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The History of England, Volume I by David Hume

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This question has been disputed with as great zeal and even acrimony,
between the Scotch and Irish antiquaries, as if the honour of their
respective countries were the most deeply concerned in the decision.
We shall not enter into any detail on so uninteresting a subject, but
shall propose our opinion in a few words. It appears more than
probable, from the similitude of language and manners, that Britain
either was originally peopled, or was subdued, by the migration of
inhabitants from Gaul, and Ireland from Britain: the position of the
several countries is an additional reason that favours this
conclusion. It appears also probable, that the migration of that
colony of Gauls or Celts, who peopled or subdued Ireland, was
originally made from the north-west parts of Britain; and this
conjecture (if it do not merit a higher name) is founded both on the
Irish language, which is a very different dialect from the Welsh, and
from the language anciently spoken in South Britain; and on the
vicinity of Lancashire, Cumberland, Galloway, and Argyleshire, to that
island. These events, as they passed long before the age of history
and records, must be known by reasoning alone, which in this case
seems to be pretty satisfactory: Caesar and Tacitus, not to mention a
multitude of other Greek and Roman authors, were guided by like
inferences. But besides these primitive facts, which lie in a very
remote antiquity, it is a matter of positive and undoubted testimony,
that the Roman province of Britain, during the time of the lower
empire, was much infested by bands of robbers or pirates, whom the
provincial Britons called Scots or Scuits; a name which was probably
used as a term of reproach, and which these banditti themselves did
not acknowledge or assume. We may infer from two passages in
Claudian, and from one in Orosius, and another in Isidore, that the
chief seat of these Scots was in Ireland. That some part of the Irish
freebooters migrated back to the north-west parts of Britain, whence
their ancestors had probably been derived in a more remote age, is
positively asserted by Bede, and implied in Gildas. I grant that
neither Bede nor Gildas are Caesars or Tacituses; but such as they
are, they remain the sole testimony on the subject, and therefore must
be relied on for want of better: happily, the frivolousness of the
question corresponds to the weakness of the authorities. Not to
mention, that if any part of the traditional history of a barbarous
people can be relied on, it is the genealogy of nations, and even
sometimes that of families. It is in vain to argue against these
facts from the supposed warlike disposition of the Highlanders, and
unwarlike of the ancient Irish. Those arguments are still much weaker
than the authorities. Nations change very quickly in these
particulars. The Britons were unable to resist the Picts and Scots,
and invited over the Saxons for their defence, who repelled those
invaders: yet the same Britons valiantly resisted for one hundred and
fifty years, not only this victorious band of Saxons, but infinite
numbers more, who poured in upon them from all quarters. Robert
Bruce, in 1322, made a peace, in which England, after many defeats,
was constrained to acknowledge the independence of his country: yet in
no more distant period than ten years after, Scotland was totally
subdued by a small handful of English, led by a few private noblemen.
All history is full of such events. The Irish Scots, in the course of
two or three centuries, might find time and opportunities sufficient
to settle in North Britain, though we can neither assign the period
nor causes of that revolution. Their barbarous manner of life
rendered them much fitter than the Romans for subduing these
mountaineers. And, in a word, it is clear from the language of the
two countries, that the Highlanders and the Irish are the same people,
and that the one are a colony from the other. We have positive
evidence which, though from neutral persons, is not perhaps the best
that may be wished for, that the former, in the third or fourth
century, sprang from the latter: we have no evidence at all that the
latter sprang from the former. I shall add, that the name of Erse or
Irish given by the low-country Scotch to the language of the Scotch
Highlanders, is a certain proof of the traditional opinion delivered
from father to son, that the latter people came originally from


There is a seeming contradiction in ancient historians with regard to
some circumstances in the story of Edwy and Elgiva. It is agreed that
this prince had a violent passion for his second or third cousin,
Elgiva, whom he married, though within the degrees prohibited by the
canons. It is also agreed, that he was dragged from a lady on the day
of his coronation, and that the lady was afterwards treated with the
singular barbarity above mentioned. The only difference is, that
Osberne and some others call her his strumpet, not his wife, as she is
said to be by Malmesbury. But this difference is easily reconciled;
for if Edwy married her contrary to the canons, the monks would be
sure to deny her to be his wife, and would insist that she could be
nothing but his strumpet; to that, on the whole, we may esteem this
representation of the matter as certain, at least, as by far the most
probable. If Edwy had only kept a mistress, it is well known that
there are methods of accommodation with the church, which would have
prevented the clergy from proceeding to such extremities against him:
but his marriage contrary to the canons, was an insult on their
authority, and called for their highest resentment.


