Page images

doctrines is not less disingenuous; and his attempt to deprive him of the honour of having been the first to undertake a complete English version of the Old and New Testament, is contemptible. What does he mean by several versions of the 'sacred writings' previously extant? If he intends by this expression, parts of the Scriptures, his language is calculated to mislead. If he means to assert that there were extant several versions of the whole Bible in the vernacular tongue, it behoved him to adduce further evidence than the bare assertion contained in Sir Thomas More's Dialogues. How pitiable the prejudices which could lead a Christian clergyman in the nineteenth century, to employ the language of depreciation and displacency in reference to the vast and noble undertaking by which the Holy Scriptures were first rendered accessible to our countrymen in their own language! But, for Wycliffe's labours, Mr. Lingard has no gratitude, and for his genius and elevation of mind, no admiration.

We should launch at once on the stormy and havenless sea of controversy, were we to touch on all the points on which what we should term the increase of knowledge, but what Mr. Lingard would stigmatise as the factious spirit of innovation, would set us at variance. For this we have little leisure and less inclination. We shall, therefore, passing by the intervening periods, proceed to offer a few general remarks on that portion of his fourth volume which comprises the history of Henry the Eighth.

That eventful reign offers to the keen and skilful controvertist, an extensive range of debateable ground. There is scarcely a single position that may not be contested; and the peculiar circumstances connected with the various transactions, may easily be so managed as to give them the hue and aspect best suited to the views and feelings of the commentator. It comprehends that critical period when light and darkness were conflicting with each other; when the partisans of Romish domination, who had long acted on the principle that ignorance is weakness, were beginning to feel the pressure of the antagonist maxim

volume will be found an ample summary of Wycliffe's opinions, which the reader of Mr. Lingard's work will do well to compare with that gentleman's account of them. See also Turner's History of England. Vol. II. pp. 421-426. Three years after Wycliffe's death, the Bishop of Worcester complained, that the eternally ⚫ damned sons of Anti-Christ, the disciples and followers of Mahomet, conspiring with a diabolical instigation, confederating together under the name of Lollards, and actuated by insanity, were pouring out their poison from their honeyed mouth, under the veil of great 'sanctity.'

that knowledge is power. But light and knowledge were as yet imperfect; and the defenders of the old learning' had this immense advantage over the free inquirer, that they were tenacious of their opinions, and expert in the defence of them, while the advocates of reformation were venturing on an old, indeed, and sure, but disused and half-obliterated path. Brightness was upon it, but broken and obscured by partial haze. Safety was within it; but menaces and penalties visited it with transient peril. Joy and triumph were in its horizon, but difficulty and suffering continually urged to deviation from the right onward' course. We ought not then to be surprised that some of the Reformers were feeble and hesitating in conduct, that they occasionally shewed symptoms of uncertainty in opinion, or that they degraded themselves, and betrayed their cause, by retaining a portion of that spirit of persecution which they had imbibed from their nursing mother,' the Church of Rome. It is not, however, from a Catholic historian, that we shall expect justice to their memory their virtues are not inserted in his brief, and his antipathies will not dispose him to extenuate their faults. We will not accuse Mr. Lingard of setting down aught in 'malice.' Of Henry himself, he could not speak too harshly. Wolsey is somewhat spared. Gardiner is introduced in a manner which renders us curious to know the shape under which he will take his station in the reign of Mary. But Cranmer appears in a very unfavourable light. The weakness and vacillation of bis mind offered verge enough' for the deterioration of his character; and the opportunity is not neglected. Nor bas Mr. Lingard done justice to the character of Thomas Cromwell, from whom he endeavours, without any authority, to take away the merit of defending Wolsey in his disgrace. We have no interest whatever in vindicating these men. The cause of the Reformation cannot be identified with Henry, for, though he rejected the tyranny of Rome, he retained the absurdities of Popery; nor with Cranmer, for he was deficient in firmness and decision; nor with Cromwell, since, although he gave an enlightened protection to the professors of the new doctrines, it is yet doubtful how far he had himself embraced them. But Cranmer had many and conspicuous virtues; Cromwell was an eminent statesman; and while by no means anxious that their failures should be concealed, we cannot acquiesce in the suppression of their better qualities. The narrative of Edward's brief and agitated reign is closed with the following observations.

