Page images
PDF
EPUB

and Beza. Such are the beastly slanders concerning Henry VIII. which are boldly asserted at this time by the more ignorant of that party, and insinuated by the more artful. Such too are those systematic misrepresentations of the conduct, principles, motives, and intentions of the English government in church and state, from the accession of Elizabeth to the Great Rebellion, which furnish matter for so much special pleading and so much common-place declamation on the part of those who are ill-affected toward one branch of the constitution, and not well-affected toward the other.

According to the motto which Horace Walpole has prefixed to one part of his Memoirs, a man cannot rightly fulfil the duties of an historian unless he be a sort of monster which the world never has seen, and never can see: 'Pour etre bon historien, il ne faudroit etre d'aucune religion, d'aucun païs, d'aucune profession, d'aucun parti. There is a shallowness in this maxim which could not have deceived Horace Walpole if he had reflected upon the words. Little as his faith may have been, he was far too able a man to suppose that he who is without religion is, therefore, free from prejudice concerning that most momentous of all subjects; or, that the writer who hates all churches, is likely to be more equitable in his judgments, and more candid in his statements, than he who should be bigoted to one.

Give but a sane conscience and an upright intention, and the historian will not be unduly biassed either by his religious persuasion, or the love of his country, or his professional predilections. He comes to his task, not like an advocate with the purpose of bringing forward such parts of the case as may favour the side on which he is retained, and of keeping others in the shade; but under the sense of a more serious responsibility, and a higher duty. He will faithfully state the facts which he has carefully collected, and when this is performed with a sound judgment, the best history will be that which contains the fullest details. In direct opposition to the French maxim, it may be affirmed, that an historical writer must necessarily derive advantage from the knowledge of any profession which he may have followed ; and for the proof of this, it would be enough to name Xenophon, Polybius, and Cæsar. That he should have a national feeling for his subject is not so directly advantageous, yet it is desirable; and, indeed, so natural is it for men to interest themselves deeply in those pursuits which they have voluntarily undertaken, that they who write the histories of other countries than their own, are generally found, in a certain degree, to naturalize their affections there. For the want of religion there can be no compensation. The more religious an historian is, the more impartial will be his statements, the more charitable his disposition, the more comprehensive his views, the more enlightened his philosophy. In religion alone is true philosophy to be found ; the philosophy which contemplates man in all his relations, and in his whole nature; which is founded upon a knowledge of that nature, and which is derived from Him who is the Beginning and the End.

charitable

The last part of the maxim must, to a certain extent, be admitted. The historian who is under the influence of party spirit will, undoubtedly, be classed among party historians. His work may be good in that class, but in that class its place must be assigned; and temporary and partial applause are dearly obtained at this price of permanent degradation. The greater his industry, and the more conspicuous his talents, the greater is the sacrifice. To this consequence he may, perhaps, be blind; or, perhaps, be indifferent if he foresees it. But there is a worse consequence: the feelings which party-spirit induces are never so injurious to the individual as when they take this direction. In the immediate struggles of party a sort of endemic delirium prevails, which men readily admit as an excuse for the follies and excesses of others, and confess as an apology for their own. There is mingled also with this, in its commonest and still more in its most violent manifestations, a warmth of personal regard; a sense of hereditary obligations and attachments; an adherence to principles, or opinions which are mistaken for principles; and these, even when misdirected, excite a certain elevation of mind, and call forth that kind of generous exertion, which is one of the highest enjoyments, because the heart goes with it. A little may be allowed to this spirit in contemporary history, because it is difficult for those who live in the busy world, to keep themselves entirely free from it: but, between this kind of bias, and the partiality shown in an elaborate account of long-past transactions, the difference is great indeed: the one is like the dexterity of an advocate in setting forth what he believes to be a fair case; the other is as the perversion of justice by a judge. The historian who suffers himself to be possessed by this evil spirit, contracts an obliquity of moral vision; his views are narrowed; his understanding is warped; his sense of right and wrong is perverted; he has ceased to be just, and, therefore, he can no longer be generous.

We may gather out of history,' says Sir Walter Raleigh, 'a policy no less wise than eternal, by the comparison and application of other men's fore-passed miseries with our own like errors and ill-deservings.' The same sagacious writer, who had learnt true wisdom when, unhappily, it was too late for regulating his own conduct, observes also, that "the judgments of God are for ever unchangeable, neither is He wearied by the long process of time,

and

and won to give His blessing in one age to that which He hath cursed in another.' These were his prison thoughts : to this conclusion he came after a comprehensive survey of the events of the ancient world, when he had full leisure for quiet meditation, with a mind which adversity had ripened, and under circumstances where his heart was no longer deceived by the low wisdom of the world. In this spirit it is that history should be written ; and they who read it in this spirit will perceive that the mighty maze of human affairs is not without a plan; and that the ways of God are vindicated by the course of Providence even in this world.