Many of the English historians make Edgar's ships amount to an
extravagant number, to three thousand, or three thousand six hundred:
see Hoveden, p. 426. Flor. Wigorn. p. 607. Abbas Rieval. p. 360.
Brompton, p. 869, says, that Edgar had four thousand vessels. How can
these accounts be reconciled to probability, and to the state of the
navy in the time of Alfred? W. Thorne makes the whole number amount
only to three hundred, which is more probable. The fleet of Ethelred,
Edgar's son, must have been short of one thousand ships; yet the Saxon
Chronicle, p. 137, says, it was the greatest navy that ever had been
seen in England.


Almost all the ancient historians speak of this massacre of the Danes
as if it had been universal, and as if every individual of that nation
throughout England had been put to death. But the Danes were almost
the sole inhabitants in the kingdoms of Northumberland and East-
Anglia, and were very numerous in Mercia. This representation,
therefore, of the matter is absolutely impossible. Great resistance
must have been made, and violent wars ensued; which was not the case.
This account given by Wallingford, though he stands single, must he
admitted as the only true one. We are told that the name LURDANE,
LORD DANE, for an idle lazy fellow, who lives at other people's
expense, came from the conduct of the Danes, who were put to death.
But the English princes had been entirely masters for several
generations; and only supported a military corps of that nation. It
seems probable, therefore, that it was these Danes only that were put
to death.


The ingenious author of the article GODWIN, in the Biographia
Britannica, has endeavoured to clear the memory of that nobleman, upon
the supposition, that all the English annals had been falsified by the
Norman historians after the Conquest. But that this supposition has
not much foundation, appears hence, that almost all these historians
have given a very good character to his son Harold, whom it was much
more the interest of the Norman cause to blacken.


The whole story of the transactions between Edward, Harold, and the
Duke of Normandy, is told so differently by the ancient writers, that
there are few important passages of the English history liable to so
great uncertainty. I have followed the account which appeared to me
the most consistent and probable. It does not seem likely, that
Edward ever executed a will in the duke's favour, much less that he
got it ratified by the states of the kingdom, as is affirmed by some.
The will would have been known to all, and would have been produced by
the Conqueror, to whom it gave so plausible, and really so just a
title; but the doubtful and ambiguous manner in which he seems always
to have mentioned it, proves that he could only plead the known
intentions of that monarch in his favour, which he was desirous to
call a will. There is indeed a charter of the Conqueror preserved by
Dr. Hickes, vol. i., where he calls himself REX HEREDITARIUS, meaning
heir by will; but a prince possessed of so much power, and attended
with so much success, may employ what pretence he pleases: it is
sufficient to refute his pretences, to observe that there is a great
difference and variation among historians, with regard to a point
which, had it been real, must have been agreed upon by all of them.

Again, some historians, particularly Malmesbury and Matthew of
Westminster, affirm that Harold had no intention of going over to
Normandy, but, that taking the air in a pleasure boat on the coast, he
was driven over, by stress of weather, to the territories of Guy,
Count of Ponthieu: but besides that this story is not probable in
itself, and is contradicted by most of the ancient historians, it is
contradicted by a very curious and authentic monument lately
discovered. It is a tapestry, preserved in the ducal palace of Rouen,
and supposed to have been wrought by orders of Matilda, wife to the
emperor: at least it is of very great antiquity. Harold is there
represented as taking his departure from King Edward in execution of
some commission, and mounting his vessel with a great train. The
design of redeeming his brother and nephew, who were hostages, is the
most likely cause that can be assigned; and is accordingly mentioned
by Eadmer, Hoveden, Brompton, and Simeon of Durham. For a farther
account of this piece of tapestry, see Histoire de l'Academie de
Litterature, tom. ix. p. 535.


