving the public peace and preventing robberies, established by the statute of Winchester. 10. He settled and reformed many abuses incident to tenures, and removed some restraints on the alienation of landed property, by the statute of quia emptores. 11. He instituted a speedier way for the recovery of debts, by granting execution not only upon goods and chattels, but also upon lands, by writ of elegit; which was of signal benefit to a trading people: and, upon the same commercial ideas, he also allowed the charging of lands in a statute merchant, to pay debts contracted in trade, contrary to all feudal principles. 12. He effectually provided for the recovery of advowsons, as temporal rights; in which, before, the law was extremely deficient. 13. He also effectually closed the great gulf, in which all the landed property of the kingdom was in danger of being swallowed, by his re-iterated statutes of mortmain; most admirably adapted to meet the frauds that had then been devised, though afterwards contrived to be evaded by the invention of uses. 14. He established a new limitation of property by the creation of estates tail; concerning the good policy of which, modern times have however entertained a very different opinion. 15. He reduced all Wales to the subjection, not only of the crown, but in great measure of the laws, of England; (which was thoroughly completed in the reign of Henry the eighth) and seems to have entertained a design of doing the like by Scotland, so as to have formed an entire and complete union of the island of Great Britain.
I MIGHT continue this catalogue much farther: but, upon the whole, we may observe, that the very scheme and model of the administration of common justice between party and party, was entirely settled by this king;10 and has continued nearly the same, in all succeeding ages, to this day; abating some few alterations, which the humor or necessity of subsequent times has occasioned. The forms of writs, by which actions are commenced, were perfected in his reign, and established as models for posterity. The pleadings, consequent upon the writs, were then short, nervous, and perspicuous; not intricate, verbose, and formal. The legal treatises, written in his time, as Britton, Fleta, Hengham, and the rest, are for the most part, law at this day; or at least were so, till the alteration of tenures took place. And, to conclude, it is from this period, from the exact observation of Magna Carta, rather than from its making or renewal, in the days of his grandfather and father, that the liberty of Englishmen began again to rear its head; though the weight of the military tenures hung heavy upon it for many ages after.
I CANNOT give a better proof of the excellence of his constitutions, than that from his time to that of Henry the eighth there happened very few, and those not very considerable, alterations in the legal forms of proceedings. As to matter of substance: the old Gothic powers of electing the principal subordinate magistrates, the sheriffs, and conservators of the peace, were taken from the people in the reigns of Edward II and Edward III; and justices of the peace were established instead of the latter. In the reign also of Edward the third the parliament is supposed most probably to have assumed its present form; by a separation of the commons from the lords. The statute for defining and ascertaining treasons was one of the first productions of this new-modeled assembly; and the translation of the law proceedings from French into Latin another. Much also was done, under the auspices of this magnanimous prince, for establishing our domestic manufactures; by prohibiting the exportation of English wool, and the importation or wear of foreign cloth or furs; and by encouraging clothworkers from other countries to settle here. Nor was the legislature inattentive to many other branches of commerce, or indeed to commerce in general: for, in particular, it enlarged the credit of the merchant, by introducing the statute staple; whereby he might the more readily pledge his lands for the security of his mercantile debts. And, as personal property now grew, by the extension of trade, to be much more considerable than formerly, care was taken, in case of intestacies, to appoint administrators particularly nominated by the law; to distribute that personal property among the creditors and kindred of the deceased, which before had been usually applied, by the officers of the ordinary, to uses then denominated pious. The statutes also of praemunire, for effectually depressing the civil power of the pope, were the work of this and the subsequent reign. And the establishment of a laborious parochial clergy, by the endowment of vicarages out of the overgrown possessions of the monasteries, added luster to the close of the fourteenth century: though the seeds of the general reformation, which were thereby first sown in the kingdom, were almost overwhelmed by the spirit of persecution, introduced into the laws of the land by the influence of the regular clergy.
