King John and the Laws of England

Part I

Macaulay did not like Strafford.  He called Strafford ‘the first of the rats’.  Well, Strafford did really frighten the English, and they were desperate to kill him – which they did by means that even Macaulay and Churchill conceded were outside the law – and definitely not cricket.  But for raw shiftiness, Strafford was no match for King John.  ‘Shifty’ is the right epithet here.  You see it in the famous El Greco portrait of the Inquisitor.  When Sir Jack Plumb came to describe the advent of the Hanoverian kings, he said that they came full of apprehension because their future subjects had a reputation throughout Europe for being shifty.  The most famous speech in the play King John is about commodity – that is the wilful expediency, egoism, opportunism and compromise that the English associated with a ‘trimmer,’ those who trim their sales to go with the flow, and which causes us to turn away from politics.  It’s what politicians show when we say that they are being shifty.  John Masefield thought that the play was about treachery.  We would call it a study in back-stabbing.  That is a frightful illness that this nation has succumbed to as one prime minister after another was coarsely stabbed in the back.

But when we look at King John now, we see the seeds of two great movements in the laws and constitution of England – Magna Carta and the rule of law, and the Reformation and religious Home Rule for England.  While looking at these, you need to recall that they took place while the English lawyers and judges were developing that body of case law that we call the common law.  That law would underlie the whole stupendous fabric, so that our greatest jurist, Sir Owen Dixon, could deliver a paper entitled The Common Law as an Ultimate Constitutional Foundation.  The English constitution is part of the common law.  (That is not the case in the United States.)

The play is about the sources of power.  A king has died.  Should the succession go to the next brother (John) or the son of the deceased (Arthur)?  France backs the latter.  It and England are on the point of going to war about it.  They patch up their differences with a fortuitous marriage after breaking the world land speed record in courtship.  But the Pope has it in for King John over a dispute about the next Archbishop of Canterbury.  His emissary, Pandulf, bounces the ball by addressing the kings as ‘anointed deputies of heaven’ – and he is peremptory:

I Pandulph, of fair Milan cardinal,
And from Pope Innocent the legate here,
Do in his name religiously demand
Why thou against the church, our holy mother,
So wilfully dost spurn; and force perforce
Keep Stephen Langton, chosen archbishop
Of Canterbury, from that holy see?
This, in our foresaid holy father’s name,
Pope Innocent, I do demand of thee. (3.1.64-73)

England (King John) responds:

What earthy name to interrogatories
Can task the free breath of a sacred king?
Thou canst not, cardinal, devise a name
So slight, unworthy and ridiculous,
To charge me to an answer, as the pope.
Tell him this tale; and from the mouth of England
Add thus much more, that no Italian priest
Shall tithe or toll in our dominions;
But as we, under heaven, are supreme head,
So under Him that great supremacy,
Where we do reign, we will alone uphold,
Without the assistance of a mortal hand:….(3.1.74-84)

Pandulf excommunicates King John on the spot and offers sainthood to his killer. 

The play came out less than ten years after the Armada (and two scenes later we get a reference to a scattered armada).  So, all this Catholic bashing would have been blood to a tiger for Queen Elizabeth and her loving subjects.  The Spanish would have been driven by God to burn this heretic, so that when this brave woman made her great speech at Tilbury, she had what Americans call ‘skin in the game.’ 

The Elizabethan reaction would have been raucous, but when I saw this play at the Barbican about a quarter of a century ago, the locals allowed themselves an audible frisson during this scene.  They were all talking about it at interval.  (I was most impressed.  These were the people and this was the city that stopped Hitler.  Herr Von Ribbentrop could hardly have arrived on stage with more éclat.)  Shakespeare was very kind to Queen Katherine in Henry VIII, but Pandulf gets it right down the front, both barrels.  He talks the French out of their alliance ‘to be the champion of our church’, leading the locals to revile ‘the curse of Rome.’  War preparations are resumed, and King John resolves to have the boy Arthur murdered.  And all this misery comes at the behest of a foreign potentate about a disputed succession – not to the English Crown but one English holy see.

Pandulf is oily and insidious.  He is loaded with the prevarications that the Elizabethans saw in the Jesuits.  With God and Innocent III behind him, he treats both kings like his deputies, just as Napoleon would treat them like chess pieces.  Pandulf is the puppeteer on the cover of The Godfather.  ‘Sovereignty’ is a blighted term, but while Pandulf was abroad, the kings of Europe and England saw theirs decapitated.  Pandulf is stalking proof of Protestant propaganda of the danger of breaking the biblical injunction against a servant having two masters.

What has this to do with the Reformation?  Other countries in Europe would be prepared to tolerate this interference in their nation’s governance, but not England.  Henry VIII seceded because the Pope was standing in the way of his securing his succession – a most vital function of a king.  By contrast, King John surrendered his kingdom to Pope Innocent under a bond of fealty and homage for which he was to pay an annual tribute to the Holy See.  That looks like a protection racket, Mafia style.  The Oxford History remarks that this hardly gave rise to adverse comment at the time: ‘It was only later generations with bitter experience of papal control that denounced the transaction in violent language.’  Other kings had acknowledged the feudal superiority at Rome, but the Tudors would look back at this time, and the problems with Becket, as the foundation of their drive to independence – if not liberation.  When the end came for the Vatican in England, it might remind us of what Gibbon said about the fall of Rome – the wonder was not that it happened, but that it had gone on for so long.

You will have seen that the author has King John refer to ‘that great supremacy where we do reign.’  I have no doubt that this was a deliberate allusion to one of the acts of parliament that secured the divorce from Rome.  The Act of Supremacy begins –

Where by divers sundry old authentic histories and chronicles, it is manifestly declared and expressed that this realm of England is an empire, and so hath been accepted in the world, governed by one supreme head and king having the dignity and royal estate of the imperial crown of the same….

This was standard practice for English propaganda.  In building the common law, the judges resorted to legal ‘fictions’ to help get around road blocks set up by precedent cases and forms.  They were not so different when legislating.  Revolutionary changes would be described as simply affirmations of past customs, beliefs and laws.  So they begin by saying that their realm has always been accepted as an empire – the ruler of which can have no superior.  Well, King John plainly had a superior – but why rest on aberrations?

Shakespeare would show that he was alive to the issue.  When the French herald came to deliver the message of his king to King Henry V of England before Agincourt, he said that the French could have dealt with Harry at Harfleur, but that ‘now we speak upon our cue, and our voice is imperial: England shall repent his folly’.  A little later that night, Harry moved among the sad and depleted English troops in disguise – ‘a little touch of Harry in the night.’  ‘What are you?’ the king asks.  Pistol – a swaggering drunk – replies ‘As good a gentleman as the emperor’.  This leads the king to say: ‘Then you are better than the king.’

So, the English asserted their supremacy over the Church of Rome.  They did so through their parliament.  This was too big a job for a king alone.  The next phase of their history was in establishing the supremacy of the parliament over the king.  That process would be more or less complete by 1689, after what they call the Glorious Revolution.  It started with what we call Magna Carta in 1215.  The progress led to the form of government that we enjoy today.  There was nothing like it anywhere else in the world.  When the Americans affirmed their supremacy over the English Crown they simply used English precedents as their templates.

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