In which the English parliament slaps a leash on the crown.
Welcome to The Worst Form Of Government: a history of democracy from Peisistratus to Putin.
by Matthew White.
After Rome shifted from republic to empire, there would be no more democratic superpowers for almost two thousand years; however, certain kinds of limited democracies continued to pop up like bubbles in foam in independent cities throughout the period, especially after the Roman Empire abruptly shrank (or “fell”) in the 400s and left Western Europe to fend for itself.
Towns sustain themselves on trade, and in mercantile communities, power follows the money. It tends to be diffuse, scattered among several families and always in flux with the fortunes of the market. The best type of government for these societies will share these characteristics – unfocused, dispersed and adaptable to change – in essence, a republic.
Mercantile republics are therefore a bit different from ancient republics, which, as we’ve seen, were often based on the militia. Most medieval merchants considered the business of government to be a nuisance. Real power came from wealth, which came from trade, and no one wanted to spend all day tromping around town enforcing building codes and health regulations, or keeping the roads and drains clear. Listening to two neighbors bicker in a lawsuit was less lucrative than arranging an import-export deal. Governing was necessary but not especially difficult, so the citizens usually agreed to share the burden equally, and they often assigned tasks randomly.
Florence, for example, was run by an organization called the Signoria that represented the guilds. In the church of Santa Croce, the guilds kept eight sacks with all the names of members over the age of thirty. Every two months, a name was pulled randomly from each sack. Anyone who was in debt, related to a name previously selected that day or who had already served recently was disqualified, and a new name was drawn. The eight men picked ran the city for the next couple of months.
German cities of the Hanseatic League such as Hamburg and Lubeck were run by councils of prosperous burghers. Nuremburg’s council had 42 councilors, most of them representing the important families, except for 8 representatives of the guilds. Venice, the most powerful Italian city-state, was run by the Great Council. It was made up of all adult males in the city’s noble families. They selected one of their number to be the doge, a lifetime, constitutionally-limited duke of the city.
The largest, richest and strongest mercantile republic as the world entered the Modern Era was the Dutch Republic. It emerged in 1581 from a Protestant revolt in the Netherlands against their Spanish overlords, but its status as a real “republic” was debatable. The Dutch parliament made law, but lifetime leadership of the nation was passed father-to-son within a single family. The ruler’s title, Stadtholder, literally means “place holder” in Dutch. It’s as if they hadn’t quite abandoned the idea that all nations were kingdoms, and they merely had a vacancy in the top job with a temporary leader filling in.
Keep in mind that none of these places were quite as democratic as Athens or Rome. A voice in government required a minimum amount of property, and only the wealthiest citizens qualified.
Outside the towns, most of medieval Europe, at the basic legal level, was the private property of a local lord. When a nobleman owned land, this pretty much included everything and everybody on it. He could give parts of it away, move things around, demand a share of all production, prohibit hunting by anyone but himself, and tear down or erect buildings according to whatever fancy took him. Residents of his land lived at his mercy. This system of private government continued upward, all the way to the king who owned the country as a whole.
Eventually legal precedents limited the sovereign’s authority to a large extent. Because humans are cantankerous with their own needs and desires, no ruler, no matter how absolute his power, could get very far by simply commanding his subjects to do what he told them. A king usually had to resort to persuasion, lies, threats, bribes, trade-offs and compromises to get his subjects to do what he wanted. To keep everyone on the same page, he periodically gathered everyone important in one place to talk it over. All this eventually became formalized as a matter of law and tradition. Of course, the more powerful the individual or coalition, the more concessions they could force from the king. In 1215 rebellious nobles forced King John of England to sign the Magna Carta into law, which formalized the reciprocal rights and duties of the various classes in England, among them the right of all free men to a fair trial and no new taxes without the “general consent of the realm”. Determining, clarifying and imposing the “general consent of the realm” would be a tricky problem that will come up again and again and again in our story. It’s the central problem of democracy. ①
In general, there were three power blocs that every monarch in medieval Europe had to keep happy. First, the clergy spoke for God, influenced opinion, provided education and kept records for the government. Second, the nobility owned the land, administered local justice and formed the backbone of the army. Third, the merchants in the towns controlled trade and wealth. In France these three power blocs became formalized as the three estates, each with its own assembly, collectively called the Estates General. In England, the highest ranks of clergy and nobility sat in the House of Lords while elected representatives of the townsmen sat in the House of Commons. Together these two houses formed Parliament, meeting in Westminster, a London suburb and royal residence. Although the king might not be obliged by law to listen to their advice, a smart monarch ran all important decisions past the leaders of the appropriate estates to get their cooperation. Most monarchs left the church alone on religious matters (divorce, burial and holidays for example) and consulted with the nobility when planning a war.