FROM this time to that of Henry the seventh, the civil wars and disputed titles to the crown gave no leisure farther juridical improvement: “nam silent leges inter arma“. And yet it is to these very disputes that we owe the happy loss of all the dominions of the crown on the continent of France; which turned the minds of our subsequent princes entirely to domestic concerns. To these likewise we owe the method of barring entails by the fiction of common recoveries; invented originally by the clergy, to evade the statutes of mortmain, but introduced under Edward the fourth, for the purpose of unfettering estates, and making them more liable to forfeiture: while, on the other hand, the owners endeavored to protect them by the universal establishment of uses, another of the clerical inventions.
IN the reign of king Henry the seventh, his ministers (not to say the king himself) were more industrious in hunting out prosecutions upon old and forgotten penal laws, in order to extort money from the subject, than in framing any new beneficial regulations. For the distinguishing character of this reign was that of amassing treasure into the king’s coffers, by every means that could be devised: and almost every alteration in the laws, however salutary or otherwise in their future consequences, had this and this only for their great and immediate object. To this end the court of star-chamber was new-modeled, and armed with powers, the most dangerous and unconstitutional, over the persons and properties of the subject. Informations were allowed to be received, in lieu of indictments, at the assizes and sessions of the peace, in order to multiply fines and pecuniary penalties. The statute of fines for landed property was craftily and covertly contrived, to facilitate the destruction of entails, and make the owners of real estates more capable to forfeit as well as to aliene. The benefit of clergy (which so often intervened to stop attainders and save the inheritance) was now allowed only once to lay offenders, who only could have inheritances to lose. A writ of capias was permitted in all actions on the case, and the defendant might in consequence be outlawed; because upon such outlawry his goods became the property of the crown. In short, there is hardly a statute in this reign, introductive of a new law or modifying the old, but what either directly or obliquely tended to the emolument of the exchequer.
IV. THIS brings us to the fourth period of our legal history, viz. the reformation of religion, under Henry the eighth, and his children: which opens an entirely new scene in ecclesiastical matters; the usurped power of the pope being now forever routed and destroyed, all his connections with this island cut off, the crown restored to its supremacy over spiritual men and causes, and the patronage of bishoprics being once more indisputably vested in the king. And, had the spiritual courts been at this time re-united to the civil, we should have seen the old Saxon constitution with regard to ecclesiastical polity completely restored.
WITH regard also to our civil polity, the statute of wills, and the statute of uses, (both passed in the reign of this prince) made a great alteration as to property: the former, by allowing the devise of real estates by will, which before was in general forbidden; the latter, by endeavoring to destroy the intricate nicety of uses, though the narrowness and pedantry of the courts of common law prevented this statute from having its full beneficial effect. And thence the courts of equity assumed a jurisdiction, dictated by common justice and common sense: which, however arbitrarily exercised or productive of jealousies in its infancy, has at length been matured into a most elegant system of rational jurisprudence; the principles of which (notwithstanding they may differ in forms) are now equally adopted by the courts of both law and equity. From the statute of uses, and another statute of the same antiquity, (which protected estates for years from being destroyed by the reversioner) a remarkable alteration took place in the mode of conveyancing: the ancient assistance by feoffment and livery upon the land being now very seldom practiced, since the more easy and more private invention of transferring property, by secret conveyances to uses, and long terms of years being now continually created in mortgages and family settlements, which may be molded to a thousand useful purposes by the ingenuity of an able artist.
THE farther attacks in this reign upon the immunity of estates-tail, which reduced them to little more than the conditional fees at the common law, before the passing of the statute de donis ; the establishment of recognizances in the nature of a statute-staple, for facilitating the raising of money upon landed security; and the introduction of the bankrupt laws, as well for the punishment of the fraudulent, as the relief of the unfortunate, trader; all these were capital alterations of our legal polity, and highly convenient to that character, which the English began now to re-assume, of a great commercial people, the incorporation of Wales with England, and the more uniform administration of justice, by destroying some counties palatine, and abridging the unreasonable privileges of such as remained, added dignity and strength to the monarchy: and, together with the numerous improvements before observed upon, and the redress of many grievances and oppressions which had been introduced by his father, will ever make the administration of Henry VIII a very distinguished era in the annals of juridical history.
