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young prince naturally stepped into the throne: if he was a minor, his uncle, or the next prince of the blood, was promoted to the government, and left the sceptre to his posterity: any sovereign, by taking previous measures with the leading men, had it greatly in his power to appoint his successor: all these changes, and indeed the ordinary administration of government, required the express concurrence, or at least the tacit acquiescence of the people; but possession, however obtained, was extremely apt to secure their obedience, and the idea of any right, which was once excluded, was but feeble and imperfect. This is so much the case in all barbarous monarchies, and occurs so often in the history of the Anglo-Saxons, that we cannot consistently entertain any other notion of their government. The idea of an hereditary succession in authority is so natural to men, and is so much fortified by the usual rule in transmitting private possessions, that it must retain a great influence on every society, which does not exclude it by the refinements of a republican constitution. But as there is a material difference between government and private possessions, and every man is not as much qualified for exercising the one, as for enjoying the other; a people who are not sensible of the general advantages attending a fixed rule, are apt to make great leaps in the succession, and frequently to pass over the person, who, had he possessed the requisite years and abilities, would have been thought entitled to the sovereignty. Thus, these monarchies are not, strictly speaking, either elective or hereditary; and though the destination of a prince may often be followed in appointing his successor, they can as little be regarded as wholly testamentary. The states by their suffrage may sometimes establish a sovereign; but they more frequently recognise the person, whom they find established a few great men take the lead; the people, overawed and influenced, acquiesce in the government; and the reigning prince, provided he be of the royal family, passes undisputedly for the legal sovereign.
It is confessed, that our knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon
history and antiquities is too imperfect to afford us means of determining with certainty all the prerogatives of the crown and privileges of the people, or of giving an exact delineation of that government. It is probable also, that the constitution might be somewhat different in the different kingdoms of the Heptarchy, and that it changed considerably during the course of six centuries, which elapsed from the first invasion of the Saxons till the Norman conquesta. But most of these differences and changes, with their causes and effects, are unknown to us: it only appears, that, at all times, and in all the kingdoms, there was a national council, called a wittenagemot, or assembly of the wise men, (for that is the import of the term,) whose consent was requisite for enacting laws, and for ratifying the chief acts of public administration. The preambles to all the laws of Ethelbert, Ina, Alfred, Edward the elder, Athelstan, Edmond, Edgar, Ethelred, and Edward the confessor; even those to the laws of Canute, though a kind of conqueror, put this matter beyond controversy, and carry proofs everywhere of a limited and legal government. But who were the constituent members of this wittenagemot has not been determined with certainty by antiquaries. It is agreed that the bishops and abbotsb were an essential part; and it is also evident, from the tenor of those ancient laws, that the wittenagemot enacted statutes which regulated the ecclesiastical as well as civil government, and that those dangerous principles, by which the church is totally severed from the state, were hitherto unknown to the Anglo-Saxons. It also appears, that the aldermen or governors of counties, who, after the Danish times, were often called earls, were admitted into
a We know of one change, not inconsiderable, in the Saxon constitution. The Saxon Annals, p. 49, inform us, that it was, in early times, the prerogative of the king to name the dukes, earls, aldermen, and sheriffs of the counties. Asser, a contemporary writer, informs us, that Alfred deposed all the ignorant aldermen, and appointed men of more capacity in their place: yet the laws of Edward the confessor, sect. 35. say expressly, that the heretoghs, or dukes, and the sheriffs were chosen by the freeholders in the folkmote, a ty court, which was assembled once a year, and where all the freeholders swore allegiance to the king. b Sometimes abbesses were admitted; at least they often sign the king's charters or grants. Spelm. Gloss. in verbo Parliac Wilkins, passim. See note G, at the end of the volume.
