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nial or clerical tyrannies: ˜I never hear anybody harangue with enthusi-
astic encomiums on the liberty of Old England, that I am not either
ashamed of my ancestors for deserving these encomiums so little or of my
contemporaries for bestowing them so ignorantly.™’»

•“ Thornhaugh Gurdon, The history of the high court of parliament, its antiquity, preheminence
and authority (2 vols., London, 1731), I, pp. 12, 15, 21.
•” Bolingbroke, Remarks, I, pp. 313“20; Bolingbroke, Dissertation on parties, Letter xii, in
Bolingbroke, Works, II, pp. 160“4.
94 The three kingdoms

Modern whig ideas enjoyed some inXuence at the rareWed peak of
British historical and political sophistication, most obviously in the work
of Hume and Josiah Tucker (1712“99).’¦ However, revisionism enjoyed
much less success in the wider political culture; ˜ancient constitutional-
ism™, deWned by Duncan Forbes as ˜a compelling need to assert and
defend the essential continuity of the English form of government™,
remained ˜whig orthodoxy™.’  Why did modern whig celebrations of the
benign discontinuity of 1688 not displace the longer saga of English
liberties? The historic roles of parliament and common law in the evol-
ution of English liberties were hard to ignore. George, Baron Lyttelton, a
modernist who argued that civil liberty was in large part a post-Revol-
utionary creation, acknowledged that the English whig heritage remained
of some value, despite the enormous gulf between past failings and
present felicities: ˜even the rudest form of our government has always
been animated by the spirit of freedom™.’À
Notwithstanding the emergence of modern whig revisionism, the arri-
val of the Normans continued to be regarded as the major discontinuity in
the history of English liberty. Richard Hurd (1720“1808) upheld an
exclusively Saxonist position: ˜the principles of the Saxon policy, and in
some respects the form of it, have been constantly kept up in every
succeeding period of the English monarchy™. However, he was uncon-
cerned by the fate of the Saxons as an ethnic group; what mattered was
not the treatment of the Saxon people by William I (who succeeded by
testamentary succession from the Confessor) but the survival of Saxon
institutions: ˜The Saxons methinks might be injured, oppressed, en-
slaved; and yet the constitution, transmitted to us through his own
Normans, be perfectly free.™ It was Norman barons, proclaiming
˜nolumus leges Angliae mutari™, who would uphold their adopted ancient
constitution against the despotic pretensions of their own kings.’Ã
In the course of the eighteenth century it became more common to
argue that feudalisation was a Europe-wide phenomenon and one far
from illiberal in its origins or eVects. In England it had been inaugurated
by the Saxons, and only completed by the Normans. The distinction
between boc-land and folc-land was interpreted by some antiquarians as
evidence for the existence of both allodial tenures and feudal beneWces
among the Saxons. Although scholars such as Rayner Heckford and
’» John Hervey, Ancient and modern liberty stated and compared (London, 1734), pp. 6“7.
’¦ David Hume, The history of England (6 vols., Indianapolis, 1983); Josiah Tucker, A
treatise concerning civil government (London, 1781).
’  Forbes, Hume™s philosophical politics, p. 249.
’À George Lyttelton, The history of the life of King Henry the second (3rd edn, 5 vols.,
1769“73), I, ˜Preface™, p. viii.
’Ã Hurd, Moral and political dialogues, pp. 191, 194, 222, 227“8.
Whose ancient constitution? 95

