I was tempted to entitle this essay “England – the mother of modern democracy”, for the political structures of any state which calls itself democratic today owe their general shape to the English example. In addition, many modern dictatorships have considered it expedient to maintain the form of representative democracy without the content.
But democracy is a slippery word and what we call by that name is very far removed from what the Greeks knew as democracy. The Greeks would probably have described our system as oligarchy – rule by the few. Many modern academics would agree, for they tend to describe representative government as elective oligarchy, a system by which the electorate is permitted to select between competing parts of the political elite every few years, but which has little other direct say in how they are governed.
If democracy today is a debatable concept, the very widespread modern institution of elected representative government is an objective fact. It is the foundations and evolution of this institution that I shall examine here to the point at which modern “democratic” politics emerged during the English Civil Wars of the 1640s.
Elected representative government is an institution of the first importance, for it is a truism that the more power is shared the less abusive the holders of the power will be. Imperfect as it may often be as a reflector of the will and interests of the masses, representative government is still by far the most efficient means of controlling the naturally abusive tendencies of elites and of advancing the interests of the ordinary man or woman, by imposing limits on what those with power may do, either through legal restraints in the form of constitutional law which is superior to that of the legislature, or through fear of losing office in an election. Indeed, no other system of government other than elected representative government manages that even in principle, for no other political arrangements place meaningful restraints on an elite. Whether democratic or not in the Greek sense, representative government is undoubtedly the only reliable and non-violent means by which the democratic will may gain at least some purchase on the behaviour of an elite.
Yet however much utility it has an organising political idea, the fact that we have representative government today is something of a fluke, certainly a very long shot, for had it not developed in England we should probably not have it all. In the non-European world nothing of its nature ever developed before the Western model was imported. Elsewhere in Europe the many nascent parliaments of the later Middle Ages either never went beyond its embryonic form or were crushed by autocratic rulers. In England we have had continuous parliamentary development for the better part of eight centuries.
Why did the English alone developed such a political system? It was a mixture of such traits and circumstances as the democratic spirit, egalitarianism, individualism and royal weakness. But before examining the detail of those traits, consider first the utterly abnormal political success of the English.
The political success of the English
The first genius of the Anglo-Saxon may be reasonably said to be political. Above all peoples they have learned best to live without communal violence and tyranny. Set against any other country the political success of the English throughout history is simply astonishing. Compare England’s political history with that of any other country of any size and it is a miracle of restraint. No English government has been altered by unconstitutional means since 1688. No Englishman has killed an English politician for domestic English political reasons since the assassination of Spencer Percival in 1811, and that was an assassination born of a personal grudge, probably aggravated by mental illness, rather than political principle. (The assassin, John Bellingham, believed he had been unreasonably deserted by the British Government when imprisoned in Russia and ruined by the economic circumstances of the war with Napoleon. He killed Percival after unsuccessfully attempting for a long time to get financial redress from the British Government).
Compare that with the experience of the other major states of the world. In the twentieth century Germany fell prey to Nazism, Italy to Fascism, Russia to Communism. France, is on its fifth republic in a couple of centuries. The United States fought a dreadful civil war in the 1860s and assassinated a president as recently as 1963. China remains the cruel tyranny as it has always been and India, which advertises itself as the “largest democracy in the world”, is home to regular outbreaks of serious ethnic violence, not least during elections which are palpably fraudulent in many parts of the country, especially the rural areas.
Why was England so different?
Why is England so different? Perhaps the immediate answer lies in the fact that she has been wonderfully adept in dealing with the central problem of human life – how to live together peaceably. A Canadian academic, Elliott Leyton, has made a study of English murder through the centuries in his book Men of Blood. Leyton finds that the rate of English (as opposed to British murder) is phenomenally low for a country of her size and industrial development, both now and for centuries past. This strikes Elliott as so singular that he said in a recent interview “The English have an antipathy to murder which borders on eccentricity; it is one of the great cultural oddities of the modern age.” (Sunday Telegraph 4 12 1994).
This restraint extends to warfare and social disorder. That is not to say England has been without violence, but rather that at any point in her history the level of violence was substantially lower than in any other comparable society. For example, the English Civil War in the 17th Century was, apart from the odd inhumane blemish, startlingly free of the gross violence common on the continent of the time during the 30 Years War, where the sacking and pillage of towns and cities was the norm. A particularly notable thing, for civil wars are notorious for their brutality.
The way that England responded to the Reformation is instructive. She did not suffer the savage wars of religion which traumatised the continent and brought human calamities such as the St Bartholomew Day’s Massacre in France in 1572, when thousands of French Protestants were massacred at the instigation of the French king. It was not that the English did not care deeply about their religion, rather that they have been, when left to their own devices, generally loth to fight their fellow countrymen over anything. English civil wars have always been essentially political affairs in which the ordinary person has little say, for the struggles were either dynastic or a clash between Parliamentary ambition and the monarch.
Even the persecution of the Lollards in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and the persecution of Protestants under Mary I had a highly political aspect. The former was a vastly disturbing challenge to the established social order with men being told, in so many words, that they could find their own way to salvation and the latter an attempt to re-establish not merely the Catholic order in England, which had been overturned since the time of Henry VIII’s breach with Rome, but also what amounted to a new royal dynasty with Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain.
Even the prohibitions on Catholics and non-Conformists after the Reformation had a fundamental political basis to them, namely, they were predicated on the question of whether such people be trusted to give their first loyalty to the crown.
The treatment of foreigners
Compared with other peoples, the English have been noticeably restrained in their treatment of other peoples residing within England. A few massacres of Jews occurred before their expulsion from England in 1290, but from that time there has not been great slaughter of a minority living within England. Since 1290 there have been occasional outbreaks of anti-foreigner violence. During the Peasants’ Revolt London-based Flemings were murdered. In later times an anti-Spanish “No Popery” mob was frequently got up in London and the influx of Jews and Huguenots in the 17th and 18th centuries caused riots, one so serious in 1753 that it caused the repeal of a law naturalising Jews and Huguenots. But these riots did not result in great numbers of dead, let alone in systematic genocidal persecutions of any particular group. Most notably, the English fonts of authority, whether the crown, church or parliament, have not incited let alone ordered the persecution of a particular racial or ethnic group since the expulsion of the Jews. They have persecuted Christian groups, but that was a matter of religion not ethnicity, the Christians persecuted being English in the main. The only discrimination the English elite have formally sanctioned against an ethnic group for more than half a millennium was the inclusion of Jews within the general prohibitions passed in the half century or so after the Restoration in 1660 which banned those who were not members of the Church of England from holding a crown appointment such as an MP or election to public offices such as that of MP.
Peaceableness and constitutional development Is this comparative lack of violence a consequence of England’s political arrangements, or are the political arrangements the consequence of the comparative lack of violence in the English character? Probably the answer is that one fed the other. But there must have been an initial exceptional tendency towards reasonableness which started the long climb towards settling disputes without violence.