IT must be however remarked, that (particularly in his later years) the royal prerogative was then strained to a very tyrannical and oppressive height; and, what was the worst circumstance, its encroachments were established by law, under the sanction of those pusillanimous parliaments, one of which to its eternal disgrace passed a statute, whereby it was enacted that the king’s proclamations should have the force of acts of parliament; and others concurred in the creation of that amazing heap of wild and new-fangled treasons which were slightly touched upon in a former chapter.11 Happily for the nation, this arbitrary reign was succeeded by the minority of an amiable prince; during the short sunshine of which, great part of these extravagant laws were repealed. And, to do justice to the shorter reign of queen Mary, many salutary and popular laws, in civil matters, were made under her administration; perhaps the better to reconcile the people to the bloody measures which she was induced to pursue, for the re-establishment of religious slavery: the well concerted schemes for effecting which, were (through the providence of God) defeated by the seasonable accession of queen Elizabeth.
THE religious liberties of the nation being, by that happy event, established (we trust) on an eternal basis; (though obliged in their infancy to be guarded, against papists and other non-conformists, by laws of too sanguinary a nature) the forest laws having fallen into disuse; and the administration of civil right in the courts of justice being carried on in a regular course, according to the wise institutions of king Edward the first, without any material innovations; all the principal grievances introduced by the Norman conquest seem to have been gradually shaken off, and our Saxon constitution restored, with considerable improvements: except only in the continuation of the military tenures, and a few other points, which still armed the crown with a very oppressive and dangerous prerogative. It is also to be remarked, that the spirit of enriching the clergy and endowing religious houses had (through the former abuse of it) gone over to such a contrary extreme, and the princes of the house of Tudor and their favorites had fallen with such avidity upon the spoils of the church, that a decent and honorable maintenance was wanting to many of the bishops and clergy. This produced the restraining statutes, to prevent the alienations of lands and tithes belonging to the church and universities. The number of indigent persons being also greatly increased, by withdrawing the alms of the monasteries, a plan was formed in the reign of queen Elizabeth, more humane and beneficial than even feeding and clothing of millions; by affording them the means (with proper industry) to feed and to clothe themselves. And, the farther any subsequent plans for maintaining the poor have departed from this institution, the more impracticable and even pernicious their visionary attempts have proved.
HOWEVER, considering the reign of queen Elizabeth in a great and political view, we have no reason to regret many subsequent alterations in the English constitution. For, though in general she was a wise and excellent princess, and loved her people; though in her time trade flourished, riches increased, the laws were duly administered, the nation was respected abroad, and the people happy at home; yet, the increase of the power of the star-chamber, and the erection of the high commission court in matters ecclesiastical, were the work of her reign. She also kept her parliaments at a very awful distance: and in many particulars she, at times, would carry the prerogative as high as her most arbitrary predecessors. It is true, she very seldom exerted this prerogative, so as to oppress individuals; but still she had it to exert: and therefore the felicity of her reign depended more on her want of opportunity and inclination, than want of power, to play the tyrant. This is a high encomium on her merit; but at the same time it is sufficient to show, that these were not those golden days of genuine liberty, that we formerly were taught to believe: for, surely, the true liberty of the subject consists not so much in the gracious behavior, as in the limited power, of the sovereign.
