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Under the Administration of Cromwell

British Isles Genealogy | Critical And Historical Essays, Volume I

Happily for Charles, no European state, even when at war with the Commonwealth, chose to bind up its cause with that of the wanderers who were playing in the garrets of Paris and Cologne at being princes and chancellors. Under the administration of Cromwell, England was more respected and dreaded than any power in Christendom and, even under the ephemeral governments which followed his death, no foreign state ventured to treat her with contempt. Thus Charles came back not as a mediator between his people and a victorious enemy, but as a mediator between internal factions. He found the Scotch Covenanters and the Irish Papists alike subdued. He found Dunkirk and Jamaica added to the empire. He was heir to the conquest and to the influence of the able usurper who had excluded him.

The old government of England, as it had been far milder than the old government of France, had been far less violently and completely subverted. The national institutions had been spared, or imperfectly eradicated. The laws had undergone little alteration. The tenures of the soil were still to be learned from Littleton and Coke. The Great Charter was mentioned with as much reverence in the parliaments of the Commonwealth as in those of any earlier or of any later age. A new Confession of Faith and a new ritual had been introduced into the church. But the bulk of the ecclesiastical property still remained. The colleges still held their estates. The parson still received his tithes. The Lords had, at a crisis of great excitement, been excluded by military violence from their House; but they retained their titles and an ample share of the public veneration. When a nobleman made his appearance in the House of Commons he was received with ceremonious respect. Those few Peers who consented to assist at the inauguration of the Protector were placed next to himself, and the most honorable offices of the day were assigned to them. We learn from the debates of Richard's Parliament how strong a hold the old aristocracy had on the affections of the people. One member of the House of Commons went so far as to say that, unless their Lordships were peaceably restored, the country might soon be convulsed by a war of the Barons. There was indeed no great party hostile to the Upper House. There was nothing exclusive in the constitution of that body. It was regularly recruited from among the most distinguished of the country gentlemen, the lawyers, and the clergy. The most powerful nobles of the century which preceded the civil war, the Duke of Somerset, the Duke of Northumberland, Lord Seymour of Sudeley, the Earl of Leicester, Lord Burleigh, the Earl of Salisbury, the Duke of Buckingham, the Earl of Strafford, had all been commoners, and had all raised themselves, by courtly arts or by parliamentary talents, not merely to seats in the House of Lords, but to the first influence in that assembly. Nor had the general conduct of the Peers been such as to make them unpopular. They had not, indeed, in opposing arbitrary measures, shown so much eagerness and pertinacity as the Commons. But still they had opposed those measures. They had, at the beginning of the discontents, a common interest with the people. If Charles had succeeded in his scheme of governing without parliaments, the consequence of the Peers would have been grievously diminished. If he had been able to raise taxes by his own authority, the estates of the Peers would have been as much at his mercy as those of the merchants or the farmers. If he had obtained the power of imprisoning his subjects at his pleasure, a Peer ran far greater risk of incurring the royal displeasure, and of being accommodated with apartments in the Tower, than any city trader or country squire. Accordingly Charles found that the Great Council of Peers which he convoked at York would do nothing for him. In the most useful reforms which were made during the first session of the Long Parliament, the Peers concurred heartily with the Lower House; and a large minority of the English nobles stood by the popular side through the first years of the war. At Edgehill, Newbury, Marston, and Naseby, the armies of the Parliament were commanded by members of the aristocracy. It was not forgotten that a Peer had imitated the example of Hampden in refusing the payment of the ship-money, or that a Peer had been among the six members of the legislature whom Charles illegally impeached.

