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The Origins Of Modern Constitutionalism|
The House of Lords
by Wormuth, Francis D.
|At the opening of hostilities a majority of the
lords aligned themselves with Charles. In 1648 most of those who still adhered
to the Commons deserted. The handful of peers left in the House of Lords in
January, 1649, dared neither approve nor reject the Commons' bill for the trial
of Charles, and therefore they adjourned themselves in order to evade the
issue. The Commons proceeded with the trial and then abolished both the
kingship and the House of Lords.|
Nathaniel Bacon remarked after the Restoration that the events of the
Civil Wars showed lordship to be "a mere jelly." He was right. The House of
Lords fell without serious attack and without great regret. It was inconvenient
and it was brushed aside.
It is reliably reported that Cromwell in 1644 said to the Earl of
Manchester that "It would not be well, neither should we see good days, whilst
there was one Lord left in England, nor until you my Lord of Manchester be
called Mr. Montagu."1 These words, however, arose from a suspicion
that the peers were lukewarm toward the war, rather than from any abstract
political principle. It was the Levellers who first challenged the House of
Lords on the ground of right. Lilburne's imprisonment by the Lords in 1646
prompted Richard Overton's Alarm to the House of Lords, a violent attack
on the peers. They had denied Lilburne's right to the title of
Lieutenant-Colonel, said Overton, but he deserved it as well or better than
they did their titles: "for by what means some of you came by yours, is very
uncertain, but this is certain, that most of you gained no part of it
yourselves: and the common ways your ancestors gained it for you, was generally
by adhering to kings, in subduing and oppressing the commons, or by pleasing
their lusts, malice, revenge, or covetousness, for so histories manifest."
The Remonstrance of Many Thousand Citizens appeared three days
after Overton's Alarm. The Remonstrance denied that the Lords had any judicial
power over commoners, it argued against their being allowed a share in the
legislative power, and it attacked the privileges of peers. Thereafter the
Levellers recognized only the House of Commons as a lawful organ of government.
It will be observed that Lilburne's collisions with established authority
resulted in a progressive narrowing of permissible institutions; he and his
followers rejected the king, the Lords, and the existing law, and thought not
well of the Commons. But this reduction in the number of institutions implied a
broadening of the base of government, and so the Levellers came to a doctrine
of popular sovereignty.
The attacks of the Levellers drew forth a few defenses of the Lords. It
was argued that the Lords were an essential element in the mixed monarchy. "The
peers are the screen which stands between prerogative and liberty, and keeps
each from scorching other; that commisura cervicis which marries head to
body; the mean between the extremes, a gallery between royalty and property
which makes them keep their due distance; they are lenitives, which allay
monarchy, and of mercury sublimate make it a wholesome medicine: in sum by
their means we are famed and envied, for our happy mixed monarchy."2
In 1648 William Prynne, a Presbyterian lawyer, published A Plea for the
Lords. Prynne was a prolific and turbid writer who began his career by
attacking lovelocks, play-acting, and episcopacy; he wrote for the Long
Parliament in the early days of the Civil Wars, and against Independency and
the Army in the latter days; he was a vigorous advocate of the return of the
Stuarts in 1659. His argument usually did not rise above the citation of
statutes and Scripture, but in the Plea for the Lords he strove to reach
the level of policy. Peers were entitled to legislative and judicial powers,
according to Prynne, because they were wiser and more experienced and more
valiant than other men. Their generous heroic spirits, and their substantial
estates, enabled them to resist the threats and influence of the king, whereas
meaner men might be terrified or corrupted. Their greater estates gave them an
interest distinct from the commons, and this entitled them to a separate voice
The Humble Petition and Advice created an "other House" to be a balance
to the Commons and to mediate between the Protector and the people. It was an
attempt to approach the forms of the old constitution. The nostalgia for the
old order could not be satisfied, however, by anything short of a return to the
traditional system of king, Lords, and Commons.
(1) S. R. Gardiner, History of the Great Civil
War (London, 1894), ii, 24, cites Denzil Holies; see also A Second
Narrative of the Late Parliament (1658), p. 4; [John Spittlehouse] An
Answer to One Part of the Lord Protector's Speech (London, 1654), p. 2;
[John Harris] Peace and not War (London, 1659), p. 11.
(2) Some Observations on the Late Dangerous Petition
Presented to the House of Commons, September 11, 1648 (London, 1648), p.