THE great revolutions that had happened, in manners and in property, had paved the way, by imperceptible yet sure degrees, for as great a revolution in government: yet, while that revolution was effecting, the crown became more arbitrary than ever, by the progress of those very means which afterwards reduced its power. It is obvious to every observer, that, till the close of the Lancastrian civil wars, the property and the power of the nation were chiefly divided between the king, the nobility, and the clergy. The commons were generally in a state of great ignorance; their personal wealth, before the extension of trade, was comparatively small; and the nature of their landed property was such, as kept them in continual dependence upon their feudal lord, being usually some powerful baron, some opulent abbey, or sometimes the king himself. Though a notion of general liberty had strongly pervaded and animated the whole constitution, yet the particular liberty, the natural equality, and personal independence of individuals, were little regarded or thought of; nay even to assert them was treated as the height of sedition and rebellion. Our ancestors heard, with detestation and horror, those sentiments rudely delivered, and pushed to most absurd extremes, by the violence of a Cade and a Tyler; which have since been applauded, with a zeal almost rising to idolatry, when softened and recommended by the eloquence, the moderation, and the arguments of a Sidney, a Locke, and a Milton.
BUT when learning, by the invention of printing and the progress of religious reformation, began to be universally disseminated; when trade and navigation were suddenly carried to an amazing extent, by the use of the compass and the consequent discovery of the Indies; the minds of men, thus enlightened by science and enlarged by observation and travel, began to entertain a more just opinion of the dignity and rights of mankind. An inundation of wealth flowed in upon the merchants, and middling rank; while the two great estates of the kingdom, which formerly had balanced the prerogative, the nobility and clergy, were greatly impoverished and weakened. The popish clergy, detected in their frauds and abuses, exposed to the resentment of the populace, and stripped of their lands and revenues, stood trembling for their very existence. The nobles, enervated by the refinements of luxury, (which knowledge, foreign travel, and the progress of the politer arts, are too apt to introduce with themselves) and fired with disdain at being rivaled in magnificence by the opulent citizens, fell into enormous expenses: to gratify which they were permitted, by the policy of the times, to dissipate their overgrown estates, and alienate their ancient patrimonies. This gradually reduced their power and their influence within a very moderate bound: while the king, by the spoil of the monasteries and the great increase of the customs, grew rich, independent, and haughty: and the commons were not yet sensible of the strength they had acquired, nor urged to examine its extent by new burdens or oppressive taxations, during the sudden opulence of the exchequer. Intent upon acquiring new riches, and happy in being freed from the insolence and tyranny of the orders more immediately above them, they never dreamt of opposing the prerogative, to which they had been so little accustomed; much less of taking the lead in opposition, to which by their weight and their property they were now entitled. The latter years of Henry the eighth were therefore the times of the greatest despotism, that have been known in this island since the death of William the Norman: the prerogative, as it then stood by common law, (and much more when extended by act of parliament) being too large to be endured in a land of liberty.
QUEEN Elizabeth, and the intermediate princes of the Tudor line, had almost the same legal powers, and sometimes exerted them as roughly, as their father king Henry the eighth. But the critical situation of than princess with regard to her legitimacy, her religion, her enmity with Spain, and her jealousy of the queen of Scots, occasioned greater caution in her conduct. She probably, or her able advisers, had penetration enough to discern how the power of the kingdom had gradually shifted its channel, and wisdom enough not to provoke the commons to discover and feel their strength. She therefore drew a veil over the odious part of prerogative; which was never wantonly thrown aside, but only to answer some important purpose: and, though the royal treasury no longer overflowed with the wealth of the clergy, which had been all granted out, and had contributed to enrich the people, she asked for supplies with such moderation, and managed them with so much economy, that the commons were happy in obliging her. Such, in short, were her circumstances, her necessities, her wisdom, and her good disposition, that never did a prince so long and so entirely, for the space of half a century together, reign in the affections of the people.