Thus the old constitution of England was without difficulty re-established; and of all the parts of the old constitution the monarchical part was, at the time, dearest to the body of the people. It had been injudiciously depressed, and it was in consequence unduly exalted. From the day when Charles the First became a prisoner had commenced a reaction in favor of his person and of his office. From the day when the axe fell on his neck before the windows of his palace, that reaction became rapid and violent. At the Restoration it had attained such a point that it could go no further. The people were ready to place at the mercy of their Sovereign all their most ancient and precious rights. The most servile doctrines were publicly avowed. The most moderate and constitutional opposition was condemned. Resistance was spoken of with more horror than any crime which a human being can commit. The Commons were more eager than the King himself to avenge the wrongs of the royal house; more desirous than the bishops themselves to restore the church; more ready to give money than the ministers to ask for it.

They abrogated the excellent law passed in the first session of the Long Parliament, with the general consent of all honest men, to insure the frequent meeting of the great council of the nation. They might probably have been induced to go further, and to restore the High Commission and the Star-Chamber. All the contemporary accounts represent the nation as in a state of hysterical excitement, of drunken joy. In the immense multitude which crowded the beach at Dover, and bordered the road along which the King traveled to London, there was not one who was not weeping. Bonfires blazed. Bells jingled. The streets were thronged at night by boon-companions, who forced all the passers-by to swallow on bended knees brimming glasses to the health of his Most Sacred Majesty, and the damnation of Red-nosed Noll. That tenderness to the fallen which has, through many generation% been a marked feature of the national character, was for a time hardly discernible. All London crowded to shout and laugh round the gibbet where hung the rotten remains of a prince who had made England the dread of the world, who had been the chief founder of her maritime greatness, and of her colonial empire, who had conquered Scotland and Ireland, who had humbled Holland and Spain, the terror of whose name had been as a guard round every English traveler in remote countries, and round every Protestant congregation in the heart of Catholic empires. When some of those brave and honest though misguided men who had sate in judgment on their King were dragged on hurdles to a death of prolonged torture, their last prayers were interrupted by the hisses and execrations of thousands.

Such was England in 1660. In 1678 the whole face of things had changed. At the former of those epochs eighteen years of commotion had made the majority of the people ready to buy repose at any price. At the latter epoch eighteen years of misgovernment had made the same majority desirous to obtain security for their liberties at any risk. The fury of their returning loyalty had spent itself in its first outbreak. In a very few months they had hanged and half-hanged, quartered and emboweled enough to satisfy them. The Roundhead party seemed to be not merely overcome, but too much broken and scattered ever to rally again. Then commenced the reflux of public opinion. The nation began to find out to what a man it had entrusted, without conditions, all its dearest interests, on what a man it had lavished all its fondest affection. On the ignoble nature of the restored exile, adversity had exhausted all her discipline in vain. He had one immense advantage over most other princes. Though born in the purple, he was no better acquainted with the vicissitudes of life and the diversities of character than most of his subjects. He had known restraint, danger, penury, and dependence. He had often suffered from ingratitude, insolence, and treachery. He had received many signal proofs of faithful and heroic attachment. He had seen, if ever man saw, both sides of human nature. But only one side remained in his memory. He had learned only to despise and to distrust his species, to consider integrity in men, and modesty in women, as mere acting; nor did he think it worth while to keep his opinion to himself. He was incapable of friendship; yet he was perpetually led by favorites without being in the smallest degree duped by them. He knew that their regard to his interests was all simulated; but, from a certain easiness which had no connection with humanity, he submitted, half-laughing at himself, to be made the tool of any woman whose person attracted him, or of any man whose tattle diverted him. He thought little and cared less about religion. He seems to have passed his life in dawdling suspense between Hobbism and Popery. He was crowned in his youth with the Covenant in his hand; he died at last with the Host sticking in his throat; and during most of the intermediate years, was occupied in persecuting both Covenanters and Catholics. He was not a tyrant from the ordinary motives. He valued power for its own sake little, and fame still less. He does not appear to have been vindictive, or to have found any pleasing excitement in cruelty. What he wanted was to be amused, to get through the twenty-four hours pleasantly without sitting down to dry business. Sauntering was, as Sheffield expresses it, the true Sultana Queen of his Majesty's affections. A sitting in council would have been insupportable to him if the Duke of Buckingham had not been there to make mouths at the Chancellor. It has been said, and is highly probable, that in his exile he was quite disposed to sell his rights to Cromwell for a good round sum. To the last his only quarrel with his Parliaments was that they often gave him trouble and would not always give him money. If there was a person for whom he felt a real regard, that person was his brother. If there was a point about which he really entertained a scruple of conscience or of honor, that point was the descent of the crown. Yet he was willing to consent to the Exclusion Bill for six hundred thousand pounds; and the negotiation was broken off only because he insisted on being paid beforehand. To do him justice, his temper was good; his manners agreeable; his natural talents above mediocrity. But he was sensual, frivolous, false, and cold-hearted, beyond almost any prince of whom history makes mention.

