Imágenes de página


the citizen. Here the first was ruling over the last-the huntsman over men congregated into cities. The country was dominant over the town. tyrant-as in the language of Greece he might be called-was a rude warrior, who, even in his love of dominion, loved chiefly the independence it secured to him; whose passion, next to war, was the chase; who, when he took possession of his territory, looked first for his hunting field, and made a waste if he did not find one. The hall of his forest-castle was the seat of justice; his bailiff or his seneschal administered the law, and the law became such as his bailiff or seneschal could administer.

How different, in its very spirit, was this feudal polity from either the municipal government which Rome, in its freedom, had extended over the nations of Europe, or that centralized empire under which, in later times, it had collected them! In these, the good of the commonwealth or of the public was the reason-or at least the avowed reason for placing political power in the hands that held it.


public good was professedly paramount. If an emperor ruled, and ruled despotically, and gave the law from his own lips, it was still contended, and perhaps believed, that this aggrandizement of one individual was for the benefit of all. But here, in feudal Europe, the individual was paramount in the state. His rights, which indeed were whatever his power had been able to make good, were unblushingly proclaimed as independent -as first to be considered and protected; while the public welfare, its peace and order, were to follow as they might, from the compromise of personal and rival claims. Every thing was property or privilege. Offices, whether judicial or administrative-which in every theory of government are held for the public, and supposed to devolve, through whatever channel, by a course prescribed by the public will-were here claimed as property, were converted into personal and hereditary rights. Property was more sacred than power, or rather power became itself a species of property.

In this curious system, made up of the sturdy advancement of individual

rights, the monarchy itself was compelled to find its first support, the basis of its power, on its own private possessions, in its territorial domain

its share in the proprietorship of the soil. The king stood upon his rights much in the same spirit that the barons did on theirs; and, if he exceeded his own, or infringed on theirs, it was a case, as is well known, for legitimate war; and the contest was decided by arms which placed both parties on a level. In the privileges, or, as they were called in his case," the prerogatives which the sovereign claimed, he had frequently as little in view as his barons, the public good, or any pretence of the public good. In the general confusion that prevailed, he snatched at privileges quite personal, and some utterly at variance with the high duties of his station as preserver of the peace. While the feudatory was seen jealously shutting out the king's judges from his own little principality, the chief magistrate contrived a source of revenue in the sale of charters of pardon to criminals who did not surely purchase till they needed them.

The share of power which a feudal monarch possessed, depended greatly on his personal qualifications—his sagacity and courage. His throne was no couch for regal repose; it was not only the seat of the highest functionary in the land, but of the most laborious, and whose duties it required the greatest energy and ability to perform. He often needed that his sceptre should be an “iron rod," to bruise and break the disobedience of his turbulent subjects. Yet there were in the feudal system, and in feudal times, certain steady influences which greatly favoured the monarchy, and which rendered it ultimately triumphant. The sovereign had a claim on the fealty of his nobles which they could not be disposed to dispute, because it was founded on the same principles on which they in their turn claimed obedience from their retainers. They had no hostility to the institution of monarchy, but an interest in preserving it, though at as little expense to themselves as possible. When, therefore, they did confederate against the crown, the want of a decisive object,

* The legal definition of prerogative is that which is right in the case of the sovereign, but not in the subject.

and the speedy entrance of jealousy and division amongst a number of independent and self-willed nobles, gave the king a manifest advantage, who, by watching his time, could fall upon his enemies singly. Our Richard II., not the most formidable of princes, but by no means deficient in craft and simulation, and that species of cour-. age necessary to practise them with effect, after having suffered all but deposition by a confederacy of nobles, obtained, in this way, over all of them a complete predominance and a sanguinary revenge. The monarch, too, was generally popular with the multitude and the inhabitants of towns, who looked on him as the preserver of the peace, and a refuge from the tyranny of the barons. The Church and the lawyers both exalted regal power, in the strength and stability of which they saw the only chance for the equal administration of the laws. The monarchy had made common cause with good government, and steadily advanced with the peace and quiet of the kingdom. That notion of a sacred right which the Church sanctioned, was even supported by a feudal analogy. It was said that, as the lesser baron held of the greater, and the greater of the king, so the king held of God. How far this fanciful analogy gave additional weight to the doctrine of a "divine right" of kings, we leave to conjecture. The regal function gained a more certain advantage from another quarter. The oath of fealty sworn by the feudal vassal, when it came

