A History of England, Principally in the Seventeenth Century, by the German historian Leopold Von Ranke is a great read. Ranke had two great arts – he knew that the work of an advocate or judicial assessor is to make the point clearly and simply and cut out the waste. You don’t spoil a good point with a dud – or with incontinence. And he also knew that the job of a narrator is to tell a story. This is a sadly rare double. Those in the academy who don’t have it – the majority – can get snaky.
But Ranke also had a fine eye for the illuminating example or illustration. He is one of the few – Gibbon was another – who used footnotes to good effect. It is no surprise that in writing his history of England, this great German scholar cited as a major source the archives of the ancient Republic of Venice. You might get that European vision from the French or the Dutch – but not from the English.
And because we know that Ranke burrows down in remote primary sources, we listen when he makes statements that are large. Like – the glory of their arms abroad lay nearest to the heart of the French nation, and the legal settlement of their home affairs to that of the English. Or – in the 16th century, the part of England in emancipating the world from the rule of the western hierarchy directly influenced the religious revolution throughout Europe as well as its own constitution. The sacerdotal reaction was directed at England – and its successful resistance was of great service to Europe. It’s as well that both such comments came from a German –that level of sweep is not smiled on in England as it is in Europe.
We get nervous now about talking about ‘progress’ in history after Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Sarajevo. But it does seem to me that we can see two themes in perhaps a maturing among us in the course of our history. One is the emancipation from magic and the supernatural – like religion. Another is the movement to have our standing determined by what we do rather than what our ancestors did – this is what Maine called the movement from status to contract; merit rather than pedigree.
The history of England is full of both. But its major contribution has been to work out a way that the people could control their government – in their case, their king. No other country ever got close to what they were doing when the English were at it. And only a few have since caught up.
As it seems to me, there were three great peaks in the long constitutional journey of the English – Magna Carta in 1215; the Act of Supremacy of 1534; and the Declaration of Rights of 1689. Ranke focuses on the last – which effectively settled the constitution of England – and therefore ours – after a century of grinding conflict that forever denoted, often in blood, the political character of the nation.
In my view, the English are prone to underestimating the legal effect of Magna Carta and the political consequences of the Reformation – which in England had almost nothing to do with God or faith.
At Runnymede, the barons had the whip hand – and they applied it in the enforcement clause. If the king ratted – and they knew he would – they could appoint their version of receivers and managers. Its terms would make Putin blush, and it was Exhibit A in King John’s submission to the pope that he had sealed the charter under duress.
Ranke had qualms about the finality of that contract between the king and the people. (The barons expressly stipulated that those down the line should have the benefit of the Great Charter.) But at least Ranke saw it for what it was – a contract. The English are curiously coy about this. It does matter. The tribes of Israel had a covenant with God. So did west bound English Puritans. But you won’t find deals like that among the Medes, or Persians, or subjects of the Pharaohs. Or between Hitler and the Wehrmacht – or between Putin and the rulers of Russia – the oligarchs.
The pope quashed Magna Carta as King John offered Rome an appalling deal. There had to come to a time when the English would lock out a foreign potentate from preventing them governing their realm as they wished.
That time came when a different pope could not meet the request of an English king to allow him to settle the succession to the English throne by remarrying. The pope could not do that because of a conflict of interest. The loyalty of the Vatican to the Holy Roman Empire cost it the Church of England – and put a very big hole in the reach of Rome in Europe.
How did the English underestimate the impact of their grasp of religious Home Rule? The short answer is – look at what happened to nations that never got it until it was too late – like France, Spain, Italy and Russia.
As nations matured, their peoples did not just seek to reduce the place of the supernatural, or magic, in their lives – they wanted to reduce the role of the middle man, the priest. They were coming to the view that the church might be causing more trouble than it was worth. The protest of Luther was about faith and the church. The English revolt had next to nothing to do with either
The English effected the divorce not by royal proclamation, but by a series of acts of parliament. By doing that, the Crown tacitly acknowledged that ultimately sovereignty in England rested in the Crown in parliament – or at least, that is what the parliament and its champions would argue.
Here was a real accretion of power. Among other things, the title of the Crown, and the government of the church, all derived from the parliament. The church became in substance a department of state. The Crown was at the head of both, and by and large the Anglican church has behaved itself since, and not caused any trouble to the Crown or the nation.
The Act of Supremacy followed an act that had a recital of complacent self-satisfaction that Jefferson would later mimic – ‘Where, by diverse sundry old authentic histories and chronicles, it is manifestly declared and expressed that this realm of England is an empire….’ There is just a little laxity with veracity there.
But here, then, was a declaration of independence which the English had to defend against a Spanish invasion. The soldiers of the Vatican would certainly have burnt Elizabeth at the stake as a heretic; would-be assassins had already been offered Paradise. After that speech at Tilbury from their queen, England was about to flower as a nation. Ranke observes all this with the eye of eternity.
