Terms Employed in English History (N - Z)

Historical terms and meanings taken from 'History of England and Great Britain', 1899.


[A - C]

[D - M]

[N - Z]

National Debt. - A state may borrow by issuing stock which is purchased by those who wish to invest their money, and on which interest is paid at a fixed rate. The British National Debt, which began under William III. in 1692, has increased within the last century to enormous proportions. It increased by £12,000,000 in William III.'s reign. At the present time it is over £700,000,000. The largest increase (£323,000,000) was made during the French war of 1802-1815.

Non-Jurors were (Jacobite) prelates and other clergymen who gave up their sees and livings at the Revolution rather than take the oath of allegiance to William and Mary. They were about four hundred in number, and included Sancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury, and four others of the Seven Bishops. They were advocates of the doctrine of "Passive Obedience," or - as it was called in later days - "Non-resistance."

Oath Compurgatory. - "An accused might clear himself by his own oath, strengthened by the oath of certain compurgators." - (Langmead.) The word Compurgator means "a man who helps to clear another;" and compurgators were "witnesses to character," and testified to the sincerity and honesty of the accused.

Odal. - Of the same signification as Alod, q.v. The Odallers, or Udallers, are the freeholders of Orkney. Introduced by the Norsemen into Ireland, the word has been Hiber nicised into O'Dell.

Orangemen are an organisation of Protestants in the north of Ireland, first created in 1796. Their object is to maintain oppostion to the Roman Catholics and native Irish.

Ordeal. - Ordeal was employed when-

(a) The accused failed to justify himself by oaths compurgatory;
(b) Was taken red-handed;
(c) Was a notorious perjurer.

The ordeal was regarded as a judgement of God and as therefore a proof from God of the guilt or innocence of the accused. There were three kinds of ordeals, hot iron, hot or cold water, and the corsnaed or accursed morsel.
If the accused passed safely through all or any of these he was held to be innocent.

Pale. - The Pale was the part of Ireland subject to English law, which lay around Dublin, and was surrounded by a belt of marshes, beyond which lay the independent Celtic districts. It disappeared after the Tudors subjugated the whole island. The dwellers in the Pale were ground between the upper and the nether millstone, and were "the most wretched of all the wretched inhabitants of Ireland."

Patent was at first a royal document conferring a title of nobility. The term is applied to the process by which the property of an inventor in his invention is guaranteed, and his right of ownership protected. (Patent means open. The Rolls granting titles were called "Patent Rolls," because they were delivered open, with the Great Seal affixed, and were addressed to all the king's subjects.)

Peter's Pence or Rome-scot "was a tax of a penny on each hearth, which was collected and sent to Rome from the beginning of the tenth century." - (Stubbs.)

Plantations was the name given at first to the English Colonies in North America and the West Indies. Criminals and convicts were banished to the Plantations as slaves.

Poll-tax. - A tax imposed on each poll (= head), i.e. on each person.

Port-reeve (Port-gerefa) was the name given to the presiding magistrate of mercantile communities, such as London and Bath.

Praemunire. - The first Statute of Praemunire (1353) was a law which enacted outlawry and forfeiture of estates of those who sued in foreign courts, and especially the Papal Court, for matters which fell properly under the jurisdiction of the King's Courts.
In 1393 was passed the great Statute of Praemunire, which forbade the obtaining of Bulls and other Papal instruments under pain of forfeiture of goods.

Press-gang. - A company of sailors capturing men for the navy. See Impressment.

Pretender (= Claimant, Fr. prétendre, to claim): one who claims that the crown is his by right (de jure). The Old Pretender (James VIII.) and the Young Pretender (Prince Charles Edward) were the son and grandson of James II. They were excluded from the throne by the Act of Settlement (1701).

Protector. - This title was first conferred on the Governor, or Regent, who exercised the king's power during a minority. It was afterwards borne by Oliver Cromwell and his son Richard. The term imported "a personal duty of attendance to the actual defence of the land."

Provisors. - The famous Statute of Provisors was passed 1351. It emphatically forbade the Pope to nominate to English benefices. In 1390 another very important Statute of Provisors was passed. Its main points were:
(a) That the Statute of 1351 should be re-confirmed.
(b) That maintenance should be abolished. See Maintenance.
(c) That the custom of livery should be discontinued. See Livery.

