The beginnings of England’s political success

If  England’s  unique political success lies in the  general tenor of  her  society, the institutions  through which it was achieved were cultivated  from the thirteenth  century onwards.  The  start  of the  long climb towards representative government  and the neutering of monarchy  may reasonably be  set in the reign of John.  In  1215  he  was  forced  by many  of his barons  to sign a charter which granted rights to  all  the  free men of the kingdom. This  charter,  the Magna Carta, was  of  immense  significance  because it formally  restricted the  power  of  the king in an unprecedented  way. The pope of  the  day  thought it  such an  abomination  he  granted John absolution for its repudiation. Perhaps for the first  time  since the end of the classical  world,  a king  had  been  forced  to acknowledge  unequivocally that there could be  legal  limits to his power. 

Long regarded as a revolutionary document by historians,  the fashion amongst  them in recent times has been  to treat  the  charter as little more than as an attempt  to preserve  and enhance  the  position of the barons or to  restate  existing English  law and custom. Of course it did that but  it  did much more.  Had it done nothing beyond  circumscribing  the  power  of the king it would have been revolutionary,  but  it went  far beyond that by explicitly extending rights that  we  consider  fundamental  to  a free society to  all  free  men. Perhaps its  two most famous  clauses  show  its importance in the development of the future sharing of political power:

Clause  39 No free  man  shall be  seized  or imprisoned,  or  stripped of  his  rights  or possessions, or  outlawed  or exiled  or  deprived of the standing  in any other way ,  nor  will  we  proceed with force against  him or send others  to do so, except  by  judgement  of his equals or by  the  law of the land.

Clause  40  To no one will we sell,  to no  one  will  we deny or delay right or justice.

Until  the  security of a man and his property  are  secured, there can be no sustained spreading of power,  for if a  king may  imprison  and dispossess  at will no man  is  safe.  All merely  live at the will of the monarch.  By providing  both, Magna  Carta  created  the necessary  legal  and  ideological  infrastructure for the  political development which culminated in parliamentary government.  

Perhaps the  most intriguing clause of Magna Carta was  the one,  clause 61,  which gave a committee of 25  Barons  legal authority  and practical power  over the  king.  It  is  long  clause but worth quoting in full:

Clause 61. Since,  moreover,  for God and the amendment  of  our  kingdom and for the  better  allaying  of  the  discord  that has arisen between  us  and our  barons  we  have granted all these things aforesaid, wishing them to  enjoy  the use of them unimpaired and unshaken for  ever, we  give and  grant  them  the  underwritten  security,  namely, that the barons  shall choose  any  twenty-five  barons  of  the kingdom  they wish, who must  with  all  their might observe,  hold and cause to be observed,  the  peace and liberties which we have granted and confirmed  to them by this  present charter of ours,  so that if we,  or our justiciar, or our bailiffs  or any  one  of  our    servants  offend  in any  way  against any one or  transgress any  of  the articles of the  peace  or  the  security and  the offence be notified to  four  of  the  aforesaid  twenty-five barons,  those four  barons  shall  come  to us, or to our justiciar if we are out  of  the  kingdom, and,  laying the transgression before us,  shall  petition  us  to  have that transgression corrected  without  delay.  And  if  we do not  correct  the  transgression,  or if we are out of the kingdom,  if  our  justiciar  does  not  correct  it, within  forty  days,   reckoning  from  the time  it  was brought to our  notice  or  to  that  of our justiciar  if  we were  out  of  the    kingdom, the  aforesaid four barons shall  refer that  case  to  the rest of the twenty-five  barons  and  those  twenty-five barons  together  with  the  Community of the  whole land  shall  distrain  and distress us  in  every   way  they  can,  namely,  by  seizing  castles,  lands,  possessions,  and in such other ways as they can,  saving  our  person and  the  persons  of  our  queen  and  our  children, until, in  their  opinion, amends have been  made; and when amends have been made,  they shall obey us  as they did before. And let anyone in the  country  who  wishes  to do so  take an oath to obey the orders of  the  said  twenty-five  barons  for the execution of  all  the  aforesaid  matters,  and with them to distress us as much  as he can, and we publicly and freely give anyone leave   to take the oath who wishes to  take it and we will never  prohibit  anyone from  taking it.  Indeed, all those in  the  land who are  unwilling  of themselves and of  their   own accord to take an oath to the  twenty-five barons  to  help  them to distrain and distress us, we  will make   them  take the  oath  as aforesaid  at  our  command.   And  if  any  of  the twenty-five  barons dies or  leaves  the  country  or is in any  other way  prevented from   carrying  out the things  aforesaid, the remainder of  the  aforesaid  twenty-five barons shall choose  as  they  think fit another one  in  his place, and he shall take  the oath like the rest.  In  all matters  the execution   of  which is  committed  to  these twenty-five  barons, if  it should happen that these twenty-five are present yet disagree among themselves about anything,  or if some of  those summoned will  not  or  cannot be  present, that  shall be  held  as  fixed  and  established which the  majority of those  present  ordained  or  commanded, exactly  as if all the twenty-five had consented  to  it; and  the  said  twenty-five shall swear  that  they  will faithfully  observe all the things aforesaid and will  do  all they can to get them observed. And we will  procure  nothing  from anyone,  either  personally or through  any  one else,  whereby any of these concessions and liberties  might be revoked or  diminished;  and if any such thing be procured let it be void  and null, and we will never use it either personally or through  another, And we have fully  remitted  and  pardoned  to  everyone  all the ill-will,  anger and rancour that have arisen between  us and our men,  clergy  and laity, from  the  time of the quarrel. Furthermore,  we  have  fully remitted to all, clergy  and laity, and as far as pertains to  us have  completely  forgiven  all  trespasses occasioned by the  same  quarrel between Easter in the sixteenth year of our reign  and the restoration of  peace. And, besides, we  have caused to be made for  them  letten  testimonial patent of the lord Stephen archbishop of  Canterbury, the  lord Henry archbishop of Dublin and of the aforementioned bishops.