afterwards to be still more confirmed, and still more widely extended, by the institution of chivalry, gave rise to that spirit of loyalty so peculiar to the monarchies of Europe; so peculiar, that we feel the word loyalty to be altogether inapplicable to any relationship under an Eastern despotism. The feudal subject took his oath of allegiance, and when that feudal subject became a knight, it grew to be a point of sacred honour to be faithful to that allegiance. The bond of subjection being in a manner self-imposed, it was reconciled with the highest sense of personal dignity; and Europe has seen her proudest sons associate their honour with obedience to one who had no means of rewarding or compelling it. An Asiatic prince is surrounded by prostrate slaves-ejected from his throne, he is a slave himself: this country has witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of many noble families adhering, at all hazards, in their allegiance to a wandering outcast, of hostile religion, and endowed with talents neither for war nor peace.

We shall not stay at present to discuss how much of the spirit of feudalism has descended to our times, and whether, in its subdued and controlled condition, it continues to act for good or for evil; we are desirous of showing how it acted on other contemporary institutions. It may be described as standing in a collateral relationship to the Church, and in an ancestral one to the system of representation.


Whilst Europe was being divided and subdivided into kingdoms and principalities by feudalism, it was still kept united by an antagonist force, and preserved, in one sense, entire under its common ecclesiastical government. Just in proportion as this division in the civil polity proceeded, did his unity of the ecclesiastical power become more manifest, for it became more valuable. That elevation which the Roman see obtained in the middle ages, so very different from what had been conceded to it in the Church of the empire, is not so much to be traced to the ambition of its Gregories, or to any concerted scheme, as to the political condition of those

governments through which the Church extended. The same clergy were spread over countries now torn asunder by the irruption of the barbarians. To preserve their power, their influence, and possessions, they must continue united; to continue united they must have some head, some common centre-the authority of the Roman pontiff was already the highest in the Church-they willingly exalt his supremacy for the protection and consistence of the whole order. The patriarchs of the Greek Church were not deficient in ambition, and could not possibly be wanting in theology to support it; yet they never attained a power resembling that of the Roman

pontiff, whose extraordinary elevation arose out of the very dismemberment of the empire. The scattered clergy felt the need of an ecclesiastical power which could be a terror to princes-which could protect them by its excommunications and its interdicts, the more terrific the more remote their source; and they therefore raised the Pope to a pre-eminence which they themselves often found extremely inconvenient and oppressive. One man at Rome could do nothing if he had not been supported by that sentiment of reverence amongst the faithful which the clergy had instilled.

Contemplating this vast hierarchy as an institution of the middle ages, no one can fail to be struck with its admirable adaptation to the times. It seems to take complete possession of all Europe; and, look when we will, it presents the most conspicuous figure in the retrospect. By the various ranks and orders of its sacred functionaries, it appears to fill every crevice of society. It towers above all princes, it creeps barefoot amidst the humblest peasantry. No part of the population but find themselves in contact with its sacred officers; and whether lord or serf, he encounters a bishop to control him, or a friar to confess and recomfort. We speak here of the old Church, not, of course, as it stands in relationship to the new-not as opposed to Protestantism-but in relationship solely to its own times, and in its conflict with heathen ignorance and barbarous violence.

Christianity had been called by Constantine to an alliance with the state at a time when civil government had been long established, when laws had been profoundly studied, and civilisation vividly appreciated; and it must be owned, that the alliance under the Greek empire added no peculiar strength to the laws or to the magistrate, but rendered more difficult than before the task of government. But in Western Europe, after the invasion of the barbarian, and the total disruption of the empire, the Christian hierarchy assumed a very different position with regard to the state. It now appeared as the elder and more vigorous institution, and stood forth as the protector of what remained of law and civilisation. There it stood, one vast religious corporation already established over the