Perhaps the fundamental answer to English peaceableness lies in the fact that the English enjoyed a level of racial cultural homogeneity from very early on. Long before the English kingdom existed Bede wrote of the English as a single people. The English have never killed one another in any great quantity simply because one part of the population thought another part was in some way not English. That is the best possible starting point for the establishment of a coherent community.
The favoured liberal view of England is that it is the mongrel nation par excellence. In fact, this is the exact opposite of the truth. The general facts of immigration into England are these. The English and England were of course created by the immigration of Germanic peoples. The British monk, Gildas, writing in the sixth century, attributed the bulk of the Saxon settlement to the practice of British leaders employing Saxons to protect the Britons from Barbarian attacks after Rome withdrew around 410 A.D. The English monk Bede (who was born in A.D. 673) attributed the origins of the English to the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who came to England in the century following the withdrawal of the Romans at the request of British war leaders.
Archaeological evidence suggests that substantial Germanic settlement in England had a longer history and dated from the Roman centuries, perhaps from as early as the third century. What is certain is that in her formative centuries following the exit of Rome, the various invaders and settlers were drawn from peoples with much in common. They were the same physical type, there was a considerable similarity of general culture, their languages flowed from a common linguistic well.
When the Norsemen came they too brought a Teutonic mentality and origin. Even the Normans were Vikings at one remove who, if frenchified, were not physically different from the English nor one imagines utterly without vestiges of the Norse mentality. Moreover, the number of Normans who settled in England immediately after the Conquest was small, perhaps as few as 5000.
After the Conquest, the only significant immigration into England for many centuries were the Jews. They were expelled from England in 1290. There was then no large scale and sudden immigration from outside the British Isles until the flight of the Huguenots after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (which granted limited toleration to the Huguenots within France) in 1684 by Louis X1V.
There was other immigration in the period 1066-1650, but it was small and highly selective. Craftsmen of talent were encouraged particularly in the Tudor period. Italian families with trading and banking expertise (such as it was in those days) appeared after the expulsion of the Jews. Foreign merchants were permitted, but for much of the period on sufferance and subject to restrictions such as forced residence within specially designated foreign quarters.
The upshot of all this is that for six centuries after the Conquest England was an unusually homogeneous country, both racially and culturally. This is reflected in the absence since the Norman Conquest of any serious regional separatist movement within the heart of English territory.
There has been meaningful resistance at the periphery – Cornwall, the Welsh marches and the far north, but even that has been effectively dead since the sixteenth century. Englishmen have fought but not to create separate nations.
The Free-Born Englishman
It may have taken until 1928 for full adult suffrage of English men and women to arrive, but the essential sentiments which feed the idea of democracy – that human beings are morally equal and enjoy autonomy as individuals and a natural resentment of privilege and inequality – are ancient in England.
If there is one outstanding trait in English political history it is probably the desire for personal freedom. This might seem odd to the modern Englishman who sees the large majority of his country men and women consistently welcoming the idea of the most intrusive forms of ID cards and who stand by dumbly as many of the age-old and ineffably hard-won rights which protect the individual, such as the abridgement of jury trial and the right to silence, being swept away by modern governments. But it was not always so and that “always so” was not so long ago. The great Austrian political and economic thinker Friedrich Hayek put it forcefully during the Second World War:
It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that only in English society, and those societies deriving from it, is the notion of individual liberty built into the social fabric. The English have been free not primarily because of legal rights, but because it is their evolved social nature. They accept liberty because it seems natural to them. (The road to Serfdom – chapter Material conditions and ideal ends)
In short, individual liberty has been and is part of being English and part of England. It would be going too far to claim that the English masses have ever had any highly developed sense of liberal with a small ‘l’ sentiments, but throughout English history there has been both a widespread resentment of interference, either public or private, in the private life of English men and women and an acute awareness that privilege was more often than not unearned and frequently cruelly used to oppress the poor.
Most importantly, over the centuries the elite gradually adopted the ideal of personal freedom into their ideology. Here is the elder Pitt speaking on the notion that the idea that an Englishman’s home:
The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail – its roof may shake – the wind may blow though it – the storm may enter – the rain may enter – but the King of England cannot enter! – All his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement! (Quoted in Lord Brougham’s Statesmen in the time of George III)
The desire for liberty and a freeman’s due is seen in the constant demand by mediaeval towns for charters which would free them from aspects of royal control, most particularly taxation. In some respects it helped fuel the barons’ demand for Magna Carta. It drove the Peasant’s Revolt. It provided the emotional engine for the decline of serfdom once circumstances were propitious after the Black Death.
The Levellers made it their ideological centrepiece in the 1640s, their leader, John Lilburne, revelling in the name of “Freeborn John”. “Wilkes and Liberty” was the mob’s popular cry in that most aristocratic of centuries, the eighteenth. The Chartists held tight to the ideal in the nineteenth.
Equality and privilege
Intertwined with the desire for personal freedom was a strain of those seeking material equality and opportunity. It also had its expression in the organisation of society, most notably in the widespread use of common fields which were a natural source of egalitarian feeling. These were a form of agricultural organisation whereby a group of farmers worked strips on a large common plot of land, with the strips being rotated regularly to ensure that no one had the best land permanently.
Prime examples of the egalitarian mentality are found in the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 (which I shall deal with shortly in some detail), the sixteenth century has Thomas More’s Utopia, while the Digger Gerrard Winstanley writing in the 17th century spoke of “The cheat of men buying and selling” (The Law of Freedom 1652).
We also have the literary evidence. The English who people the pages of Langland and Chaucer show a mediaeval England where commoners would not as a matter of course willingly touch their forelock or allow their lives to be circumscribed by those with social status. Later, Shakespeare’s lowlifes and the characters in Ben Johnson’s Bartholomew Fair often show a rumbustious lack of deference for their social betters. It is improbable in the extreme that the worlds depicted by these authors would not have reflected the societies in which they lived. Traits were exaggerated for dramatic effect doubtless, but the cultural story they told was fundamentally rooted in the England in which they wrote.
Langland’s Piers Ploughman is especially interesting because the work begins with a catalogue of the people who inhabited the world he knew (Prologue – The plain full of people). Here are the worldly and the devout, the high and the low. The cleric and the noble jostle with minstrels, tramps, beggars, merchants, tradesmen, and the honest ploughman who tills “the soil for the common good”.
Langland’s clerics are often corrupt, the nobles capricious, the merchants avaricious, the workmen shoddy and cheating in their work, the beggars dishonest and the minstrels bawdy, but they are balanced by honest men in their various callings. In other words, it is a world not so different in terms of human personality to that we inhabit.
The mediaeval elite ideology
There was also in the mediaeval world the idea that although men were unequal in material wealth or social status, nonetheless society was a co-operative enterprise, that all had a place and that all were entitled to that place, which was what God had called them to. Not egalitarianism but a recognition that men whatever their status had a right to life. The ideal was of course frequently breached but it nonetheless had a basis in both the attitude of the elite, especially in the Church, and in the organisation of society.
