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The charters of the Conqueror are prima facie evidence of an antecedent existence of corporate rights in the city of London, inasmuch as they confirm the laws enjoyed in the reign of Edward the Confessor ; but we have written proofs existing of a much earlier date. In the laws of the time of Æthelstan, a very remarkable passage occurs, which has been thus literally translated by Mr. Toulmin Smith That we gather together to us always once every month, if we can and have free time, the hundred men and those who look to the tythings, ... and know what of our ordinance has been done.'* The citizens are frequently mentioned in the Saxon Chronicle,t as the burh-waru of London, or Lunden-burh ; thus, all the witan who were in London, and the burh-waru, chose Eadmund King Charters of the Confessor, addressed to the portreeve and all the burhware of London, clearly prove the corporate character of the city in those days. But these points are more interesting as historical illustrations than useful, so far as our present purpose is concerned ; for our aim is to point out, by a few leading facts, the popular character of citizenship which prevailed in ancient times.
In none of the charters or laws which we may have occasion to cite will one clause be found to justify the very modern notion of any exclusive body of so called 'freemen;' on the contrary, they all point to the same clear fact, that the whole commonalty of the city composed the corporation. The charters to the city of London, about one hundred in number, are either addressed to the citizens,' to the commonalty,' or to the 'mayor, commonalty, and citizens.' The whole citizens, i.e. the commonalty, constituted the corpus of the corporation. 'In London,' says Lord Coke, making a comparison with the institutions of local self-government throughout the country, the parishes are as towns [i.e. vills or tythings), and the wards are as hundreds.'+ And Sir Henry Spelman, speaking of the general system, but which is equally applicable to the case of London, shows that frequent and regular meetings of each were anciently enjoined, with the special end not only of getting justice and of dealing it, but of understanding what things have regard to peace, and to the public welfare. This it will be observed is a remarkable feature in our ancient despised institutions; the English constitution everywhere makes complete provision for the political education of the people, to enable them healthily to form their opinions, and to express their opinions. Free discussion was the end proposed, unlike our degenerate system of public meetings, with their foregone conclusions, pre-arranged results, and systematic prohibition of all opposition to the oratory and oracleism of the magnates of the platform. A curious passage cited by Mr. Toulmin Smith, from laws of the time of Æthelstan, is worth quotation, in illustration of the antiquity of the civic division mentioned by Coke. The law provides :
• Ancient Laws and Institutes of England, vol. i. P.
+ In addition to which, Mr. Smith cites Florence of Worcester, Henry of Huntingdon, William of Malmesbury, &c.
| 4 Institute, 249.
That we tell always ten men together; and the eldest (elder-man, chief), look to the nine as to all those proceedings which we have all ordained; and afterwards (tell) their hundreds together, and one hundredman (as chief), who shall remind the ten as to the common need of us all. And these eleven shall hold the money of the hundred; and judge what they shall spend when any one shall be to pay, and what they, again, shall take if any arise to us at our common claim, &c.'
A work in the archives of the corporation, entitled ' Liber de Antiquis Legibus, abounds not only with remarkable proofs in point, but with valuable historical illustrations. The commonalty, in folkmote assembled, there appears as the only authority recognised or allowed as the mouth-piece of the corporation. In 1248, Henry III. being anxious to obtain a certain grant of land to the Abbot of Westminster, invited the mayor and certain citizens to Westminster, and pressed them on the subject, but they replied that they could not do as desired without the assent of the whole community. The king renewed the attempt in the following year, but the whole commonalty being opposed to it, his majesty was compelled to abandon the design. Several instances are mentioned in the same record of the king coming into London to ask leave from the commonalty to go abroad. In 1258, “the king came to Paul's Cross, the innumerable people of the city being gathered together in folkmote, and there took leave (cepit licentiam) from the people (a populo), to go over sea.' Again, in 1260, the king, on the Sunday after the feast of Peter and Paul, took leave at Paul's Cross to go over sea into France, from the citizens of London.'
It is in this century that we find the first trace of a court of aldermen. In 1200, twenty-five men were first elected and sworn, to help the mayor of the city in the discharge of his functions. Like the old hundredmen, they were thus elective from the beginning. Our satirists, who so frequently talk of the ‘aldermanzation of justice, cannot in this instance make merry with the wisdom of their ancestors. In 1229 it was ordained,
by the assent of the whole citizens' (per assensum universorum civium), that no sheriff should remain in office more than a year; and in 1244 the mayor was charged with perjury for attempting to admit a sheriff two years together; while in 1270 the citizens asserted and exercised their right to turn out any sheriff who misbehaved himself, and to choose another.
In the reign of Edward III. we have a striking proof of Mr. Toulmin Smith's third proposition. It is necessary to premise that, by a declaratory law of William I., it was expressly stated that, if serfs' shall have remained without complaint for a year and a day in our cities, or in walled towns, or in our castles, let them be fulfilled as free (liberi efficiantur); and free from the yoke of their bondage let them be for ever. If the lord of a serf answered his serf in a court of law, it was reckoned, by that noble common law which always favours liberty,' as an admission of the freedom of the other party. In 1373 certain seigneurs and commons of the land petitioned Parliament, representing that, whereas many villains of the land go often to London, and there bring writs of debt and other contracts against their lords in the city of London, as being free, with evil intent, which city has no cognizance of villainage, they pray that villainage shall be tried in the shire where the villainage is alleged.' To which Parliament made this reply: * For the divers perils and mischiefs which would happen in this case, the king and his seigneurs do not wish at this time to change the common law as used heretofore.'t The writer of the ancient record above cited, who seems to have been as exclusive in his feelings as any modern alderman conservative of abuses, speaks frequently in a querulous tone of the presence of men servile-born at the folkmote-invaluable testimony, certainly, in favour of the liberality and enlightenment of our citizen forefathers.
