Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

From-the-vaft and gloomy forests of Germany, Hengift and Horsa, attended by their warlike followers, brought into Britain new arts of war, and new institutions of civil policy. I'rom the obvious tendency of the Saxon institutions to establish public order and private comfort, they found a welcomę reception among such Britons as were timid and docile; while those who were of a ferocious temper, and spurned the tyranny of foreign power, fled to the inacceslible mountains of Wales, and there enjoyed their original independence.

As far as we are able to discern the imperfect traces of Saxon customs and establishments, by the dim light of Roman and English history, we are struck with their mildness, equity, and wisdom. The descent of the crown was hereditary, the subordinate magiftrates were elected by the people, capital punishments were rarely inflicted for the first offence, and their lands were bequeathed equally to all the fons, without any regard to primogeniture. - In the Wittena Gemote, or affembly of the Wise Men, consisting of the superior Clergy and Noblemen, all business for the service of the public was transacted, and all laws were passed. For the origin of this assembly, we must have recourse to remote antiquity; as similar meetings, constituted indeed in a rude and imperfect manner, were con

. A. D. 450.

B 3

vened For the mode, in which the Wittena-gemote was constituted, fee Brady's Introduction to the History of England, p. 7, 8, &c. For an account of the ancient Germans, the reader is referred to Hume, vol. i. p. 198; Modern Europe, vol. I, p. 58; and Tacitus de Moribus Germanorum, c. 7.

vened among the ancient Germans from the earliest times a.

ALFRED, surnamed the Great, derived that illustrious title from the exercise of every quality, which adorned the scholar, the warrior, the patriot, and the legislator. After chasing the Danish plunderers from his Thores, he directed his attention to the internal regulation of his kingdom! He digested the discordant laws of the heptarchy into one consistent code, adopted a uniform plan of government, and made every one of his subjects, without regard to rank or fortune, responsible to his immediate superior for his own conduct, and that of his neighbour. For the speedy decision of all civil and criminal causes, he established courts of justice in the various districts, in which complaints arofe. Of all his inftitutions, the most remarkable and the most celebrated was the Trial by Jury, Too much praise cannot be bestowed upon him for exempting his accused fubjects from the arbitrary fentence of a judge, and leaving the determination of their guilt or innocence to a council of their equals, too numerous to be influenced by

- A. D. 872,

mercenary

mercenary motives, and whose unanimity could admit no doubts as to the justice of their decisions!

The precipitate conduct of Harold, in risking his crown upon the issue of a single battle, gave to William of Normandy the kingdom of England, The Conqueror overturned at once the whole fabric of the Saxon laws, and erected the feudal system

upon its ruins.

A proper acquaintance with this extraordinary institution, which was at that time common in all the countries upon the continent of Europe, conduces materially to illustrate the hiftory of those times, and to explain the ancient tenure of landed property. For a particular account of it we refer to our history of modern Europe,

The first of the Norman tyrants not only broke the line of hereditary fucceflion to the crown of England, but reduced the people to the most abject flavery. The confiscations of the Saxon estates, and the general distress of their proprietors, plainly indicated his policy and rapacity. All the lands of the natives were either seized for the king, or given to his favourites ; large tracts formerly cultivated by the industrious Saxons were abandoned to the original wildness of nature; and even whole coun.

The detail of his eventful and glorious reign is written with peculiar spirit and elegance by Hume, vol. i. p. 76.

& A, D. 1966.

[blocks in formation]

tjes were converted into forests and wastes, to afford an unbounded scope to his passion for the chase. The severity of the forest laws sufficiently marks the selfishness of his diversions, and the cruelty of his temper. The life of an animal was valued at a higher rate than that of a man; and this uncontrolled and destructive ambition was extended to the fowls of the air, and the beasts of the field.

With the Norman language, which was adopted in the services of the Church, as well as in the courts of justice, were introduced the Norman laws. The ancient Trial by Jury was exchanged for the uncertain and unjust decision by single combat. The extinction of all fires at the melancholy found of the Curfew was a striking emblem of the extinction of liberty. The nation groaned under every distress that an obdurate and politic conqueror could inflia; and their chains were so firmly rivetted, as to require a degree of energy and unanimity to break them, which the timid and oppressed Saxons had not fufficient resolution to exert.

:

In the following reigns of the Norman tyrants the same hardthips were endured with little alleviation. The people still continued to have no refource against the execution of the most fanguinary laws. The exorbitant power of the king, and its frequent abuses, at length roused a spirit of oppofition, which was at once determined and irresistible. But as his feudal demesnes were large, and his influence extended over a great number of vassals,

they

they did not think themselves füfficiently formidable to oppose his authority, without securing the co-operation of the other poffeffors of land. They therefore held out to the common's the most ad. vantageous inducements, by promising to stipulate with the king for a redress of all public grievances, and an augmentation of their common privileges.

In Runny Mead the great foundation of English liberty was laid. There the reluctant and perfidious John, after having repeatedly difregarded their former folicitations, was. compelled to figu MAGNA CHARTA, and the CHARTA OF THE FOREST! - The arm of force and terror, which his triumphant barons held over his head, was strengthened by the claims of justice. It is true indeed, that as they held their estates by the feudal tenure," they were obliged to submit to the conditions he imposed, and to obey the 'mandates of an arbitrary chieftain. But as all the kings from the conqueft: had folemnly sworn at their coronation to revive": the laws of Edward the Confeffor, and had. uniformly violated their engagements, the barons con

» A. D. 1215. Carte, vol. i. p. 831,

1 He murdered his nephew Arthur with his own hands. See Carte, vol. i. p. 796. I have heard Mr. Tho. Warton fay— • You may read Hume for his elegance ; bút Carte is the hir. torian for facts.". My careful perufal of his elaborate work has fully confirmed the truth of this observation : and I think him an hiftorian particularly well adapted to the present times of po. litical novelties; as he is an intelligent and zealous advocate for the rights of kings, as well as fubjects; and maintains apon all occafions the honour and dignity of the Church of England

« ZurückWeiter »