Why history? 8 Kings


The English had traditions of popular councils and judgment by the people (trial by jury) going back to Anglo-Saxon times.  Their kings also reigned before the Norman Conquest in 1066.  In 1215, the barons extracted a promise from their king to rule by law.  They sought a government of laws rather than of men.  This was the Great Charter or Magna Carta.  It has many meanings, but the English said it meant that as the law made the king, the king was under the law – not above it.  This document is hugely important for the rule of law.

We saw that the Tudor King Henry VIII went to his parliament to be free of the Pope.  The seventeenth century saw a long contest for pre-eminence between the Stuart kings and their parliaments.  Parliament claimed the sole right to raise revenue.  If you control the purse strings, you are in control.  Charles I sought to raise money outside parliament.  This led to Civil War, the execution of the king, in 1649, and to the rise and dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell.

But England was not ready for a parliamentary republic, especially one led by bigoted Puritans who wanted to shut down pubs.  There was accordingly a peaceful restoration of the Stuart monarchy. But the Stuarts never learned.  James II picked fights with his parliaments – this time over religion.  James was Catholic and he wanted to share the love.  This led to the Glorious Revolution.  The Dutch intervened and installed William of Orange as king and his wife, a daughter of James II, as queen.  The English stitched their new monarchy up under terms of a service agreement like that entered into by a CEO of a public company.  This was the Bill of Rights of 1689, which still forms part of the law of the State of Victoria.  It settled the issue between the Crown and parliament in favour of the parliament.  It is still the basis of England’s parliamentary monarchy.  A few years later the parliament granted life tenure to the judges, and the platform of the English constitution was securely in place.

What did this platform stand on?  It stood on a body of case or judge made law going back to the time of Magna Carta.  If you wanted the court to intervene you had to persuade the court to command your adversary to appear before it.  This command was called a writ.  You had to persuade the court that the facts that you alleged came within the record of a prior intervention by the court.  In other words, you had to find a precedent. These arguments about writs are the start of the judge made law that came to be called the common law.  It is difficult to overstate the importance of this development, for it was the common law that eventually would underlie the whole English constitution.  Why?  Because the judges acknowledged that parliament was supreme, and could override the common law.

The development of a strong legal profession and judiciary was essential for the history of England as we know it.  First it challenged the intellectual monopoly of the church.  Then it gave backing to the process and statutes of the parliament.  The Inns of Court that made up the bar became a kind of finishing school for the ruling class.  They supplied king breakers from hell to bring the Stuarts to heel.  Most importantly, they resisted applying Roman law.  All these factors made England very different to Europe.  The English look to go by trial and error, and rationalise it later if they must.  Europeans like to work out a theory and seek to apply it. It’s the empirical against the rationalist approach.  One gives us the common law.  The other gives us the Code Napoléon.  They are as alike as Venus and Mars, as Europe is out finding again.

In France, the divine right of kings went unchallenged.  Louis XIV had far more power than any English king, but he moved his court to Versailles.  The Holy Roman Empire spread over much of Europe as the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Its emperors, the Habsburgs at Vienna, also enjoyed supreme power.  So did the Russian Tsars – more so.  Peter the Great tried to move from their Asian past by building St Petersburg and moving his capital there from the Kremlin.

The Church presided over the divvying up of South America by Portugal and Spain.  The Dutch, a powerful trading nation, went into Africa and Indonesia.  Christian Europe traded in slaves from Africa.

Philosophy found new life after Descartes, and it was applied. Authority came to be questioned by people like Voltaire.  The geniuses of Spinoza and Kant sought to build a whole world view, including a complete code of ethics, independently of religion.  Both were reproached.  Rousseau got starry eyed about the social contract and the dream of a noble savage.  This would be called the Age of Reason, or the Enlightenment.  Science was respected, and medicine would become respectable.  The classical European sensibility reached its peak with Mozart.  Beethoven struck out on a brave new course.  This was what would be called the Romantic Movement. Little of this mattered to most people who had little power, wealth or knowledge.

English Puritans settled North America.  There they were the majority, and it showed. Through a trading company, the English displaced the Moguls of India.  Russian Cossacks spread east so that Russia reached the Pacific.  Captain Cook opened up the whole Pacific, and the English could empty their jails on the vastness of Australia.  White settlers would start to rob and kill Stone Age people who had been there for a period about 200 times that of white settlement since.

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