In the next century, the English would finally come to terms with their king. But now they had dealt with God and his church. After they had fixed things with their king, they could turn their full attention to the aristocracy.
The history of Ranke is ‘principally’ about the role of the four inept Stuart kings who provoked the English through their parliament in curtailing the power of the king in the settlement after what they call the Glorious Revolution. (And not many English people now recall, or ever knew, that an essential part of that revolution was performed by an invading Dutch army that patrolled the streets of London.)
Magna Carta said the king was under the law. The Act of Supremacy said the Church of England was under the law. The Declaration of Rights said that both were under parliament. Game, set, and match. Enlarging the franchise would take time, but not blood.
There was, then, another employment contract with the Crown. This time, they did not use a receiver and manager as enforcer. They said to the king ‘You can’t have an army unless we agree. But we remain armed.’ That was enough. The English of course have never invoked this right to bear arms. The Americans just get it horribly wrong, through a sad mix of credulity and venality. And a shocking ignorance of their constitutional antecedents.
The narrative of Ranke is so good to follow about the Stuarts, God’s gift to parliamentary democracy. None of them was up to it, but the worst were Charles I and James II. The English executed the first. They just ran the other out of town. On the way, he threw the seals into the Thames.
James I put silly ideas about Divine Right into the head of his son Charles I. Ranke describes Charles as lawyer-like and priest-like.
His strict propriety of demeanour bordered on male bashfulness; a serious and temperate soul spoke from his calm eyes…All the world had been wearied by the frequent proofs which his father had given of his untrustworthiness, and by the unfathomable mystery in which he enveloped his over-wavering intentions: they expected from the son more openness, uprightness and consistency. They asked if he could not also be more decidedly Protestant.
The first part is word perfect for the role of Alec Guinness as Charles in the film Cromwell. The second part about the father perfectly fits the son. The English could not trust him. We have recently seen a Prime Minister achieve the same status – with a less terminal conclusion.
The problem set in when, for dynastic reasons, Charles married Henrietta, the sister of a French king, by proxy before Notre Dame. To get the deal done with approval from Rome, the future king had to make promises about the treatment of English Catholics that directly put him in conflict with his duties as the head of the Church of England. He did not recall how a such a conflict had cost Rome the loss of England – and he could not foresee that a worse conflict with James II would see the end of the Stuart line. Part of the marriage compact was secret, and Charles II would enter into a secret pledge about Catholicism with France –the cash was worth a Mass – that in a subject would be the highest form of treason on in the books.
Ranke reports on the trial of Strafford – moments of high theatre. Strafford put the wind up the English like no other. This man of great gifts had changed sides, joined the king, and commanded an army in Ireland. The English had to get him before he got them. In persuading the Commons, St John produced one of those lines an advocate would die for. This is one of those brick wall moments in history. Say what you like – he had to go. (A similar wall would have arisen if Hitler had not killed himself. He could in no way have been allowed to live. Churchill did not fancy any trial of the major war criminals.) It is a riveting story. (Miss Wedgwood tells it wonderfully. The academy doesn’t like her either.)
And in the middle of the 17th century, the role of the English people in the choice of their governors was fundamental. Charles I would not sign the law that warranted the execution of Strafford. But he had to. His advisers could not guarantee his personal safety from the people if he did not. Nowadays we would give that sort of revolution a colour.
In an age that is not at all religious, it is easy to forget the pervasive force of faith and liturgy in other times and places. At one time or another, it has sent most nations off the rails, and led to the worst of our wars. God brings out the grizzlies in us. After the two world wars, a majority of Germans said that the worst war in their history was the Thirty Years War in the 17th century – a direct product of the Reformation.
To understand that English history from say 1215 to 1689, you only need to look elsewhere. The French were centuries behind when they tried to do it all in one big bang, and they had to endure a century of misery as a result – after the ego of a Corsican upstart accounted for the lives of five million people. The French were still dealing with feudalism in 1789. The German nation was only brought together by Bismarck, who led a liberal state, but something in their psyche led to the one of the most evil regimes the world has known and to two world wars.
Spain, Italy and Greece still do not have their act together, and the Church has been a curse in each of them. The Dutch and Nordic states alone look calm and stable. The Baltic states have endured agony and the Balkans are case studies in every form of political failure or evil. The Celtic fringe in the U K now looks very ready to pull out – the eight hundred years of race-driven misrule of Ireland is a frightful blot on England. (And that peace even now is in hazard because an unprincipled caste betrayed almost every plank of the English platform that Ranke describes.) Poland and Hungary are not up with Europe yet.