It appears from the ancient translations of the Saxon annals and laws,
and from King Alfred's translation of Bede, as well as from all the
ancient historians, that COMES in Latin, ALDERMAN in Saxon, and EARL
in Dano-Saxon, were quite synonymous. There is only a clause in a law
of King Athelstan's (see Spellm. Conc. p. 406) which has stumbled some
antiquaries, and has made them imagine that an earl was superior to an
alderman. The weregild, or the price of an earl's blood, is there
fixed at fifteen thousand thrimsas, equal to that of an archbishop;
whereas that of a bishop and alderman is only eight thousand thrimsas.
To solve this difficulty we must have recourse to Selden's conjecture,
(see his Titles of Honour, chap. v. p. 603, 604,) that the term of
earl was in the age of Athelstan just beginning to be in use in
England, and stood at that time for the atheling or prince of the
blood, heir to the crown. This he confirms by a law of Canute, Sec.
55, where an atheling and an archbishop are put upon the same footing.
In another law of the same Athelstan, the weregild of the prince, or
atheling, is said to be fifteen thousand thrimsas. See Wilkins, p.
71. He is therefore the same who is called earl in the former law.


There is a paper or record of the family of Sharneborn, which
pretends, that that family, which was Saxon, was restored upon proving
their innocence, as well as other Saxon families which were in the
same situation. Though this paper was able to impose on such great
antiquaries as Spellman (see Gloss. in verbo DRENGES) and Dugdale,
(see Baron. vol. i. p. 118,) it is proved by Dr. Brady (see Answ. to
Petyt, p. 11, 12) to have been a forgery; and is allowed as such by
Tyrrel, though a pertinacious defender of his party notions (see his
Hist. vol. ii. introd. p. 51, 73). Ingulf, p. 70, tells us, that very
early, Hereward, though absent during the time of the Conquest, was
turned out of all his estate, and could not obtain redress. William
even plundered the monasteries. Flor. Wigorn. p. 636. Chron. Abb.
St. Petri de Burgo, p. 48. M. Paris, p. 5. Sim. Dun. p. 200.
Diceto, p. 482. Brompton, p. 967. Knyghton, p. 2344. Alur. Beverl.
p. 130. We are told by Ingulf, that Ivo de Taillebois plundered the
monastery of Croyland of a great part of its land, and no redress
could be obtained.


The obliging of all the inhabitants to put out their fires and lights
at certain hours, upon the sounding of a bell called the COURFEU, is
represented by Polydore Vergil, lib. 9, as a mark of the servitude of
the English. But this was a law of police, which William had
previously established in Normandy. See Du Moulin, Hist. de
Normandie, p. 160. The same law had place in Scotland. LL. Burgor
cap. 86.


What these laws were of Edward the Confessor, which the English, every
reign during a century and a half, desire so passionately to have
restored, is much disputed by antiquaries, and our ignorance of them
seems one of the greatest defects in the ancient English history. The
collection of laws in Wilkins, which pass under the name of Edward,
are plainly a posterior and an ignorant compilation. Those to be
found in Ingulf are genuine; but so imperfect, and contain so few
clauses favourable to the subject, that we see no great reason for
their contending for them so vehemently. It is probable, that the
English meant the COMMON LAW, as it prevailed during the reign of
Edward; which we may conjecture to have been more indulgent to liberty
than the Norman institutions. The most material articles of it were
afterwards comprehended in Magna Charta.


Ingulf, p. 70. H. Hunt. p. 370, 372. M. West. p. 225. Gul. Neub. p.
357. Alured. Beverl. p. 124. De Gest. Angl. p. 333. M. Paris, p. 4.
Sim. Dun. p. 206. Brompton, p. 962, 980, 1161. Gervase Tilb. lib. i.
cap. 16. Textus Roffensis apud Seld. Spicileg. ad Eadm. p. 179. Gul.
Pict. p. 206. Ordericus Vitalis, p. 621, 666, 853. Epist. St. Thom.
p. 801. Gul. Malmes. p. 52, 57. Knyghton, p. 2354. Eadmer. p. 110.
Thom. Rudborne in Ang. Sacra, vol. i. p. 248. Monach. Roff. in Ang
Sacra, vol. ii. p. 276. Girald. Camb. in eadem, vol. ii. p. 413.
Hist Elyensis, p. 516. The words of this last historian, who is very
ancient, are remarkable and worth transcribing: "REX ITAQUE FACTUS