The ideas that men should just be left to buy and sell as they chose or that economic activity should be the lodestone of a man’s life was admirable or moral, were alien concepts. Usury was officially banned for many centuries and the example of the poverty of the early Christians was given fresh focus by the Friars of SS Francis and Dominic. More mundanely, there was also the concept of the just price, the price of staple foods such as bread, being fixed by magistrates. As a matter of social course it was accepted that the rich and great, and especially the Church, had moral and material obligations to the less fortunate. Noblesse oblige was not an empty letter.
Turning men out of their homes and off the land for profit crashed through this mediaeval moral standard. That was what the grazing of sheep in particular accomplished, for it denuded the countryside of the need for agricultural workers. By the early years of the 16th century the problem
of landless men was becoming acute.
Some members of the elite rebelled against the cruelty of leaving thousands of men and their families without a means to live honestly and the alarming disruption of the mediaeval social order. Thomas More addressed the question most famously in his satire Utopia (1516). More complained
that it was now thought moral to “buy abroad very cheap and sell again exceeding dear”. He wrote of the mania for sheep as that which “consume, destroy and devour whole fields, houses and cities.” More also asked of those who turned men and women off the land to feed sheep “What other thing do you do than make thieves and punish them?” and castigated the rich for a “strange and proud new fangleness in their apparel and too much prodigal riot and sumptuous fare at their table” while the poor starved or turned to crime or begging.
The Peasants’ Revolt
Nothing demonstrates the Englishman’s lack of deference and desire to be his own man better than the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. General resentment of privilege and particular hostility to the imposition of a tax (the Poll Tax) considered to be both unreasonable and illegitimate, was given unambiguous voice. For a brief period the fog of obscurity which ordinarily covers the masses in the mediaeval world clears. A remarkable scene meets the eye for we find not a cowed and servile people but a robust cast of rebels who far from showing respect for their betters display a mixture of contempt and hatred for everyone in authority bar the boy-king Richard II.
Perhaps most surprising to the modern reader is the extreme social radicalism of their demands which might, without too much exaggeration, be described as a demand for a classless society. The Revolt may have had its origins in the hated Poll Tax but it soon developed into a series of general political demands. One of the revolt’s leaders, the hedge-priest John Ball, reputedly preached “Things cannot go right in England and never will until goods are held in common and there are no more villeins and gentlefolk but we are all one and the same”, and the anonymous and revolutionary couplet “When Adam delved and Eve span/who was then the gentleman?” was in men’s mouths.
The mediaeval chronicler Jean Froissart has Ball preaching: Are we not descended from the same parents, Adam and Eve? And what can they sow or what reason can they give why they should be more masters than ourselves? They are clothed in velvet and rich stuffs ornamented in ermine and other furs while we are forced to wear poor clothing. They have wines and fine bread while we have only rye and refuse of straw and when we drink it must be water. They have handsome manors…while we must have the wind and rain in our labours in the field and it is by our labours that they…support their pomp. We are called slaves and if we do perform our services we are beaten and we have no sovereign to whom we can complain…let us go to the King and remonstrate with him; he is young and from him we may obtain a favourable answer, and if not we must seek to amend our conditions ourselves. (Simon Schama A History of Britain p 248)
Whether or not these words bore any resemblance to Ball’s actual words, whether or not they were black propaganda (on behalf of the elite) by Froissart to show the dangers society faced from the Revolt, we may note that the sentiments are compatible with the demands made by the rebels in 1381.
When the Kentish men led by Wat Tyler, an Essex man, met the 14-year-old king Richard at Mile End on 14 June, they demanded an end to serfdom and a flat rent of 4 pence an acre. The king granted the plea. When the king met the rebels a second time Tyler shook the king’s hand and called him “brother”. Tyler demanded a new Magna Carta for the common people which would have ended serfdom, pardoned all outlaws, liquidated all church property and declared that all men below the king were equal, in effect abolishing the peerage and gentry. Richard, much to the rebels’ surprise, accepted the demands, although cunningly qualifying the acceptance “saving only the regality of the crown”. A few minutes later Tyler was mortally wounded, supposedly after he had attempted to attack a young esquire in the royal party who had called him a thief. His death signalled the beginning of the end of the revolt for without Tyler the Revolt lost direction and those who remained willing to resist were pacified in the next few weeks.
During the Revolt the rebels did not run riot, but acted in a controlled manner. There was no general riot but rather the , attacking the property of tax collectors, other important royal servants and any property belonging to the king’s uncle, John of Gaunt. Any identifiable Exchequer document was ripe for destruction.
The revolt began in Essex when the commissioners attempting to collect the Poll Tax were surrounded by a hostile crowd on 30 May 1381. Physical threats were made against one of the commissioners, and the commissioners retreated from the immediate task of attempting to collect the tax. This brought in the Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas to restore order. He was captured by an even larger crowd and made to swear on oath that no further attempt would be made to collect the tax the area. The names of informers who had provided names to the commissioners was discovered and the culprits beheaded.
The spirit of rebellion soon spread. By 2 June a crowd in the village of Bocking had sworn that they would “have no law in England except only as they themselves moved to be ordained.” The rebellion had infected Kent by the end of the first week in June. By the time Wat Tyler, an Essex man by birth, had been elected to lead the Kentish men the demand was for the heads of the king’s uncle John of Gaunt, the Archbishop of Canterbury Simon Sudbury and the Treasurer Sir Robert Hales. After Tyler’s first meeting with Richard, Sudbury and Hales were captured and beheaded by the rebels. No deference or want of ambition there.
The extent to which the Revolt frightened the crown and nobility can be seen in the violence of Richard’s words when he addressed another group of rebels at Walthamstow on 22 June, by which time the danger was felt to have largely passed: You wretches, detestable on land and sea ; you who seek equality with lords are unworthy to live. Give this message to your colleagues. Rustics you were and rustics you are still: you will remain in bondage not as before but incomparably harsher. For as long as we live we will strive to suppress you , and your misery will be an example in the eyes of posterity . How ever, we will spare your lives if you remain faithful. Choose now which you want to follow . (Simon Schama A History of Britain p 254 )
There were two great sources of general authority in mediaeval England. The Crown was one, the other was the Church. Yet, before the Reformation the English were renowned throughout Europe for their anticlericism – a good example of this attitude was the response to Sudbury’s warning to Wat Tyler’s rebels that England would be put under an interdict by the Pope if he was harmed. This was met by hearty laughter followed by the grisly dispatch of the unfortunate cleric soon afterwards, whose head to did not part from his shoulders until a goodly number of blows had been struck.
The contempt in which many of the servants of the Church were held can be seen in both John Wycliffe’s complaints against clerical abuse in the latter half of the 14th century and in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and William Langland’s Piers Plowman, both written in the same century in which the Peasants’ Revolt took place. Both works are full of jibes at fat illiterate priests and cheating pardoners who peddled absolution from sins with their indulgences sold for money.