this council, and gave their consent to the public statutes. But besides the prelates and aldermen, there is also mention of the wites, or wisemen, as a component part of the wittenagemot; but who these were, is not so clearly ascertained by the laws or the history of that period. The matter would probably be of difficult discussion, even were it examined impartially; but as our modern parties have chosen to divide on this point, the question has been disputed with the greater obstinacy, and the arguments on both sides have become, on that account, the more captious and deceitful. Our monarchical faction maintain that these 'wites,' or 'sapientes,' were the judges, or men learned in the law: the popular faction assert them to be representatives of the boroughs, or what we now call the
The expressions employed by all ancient historians in mentioning the wittenagemot, seem to contradict the latter supposition. The members are almost always called the 'principes, satrapæ, optimates, magnates, proceres ;' terms which seem to suppose an aristocracy, and to exclude the commons. The boroughs also, from the low state of commerce, were so small and so poor, and the inhabitants lived in such dependence on the great men, that it seems nowise probable they would be admitted as a part of the national councils. The commons are well known to have had no share in the governments established by the Franks, Burgundians, and other northern nations; and we may conclude that the Saxons, who remained longer barbarous and uncivilized than those tribes, would never think of conferring such an extraordinary privilege on trade and industry. The military profession alone was honourable among all those conquerors: the warriors subsisted by their possessions in land: they became considerable by their influence over their vassals, retainers, tenants, and slaves: and it requires strong proof to convince us that they would admit any of a rank so much inferior as the burgesses, to share with them in the legislative authority. Tacitus indeed Brady's Treatise of English Boroughs, p. 3, 4, 5, etc.
affirms that, among the ancient Germans, the consent of all the members of the community was required in every important deliberation; but he speaks not of representatives; and this ancient practice, mentioned by the Roman historian, could only have place in small tribes, where every citizen might without inconvenience be assembled upon any extraordinary emergency. After principalities became extensive; after the difference of property had formed distinctions more important than those which arose from personal strength and valour; we may conclude that the national assemblies must have been more limited in their number, and composed only of the more considerable citizens.
But though we must exclude the burgesses or commons from the Saxon wittenagemot, there is some necessity for supposing that this assembly consisted of other members than the prelates, abbots, aldermen, and the judges or privy council. For as all these, excepting some of the ecclesiastics, were anciently appointed by the king, had there been no other legislative authority, the royal power had been in a great measure absolute, contrary to the tenor of all the historians, and to the practice of all the northern nations. We may, therefore, conclude that the more considerable proprietors of land were, without any election, constituent members of the national assembly: there is reason to think that forty hides, or between four and five thousand acres, was the estate requisite for entitling the possessor to this honourable privilege. We find a passage in an ancient author, by which it appears that a person of very noble birth, even one allied to the crown, was not esteemed a 'princeps' (the term usually employed by ancient historians when the wittenagemot is mentioned) till he had acquired a fortune of that amount. Nor need we imagine that the public council would become dis
f There is some reason to think that the bishops were sometimes chosen by the wittenagemot, and confirmed by the king. Eddius, cap. 2. The abbots in the monasteries of royal foundation were anciently named by the king; though Edgar gave the monks the election, and only reserved to himself the ratification. This destination was afterwards frequently violated; and the abbots as well as bishops were afterwards all appointed by the king; as we learn from Ingulf, a writer contemporary to the conquest. g Hist. Eliensis, lib. ii. cap. 40.
orderly or confused by admitting so great a multitude.
It is certain that, whatever we may determine concerning the constituent members of the wittenagemot, in whom, with the king, the legislature resided, the AngloSaxon government, in the period preceding the Norman conquest, was become extremely aristocratical: the royal authority was very limited; the people, even if admitted to that assembly, were of little or no weight and consideration. We have hints given us in historians of the great power and riches of particular noblemen: and it could not but happen, after the abolition of the Heptarchy, when the king lived at a distance from the provinces, that those great proprietors, who resided on their estates, would much augment their authority over their vassals and retainers, and over all the inhabitants of the neighbourhood. Hence the immeasurable power assumed by Harold, Godwin, Leofric, Siward, Morcar, Edwin, Edric, and Alfric, who controlled the authority of the kings, and rendered themselves quite necessary in the government. The two latter, though detested by the people, on account of their joining a foreign enemy, still preserved their power and influence; and we may therefore conclude that their authority was founded, not on popu→ larity, but on family rights and possessions. There is one Athelstan, mentioned in the reign of the king of that name, who is called alderman of all England, and is said to be half king; though the monarch himself was a prince of valour and abilities". And we find that in the later Saxon times, and in these alone, the great offices went from father to son, and became in a manner hereditary in the families.
h Hist. Rames. sect. iii. p. 387. i Roger Hoveden, giving the reason why William the conqueror made Cospatric earl of Northumberland, says,