Henry, by the feudal customs, was entitled to levy a tax for the
marrying of his eldest daughter, and he exacted three shillings a hide
on all England. H. Hunt. p. 379. Some historians (Brady, p. 270, and
Tyrrel, vol. ii. p. 182) heedlessly make this sum amount to above
eight hundred thousand pounds of our present money: but it could not
exceed one hundred and thirty-five thousand. Five hides, sometimes
less, made a knight's fee, of which there were about sixty thousand in
England, consequently near three hundred thousand hides; and at the
rate of three shillings a hide, the sum would amount to forty-five
thousand pounds, or one hundred and thirty-five thousand of our
present money. See Rudborne, p. 257. In the Saxon times, there were
only computed two hundred and forty-three thousand six hundred hides
in England.


The legates A LATERE, as they were called, were a kind of delegates
who possessed the full power of the pope in all the provinces
committed to their charge, and were very busy in extending as well as
exercising it. They nominated to all vacant benefices, assembled
synods, and were anxious to maintain ecclesiastical privileges, which
never could be fully protected without encroachments on the civil
power. If there were the least concurrence or opposition, it was
always supposed that the civil power was to give way: every deed which
had the least pretence of holding of any thing spiritual, as
marriages, testaments, promissory oaths, were brought into the
spiritual court, and could not be canvassed before a civil magistrate.
These were the established laws of the church; and where a legate was
sent immediately from Rome, he was sure to maintain the papal claims
with the utmost rigour: but it was an advantage to the king to have
the Archbishop of Canterbury appointed legate, because the connexions
of that prelate with the kingdom tended to moderate his measures.


William of Newbridge, p. 383, (who is copied by later historians,)
asserts, that Geoffrey had some title to the counties of Maine and
Anjou. He pretends that Count Geoffrey, his father, had left him
these dominions by a secret will, and had ordered that his body should
not be buried, till Henry should swear to the observance of it, which
he, ignorant of the contents, was induced to do. But besides that
this story is not very likely in itself, and savours of monkish
fiction, it is found in no other ancient writer, and is contradicted
by some of them, particularly the monk of Marmoutier, who had better
opportunities than Newbridge of knowing the truth. See Vita Gauf.
Duc. Norman. p. 103.


The sum scarcely appears credible, as it would amount to much above
half the rent of the whole land. Gervase is indeed a contemporary
author; but churchmen are often guilty of strange mistakes of that
nature, and are commonly but little acquainted with the public
revenues. This sum would make five hundred and forty thousand pounds
of our present money. The Norman Chronicle, p. 995, says that Henry
raised only sixty Angevin shillings on each knight's fee in his
foreign dominions: this is only a fourth of the sum which Gervase says
he levied on England; an inequality nowise probable. A nation may, by
degrees, be brought to bear a tax of fifteen shillings in the pound,
but a sudden and precarious tax can never be imposed to that amount,
without a very visible necessity, especially in an age so little
accustomed to taxes. In the succeeding reign the rent of a knight's
fee was computed at four pounds a year. There were sixty thousand
knights' fees in England.


Fitz-Stephens, p. 18. This conduct appears violent and arbitrary, but
was suitable to the strain of administration in those days. His
father Geoffrey, though represented as a mild prince, set him an
example of much greater violence. When Geoffrey was master of
Normandy, the chapter of sees presumed, without his consent, to
proceed to the election of a bishop; upon which be ordered all of
them, with the bishop elect, to be castrated, and made all their
testicles be brought him in a platter. Fitz-Steph. p. 44. In the war
of Toulouse, Henry laid a heavy and an arbitrary tax on all the
churches within his dominions. See Epist. St. Thom. p. 232.