Wycliffe’s doctrine contained the fundamental ideas which were later realised internationally in the Reformation. He questioned the reality of transubstantiation (the Catholic belief that the bread and wine at Communion turn literally into the body and blood of Christ), he attacked the authority of the pope, he railed against the abuses of simony and indulgences. He advocated a bible in English and either he or his followers, the Lollards, produced a complete translation before the end of the fourteenth century.
Implicit within Wycliffe’s thought was the democratic spirit, because it is a short intellectual step from the belief that each man could be his own mediator with God to the idea that he should have a say in his earthly life.
The Black Death
The Peasant’s Revolt was set in the context of the dramatic social changes wrought by the plague. When the Black Death came to England in 1349 it was a source of both immediate misery and future opportunity for those who survived. Estimates of the numbers who died range from a quarter to a half of the population, but whatever the true proportion it had the most dramatic effect on the organisation of society. The immediate result was a widespread transfer of property and consolidation of wealth as the lucky survivors inherited. This consolidation aided people a long way down the social scale, for a man inheriting no more than a couple of oxen and a plough was considerably better off than a man with none.
Most importantly, the country went from being one with an oversupply of labour – England prior to the Black Death was probably as well populated as it was in any time before 1700 – to a country where labour was scarce. Landowners were suddenly faced with a new economic world. They had either lost many of their workers through death or were faced with serfs who were no longer obedient and frequently absconded, often lured to work as free men by other landowners, or drawn to the anonymity of the towns. Landowners had to employ free men who demanded what were considered extortionate wages. The Statute of Labourers of 1351 was a forlorn attempt to keep things as they had been before the Black Death by restricting wages but, like all attempts to buck fundamental economic forces, it failed.
It is probably not overly sanguine to see English society in the late medieval period after the Black Death as a golden age for the common man. Not only was labour scarce and land plentiful, but the great enclosure movement was still in the future and a very large proportion of the population were, to a large extent, their own masters as they worked their land. Even where labour services were still performed, they were not crushing, being commonly forty days work in a year. Moreover, agricultural work is seasonal, especially the arable, and for substantial parts of the year there is relatively little to do on a farm.
Beyond agriculture, many people had a large degree of control over their daily lives. This was the time before industrialisation, before the wage-slave and the factory. Skilled craftsmen were often their own masters, and even those who worked for a master will have organised their own time because they worked from their homes. Indeed, most English men and women today almost certainly have far less control of their time than the average mediaeval inhabitant of England.
The limits of state power
The hand of the state was also light by modern standards, especially so during the century long struggle of the houses of Lancaster and York and partly because mediaeval kingship was of necessity very limited in what it could do administratively because of a lack of funds, the power of the peerage, primitive technology, poor communications, administrative naivety and a radically different view of what government and society should be – apart from looking after his own privileges and estates, kings were expected to defend the land, put down rebellions, provide legal redress through the royal courts, maintain the position of the church and lead in war against other rulers. And that was about it.
But there was also a further check on the monarch. Perhaps the most important practical adjunct of this desire for freedom, has been that the English long hated and mistrusted the idea of a standing army as the creature of tyrants. The English were eventually content to have the strongest navy in the world because it could not be used against them, but a substantial army was not accepted as reasonable until the experiences of the Great War accustomed men to the idea. Soldiers were held in contempt before then. “Gone for a soldier” was little better than “taken for a thief”. The needs of Empire produced more ambivalence into the English view of soldiers as Kipling’s poem “Tommy” shows: “Oh, it’s Tommy this an’ Tommy that, and chuck him out the brute! But it’s ‘Saviour of ‘is country’ when the guns begin to shoot.” But the old resentment, fear and contempt remained until the stark democracy of experience in the trenches during the Great War tempered the English mind to tolerance of the soldier.
Because of a lack of a large standing army, English kings were ever been dependent on the will of others, be it their nobles, parliament or the gentry. Even the most practically tyrannical of English kings, Henry VIII, was most careful to use Parliament to sanction his acts.
The consequences of this weakness was that power was localised. Incredible as it may see today, the practical governance of day-to-day life in England until well into the nineteenth century lay largely in the hands of private gentlemen occupying the post of JP, whose powers were much greater than they are today. Indeed, the central state impinged very little on the ordinary Englishman before 1914. George Bowling, the hero of George Orwell’s “Coming up for air” reflecting on how the arms of the state touched an honest citizen before the Great War could think only of the registration of births, deaths and marriages and the General Post Office.
By keeping the king dependent upon the will of others, the English ensured that a despot such as Louis X1V could not arise in England and in so doing underwrote their general liberties. Without that, it is improbable that parliamentary government (as opposed to a parliament) would have arisen. England would almost certainly have been involved in many debilitating wars for the aggrandisement of the king. In those circumstances it is unlikely that England as a modern state would have arisen.
The mediaeval good times end
But the comparatively good times for the poor of the post-Black Death world did not last forever. The enclosure movement began in earnest in the fifteenth century. Men were driven off the land and their place taken by graziers of sheep. The Tudors put an end to serious dynastic strife and expanded the power of the state. Gradually the population recovered. Trade grew and towns thrived, but it was also, by mediaeval standards, a time of high inflation caused by a mixture of a debased currency under Henry VIII, the economic consequences of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, population growth and the influx of gold and silver from the recently discovered New World.
The way to political success
Whatever its cause, England’s political development is unparalleled. If political success lies in the general tenor of English society, the institutions through which it was achieved were cultivated from the thirteenth century 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 his 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 number 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.
The distinction of the English parliament is not that it is the oldest such assembly in the world (although it is one of the oldest), nor that it was unusual at its inception for parliaments were widespread in mediaeval Europe. The English parliament’s distinction lies in its truly national nature – it was a national not federal assembly – its longevity and the nature of its development. No other parliament in a country of any size was meaningfully maintained by regular meeting through seven or eight centuries, its only competitors for endurance being the tiny Icelandic assembly and the federal arrangements of the Swiss. Most importantly, before England created such an institution to act as a model, no other Parliament in the world developed into an fully fledged executive as well as a legislature. The English parliament made a very gradual progression to the place we know today. It began as an advising and petitioning body in the 13th century and before the end of the 14th century had come to exercise considerable power over any taxation which was considered over and above the king’s normal and rightful dues, such as the excise. Gradually, this power transmuted into what was effectively a veto over most taxation. Parliament also added the power to propose and pass laws subject to their acceptance by the monarch. These developments meant that executive power gradually drained from the King. From this came cabinet government as the monarch was more and more forced to take the advice of his ministers and by the end of the 18th century the struggle between Crown and Parliament for supremacy had been emphatically decided.
As the Parliament gained power, the Lords gradually diminished in importance and the Commons became by the 19th century, if not before, the dominant House. The final act in the play was a century long extension of the franchise culminating in a government dominated by an assembly elected under full adult suffrage from 1928 onwards.
