The History of England from the
Invasion of Julius Cæsar to the Revolution of 1688

David Hume

Chapter 49


Appendix to the Reign of James I.

Civil Government of England during this Period.---Ecclesiastical Government.---Manners.--- Finances.---Navy.---Commerce.---Manufactures.---Colonies.---Learning and Arts.

It may not be improper, at this period, to make a pause, and to take a survey of the state of the kingdom with regard to government, manners, finances, arms, trade, learning. Where a just notion is not formed of these particulars, history can be little instructive, and often will not be intelligible.

We may safely pronounce that the English government, at the accession of the Scottish line, was much more arbitrary than it is at present; the prerogative less limited, the liberties of the subject less accurately defined and secured. Without mentioning other particulars, the courts alone of high commission and Star-chamber were sufficient to lay the whole kingdom at the mercy of the prince.

The court of high commission had been erected by Elizabeth, in consequence of an act of Parliament passed in the beginning of her reign. By this act it was thought proper, during the great revolution of religion, to arm the sovereign with full powers, in order to discourage and suppress opposition. All appeals from the inferior ecclesiastical courts were carried before the high commission, and, of consequence, the whole life and doctrine of the clergy lay directly under its inspection. Every breach of the act of uniformity, every refusal of the ceremonies, was cognizable in this court, and during the reign of Elizabeth had been punished by deprivation, by fine, confiscation, and imprisonment. James contented himself with the gentler penalty of deprivation; nor was that punishment inflicted with rigor on every offender. Archbishop Spotswood tells us that he was informed by Bancroft, the primate, several years after the king's accession, that not above forty-five clergymen had then been deprived. All the Catholics, too, were liable to be punished by this court if they exercised any act of their religion, or sent abroad their children or other relations to receive that education which they could not procure them in their own country. Popish priests were thrown into prison, and might be delivered over to the law, which punished them with death, though that severity had been sparingly exercised by Elizabeth, and never almost by James. In a word, that liberty of conscience which we so highly and so justly value at present was totally suppressed; and no expression of any religion but the established was permitted throughout the kingdom. Any word or writing which tended towards heresy or schism was punishable by the high commissioners, or any three of them: they alone were judges what expressions had that tendency. They proceeded not by information, but upon rumor, suspicion, or according to their discretion; they administered an oath by which the party cited before them was bound to answer any question which should be propounded to him. Whoever refused this oath, though he pleaded ever so justly that he might thereby be brought to accuse himself, or his dearest friend, was punishable by imprisonment; and, in short, an inquisitorial tribunal, with all its terrors and iniquities, was erected in the kingdom. Full discretionary powers were bestowed with regard to the inquiry, trial, sentence, and penalty inflicted; excepting only that corporal punishments were restrained by that patent of the prince which erected the court, not by the act of Parliament which empowered him. By reason of the uncertain limits which separate ecclesiastical from civil causes, all accusations of adultery and incest were tried by the court of high commission, and every complaint of wives against their husbands was there examined and discussed. {Ref} 0n like pretences, every cause which regarded conscience---that is, every cause---could have been brought under their jurisdiction.

But there was a sufficient reason why the king would not be solicitous to stretch the jurisdiction of this court: the Star-chamber possessed the same authority in civil matters, and its methods of proceeding were equally arbitrary and unlimited. The origin of this court was derived from the most remote antiquity, though it is pretended that its power had first been carried to the greatest height by Henry VII. In all times, however, it is confessed, it enjoyed authority, and at no time was its authority circumscribed or method of proceeding directed by any law or statute.

We have had already, or shall have, sufficient occasion, during the course of this history, to mention the dispensing power, the power of imprisonment, of exacting loans, and benevolence, of pressing and quartering soldiers, of altering the customs, of erecting monopolies. These branches of power, if not directly opposite to the principles of all free government, must at least be acknowledged dangerous to freedom in a monarchical constitution, where an eternal jealousy must be preserved against the sovereign, and no discretionary powers must ever be intrusted to him by which the property or personal liberty of any subject can be affected. The Kings of England, however, had almost constantly exercised these powers; and if on any occasion the prince had been obliged to submit to laws enacted against them, he had ever in practice eluded these laws and returned to the same arbitrary administration. During almost three centuries before the accession of James, the regal authority in all these particulars had never once been called in question.

We may also observe that the principles in general which prevailed during that age were so favorable to monarchy that they bestowed on it an authority almost absolute and unlimited, sacred and indefeasible.

