The House of Lords. There’s an unmistakable correlation between the decline of the British and American middle houses of government and the loss of liberty in their respective countries. Today’s House of Lords and the US Senate not only do not serve their ancient or intended purposes, they subvert them. These previously proud and distinct institutions which in times past were separated by a degree from the popular will, today give the patina of legitimacy to majoritarian tyranny that denies natural and societal rights.
This, the first of probably three squibs, begins with the British House of Lords (Lords) from antiquity to the 17th century. To American eyes the Lords is an oddity. Its composition and duties, unlike those fixed in the US Senate by a written Constitution, depend on the shifting sands of power between the three estates: Crown, Nobility, and Commons.
Pre-Norman. In the lore of Gothic Polity after Rome’s departure, the people elected their kings and his advisers. What evolved into Commons and Lords were originally one body, the Saxon Wittenagemot. This royal advisory council consisted of ecclesiastics, warrior noblemen, as well as a few attending commoners. Nothing passed in these nascent parliaments opposed by the warrior class.1
Post-Norman. According to Algernon Sidney, the Norman conquest did not disrupt the sovereign power of the English people. William I was less a king by conquest, but rather by popular election. Like the Saxon kings, he accepted the Crown upon conditions offered. Thus, feudal England had always been governed by parliaments and elected and limited kings.2
Magna Charta (1215). Depending on which historian one reads, the root of “baron” was baro, which applied to all freemen, noble and non-noble alike. If this was so, it challenges the modern perspective which pictures noble barons (without commoners) alone, pressing King John at the point of a sword for Magna Charta. In Magna Charta, the king confessed the rights of the nation were inherent; it expressed the nation’s sovereign power to define itself and create and limit the powers of its magistrates.3
Feudal. The first true English Parliament is often considered to be the “Model Parliament” of 1295, composed of archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, and representatives of the shires and boroughs. Feudal kings were typically satisfied with limited power at home while they directed their energies to foreign conquests. For such designs it was necessary to have a nobility great in power and credit and full of virtue and gallantry that the people might follow. With a potent nobility, kings didn’t need, nor had they the power to raise armies of their own. This is important to understanding feudal times: the military power of the nobility balanced the prerogative power of the king.
The authority of the feudal Lords fluctuated but grew. During much of the reign of Edward II (1307–1327) and Richard II (1377-1399), the Lords were supreme, the Crown weak, and the common shire and borough representatives powerless. Had these kings or their servants violated the law or threatened their estates, the nobles were there to protect themselves and people from injustice. The great feudal jurist Bracton wrote “‘tis not that the king makes the law, but that the law make the king.” Feudal kings had to be careful.
In Edward III’s reign (1327-1377), Parliament clearly separated into two distinct chambers: the House of Commons consisting of the shire and borough representatives and the House of Lords consisting of the bishops, abbots and peers/noblemen. The authority of Parliament continued to grow, and during the early 15th century both houses exercised powers to an extent not seen before. The Lords were still more powerful than the Commons because of the great influence of the great landowners and the prelates of the realm.
The power of the nobility declined during the civil wars of the late 15th century, known as the Wars of the Roses. Much of the nobility was killed on the battlefield or executed for participation in the war, and many aristocratic estates were lost to the Crown.
Moreover, feudalism by now was dying, and the lord’s armies drifted into obsolescence. Henry VII (1485–1509) clearly established the supremacy of the monarch, and the domination of the Sovereign continued to grow during the reigns of the Tudor monarchs in the 16th century. The Crown was at the height of its power during the reign of Henry VIII (1509–1547).
Our English ancestors knew the feudal balance kept kings within the law by the virtue and power of a great and brave nobility. This was the proper way to a mixed monarchy; the lords enjoyed greater advantages through their hereditary estates than what the kings could bestow on them in honors and sinecures. The lords personal interest in their property and privileges stood athwart the Crown’s domestic temptations to expand monarchal power. The feudal middle house dampened the oscillations between anarchy and absolute monarchy. The role of the estates in the government of feudal England was instrumental, and per Algernon Sidney, “reflected the right of each nation to allocate the powers of government as it saw fit.”
