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Of heaven received us falling; and the thunder,
"Seest thou yon dreary plain, forlorn and wild,
What reinforcements we may gain from hope ;
THE COMMENCEMENT OF THE HOUSE OF COMMONS.
It is well known that the earliest writs of summons to cities and boroughs of which we can prove the existence, are those of Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, bearing date 12th December, 1264, in the forty-ninth year of Henry III. After a long controversy, almost all judicious inquirers seem to have acquiesced in admitting this origin of popular representation. The argument may be very concisely stated. We find from innumerable records that the king imposed tallages upon his demesne towns at discretion. No public instrument, previous to the forty-ninth of Henry III., names the citizens and burgesses as constituent parts of Parliament; though prelates, barons, knights, and sometimes freeholders are enumerated; whilst since the undoubted admission of the Commons, they are almost invariably mentioned. No historian speaks of representatives appearing for the people, or uses the word citizen or
burgess in describing those present at Parliament. Such convincing though negative evidence is not to be invalidated by some general and ambiguous phrases, whether in writs and records or in historians. Matthew Paris tells us that in 1237 the whole kingdom repaired to a Parliament of Henry III. But such monkish annalists are poor authorities upon any point where their language is to be delicately measured. It is hardly possible that writing circumstantially, as Roger de Hovedon and Matthew Paris sometimes did, concerning proceedings in Parliament, they could have failed to mention the Commons in unequivocal expressions, if any representatives from that order had actually formed part of the assembly.
Two authorities, however, which have been supposed to prove a greater antiquity than we have assigned to the representations of the Commons, are deserving of particular consideration—the cases of St. Albans and Barnstaple. The burgesses of St. Albans complained to the Council in the eighth year of Edward II., that, although they held of the king in capite, and ought to attend his Parliaments whenever they are summoned, by two of their number, instead of all other services, as had been their custom in all past times, which services the said burgesses and their predecessors had performed in the time of the late king Edward and his ancestors, as in that of the present king until the Parliament now sitting, the names of their deputies having been constantly enrolled in Chancery, yet the sheriff of Hertfordshire, at the instigation of the Abbot of St. Albans, had neglected to cause an election and return to be made; and prayed remedy. To this petition it was answered: "Let the rolls of Chancery be examined, that it may appear whether the said burgesses were accustomed to come to Parliament, or not, in the time of the king's ancestors, and let right be done them."
This is, by far, the most plausible testimony for the early representation of boroughs. The burgesses of St. Albans claim a prescriptive right from the usage of all past times, and more especially those of the late Edward and his ancestors. Could this be alleged, it is said, of a privilege at the utmost of fifty years' standing, once granted by
an usurper in the days of the late king's father, and afterwards discontinued till about twenty years before the date of their petition, according to those who refer the regular appearance of the Commons to the twenty-third of Edward I. It was observed by Madox, that the petition of St. Albans contains two very singular allegations: it asserts that the town was part of the king's demesne, whereas it had invariably belonged to the adjoining abbey; and that its burgesses held by the tenure of attending Parliament, instead of all other services, contrary to all analogy, and without parallel in the condition of any tenant in capite throughout the kingdom. "It is no wonder, therefore,” says Hume, "that a petition which advances two falsehoods should contain one historical mistake, which, indeed, amounts only to an inaccurate expression." But it must be confessed that we cannot so easily set aside the whole authority of this record. For whatever assurance the people of St. Albans might show in asserting what was untrue, the king's councils must have been aware how recently the deputies of any towns had been admitted into Parliament. If the lawful birth of the House of Commons were in 1295, as is maintained, is it conceivable that in 1315 the council would have received a petition claiming the elective franchise by prescription, and have referred to the rolls of Chancery to inquire whether this had been used in the days of the king's progenitors? No answer can easily be given to this objection by such as adopt the latest epoch of borough representation, namely, the Parliament of the twenty-third year of Edward I.
