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The Saxon and early Norman kings would not have assented to Magna Carta

Posted in Historical articles, History, London, Politics, Royalty on Thursday, 29 August 2013

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This edited article about British government originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 389 published on 28 June 1969.

King and his Council, picture, image, illustration

Some subjects could take their grievances to the King himself at his formal Council in Westminster, by Ron Embleton

We may not always be satisfied with the way our country is run, but our system of government by a parliament has been described as Britain’s greatest contribution to world civilisation, and this is probably true.

The Roman rule of Britain was a military dictatorship. Only after the Romans had gone, and the Saxons had conquered England, were the seeds of Britain’s democratic traditions planted.

The fierce Saxon warriors enjoyed fighting – and making speeches. The tales of ancient heroes sung by poets at feasts and celebrations had a secondary purpose in reminding a king or leader of his duties. When the king had to make an important decision concerning the good of his people, he summoned all his warriors and wise men to a “Witan.” At such gatherings the leading men of the kingdom were free to speak their minds. And skill at speaking was so highly valued that a man’s fame could rest on his skill with words just as much as on his prowess with a sword.

The spot in London where our Houses of Parliament now stand was once known as Thorney Island. There, in the year A.D. 959, the Bishop of London, who later became St. Dunstan, built a chapel. The Church was very powerful in those days and, as one of the leading bishops in England, Dunstan was often summoned to attend the Witan of King Aethelred the Unready.

During those years, England suffered heavily from raids by the Vikings, and Dunstan’s little chapel soon fell into ruin. When peace at last returned, Edward the Confessor, England’s saintly king, decided to build a fine new Abbey on the site of Dunstan’s chapel. He named it the “West Minster.” Later it was called the “Mother of Parliaments.”

Edward the Confessor died in the year A.D. 1066, in the palace he had built beside his new abbey. Two men claimed the right to succeed him as king; Harold, Earl of Wessex; and William, Duke of Normandy.

In this crisis, the Great Witan of the Saxons was summoned to Westminster. It was to be their last meeting. After much debate, the earls and bishops of England declared Harold to be the rightful king of England. The Battle of Hastings followed only a few months later. After it, Harold lay dead, and his surviving followers were fugitives.

The Dukes of Normandy, like the Saxon kings, traditionally summoned councils of their leading knights to discuss important issues, so it was natural for William the Conqueror to summon the land-owners of England when he wished to increase his knowledge of his newly-won kingdom. Thousands flocked to this meeting of the king’s “Great Council.” It was held on Salisbury Plain, and hundreds of gaily-coloured tents were scattered across the countryside.

Later Norman kings followed William’s example and held King’s Councils, but usually only great barons and Church leaders were summoned to these. Only occasionally, when they had some specialised knowledge to offer, were merchants or craftsmen required to attend.

Henry II, great-grandson of the Conqueror, was one of England’s greatest law-makers. He made the King’s Council into England’s highest court of Law, and it was during his reign that the French word “Parliament” was first used in this country.

Henry II’s son, King John, was confronted by many problems, the worst of which was England’s continual warfare with France. This meant that John was always demanding more money in the form of taxes, to pay his soldiers. He also quarrelled with both his barons and the Church, the two greatest powers in the land.

Soon John had the entire population of the country, both great and small, ranged against him, and the barons and bishops forced him to sign a charter laying down the basic liberties and laws of the English people.

This was Magna Carta, the Great Charter. It declared that no taxes could be levied without the consent of the Council of the Realm.

This was not, of course, democracy in the modern sense of the word, but it was an important step towards it.

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