Page images
PDF
EPUB

conftitution.

the different degrees, dignities, and deno.

minations, by which it was formerly known of the origin of and distinguished. To do this fatisfactorily cal part of our will require a longer digression than the in

tent and purport of this publication will admit of. Such of my readers, as may wish to acquire a more particular knowledge of this subject, will receive the most fatisfactory information from the first volume of the learned Mr. Gurdon's history of the high court of parliament. Suffice it for me to observe, that our present aristocracy is much altered from what it formerly was, both in its relative and absolute rights, privileges,

powers, and duties.

The ancient wittenagemoite,

*

In our earliest history the great council of the nation under the Saxons, who concurred with the king in passing laws, was called Wittenagemotte :

< a word compounded of Saxon and British, the former part of the word being Saxon, and the latter British. Witta is in Saxon, a wise man (i. e.) a nobleman; Gemot, in the British language, is a council or fynod, fo Wittenagemotte is a council of wise men or noblemen.” Ac, cording to the rude practices and habits of the warlike Saxons, they naturally allowed

Gurdon, vol. i. p. 21.

an

wittas called

an exclusive fuperiority of knowledge or wisdom to such, as had acquired the then rare advantages of education, which were only enjoyed by the clergy, and some of the most opulent and powerful individuals of the community. They annexed not this attribute of The ancient wisdorn to these national counsellors, as a na- wise, from the

advantages of tive and hereditary prerogative in the sense, their education. in which some modern illuminators speak in derision of hereditary wise men and coun-. fellors; but they presumed very justly, that in the general average of men’s intellectual faculties or talents, a superiority or preeminence of wisdom muft neceffarily attend the advantages of cultivation and improve

The general diffusion of knowledge through all ranks of people in the present age, has happily rendered this ancient distinction imperceptible to the prefent generation.

There are obvious reasons, why formerly Property not the representatives or delegates of the na- original ground

of representation were not, as they now are, divided into tion. two feparate bodies ; for it is very evident, that the original spirit or principle of representation in this community was grounded upon the pofsession of property, not upon the numbers of individuals. * « The Britons called their

ment.

numbers the

• Gurdon on Parliament, page 15.

councils

1

councils Kifrithin, which in the British language imports to debate and treat upon matters to be taken into consideration for the public weal. The members of their councils were their Edlins *, which were of royal or princely race, and the governors of districts or lords of villages: the husbandmen, and all the common people, were esteemed no more than servants, had no interest in land, being removeable at the will of their lord, they

being villeins to their lords, were not adWhy copyhol- mitted to fit in council.” Whence a copy

holder, who by holding of the lord of the manor retains something of this ancient tenure, is not even at this day qualified to vote

for a member of parliament. The original This principle of representing the landed

property of the nation continued after the whole system of landed property was altered. For the Saxons undertook the conquest of this country upon a joint engagement to divide the conquered lands proportionably amongst the leaders, as they had contributed their respective quotas to the enterprize. † The joint undertakers, who were

ders not qua-
lified to vote.

Saxon aristo cracy.

• Or Ethelings, hence Edgar Etheling meant Edgar of the blood royal, or kingly race.

+ Gardon on Parliament, p. 23.

at

[ocr errors]

at first by the Latin authors termed capitanei,
as having a capital or original right in the
shares of the Britons lands; and these capi-
tanei were not only sharers with the kings
in the conquered lands, but also in the ad-
ministration of the government, being mem-
bers of the king's great council, and therein
had a deliberative authority in consenting to
laws and the highest matters of state; they
also had a judicial authority, being the su-
preme court of judicature of the nation.'
* « These colleagues, and their descendants, Original nobi-
were the Saxon nobles, that were members of lity arose from
the great councils, the suitors of the court of
the grand feigniory of the kingdom, all no-
bility at that time arising from polesion.'
In these ancient days, the aristocratical part
of the community were known or distin-
guished only from the rest of the commu-
nity, by rights, privileges, and prerogatives
attached to the property they possessed; and
as the greatest of these consisted in their en-
joying a share in the legislature, it is unfair
to conclude, that the commonalty or demo-
cratical part of the community were not for-
merly represented in parliament; for the per-
fons, who at that time represented the whole

property.

* Gurdon on Parliament, p. 163.

nation,

The ancient members of the national council refem

nation, were only distinguished from the democratical part of it by this very right of representation, which was not then elective, but hereditary; and if we consider the na

ture of the duty, trust, and rights of these bled more our delegates or representatives of the public, than our peers. we shall find them resemble much more

those of the commoners, than of the peers of our present parliament.

There are many points warmly controverted by antiquarians concerning the ancient English barons, who either attended the national assemblies or parliaments, at stated times de more, or were fummoned on extraordinary occasions to attend them. The whole episcopal order, and many abbots and priors were admitted by all to have been a constant part of the wittas in the wittenagemotes, and in all subsequent conventions of the nation down to the regular and separate establishment of a

house of commons, by whatsoever descripWhether fum- tions they were distinguished. It is not mament anciently terial to my present purpose to consider, whelity.

ther all, who were in those times summoned to parliament, either as barones mejores, barones minores, knights, or tenants in capite, or by any other titles, -as earls, viscounts, vavafours, &c. were thereby so enobled, as that their heirs inherited their honours ; there

certainly

mons to parlia

conferred nubi

« PreviousContinue »