But they are by no means equally conclusive against the supposition that the communities of cities and towns, having been first introduced into the legislature during Leicester's usurpation in the forty-ninth year of Henry III., were summoned, not perhaps uniformly, but without any long intermission, to succeeding Parliaments. There is a strong presumption from the language of a contemporary historian that they sat in the Parliament of 1269, four years after that convened by Leicester. It is more unequivocally stated by another annalist that they were present in the first Parliament of Edward I., held in 1271,
And the writs are extant, which summon every city, borough, and market town to send two deputies to a council in the eleventh year of his reign. The knights and burgesses thus chosen, as well as the clergy within the province of Canterbury, met at Northampton: those within the province of York at that city. Ând neither assembly was opened by the king. This anomalous convention was, nevertheless, one means of establishing the representative system, and to an inquirer free from technical prejudice is little less important than a regular Parliament. Nor have we long to look even for this. the same year, about eight months after the councils at Northampton and York, writs were issued, summoning to a Parliament at Shrewsbury two citizens from London, and as many from each of twenty other considerable towns. Though a very imperfect, this was a regular and unequivocal representation of the Commons in Parliament. But their attendance seems to have intermitted from this time to the twenty-third year of Edward's reign.
Those to whom the petition of St. Albans is not satisfactory will hardly yield their conviction to that of Barnstaple. This town set forth, in the eighteenth year of Edward III., that among other franchises granted to them by a charter of Athelstan, they had ever since exercised the right of sending two burgesses to Parliament. The said charter, indeed, was unfortunately mislaid; and the prayer of their petition was to obtain one of the like import in its stead. Barnstaple, it must be observed, was a town belonging to Lord Audley, and had actually returned members ever since the twenty-third of Edward I. Upon an inquisition directed by the king to be made into the truth of these allegations, it was found that "the burgesses of the said town were wont to send two burgesses to Parliament for the commonalty of the borough;" but nothing appeared as to the pretended charter of Athelstan, or the liberties which it was alleged to contain. The burgesses, dissatisfied with this inquest, prevailed that another should be taken, which certainly better answered their wishes. The second jury found " that Barnstaple was a free town from time immemorial; that the burgesses had
enjoyed, under a charter of Athelstan, which had been casually lost, certain franchises by them enumerated, and particularly that they should send two burgesses to Parliament; and that it would not be to the king's prejudice if he should grant them a fresh charter in terms equally ample with that of his predecessor Athelstan." But the following year we have another writ, and another inquest, the former reciting that the second return had been unduly and fraudulently made; and the latter expressly contradicting the previous inquest on many points, and especially finding no proof of Athelstan's supposed charter. Comparing the various parts of this business, we shall probably be induced to agree that it was but an attempt of the inhabitants of Barnstaple to withdraw themselves from the jurisdiction of their lord for the right of returning burgesses, though it is the main point of our inquiries, was by no means the most prominent part of their petition, which rather went to establish some civil privileges of revising their tenements, and electing their own mayor.
It has, however, probably occurred to the reader, that in these two cases of St. Albans and Barnstaple, the representation of the Commons in Parliament was not treated as a novelty, even in times little posterior to those in which we have been supposing it to have originated. In this consists the whole strength of the opposite argument. An act in the fifth year of Richard II. declares that if any sheriff shall leave out of his returns any cities or boroughs which be bound, and of old time were wont, to come to the Parliament, he shall be punished as was accustomed to be done in the like case in time past. In the memorable assertion of legislative right by the Commons in the second year of Henry V., they affirm that "the commune of the land is, and ever has been, a member of Parliament." And the consenting suffrage of our older law-books must be placed in the same scale. The first gainsayers were Camden and Sir Henry Spelman, who upon probing the antiquities of our constitution somewhat more exactly than their predecessors, declared that they could find no signs of the Commons in Parliament till the forty-ninth year of Henry III. Prynne, some years afterwards, with much