A corrupted Parliament
By 1600 Parliament had become important enough to the governing of the country for Guy Fawkes and his fellow plotters to think it necessary to blow up Parliament rather than simply killing the king and his ministers. In any other major European country of the time, the idea of destroying Parliamentary representatives rather than just the monarch and his more powerful friends would have seemed rather odd, either because a parliament did not exist or was considered of little account because European monarchs had been generally very successful in abolishing or curtailing the powers of mediaeval assemblies and preventing their political development.
But Parliament, although growing in power and ambition, was suffering the ills of any ancient institution. There were accretions of privilege and it had failed to keep pace with the changing times. In 1600 it neither represented the country as it was nor satisfied the growing wish of its members, especially the elected ones, to have a greater say in the management of England. At the heart of the dissatisfaction lay the unsatisfactory nature of the Commons’ franchise. I shall examine this question in some detail because it will demonstrate the historical political backdrop against which the democratic radicals of the 1640s acted.
The question of the franchise
Serious disquiet with the Commons’ electoral qualifications, provisions and practices began in Elizabeth’s reign and reached its highest pitch, prior to the 1640s, during the years 1621 to 1623. The discontent was provoked primarily by the situation in the boroughs rather than the counties, Since 1430, the county electorate had been restricted to the forty shilling freeholder, which qualification had become almost sacrosanct by the end of the sixteenth century – only one proposal before the 1640s (in 1621) was made to raise or lower it. Tudor inflation had greatly lowered the barrier it represented (40 shillings in 1600 was worth perhaps 15 shillings at 1430 values) and it is reasonable to suppose this considerably increased the rural electorate. Also, there is evidence to suggest that the qualification was not always enforced and some county electorates may have had a very broad manhood franchise indeed prior to 1640.
Borough franchises were anything but uniform. In some the whole ‘commonalty’ (all householders) or even all ‘potwallers’ (men with their own hearths) voted. In others the vote was restricted to all taxpayers (‘scot and lot’), freemen of the town, or those in possession of burgage property. In extreme cases the vote might be restricted to the ruling corporation. Such discrepancies of representation were aggravated by a distribution of borough seats which took insufficient account of the demographic changes of the past two centuries, during which time England’s population increased very substantially, especially during the 16th century, perhaps by as much as a third. These facts prepared a well mulched political soil for agitation for more equal borough representation, both in terms of the breadth of the franchise and in the number of seats.
Tudor monarchs, not unnaturally, did not favour larger electorates. The existence of ‘rotten boroughs’ was a source of patronage and, if the monarch could control the oligarchies who returned the MP, a means of reducing opposition to the Crown. As there was a significant number of such boroughs, this was no small advantage to the monarch. The attitude of Parliament to the franchise was mixed. The Lords had a similar interest to the Crown in distrusting broad franchises. The peers often effectively controlled seats in the Commons. They also had a natural inclination to deny the ‘commonality’ any voice in the affairs of the kingdom. Conversely, it was obviously in the Commons’ interest to increase electorates, where such increases reduced the Monarch’s’ and the Lord’s opportunities for patronage.
There is particular evidence that the Puritans favoured larger electorates, at least in so far as it suited their own purposes. At Warwick in 1586 Job Throckmorton was elected after he threatened to invoke the right of the ‘commonality to vote. In 1587 John Field remarked to colleague ‘seeing we cannot compass these things by suit or dispute, it is the multitude and people that must bring the discipline to pass which we desire.’ (J.H, Plumb. The Growth of the electorate 1600-1715). As Puritans displaced many court nominees and the creatures of aristocrats, this is significant in view of the attitude of the Commons towards electoral qualifications between 1621 and 1628.
By 1621, the Commons had gained the right to decide disputed elections and to revive lapsed borough seats and even make new creations, The tendency until 1628 was to decide in favour of wider franchise and to allow all the ‘commonality’ to vote. At Bletchingly (1624) and Lewes (1628) ‘all the inhabitants ,’ were to be electors’, and at Cirencester (1624) all ‘resients:’.
In the case of Pontefract in 1624 a general principle was formulated: ‘There being no certain custom nor prescription, who should be the electors and who not, we must have recourse to common right which, to this purpose was held to be, that more than the freeholders only ought to have voices in the election, namely all men, inhabitants, householders resient within the borough.’ (J.H, Plunb. The Growth of the electorate 1600-1715).
Further, in the case of Boston (1628) it was asserted that the election of burgesses belonged by common right to the commoners and only prescription or ‘a constant usage beyond all memory’ could rob them of this. (K. Thomas, The Levellers and the Franchise p.62).
It is true that when the Commons revived or created borough seats, they concentrated, as the Tudors had done, on small towns to promote their own advantage. But, even so, they granted ‘scot and lot’ franchises in every case (except Weobley) which meant that even small towns such as Great Marlow or Hilbourne Port had electorate of around 200.
Bills were introduced to regulate elections and standardise,the franchise in 1621, 1623, 1625, 1628 and 1640, The 1621 Bill is of particular interest because it proposed that the 40/- freeholder qualification be increased to œ4 and to admit œ10 copyholders by inheritance. The borough proposals add no more than the various decisions on individual cases (in fact even less), for electors were to be freemen except where they numbered less than twenty-four, in which case all inhabitants not in receipt of alms were to be included,
In 1640 the franchise was raised again by Sir Simonds D’Ewes. It was he who first uttered the idea later made famous by Rainsborough ‘that the poorest man in England ought to have a voice, that it was the birthright of the subjects of England and all had voices in the election of Knights etc. previously.’ (K. Thomas, The Levellers and the Franchise p.63).
In 1641 a bill had reached second reading but was then lost. D’Ewes favoured its contents except that he ‘desired that whereas it was provided in the bill that none that took alms should have voices in elections, which I well allowed, we would likewise provide that no more monopolizing elections might be in cities and boroughs, that all men resients might have voices.’ (K. Thomas, The Levellers and the Franchise p.64)
It is also noteworthy, both for its own sake and the part it played in Leveller literature, that many believed that the Statute of 1430 had disenfranchised people. William May, in 1621, said ‘Anciently, all the commonality had voice, but because such a multitude made the election tumultuous, it was after reduced to freeholders’. The religious radical William Prynne put it even more plainly, ‘Before this Petition and Act every inhabitant and commoner in each county had voice in the election of Knights, whether he were a freeholder or not, or had a freehold only of one penny, six pence or twelve pence by the year as they now claim of late in most cities and boroughs where popular elections are admitted’ (K. Thomas, The Levellers and the Franchise p.64). It is a sobering thought that if the Statute of 1430 did disenfranchise large numbers of county electors, the county franchise may have been wider in medieval England than it was to be again before the end of the nineteenth century and conceivably wider than the Franchise before the 1918 Representation of the People Act.
What of the position of those deemed to be dependents: the servants, wage-earners and almstakers? Resident household servants were generally considered beyond the electoral pale, although ‘servants’ were said to have voted in the Worcestershire county election of 1604.