The meetings of Parliament were so precarious, their sessions so short compared to the vacations, that, when men's eyes were turned upwards in search of sovereign power, the prince alone was apt to strike them as the only permanent magistrate invested with the whole majesty and authority of the state. The great complaisance, too, of parliaments during so long a period had extremely degraded and obscured those assemblies; and as all instances of opposition to prerogative must have been drawn from a remote age, they were unknown to a great many, and had the less authority even with those who were acquainted with them. These examples, besides, of liberty had commonly, in ancient times, been accompanied with such circumstances of violence, convulsion, civil war, and disorder that they presented but a disagreeable idea to the inquisitive part of the people, and afforded small inducement to renew such dismal scenes. By a great many, therefore, monarchy, simple and unmixed, was conceived to be the government of England; and those popular assemblies were supposed to form only the ornament of the fabric, without being in any degree essential to its being and existence. The prerogative of the crown was represented by lawyers as something real and durable; like those eternal essences of the schools which no time or force could alter. The sanction of religion was by divines called in aid, and the Monarch of heaven was supposed to be interested in supporting the authority of his earthly vicegerent. And though it is pretended that these doctrines were more openly inculcated and more strenuously insisted on during the reign of the Stuarts, they were not then invented; and were only found by the court to be more necessary at that period, by reason of the opposite doctrines which began to be promulgated by the Puritanical party.

In consequence of these exalted ideas of kingly authority, the prerogative, besides the articles of jurisdiction founded on precedent, was by many supposed to possess an inexhaustible fund of latent powers which might be exerted on any emergence. In every government, necessity, when real, supersedes all laws and levels all limitations; but in the English government, convenience alone was conceived to authorize any extraordinary act of regal power, and to render it obligatory on the people. Hence the strict obedience required to proclamations during all periods of the English history; and if James has incurred blame on account of his edicts, it is only because he too frequently issued them at a time when they began to be less regarded, not because he first assumed or extended to an unusual degree that exercise of authority. Of his maxims, in a parallel case, the following is a pretty remarkable instance:

Queen Elizabeth had appointed commissioners for the inspection of prisons, and had bestowed on them full discretionary powers to adjust all differences between prisoners and their creditors, to compound debts, and to give liberty to such debtors as they found honest and insolvent. From the uncertain and undefined nature of the English constitution, doubts sprang up in many that this commission was contrary to law, and it was represented in that light to James. He forebore, therefore, renewing the commission till the fifteenth of his reign, when complaints rose so high with regard to the abuses practised in prisons that he thought himself obliged to overcome his scruples, and to appoint new commissioners, invested with the same discretionary powers which Elizabeth had formerly conferred. {Ref}

Upon the whole, we must conceive that monarchy, on the accession of the house of Stuart, was possessed of a very extensive authority---an authority, in the judgment of all, not exactly limited; in the judgment of some, not limitable.

But, at the same time, this authority was founded merely on the opinion of the people, influenced by ancient precedent and example. It was not supported either by money or by force of arms. And, for this reason, we need not wonder that the princes of that line were so extremely jealous of their prerogative, being sensible that when those claims were ravished from them they possessed no influence by which they could maintain their dignity or support the laws. By the changes which have since been introduced, the liberty and independence of individuals have been rendered much more full, entire, and secure; those of the public more uncertain and precarious. And it seems a necessary though perhaps a melancholy truth, that in every government the magistrate must either possess a large revenue and a military force, or enjoy some discretionary powers, in order to execute the laws and support his own authority.

We have had occasion to remark, in so many instances, the bigotry which prevailed in that age that we can look for no toleration among the different sects. Two Arians, under the title of heretics, were punished by fire during this period, and no one reign since the Reformation had been free from like barbarities. Stowe says that these Arians were offered their pardon at the stake if they would merit it by a recantation. A madman who called himself the Holy Ghost was, without any indulgence for his frenzy, condemned to the same punishment. Twenty pounds a month could by law be levied on every one who frequented not the established worship. This rigorous law, however, had one indulgent clause, that the fines exacted should not exceed two thirds of the yearly income of the person. It had been usual for Elizabeth to allow those penalties to run on for several years, and to levy them all at once, to the utter ruin of such Catholics as had incurred her displeasure. James was more humane in this, as in every other respect. The Puritans formed a sect which secretly lurked in the Church, but pretended not to any separate worship or discipline. An attempt of that kind would have been universally regarded as the most unpardonable enormity. And had the king been disposed to grant the Puritans a full toleration for a separate exercise of their religion, it is certain, from the spirit of the times, that this sect itself would have despised and hated him for it, and would have reproached him with lukewarmness and indifference in the cause of religion. They maintained that they themselves were the only pure Church, that their principles and practices ought to be established by law, and that no others ought to be tolerated. It may be questioned, therefore, whether the administration at this time could with propriety deserve the appellation of persecutors with regard to the Puritans. Such of the clergy, indeed, as refused to comply with the legal ceremonies were deprived of their livings, and sometimes, in Elizabeth's reign, were otherwise punished; and ought any man to accept of an office or benefice in an establishment while he declines compliance with the fixed and known rules of that establishment? But Puritans were never punished for frequenting separate congregations, because there were none such in the kingdom, and no Protestant ever assumed or pretended to the right of erecting them. The greatest well-wishers of the Puritanical sect would have condemned a practice which in that age was universally, by statesmen and ecclesiastics, philosophers and zealots, regarded as subversive of civil society. Even so great a reasoner as Lord Bacon thought that uniformity in religion was absolutely necessary to the support of government, and that no toleration could with safety be given to sectaries. Nothing but the imputation of idolatry which was thrown on the Catholic religion could justify, in the eyes of the Puritans themselves, the schism made by the Huguenots and other Protestants who lived in popish countries.

