Letters on England HTML version

9. On The Government
That mixture in the English Government, that harmony between King, Lords, and
commons, did not always subsist. England was enslaved for a long series of
years by the Romans, the Saxons, the Danes, and the French successively.
William the Conqueror particularly, ruled them with a rod of iron. He disposed as
absolutely of the lives and fortunes of his conquered subjects as an eastern
monarch; and forbade, upon pain of death, the English either fire or candle in
their houses after eight o'clock; whether was this to prevent their nocturnal
meetings, or only to try, by an odd and whimsical prohibition, how far it was
possible for one man to extend his power over his fellow-creatures. It is true,
indeed, that the English had Parliaments before and after William the Conqueror,
and they boast of them, as though these assemblies then called Parliaments,
composed of ecclesiastical tyrants and of plunderers entitled barons, had been
the guardians of the public liberty and happiness.
The barbarians who came from the shores of the Baltic, and settled in the rest of
Europe, brought with them the form of government called States or Parliaments,
about which so much noise is made, and which are so little understood. Kings,
indeed, were not absolute in those days; but then the people were more
wretched upon that very account, and more completely enslaved. The chiefs of
these savages, who had laid waste France, Italy, Spain, and England, made
themselves monarchs. Their generals divided among themselves the several
countries they had conquered, whence sprung those margraves, those peers,
those barons, those petty tyrants, who often contested with their sovereigns for
the spoils of whole nations. These were birds of prey fighting with an eagle for
doves whose blood the victorious was to suck. Every nation, instead of being
governed by one master, was trampled upon by a hundred tyrants. The priests
soon played a part among them. Before this it had been the fate of the Gauls, the
Germans, and the Britons, to be always governed by their Druids and the chiefs
of their villages, an ancient kind of barons, not so tyrannical as their successors.
These Druids pretended to be mediators between God and man. They enacted
laws, they fulminated their excommunications, and sentenced to death. The
bishops succeeded, by insensible degrees, to their temporal authority in the Goth
and Vandal government. The popes set themselves at their head, and armed
with their briefs, their bulls, and reinforced by monks, they made even kings
tremble, deposed and assassinated them at pleasure, and employed every
artifice to draw into their own purses moneys from all parts of Europe. The weak
Ina, one of the tyrants of the Saxon Heptarchy in England, was the first monarch
who submitted, in his pilgrimage to Rome, to pay St. Peter's penny (equivalent
very near to a French crown) for every house in his dominions. The whole island
soon followed his example; England became insensibly one of the Pope's
provinces, and the Holy Father used to send from time to time his legates thither
to levy exorbitant taxes. At last King John delivered up by a public instrument the