Wage-earners certainly did so, for those in the ‘potwaller’ and ‘scot and lot’ constituencies were granted the right to vote. Almstakers were excluded in the 1621 and 1640 bills, yet at Great Marlow in 1604 77 of the 245 voters were said to be almstakers, nine of them inmates of the almshouse. In 1640 the right of the Bember inmates to vote was said to have been sustained and in 1662 the St. Albans almsmen were said to have ‘had voices time out of mind’.
It is clear from all this that those who promoted theradical or democratic cause in the 1640s, most particularly the Levellers, did not enter untilled ground. There are also three points of particular interest. First, the Commons, or at least an influential part of it, was not unduly disturbed by the prospect of an enlarged electorate. Second, those deemed to be dependent such as servants and almstakers – were included on occasion in the franchise long before the Civil War. Third, that there existed even gentlemen (such as Sir Simonds D’Ewes) who had an active and unambiguous democratic spirit.
The latter point is particularly pertinent because the chief Leveller, John Lilburne, was also of gentle-birth, albeit “small gentry”, a fact he never ceased to emphasise. Clearly, democratic ideas and feeling were not foreign political bodies suddenly introduced by the Levellers and others in the 1640s.
The English civil war, Commonwealth and Protectorate
Stuart society was a world on the physical, economic and intellectual move and waiting to move faster if the right engine appeared. The civil wars of the 1640s was that machine.
Representative government is one thing, democracy quite another. That did not come to England in its formal form of a full adult franchise until the twentieth century. But for a brief period in the 1640s a franchise for the House of Commons broader than any used before the late nineteenth century was more than a pipe dream.
The Civil War and its republican aftermath, the Commonwealth and Protectorate, changed English politics utterly. It brought the end of claims by the English crown
to Divine Right and absolute monarchy. It promoted the political interests of the aristocracy and gentry as a class. It forced those on the Parliamentary side to exercise power on their own responsibility. It created a political class which saw politics as something they could control rather than merely be part of as an adjunct to the crown. It raised the idea that there should be a law superior to that which even a parliament could pass. It began the constitutional process which resulted in cabinet government. It laid the foundations for the formation of political parties as we know them. In short, it planted the seeds of modern representative government.
Into this new world were cast men whose political philosophies ranged from acceptance of the divine right of kings to unyielding communists. In the middle were those, such as Cromwell, who though socially conservative, realised that power and political interest had shifted not merely from the king to Parliament, but also in some sense to an appreciably broader circle of people than before. Such people were willing to extend the franchise to a degree, although still restricting it to those with property for fear that the poor would dispossess the haves if they had the power to elect and that those with no material stake in the country would have no sense of responsibility and duty.
But that was insufficient from many, especially those who fought on the Parliamentary side in the wars, and something else occurred which was to be even more momentous in the long run. The belief that men generally should only be ruled by those they had themselves elected became a serious political idea. That the idea should find expression as a serious political idea in the 1640s was, of course, partly a consequence of the disruption of society by civil war, but that was more an opportunity rather than a reason. Innumerable civil wars all over the world have come and gone without the democratic spirit being given rein. What made the England of the time unusual was the long-existing ideal of individual freedom which had reached a high degree of sophistication, including the notion that free debate, the sine qua no of democracy, was of value in itself. Here are two passages which give a taste of the way minds were working in the 1640s. First,
John Milton writing in the Areogapitica in the 1640s:
And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose upon the earth, so truth be in the field [and] we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter…
The second statement comes from the Leveller Richard Overton’s ‘An Arrow against all Tyrants’ (19th October, 1646). It contains as good a refutation of the power of authority without consent over the individual as you will find:
No man hath power over my rights and liberties, and I over no man’s….for by naturall birth all men are equally and alike borne to like propriety, liberty and freedom, and as we are delivered of God by the hand of nature into this world, everyone with a naturall, innate freedom and propriety….even so are we to live, every one equally and alike to enjoy his birthright and privilege…. [no more of which may be alienated] than is conducive to a better being, more safety and freedome….[for] every man by nature being a King, Priest and Prophet in his own naturall circuit and compasse, whereof no second may partake, but by deputation, commission and free consent from him, whose naturall right and freedome it is. [An Arrow against all tyrants].
These were not odd voices crying in the wilderness. The democratic spirit was widespread in the 1640s. By this I do not mean that men were commonly calling for full manhood suffrage, much less the emancipation of women. Even the most democratically advanced of the important groups which evolved during the Civil War, the Levellers, were unclear as to whether those who were deemed dependent in the sense of not being their own masters – servants and almstakers – should be given the vote or, indeed, who counted as a servant or almstaker.
Rather, there was a sense that the social order had been rearranged by the war, that men were on some new ground of equality and had a right to a public voice. In particular, there was a belief that those who had fought for Parliament had won the right to enfranchisement. There was also a widespread feeling, which penetrated all social classes, that the existing franchises (which as we have seen varied greatly) were frequently too narrow and that the towns, particularly those most recently grown to substantial size, were grossly under-represented.
Ideas of social and political equality had, as we have seen, existed long before the Civil War, but never before had large swathes of the masses and the elite seen anything approaching representative democracy as practical politics under any circumstances. The political and social elite of the period after 1640 may have been desperately afraid of a general representation of the English people, but they did not say it was impossible, merely feared its consequences.
They may have loathed the idea of every man his own political master but they were forced by circumstances to admit that a Parliament elected on a broad franchise was not a fantasy. The Putney Debates in 1647 provide a vivid record of the political fervour and mentality of the times. Parliamentary and Army leaders including Cromwell and his son-in-law Henry Ireton, met with a variety of people on what might broadly be called the democratic side. A substantial part of the debate was taken down in shorthand. It is a most intriguing and exciting document, despite its incompleteness and some confused passages. The sheer range of political ideas it displays is impressive. It shows clearly that the 1640s experienced a high degree of sophistication amongst the politically interested class and that this class was drawn from a broad swathe of English society. The ideas run discussed from the monarchical to the unreservedly democratic, epitomised in Col Thomas Rainsborough’s famous words:
… I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to lead, as the richest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do not think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he has not had a voice to put himself under… (Col Thomas Rainsborough Puritanism and Liberty The Putney debates p 53).
Democracy, the revolutionary idea
Why was the idea of every man being an elector so revolutionary? There was of course the age-old traditional fear, known to the Greeks, that the masses would dispossess haves if they had control of who was to hold power. But the matter went much deeper than that. The enfranchisement of a wide electorate is perhaps the most fundamental political change a society can undergo. It forces the elite to take note of the masses in a way that no other system does. Even the humblest man must be considered as a man in his own right, a person with a vote and needs and wishes. Those needs and wishes may be heeded and met to varying degrees according to the success an elite has in subverting the representative process through such tricks as international treaties and the development of disciplined political parties, but what the majority needs and wants cannot as a matter of course be ignored completely when each man has a vote.
A form of male-only democracy existed in the ancient world, but it was never inclusive because the citizens were only a part of the population of a Greek civis and the large numbers of unfree men and free men who were not citizens were excluded. The Roman Republic had enjoyed in varying degrees at various times democratic expression through plebeian institutions such as the concilium plebis and offices such as that of tribune. But that was a class based representation which arose to oppose the Patrician class, not a self-conscious representation of individual men.
