A Constitutional and Legal History of England

By Goldwin Smith | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XIV
Crossroads of Power: prerogative and Parliament

THE TURNING TIDES

DID authority in the state of England derive from the king or from Parliament? Was a full partnership in the business of government possible? Were the monarchs and their prerogatives within and under the common law of the nation? Or were they outside and above it? These questions had not often been asked. They had never been answered. The attempt by Englishmen to do both in the seventeenth century is the reason why Professor S. B. Chrimes has called the period the Heroic Age in English constitutional history.

The events and ideas of the unstable Stuart age are usually told in the language and tones of the Whig historians. The reputation of the Cavaliers has been darkened by the odium of some of their contemporaries and by the fact that Charles I ( 1625-1649) was defeated and executed. Nothing succeeds like success. Historians, human beings as they are, have usually been mainly concerned with the causes that have succeeded. They have perhaps not been sufficiently occupied with studying the hopes that never came true, the crusades and causes that did not quite come off.

Marching under the banners of Thomas Babington Macaulay, the Whig historians have explained the conflicts of the Stuart reigns almost solely in terms of a clash between absolutism and the rights of the people. These explanations are not quite true. It should be remembered, for instance, that the Parliamentarians stood forth as champions of established law. At the beginning, they were no innovators. Not until the Leveller days of the mid-seventeenth century was liberty declared to be a war aim--and to the Levellers "liberty" meant many things. It should also be remembered that the leaders of

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