Within the realm poverty and discontent generally prevailed. The extension of enclosures, and the new practice of letting lands at rack-rents, had driven from their homes numerous families, whose fathers had occupied the same farms for several generations: and the increasing multitudes of the poor began to resort to the more popu

lous towns in search of that relief, which had been formerly distri buted at the gates of the monasteries. Nor were the national morals improved, if we may judge from the portraits drawn by the most eminent of the reformed preachers. They assert that the sufferings of the indigent were viewed with indifference by the hard-heartedness of the rich; that in the pursuit of gain the most barefaced frauds were avowed and justified; that robbers and murderers escaped punishment by the partiality of juries, and the corruption of judges; that church-livings were given to laymen, or converted to the use of the patrons; that marriages were repeatedly dissolved by private authority; and that the haunts of prostitution were multiplied beyond measure. How far credit should be given to such representations, may, perhaps, be doubtful. Declamations from the pulpit are not the best historical evidence. Much in them must be at tributed to the exaggeration of zeal: much to the affectation of eloquence. Still, when these deductions have been made, when the invectives of Knox and Léver, of Gilpin and Latimer, have been reduced by the standard of reason and experience, enough will remain to justify the conclusion, that the change of religious polity, by removing many of the former restraints upon vice, and enervating the authority of the spiritual courts, had given a bolder front to licentiousness, and opened a wider scope to the indulgence of criminal passion.' Vol. IV. pp. 476, 477.

[ocr errors]

There is consummate art in this passage. It is impossible not to admire the skilful selection of phrase in the words 'religious polity,' and the dexterous ascription of affectation' to the vehement and simple-minded men whose invectives' are made the basis of the annihilating conclusion.' The relaxation of morals consequent upon the dissentions and commotions of this, and of the preceding reign; the criminal excesses both of Catholics and Protestants; the dissolute principles and habits introduced and maintained by the licentiousness and depravity of Henry; all these are mingled in one portentous mass, and identified with the progress of the Reformation. To give a formal answer to insinuations like these, would be to rescue them from the effects of the only sensation they are ever likely to excite. It may not, however, be amiss to cite a counter statement, collected from the ecclesiastical historians of King Henry the Eighth.' The cathedral clergy,' say they, throughout the kingdom, gave themselves up wholly to idleness and pleasure. They decried and discouraged learning; 'affirming that learning would bring in heresy, and all manner of mischief. The rural and parochial clergy were universally ignorant, slothful, idle, superstitious, proud, and vicious; preaching most of them but once a quarter on a Sunday, and 'but few more than once a month, on the first Sunday thereof. In Lent, sermons were more frequent; but these usually turned on abstinence, confession, the necessity of corporal severities,

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]


[ocr errors]

pilgrimages, the enriching of the shrines, and the relics of the saints, and the great use of indulgences...... No pains were taken to inform the people of the hatefulness of vice, and the excellency of holiness, or of the wonderful love of Christ, by which men might be engaged to acknowledge and obey him. It was far otherwise on the holy or saints' days, for on them the monks and the friars and others would ascend the pulpit, and, instead of sermons, harangue the people on the merits, supererogations, and miracles of the saints, to the memory of whom the day was dedicated; magnifying their relics, which they always took care to inform them, were laid up in such and such places.'* After this, we need only inquire in what the former restraints upon vice' consisted. Were they to be found in the sale of indulgences, and of masses for the dead?

