« AnteriorContinuar »
We cannot but be struck with the amazing energy and application of the man, who, still plying his learned and judicious pen, found time in 1617 to furnish Purchas (he was then publishing his “Pilgrimes”) with a short account “ of the Jews sometimes living in England.” For in this same year he gave to the world his celebrated work, “ De Diis Syriis,” a Latin treatise on Syrian idolatry in general, and the heathen deities mentioned in the Old Testament in particular. It made him known to the scholars of the Continent, where, in 1627, it was reprinted by the Elzevirs, under the superintendence of De Dieu, one of the professors in the Walloon College at Leyden, and of Daniel Heinsius, to whom Selden dedicated the edition. The high estimation in which it was held, is proved by the fact that it was reprinted in 1662, and again in 1680.
In the following year appeared his “ History of Tithes,” from the publication of which may be dated his career as a constitutional reformer. In its learned and ingenious pages he set forth the rise and progress of that onerous ecclesiastical tax, and while admitting its legality, overthrowing the claim for its Divine origin maintained by the Church. As such a claim would not now-a-days be put forward, a refutation of it would not excite any angry feelings; but in 1618 it gave huge offence both to the clergy and the Court. It was a blow at the very foundation on which the advocates of the absolute power of the Crown and the Church rested their pretensions ; and both Crown and Church prepared to chastise the audacious offender. In December he was summoned to appear before James I. at his palace of Theobalds. He was introduced into the royal presence by bis friends Ben Jonson and Edward Hayward, and subjected to a lecture by the royal theologian, who indicated the objectionable passages, and required him to re-write them or explain them away. Selden was forced to assent; but his submission did not save him from further humiliation. The Court of High Commission pounced upon him, and though they did not extort from him a retractation, they compelled him to sign an ignominious declaration :
“My good lords, I must humbly acknowledge the error I have committed in publishing the “History of Tithes ;” and especially in that I have at all, by showing any interpretation of Holy Scriptures, by meddling with councils, fathers, or canons, or by what else soever occurs in it, afford any occasion of argument against any right of maintenance, jure divino, of the ministers of the Gospel ; beseeching your lordships to receive this ingenuous and humble acknowledgment, together with the unfeigned protestation of my grief, for that through it I have so incurred both his Majesty's and your lordships' displeasure, conceived against me on behalf of the Church of England.
“ John SELDEN.” One cannot but regret that Selden subscribed this shameful submission, but he was not of the stuff of which martyrs are made. A sensitive and studious scholar, he lacked the nerve and the moral courage to hold his ground steadfastly when authority threatened him with pains and penalties, unless he was sustained by the example and encouragement of others. On this occasion he stood alone. We shall see that he could be braver and more consistent when sustained and inspired by the companionship of bolder spirits.
To his History of Tithes” numerous answers appeared, written by the zealous champions of the Church with more enthusiasm and learning, and more invective than argument. Selden was not allowed to make any rejoinder. The king trembled at the extent to which a controversy on Divine right might be pushed, and sending for the scholar, forbade him to make any reply to a refutation from the pen of Montagu, one of his chaplains. “If you or any of your friends," said James, “shall write against this confutation, I will throw you into prison !
In such circumstances, Montagu necessarily had it all his own way. One's reasoning can hardly fail to be cogent and conclusive when one's adversary is deprived of the right of reply!
His attack on clerical pretentions had so greatly provoked the royal wrath, that our timid scholar thought it advisable to recant certain opinions on subjects of no great moment, which differed from those of His Majesty. To propitiate him, therefore, Selden published three tracts: “Of the Number 666 in the Revelation,” “Of Calvin's Judgment on the Book of Revelation,” and “Of the Birthday of our Saviour,” in which his later judgments happily conformed with those of the royal theologian. In the mystic number he found new and more recondite meanings ; in the judgment of Calvin he failed to discover the good sense and moderation which had formerly characterised it; and in Christmas Day he acknowledged the natural return of the anniversary, which, formerly, he had rashly held as dubious.
But a weak man, when the weakness is rather constitutional than moral, will often show an unexpected strength at a great opportunity; and Selden gradually hardened, as it were, under the influence of events. His nature was elevated and inspired by the struggle between the Commons and the Crown, which every year assumed larger proportions and greater intensity. In
1621, the Commons drew up a petition, prepared by Coke, against the growth of Papacy; but James, having information of it, anticipated its receipt by a violent letter to the Speaker, prohibiting the House from interfering in any matter which concerned his Government, or the mysteries of State. He added that he meant not to spare any man's insolent behaviour in Parliament. The Commons temperately replied that their liberty of speech was their ancient and undoubted right and privilege, to which James vehemently rejoined that their privileges were derived from the grace and permission of his ancestors and himself. Against this unguarded declaration of absolutism, the Commons, on the 18th of December, recorded a memorable protest, in which they solemnly affirm that the liberties and jurisdiction of Parliament are the ancient and undoubted birthright and inheritance of the subjects of England ; that the affairs of the king and the State, of the defence of the realm, and of the Church of England, the making of laws and the redress of grievances, are fit subjects of debate in Parliament; that in handling such business, any member of the House had, and of right ought to have, freedom of speech; and that every member had like freedom from all impeachment, imprisonment, and molestation, except by the censure of the House itself.
Before making this protest the Commons had consulted Selden, and obtained from him a long, learned, and lucid exposition of the rights of Parliament and the limits of the prerogative. His share in the business was so obnoxious to the Court that he was arrested, and placed in charge of the Sheriffs of London ; but, through the good offices of Bishop Williams, he was released after a few weeks' imprisonment.
Thenceforward he was
committed to the advocacy of the cause of constitutional reform. Perhaps it would not be extravagant to represent him as an exponent of those political principles which are now identified with Whiggism.
Selden's pen was next employed by the House of Lords on a knotty question of constitutional law, and his work on “The Privilege of the Baronage” was first printed in 1642.
He also wrote a short and not very complete treatise on “The Judicature of Parliament.” In 1623, he edited and annotated the “Historia Novorum” of Eadmer, the monk of Canterbury.
Entering public life as one of the members for Lancaster, in the Parliament wbich assembled in February, 1624, Selden ranged himself on the popular side. He took part in the impeachment of Cranfield, Earl of Middlesex, for bribery, and joined in the debates which terminated in the abolition of monopolies. In the First Parliament of Charles I. he sat for Great Bedwin. Associated with Coke, and Pym, and Eliot, he gained immeasurably in self-respect and self-reliance, displaying a courage of which he had never before been sidered capable. In each great constitutional debate he played a worthy part ; and his learning proved of immense value to the cause, by showing that the claims of the Commons were founded upon indisputable precedent, and that they contended only for the restoration of their “ancient and undoubted birthright and inheritance.” The change which had come over his temper is best appreciated by reference to the fact that he was one of the eight members whom the Commons appointed to present their articles of impeachment against the Duke of Buckingham (1626). Charles interfered to save his favourite by summarily dissolving Parliament.