Because the Third Estate - the urban merchants - had all the money, monarchs grudgingly learned to work with them on financial matters. The crown could only levy taxes that parliament agreed to. As the world became more modern and money became more important than war or faith, the Third Estate became more powerful. Despite that broader trend, however, the decisive conflict between the crown and parliament exploded over religion, not money.
Cast of characters
During the 1500s and 1600s, England was battered by the same religious conflicts that were sweeping all across Europe, which generated a lot of bloodshed and ill will over the years. Henry VIII (1509-1547) had been the first king to switch England from Catholic to Protestant, and during the turbulent years following the conversion, he ended up executing a little over 300 traitors, many of them for scheming to put Catholics back in charge. The Catholics returned to power when Henry’s daughter Mary came to the throne in 1553; she eventually executed almost 300 stubborn Protestants to make her point. Mary’s sister Elizabeth followed her in 1558 and made England Protestant again; over her long reign, Elizabeth would execute almost 200 Catholics who opposed her. Of course, by the standards of the era, a few hundred beheadings, hangings and burnings of heretics and political enemies by a monarch counted as downright restrained. On the continent, Protestants and Catholics were killing each other by the millions.
Then the Tudor dynasty gave way to Stuarts. King James I ruled England from 1603 to 1625 and was so thoroughly Protestant that the translation of the Bible he sponsored became the standard for centuries. Catholic conspirators tried but failed to blow up the King and Parliament in 1605, which sparked another crackdown.
Religious division intensified under James’ son and successor, King Charles I. By now, a third force – the very strict theology of John Calvin – had worked its way into religious politics. The merchants of the English House of Commons tended toward the more austere, Calvinist varieties of Protestantism such as Puritanism and Presbyterianism which emphasized hard work and frugality to earn God’s favor, while Charles and the nobility preferred the fancier high church varieties of Anglicanism, which the Puritans considered gaudy, frivolous, and no better than Catholicism. The king and parliament began tugging the Church of England in opposite directions. Even worse, the king married a Catholic French princess almost immediately after taking the throne, and the Protestant majority of England worried that she might start churning out Catholic heirs and elevating Catholic cronies any day now.
As a side effect of the Thirty Years War being fought in Germany, King Charles I of England got into a war against Spain. When Parliament started to investigate the outrageous costs and mismanagement of this war, the king didn’t like their meddling and unilaterally dissolved parliament in 1629. He then ruled by decree for eleven years, supporting the government from taxes already in place. To keep the Puritans under control he instituted strict censorship and cut the ears off a few Puritan pamphleteers he caught defying his edicts.
This worked fine until Charles introduced a new prayer book for the Church of Scotland. The government’s High Church theology ran contrary to the strict Presbyterianism of most Scots. Riots broke out and coalesced into an outright rebellion. When King Charles sent troops to put down the rebels, it quickly drained his budget. Since only Parliament had the authority to approve new taxes, Charles called them back into session. Annoyed that Charles only called them when he wanted a favor, Parliament was uncooperative.
To restate his requests with special emphasis, the king personally marched into the House of Commons with armed guards to arrest his most stubborn opponents, only to find that they had escaped by boat on the Thames River just before he arrived. Bursting into Parliament uninvited like that was a violation of custom, so King Charles decided it might be best to put many miles between himself and the angry crowds of London. Parliamentary forces set out to bring him back, and pretty soon everyone in England was picking sides. For the next few years, Britain had a full scale civil war on its hands.
When the last royal army was beaten and King Charles was captured, Parliament put him on trial for treason, found him guilty and lopped his head off. The commander of the Parliamentary army, Oliver Cromwell, became dictator (“Lord Protector”), and the English people learned what it was like to live under a real, literal Puritan who outlawed Christmas and the theater. When Cromwell died, England turned away from the drab and humorless Puritans by inviting King Charles’s son back to rule as long as he promised to behave himself.