It is with sincere regret that we have yielded to the necessity of making the preceding strictures; and we now feel ourselves at liberty to express our high admiration of Mr. Lingard's labours in all that regards the secular history of our country. He has invariably imposed upon himself the severe but indispensable exertion of investigating and comparing primary authorities; and this trying task he seems to have executed with peculiar facility, distinctness, and decision. He never conveys the idea of a writer sitting with his fingers between the leaves of an old folio, referring from one page to another, and entangled among the imperfectly combined fragments on which he is vainly striving to fix his bewildered attention: he wields, on the contrary, his clumsy and often discordant materials with admirable mastery; he discriminates with clearness and precision; and his summingsup are condensed and comprehensive. In this particular, we should be disposed to say that, with the exception of Mr. Sharon Turner, he excels all other modern writers of English history; since even Dr. Henry was too frequently satisfied with secondary information. The scattered and confused transactions of the Anglo-Saxon period, under the skilful management of Mr. Lingard, find an easy and interesting arrangement; and the administrations of the Bretwaldas, the vicissitudes of the different kingdoms, and the reigns of the West Saxon rulers, as well as of the monarchs of England, are vigorously sketched.

Notwithstanding the defects of the Saxon institutions, they contained the elements of freedom and impartial justice; and to their origination may be traced many of the most highly valued of our present privileges. In all the various departments of judicial administration, care was taken to introduce the most effective agents. The bighest political tribunal of the realm is thus described by Mr. Lingard.

*Life of Latimer.

All the occasional courts, respectable as they might be, were eclipsed by the superior splendour and dignity of the "mickle synoths or witenagemots," the great meetings, or the assemblies of the counsellors, which were regularly convened at the festivals of Christmas, Easter, and Whitsuntide, and occasionally, at other times, as difficult circumstances or sudden exigencies might require. Who were the constituent members of this supreme tribunal, has long been a subject of debate: and the dissertations, to which it has given rise, have only contributed to involve it in greater obscurity. It has been pretended that not only the military tenants had a right to be present, but that the ceorls also attended by their representatives, the borsholders of the tythings. The latter part of the assertion has been made without a shadow of evidence, and the former is built on very fallacious grounds. It is indeed probable that in the infancy of the Anglo-Saxon states most of the military retainers may have attended the public councils : yet even the deliberations were confined to the chieftains; and nothing remained for the vassals but to applaud the determination of their lords. But in later times, when the several principalities were united into one monarchy, the recurrence of these assemblies, thrice in every year within the short space of six months, would have been an insupportable burthen to the lesser proprietors: and there is reason to suspect that the greater attended only when it was required by the importance of events, or by the vicinity of the court. The principal members seem to have been the spiritual and temporal thanes, who held immediately of the crown, and who could command the services of military vassals. It was necessary that the King should obtain the assent of these to all legislative enactments: because without their acquiescence and support it was impossible to carry them into execution. To many charters we have the signatures of the witan. They seldom exceed thirty in number; they never amount to sixty. They include the names of the king and his sons, of a few bishops and abbots, of nearly an equal number of ealdormen and thanes, and occasionally of the queen, and of one or two abbesses. Others, the fideles or vassals, who had accompanied their lords, are mentioned as looking on and applauding: but there exists no proof whatever, that they enjoyed any share in the deliberations.

The legal powers of this assembly have never been accurately ascertained: probably they were never fully defined. To them, on the vacancy of the crown, belonged the choice of the next sovereign: and we find them exercising this claim not only at the decease of each king, but even during the absence of Ethelred in Normandy. They compelled him to enter into a solemn compact with the nation, before they would acknowledge him a second time for king of England. In ordinary cases their deliberations were held in the presence of the sovereign: and as individually they were his vassals, as they had sworn to love what he loved, and shun what he shunned," there can be little doubt that they generally acquiesced in his wishes. In the preambles to the Saxon laws the king sometimes assumes a lofty strain. He decrees: the witan give their advice. He denominates himself the sovereign: they are his bishops, his ealdormen, his thanes. But on other occasions this style of royalty disappears, and the legis

« PreviousContinue »