The government of England, in all times recorded by history, has been one of those mixed or limited monarchies which the Celtic and Gothic tribes appear universally to have established, in preference to the coarse despotism of eastern nations, to the more artificial tyranny of Rome and Constantinople, or to the various models of republican polity which were tried upon the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea. It bore the same general features, it belonged, as it were, to the same family, as the governments of almost every European state, though less resembling, perhaps, that of France than any other. But, m the course of many centuries, the boundaries which determined the sovereign's prerogative and the people's liberty or power having seldom been very accurately defined by law, or at least by such law as was deemed fundamental and unchangeable, the forms and principles of political regimen in these different nations became more divergent from each other, according to their peculiar dispositions, the revolutions they underwent, or the influence of personal character. England, more fortunate than the rest, had acquired in the fifteenth century a just reputation for the goodness of her laws and the security of her citizens from oppression.
This liberty had been the slow fruit of ages, still waiting a happier season for its perfect ripeness, but already giving proof of the vigour and industry which had been employed in its culture. I have endeavoured, in a work of which this may in a certain degree be reckoned a continuation, to trace the leading events and causes of its progress. It will be sufficient in this place briefly to point out the principal circumstances in the polity of England at the accession of Henry VII.
The essential checks upon the royal authority were five in number.
These securities, though it would be easy to prove that they were all recognized in law, differed much in the degree of their effective operation. It may be said of the first, that it was now completely established. After a long contention, the kings of England had desisted for near a hundred years from every attempt to impose taxes without consent of parliament; and their recent device of demanding benevolences, or half-compulsory gifts, though very oppressive, and on that account just abolished by an act of the late usurper, Richard, was in effect a recognition of the general principle, which it sought to elude rather than transgress.
The necessary concurrence of the two houses of parliament in legislation, though it could not be more unequivocally established than the former, had in earlier times been more free from all attempt or pretext of encroachment. We know not of any laws that were ever enacted by our kings without the assent and advice of their great council; though it is justly doubted, whether the representatives of the ordinary freeholders, or of the boroughs, had seats and suffrages in that assembly during seven or eight reigns after the conquest. They were then, however, ingrafted upon it with plenary legislative authority; and if the sanction of a statute were required for this fundamental axiom, we might refer to one in the 15th of Edward II (1322), which declares that
'the matters to be established for the estate of the king and of his heirs, and for the estate of the realm and of the people, should be treated, accorded, and established in parliament, by the king, and by the assent of the prelates, earls, and barons, and the commonalty of the realm, according as had been before accustomed.'
It may not be impertinent to remark in this place, that the opinion of such as have fancied the royal prerogative under the houses of Plantagenet and Tudor to have had no effectual or unquestioned limitations is decidedly refuted by the notorious fact, that no alteration in the general laws of the realm was ever made, or attempted to be made, without the consent of parliament. It is not surprising that the council, in great exigency of money, should sometimes employ force to extort it from the merchants, or that servile lawyers should be found to vindicate these encroachments of power. Impositions, like other arbitrary measures, were particular and temporary, prompted by rapacity, and endured through compulsion. But if the kings of England had been supposed to enjoy an absolute authority, we should find some proofs of it in their exercise of the supreme function of sovereignty, the enactment of new laws. Yet there is not a single instance from the first dawn of our constitutional history, where a proclamation, or order of council, has dictated any change, however trifling, in the code of private rights, or in the penalties of criminal offences. Was it ever pretended that the king could empower his subjects to devise their freeholds, or to levy fines of their entailed lands ? Has even the slightest regulation as to judicial procedure, or any permanent prohibition, even in fiscal law, been ever enforced without statute ? There was, indeed, a period, later than that of Henry VII, when a control over the subject's free right of doing all things not unlawful was usurped by means of proclamations. These, however, were always temporary, and did not affect to alter the established law. But though it would be difficult to assert that none of this kind had ever been issued in rude and irregular times, I have not observed any under the kings of the Planta.genet name which evidently transgress the boundaries of their legal prerogative.
