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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 in government.

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.

NOTES

(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. 10.

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