Page images
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

Something more than a hundred years later, the old cry against the low-born adventurers, who, to the injury of the public and the degradation of the law, were said to overwhelm counsellors and solicitors of superior tone and pedigree, was still frequently heard in the coteries of disappointed candidates for employment in Westminster Hall, and on the lips of men whose hopes of achieving social distinction were likely to be frustrated so long as plebeian learning and energy were permitted to have free action. In his ‘History of Hertfordshire' (published in 1700), Sir Henry Chauncey, Sergeant-at-Law, exclaims: “But now these mechanicks, ambitious of rule and government, often educate their sons in these seminaries of law, whereby they overstock the profession, and so make it contemptible; whilst the gentry, not sensible of the mischief they draw upon themselves, but also upon the nation, prefer them in their business before their own children, whom they bereave of their employment, formerly designed for their support; qualifying their servants, by the profit of this profession, to purchase their estates, and by this means make them their lords and masters, whilst they lessen the trade of the kingdom, and cause a scarcity of husbandmen, workmen, artificers, and servants in the nation.”

That the Inns of Court became less and less aristocratic throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there is no reason to doubt; but it may be questioned whether it was so overstocked with competent working members, as poor Sir Henry Chauncey imagined it. Describing the state of the inns some two generations la’er, Blackstone computed the number of law-students at about a thousand, perhaps slightly more; and he observes that in his time the merely nominal law-students were comparatively few. “Wherefore," he says, "few gentlemen now resort to the Inns of Court, but such for whom the knowledge of practice is absolutely necessary; such, I mean, as are intended for the profession; the rest of our gentry, (not to say our nobility also) having usually retired to their estates, or visited foreign kingdoms, or entered upon public life, without any instruction in the laws of the land, and indeed with hardly any opportunity of gaining instruction, unless it can be afforded to them in the universities."

The folly of those who lamented that men of plebeian rank were allowed to adopt the legal profession as a means of livelihood, was however exceeded by the folly of men of another sort, who endeavored to hide the humble extractions of eminent lawyers, under the ingenious falsehoods of fictitious pedigrees. In the last century, no sooner had a lawyer of humble birth risen to distinction, than he was pestered by fabricators of false genealogies, who implored him to accept their silly romances about his ancestry. In most cases, these ridiculous applicants hoped to receive money for their dishonest representations; but not seldom it happened that they were actuated by a sincere desire to protect the heraldic honor of the law from the aspersions of those who maintained that a man might fight his way to the woolsack, although his father had been a tender of swine. Sometimes these imaginative chroniclers, not content with fabricating a genealogical chart for a parvenu Lord Chancellor, insisted that he should permit them to write their lives in such a fashion, that their earlier experiences should seem to be in harmony with their later fortunes. Lord Macclesfield (the son of a poor and ill-descended country attorney), was traced by officious adulators to Reginald Le Parker, who accompanied Edward I., while Prince of Wales, to the Holy Land. In like manner a manufacturer of genealogies traced Lord Eldon to Sir Michael Scott of Balwearie. When one of this servile school of worshippers

approached Lord Thurlow with an assurance that he was of kin with Cromwell's secretary Thurloe, the Chancellor, with bluff honesty, responded, “Sir, as Mr. Secretary Thurloe was, like myself, a Suffolk man, you have an excuse for your mistake. In the seventeenth century two Thurlows, who were in no way related to each other, flourished in Suffolk. One was Cromwell's secretary Thurloe, the other was Thurlow, the Suffolk carrier. I am descended from the carrier." Notwithstanding Lord Thurlow's frequent and consistent disavowals of pretension to any heraldic pedigree, his collateral descendants are credited in the ‘Peerages' with a descent from an ancient family.

[ocr errors]



[ocr errors]

so circumstances of the Norman Conquest more for

cibly illustrate the humiliation of the conquered people, than the measures by which the invaders imposed their language on the public courts of the country, and endeavored to make it permanently usurp the place of the mother-tongue of the despised multitude; and no fact more signally displays our conservative temper than the general reluctance of English society to relinquish the use of the French words and phrases which still tincture the language of parliament, and the procedures of Westminster Hall, recalling to our minds the insolent domination of a few powerful families who occupied our country by force, and ruled our forefathers with vigorous injustice.

Frenchmen by birth, education, sympathy, William's


[ocr errors]

barons did their utmost to make England a new France: and for several generations the descendants of the successful invaders were no less eager to abolish every usage which could remind the vanquished race of their lost supremacy. French became the language of parliament and the council-chamber. It was spoken by the judges who dispensed justice in the name of a French king, and by the lawyers who followed the royal court in the train of the French-speaking judges. In the hunting-field and the lists no gentleman entitled to bear coat-armour deigned to utter a word of English: it was the same in Fives' Court and at the gambling-table. Schoolmasters were ordered to teach their pupils to construe from Latin into French, instead of into English; and young men of Anglo-Saxon extraction, bent on rising in the world by native talent and Norman patronage, labored to acquire the language of the ruling class and forget the accents of their ancestors. The language and usages of modern England abound with traces of the French of this period. To every act that obtained the royal assent during last session of parliament, the queen said “ La reyne le veult,” Every bill which is sent up from the Commons to the Lords, an officer of the lower house endorses with “Soit bailé aux Seigneurs;" and no bill is ever sent down from the Lords to the Commons until a corresponding officer of the

upper house has written on its back, “Soit bailé aux Communes.”

In like manner our parochial usages, local sports, and domestic games continually remind us of the obstinate tenacity with which the Anglo-Saxon race has preserved, and still preserves, the vestiges of its ancient subjection to a foreign yoke." The crier of a country town, in any of England's fertile provinces, never proclaims the loss of a yeoman's sporting-dog, the auction of a bankrupt dealer's stock-in-trade, or the impounding of a strayed

[ocr errors]

cow, until he has commanded, in Norman-French, the attention of the sleepy rustics. The language of the stable and the kennel is rich in traces of Norman influence; and in backgammon, as played by orthodox players, we have a suggestive memorial of those Norman nobles, of whom Fortescue, in the 'De Laudibus' observes: “ Neither had they delyght to hunt, and to exercise other sportes and pastimes, as dyce-play and the hand-ball, but in their own proper tongue.”

In behalf of the Norman noblesse it should be borne in mind that their policy in this matter was less intentionally vexatious and insolent than it has appeared to superficial observers. In the great majority of causes the suitors were Frenchmen; and it was just as reasonable that they should like to understand the arguments of their counsel and judges, as it is reasonable for suitors in the present day to require the proceedings in Westminster Hall to be clothed in the language most familiar to the majority of persons seeking justice in its courts. If the use of French pleadings was hard on the one Anglo-Saxon suitor who demanded justice in Henry I.'s time, the use of English pleadings would have been equally annoying to the nine French gentlemen who appeared for the same purpose in the king's court. It was greatly to be desired that the two races should have one common language; and common sense ordained that the tongue of the one or the other race should be adopted as the national language. Which side therefore was to be at the pains to learn a new tongue ? Should the conquerers labor to acquire Anglo-Saxon? or should the conquered be required to learn French? In these days the cultivated Englishmen who hold India by military force, even as the Norman invaders held England, by the right of might, settle a similar question by taking upon themselves the trouble of learning as much of the Asiatic dialects as is necessary

« PreviousContinue »