Proxy was the authorisation given by a member of the House of Peers to another person to vote for him. The authorisation had to be made by letter; and royal licence had to be granted for the appointment of a proxy.

Puritans were a religious party who arose under Elizabeth and the Stuarts. They obhected to the Episcopal form of church-government, more especially to the ritual, and desired greater purity and simplicity in worship. Some, for engaging in private worship in London, were sent to prison in 1567 - "the first instance of actual punishment inflicted on Protestant Dissenters."

Purveyance. - From pourvoir, to provide. "This was a privilege exercised by the Crown of buying up provisions and other nexessaries, by the intervention of the king's purveyors, for the use of his royal household, at an appraised valuation, in preference to all others, and even without the consent of the owner, and also of forcibly impressing the carriages and horses of the subject to do the king's business on the public road - upon paying a settled price." - (Blackstone, Comment. i. 287.)
The Magna Charta contained a clause directed against this abuse.

Queen Anne's Bounty. - The revenue from First Fruits, which Henry VIII. annexed to the crown, was granted by Queen Anne to raise the stipends of the poorer clergy. Hence it is called her Bounty. It was instituted in 1704.

Rape. - The name given to a subdivision of the hundred in Sussex. These subdivisions were purely geographical, and not for judicial or fiscal purposes.

Regent. - When a king is too young to exercise his power, or is incapable from any other cause, his place is taken by a Regent. The Regent's power lapses when the king comes of age. The right of selecting, and of determining the powers of, a regent resides in Parliament.

Regicide: the murderer of a king. Those who sat on a trial, or were instrumental in the death of Charles I., were called the Regicides. At the Restoration ten of them were executed and the rest imprisoned.

Relief. - On the death of a tenant his estate was allowed to descend to the heir, only on condition of a sum of money, called a relief, being paid to the king. William Rufus was so exacting in the matter of reliefs that he practically compelled the heir to redeem or purchase his inheritance. But by the Magna Charta it was settled that the relief for a barony should be £100 and for a knight's fee 100s.

Riding. - Originally thirding or thriding, a third part. So Yorkshire is divided into three ridings - North, East, and West. South Yorkshire formed the old district of Hallamshire, round Sheffield. Lincolnshire was similarly divided.

Roundheads were the supporters of the Parliament in the great Civil War. They cropped their hair short, unlike the Cavaliers, who wore it on long locks, flowing down to their shoulders.

Sac and Soc. - Side by side with the hundreds there often existed franchises or liberties, estates of free jurisdiction, over which the jurisdiction was vested in private hands and not in the hundreds. These exempt estates were termed sithesoch; and their holders enjoyed all rights hitherto in the power of the king - the rights of nominating officers and exercising judicial functions. These particular rights were known as sac and soc; and, as is above mentioned, the rights of sac and soc conveyed the privilege of private jurisdiction over the estate outside of the hundred court.

Sanctuary. - To seek "sanctuary" meant to take refuge "at the horns of the altar." Sanctuary was sought by a man fleeing for his life or to escape imprisonment. For a pursuer to take a fugitive out of sanctuary was an offence which the clergy could punish.

Scot and lot. - The right of election for the boroughs was granted to all householders paying Scot and lot; "that is, bearing their rateable proportion in the payments levied from the town for local or national purposes." - (Stubbs.) This is in effect the electoral system that obtains at the present time.

Scutage. - Money paid in commutation of personal military service. It was instituted by Henry II. in 1159; and by furnishing him with the means of hiring mercenaries, made him in a great measure independent of the barons.

Ship-money. - Under the Plantagenet kings, the port-towns and the coast counties were comprelled to provide ships for the navy. When Charles I. was in need of supplies he revived this custom in 1634, and demanded sums of money from the coast-towns. The tax was afterwards extended to the inland counties as well. Hampden resisted it in 1636. In 1641 Parliament declared it illegal.

Shire-moot. - The meeting of the Shire - the general assembly of the folk of the shire. After the Conquest it was called the County Court (q.v.). It was composed of the sheriff, the ealdorman, the bishop, all lords of lands within the shire, and representatives from each township. This court took cognisance of every kind of suit, except in matters that concerned the king; but resort could not be made to it, until application had been first made to the hundred-gemoot. See County Court and Gerefa.