Under the government of such a man, the English people could not be long in recovering from the intoxication of loyalty. They were then, as they are still, a brave, proud, and high-spirited race, unaccustomed to defeat, to shame, or to servitude. The splendid administration of Oliver had taught them to consider their country as a match for the greatest empire of the earth, as the first of maritime powers, as the head of the Protestant interest. Though, in the day of their affectionate enthusiasm, they might sometimes extol the royal prerogative in terms which would have better become the courtiers of Aurungzebe, they were not men whom it was quite safe to take at their word. They were much more perfect in the theory than in the practice of passive obedience. Though they might deride the austere manners and scriptural phrases of the Puritans they were still at heart a religious people. The majority saw no great sin in field-sports, stage-plays, promiscuous dancing, cards, fairs, starch, or false hair. But gross profaneness and licentiousness were regarded with general horror; and the Catholic religion was held in utter detestation by nine-tenths of the middle class.

Such was the nation which, awaking from its rapturous trance, found itself sold to a foreign, a despotic, a Popish court, defeated on its own seas and rivers by a state of far inferior resources and placed under the rule of pandars and buffoons. Our ancestors saw the best and ablest divines of the age turned out of their benefices by hundreds. They saw the prisons filled with men guilty of no other crime than that of worshipping God according to the fashion generally prevailing throughout Protestant Europe. They saw a Popish Queen on the throne, and a Popish heir on the steps of the throne. They saw unjust aggression followed by feeble war, and feeble war ending in disgraceful peace. They saw a Dutch fleet riding triumphant in the Thames. They saw the Triple Alliance broken, the Exchequer shut up, the public credit shaken, the arms of England employed, in shameful subordination to France, against a country which seemed to be the last asylum of civil and religious liberty. They saw Ireland discontented, and Scotland in rebellion. They saw, meantime, Whitehall swarming with sharpers and courtesans.

They saw harlot after harlot, and bastard after bastard, not only raised to the highest honors of the peerage, but supplied out of the spoils of the honest, industrious, and ruined public creditor, with ample means of supporting the new dignity. The government became more odious every day. Even in the bosom of that very House of Commons which had been elected by the nation in the ecstasy of its penitence, of its joy, and of its hope, an opposition sprang up and became powerful. Loyalty which had been proof against all the disasters of the civil war, which had survived the routs of Naseby and Worcester, which had never flinched from sequestration and exile, which the Protector could never intimidate or seduce, began to fail in this last and hardest trial. The storm had long been gathering. At length it burst with a fury which threatened the whole frame of society with dissolution.

When the general election of January 1679 took place, the nation had retraced the path which it had been describing from 1640 to 1660. It was again in the same mood in which it had been when, after twelve years of misgovernment, the Long Parliament assembled. In every part of the country, the name of courtier had become a by-word of reproach. The old warriors of the Covenant again ventured out of those retreats in which they had, at the time of the Restoration, hidden themselves from the insults of the triumphant Malignants, and in which, during twenty years, they had preserved in full vigor

"The unconquerable will And study of revenge, immortal hate, With courage never to submit or yield, And what is else not to be overcome."

