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government of England (1647), which went through various editions, in
1672, 1682, 1689, 1739 and 1760. Bacon (1593“1660) was a SuVolk
lawyer who sat in the House of Commons until Pride™s Purge, gained
readmission in 1649 and served the Commonwealth and Protectorate in
various judicial capacities. Bacon stressed ˜the antiquity and uniformity
of the government of this nation™. Noting similarities between the Britons
À“ Verstegan, Restitution, ˜To the most noble and renowned English nation™; Kliger, Goths,
p. 115; Woolf, Idea of history, p. 202; Parry, Trophies of time, ch. 2.
À“ Smith, Gothic bequest, pp. 40“1.
88 The three kingdoms

and the Saxons, Bacon wondered ˜how probable it is, that this island hath
been no other than a sewer to empty the superXuity of the German
nations; and how the inXuence of these old principles doth work in the
fundamental government of this kingdom, to the present day™. Although
Bacon did not ignore the ancient British past (not least as we shall see
below its ecclesiastical aspect), he stressed that English institutions had
been deWned by the Saxons “ ˜a free people, because they are a law unto
themselves, and this was a privilege belonging to all the Germans, as
Tacitus observeth™. Bacon™s central point, however, was that the ancient
design of English institutions, inaugurated by the Britons and con-
solidated by the more libertarian Saxons, had persisted in spite of the
Norman invasion of 1066.À”
The importance of the ancient British past declined dramatically dur-
ing the second half of the seventeenth century. A new strain of political
analysis developed by James Harrington and revised by the next gener-
ation of neo-Harringtonians (who drew a more pessimistic lesson from
the same reading of history) considered the crisis of Europe™s Gothic
polities, which served to highlight the continental provenance of the
English constitution.û There were also changes of emphasis within ˜insu-
lar™ historiography. For a variety of reasons, including both the radical
thesis of the Norman Yoke which surfaced in the 1640s and the comple-
mentary royalist histories which appeared during the Restoration era, the
transition between the Anglo-Saxon and the Norman era came to be seen
as the crucial period in the saga of the English constitution. Whatever the
Saxons inherited from the aboriginal Britons “ though it still had some
bearings on questions of constitutional legitimacy “ mattered less than
what features of Saxon law and government had survived the arrival of the
Normans in 1066.æ
Whiggish antiquarians, most notably William Petyt (1637“1707),
William Atwood (c. 1661“c. 1705) and James Tyrrell (1642“1718),
addressed the assorted feudalist, sceptical and downright royalist argu-
ments of those who questioned the continuity of the ancient constitution.
Sir Henry Spelman had demonstrated, through careful philological
analysis of legal terms, the Norman provenance of English feudal tenures.
The scrupulous “ and disappointed “ radical William Prynne had shown
from the evidence of writs of summons that the Commons had not been
present in parliament until 49 Henry III. Brady™s achievement was, in

À” Nathaniel Bacon, An historical and political discourse of the laws and government of England
(1647: London, 1689 edn), pp. 9“10; Tuck, Philosophy and government, pp. 235“40;
Greenberg, ˜Confessor™s laws™, 622; Kliger, Goths, p. 138. û See below, ch. 9.
æ J. G. A. Pocock, The ancient constitution and the feudal law (1957: reissue with retrospect,
Cambridge, 1987), chs. 6“8.
Whose ancient constitution? 89