The extreme nature of the concessions the king made – he gave  permission for his subjects to act  with force to remedy  any  Royal failure to observe the  charter – is a graphic  example  of  the inherent weakness of the mediaeval monarch.  King  he  might  be,  but  not a tyrant because he  did  not  have  the  resources to dominate utterly.

This  committee was never actually  formed,  but  the  clause has  great  interest.  Once such a  council  of  nobles  to restrict the  behaviour  of  the  king is accepted as reasonable and possible,  it  is not such a great leap to the idea of a  larger  assembly  which  might do  the same. That  idea  was realised  before the century was out  in  a Parliament.

Magna  Carta  is  not as is commonly said  the  first  formal restriction on the powers of a monarch.  The coronation oaths of  mediaeval kings regularly contained promises  to  observe the laws and customary freedoms of England,  but there was no means of enforcing the oaths other than rebellion.  There was  even  a previous  occasion  when  Ethelred  was  forced  to  agree to  formal  restrictions on his powers in  1014,  but that  had no practical effect because of his  death  and  the  Danish  conquest  in 1016. Magna Carta unlike  coronation  oaths  was both  specific enough to usefully form  the  basis   of law and in 1215 England did not  fall under  foreign rule.   Instead,  in modified form, it  quickly became part of  the   statute  books which developed in the  thirteenth  century.  More  importantly it acquired a  mythological  quality which lasts to  this  day. Every important  English  rebellion  and  political  movement  from  1215 until the  Chartists  in  the  1840s  has  cited Magna  Carta  in  their  defence and derived their programme from it. The  Levellers  in the 1640s  made  constantly cited it. It was a benchmark  which  allowed  the  powers  of the king to be progressively  whittled away.  Never again could  an  English king convincingly claim that  such  restrictions  on the prerogative were unthinkable or unprecedented.

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6 Responses to The beginnings of England’s political success

  1. efgd says:

    Thanks for that – it was very informative. It coincided with my reading of Tom Bingham’s, The Rule of Law, Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, 2010.

    • The most important thing to understand about mediaeval monarchs generally, not just English kings, is that they were very far from being all powerful, not least because they were constantly under threat from their siblings, overpowerful nobles and other pretenders to the throne. It was only in the early modern period that some European kings such as the French became powerful enough to subdue resistance to their rule. That never happened in England. Hence, her special polituical development.

  2. Pingback: The beginnings of England's political success | England calling | U.S. Justice Talk

  3. Il-ko says:

    hi great article, Thank you!

  4. Pingback: The beginnings of England’s political success | The Libertarian Alliance: BLOG

  5. Pingback: The beginnings of England’s political success (Robert Henderson) | The Libertarian Alliance Blog

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