Then were again seen in the streets faces which called up strange and terrible recollections of the days when the saints, with the high praises of God in their mouths, and a two-edged sword in their hands, had bound kings with chains, and nobles with links of iron. Then were again heard voices which had shouted "Privilege" by the coach of Charles the First in the time of his tyranny, and had called for "justice" in Westminister Hall on the day of his trial. It has been the fashion to represent the excitement of this period as the effect of the Popish plot. To us it seems clear that the Popish plot was rather the effect than the cause of the general agitation. It was not the disease, but a symptom, though, like many other symptoms, it aggravated the severity of the disease. In 1660 or 1661 it would have been utterly out of the power of such men as Oates or Bedloe to give any serious disturbance to the Government. They would have been laughed at, pilloried, well pelted, soundly whipped, and speedily forgotten. In 1678 or 1679 there would have been an outbreak if those men had never been born. For years things had been steadily tending to such a consummation. Society was one vast mass of combustible matter. No mass so vast and so combustible ever waited long for a spark.

Rational men, we suppose, are now fully agreed that by far the greater part, if not the whole, of Oates's story was a pure fabrication. It is indeed highly probable that, during his intercourse with the Jesuits, he may have heard much wild talk about the best means of re-establishing the Catholic religion in England, and that from some of the absurd daydreams of the zealots with whom he then associated he may have taken hints for his narrative. But we do not believe that he was privy to anything which deserved the name of conspiracy. And it is quite certain that, if there be any small portion of the truth in his evidence, that portion is so deeply buried in falsehood that no human skill can now effect a separation. We must not, however, forget, that we see his story by the light of much information which his contemporaries did not at first possess. We have nothing to say for the witnesses, but something in mitigation to offer on behalf of the public. We own that the credulity which the nation showed on that occasion seems to us, though censurable indeed, yet not wholly inexcusable.

Our ancestors knew, from the experience of several generations at home and abroad, how restless and encroaching was the disposition of the Church of Rome. The heir-apparent of the crown was a bigoted member of that church. The reigning King seemed far more inclined to show favor to that church than to the Presbyterians. He was the intimate ally, or rather the hired servant, of a powerful King, who had already given proofs of his determination to tolerate within his dominions no other religion than that of Rome. The Catholics had begun to talk a bolder language than formerly, and to anticipate the restoration of their worship in all its ancient dignity and splendor. At this juncture, it is rumored that a Popish Plot has been discovered. A distinguished Catholic is arrested on suspicion. It appears that he has destroyed almost all his papers. A few letters, however, have escaped the flames; and these letters are found to contain much alarming matter, strange expressions about subsidies from France, allusions to a vast scheme which would "give the greatest blow to the Protestant religion that it had ever received," and which "would utterly subdue a pestilent heresy." It was natural that those who saw these expressions, in letters which had been overlooked, should suspect that there was some horrible villainy in those which had been carefully destroyed. Such was the feeling of the House of Commons: "Question, question, Coleman's letters!" was the cry which drowned the voices of the minority.

Just after the discovery of these papers, a magistrate who had been distinguished by his independent spirit, and who had taken the deposition of the informer, is found murdered, under circumstances which make it almost incredible that he should have fallen either by robbers or by his own hands. Many of our readers can remember the state of London just after the murders of Mar and Williamson, the terror which was on every face, the careful barring of doors, the providing of blunderbusses and watchmen's rattles. We know of a shopkeeper who on that occasion sold three hundred rattles in about ten hours. Those who remember that panic may be able to form some notion of the state of England after the death of Godfrey. Indeed, we must say that, after having read and weighed all the evidence now extant on that mysterious subject, we incline to the opinion that he was assassinated, and assassinated by Catholics, not assuredly by Catholics of the least weight or note, but by some of those crazy and vindictive fanatics who may be found in every large sect, and who are peculiarly likely to be found in a persecuted sect. Some of the violent Cameronians had recently, under similar exasperation, committed similar crimes.