One or two other illustrations of the democratic character of the corporation in ancient times. The statute 5 Edw. II. (1311) says, ' Anciently it was provided, for the profit of the city and realm, and to preserve the peace of the king, that every alderman should hold four principal wardmotes in the year, to which should come all those who resided in the ward, of the age
of fifteen years and upwards, and there be put in frankpledge,' &c.; and two centuries and a half later we find, in the 1 and 2 Phil. and Mary, a provision of a like nature.
Only one passage has been adduced in favour of an exclusive freemanship. In a report by the Traders' Freedom Committee, presented to the Court of Common Council on the 4th of July, 1844, a passage is cited from the statute of Gavelet (10 Edw. II.), in which the words 'freemen of the city of London' occur. Mr.
• Ancient Laws and Institutes, vol. i. p. 494.
Toulmin Smith, with his usual desire for truth, has gone to the original, and found a mistranslation. The word translated 'freemen' has an entirely different meaning and reference, pointing expressly and only to certain officers called sokereeves,' who represented the interests of certain lords, and other owners of property within the city.
We take another leap of 128 years, from Philip and Mary to Charles II.; and in the famous, or infamous, proceedings of the Quo Warranto of 1682 we find proof equally valuable and conclusive. It was granted in the pleadings in that case, that the mayor, commonalty, and citizens—that is, the corporationconsisted of about 50,000 men; and the learned recorder, Sir George Treby, the mouthpiece of the corporation, declared that the least citizen has as much and as true an interest in the corporation of the city of London as the greatest.' When England happily freed herself from the tyranny and usurpations of the Stuarts, and when the 2 William and Mary, st. i. c. 8, was passed, to annul the illegal judgment on the Quo Warranto, the mayor, commonalty, and citizens, were expressly restored to their ancient rights and liberties.
The term “freeman,' as an exclusive one, grew into use in reference to particular trading companies which existed within the city, but altogether independent, as companies, of the corporation, although all the members were, and are, as individuals, members of the body corporate.
In 1724, under the corrupt administration of George I., the most iniquitous inroad perhaps ever made on free institutions was perpetrated under the sanction of Parliament. The Act 11 George I. c. 18—a private act be it remembered—was obtained by force and fraud.
*Only thirty-five years (says Mr. Toulmin Smith) after the statute of William and Mary had so expressly re-affirmed the actual constitution of the corporation, a few aldermen, regardless alike of their oaths, their duty, and their fair fame, sought treacherously to betray the interests they were appointed to protect; and by means of a corrupt ministry in Parliament, and the cannon's mouth, and a strong military array at Guildhall, and by those means only, and in defiance of the common law of the land, and the law of Parliament itself, they succeeded. It is to be well noticed, however-what is, strangely enough, generally forgotten—that even this iniquitous act does not pretend to alter the constituent elements of the corporation. The corporation still consists, as ever, of the whole body of the citizens, without distinction, restriction, or exclusion. It was simply an arbitrary attempt to exclude a large part of the members of the corporation from the full share in its management, and so to make it the better means for selfish aggrandisement. And this is accomplished, as usual, in arbitrary and empirical measures, in a way at once anomalous, inconsistent, and absurd. By the constitution of London, all the commonalty and citizens were the chosers of every functionary; the only difference being, that those who are officers of the whole corporation, in its character as a unity, were chosen in folkmote in the Guildhall, while those who are officers of the separate wards were chosen in wardmote. This act, while losing sight altogether of the real constitutional franchise in each case alike, declares that, in the election of the former officers, only those shall vote who happen to be “ freemen' and “liverymen' of some company ; while in the election of the latter, those only shall vote who happen to be “freemen' and “householders' to a given amount of rent. Each of these empirical and arbitrary tests is totally irrelevant to the only constitutional one of bonâ fide occupancy, and may or may not co-exist with that test; while, with the exception of the being a householder, each one may, also, exist without the fact of occupancy at all!'-Pp. 34, 35.
It almost passes belief that the citizens of London should have quietly submitted, for a century and a quarter to the oligarchical usurpation of this nefarious Alderman's Act. But they fell in commercial times, when men were in too great haste to grow rich to be over-mindful of the rights and liberties of their poorer brethren of the commonalty.
Last year, however, the common council, moved by certain manifestations of impatience on the part of the commonalty, went to Parliament, and obtained a private measure, which they dignified with the name of a Reform’ Act. Of that statute, perhaps, the least said the better; it is ungenerous to speak harshly of the unfortunate. The 12 and 13 Victoria, c. 94, came into the world so misshapen and sickly, that the lawyers instantly went to loggerheads as to what it meant. It professes to be an enfranchising act, but on the lucus a non lucendo principle, and only adds confusion to the injustice of the Alderman's Act:
• Framed (says Mr. Toulmin Smith) in disregard of any principle, it also is, as all such acts must be, purely arbitrary and empirical. It is sufficient now to say that besides other anomalies, it adds to former restraints and restrictions the inherently vicious test of a rate-paying clause.'
And the learned gentleman adds this brief, but forcible argument on the point-a radical error, apparent in almost all the schemes of reform' fashionable at the present day, and made familiar to every one by the ear-catching fallacy of taxation and representation:
The paying of any rates, or other scot, is one of the obligations