James Ibbetson disagreed as to the nature of boc-land and folc-land, there
was a consensus about the Saxon origins of English feudal tenures.’•
Similarly, Oliver Goldsmith argued that the Saxons had introduced the
feudal law; thereafter William had merely ˜reformed it, according to the
model practised in his native dominions™. Goldsmith, like so many other
historians, was a ˜soft™ Gothicist with immemorialist leanings who argued
against any ascription of English laws ˜entirely to Saxon original™. While
Goldsmith noted that the Saxons had introduced to England many laws
˜long in practice among their German ancestors™, he added that they had
˜adopted also many more which they found among the Britons, or which
the Romans left behind after their abdication™.’’
Indeed, the ancient British past continued to oVer valuable historical
reinsurance against advocates of the Brady thesis (which focused not on
the Britons, but on the Norman Conquest). In his mammoth and mod-
estly mistitled History of Manchester (1771“5), the antiquary John
Whitaker (1735“1808), a critic of such tories as Brady, Carte and Hume,
invested a signiWcant amount of whiggish capital in the history of the
ancient Britons. According to Whitaker, the undoubted whiggery of the
ancient Anglo-Saxon constitution could be traced further back into the
primitive history of the Britons. For example, the lineal and hereditary
succession to the crown had been defeasible among both the Britons and
the Saxons. Moreover, the ancient British monarchy had been limited by
assemblies, though these had been composed only of nobles, as the
British commons were all villeins. Feudalism, of course, was the Trojan
horse in English constitutional history, which appeared to admit the
reality of a Norman Conquest. Whitaker opened up another theatre of
whig“tory conXict by reconstructing the feudal laws of the pre-Saxon
past. He argued that British tenures of the Wrst century AD had been
˜purely military in their design and absolutely feudal in their essence™.
Feudal law had not come to England through conquest, for it ˜formed the
primitive establishment of the Britons™. Whitaker conceded that this
constituted merely ˜a system of feuds in miniature™ which would undergo
social and legal change. Nevertheless, British feudalism had been ˜the
same in eVect with the more enlarged system of the Normans™. This was
additional security against the notion of the Conquest. Given that feudal
tenures were found in the British as well as in the Saxon era, Whitaker
concluded: ˜Doubly unjust, therefore, is the popular opinion of our
’• Rayner Heckford, A discourse on the bookland and folkland of the Saxons (Cambridge,
1775); James Ibbetson, A dissertation on the folclande and boclande of the Saxons (London,
1777). See also John Dalrymple, An essay towards a general history of feudal property in
Great Britain (London, 1757), pp. 8“22; Samuel Squire, An enquiry into the foundation of
the English constitution (London, 1745), pp. 103“7.
’’ Oliver Goldsmith, The history of England (4 vols., London, 1771), I, pp. 134“5, 149.
96 The three kingdoms

historical and legal antiquaries, which refers the origin of the feuds to the
Normans.™’“
Whitaker™s sense that the ancient British past remained of some consti-
tutional signiWcance was shared, albeit in a lower key, by no less a Wgure
than William Blackstone, in whose Commentaries there survived a mild
version of common law immemorialism:

The great variety of nations, that successively broke in upon and destroyed both
the British inhabitants and constitution . . . must necessarily have caused great
uncertainty and confusion in the laws and antiquities of the kingdom; as they were
very soon incorporated and blended together, and therefore, we may suppose,
mutually communicated to each other their respective usages . . . So that it is
morally impossible to trace out, with any degree of accuracy, when the several
mutations of the common law were made, or what was the respective original of
those several customs we at present use, by any chemical resolution of them to
their Wrst and component principles. We can seldom pronounce, that this custom
was derived from the Britons; that was left behind by the Romans; this was a
necessary precaution against the Picts; that was introduced by the Saxons, discon-
tinued by the Danes, but afterwards restored by the Normans.

Blackstone did, however, believe that particular survivals of the ancient
body of British customs could be traced, including the partibility of land
by gavelkind and the division of goods of an intestate between his widow
and children, or next of kin. Moreover, ˜the very notion itself of an oral
unwritten law, delivered down from age to age, by custom and tradition
merely™ seemed to Blackstone to be ˜derived from the practice of the
Druids™. He acknowledged the reality, extent and degree of the Conquest,
but did not erect a royalist thesis on this historical foundation. The
modern liberties of Englishmen were ˜not to be looked upon as consisting
of mere incroachments on the crown, and infringements of the preroga-
tive, as some slavish and narrow-minded writers of the last century
endeavoured to maintain; but as, in general, a gradual restoration of that
ancient constitution, whereof our Saxon forefathers had been unjustly
deprived, partly by the policy, and partly by the force, of the Normans™.’“
The idea of an ancient British parliament would survive in the radical
tradition of the late eighteenth century. John Cartwright (1740“1824), a
champion of the Saxons whose hero was King Alfred, claimed that annual
parliaments had been ˜the immemorial usage of England from the earliest
antiquity™, noting that both Britons and Saxons had been free nations.
Thomas OldWeld (1755“1822) felt a similar polemical need to go back
beyond the free Anglo-Saxons to give his arguments the copper-
’“ Whitaker, History of Manchester, esp. I, pp. 251“2, 262“4, 273“4; II, pp. 148“9, 165,
169“72. ’“ Blackstone, Commentaries, IV, pp. 401“2, 413.
Whose ancient constitution? 97