good part, to synthesise these insights into a compelling royalist interpre-
tation of English history and to make clear that William I had indeed
conquered England. The free Saxon nation had been conquered; the law
had been transformed by the Normans and feudal tenures imported;
parliament was a post-Conquest creation, existing by grace of the mon-
arch; and the appearance of the Commons was even more recent.à The
whig antiquaries denied that the accession of William of Normandy
constituted an interruption in the descent of England™s ancient constitu-
tion or of its primeval laws and liberties. Tyrrell, for example, wove a Wne,
but crucial, distinction between a conquest and an acquisition by force of
arms limited by compact.ÃÀ
Despite major advances in antiquarian learning, a few serious scholars
continued to treat GeoVrey of Monmouth as a reliable historian. Loyal
defenders included the distinguished Cambridge orientalist Robert Sher-
ingham and his fellow Cantabrigian Daniel Langhorne. As evidence for
the Xuidity of ethnic classiWcation, Sheringham somehow managed to
combine enthusiasm for both Galfridian and Saxon origins without any
trace of discomWture.ÃÃ GeoVrey™s legends also continued to be used in
historical politics, though as much concerning domestic constitutional
and legal debates as in constructing a British message. For example, Silas
Taylor (1624“78) suggested that GeoVrey™s account of the division of
Britain among the sons of Brutus was the origin of partible gavelkind
inheritance. Taylor maintained that the laws and customs of the ˜British
aborigines™ had ˜received no considerable mutations or alterations™ in the
space of 1,700 years, notwithstanding Roman, Saxon, Danish and Nor-
man incursions and settlements.Õ In general, however, the Galfridian
origin myth was considered typical of the monkish fabrications of the
middle ages, which it was the duty of Protestant scholars to detect and
expunge. Nevertheless, other components of the Galfridian tradition,
such as the legend of King Arthur, retained a Wrmer foothold in English
culture than the shaky foundation myth of the Trojan“British mon-
archy.Ã’ Immemorialism too had long since gone into decline, but vestiges
of it qualiWed the Saxonism of the ancient constitutionalists.Ó As a result
à Douglas, English scholars, ch. 6; Pocock, Ancient constitution, ch. 8; Brooke, Caius College,
pp. 144“5.
ÃÀ James Tyrrell, The general history of England (3 vols., London, 1697“1704), I, ˜Epistle
dedicatory™, p. iii.
ÃÃ Robert Sheringham, De Anglorum gentis origine disceptatio (Cambridge, 1670); Daniel
Langhorne, An introduction to the history of England (London, 1676); Kendrick, British
antiquity, p. 101.
Õ Silas Taylor, The history of gavel-kind (London, 1663), pp. 15“16, 46, 80, 85“6.
Ã’ R. F. Brinkley, Arthurian legend in the seventeenth century (Baltimore, 1932).
Ó Tyrrell, General history, I, ˜General introduction™, p. xxx; Kliger, Goths, p. 169; Greenleaf,
Order, empiricism and politics, p. 123.
90 The three kingdoms

even the sceptical Brady felt compelled to insure himself against the
argument that the commons had been present in the councils of the
Britons.Ó
Somehow the English were the biological descendants of the Saxons,
but their institutions also needed to be traced back to an ancient British
ancestry. Algernon Sidney (1623“83) was a pronounced Gothicist who
described the Saxons, and sometimes also the Angles, as the people ˜from
whom we chieXy derive our original and manners™. However, he was not
prepared to jettison the argument for the immemorial antiquity of English
liberties. Just as the early Saxon leaders such as Hengist and Horsa had
been ˜temporary magistrates™, so had such ancient Celtic monarchs
among the Britons such as Cassivellaun, Caratacus and Arviragus.Ô
The Britons remained important to the whiggish cult of parliament.
Thomas Rymer (1641“1713) claimed that Cassivellaun had ruled as king
of the Britons on conciliar authority.•» After 1688 the British past was also
invoked by some whiggish antiquaries keen to Wnd a historical vindication
of Revolution principles. Pierre Allix (1641“1717) noted that ˜Nennius,
the most ancient English historian after Gildas, tells us, that Vortigern
was deposed by St Germain and the council of the Britons, because he
had married his own daughter, who placed his son Vortimer upon the
throne.™•¦ Nevertheless, the British past was sketchier and less reliable
than the Saxon era. Temple endorsed the Fortescuean tradition, though
he acknowledged that it was ˜not so easily proved, as aYrmed™. While it
was diYcult to ascertain direct continuities from the Britons and Ro-
mans, he was nevertheless satisWed that he could establish the mainte-
nance of the Saxon heritage through the Danish and Norman eras with
˜more certainty™, which was ˜suYcient to illuminate the antiquity of our
constitutions, without recourse to strained or uncertain allegations™.• 
Brady™s devastating scholarship ought to have sunk the ancient Saxon
constitution. However, matters were not quite so simple. The Glorious
Revolution and the subsequent whig hegemony artiWcially sustained the
errors of the Saxon myth as public doctrine;•À indeed, whig antiquaries of
the early eighteenth century appropriated feudalist arguments to subvert
Brady™s arguments for discontinuity.•Ã However, as we shall see, by the

