Learning and Teaching History: A Reflection on Practice

12. Liberty and its foundations

Almost all the societies with which we’ve so far dealt have been monarchies, rule by one man (or woman) being the logical outcome of the process of state-building which was described in the section on Ancient Egypt. This is because charismatic leadership has always played a part in determining which communities are successful and it’s those communities everyone wants to be a part of. But what happens when the great leader dies? A dangerous vacuum is created which many may be ambitious to fill: there is a risk that the community may tear itself apart or be overwhelmed by external enemies. The best way to avoid such disasters is for the ruler to be succeeded by his son. Everyone knows who is coming next and the heir can be well prepared for his role. There is an obvious problem however. Whilst hereditary succession generally works well, every so often the heir turns out to be mad, bad or incompetent. What is the community to do then? There is no point in having a king who can be easily removed as it is precisely his permanence that gives the state its stability. Nor is there a point in having a monarch who has no power (though he or she need not exercise it personally) so how can the actions of an unsuitable king be controlled without weakening the institution? This was the difficulty facing the people who mattered in England when they had to decide what to do about King John.

A little bit of background first. John was fourth and youngest son of King Henry II (1154-1189) who, in addition to being king of England, was also lord of a large part of France – including Normandy, Anjou and Aquitaine. With three older brothers, one of whom was the hero of the age, Richard the Lionheart, John could never have expected to be king. By the time Richard got himself killed however, only John and a fifteen year old nephew, Arthur, remained. Most of the leading men around preferred an adult king to a teenager so John was able to seize the crown and do away with Arthur, in rather obscure circumstances. However, this gave the king of France a chance to stir up trouble in John’s dominions and ultimately to seize Normandy (1205).

What was John to do? No medieval king could lose territory and keep his honour. John had to get Normandy back. However, this would clearly take a lot of men and a lot of cash to pay for them so John set about finding ways in which he could extract money from his luckless subjects in England. ‘Medieval kingship was essentially parasitic,’ one biographer of John has written. Kings lived off their subjects’ endeavours, chiefly the surplus produced by thousands of stolid villagers, ploughing, sowing, planting and harvesting so that their lords could eat. What was left over was sold at market, generating income for the nobility and a source of revenue for the king, providing he could lay his hands on it.

John tried lots of methods, some of them brutal and direct, some more subtle, exploiting his position as the supreme judge in his kingdom. Any infringement of the law could result in a hefty fine: men would have to pay for the king’s goodwill and then pay to keep it in case they were taken to court by their neighbours. No-one with anything to lose could feel himself safe from royal attention, and as if to underline the point, John travelled ceaselessly about his kingdom looking for opportunities to increase his revenue still further. All this to undo mistakes at the start of his reign.

Alas for John. The magnificent army he was finally able to put into the field was all but destroyed at the battle of Bouvines, early in 1215. It had cost him the support of his barons and even more importantly that of the church. His practice of keeping bishoprics vacant and excluding the newly elected archbishop of Canterbury had led to the pope placing an interdict on England for several years. No services were held in churches, no weddings and no funerals; the dead went to their graves without the blessings needed to ensure their soul’s salvation. Faced with a king who was cruel, greedy, untrustworthy and – worst of all – unlucky, the leading men of the kingdom decided that they had to tie his hands in some way. The result was the Magna Carta.

To be fair, John has had his defenders. Most of what we know about him comes from the pens of monastic chroniclers who were hostile to him. However, no-one sought to limit the power of good kings. The fact that John was forced to promise that he would not go on doing things he had been doing for years seems proof-positive that his rule had become insupportable, even to the most law-abiding of his subjects.

His greatest crime, it seems, was to keep ‘moving the goalposts’. As he was the fount of all law he believed he could alter it as he pleased. Society could not develop on this basis. People had to know what was right and what was wrong and they had to believe that they would not be unfairly accused. Magna Carta established a subject’s right to be tried by his ‘peers’ and not to be thrown in prison without just cause. New offences could not be created just because the king had spotted a revenue opportunity. This especially applied to the royal forests where there were draconian laws to protect the game. John seems to have been in the habit of enlarging the forest boundaries so that more offenders could be caught.