In all former ages, not wholly excepting even those of Greece and Rome, religious sects and heresies and schisms had been deemed dangerous, if not pernicious, to civil government, and were regarded as the source of faction and private combination and opposition to the laws. {Ref} The magistrate, therefore applied himself directly to the cure of this evil as of every other, and very naturally attempted by penal statutes to suppress those separate communities and punish the obstinate innovators. But it was found by fatal experience, and after spilling an ocean of blood in those theological quarrels, that the evil was of a peculiar nature, and was both inflamed by violent remedies and diffused itself more rapidly throughout the whole society. Hence, though late, arose the paradoxical principle and salutary practice of toleration.

The liberty of the press was incompatible with such maxims and such principles of government as then prevailed, and was therefore quite unknown in that age. Besides employing the two terrible courts of Star-chamber and high commission, whose powers were unlimited, Queen Elizabeth exerted her authority by restraints upon the press. She passed a decree in her court of Star-chamber---that is, by her own will and pleasure---forbidding any book to be printed in any place but in London, Oxford, and Cambridge; and another, in which she prohibited, under severe penalties, the publishing of any book or pamphlet ``against the form or meaning of any restraints or ordinance, contained, or to be contained, in any statute or laws of this realm, or in any injunction made or set forth by her majesty or her privy council, or against the true sense or meaning of any letters patent, commissions, or prohibitions under the great seal of England.'' James extended the same penalties to the importing of such books from abroad. And to render these edicts more effectual, he afterwards inhibited the printing of any book without a license from the archbishop of Canterbury, the archbishop of York, the bishop of London, or the vice-chancellor of one of the universities, or of some person appointed by them.

In tracing the coherence among the systems of modern theology, we may observe, that the doctrine of absolute decrees has ever been intimately connected with the enthusiastic spirit; as that doctrine affords the highest subject of joy, triumph, and security to the supposed elect, and exalts them by infinite degrees above the rest of mankind. All the first reformers adopted these principles; and the Jansenists, too, a fanatical sect in France, not to mention the Mahometans in Asia, have ever embraced them. As the Lutheran establishments were subjected to episcopal jurisdiction, their enthusiastic genius gradually decayed, and men had leisure to perceive the absurdity of supposing God to punish by infinite torments what he himself from all eternity had unchangeably decreed. The king, though at this time his Calvinistic education had riveted him in the doctrine of absolute decrees, yet, being a zealous partisan of episcopacy, was insensibly engaged, towards the end of his reign, to favor the milder theology of Arminius. Even in so great a doctor, the genius of the religion prevailed over its speculative tenets, and with him the whole clergy gradually dropped the more rigid principles of absolute reprobation and unconditional decrees. Some noise was at first made about these innovations; but being drowned in the fury of factions and civil wars which ensued, the scholastic arguments made an insignificant figure amidst those violent disputes about civil and ecclesiastical power with which the nation was agitated. And at the restoration, the church, though she still retained her old subscriptions and articles of faith, was found to have totally changed her speculative doctrines, and to have embraced tenets more suitable to the genius of her discipline and worship, without its being possible to assign the precise period in which the alteration was produced.

It may be worth observing, that James, from his great desire to promote controversial divinity, erected a college at Chelsea for the entertainment of twenty persons, who should be entirely employed in refuting the Papists and Puritans. All the efforts of the great Bacon could not procure an establishment for the cultivation of natural philosophy: even to this day no society has been instituted for the polishing and fixing of our language. The only encouragement which the sovereign in England has ever given to any thing that has the appearance of science was this short-lived establishment of James---an institution quite superfluous, considering the unhappy propension which at that time so universally possessed the nation for polemical theology.