Sinking Fund is a sum of money set apart for the purpose of paying off part of the National Debt. At present this debt is being reduced by the creation of terminable annuities.

Socage Tenure was a "tenure by any certain and determinate service, as to pay a fixed money rent, or to plough the lord's land for a fixed number of days in the year." - (Langmead.) It was not held on condition of military service.

Speaker. - The speaker was the foreman or embodied voice of the House of Commons, the mouthpiece by which the House could make its wishes, demands, or advice known to the king or queen. This was the original use of a speaker; his chief function at the present time is to preserve order and decorum in the debates of the House.

Stannary Courts are very ancient courts for the administration of justice among the tinworkers of Cornwall and Devon. There was no appeal from these Courts to Westminster; and the Stuarts made large use of them as the engines of an arbitrary prerogative. (Lat. stannum, tin.)

Star-Chamber was a court, so named, according to some, because it met in a room where the roof was painted with stars. It was founded by Henry VII. The members of the Star-Chamber were the Chancellor, Treasurer, and other members of the Great Council. It had power to punish any offence it saw fit; even juries could be punished for their verdicts. Under the Stuarts the Star-Chamber used its authority against the opponents of the government in an arbitrary and tyrannical way. It was abolished in 1641.

Statute. - When any proposed measure has been passed by Parliament and assented to by the Sovereign, it becomes binding as a law or Statute. Up to the time of Edward I. all our statutes are in Latin; from then to Henry VI., French is mostly used; from Henry VII. they are all written in English. (Lat. statuo, I fix.) See Bills.

Supremacy. - When Henry VIII. broke with the Pope, an "Act of Supremacy" was passed by which the king was declared "the only Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England." This supremacy is still one of the prerogatives of the English crown.

Suspending Power was the right claimed by the king of suspending the operation of or abrogating any law at his pleasure. "It arose from the necessity in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries of combining the favour of the Pope with the maintenance of the Acts of Provisors and Praenumire." See Dispensing Power.

Tallage. - A land-tax levied on the towns and demesne-lands. The payer declared the value of his land and the officers of the Exchequer assessed the amount of tax. In 1297 it was declared illegal for the king to exact it without consent of Parliament.

Tallies. - The sheriffs had to send in to the Exchequer the amount of taxes he had collected. To mark the number of poundsm shillings, and pence received, the Exchequer prepared a tally, a long stick with notches cut on it, each notch standing for so much. The stick was then split in half, the Exchequer keeping one half and the sheriff the other. Thus the Exchequer knew how much it had received, and the sheriff how much he had paid.

Thegn. - Original meaning, servant. He was a freeman and a landholder; and as such bound to military service. Thegns were the free-retainers and body-servants of the king or nobles. For instance, we read of the King's horse-thegn, an office which survives in our Master of the Horse. So the King's dish-bearer is the disc-thegn.

Tithe. - A tenth part of a man's goods and produce, which was bestowed on the Church, to be divided among the clergy and the poor.

Tithing. - See Court Leet and Hundred-Gemoot.

Tonnage and Poundage. - A tax of two shillings on each tun of wine, and sixpence on each pound of merchandise. It was originally levied for a limited time for the support of the navy; but was converted under Henry V. into a permanent source of revenue. In 1630 it was declared illegal to raise tonnage and poundage without consent of Parliament. It was abolished in 1787.

Tory is an Erse or Irish word, meaning to pursue for the sake of plunder. It was first used as the name of those Irish who preferred to live as outlaws who roamed on their own lands to going to Connaught among the bogs. In 1679 it was applied to those who opposed the exclusion of the Duke of York from the throne on account of his Roman Catholic faith. From them it descended to all supporters of Church and King.

Treason is the crime of violence or treachery directed against the Sovereign or the State. Even to plan such a crime is treason. The penalty for treason is death, which used to be inflicted with horrible barbarity. Burning for treason was abolished in 1790; drawing, quartering, and beheading in 1870.

