Between 1066 and 1265, a succession of brilliant, determined, and relentless men in England
changed the way human governance worked.
William of Normandy conquered England in 1066 and spent the next two decades successfully –
if ruthlessly – unifying it.
Henry II, assisted by a court of intellectuals, later used that unification to promote a uniform state-wide
system of Common Law – law derived from real-world cases -- and administered it by circuit justices. In 1164,
Henry’s Constitutions of Clarendon declared that precedent-based secular law trumped the dictates of Canon law.
The Assize of Clarendon (1166) added the idea that criminal charges could be made only by a jury of peers
of the accused. All of these developments reverse, to a degree, the flow of power; instead of dictating
justice from the king down, law is built from the bottom up, drawing its power from the consent and
experience of the individuals governed by it.
In 1215, that same trend informed the Magna Carta. When King John demanded a tax increase, his barons
forcefully refused and insisted that henceforth a council of the governed would make such decisions;
and the King was no longer to be above the law. Finally, In 1265, Simon de Monfort took this a step
further: He established his government on the basis of an elected parliament.
In less than 200 years, the capricious authority of individual feudal lords was crushed, and, step-by-step,
replaced by national secular law and the embryonic stages of modern representative democracy.
The documents that codify the events of this period are collectively known as the English Constitution.
That’s my summary. The more colorful details lie below:
William of Normandy swept into Britain in 1066, and established a French ruling class there that would
dominate for the next 300 years. William was a shrewd political realist. Though crowned at Westminster
in 1066, he systematically went through the kingdom, crushed any noble who resisted, and replaced him with
a Norman. Then – like a man hacking up a snake with an axe to be sure no part left can bite him
– he subdivided all his land grants so that no noble would have all his holdings in the same place
(it’s very hard to launch a rebellion if your bows are in London and your arrows are in Cornwall.)
In 1085 he assembled the Domesday Book – named for the Day of Reckoning. This was a detailed inventory
of all property in England; Boss Bill wanted to know exactly what his resources were. Finally, he convened
all the individuals with power in the realm on Salisbury Plain in 1086, and made them all swear allegiance
not to the local nobles, but directly to the king. Through military force, economic pressure, surveillance,
and brainwashing, he unified England under Norman rule.
There’s nothing intrinsically good about such extreme centralization. But it did provide a severe
shakeup to the feudal order, and one of William’s French-born successors put that national power to a
revolutionary use: Henry II and his court of intellectuals drew a uniform code of Common Law out of a
study of legal precedents, and administered it – evenhandedly – over the entire kingdom through the use
of circuit judges. In 1164 under the Constitutions of Clarendon, Henry declared secular law above Church
law (which led to strained relations with the Pope and a spats with Thomas Becket). Two years later the
concept of the Grand Jury – that a man can be lawfully accused of a crime only by a jury of a dozen of his
peers -- was established under the Assize of Clarendon (1166).
In Henry’s changes we see the emergence of the idea that an individual, even a common citizen,
is entitled to impartial treatment under laws derived from shared secular values. We are seeing
– in embryo, as Scott Powell might say – the idea that government is not merely about power and
weakness, but about justice for individuals.
This rise of the prestige of the individual was in the air when a very bad, none-too-brainy king,
John, emptied the national coffers to finance a losing war, and declared a big tax hike. John’s
barons balked at the idea that their property could be taken on an individual’s whim. They backed
him into a corner in 1215 and made him sign a Big Paper (Latin: Magna Carta), limiting the King’s powers.
The heart of the Magna Carta is that governed people – at least a group of representatives – are entitled to
a say in how they are governed and judged: Taxes should not be imposed except by a common council of the
kingdom (the “embryo” of the American Revolution’s slogan, “Taxation without representation is tyranny.”)
Also, according to the Big Paper, the will of the king could be bound by law. Nobody could henceforth be
arrested or imprisoned by a monarch’s whim; only by the lawful judgment of a man’s fellow citizens – and
even that arrest and imprisonment were subject to rules about what may be done with the prisoner (the
“embryo” of habeas corpus.)
When a rebellion arose against another extravagant king, Henry III, Simon de Monfort took the
reins and – in order to establish the legitimacy of his rule – organized a parliament of elected
representatives in 1265. Anyone who owned land could vote.
The “embryo” of representative democracy had been fertilized.
Sadly, this amazing period of progress was followed by a century and a half of energy-draining,
wasteful wars. From 1337-1453, the Hundred Years’ War (a protracted struggle with France),
and from 1455-1485 the War of the Roses (a civil war in Britain), pretty much shut down
Britain to any productive activity. So the Brits weren’t much in the forefront of the Age of Discovery.
There are two neat addenda I want to remember from the details of this period.
One is to remember how William conquered. There were actually three contenders for the throne
of England in 1066: William (France), Harold Godwinson (England), and Harald III (Norway).
All had justifications for claiming the crown. But they ended up fighting it out. Now, William
and Harold’s forces were pretty well matched. But William took his time entering the fight.
Harold had marched his excellent troops to the north of England to fight Norway. While he was
busy winning that battle, William landed his troops in the south, in one of Harold’s personal
holdings. William dug in and let his troops rest. Harold, having whipped the Norwegians, and
hearing that William was knocking at his front door, impulsively turned around and marched his
already tired troops, lacking reinforcements, down to Hastings. Though they had once been evenly
matched with William, Harold’s now tired troops succumbed to William’s fresh ones. A lesson in
living, that. If there are a lot of contenders, and you have the chance to let them fight it
out before you enter the fray, you may have a better shot.
The other is a memorable thing I recently read in “The Adventure of English,” a history
of the English language. After the Norman conquest, French became the language of power
and aristocracy. Since the best cooking always happened in the households of the aristocrats,
and they were all French, modern English culinary terms generally come from the French,
rather than the Anglo-Saxon, roots. A cow is a nice English farm animal; when it’s made
into food, it becomes French: boeuf – beef. When a pig rolls in the mud we call it a
pig; when it gets roasted, it’s porc – pork. Sheep becomes mouton – mutton. Calf becomes
veau – veal. Much of the richness of English comes from such French-English synonyms
whose nuance has grown apart over the years.