I follow here the narrative of Fitz-Stephens, who was secretary to
Becket; though, no doubt, he may be suspected of partiality towards
his patron. Lord Lyttleton chooses to follow the authority of a
manuscript letter, or rather manifesto, of Folliot, Bishop of London,
which is addressed to Becket himself, at the time when the bishop
appealed to the pope from the excommunication pronounced against him
by his primate. My reasons, why I give the preference to
Fitz-Stephens, are, (1.) If the friendship of Fitz-Stephens might
render him partial to Becket, even after the death of that prelate,
the declared enmity of the bishop must, during his lifetime, have
rendered him more partial on the other side. (2.) The bishop was
moved by interest, as well as enmity, to calumniate Becket. He had
himself to defend against the sentence of excommunication, dreadful to
all, especially to a prelate: and no more effectual means than to
throw all the blame on his adversary. (3.) He has actually been
guilty of palpable calumnies in that letter. Among these, I reckon
the following:--He affirms that, when Becket subscribed the
Constitutions of Clarendon, he said plainly to all the bishops of
England, "It is my master's pleasure that I should forswear myself,
and at present I submit to it, and do resolve to incur a perjury, and
repent afterwards as I may." However barbarous the times, and however
negligent zealous churchmen were then of morality, these are not words
which a primate of great sense, and of much seeming sanctity, would
employ in an assembly of his suffragans: he might act upon these
principles, but never surely would publicly avow them. Folliot also
says, that all the bishops were resolved obstinately to oppose the
Constitutions of Clarendon, but the primate himself betrayed them from
timidity, and led the way to their subscribing. This is contrary to
the testimony of all the historians, and directly contrary to Becket's
character, who surely was not destitute either of courage or of zeal
for ecclesiastical immunities. (4.) The violence and injustice of
Henry, ascribed to him by Fitz-Stephens, is of a piece with the rest
of the prosecution. Nothing could be more iniquitous, than, after two
years' silence, to make a sudden and unprepared demand upon Becket to
the amount of forty-four thousand marks, (equal to a sum of near a
million in our time,) and not allow him the least interval to bring in
his accounts. If the king was so palpably oppressive in one article,
he may he presumed to be equally so in the rest. (5.) Though
Folliot's letter, or rather manifesto, be addressed to Becket himself,
it does not acquire more authority on that account. We know not what
answer was made by Becket: the collection of letters cannot he
supposed quite complete. But that the collection was not made by one
(whoever he were) very partial to that primate, appears from the tenor
of them, where there are many passages very little favourable to him:
insomuch that the editor of them at Brussels, a jesuit, thought proper
to publish them with great omissions, particularly of this letter of
Folliot's. Perhaps Becket made no answer at all, as not deigning to
write to an excommunicated person, whose very commerce would
contaminate him; and the bishop, trusting to this arrogance of his
primate, might calumniate him the more freely. (6.) Though the
sentence pronounced on Becket by the great council implies that he had
refused to make any answer to the king's court, this does not fortify
the narrative of Folliot. For if his excuse was rejected as false and
frivolous, it would he treated as no answer. Becket submitted so far
to the sentence of confiscation of goods and chattels, that he gave
surety, which is a proof that he meant not at that time to question
the authority of the king's courts. (7.) It may be worth observing,
that both the author of Historia quadripartita, and Gervase,
contemporary writers, agree with Fitz-Stephens; and the latter is not
usually very partial to Becket. All the ancient historians give the
same account.


Madox, in his Baronia Anglica, cap. 14, tells us, that in the
thirtieth of Henry II. thirty-three cows and two bulls cost but eight
pounds seven shillings, money of that age; five hundred sheep, twenty-
two pounds ten shillings, or about ten pence three farthings per
sheep; sixty-six oxen, eighteen pounds three shillings; fifteen
breeding mares, two pounds twelve shillings and sixpence; and
twenty-two hogs, one pound two shillings. Commodities seem then to
have been about ten times cheaper than at present; all except the
sheep, probably on account of the value of the fleece. The same
author, in his Formulare Anglicanum, p. 17, says, "that in the tenth
year of Richard I. mention is made of ten per cent. paid for money:
but the Jews frequently exacted much higher interest."


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