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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Continuity of English History
By Edward Augustus Freeman (1823–1892)
 
From ‘Historical Essays of Edward A. Freeman,’ First Series

A COMPARISON between the histories of England, France, and Germany, as regards their political development, would be a subject well worth working out in detail. Each country started with much that was common to all three, while the separate course of each has been wholly different. The distinctive character of English history is its continuity. No broad gap separates the present from the past. If there is any point at which a line between the present and the past is to be drawn, it is at all events not to be drawn at the point where a superficial glance might perhaps induce us to draw it,—at the Norman invasion in 1066. At first sight, that event might seem to separate us from all before it in a way to which there is no analogy in the history either of our own or of kindred lands. Neither France nor Germany ever saw any event to be compared to the Norman Conquest. Neither of them has ever received a permanent dynasty of foreign kings; neither has seen its lands divided among the soldiers of a foreign army, and its native sons shut out from every position of wealth or dignity. England, alone of the three, has undergone a real and permanent foreign conquest. One might have expected that the greatest of all possible historical chasms would have divided the ages before and the ages after such an event. Yet in truth modern England has practically far more to do with the England of the West-Saxon kings than modern France or Germany has to do with the Gaul and Germany of Charles the Great, or even of much more recent times. The England of the age before the Norman Conquest is indeed, in all external respects, widely removed from us. But the England of the age immediately succeeding the Norman Conquest is something more widely removed still. The age when Englishmen dwelt in their own land as a conquered race, when their name and tongue were badges of contempt and slavery, when England was counted for little more than an accession of power to the Duke of Rouen in his struggle with the King of Paris, is an age than which we can conceive none more alien to every feeling and circumstance of our own.  1
  When, then, did the England in which we still live and move have its beginning? Where are we to draw the broad line, if any line is to be drawn, between the present and the past? We answer, In the great creative and destructive age of Europe and of civilized Asia—the thirteenth century. The England of Richard Cœur de Lion is an England which is past forever; but the England of Edward the First is essentially the still living England in which we have our own being. Up to the thirteenth century our history is the domain of antiquaries; from that point it becomes the domain of lawyers. A law of King Ælfred’s Witenagemót is a valuable link in the chain of our political progress, but it could not have been alleged as any legal authority by the accusers of Strafford or the defenders of the Seven Bishops. A statute of Edward the First is quite another matter. Unless it can be shown to have been repealed by some later statute, it is just as good to this day as a statute of Queen Victoria. In the earlier period we may indeed trace the rudiments of our laws, our language, our political institutions; but from the thirteenth century onwards we see the things themselves, in that very essence which we all agree in wishing to retain, though successive generations have wrought improvement in many points of detail and may have left many others capable of further improvement still.  2
  Let us illustrate our meaning by the greatest of all examples. Since the first Teutonic settlers landed on her shores, England has never known full and complete submission to a single will. Some Assembly, Witenagemót, Great Council, or Parliament, there has always been, capable of checking the caprices of tyrants and of speaking, with more or less of right, in the name of the nation. From Hengest to Victoria, England has always had what we may fairly call a parliamentary constitution. Normans, Tudors, and Stewarts might suspend or weaken it, but they could not wholly sweep it away. Our Old-English Witenagemóts, our Norman Great Councils, are matters of antiquarian research, whose exact constitution it puzzles our best antiquaries fully to explain. But from the thirteenth century onwards we have a veritable Parliament, essentially as we see it before our own eyes. In the course of the fourteenth century every fundamental constitutional principle becomes fully recognized. The best worthies of the seventeenth century struggled, not for the establishment of anything new, but for the preservation of what even then was already old. It is on the Great Charter that we still rest the foundation of all our rights. And no later parliamentary reformer has ever wrought or proposed so vast a change as when Simon of Montfort, by a single writ, conferred their parliamentary being upon the cities and boroughs of England.  3
  This continuity of English history from the very beginning is a point which cannot be too strongly insisted on, but it is its special continuity from the thirteenth century onwards which forms the most instructive part of the comparison between English history and the history of Germany and France. At the time of the Norman Conquest the many small Teutonic kingdoms in Britain had grown into the one Teutonic kingdom of England, rich in her barbaric greatness and barbaric freedom, with the germs, but as yet only the germs, of every institution which we most dearly prize. At the close of the thirteenth century we see the England with which we are still familiar, young indeed and tender, but still possessing more than the germs,—the very things themselves. She has already King, Lords, and Commons; she has a King, mighty indeed and honored, but who may neither ordain laws nor impose taxes against the will of his people. She has Lords with high hereditary powers, but Lords who are still only the foremost