Magna Carta, Provisions of Oxford, House of Lords, House of Commons, Houses of Parliament and Constitutional Monarchy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 19th, 2012

Politics 101

King John renounced, and Pope Innocent III annulled, Magna Carta

England had been more French than English following the Norman Conquest.  The ruling class spoke French.  And had stronger connections to France than they did to England.  The Kingdom of England did, after all, extend across the English Channel into France.  The English nobility, on the other hand, were more English than French.  This caused friction between the land owners (the barons) and the king.  Because even though the king had official power the barons paid the taxes.  Which meant the king could do anything he wanted with his power as long as the barons agreed to pay for it.  And provided his armies.  For the king had no standing armies.  Which proved to be a bit of a restraint on being king.

The barons, though, felt the king was abusing them.  The king was spending a lot of money on many losing military campaigns and stepping on the barons’ privileges.   They presented Magna Carta to King John.  Which put in writing limitations on the king’s powers.  And the requirement that the king shall consult Parliament (common counsel of the realm including the clergy higher-ups and the more powerful barons) before raising new taxes.  Something no king would willingly submit to.  Unless it was a way to stall for time.  So King John applied his Great Seal to Magna Carta.  Making it the law of the land.  But with his fingers crossed behind his back.  Figuratively, of course.

Well, King John renounced the Great Charter once the barons had left London.  And Pope Innocent III annulled it.  Because of that divine rights of kings thing.  Kings could do whatever they wanted because God gave them that right.  While the Church made sure he didn’t abuse this power.  Anyway, long story short, the king refused to honor his agreement.  Which resulted in the First Barons’ War.  It lasted a couple of years.  The barons invited Prince Louis, son and heir apparent of the French king, to join them in their fight against King John.  Something any French Royal would be glad to do.  Then King John died and the barons became worried about Prince Louis.  Some fighting and sieges later, Louis got some money and went back to France.  King John’s son Henry was then crowned King Henry III.  He was 9 years old.  Until he came of age his royal keepers ruled in his stead.  And brought back Magna Carta.  With some changes.

The House of Lords and the House of Commons formed the Houses of Parliament

Well, all’s well that ends well, yes?  No.  For when the new king came of age he wanted to restore absolute monarchy.  Like they had (and he admired) in France.  He married a French woman.  And brought a lot of his French relatives into high positions in his realm.  Highly religious, he supported the papal invasion of Sicily.  Which was a disaster.  Well, you can guess where this led to.  More fighting with the barons over Magna Carta.  To remind him there were limits on his powers.  Which the barons hammered home in the Provisions of Oxford.

The Provisions of Oxford is considered England’s first written constitution.  The barons wrote it.  In English.  The new language of the ruling class.  No more of that French nonsense.  And presented it to King Henry III.  Placing power into the hands of a council.  Not the king.  There would be 24 members in this council.  Half chosen by the king.  Half chosen by the barons.  Parliament would oversee the council.  And meet 3 times a year.  Power was now with Parliament.  Not the king.  Which was huge for its day.

The king summoned the nobility and senior clergy to advise him.  When he needed money he summoned knights and burgesses, too.  Representatives of the common people.  These common people met alone in 1341.  And the upper and lower houses of Parliament were born.  The House of Lords (nobility and clergy).  And the House of Commons (knights and burgesses).  Together they were the Houses of Parliament.

The Many, the Few and the One

Governing by the consent of the governed was here.  But the journey wasn’t over yet.  There would be many more bumps in the road ahead.  Including the English Civil War.  With lots of English-French issues to resolve.  And a lot of Catholic-Protestant issues, too.  Not to mention the Welsh, Scottish and Irish issues.  But the general shape of things to come was here.  For England.  Great Britain.  And the United Kingdom.  Absolute monarchy was out.  Constitutional monarchy was in.  Representative government.  Where all had a say.  The commons.  The nobility.  And the king.  The many, the few and the one.

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Mounted Knights, Chivalry, Vassalage, Feudalism and Monarchy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 5th, 2012

Politics 101

Vassalage bonded the Knight and the Lord together in Mutual Obligations

After the collapse of the Roman Empire land was everything.  You either held land.  Or took land.  Both of which you did with military might.  And during Medieval Europe you did that with cavalry.  Heavy cavalry.  In particular, the mounted knight.  The king of battle.  For few could stand their ground with one to two tons of armored man and horse charging at them.  Where the choices were to be skewered by lance, slashed by sword, trampled by hoof or run away.

This was the age of chivalry.  Of glorious combat.  Where nothing was more gentlemanly than riding bravely into battle.   Suited up in gleaming, and very expensive, armor.  Which made the knight an expensive combat weapon.  Not just anyone could do this.  For you needed wealth.  And the only way to get wealth was by owning land.  Which few owned.

One way to become a landowner was to become a knight.  If you were a gentlemanly warrior who loved to fight you could offer your services to a lord who did own land.  Become his vassal.  In the system of vassalage.  Which bonded the two together in mutual obligations.  The knight agrees to fit horses and men for very expensive mounted warfare.  And the lord provides land for the knight’s use for raw material and wealth to fit his men and horses for battle.

When Knights were not at War they Built their Castles and Managed their Lands

We generally call this arrangement feudalism.  Though definitions vary.  But it’s the vassal relation that’s key.  The knight is bound to the lord and agrees to provide military service.  In exchange the lord provides land for the knight’s use and offers other protections within his powers.  Feudalism is similar to Manorialism.  Where a manor is basically a large farm owned by the Lord of the Manor.  Peasants (i.e., serfs) attached to the land (meaning they are not free to leave) work the land.  The lord provides for them.  And this serfdom provides for their lord.

A lord may own more than one manor.  And have his vassals run these manors.  Or a lord may split up larger landholding to accommodate a new vassal.  Or he could use his military might of mounted knights to conquer neighboring lands and give knights who showed exemplary valor in battle a portion of the newly conquered land.  When knights were not at war they built their castles.  And managed their lands.

Similar systems operated like this in different regions.  A particular region may have a ‘lord’ with large landholdings and military might.  To protect their land from others.  Or to expand their landholdings at the expense of their neighbors.  This was a time before nations.  Even before kings.  Power resided with the landed aristocracy.  Those who owned great tracts of land.  The source of food.  Raw materials.  And wealth.  Land managed by their vassals.  Who answered their call when it was time to strap on the armor and flex some military muscle.

The Many, the Few and the One

Feudalism gave way to monarchy.  Which was similar to feudalism.  Only the lords entered into a vassal relationship with their king.  Who often rose to power to unite and lead his lords to defend against a common enemy.  An enemy that was too great for one lord to fight alone.  Such as the marauding Vikings that the English king Alfred the Great subdued.  Or the spread of Muslim Arabs into southern Gaul (modern day France) that the Carolingian king Charles Martel repulsed.

Kings arose to consolidate power.  Lords continued to own land.  Passing it, and their title, on to their heirs.  Setting the next stage of political governance.  The relationship between the king and the aristocracy.  And their relationship with the people.  The many, the few and the one.

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