ON the accession of king James I, no new degree of royal power was added to, or exercised by, him; but such a scepter was too weighty to be wielded by such a hand. The unreasonable and imprudent exertion of what was then deemed to be prerogative, upon trivial and unworthy occasions, and the claim of a more absolute power inherent in the kingly office than had ever been carried into practice, soon awakened the sleeping lion. The people heard with astonishment doctrines preached from the throne and the pulpit, subversive of liberty and property, and all the natural rights of humanity. They examined into he divinity of this claim, and found it weakly and fallaciously supported: and common reason assured them, that, if it were of human origin, no constitution could establish it without power of revocation, no precedent could sanctify, no length of time could confirm it. The leader felt the pulse of the nation, and found he had ability as well as inclination to resist it: and accordingly resisted and opposed it, whenever the pusillanimous temper of the reigning monarch had courage to put it to the trial; and they gained some little victories in the cases of concealments, monopolies, and the dispensing power. In the mean time very little was done for the improvement of private justice, except the abolition of sanctuaries, and the extension of the bankrupt laws, the limitation of suits and actions, and the regulating of informations upon penal statutes. For I cannot class the laws against witchcraft and conjuration under the head of improvements; nor did the dispute between lord Ellesmere and Sir Edward Coke, concerning the powers of the court of chancery, tend much to the advancement of justice.
INDEED when Charles the first succeeded to the crown of his father, and attempted to revive some enormities, which had been dormant in the reign of king James, the loans and benevolences extorted from the subject, the arbitrary imprisonments for refusal, the exertion of martial law in time of peace, and other domestic grievances, clouded the morning of that misguided prince’s reign; which, though the noon of it began a little to brighten, al last went down in blood, and left the whole kingdom in darkness. It must be acknowledged that, by the petition of right, enacted to abolish these encroachments, the English constitution received great alteration and improvement. But there still remained the latent power of the forest laws, which the crown most unseasonably revived. The legal jurisdiction of the star-chamber and high commission courts was also extremely great; though their usurped authority was still greater. And, if we administration to these the disuse or parliaments, the ill-timed zeal and despotic proceedings of the ecclesiastical governors in matters of mere indifference, together with the arbitrary levies of tonnage and poundage, ship money, and other projects, we may see grounds most amply sufficient for seeking redress in a legal constitutional way. This redress, when sought, was also constitutionally given: for all these oppressions were actually abolished by the king in parliament, before the rebellion broke out, by the several statutes for triennial parliaments, for abolishing the star-chamber and high commission courts, for ascertaining the extent of forests and forest-laws, for renouncing ship-money and other exactions, and for giving up the prerogative of knighting the king’s tenants in capite in consequence of their feudal tenures: though it must be acknowledged that these concessions were not made with so good a grace, as to conciliate the confidence of the people. Unfortunately, either by his own mismanagement, or by the arts of his enemies, the king had lost the reputation of sincerity; which is the greatest unhappiness that can befall a prince. Though he formerly had strained his prerogative, not only beyond what the genius of the present times would bear, but also beyond the example of former ages, he had now consented to reduce it to a lower ebb than was consistent with monarchical government. A conduct so opposite to his temper and principles, joined with some rash actions and unguarded expressions, made the people suspect that this condescension was merely temporary. Flushed therefore with the success they had gained, fired with resentment for past oppressions, and dreading the consequences if the king should regain his power, the popular leaders (who in all ages have called themselves the people) began to grow insolent and ungovernable: their insolence soon rendered them desperate: and, joining with a set of military hypocrites and enthusiasts, they overturned the church and monarchy, and proceeded with deliberate solemnity to the trial and murder of their sovereign.