Tun. - The original meaning of tun was the quickset hedge enclosing a single farm or village. It soon came to mean the village itself; and as such is "the unit of constitutional machinery." Its head man was called tun-gerefa. The Tun formed the characteristic unit of Teutonic civil life, in contrast to the Polis (the rocky Acropolis or Bal) of the Classical and Celtic races. The inhabitant of the one was a slow simple farmer, of the other a quick-witted citizen.
In Scotland the farm-buildings are still called "the Toun." (The word is cognate with the German Zaun, a hedge, with the Tines of a stag's antlers, and the last syllable in eglantine, the sweet-briar.)

Vassal. - A vassal was a man who had done homage (see Homage) to a superior - either king or noble - in return for land granted to him. The mutual obligations existing between the lord and vassal were that the lord should defend and that the vassal should be faithful.

Vicar-General was a title conferred on Thomas Cromwell by Henry VIII., who was then acting as Supreme Head of the Church. The Vicar-General was to administer justice in ecclesiastical affairs. It was in his capacity of Vicar-General that Cromwell issued his Commission to inquire into the condition of religious houses.

Viceroy was the representative of the king. The ealdorman, e.g., was the Viceroy of the king in the shire over which he presided.

Villeinage and Villeins. - Tenure in villeinage was the system by which the villein held land which he was allowed to cultivate in lieu of money - wages. The villein possessed no title-deeds for this land, and in return for it he had to perform certain base services.
Villeins were divided into two classes - the villeins pure and villeins privileged. The first class were bound to do any work that was set them, and "knew not in the evening what they were going to do in the morning," - being "occupiers of the land at the lord's will." - (Langmead.)
The tenure of the priveleged villein was certain. Generally speaking, the villein in relation to his lord or master was in the position of a serf, but free in relation to all others. He could be formally made free by the manumission of his lord, or he could free himself by running away and staying away for a year and a day. He had some political rights, in that he could send representatives to the hundred-moot or shire-moot, but, otherwise, he could only assert his rights indirectly through his master.
Against this the villein and his children could be sold with the land on which he lived.

Wapentake (= Weapontake). - The Anglian synonym for the hundred (q.v.).

Wards, Court of. - This court was established by Henry VIII. to attend to the affairs of the king's wards, viz., the heirs under age over whom he had the rights of a guardian. The Court saw that the king made a profit out of their estates.

Wergild. - It was held among the English that every injury to person or property could be compensated by a money payment, called wergild. Every man's life had its value, and according to that valuation also the worth of his oath in courts of justice was estimated. The wer of a ceorl was 200 shillings; of an ealdorman 2400 shillings, and of a king three times as much as an ealdorman. (The word wer is cognate with the Latin vir, a man, and virtus, manliness.)

Whig was a name that was first applied in derision to the Scottish Covenanters. In 1679 it was given to the supporters of the Exclusion Bill. It became the name of the popular party that opposed the Stuarts and brought about the Revolution of 1688. In modern times the Whigs have been transformed into the Liberal Party; just as the Tories have become the Conservative Party.

Witenagemot. - The gemot or meeting of the Witan or wise men. This was probably not a representative assembly, but composed of the king, ealdormen, the king's thegns, the bishops and abbots, and, roughly speaking, of all the wise men of the kingdom. It numbered probably about 100. Although the Witenagemot was not strictly speaking a representative meeting, yet it was unquestionably regarded as representing the national power and will. Its main powers were:

(a) The right to depose the king for misgovernment. So the National Parliament three times exercised this power in deposing Edward II., Richard II., and James II.
(b) It could elect the king.
(c) It had a right to immediate participation in every act of government, judicial, legislative, and fiscal. In its judicial capacity it was the Supreme Court of Appeal.

Of course the extent to which it exercised these powers greatly depended on the character of the king; and all its powers were not always exercised. But in the matter of legislation and extraordinary taxation "the right of the Witan to give advice and counsel was at all times exercised." - (Langmead.)

Writ. - When a Parliamentary constituency is without a member, owing to a dissolution or any other cause, a "writ" is issued to the sheriff of the county. It enjoins him to arrange an election at which a new member shall be chosen. The first instance of such a writ occurs in 1213.

Yeomanry is hardly a technical term, but was the general name given both to the small freeholding farmers and also to the tenant farmers.