Mr. Turner has included the reign of Henry VII. in his History of England during the Middle Ages, as a last act to the tragedy of York and Lancaster. Mr. Hallam, like Hume, takes the accession of that king as the epoch from which our history assumes a new. character. One of the great transitions through which the governments of Europe (like the globe itself) have past, was then completed. The power of the feudal nobility had been broken; their turbulent tyranny was subverted by a race of monarchs excellently qualified for the exigencies of the age. A Machiavelian policy, upon which those monarchs acted, had superseded the chivalrous character of their predecessors: it made them better sovereigns, and it may be doubted whether they were, on the whole, worse men; at least it is some gain to humanity when ambitious designs are pursued by cunning rather than by violence. Henry VII. was the best of these contemporary kings; he committed the fewest crimes, and manifested the most enlightened views and the most beneficent intentions. Ferdinand and Louis XI. were men in whom the evil part of their nature predominated; in any condition of life they would have been cruel and perfidious; bad men in any times ; and, therefore, eminently bad in an age when the principles of men were as corrupt as their practice : but the actions which have left a stain upon Henry's memory may justly be referred to the perilous situation in which his birth, and the necessity of his fortunes, had placed him; not to any obliquity of the moral sense, or hardness of heart, natural or acquired. Mr. Hallam contradicts the eulogium which Lord Bacon has past upon him, as the best lawgiver to this nation after Edward I.; for his laws,' says that great authority, ‘(whoso marks them well,) are deep and not vulgar; not made upon the spur of a particular occasion for the present, but out of providence of the future, to make the estate of his people still more and more happy, after the manner of the legislators in ancient and heroical times.'

• But when we consider,' says Mr. Hallam, “how very few kings or statesmen have displayed this prospective wisdom and benevolence in legislation, we may hesitate a little to bestow so rare à

praise upon Henry. Like the laws of all other times, his statutes seem to have had no further aim than to remove some immediate mischief, or to promote some particular end.'

We have here an instance how little this kind of history, which presents deductions instead of facts, and sets before us the opinion of the author, instead of the grounds upon which an opinion may be formed, is to be trusted. If a summary of Henry's laws had been given, it would have appeared that there is in them the foresight and the benevolence for which Lord Bacon has extolled him. His anxious desire for bettering the condition of the people is repeatedly and earnestly expressed in the laws themselves; for to him,' it is there said, is no thing more joyous than to know his subjects to live peaceable under his laws, and to increase in wealth and prosperity, and to avoid enormities and injuries, so that they may live restfull under his peace.

peace. . . :. His

grace considereth that a great part of the wealth and prosperity of this his land standeth in this, that his subjects may live in surety, under his peace, in their bodies and goods; and that the husbandry of the land may increase and be upholden. And his said highness shall not let for any favour, affection, cost, charge, nor none other cause, but that he shall see his laws to have plain and true execution, that his subjects may live in surety, and increase in wealth and prosperity, to the pleasure of God.' He protests that "he has a singular pleasure, above all things, to avoid such enormities and mischiefs as be hurtful to the common weal; and that he most entirely desireth among all earthly things the prosperity and restfulness of this his land, and his subjects of the same to live quietly and surefully to the pleasure of God, and according to his laws; willing, and always of his pity intending, to reduce them thereunto by softer means than by such extreme rigour as was provided by certain statutes of his predecessors.' The tenour of his laws is in accord with this language. Their' object was to abate the oppression of the powerful; to prevent the extortions which were practised under the colour of law; to repress the audacity of the lawless part of the people, and to check the general prevalence of corruption and perjury.

The Lord Keeper Guildford used to say, that of all law-books, that termed Henry VII. was the most useful, or rather necessary, for a student to take early into his hand, and go through with ; because much of the common law which had Auctuated before, received a settlement in that time, and from thence, as from a copious fountain, it hath been derived, through other authors, to us, and is now in the state of common erudition, or maxims of the law. The facilities which in this reign were afforded to the alienation of landed property, and the introduction of actions on

tho

the case, are benefits to the jurisprudence of this country which have been duly appreciated. But Henry has claims to a better title than that of the English Justinian. It has not been sufficiently observed that the people of England, before his time, lived as little under the law as the people in certain parts of Ireland at this day.

• The laws live only where the law doth breed

Obedience to the works it binds us to.' There was none of this obedience; the people were not conformed to it in their habits and feelings. It had been made an instrument of iniquity, not of justice,-an engine of oppression and extortion,--a craft for wronging the inoffensive and upright, and securing impunity to those who knew how to bargain or intrigue for it, if they could not obtain their end by direct intimidation. This perversion of the laws, and the consequent dread of all legal proceedings, produced an indifference even to that course of justice, without which no community can exist in peace and safety. A murderer, as at this time in Italy, and Spain, and Portugal, stood in no fear of being arrested by the people, and an indictment could not be preferred against him till a year and day had been allowed for the representatives of the deceased to proceed by way of appeal. During that time it often happened that some composition was made, or that the appellant was wearied and let the suit fall; and as often when the crime had grown old, the prosecution by indictment was neglected. A remedy was provided for this, by enacting that the suit by indictment might be taken at any time, leaving the right of appeal untouched, but securing the purposes of public justice if that right were not enforced; and this enactment, though it went no farther, tended greatly to correct the state of opinion, and the usages which had descended from more barbarous times. By another law, the township was fined if any murderer escaped by day; and, because jurors frequently shrunk from their duty, either for fear or favour, justices of assize and of the

peace were empowered to try and punish offences upon information, without indictment, in all cases not extending to life or limb.

That 'good law,' as Bacon calls it, which gave the attaint upon a false verdict between party and party,' is censured by Mr. Turner, who says, that so dangerous an enactment seems to strike at the root of all independent use of these important functions.' He admits, however, that some gross cases of corruption must have occasioned it. In fact, the preamble states that “perjury in the land 'is in many causes detestably used, to the disheritance and great damage of many and great number of his subjects well disposed, and to the most high displeasure of Almighty God, the good statute against officers making panels par

tially,

« PreviousContinue »