In years to come Magna Carta would be seen as the ‘foundation of all our liberties’ and every English monarch since John has sworn to uphold it. To explain its significance I used to threaten to dangle an annoying pupil out of a second floor classroom window. ‘Why should I not let him go?’ I would ask. Apart from the usual encouragement to do precisely that (I always made my choice of victim carefully) someone would eventually answer ‘because it’s against the law.’ ‘Whose law?’ I would reply. The answer is of course ‘the law’, not mine or yours, and that is what Magna Carta is about. Nevertheless learners shouldn’t be misled into thinking that this is what the group of barons and bishops who imposed the charter on John in 1215 intended. They were just trying to protect themselves from a desperate and ruthless king; in the process they invented a principle. As soon as he could John renounced his concessions: it would take a good many more years before a system emerged that could keep monarchs to their word.

Here we encounter a paradox. John went back on his promises because he had been forced to make them and it was against his honour to allow his authority to be diminished. When a system came into being that made the power of the crown dependent on the law it was because John’s successors wished it. As with John the key issue was war and the cost of fighting it.

John’s grandson Edward I (1272-1307) has been described as a ‘great and terrible king’, an image memorably recreated in the film Braveheart. Determined Edward certainly was but his campaign to unify the British Isles under his rule proved to be hugely expensive. His chief source of revenue apart from the lands he owned as king was the tolls he could impose upon the export of raw English wool to the continent. By 1297 these were becoming ruinously high and he was facing something of a tax-payers’ revolt: in modern jargon he needed to broaden the basis of his income. How to do this without incurring the same fate as his grandfather? Precedents existed for the calling together of great councils to offer advice on important issues but only the hundred or so most important people in the kingdom were invited and they were not the ones paying the taxes. Edward began the practice of inviting the wealthiest merchants and representatives of the shires to come as well. As these men were not summoned by name but as representatives of a much larger class of people (the ‘Commons’), they had to be elected. If this ‘parliament’ (the word is French) accepted the need for extra taxation then the king could go ahead and levy it, knowing that he wouldn’t face revolt. As parliaments only came together when he summoned them he could tell himself that he was actually increasing his power this way.

In fact Parliament quickly assumed a life of its own, becoming not just a means of revenue-raising but a way of making laws – statute law, as opposed to the ancestral common law – and it very quickly became a forum for the airing of grievances, especially the sort of grievances that result from maladministration. Naturally, it didn’t exist in a vacuum. All its members were the king’s subjects and could be influenced both by him and by their more powerful neighbours in the countryside. Yet within a hundred years there was a clear distinction between Parliament – king, lords and commons acting together– and the king acting alone. From time to time long periods would go by when no Parliament was summoned or Parliament would be packed with royal supporters. This makes it seem as if monarchs like Henry VIII, were ‘absolute’ but every time the monarch was short of money the true position was revealed. Five hundred and fifty years ago a lawyer called Sir John Fortescue defined the English polity when he described it as a ‘regnum politicum et regale’ – a kingdom in which power derived from consent, not (as in the Roman empire) from the will of the ruler, although a strong ruler was needed to ensure the state was defended and its laws obeyed. It was a beneficiary of this common sense arrangement, the modern politician Charles Clarke, who questioned the value of medieval history. He has his answer.

Thus the Middle Ages. On the one hand we have robust and earthy common sense, capable of great practical achievements; on the other hand medieval Europe is still fundamentally an agricultural society sharing many characteristics with the societies of Ancient Egypt and China. No-one studying the Middle Ages should ever lose sight of those hundreds of thousands of villagers across Europe who were happily born, raised and married without leaving any trace in the historical record: men and women who in due course became parents and grandparents and passed on to the next world in equal obscurity, leaving nothing but their accumulated experience and a belief in providence. We can represent them through what we know of the typical medieval village (the old ‘then and there’ approach) and bring them back to life by creating ‘Eastenders’-type sagas that remind us that even ordinary lives have their dramatic moments. We can imagine their hopes, fears, joys and agonies because we are human like them and we can share their wonder at what skilled craftsmen could do with the surplus produce of their labours. A few of us, raised near farms, can imagine what their world smelled like.

The great cathedrals survive as witnesses to the importance that medieval people – like the Chinese and the Egyptians - attached to the next world. Even the naughty beasts and animals that peer down upon us from rooflines or from underneath those folding seats called misericords are there to issue a warning: the devil is always out there to catch you! Steer clear of temptation (however much fun it may be today, think of the life to come…) and pay your dues to the Church. With God’s grace and the prayers of the faithful you will find yourself amongst the saved. Wrapped around this comforting certainty is the great all-explaining world system represented by the Mappa Mundi - to whose collapse we must now return.