It was natural that there should be a panic; and it was natural that the people should, in a panic, be unreasonable and credulous. It must be remembered also that they had not at first, as we have, the means of comparing the evidence which was given on different trials. They were not aware of one tenth part of the contradictions and absurdities which Oates had committed. The blunders, for example, into which he fell before the Council, his mistake about the person of Don John of Austria, and about the situation of the Jesuits' College at Paris, were not publicly known. He was a bad man; but the spies and deserters by whom governments are informed of conspiracies axe generally bad men. His story was strange and romantic; but it was not more strange and romantic than a well-authenticated Popish plot, which some few people then living might remember, the Gunpowder treason. Oates's account of the burning of London was in itself not more improbable than the project of blowing up King, Lords, and Commons, a project which had not only been entertained by very distinguished Catholics, but which had very narrowly missed of success. As to the design on the King's person, all the world knew that, within a century, two kings of France and a prince of Orange had been murdered by Catholics, purely from religious enthusiasm, that Elizabeth had been in constant danger of a similar fate, and that such attempts, to say the least, had not been discouraged by the highest authority of the Church of Rome. The characters of some of the accused persons stood high; but so did that of Anthony Babington, and that of Everard Digby. Those who suffered denied their guilt to the last; but no persons versed in criminal proceedings would attach any importance to this circumstance. It was well known also that the most distinguished Catholic casuists had written largely in defense of regicide, of mental reservation, and of equivocation. It was not quite impossible that men whose minds had been nourished with the writings of such casuists might think themselves justified in denying a charge which, if acknowledged, would bring great scandal on the Church. The trials of the accused Catholics were exactly like all the state trials of those days; that is to say, as infamous as they could be. They were neither fairer nor less fair than those of Algernon Sydney, of Rosewell, of Cornish, of all the unhappy men, in short, whom a predominant party brought to what was then facetiously called justice. Till the Revolution purified our institutions and our manners, a state trial was merely a murder preceded by the uttering of certain gibberish and the performance of certain mummeries.

The Opposition had now the great body of the nation with them. Thrice the King dissolved the Parliament; and thrice the constituent body sent him back representatives fully determined to keep strict watch on all his measures, and to exclude his brother from the throne. Had the character of Charles resembled that of his father, this intestine discord would infallibly have ended in a civil war. Obstinacy and passion would have been his ruin. His levity and apathy were his security. He resembled one of those light Indian boats which are safe because they are pliant, which yield to the impact of every wave, and which therefore bound without danger through a surf in which a vessel ribbed with heart of oak would inevitably perish. The only thing about which his mind was unalterably made up was that, to use his own phrase, he would not go on his travels again for anybody or for anything. His easy, indolent behavior produced all the effects of the most artful policy. He suffered things to take their course; and if Achitophel had been at one of his ears, and Machiavel at the other, they could have given him no better advice than to let things take their course. He gave way to the violence of the movement, and waited for the corresponding violence of the rebound. He exhibited himself to his subjects in the interesting character of an oppressed king, who was ready to do anything to please them, and who asked of them, in return, only some consideration for his conscientious scruples and for his feelings of natural affection, who was ready to accept any ministers, to grant any guarantees to public liberty, but who could not find it in his heart to take away his brother's birthright. Nothing more was necessary. He had to deal with a people whose noble weakness it has always been not to press too hardly on the vanquished, with a people the lowest and most brutal of whom cry "Shame!" if they see a man struck when he is on the ground. The resentment which the nation bad felt towards the Court began to abate as soon as the Court was manifestly unable to offer any resistance. The panic which Godfrey's death had excited gradually subsided. Every day brought to light some new falsehood or contradiction in the stories of Oates and Bedloe. The people were glutted with the blood of Papists, as they had, twenty years before, been glutted with the blood of regicides. When the first sufferers in the plot were brought to the bar, the witnesses for the defense were in danger of being torn in pieces by the mob. Judges, jurors, and spectators seemed equally indifferent to justice, and equally eager for revenge. Lord Stafford, the last sufferer, was pronounced not guilty by a large minority of his peers; and when he protested his innocence on the scaffold, the people cried out, "God bless you, my lord; we believe you, my lord." The attempt to make a son of Lucy Waters King of England was alike offensive to the pride of the nobles and to the moral feeling of the middle class. The old Cavalier party, the great majority of the landed gentry, the clergy and the universities almost to a man, began to draw together, and to form in close array round the throne.

