Blogging the Magna Carta #7
In today’s world the people of Western Europe and North America treasure their elected governments. We rely upon them to act for us since we are far too numerous for every citizen to gather and vote individually on every single issue. An educated society considers each of the candidates, studies the issues and votes for the person most closely aligned to our philosophy. We trust these people to do their best for us.
Where did this novel form of government begin?
We need to back up just a bit to last weeks discussion of scutage, a kind of tax levied on barons and knights in lieu of military service. This week King John managed to find a little wiggle room in the wording. But not for long.
For the entire document of the Magna Carta, you may go here: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/magnacarta.asp
For a more scholarly analysis of the Charter and its relevance to modern life: http://www.middle-ages.org.uk/magna-carta.htm
14. And for obtaining the common counsel of the kingdom anent the assessing of an aid (except in the three cases aforesaid) or of a scutage, we will cause to be summoned the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, and greater barons, severally by our letters; and we will moreover cause to be summoned generally, through our sheriffs and bailiffs, all others who hold of us in chief, for a fixed date, namely, after the expiry of at least forty days, and at a fixed place; and in all letters of such summons we will specify the reason of the summons. And when the summons has thus been made, the business shall proceed on the day appointed, according to the counsel of such as are present, although not all who were summoned have come.
The three cases aforesaid were 1, the ransom of the king’s body, 2, the knighthood of his eldest son, or 3, the first marriage of his eldest daughter. These cases come up later.
See anyone in that list of people to be summoned to agree upon a tax levy who was elected?
15. We will not for the future grant to any one license to take an aid from his own free tenants, except to ransom his body, to make his eldest son a knight, and once to marry his eldest daughter; and on each of these occasions there shall be levied only a reasonable aid.
Years before this, Robert Fitz Walter, surrendered a castle under siege by the French without permission. As was custom, the king of France held him for ransom. In such cases the prisoner’s king should have paid the ransom. It’s the way things were done and helped pay the bills.
King John of England was only days away from relieving the siege. Instead of maintaining a strategic position with a stronghold, he lost the province. He never forgave Fitz Walter and the hapless baron was reduced to levying a scutage from his own underlings to pay his ransom. He never forgave King John for this feudal slap in the face. Neither did Fitz Walter sign the Magna Carta because it did not call for King John’s removal from the throne at least, preferably his condemnation and execution.
Clause 14 says that neither the king nor his barons could levy a scutage without common consent (except for those three instances mentioned above). Which means, that by the rules of feudal warfare if a noble prisoner couldn’t raise the money (frequently they were too far in debt to the Jews) none of them could be ransomed, by king or friends without a meeting of the major barons, clergy, and landholders and their agreement. Enforced rules to play nice together. Your enemies won’t vote to pay for your release.
In Fitz Walter’s case, if he’d been captured after the Magna Carta, King John could not have ransomed him without calling a meeting. Fitz Walter would have lost that request for money because he betrayed his king by surrendering without permission. He gave the enemy an advantage over his own king and feudal overlord.
That meeting for common consent, given 40 days notice in writing, is the bare beginnings of a parliament. At first only for the raising of money. In her 45 year reign, Queen Elizabeth I only called parliament 11 times. She didn’t want them messing with her government. Today Parliaments and congresses meet nearly every day, all year long. These representatives are the lawmakers. They do more now than just levy taxes when the monarch wants to go to war. I touch on this briefly on the third volume of my Merlin’s Descendants series Guardian of the Vision, which deals with the early years of Queen Elizabeth I. You can find it here in the Book View Cafe bookstore. This is the book where I had to do research at the Whitefriars Glass foundary.
Do we still want to go back to the Magna Carta as our form of government?
Phyllis Irene Radford is a founding member of the Book View Café. Though raised in the seaports of America she was born in Portland, Oregon and has lived in and around the city since her junior year in high school. She thrives in the damp and loves the tall trees.
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