rank of the people, whose children sink into the general mass of Englishmen, and into whose order any Englishman may be raised. She has a Commons still diffident in the exercise of new-born rights; but a Commons whose constitution and whose powers we have altered only by gradual changes of detail; a Commons which, if it sometimes shrank from hard questions of State, was at least resolved that no man should take their money without their leave. The courts of justice, the great offices of State, the chief features of local administration, have assumed, or are rapidly assuming, the form whose essential character they still retain. The struggle with Papal Rome has already begun; doctrines and ceremonies indeed remain as yet unchallenged, but statute after statute is passed to restrain the abuses and exactions of the ever-hateful Roman court. The great middle class of England is rapidly forming; a middle class not, as elsewhere, confined to a few great cities, but spread, in the form of a minor gentry and a wealthy yeomanry, over the whole face of the land. Villanage still exists, but both law and custom are paving the way for that gradual and silent extinction of it, which without any formal abolition of the legal status left, three centuries later, not a legal villain among us.  4
  With this exception, there was in theory equal law for all classes, and imperfectly as the theory may have been carried out, it was at least far less imperfectly so than in any other kingdom. Our language was fast taking its present shape; English, in the main intelligible at the present day, was the speech of the mass of the people, and it was soon to expel French from the halls of princes and nobles. England at the close of the century is, for the first time since the Conquest, ruled by a prince bearing a purely English name, and following a purely English policy. Edward the First was no doubt as despotic as he could be or dared to be; so was every prince of those days who could not practice the superhuman righteousness of St. Lewis. But he ruled over a people who knew how to keep even his despotism within bounds. The legislator of England, the conqueror of Wales and Scotland, seems truly like an old Bretwalda or West-Saxon Basileus, sitting once more on the throne of Cerdic and of Ælfred. The modern English nation is now fully formed; it stands ready for those struggles for French dominion in the two following centuries, which, utterly unjust and fruitless as they were, still proved indirectly the confirmation of our liberties at home, and which forever fixed the national character for good and for evil.  5
  Let us here sketch out a comparison between the history and institutions of England and those of France and Germany. As we before said, our modern Parliament is traced up in an unbroken line to the early Great Council, and to the still earlier Witenagemót. The latter institution, widely different as it is from the earlier, has not been substituted for the earlier, but has grown out of it. It would be ludicrous to look for any such continuity between the Diet of ambassadors which meets at Frankfurt and the Assemblies which met to obey Henry the Third and to depose Henry the Fourth. And how stands the case in France? France has tried constitutional government in all its shapes; in its old Teutonic, in its mediæval, and in all its modern forms—Kings with one Chamber and Kings with two, Republics without Presidents and Republics with, Conventions, Directories, Consulates, and Empires. All of these have been separate experiments; all have failed; there is no historical continuity between any of them. Charles the Great gathered his Great Council around him year by year; his successors in the Eastern Francia, the Kings of the Teutonic Kingdom, went on doing so long afterwards. But in Gaul, in Western Francia, after it fell away from the common centre, no such assembly could be gathered together. The kingdom split into fragments; every province did what was right in its own eyes; Aquitaine and Toulouse had neither fear nor love enough for their nominal King to contribute any members to a Council of his summoning. Philip the Fair, for his own convenience, summoned the States-General. But the States-General were no historical continuation of the old Frankish Assemblies; they were a new institution of his own, devised, it may be, in imitation of the English Parliament or of the Spanish Cortes. From that time the French States-General ran a brilliant and a fitful course. Very different indeed were they from the homely Parliaments of England. Our stout knights and citizens were altogether guiltless of political theories. They had no longing after great and comprehensive measures. But if they saw any practical abuses in the land, the King could get no money out of them till he set matters right again. If they saw a bad law, they demanded its alteration; if they saw a wicked minister, they demanded his dismissal. It is this sort of bit-by-bit reform, going on for six hundred years, which has saved us alike from magnificent theories and from massacres in the cause of humanity. Both were as familiar in France in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as ever they were at the close of the eighteenth. The demands of the States-General, and of what we may call the liberal party in France generally, throughout those two centuries, are as wide in their extent, and as neatly expressed, as any modern constitution from 1791 to 1848. But while the English Parliament, meeting year after year, made almost every year some small addition or other to the mass of our liberties, the States-General, meeting only now and then, effected nothing lasting, and gradually sank into as complete disuse as the old Frankish Assemblies. By the time of the revolution of 1789, their constitution and mode of proceeding had become matters of antiquarian curiosity. Of later attempts, National Assemblies, National Conventions, Chambers of Deputies, we need not speak. They have risen and they have fallen, while the House of Lords and the House of Commons have gone on undisturbed.  6
 
 
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