I PASS by the crude and abortive schemes for amending the laws in the times of confusion which followed; the most promising and sensible whereof (such as the establishment of new trials, the abolition of feudal tenures, the act of navigation, and some others) were adopted in the
V. FIFTH period, which I am next to mention, viz. after the restoration of king Charles II. Immediately upon which, the principal remaining grievance, the doctrine and consequences of military tenures, were taken away and abolished, except in the instance of corruption of inheritable blood, upon attainder of treason and felony. And though the monarch, in whose person the royal government was restored, and with it our ancient constitution, deserves no commendation from posterity, yet in his reign, (wicked, sanguinary, and turbulent as it was) the concurrence of happy circumstances was such, that from thence we may date not only the re-establishment of our church and monarchy, but also the complete restitution of English liberty, for the first time, since its total abolition at the conquest. For therein not only these slavish tenures, the badge of foreign dominion, with all their oppressive appendages, ere removed from encumbering the estates of the subject; but also an additional security of his person from imprisonment was obtained, by that great bulwark of our constitution, the habeas corpus act. These two statutes, with regard to our property and persons, form a second Magna Carta, as beneficial and effectual as that of Running-Mead. That only pruned the luxuriances of the feudal system; but the statute of Charles the second extirpated all its slaveries: except perhaps in copyhold tenure; and there also they are now in great measure enervated by gradual custom, and the interposition of our courts of justice. Magna Carta only, in general terms, declared, that no man shall be imprisoned contrary to law: the habeas corpus act points him out effectual means, as well to release himself, though committed even by the king in council, as to punish all those who shall thus unconstitutionally misuse him.
To these I may add the abolition of the prerogatives of purveyance and preemption; the statute for holding triennial parliaments; the test and corporation acts, which secure both our civil and religious liberties; the abolition of the writ de haeretico comburendo; the statute of frauds and perjuries, a great and necessary security to private property; the statute for distribution of intestates’ estates; and that of amendments and jeofails, which cut off those superfluous niceties which so long had disgraced our courts; together with many other wholesome acts, that were passed in this reign, for the benefit of navigation and the improvement of foreign commerce: and the whole, when we likewise consider the freedom from taxes and armies which the subject then enjoyed, will be sufficient to demonstrate this truth, “that the constitution of England had arrived to its full vigor, and the true balance between liberty and prerogative was happily established by law, in the reign of king Charles the second.”
IT is far from my intention to palliate or defend many very iniquitous proceedings, contrary to all law, in that reign, through the artifice of wicked politicians, both in and out of employment. What seems incontestable is this; that by the law,12 as it then stood, (notwithstanding some invidious, nay dangerous, branches of the prerogative have since been lopped off, and the rest more clearly defined) the people had as large a portion of real liberty, as is consistent with a state of society; and sufficient power, residing in their own hands, to assert and preserve that liberty, if invaded by the royal prerogative. For which I need but appeal to the memorable catastrophe of the next reign. For when king Charles’s deluded brother attempted to enslave the nation, he found it was beyond his power: the people both could, and did, resist him; and, in consequence of such resistance, obliged him to quit his enterprise and his throne together. Which introduces us to the last period of our legal history; viz.
VI. FROM the revolution in 1688 to the present time. In this period many laws have passed; as the bill of rights, the toleration-act, the act of settlement with its conditions, the act for uniting England with Scotland, and some others: which have asserted our liberties in more clear and emphatic terms; have regulated the succession of the crown by parliament, as the exigencies of religious and civil freedom required; have confirmed, and exemplified, the doctrine of resistance, when the executive magistrate endeavors to subvert the constitution; have maintained the superiority of the laws above the king, by pronouncing his dispensing power to be illegal; have indulged tender consciences with every religious liberty, consistent with the safety of the state; have established triennial, since turned into septennial, elections of members to serve in parliament; have excluded certain officers from the house of commons; have restrained the king’s pardon from obstructing parliamentary impeachments; have imparted to all the lords an equal right of trying their fellow peers; have regulated trials for high treason; have afforded our posterity a hope that corruption of blood may one day be abolished and forgotten; have (by the desire of his present majesty) set bounds to the civil list, and placed the administration of that revenue in hands that are accountable to parliament; and have (by the like desire) made the judges completely independent of the king, his ministers, and his successors. Yet, though these provisions have, in appearance and nominally, reduced the strength of the executive power to a much lower ebb than in the preceding period; if on the other hand we throw into the opposite scale (what perhaps the immoderate reduction of the ancient prerogative may have rendered in some degree necessary) the vast acquisition of force, arising from the riot-act, and the annual expedience of a standing army; and the vast acquisition of personal attachment, arising from the magnitude of the national debt, and the manner of levying those yearly millions that are appropriated to pay the interest; we shall find that the crown has, gradually and imperceptibly, gained almost as much in influence, as it has apparently lost in prerogative.