The manners of the nation were agreeable to the monarchical government which prevailed, and contained not that strange mixture which at present distinguishes England from all other countries. Such violent extremes were then unknown of industry and debauchery, frugality and profusion, civility and rusticity, fanaticism and scepticism. Candor, sincerity, modesty, are the only qualities which the English of that age possessed in common with the present.

High pride of family then prevailed; and it was by a dignity and stateliness of behavior that the gentry and nobility distinguished themselves from the common people. Great riches acquired by commerce were more rare, and had not as yet been able to confound all ranks of men, and render money the chief foundation of distinction. Much ceremony took place in the common intercourse of life, and little familiarity was indulged by the great. The advantages which result from opulence are so solid and real that those who are possessed of them need not dread the near approaches of their inferiors. The distinctions of birth and title being more empty and imaginary, soon vanish upon familiar access and acquaintance.

The expenses of the great consisted in pomp and show and a numerous retinue rather than in convenience and true pleasure. The Earl of Nottingham, in his embassy to Spain, was attended by five hundred persons. The Earl of Hertford, in that to Brussels, carried three hundred gentlemen along with him. Lord Bacon has remarked that the English nobility in his time maintained a larger retinue of servants than the nobility of any other nation, except, perhaps, the Polanders.

Civil honors, which now hold the first place, were at that time subordinate to the military. The young gentry and nobility were fond of distinguishing themselves by arms. The fury of duels, too, prevailed more than at any time before or since. This was the turn that the romantic chivalry for which the nation was formerly so renowned had lately taken.

Liberty of commerce between the sexes was indulged, but without any licentiousness of manners. The court was very little an exception to this observation. James had rather entertained an aversion and contempt for the females, nor were those young courtiers of whom he was so fond able to break through the established manners of the nation.

The first sedan-chair seen in England was in this reign, and was used by the Duke of Buckingham, to the great indignation of the people, who exclaimed that he was employing his fellow-creatures to do the service of beasts.

The country life prevails at present in England beyond any cultivated nation of Europe; but it was then much more generally embraced by all the gentry. The increase of arts, pleasures, and social commerce was just beginning to produce an inclination for the softer and more civilized life of the city. James discouraged, as much as possible, this alteration of manners. ``He was wont to be very earnest'', as Lord Bacon tells us, ``with the country gentlemen to go from London to their country-seats. And sometimes he would say thus to them, `Gentlemen, at London you are like ships in a sea, which show like nothing; but in your country villages you are like ships in a river, which look like great things.'''

He was not content with reproof and exhortation. As Queen Elizabeth had perceived with regret the increase of London, and had restrained all new buildings by proclamation, James, who found that these edicts were not exactly obeyed, frequently renewed them, though a strict execution seems still to have been wanting. He also issued reiterated proclamations, in imitation of his predecessor, containing severe menaces against the gentry who lived in town. This policy is contrary to that which has ever been practised by all princes who studied the increase of their authority. To allure the nobility to court; to engage them in expensive pleasures or employments which dissipate their fortune; to increase their subjection to ministers by attendance; to weaken their authority in the provinces by absence---these have been the common arts of arbitrary government. But James, besides that he had certainly laid no plan for extending his power, had no money to support a splendid court or bestow on a numerous retinue of gentry and nobility. He thought, too, that by their living together they became more sensible of their own strength, and were apt to indulge too curious researches into matters of government. To remedy the present evil, he was desirous of dispersing them into their country-seats, where he hoped they would bear a more submissive reverence to his authority, and receive less support from each other. But the contrary effect soon followed. The riches amassed during their residence at home rendered them independent. The influence acquired by hospitality made them formidable. They would not be led by the court; they could not be driven; and thus the system of the English government received a total and a sudden alteration in the course of less than forty years.

The first rise of commerce and the arts had contributed, in preceding reigns, to scatter those immense fortunes of the barons which rendered them so formidable both to king and people. The further progress of these advantages began during this reign to ruin the small proprietors of land; and, by both events, the gentry, or that rank which composed the House of Commons, enlarged their power and authority. The early improvements in luxury were seized by the greater nobles, whose fortunes, placing them above frugality or even calculation, were soon dissipated in expensive pleasures. These improvements reached, at last, all men of property; and those of slender fortunes, who at that time were often men of family, imitating those of a rank immediately above them, reduced themselves to poverty. Their lands, coming to sale, swelled the estates of those who possessed riches sufficient for the fashionable expenses, but who were not exempted from some care and attention to their domestic economy.

The gentry, also, of that age were engaged in no expense, except that of country hospitality. No taxes were levied, no wars waged, no attendance at court expected, no bribery or profusion required at elections. Could human nature ever reach happiness, the condition of the English gentry, under so mild and benign a prince, might merit that appellation.

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