land: and when the barbarians took possession of the conquered provinces, they found themselves conquered and subjugated by a power they had no weapons to contend against. To the Goth it had already extended its teaching, and before their inroads had prepared them to be the future conquerors of Rome. At a time when some desperate politicians of that city were debating whether the only means of securing the pre-eminence and safety of Rome was not to make her Pagan, and place her at the head of all Pagan nations, the Church had sent its missionaries into the forests of Germany to secure for it at least Christian conquerors. The Frank

and the Norman found themselves taken in the spiritual toils. Here in Britain, the Saxons had come in so great numbers, that the Christian faith was swept from the land, or nearly so; but there came missionaries from Rome who brought us back into the Christian fold. The Church, firm, united, and preserving some portion of the intelligence of foregone times, now frequently supplied, amongst the irregular governments into which Europe was split, the defects of a rude, imperfect jurisprudence; it opened its sanctuary to men chased by their fell and unscrupulous adversaries, and mediated between them and their enraged pursuers; it gave a refuge to learning, and clothed the man of quiet and meditation in the only garb of peace which the fierce warriors of that age would not have despised; and, above all, it preserved a connexion between the disjointed parts of the old empire, kept them in one faith, which no other known means could have effected, and so united a number of nations, speaking many of them a different language, and engaged all of them in perpetual hostilities, that whatever intelligence sprung up in any one part of Europe was participated by the whole. They were made to be still of one family, though they continued, it must be admitted, a very quarrelsome one. The Papal Church was seen in its proper and most significant attitude when it placed the imperial crown on the brow of Charlemagne, with vain attempt on the part both of the monarch and the priest to revive the unity of the empire.

And for the religious instruction of

the people, note one thing-the munificence with which this vast corporation employed the funds at its disposal for this very purpose. Let us call to mind that in an era far from literary-when the multitude of books which now oppress us with knowledge, were represented by a few dark manuscripts perused by here and there a solitary student-when the ideas which oral discourse could appeal to were exceeding scanty, and the preacher could avail nothing except to move passions more violent than salutary-let us call to mind, that in such an era, religion can be steadily supported amongst a people only by the institution of forms and ceremonies, by the eye-teaching of an outward and visible church, and by the dogmatic authority of its sacred and respected functionaries. In our day, the means of instruction are as much more simple as they are effective. A few sheets of printed paper, carried whithersoever we please, are instrument enough for the communication of thought, or the excitement of the heart. But in those times, when no paper talisman filled the mind even of the peasant with ideas as foreign to the daily routine of his toils or his pleasures, as if a spirit from another world had descended to inspire them, and not only thus directly informed his mind, but prepared it also to receive salutary and correct impressions from the discourse of the preacher for the orator of an uninstructed multitude is a perilous instrument of culture-in those times, other means of popular instruction were wanted, means as much more costly, as much more vast, complicated, and imposing, as they are in reality less ample and efficacious. Then, if the attention of men is to be called from earthly pur suits and passions, the lofty temple must rise before them, towering in their sight above all other structures; then must solemn ceremonies be instituted, occurring at stated intervals ; then must a sacred class be ordained, who, at all events, by their outward habit and demeanour, symbolize a holy character, whether they attain to it or not. Then is a sacerdotal order not a dogma, but a necessity. The twenty-four letters of the alphabet may suffice for us; but those who have no alphabet to learn from, must be taught in such hieroglyphics as archi

tecture, and music, and pageant. The Church was not wanting to its duty," and supplied with liberality this costly apparatus of instruction. The Cathe dral arose, vying with the towers of Belus, or the vast monuments of India, works of despotic power; the prayer, the incessant chant, resounded in its walls; the gorgeous procession issued from its gates, and passed through the streets, and before the houses of the people; piety was as it were personified, and dwelt amongst them in the vested monk, or the slow friar, stealing from the throng to his cloistered seclusion, while the heart of the troubled worldling followed him to his pious repose ;—and by these and other similar means were kept alive in the minds of all men, ideas, vague indeed to the intellect-they could not be otherwise-but elevating and salutary to the character.