Received wisdom it may be now, the idea that every man (but not woman then) should have an active voice in choosing those who would represent and govern them was to most people, poor and rich, a truly novel and disturbing concept in the middle of the 17th century.
The group which gave the strongest voice and effect to democratic feelings in the 1640s was the Levellers. They were a disparate and ever shifting crew, drawing their support primarily from the ranks of the Parliamentary armed forces (especially after the New Model Army was formed in 1645), small tradesmen, journeymen and apprentices. However, they also included those from higher social classes, their most famous leader, John Lilburne, being the child of minor gentry.
The Levellers time was brief. They were a serious political force for, at most, the years 1646 to 1649 and that is probably being a mite too generous. They failed utterly in the end, not least because they were unable to carry the army, especially the junior officers, with them. But they were important both for giving voice to the ideas and creating many of the practices on which modern politics is founded.
Their opponents attempted to portray the Levellers as social revolutionaries who would take the property of the rich, most particularly their land, and give it to the poor. Hence the epithet of Leveller which originated as a term of abuse. But the Levellers consistently denied that they had any such programme and were staunch defenders of the right to property. They might best be characterised as radical democrats with a very strong libertarian streak. Indeed, so far were they from being proto-communists that they had an almost sacramental belief in the individual’s right to personal property.
Intellectually, they started from the view that all Englishmen had a birthright which entitled them to have a say in who should govern them, although at times they accepted that the birthright might be breached through dependence on a master or by receiving alms. More importantly, their ideology contained the germ of the idea of a social contract between the people and those who held power, an idea which was to come to dominate English political thinking for the next century or so through the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.
The Levellers were, with one or two exceptions such as Richard Overton, who was a deist at best and an atheist at worst, or John Wildman, who was a libertine and chancer, religious. But their belief had a strong vein of rationalism in it. They saw God not as the often cantakerous and domineering supernatural being of traditional Christianity, but as a rational intelligence who entered every man and allowed him to see what was naturally just and reasonable.
For the Levellers, it seemed a natural right – a rational right – for a man to have a say in who should hold power and what they should do with the power. They were happy to use historical props such as Magna Carta and the legend of Norman oppression when it suited them, but their rationality led them to question how men were governed from first principles. One of the Leveller leaders Richard Overton actually called Magna Carta a “beggarly thing” and went on to comment:
Ye [Parliament] were chosen to work our deliverance, and to estate us in natural and just liberty, agreeable to reason and common equity, for whatever our forefathers were, we are the men of the present age, and ought to be absolutely free from all kinds of exorbitancies, molestations or arbitrary power. (A Remonstrance. Tracts on Liberty in the Puritan Revolution)
More balanced was his fellow Leveller William Walwyn:
Magna Carta (you must observe) is but a part of the people’s rights and liberties, being no more but what with much striving and fighting, was wrested from the paws of those kings , who by force had conquered the nation, changed the laws and by strong hand held them in bondage. (England’s Lamentable Slaverie, Tracts on Liberty in the Puritan Revolution.)
To call the Levellers a political party in the modern sense would be misleading. Yet they were the closest thing to it both then and, arguably, for several centuries. Their tactics and organisation were modern – the use of pamphletering and newspapers, the ability to get large number of supporters onto the streets (especially in London) at the drop of a hat, the creation of local associations.
Much of this was the work of Lilburne, a man of preternatural obstinacy, courage and general unreasonableness. It says much for the restraint of the English elite of the day and respect for the law that he was not killed out of hand. It is difficult to imagine such behaviour being tolerated anywhere in Europe in the seventeenth century.
Lilburne by every account of him was a most difficult man – it was said that his nature was so combative that he would seek a quarrel with himself if he were alone – ‘Jack would fight with John’. Yet this man, who came from a very modest gentry background, remained alive despite challenging the authority of first the king and then during and after the civil war, Parliament, Cromwell and the Commonwealth. He thus carried on this mortally dangerous behaviour for almost a generation. To the end of his life in 1657, he was thought dangerous enough to imprison.
Lilburne first came to notice for seditious speeches and writings in the 1630s. For that he was whipped from the Fleet to the Palace Yard where he was stood in the stocks. Whilst in the stocks, he removed copies of the pamphlets which had caused his punishment and threw them to the crowd. That little episode will give a good idea of the Lilburne’s general mentality. He was an extreme example one of those necessary unreasonable men without whom nothing great gets done.
From the time of his flogging onwards, Lilburne’s career was one of studied defiance of authority. He was one of the most potent pamphleteers England has ever seen. For more than a decade, he produced a flood of writings guaranteed to inflame virtually anyone in public authority in the land. He faced down judges in the most powerful courts in the land. He controlled the London mob consummately. He treated the greatest men in the land as equals. In any other place on the planet at that time, he probably would have been dead meat before his career as an agitator began. But not in England. He might be flogged. He might be put in the stocks. He might be imprisoned. He might be tried twice for his life. But what the elite of 17th century England would not do was unreservedly murder him.
The Levellers developed an increasingly sophisticated political programme in a series of documents known as The Agreements of the People. These Agreements dealt extensively with political representation and structure. They were also very successful in creating a sense of historic grievance and an enemy. They did this by portraying 1640s England as having declined from a golden age of freedom to an oppressed land and people under the heel of the Normans and their French successors.
The Levellers and the franchise
The Levellers changed their position on the franchise throughout their existence, tending to compromise when they thought that some accommodation with the likes of Cromwell could be made and ever more radical as political power slipped away from them, although there were times and places throughout their existence when this general tendency did not hold true.
What the Levellers did retain always was a belief that all Englishmen were born with the same birthright. However, they accepted more often than not that certain parts of this birthright could be forfeited under certain conditions. Religious, civil and even possibly economic rights could not be alienated justly, and as such should be protected constitutionally. The right to elect, however, could be forfeited by entering into a condition of dependence, either by taking wages or alms. In such cases, a just dependence resulted and the subservient individual’s voice was deemed to be included in that of his master or benefactor, as far as a voice in elections was concerned, just as that of a wife was deemed to be included in that of her husband. An idea of how the Levellers’ position changed can be gained from these extracts from Leveller tracts:
‘That the People of England,… ought to be more indifferently proportioned according to the number of inhabitants.’ (The first article of the First Agreement.)
[electors] ‘shall be Natives, or Denizen of England, not persons receiving Alms … not servants to, and receiving wages from any particular person’ (The Second Agreement – D.H. Wolfe,Leveller Manifestoes p.403)
‘Whereas it hath been the ancient liberty of this nation, that all the freeborn people have freely elected their representers in Parliament, and their sheriffs and Justices of the Peace, etc. and they were abridged of that their native liberty by a statute of the 8.H.6,7. That, therefore, the birthright of all English men be forthwith restored to all which are not, or shall not be legally disenfranchised for some criminal cause, or are under 21 years of age, or servants or beggars .’ (The franchise clause (section ll) of the Petition of January 1648 -D.H. Wolfe, Leveller Manifestoes P,269.)