That leaves Russia. It has never been decently governed. The Orthodox Church is now sponsoring a war by Russia against a nation whose people pray to the God of the same Church. It may just be the most inept and evil ecclesiastical body ever. Russia liberated its serfs in the same year that Lincoln emancipated the slaves (1863). Russia is neither European nor Asian. It is yet to have anything like its 1215 moment with its rulers. It is the black hole of the world.
The United States has also not been able to deal with the corrupting stain of slavery, and its deviations from the English model. Its failure to house train God, or Trump, mean that only very generous people continue to describe it as civilised.
Let us look further at those two nations. If we go back to the movement away from the supernatural and toward merit counting more than pedigree, then, in a state that claims to be civilised, we should be looking to find people having an equal opportunity of their own individual worth being determined by their own actions rather than those of their parents or people they know. The French 1789 ideal of equality may have been realised there as a matter of law, but they are nowhere near ironing out differences that arise from class, colour or faith. And the dreadful inequalities in wealth and income bedevil not just western countries.
Slavery, or serfdom, in any form is a direct repudiation of equality. That and empire are two reasons why it was silly for Oxbridge to call ancient Greece or Rome civilised.
Slavery, or serfdom, has not been an issue in England since way back in the Middle Ages. Well before the white people settled here in this continent, the English courts had ruled that slavery was not recognised at common law. It was of such a nature – ‘so odious’ – that it could only be supported by positive law. The English parliament outlawed the slave trade in the first part of the next century. If you look at when the Russians liberated their serfs – or claimed to have done so – the difference in the time-line with the English is about half a millennium.
Both Russia and America remain victims of caste. Russia has only ever been ruled by force. It has never known anything like the rule of law – which is fundamental to our notion of civilisation. Slavery split the American union once, and it still hangs heavy over the land now. It looks to me that the sort of people who support Trump have never forgiven others for putting a black man in the White House. They now fear they will be overrun by people of colour – who, in their eyes, are inferior people.
History teaches that these are the sorts of self-righteously aggrieved people that rise to the surface in any revolution. They were in full and hideous display in the attack on the Capitol – which is still ignored or allowed by a large part of what used to be the American establishment. What a falling off have we seen there?
A similar although much wealthier class in Russia use their power and wealth to control the organs of power and confine power and wealth to a select few. ‘Equality’ may as well be a meteorite from Mars. In the result, we have the abomination of Putin and the crime of the war against the Ukraine – and a murder of truth that makes Trump look like a choir boy.
There is a sad kicker. The end of slavery in England was in large part due to agents of Christianity – in particular, the Church of England and the maligned Quakers. Here was a mighty achievement – and the first real basis of our claim to be civilised. Sadly, corrupt versions of that faith are heavily implicated in the damage done to their people and the world by Trump and Putin.
So, in both America and Russia, we are looking at a failure of a whole people to attain the first level of maturity – a liberation from magic or the supernatural – like religion. And in both countries what is there called ‘religion’ is in the hands of people you would not wish to break bread with. The Russian Orthodox Church has a frightful record of collusion with the Tsars and the KGB – and now Putin. In the best of all possible worlds, the first three people to be prosecuted for war crimes in the Ukraine would be Putin, Lavrov, and the Patriarch of Moscow.
It is deeply worrying that neither America nor Russia has been able to tame the demons of superstition. And now one organ of government in the Union, whose members are appointed for life, is pronouncing death dealing edicts about abortion and guns that are driven by venality and the supernatural.
There must be something seriously wrong with in a nation that has an education system that allows so many people to put up with a man who is so obviously a fool, a crook, and a coward. But in a time when science allows us to look back through billions of years, a large part of the American Congress believes that is impossible. They would not accept voodoo from their heart surgeon, but they allow their superstition to dictate how we deal with our bodies and our planet.
Who in all conscience could describe such a state as civilised?
Well, some of those statements are large, and I doubt whether Ranke would have accepted them – at least at the lectern. But we need to recall not just our story, but those of other peoples.
Very few tell it as well as Leopold Von Ranke. My set of six volumes is the original Oxford University leather-bound set in English of 1875. You can get online an Indian company’s rebinding of a facsimile edition in handsome leather in your choice of colour for about $A50 a volume delivered.
My recollection is that at one time some at Oxford decided that Ranke’s work should be set for students in place of Macaulay. A fly on the wall may have had to duck buckets of blood that night.
Ranke – civilisation – English constitution – America – Russia.
One thought on “Musing on history”
Modern slavery is not uncommon in the UK and Europe. Australia is not immune. Mo Farah has lifted the vail and hopefully others will run with the story and fight for those suppressed.Italy houses modern Chinese slaves working in nail bars and leather factories. I’ve seen them myself and quietly spoken to many over the years. There are other outlets for trade not available to my prying eyes. What I see is a tip of the iceberg. Sent from my Galaxy