Sidney attributes the decline of classic nobility with the death of the king of Agincourt fame, Henry V (reign: 1413-1422). His successors realized the only way to increase their power was to decrease those of the nobility. These monarchs slowly developed a carrot and stick approach that centered on the court, which resulted in nobles who sought to serve the king to the utmost that he may be advanced. Gaming, extravagant clothes and liveries slowly replaced battlefield gallantry. Those few of the ancient nobility who resisted were rendered irrelevant by the creation of a new nobility based on royal appointments.
Tudor. (1485-1603) In 1569, the authority of Parliament was for the first time recognized not simply by custom or royal charter, but by an authoritative statute, passed by, well . . . Parliament itself.4
The historian J.G.A. Pocock also identified the slow demise of nobility due to the ambitions of Tudor and Stuart Kings. Whereas before, when the nobility’s greatness and the people’s freedom were inseparable, the old nobility had an interest in keeping their people happy. But, as Europe moved toward a money-based economy, people moved from noble estates and into towns. Instead of taking a portion of the peasant’s agricultural output, the lords increasingly rented their farmlands, and thus upset the old dual responsibilities between lord and peasants. The connection between tenant and landlord went no further than a business arrangement. Where the old feudal bonds promoted dual loyalty and service, the new system did little but encourage landlords to impoverish, weaken, and oppress their tenants.5
In the days when the commons fell in line with their Lords, the king naturally dealt with both estates through the Lords. But as the ancient vassalage with the lords declined, so too did the king’s influence over the commons. This doomed the Crown and commons relationship to instability.6
Stuart. (1603-1688) The Lower House of Parliament continued to grow in influence, reaching a zenith in relation to the Lords during the middle 17th century.
King Charles Stuart I (reign: 1625-1649) lectured his realm on the three basic forms of government, and how their ancestors blended them into a skillful combination of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. All was well, he promised, as long as each estate confined itself to its appointed task, its proper channel. He threatened dark chaos if they did not. He was right. Parliamentary/House of Commons forces led by Oliver Cromwell beheaded Charles I in 1649.7
Cromwell disbanded the House of Lords and established a military dictatorship backed up with a rubber-stamp House of Commons. It didn’t last long. In 1660, after the death of Cromwell, and in an act reminiscent of Saxon times, the Commons and Lords asked the son of the murdered Charles I to return and accept the Crown as Charles II. Being a creation of Parliament which opposed his authoritarian tendencies, Charles II sought influence in Parliament through a form of corruption that plagues the English government to this day, by adding members to the Lords, and appointing members of both houses to salaried positions in government.
Some thirty years later, Whig pamphleteers in the 1680’s protested the king’s packing of Parliament with loyal placemen and pensioners as an attempt to overthrow England’s mixed form of government. By the late 17th century it was hardly possible to imagine a stable polity could be built on the charred ruins of England’s historic mixed constitution due to the shift in the balance of property which emancipated the Commons from the Lord’s control, and the king’s direct influence over Lords and members of Parliament in the House of Commons.
In the latter Stuart era, Algernon Sidney looked beyond the three natural estates of English society. He arrived at the nub of the issue of good government, one which our Framing generation embraced a hundred years later. Sidney determined that all free nations have some way or other to supply the defects or restrain the vices of their supreme magistrates. The primary method adopted to achieve this end was “dividing and balancing the powers of government.”
Sidney lamented the loss of English liberty and its internal cause: the slow breakdown of the balance of power between the king and a declining nobility, the king and the House of Lords. He feared the future of Great Britain in which all matters of government will fall into the hands of the king and commoners, with nothing left to cement them and to maintain the union. The tripartite balance of Kings, Lords, Commons, in a Gothic Polity was long gone and impossible to restore, for noblemen could no longer perform their ancient duties.
Next: The House of Lords in the 18th – 20th centuries.
General Reference: Sidney, A. (2012). Discourses Concerning Government. Memphis: General Books LLC.
1. Houston, A. C. (1991). Algernon Sidney and the Republican Heritage in England and America. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 183.
2. Ibid., 184.
3. Pocock, J. (1975). The Machiavellian Moment. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 418.
4. Ibid., 417.
5. Houston., 189.
6. Pocock., 419.
7. Houston., 187.