bottomed legitimacy of ancient British illustration. OldWeld began his
critical history of borough representation by noting that the free Saxon
parliaments which prevailed before the coming of Norman feudalism
were ˜only a continuance of the Kyfr-y-then or popular assemblies of the
Britons, as improved by their intercourse with the Romans™.’” However,
even within the radical tradition the ancient Britons were of only marginal
importance. The two major turning points in the radical interpretation of
the decline of English liberties came long after the demise of the Britons.
These moments were the Norman Yoke imposed after the conquest of
1066, and “ less well known “ the Wfteenth-century century legislation
known as ˜the statute of disfranchisement™.“»
Although increasingly irrelevant to debates over the temporal constitu-
tion, the matter of Britain continued to be regarded as suitable material
for a national epos, albeit one fenced oV from the mainstream of political
argument. The lines of demarcation between origin myth and ancient
constitution, already visible in Selden™s apparatus for Drayton™s Poly-
Olbion, had become much clearer. Historians of literature and art have
drawn attention to the ways in which the ancient British past continued
throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to supply an abun-
dance of themes for imaginative writers and, eventually, for painters.
Even the Galfridian legends, though no longer Wt to grace the pages of
national histories, remained prized as a source for epic poetry and
drama.“¦

Nineteenth-century English political culture retained a traditional pri-
mary emphasis on institutions, their historical development and the
polyethnic formation of the English nation, yet the racial “ and mono-
ethnic “ dimension of Saxonism became much more pronounced. Sharon
Turner (1768“1847) was emphatic: ˜Though other invaders have ap-
peared in the island, yet the eVect of the Anglo-Saxon settlements have
’” John Cartwright, Give us our rights! Or, a letter to the present electors of Middlesex and the
metropolis (London, 1782), pp. 8 n., 26 n.; Cartwright, The people™s barrier against undue
inXuence and corruption or the commons™ house of parliament according to the constitution
(London, 1780), p. 13; Thomas OldWeld, An entire and complete history, political and
personal, of the boroughs of Great Britain (3 vols., London, 1792), I, p. 31.
“» James Burgh, Political disquisitions (3 vols., London, 1774“5), I, pp. 83“4; Cartwright,
The people™s barrier, pp. 18, 31“8.
“¦ Brinkley, Arthurian legend; E. D. Snyder, The Celtic revival in English literature, 1760“1800
(Cambridge, MA, 1923), esp. p. 55; I. Haywood, The making of history (Cranbury, NJ,
1986), pp. 58“62; H. Weinbrot, Britannia™s issue (Cambridge, 1993), pp. 493, 562“3;
Weinbrot, ˜Celts, Greeks, and Germans: Macpherson™s Ossian and the Celtic epic™,
1650“1850: Ideas, Aesthetics and Inquiries in the Early Modern Era 1 (1994), 17 n.;
C. Gerrard, The patriot opposition to Walpole (Oxford, 1994), p. 120; S. Smiles, The image
of antiquity (New Haven and London, 1994), pp. 153, 159.
98 The three kingdoms

prevailed beyond every other. Our language, our government, and our
laws, display our Gothic ancestors in every part.™“  Indeed, scholars are
agreed that by the early nineteenth century a qualitative diVerence had
appeared between the old language of English Gothicism “ whose previ-
ous signiWcance had been predominantly constitutional “ and a new
Teutonism which had ˜a more distinctly racial meaning™.“À
“  Sharon Turner, The history of the Anglo-Saxons (2nd edn, 2 vols., London, 1807), I,
pp. 27“8.
“À G. Stocking, Victorian anthropology (1987: New York pbk, 1991), p. 62. See also
D. A. White, ˜Changing views of the adventus Saxonum in nineteenth- and twentieth-
century English scholarship™, JHI 32 (1971), 586“7; R. Horsman, ˜Origins of racial
Anglo-Saxonism in Great Britain before 1850™, JHI 37 (1976), 387“410; M. Banton, The
idea of race (London, 1977), pp. 21“6; B. Melman, ˜Claiming the nation™s past: the
invention of the Anglo-Saxon tradition™, Journal of Contemporary History 26 (1991),
575“95.
5 Britons, Saxons and the Anglican quest
for legitimacy