The general privileges of the nation were far more secure than those of private men. Great violence was often used by the various officers of the Crown, for which no adequate redress could be procured; the courts of justice were not strong enough, whatever might be their temper, to chastise such aggressions; juries, through intimidation or ignorance, returned such verdicts as were desired by the Crown; and, in general, there was perhaps little effective restraint upon the government, except in the two articles of levying money and enacting laws.
The peers alone, a small body varying from about fifty to eighty persons, enjoyed the privileges of aristocracy; which, except that of sitting in parliament, were not very considerable, far less oppressive. All below them, even their children, were commoners, and in the eye of the law equal to each other. In the gradation of ranks, which, if not legally recognized, must still subsist through the necessary inequalities of birth and wealth, we find the gentry or principal landholders, many of them distinguished by knighthood, and all by bearing coat armour, but without any exclusive privilege; the yeomanry, or small freeholders and farmers, a very numerous and respectable body, some occupying their own estates, some these of landlords; the burgesses and inferior inhabitants of trading towns; and, lastly, the peasantry and labourers. Of these, in earlier times, a considerable part, though not perhaps so very large a proportion as is usually taken for granted, had been in the ignominious state of villenage, incapable of possessing property but at the will of their lords. They had, however, gradually been raised above this servitude; many had acquired a stable possession of lands under the name of copyholders; and the condition of mere villenage was become rare.
The three courts at Westminster — the King's Bench, Common Pleas, and Exchequer — consisting each of four or five judges, administered justice to the whole kingdom; the first having an appellant jurisdiction over the second, and the third being in a great measure confined to causes affecting the Crown's property. But as all suits relating to land, as well as most others, and all criminal indictments, could only be determined, so far as they depended upon oral evidence, by a jury of the county, it was necessary that justices of assize and gaol-delivery, being in general the judges of the courts at Westminster, should travel into each county, commonly twice a year, in order to try issues of fact, so called in distinction from issues of law, where the suitors, admitting all essential facts, disputed the rule applicable to them. By this device, which is as ancient as the reign of Henry II, the fundamental privilege of trial by jury, and the convenience of private suitors, as well as accused persons, was made consistent with a uniform jurisprudence; and though the reference of every legal question, however insignificant, to the courts above must have been inconvenient and expensive in a still greater degree than at present, it had doubtless a powerful tendency to knit together the different parts of England, to check the influence of feudality and clanship, to make the inhabitants of distant counties better acquainted with the capital city and more accustomed to the course of government, and to impair the spirit of provincial patriotism and animosity. The minor tribunals of each county, hundred, and manor, respectable for their antiquity and for their effect in preserving a sense of freedom and justice, had in a great measure, though not probably so much as in modern times, gone into disuse. In a few counties there still remained a palatine jurisdiction, exclusive of the king's courts; but in these the common rules of law and the mode of trial by jury were preserved. Justices of the peace, appointed out of the gentlemen of each county, inquired into criminal 'charges, committed offenders to prison; and tried them at their quarterly sessions, according to the same forms as the judges of gaol-delivery. The chartered towns had their separate jurisdiction under the municipal magistracy.
The laws against theft were severe, and capital punishments unsparingly inflicted. Yet they had little effect in repressing acts of violence, to which a rude and licentious state of manners, and very imperfect dispositions for preserving the public peace, naturally gave rise. These were frequently perpetrated or instigated by men of superior wealth and power, above the control of the mere officers of justice. Meanwhile the kingdom was increasing in opulence, the English merchants possessed a large share of the trade of the north; and a woollen manufacture, established in different parts of the kingdom, had not only enabled the legislature to restrain the import of cloths, but had begun to supply foreign nations. The population may probably be reckoned, without any material error, at about three millions, but by no means distributed in the same proportions as at present; the northern counties, especially Lancashire and Cumberland, being very ill peopled, and the inhabitants of London and Westminster, not exceeding sixty or seventy thousand.