Ó Brady, A full and clear answer to a book written by William Petit, esq., in Brady, Old English
history, pp. 1“2. Ô Sidney, Discourses, pp. 479“81.
•» Rymer, General draught, p. 13.
•¦ Pierre Allix, ReXections upon the opinions of some modern divines, concerning the nature of
government in general, and that of England in particular (London, 1689), pp. 82“3.
•  Temple, Introduction to the history of England, II, p. 584.
•À Pocock, Ancient constitution, ch. 9.
•Ã D. Earl, ˜Procrustean feudalism: an interpretative dilemma in English historical narra-
tion, 1700“1725™, HJ 19 (1976), 33“51; Smith, Gothic bequest, pp. 47“56.
Whose ancient constitution? 91

middle of the eighteenth century a new breed of sceptical modern whig
had the sensitivity to use Brady™s historical insights without subscribing to
his political message.
In the course of the eighteenth century Englishmen began to depend
more exclusively on the Saxons as the nation™s foundational ethnic core.
Saxonist historiography was not primarily a celebration of ethnicity. It
focused principally on institutions “ political, legal and ecclesiastical.
Customs, manners and culture were subordinate considerations, though
the Tacitean inheritance meant that they were always a component part
of the Gothicist package. Moreover, this cultural dimension of the Saxon
heritage grew in importance throughout the eighteenth century, paving
the way for the more overtly racialist and ethnic-determinist Saxonism
which would prevail in nineteenth-century English discourse. Another
obvious sign of the Britons™ declining importance lies in the reluctance of
patriotic antiquaries to exploit the pre-Saxon past in the cause of British
integration. Instead Gothicism, as we shall see in a later chapter, was a
common feature of political argument in England, North Britain, Protes-
tant Ireland and the American colonies.••
However, traces of immemorialism lingered in Saxonist history, con-
founding the logic of Gothicism. If one subscribed to the view that
English liberties and institutions were of Anglo-Saxon provenance, im-
ported from the forests of Germany, the history of the aboriginal Britons
should have mattered little. George St Amand (1686/7“1727), who
maintained a Saxonist argument for the continuity of the English consti-
tution “ that the Saxons had certainly ˜subverted the ancient government
of the Britons™ and that William I, on the other hand, ˜did not subvert, or
dissolve the Saxon government™ “ still felt it necessary to establish that the
ancient inhabitants of Britain, Gaul and Germany had all been ˜one
people™, with a similar form of government.•’
Although the Britons were certainly being supplanted from their for-
mer pedestal, the identities of Briton and Saxon were still conceived as
complementary rather than as conXicting. John Oldmixon (1673“1742)
balanced a sceptical reading of the shadowy events of the pre-Saxon era
with his whiggish message that England had ever enjoyed a limited and
constitutional form of government:
Though we doubt not the whole story of Brute and his posterity is invented; yet, as
in all good fables there is a moral, so in this the events are as much lessons as if
they were true . . . We may there see what notions the ancient Britons had of the
rights of the prince and people, by the actions which are attributed to them.
•• See below, ch. 10.
•’ George St Amand, An historical essay on the legislative power of England (London, 1725),
pp. 48“9, 114.
92 The three kingdoms