THE chief alterations of moment, (for the time would fail me to descent to minutiae) in the administration of private justice during this period, are the solemn recognition of the law of nations with respect to the rights of ambassadors: the cutting off, by the statute for the amendment of the law, a vast number of excrescences, that in process of time had sprung out of the practical part of it: the protection of corporate rights by the improvements in writs of mandamus, and informations in nature of quo warranto: the regulations of trials by jury, and the admitting witnesses for prisoners upon oath: the farther restraints upon alienation of lands in mortmain: the extension of the benefit of clergy, by abolishing the pedantic criterion of reading: the counterbalance to this mercy, by the vast increase of capital punishment: the new and effectual methods for the speedy recovery of rents: the improvements which have been made in ejectments for the trying of titles: the introduction and establishment of paper credit, by endorsements upon bills and notes, which have shown the possibility (so long doubted) of assigning a chose in action: the translation of all legal proceedings into the English language: the erection of courts of conscience for recovering small debts, and (which is much the better plan) the reformation of which the foundations have been laid, by clergy developing the principles on which policies of insurance are founded, and by happily applying those principles to particular cases: and, lastly, the liberality of sentiment, which (though late) has now taken possession of our courts of common law, and induced then to adopt (where facts can be clearly ascertained) the same principles of redress as have prevailed in our courts of equity, from the time that lord Nottingham presided there; and this, not only where specially empowered by particular statutes, (as in the case of bonds, mortgages, and set-offs) but by extending the remedial influence of the equitable writ of trespass on the case, according to its primitive institution by king Edward the first, to almost every instance of injustice not remedied by any other process. And these, I think, are all the material alterations, that have happened with respect to private justice, in the course of the present century.
THUS therefore, for the amusement and instruction of the student, I have endeavored to delineate some rude outlines of a plan for the history of our laws and liberties; from their first rise, and gradual progress, among our British and Saxon ancestors, till their total eclipse at the Norman conquest; from which they have gradually emerged, and risen to the perfection they now enjoy, at different periods of time. We have seen, in the course of our inquiries, in this and the former volumes, that the fundamental maxims, and rules of the law, which regard the rights of persons, and the rights of things, the private injuries that may be offered to both, and the crimes which affect the public, have been and are every day improving, and are now fraught with the accumulated wisdom of ages: that the forms of administering justice came to perfection under Edward the first; and have not been much varied, nor always for the better, since: that our religious liberties were fully established at the reformation: but that the recovery of our civil and political liberties was a work of longer time; they not being thoroughly and completely regained, till after the restoration of king Charles, nor fully and explicitly acknowledged and defined, till the era of the happy revolution. Of a constitution, so wisely contrived, so strongly raised, and so highly finished, it is hard to speak with that praise, which is justly and severely its due: the thorough and attentive contemplation of it will furnish its best panegyric. It has been the endeavor of these commentaries, however the execution may have succeeded, to examine its solid foundations, to mark out its extensive plan, to explain the use and distribution of its parts, and from the harmonious concurrence of those several parts to demonstrate the elegant proportion of the whole. We have taken occasion to admire at every turn the noble monuments of ancient simplicity, and the more curious refinements of modern art. Nor have its faults been concealed from view; for faults it has, lest we should be tempted to think it of more than human structure: defects, chiefly arising from the decays of time, or the rage of unskillful improvements in later ages. To sustain, to repair, to beautiful this noble pile, is a charge entrusted principally too the nobility, and such gentlemen of the kingdom, as are delegated by their country to parliament. The protection of the liberty of Britain is a duty which they owe to themselves, who enjoy it; to their ancestors, who transmitted it down; and to their posterity, who will claim at their hands this, the best birthright, and noblest inheritance of mankind.