This 1660 Restoration seemed to go well at first. The first restored king, Charles II, was cheerful, cynical and a welcome change from the recent Puritan gloominess, but after spending his exile in France, he was also something of a secret Catholic. Not only did he officially convert on his deathbed in 1685, but he left the throne to his brother King James II, who was openly Catholic right from the start. James did his best to undermine the Church of England, so in 1688, Parliament offered the crown to his eldest daughter Mary, wife of the Dutch ruler, William of Orange, both good Protestants. On Parliament’s invitation, the Dutch army invaded; King James scampered without a fight, and William III and Mary II were crowned joint monarchs of England. To cap off this Glorious Revolution, Parliament in 1689 passed the Act of Toleration, which made all Protestant denominations (but definitely not the Catholics) legally equal. Also the Bill of Rights, guaranteeing the right of Englishmen to complain, debate and defend themselves in court. Although the king still remained at the center of governing by means of appointing ministers, generals and the like, he had to recognize that Parliament had the last word in any dispute.
The point to notice in this brief and chaotic summary is that the story begins with the monarch calling all the shots. Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth I could (more or less) just announce that their particular religion would be supreme and everyone else had to go along. Then, after about a century of fighting over it, Parliament had gained the upper hand. If a king tried to elevate a minority religion against the wishes of the majority, then that king would be replaced. Also it was getting easier to do that. The first removal required a full civil war, but the second only required a show of force. By the 1930s, a misbehaving king could be forced out with a sternly worded letter.
Whigs and Tories
Political parties started to coalesce in England after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, mostly as loose alliances of cooperating individuals. Those in favor and those opposed on a particular issue would sit on opposite sides of the parliamentary chamber, yelling at each other across the aisle. The conservatives who were generally in favor of a strong king clustered into the “Tory” faction. From the Irish word for outlaw, Tory was originally used to label the Irish rebels who had fought Cromwell, and afterwards became synonymous with boneheaded resistance to change. Against them were the liberals called the “Whigs” who were in favor of a strong parliament. This also began as a nickname for backcountry troublemakers from the British Civil Wars, in this case the rough Scottish rebels who had opposed King Charles I for being too hoity-toity and possibly Catholic. Whig was short from Whiggamore, horse drover, slang for yokel. These terms began as insults, but eventually everyone got used to using them.
The rift between the Outlaws and the Yokels drove politics until 1714, when the last of the Stuarts, Queen Anne, died and took the Stuart Dynasty with her. The incoming Hanoverian dynasty considered the Tories to be tools of both the previous regime and the various Stuart pretenders bouncing around Europe hoping to retake the English throne, so the Tories were purged from government posts. Their numbers in Parliament dwindled, and by 1760, the Tories ceased to be an organized faction. By now every parliamentary leader was calling himself a Whig, although some were “opposition Whigs”, “independent Whigs” or “conservative Whigs”. To keep it simple, some historians have continued to call these conservative factions Tories, but to be honest, that’s not any simpler at all. It’s actually rather confusing.
In 1721, Britain was rocked to its foundations by the South Sea Bubble, a wild rollercoaster ride of unsupported stock and debt that floated on dreams, promises, kickbacks and bribes, and then crashed abruptly, as economic bubbles often do. This destroyed the British financial sector, ruined the middle class and crippled the government. Just about everyone at court and in Parliament was tainted by association with the bubble, and no one trusted any of them to clean up afterwards. Soon impeachments, resignations and suicides cleared out some of the worst offenders, but the only important person to come out of the debacle still clean was Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford and former Chancellor of the Exchequer, who had been unenthusiastic about the scheme right from the start. The king appointed him First Lord of the Treasury and gave him extraordinary powers to straighten out the mess. Because these new duties stuck with the position and focused parliament’s power in the First Lord of the Treasury, historians count Walpole as the first prime minster of Great Britain.② ①
Americans consider Magna Carta to be one of their vital founding documents because it firmly established that there shall be no taxation without representation, which was the whole point of their revolution. The British, on the other hand, generally consider Magna Carta to be an interesting historical artifact with a lot to say about royal forests and tidal fishing, but with little remaining force of law. Only 3 of the original 63 clauses of Magna Carta are still in effect in the UK. All the rest have been repealed or superseded. ②
For nearly two centuries, Britain’s leaders disliked being called prime ministers. They thought it was putting on airs because no single minister ought to be called first or prime. Only foreigners had prime ministers. The phrase finally started sneaking into government documents after 1905; however, the title wasn’t officially attached to the position until 1937.