Oldmixon was quick to spot the Revolution principles of the ancient
Britons. Take the examples of the resistance supposedly oVered to Loc-
rinus, the son of Brute, to Ferrex, forced to give way to his younger
brother Porrex, and to Archigallo, deposed for ˜maleadministration™. In
the better-known historical era immediately before the arrival of the
Saxons, Vortigern had been overthrown ˜by his subjects™ in favour of his
son Vortimer. When Vortigern outlived his son, the former king had again
been deposed by a concilium of the Britons to make way for Aurelius
Ambrosius. Oldmixon concluded that the ancient British government
was ˜in a great measure democratical™. However, Oldmixon™s story re-
mained predominantly Saxonist. ˜Our parliamentary constitution™, he
argued, ˜is as old as the Saxons.™ After all, in the wake of Brady™s
scholarship, it was becoming hard enough for whig historians to establish
Saxon continuities or even the existence of a representative assembly
before 49 Henry III: ˜Nobody ever pretended that the form of parliaments
was in old times exactly the same as it is now.™ Oldmixon conceded that
originally the Lords and the Commons had sat together in one chamber.
Nevertheless, by concentrating on such institutional technicalities one
might miss ˜the main of the matter™, that ˜the meeting of the estates, their
enquiring into grievances, their giving of money, and exercising legislative
authority, [was] as old as the Gothic government™. Historians should not
become obsessed with the pedantry of legal terminology. Among the
Saxons Oldmixon found many other terms and loose expressions for
assemblies “ ˜omnium senatorum meorum consensu™, ˜cum concilio sapi-
entum™, witenagemots, micklegemots “ which approximated to the later
English parliament. Moreover, ˜success™ had eluded the Normans in their
patent attempt to invade Saxon laws. Indeed, were not elective Revol-
ution principles observable in the succession of the Anglo-Norman king-
ship, not least the exclusion of Duke Robert for a younger son? Suc-
cession by primogeniture, without which the divine right principles of
modern tories were a nonsense, had not taken eVect until the time of
Richard I.•“
The notion of an ancient British parliament retained some appeal, not
least because a conveniently whiggish message could be spun from the
sources. Thornhaugh Gurdon (1663“1733) used the authority of classi-
cal commentators to construct an immemorial lineage for parliament
which stretched back to the earliest Celtic inhabitants of Britain: ˜Caesar
and Tacitus both agree that the laws and customs of the Germans, Gauls
and Britons, were much the same.™ Gurdon did acknowledge some dif-
ferences between British and Saxon practices, but traced conciliar fea-
•“ John Oldmixon, The critical history of England, ecclesiastical and civil (2 vols., London,
1724“6), I, pp. ii, 17“19, 25“7, 33“7, 42.
Whose ancient constitution? 93

tures in both systems. The Britons had held councils called ˜Kifrithin™, a
term which in their language meant a body set up ˜to debate and treat
upon matters to be taken into consideration for the public weal™. Etymol-
ogy revealed that the council of the Saxons had been grafted on to the
original institution of the ancient Britons: ˜Witenagemote, a word com-
pounded of Saxon and British, the former part of the word being Saxon
and the latter British; Wita is in Saxon a wise man . . . Gemot in the British
language is a council or synod.™ Such ethnic hybridity was also a feature of
English law, which, while founded predominantly on Saxon principles,
also included several British customs and law terms.•“
Bolingbroke maintained that in all ages the island of Britain ˜hath been
the temple, as it were, of liberty. Whilst her sacred Wres have been
extinguished in so many countries, here they have been religiously kept
alive.™ Although little was known of the ancient Britons ˜through the
gloom of antiquity™, he was convinced that they had enjoyed a free
government. After all, when the Romans left in the Wfth century the petty
kings of Britain “ reguli “ held their authority by consent of the people.
The indigenous spirit of liberty found among the Britons and the Saxons
proved too strong for the Danes and the Normans, who ˜were seized with
it themselves, instead of inspiring a spirit of slavery into the Saxons™.•”
During the Walpolean era supporters of the government propagated a
new strain of self-consciously modern whiggery. Drawing on the insights
of Brady™s toryism and an emergent critique of medieval feudalism,
pamphleteers including John Hervey (1696“1743) and the pseudony-
mous ˜Walsingham™ and ˜Osborne™ argued that the civil liberties enjoyed
by modern Britons were a product of modernity, dating from the Restora-
tion era, improved in the Revolution of 1688 and consolidated under the
enlightened whig supremacy of Hanoverian Britain. In a classic pamph-
let, Ancient and modern liberty stated and compared (1734), Hervey attem-
pted to cleanse the Augean stables of vulgar whig mythology. The history
of England since the Norman Conquest, according to Hervey, was not
about the vicissitudes of an unquenchable spirit of liberty so much as the
˜same melancholy vicissitude in the manner of oppressing the people,
without any suspension of the thing itself™, whether through royal, baro-

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