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POLITICAL LITERATURE OF GREAT BRITAIN, FROM 1400
TILL THE YEAR 1700.
From Henry V. to the termination of the reign of
FROM the commencement of the fifteenth to the termination of the seventeenth century, the political literature of Great Britain is particularly interesting; interesting on account of its intrinsic merits as a development of the entire science of politics; and interesting on account of the fearful struggles it had to make, and the personal sacrifices it demanded from its expounders. When we cast a retrospective glance over this portion of our national history, and contrast it with subsequent periods of it, it presents a stern and gloomy aspect. Every general principle was contested in the midst of blood and suffering; men having often to contend against error and oppression, with the pen in one hand and the sword in the other. Every step of this literary progress calls forth the most thrilling emotions; and pointedly shows what a deep and absorbing interest the love of truth can exercise over the noblest and most highly gifted intellects. Such a fact conveys an impressive lesson to all succeeding ages.
From the reign of Henry IV. to Henry VIII., commencing in 1399 and extending to 1509, there were no political works of a scientific class produced in England worthy of much notice. In the chief seats of education, general polity was sometimes dwelt upon; but what was here publicly taught, or published in written class-books, was chiefly borrowed from the stores of the scholastic writers of preceding times; and consisted of illustrations of a few maxims of civil law, remarks on the ancient systems of government in Greece and Rome, and some incidental notice of the politics of the Saxon and Norman dynasties.
A popular political feeling began, however, to manifest itself in England soon after the commencement of the fifteenth century. English books began to be written, particularly against the Roman hierarchy. There was one publication, called “The Lantern of Light,” (1415) which excited much attention. It represented the pope as antichrist, and maintained the papal decrees were of no authority or force. It represented the archbishops and bishops as the seats of the great beast in the Revelations, who sat and governed despotically. The Roman courts were his head, the
, mass of the clergy his body, and the friars, monks, and canons, his tail. The work enforces the great truth, that the christian laity were maltreated and persecuted from two principal sources—the excess of temporal power in the hands of the church, and the system of begging among the friars. This work, it is said, was found in the house of a feltmonger, plainly
written in English, and neatly bound in red leather. The person who had it could not read, but had it read to him; and so wedded was he to the truths it contained, that he suffered a confinement in Conway Castle for two years, and in the Fleet prison other three years, rather than abandon his creed. Wickliff's tracts, belonging to Sir John Oldcastle, were seized in 1413, in Paternoster Row, and taken to Henry V., at Kensington Palace, who, after reading a few pages of them, expressed his horror at the doctrines they contained. There was another work of much the same character, found at Coventry; and, indeed, works of this description became so common, that the public authorities, when persons were arrested, invariably asked them, “ whether they ever had in their houses or custody any books written in English ?”
There were several learned men opposed the reform doctrines, promulgated by Wickliffe and his followers. The chief of these were Thomas Ashburn, Bankins, an eloquent Dominican friar, Richard Maydesley, and William Woodford. And, in addition to these individual efforts to repress a political change of opinion, the University of Oxford, appointed twelve magisters to examine the works of Wickliffe ; and in 1412, decided that there were two hundred and sixty-seven erroneous and heretical conclusions in them, all of which were “guilty of fire."
Thomas Netter, of Waldon, was the most able and systematic writer on the ecclesiastical and civil claims of the papacy. His work is called “Doctrinale,” &c., in three volumes folio; and has often been reprinted since, at Paris, Salamanca, and Venice.
Political authorship, was at this period, a perilous occupation. In 1418, it was enacted that all judges, justices of the peace, sheriffs, mayors, bailiffs, and all who had any share in the administration of the laws, should search after, and labour diligently in apprehending, all persons convicted of heresies, and particularly of having in their possession, books written in English. These offences were not unfrequently punished by death*. In addition to law, ridicule was employed to repress the spirit of reformation; and the metrical verses against the Lollards show how earnestly and zealously the government of the day, entered into repressive schemes for the suppression of public opinion. In one of these ballads we have the following sentiments :
“For Holy writ beith witness,
SIR JOHN FORTESQUE.—The works of Sir John Fortesque are well entitled to the particular attention of the politician. The author was a principal councillor in the court of Henry VI; and for his devotion to that monarch he was attainted by the parliament under Edward IV. In the year 1463 he fled to Flanders, were he wrote his famous book, “De Laudibus Legum Angliæ.” The work is in the form of letters to a prince. His object is to show the prince the great superiority of the English laws over those of other countries; and he furnishes a test of this, by pointing out the superior manner in which the common people lived in England, compared with persons in a similar situation in France.
* See Wiikin's Concilia, vol. 3.
+ Cotton Library, b. 16.
Sir John was the author of another work of a more abstract nature; namely, “The Difference between an Absolute and a Limited Monarchy.” He enters very fully into the nature of absolute power; showing its withering and blighting influence on social happiness; and endeavours to prove that true and rational freedom can be obtained from a limited and constitutional monarchy, with more certainty and steadiness, than from any other mode or form of government. In the third chapter, will be found a very lengthened description between the French and English mode of living, a part of which we have mentioned in a previous volume of this work.
When, however, the reign of Henry VIII. had advanced a few years, the doctrines of the Protestant reformation in Germany, made their way to Britain, and the king, for various reasons which the histories of the times detail, opposed the tenets of Luther with might and main. The monarch actually wrote and published a book in opposition to the new reformed notions, which obtained for him the title from the Pope, “ Defender of the Faith.” But personal circumstances soon made the zealous king one of the most redoubtable enemies of the Church of Rome. Of the various incidents, and the important public consequences which resulted from this quarrel between Henry and the Papal See, we shall take no further notice, as they lie beyond the sphere of strict politics, and properly belong to the department of regular history.