The ecclesiastical past was a foreign country: antiquarians conducted
their arguments very diVerently there. Anglo-Saxon precedents in the
religious sphere were easily trumped by appeals to the primitive, apostolic
era of British Christianity. During the same period when English political
identity was becoming predominantly Saxonist, and the legend of the
parliamentary and legal institutions of the Britons was shunted to the
margins of English political discourse, the ethnic associations of the
Church of England remained Wrmly tied to a myth of ancient British
Christianity. Indeed, despite the rise of Gothicism, the signiWcance of the
ancient British era for Anglicans would not dim until the late eighteenth
century.
For most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the standard
Anglican interpretation of English history ran “ broadly speaking “ as
follows. The Church of England was an apostolic foundation, though
antiquaries debated the rival merits of the various ˜plausible™ contenders:
Simon Zelotes, Philip the Apostle, James son of Zebedee, the quasi-
apostolic Joseph of Arimathea, Aristobulus, Paul, some other follower of
Our Lord “ though deWnitely not St Peter.¦ Anglican scholars did not

¦ See e.g. essays by Robert Cotton, Arthur Agarde, William Dethick, William Camden and
William Hakewill on the theme ˜Of the antiquity of the Christian religion in this island™, in
Thomas Hearne (ed.), A collection of curious discourses (2 vols., London, 1773 edn), II, pp.
155“72; Francis Godwin, A catalogue of the bishops of England (London, 1615), ˜A
discourse concerning the Wrst conversion of this island™; Thomas Fuller, Church history of
Britain (1655: 3 vols., London, 1842), I, pp. 8“9; Edward StillingXeet, Origines Bri-
tannicae (London, 1685), esp. pp. 6, 43, 45“6; Nathaniel Crouch, England™s monarchs
(London, 1685), p. 4; Jeremy Collier, An ecclesiastical history of Great Britain (1708“14:
London, 1852), I, pp. 7“12, 23; Henry Rowlands, Mona antiqua restaurata (Dublin,
1723), pp. 138“9; George Smith, The Britons and Saxons not converted to Popery (London,
1748), pp. 268“71; Ferdinando Warner, The ecclesiastical history of England (2 vols.,
London, 1756), I, pp. 5“10; G. Williams, ˜Some Protestant views of early British church
history™, History 38 (1953), 221“2; K. Sharpe, Sir Robert Cotton (Oxford, 1979), p. 31;
J. Champion, The pillars of priestcraft shaken (Cambridge, 1992), pp. 55“61; J. Levine, Dr
Woodward™s shield (1977: Ithaca and London, 1991), p. 135.

99
100 The three kingdoms

conjure such ecclesiological fantasies out of nothing. To cite only the two
most compelling authorities: Tertullian in his Adversus Judaeos (c. AD
208) claimed that the gospel had already penetrated those areas of Britain
inaccessible to Roman arms, and there appeared to be a reference in
Gildas to a conversion of the Britons in the reign of the emperor
Tiberius.  Thanks to the auspicious and plausible origins of their church,
Anglicans could take pride in their institution™s direct personal link to
Christ. Moreover, the Church of England had clearly been established
independent of Roman inXuence, with a system of worship and organisa-
tion of primitive purity. Bede™s remark that the Celtic churches had
celebrated Easter according to the pattern of the Johanine Christians of
Asia MinorÀ prompted the conclusion that, in the words of Foxe™s Acts
and monuments, the Britons ˜were taught Wrst by the Grecians of the east
church, rather than by the Romans™.Ã Anglican historians contended that
their church had always been governed by bishops, and that the ancient
British Christians had soon been organised into three provinces: York,
London and Caerleon-on-Usk.• Despite the obvious blemish of the Wfth-
century Pelagian heresy, there was much in which Anglicans took great
pride, not least the heroic martyrdom of St Alban during Diocletian™s

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