Speech On The Plan For Economical Reform (11/2/1780)
From Prose Of Edmund Burke edited by Sir Philp Magnus (1948)

First, with regard to the sovereign jurisdictions, I must observe, Sir, that whoever takes a view of this kingdom in a cursory manner will imagine that he beholds a solid, compacted, uniform system of monarchy, in which all inferior jurisdictions are but as rays diverging from one centre. But on examining it more nearly, you find much eccentricity and confusion. It is not a monarchy in strictness. But, as in the Saxon times this country was an heptarchy, it is now a strange sort of pentarchy. It is divided into five several distinct principalities, besides the supreme. There is, indeed, this difference from the Saxon times—that, as in the itinerant exhibitions of the stage, for want of a complete company, they are obliged to throw a variety of parts on their chief performer, so our sovereign condescends himself to act not only the principal, but all the subordinate parts in the play. He condescends to dissipate the royal character, and to trifle with those light, subordinate, lacquered sceptres in those hands that sustain the ball representing the world, or which wield the trident that commands the ocean. Cross a brook, and you lose the King of England; but you have some comfort in coming again under his Majesty, though 'shorn of his beams,' and no more than Prince of Wales. Go to the north, and you find him dwindled to a Duke of Lancaster; turn to the west of that north, and he pops upon you in the humble character of Earl of Chester. Travel a few miles on, the Earl of Chester disappears, and the King surprises you again as Count Palatine of Lancaster. If you travel beyond Mount Edgecombe, you find him once more in his incognito, and he is Duke of Cornwall. So that, quite fatigued and satiated with this dull variety, you return to the sphere of his proper splendour, and behold your amiable sovereign in his true, simple, undisguised, native character of Majesty.

In every one of these five Principalities, Duchies, Palatinates, there is a regular establishment of considerable expense and most domineering influence. As his Majesty submits to appear in this state of subordination to himself, his loyal Peers and faithful Commons attend his royal transformations, and are not so nice as to refuse to nibble at those crumbs of emoluments which console their petty metamorphoses. Thus every one of those Principalities has the apparatus of a Kingdom for the jurisdiction over a few private estates, and the formality and charge of the Exchequer of Great Britain for collecting the rents of a country squire. Cornwall is the best of them; but when you compare the charge with the receipt, you will find that it furnishes no exception to the general rule. The Duchy and County Palatine of Lancaster do not yield, as I have reason to believe, on an average of twenty years, four thousand pounds a year clear to the Crown. As to Wales, and the County Palatine of Chester, I have my doubts whether their productive Exchequer yields any returns at all. Yet one may say, that this revenue is more faithfully applied to its purposes than any of the rest; as it exists for the sole purpose of multiplying offices and extending influence.

An attempt was lately made to improve this branch of local influence, and to transfer it to the fund of general corruption. I have on the seat behind me the constitution of Mr. John Probert, a knight-errant dubbed by the noble lord in the blue ribbon, and sent to search for revenues and adventures upon the mountains of Wales. The commission is remarkable, and the event not less so. The commission sets forth, that 'upon a report of the Deputy-Auditor' (for there is a Deputy-Auditor) of the Principality of Wales, it appeared that his Majesty's land revenues in the said Principality are greatly diminished' ;— and that 'upon a report of the Surveyor-General of his Majesty's Land Revenues, upon a memorial of the Auditor of his Majesty's Revenues, within the said Principality, that his mines and forests have produced very little profit either to the public revenue or to individuals' ;—and therefore they appoint Mr. Probert, with a pension of three hundred pounds a year from the said Principality, to try whether he can make anything more of that very little which is stated to be so greatly diminished. 'A beggarly account of empty boxes.' And yet, Sir, you will remark, that this diminution from littleness (which serves only to prove the infinite divisibility of matter) was not for want of the tender and officious care (as we see) of Surveyors General and Surveyors Particular, of Auditors and Deputy-Auditors—not for want of memorials, and remonstrances, and reports, and commissions, and constitutions, and inquisitions, and pensions.

Probert, thus armed, and accoutred—and paid—proceeded on his adventure; but he was no sooner arrived on the confines of Wales than all Wales was in arms to meet him. That nation is brave and full of spirit. Since the invasion of King Edward, and the massacre of the bards, there never was such a tumult and alarm and uproar through the region of Prestatyn. Snowdon shook to its base; Cader-Idris was loosened from its foundations. The fury of litigious war blew her horn on the mountains. The rocks poured down their goatherds, and the deep caverns vomited out their miners. Everything above and everything under ground was in arms.

The King's Household has not only several strong traces of this feudality, but it is formed also upon the principles of a body corporate: it has its own magistrates, courts, and by-laws. This might be necessary in the ancient times, in order to have a government within itself, capable of regulating the vast and often unruly multitude which composed and attended it. This was the origin of the ancient Court called the Green Cloth—composed of the marshal, treasurer, and other great officers of the household, with certain clerks. The rich subjects of the Kingdom, who had formerly the same establishments (only on a reduced scale) have since altered their economy, and turned the course of their expense from the maintenance of vast establishments within their walls to the employment of a great variety of independent trades abroad. Their influence is lessened; but a mode of accommodation and a style of splendour suited to the manners of the times has been increased. Royalty itself has insensibly followed, and the Royal Household has been carried away by the resistless tide of manners, but with this very material difference: private men have got rid of the establishments along with the reasons of them; whereas the Royal Household has lost all that was stately and venerable in the antique manners, without retrenching anything of the cumbrous charge of a Gothic establishment. It is shrunk into the polished littleness of modern elegance and personal accommodation; it has evaporated from the gross concrete into an essence and rectified spirit of expense, where you have tuns of ancient pomp in a vial of modern luxury.

But when the reason of old establishments is gone, it is absurd to preserve nothing but the burden of them. This is superstitiously to embalm a carcass not worth an ounce of the gums that are used to preserve it. It is to burn precious oils in the tomb; it is to offer meat and drink to the dead: not so much an honour to the deceased as a disgrace to the survivors. Our palaces are vast inhospitable halls. There the bleak winds, there 'Boreas, and Eurus, and Caurus, and Argestes loud,' howling through the vacant lobbies, and clattering the doors of deserted guardrooms, appall the imagination, and conjure up the grim spectres of departed tyrants—the Saxon, the Norman, and the Dane—the stern Edwards and fierce Henrys,—who stalk from desolation to desolation, through the dreary vacuity and melancholy succession of chill and comfortless chambers. When this tumult subsides, a dead and still more frightful silence would reign in this desert, if every now and then the tacking of hammers did not announce that those constant attendants upon all Courts in all ages, jobs, were still alive—for whose sake alone it is that any trace of ancient grandeur is suffered to remain. These palaces are a true emblem of some governments: the inhabitants are decayed, but the governors and magistrates still flourish. They put me in mind of Old Sarum, where the representatives, more in number than the constituents, only serve to inform us that this was once a place of trade, and sounding with 'the busy hum of men,' though now you can only trace the streets by the colour of the corn, and its sole manufacture is in members of Parliament.