But though this universal Church was friendly to the purposes of civil government, inasmuch as it was friendly to peace and equity, it could not fail from time to time to excite the jealousy of the several potentates of Europe. How far the clergy were to be under the government of the king or of the pope, was a question that gave rise to a succession of disputes that form a striking peculiarity in the history of the middle ages. The great dispute upon investitures, which, under a contest upon ceremonies, involved no less a matter than the patronage of the Church in the appointment of its bishops, agitated in turn every part of Europe. Church was standing on an ancient right to choose its own bishops—a right it could not challenge in opposition to the king, but through its powerful chief at Rome; the king, as the feudal lord of the bishop, who held a barony as well as a religious office, rested on the feudal principle, that homage must be done to him before the ecclesiastic could enter on his temporal possessions. The contest was not unequal, and ended here in England in what might be called a drawn game. Henry I. agreed no longer to profane the crosier by placing it in the hands of the newly elected bishop, but still retained the privilege of investing him by the ring with his temporal possessions.

Thomas-à-Becket, (or Becket, as he is now more generally called,) in his

opposition to Henry II., presents a strong example of the haughty Churchman of the middle ages, as he is seen battling with his sovereign for the privileges of his order, and supported throughout the contest by the distant thunders of the Vatican. An immunity from lay jurisdiction in criminal charges, was a privilege that had long been claimed by, and yielded to the Church; and it was a privilege very naturally insisted on by a sacred order, whose reputation with the vulgar was deemed at that time of essential importance to religion, and would certainly have been endangered by the scandalous spectacle of one of its members in the position of a convicted criminal, or under the hands of the common executioner. But the Church, by distributing the tonsure too liberally, had abused this privilege, and many crimes were consequently unpunished, or punished very inadequately. This abuse, together with some others, Henry II. resolved to reform. He determined to take away the privilege. In fact, he had undertaken to reduce the clergy in his dominions to what he considered (and what would be considered by all parties at present) a due subjection to the civil power. In this design he was frustrated by a single opponent, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who, unsupported by his own bishops, and with no other aid than what he derived from the sanction of the Roman Pontiff, successfully vindicated the cause of the Church against the most powerful monarch of the age. The circumstances of this contest are many of them so characteristic of the times, that we will briefly recall them. Henry II. collected what were understood to have been the ancient customs of the kingdom with regard to the privileges of the clergy; and these were re-enacted by a statute which, being passed at Clarendon, received the title of The Con stitutions of Clarendon. But, though enacted by Parliament, they were considered ineffectual unless the Archbishop of Canterbury personally acceded to them. This he at first promised to do, but afterwards retracted; and, on ultimately refusing to attach his seal to the Constitutions of Clarendon, the King ordered him to be impeached in Parliament, on some pretext connected with his late office of Chancellor. That the charges fabricated for the

occasion were of a trivial or groundless nature, was no reason that they should be less effective for his destruction. On the day when sentence was expected to be passed, he entered the Parliament attired in his archiepiscopal robes, and taking the long silver cross from the officer who usually bore it before him, he carried it himself as his safeguard. The King felt the power of his adversary, who had come, as he complained, "armed" against him. Becket took his seat calmly and in silence with his cross before him; he sat alone, forsaken even by his own bishops, who disclaimed his authority, and, renouncing allegiance to him as their ecclesiastical superior, appealed to the Pope. He quietly and willingly acquiesced in that appeal. some of the lords then approaching to pronounce the judgment of the Parliament, (or Great Council, as it was then called,) he rose and interposed. "Earl of Leicester," he said, "I command you, as a son of the Church, not to presume to give judgment against your spiritual father!" And so saying, he walked slowly away, none preventing him.


But the danger of Becket was imminent, and he was compelled to escape by stealth from the country. The King, as a means of annoying and embarrassing his adversary, sent after him a number of his dependents, to be provided for by the now impoverished archbishop. Their feudal protector, their patron, was absent, and the King could act towards them, it seemed, in what arbitrary manner he pleased. Becket retired to a monastery of the Cistertian order, from which retreat he carried on an epistolary warfare. After six years of fruitless discussion, the King-at that time in Normandy, and partly induced by the mediation of his brother of France, who, being a pious prince, was scandalized at Henry's opposition to his Holiness-submitted to a reconciliation with his refractory prelate. If the reconciliation on the part of the King may be suspected of insincerity, the return of the Archbishop to his country was marked by a conduct which showed the haughty uncontrollable temper of the man, and boded ill for future tranquillity. During his absence, the Archbishop of York, assisted by other bishops, had crowned the young prince, Henry's

« AnteriorContinuar »