A similar reaction had begun to take place in favor of Charles the First during the second session of the Long Parliament; and, if that prince had been honest or sagacious enough to keep himself strictly within the limits of the law, we have not the smallest doubt that he would in a few months have found himself at least as powerful as his best friends, Lord Falkland, Culpeper, or Hyde, would have wished to see him. By illegally impeaching the leaders of the Opposition, and by making in person a wicked attempt on the House of Commons, he stopped and turned back that tide of loyal feeling which was just beginning to run strongly. The son, quite as little restrained by law or by honor as the father, was, luckily for himself, a man of a lounging, careless temper, and, from temper, we believe, rather than from policy, escaped that great error which cost the father so dear. Instead of trying to pluck the fruit before it was ripe, he lay still till it fell mellow into his very mouth. If he had arrested Lord Shaftesbury and Lord Russell in a manner not warranted by law, it is not improbable that he would have ended his life in exile. He took the sure course. He employed only his legal prerogatives, and he found them amply sufficient for his purpose.

During the first eighteen or nineteen years of his reign, he had been playing the game of his enemies. From 1678 to 1681 his enemies had played his game. They owed their power to his misgovernment. He owed the recovery of his power to their violence. The great body of the people came back to him after their estrangement with impetuous affection. He had scarcely been more popular when he landed on the coast of Kent than when, after several years of restraint and humiliation, he dissolved his last Parliament.

Nevertheless, while this flux and reflux of opinion went on, the cause of public liberty was steadily gaining. There had been a great reaction in favor of the throne at the Restoration. But the Star-Chamber, the High Commission, the Ship-money, had for ever disappeared. There was now another similar reaction. But the Habeas Corpus Act had been passed during the short predominance of the Opposition, and it was not repealed.

The King, however, supported as he was by the nation, was quite strong enough to inflict a terrible revenge on the party which had lately held him in bondage. In 1681 commenced the third of those periods in which we have divided the history of England from the Restoration to the Revolution. During this period a third great reaction took place. The excesses of tyranny restored to the cause of liberty the hearts which had been alienated from that cause by the excesses of faction. In 1681, the King had almost all his enemies at his feet. In 1688, the King was an exile in a strange land.

The whole of that machinery which had lately been in motion against the Papists was now put in motion against the Whigs, browbeating judges, packed juries, lying witnesses, clamorous spectators. The ablest chief of the party fled to a foreign country and died there. The most virtuous man of the party was beheaded. Another of its most distinguished members preferred a voluntary death to the shame of a public execution. The boroughs on which the Government could not depend were, by means of legal quibbles, deprived of their charters; and their constitution was remodeled in such a manner as almost to ensure the return of representatives devoted to the Court. All parts of the kingdom emulously sent up the most extravagant assurances of the love which they bore to their sovereign, and of the abhorrence with which they regarded those who questioned the divine origin or the boundless extent of his power. It is scarcely necessary to say that, in this hot competition of bigots and staves, the University of Oxford had the unquestioned pre-eminence. The glory of being further behind the age than any other portion of the British people, is one which that learned body acquired early, and has never lost.

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Critical And Historical Essays, Volume I, Thomas Babbington Macaulay, 1843

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