By the time political opportunity had long passed the Levellers by we find in 1653 a pamphlet Leveller in tone – ‘A Charge of High Treason exhibited against Oliver Cromwell’ summoning all the people of England to the polls ‘as well masters, sons of servants’.
The Levellers did one more thing which was to have great influence in the future: they created the idea of constitutional law acting as a restraint on a parliament. The Agreements of the People placed restrictions on what Parliament might do, removing the power from Parliament to repudiate debts it had incurred, interfere with the operation of justice, destroy the rights to property or diminish the liberty of the individual. The Levellers even included provision granting the electorate the right to resist Parliament if they acted beyond their powers. They also called for annual parliaments, i.e., a general election every year, which would have been a great restriction in itself on what those with power might do.
In 1648 the Levellers attempted but failed to convene a Constitutional Convention of the type which more than a century later produced the American constitution. However, the idea of restraining Parliament by superior law was given form in the Instrument of Government which set up the Protectorate. The idea of such constitutional restraint disappeared in England after the Restoration and the novel doctrine of Parliamentary supremacy eventually won the day after the “Glorious Revolution” of 1689, when the monarch became king not by right of birth but by gift of Parliament.
The most uncompromising of the democratic and egalitarian forces in the 1640s were the so-called Diggers or, “True Levellers” led by William Everard but best known through the writings of Gerrard Winstanley. In many ways the Diggers, probably unwittingly, reiterated the most extreme egalitarian sentiments of the Peasant’s Revolt, such as the reputed words of John Ball, and reached back to the mediaeval idea of society as a communal enterprise. They believed that the land belonged to no one saying “None ought to be lords or landlords over another, but the earth is free for every son and daughter of mankind to live upon.” ( Works, ed by Sabine p289).
For the Diggers the “natural” state of man was one of common ownership and the root of evil the egotistic desire for individual advantage including the “cheating art of buying and selling” by which king’s live (Winstanley’s Law of Freedom 1652).
In 1649 a small group of Diggers attempted to put their philosophy into practice camped on St Georges Hill near Walton on Thames in Surrey and attempted to cultivate common land. Further Digger attempts were made at Cobham in Surrey and at Cox Hall in Kent and at Wellingborough in Northamptonshire. All met with a mixture of legal and physical harassment by local landowners and even attracted the attention of the Council of State which sent troopers to repress them. The Diggers were brought twice to court.
Their numbers were small, probably amounting to no more than a hundred or so at most and they had no lasting direct legacy. Yet they are a reminder that many Englishmen have never have never accepted willingly the unearned privileges of social rank or vast differences in wealth while the masses struggled to feed themselves.
The Diggers are also significant for giving voice through Winstanley to the novel idea that the end of politics should be the well-being of the common man and for the clear recognition that liberty rests on the economic state of society.
Exporting Representative Government
After the Cromwell’s establishment of the Protectorate, democratic ideas did not gain serious political currency in England for more than a century, but the example of England’s continually evolving parliamentary government proved a potent one.
The Restoration did not result in serious legal abridgements of the power of the monarch, but Charles II was in practice much restricted by a Parliament unwilling to adequately open the purse strings for a monarch who was, ironically, expected to do more and more as the formal power
of the state grew.
The “Glorious Revolution” of 1689 produced a true constitutional sea-change. From then on the English monarch ascended the throne only with the acceptance of Parliament and the Bill of Rights (1690) placed restrictions on the monarch. Amongst the long list of things the king was forbidden to do were:
Dispense with and suspend of laws, and the execution of laws, without consent of parliament.
Levy money for and to the use of the crown, by pretence of prerogative, for another time, and in other manner, than the same was granted by parliament.
To raise and keep a standing army within England in time of peace, without consent of parliament, and quartering soldiers contrary to 4.
To violate the freedom of election of members to serve in parliament.
To demand excessive bail of persons committed in criminal cases, “to elude the benefit of the laws made for the liberty of the subjects.”
To impose excessive fines and illegal and cruel punishments.
The abuses of power by the crown listed in the Bill of Rights are described as being ” utterly and directly contrary to the known laws and statutes, and freedom of this realm.”
That old reliance on the law and the traditional freedoms of the Englishman.
From 1689 began the century long decline of the monarchy as an executive power. The American War of Independence sealed the fate of the monarch and the Americans forged a new version of the English political model, with a formal separation of powers and a written constitution to restrict what governments and legislatures might do.
The received academic opinion on the American constitutional settlement is that it was the offspring of John Locke. In fact, it had at least as much affinity with the ideas of the Levellers. There is no direct intellectual link, but arguably the most important popular propagandist on the American side, the Englishman Tom Paine, shared much of his ideology with the Levellers. The Constitution is a balancing act between Locke Paine, granting a large degree of popular involvement in politics, whilst tempering it with restrictions such as electoral colleges and granting through the Bill of Rights (which was inspired by the English Bill of Rights of 1690) constitutional protections for the individual against the state.
If the American Revolution owed its shape and inspiration to England, the French Revolution was inspired by both English constitutional development and the America revolutionary example. Most political revolutions resulting in an attempt at representative government, have been touched, consciously or not, by the legacy of the American and French revolutions.
England through control of the British Empire, ensured that the Westminster model of government was transplanted with widely differing success, to approximately a quarter of the world’s population, when the empire dissolved in the twenty years after 1945.
The astonishing upshot of the English example, the American and French Revolutions and the British Empire, is that the political structures of most modern states are broadly based on the English constitution of King, Lords and Commons, the overwhelming majority having a head of state plus two assemblies. In addition, the widespread practice of a written constitution derives from the example of the United States, which of course drew its form and inspiration from English settlements in North America, English history and political practices. These political structures apply as readily to dictatorships as they do to liberal democracies.
Of course, the balance of power between the head of state and the assemblies varies widely and there is much difference between Parliamentary and Presidential government, but they all have their ultimate origin in the example of the English system of representative government.
One last thing. Look around the world. How many countries can be said even today to have accepted elected representative government and the rule of law as a banal fact of life, the norm of their society? Britain, the USA, Australia, Canada, New Zealand certainly, Switzerland and Scandinavia possibly. But where else? Not France which as recently as 1958 overthrew the Fourth Republic. Not Germany which embraced Hitler nor Italy the land of Mussollini. Not Spain so recently loosed from Franco.
As for the rest of the world, that tells a sorry tale of elites who generally have such a lack of respect for the individual and a contempt for the masses that the idea of shared power with and for the people is simply alien to them.
The fact that the only really stable examples of elected representative government in countries of any size are in those countries which have their ultimate origins in English colonisation strongly suggests that it was no accident that it was in England that the institution evolved. There must be something highly unusual about English society for it both to develop in a manner so different from any other country and to export this rare and valuable difference to colonies.