In my last blog I examined why China had never developed a rule of law that could constrain its leaders so that those wielding executive power were not above it. As a result of the Qin Dynasty’s ambitious attempts to create the first centralised governing state in 221BC, no rival political institution could consistently hold the Emperor to account. The competing ideologies of Confucianism (more of a philosophy than a religion) and Legalism (making it easier for China’s rulers to govern in their own interests) held sway depending on who was in power over the next twenty two centuries, but at no point was an autonomous feudal nobility able to successfully extinguish central authority and govern through a small blood-related elite until the Warlord era, c.1916-1928. The political evolution of England is a far cry from the Sinic world and Fukuyama endeavours to explain in The Origins of Political Order why it is that this former Roman colony conquered by German barbarians in the fifth century AD would eventually become the epicentre of liberty and lay the foundations for modern democracy. But what was unique about England?
Fukuyama makes it quite clear that England by the time of the 1688 Glorious Revolution had in place three features that would come to define modern democracy.
1) Political accountability
2) The rule of law
3) A strong and efficient central state
No other country in the world or, indeed, in history, before 1688 could ever claim to have all three of these attributes, and England differed from her Christian European neighbours in important ways. To assess England’s special path we should look at England’s Anglo-Saxon heyday beginning with the issue of political accountability. However, I should point out here that I use my own definition of political accountability, meaning that those who hold executive power over subordinate people and political institutions must be subject to some form of constraint that can prevent them riding roughshod over the rights of others. This does not have to be formally enshrined in law, but can exist in an unwritten constitutional convention that political actors recognise as inviolable.
Of course there was no written constitution or a bill of rights in Anglo-Saxon England, but the highly developed social hierarchy of the ninth century was capable of holding the King to account and could also restrain the potential tyranny of provincial Lords in the distant parts of the country. One reason for this was undoubtedly the unique system of local government that existed in Anglo-Saxon England, whereby the country was divided up into Shires in the era preceding the reign of Alfred the Great (871-899). Under this system, the King appointed his own agent, the Ealdorman (from which we get the word Alderman), to oversee justice in each Shire, and was ably assisted by a Shire Reeve (from which we get the word Sheriff). The latter conveniently answered directly to the monarch and eventually took over the day-to-day political functions of the office while remaining a social inferior to the Ealdorman. Anglo-Saxon Kings were all too aware that there would need to be a fine balance between successfully delegating plenary authority to Earls - as was needed in any expansionary and centralising polity - whilst preventing them from becoming too powerful in their own right. As we shall see later on, this proved to be crucial when the Barons forced King John into signing the Magna Carta in 1215.
More importantly, the Shires were further sub-divided into Hundred courts (or folk moots) where peasants acquainted with the law of the land would meet every four weeks in the open air to keep the peace, pronounce judgement on local tax adjustments, and settle local pleas. The court was presided over by the Shire Reeve, but he could only guide and not control the peasant judges, making it impossible for local magnates to use executive power to their own advantage at the expense of their social inferiors. Fukuyama is right to point out that in no other European country did the peasants and their Lords sit together in court as equals. As a further check on the potential tyranny of powerful Nobles, the gentry and peasantry could also make an appeal to the King’s court against a sentence that appeared unjust. This helped the King to centralise his power more firmly and keep his Nobility in line.
As we can see, the King could make common cause with other power groups against the Nobility, and England also had a substantial burgher class of merchants (known as the burgesses), mainly comprised of Ceorls (free peasants). Adam Smith famously points out on pages 507/8 in The Wealth of Nations that the nobility of the countryside always felt threatened by the merchant class of the towns because they formed their own magistrate courts and collected their own taxes. The last two chapters of Book III go on to give an excellent account of how liberty gradually evolved amongst the people of England after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and it is no surprise that Fukuyama, himself, has used Smith to vindicate his theory.
However, it is not entirely true to say that the King and his burgesses formed an alliance of convenience to deliberately antagonise the rural feudal barons. For a start there was little uniformity in the organisation of an English burh (from which the word borough derives) and it is probable that not all of them had their own separate burhgemot (borough court), despite an ambiguously worded law of King Edgar (reign c.959-975) that the county courts should meet twice a year and the burhgemot three times. It is correct to extrapolate from the sources that the burgesses were dependent on the King and paid him a land rent for the tenements he granted them for trading purposes. All of the burhs created in Alfred’s time were originally built as defensible citadels against Danish warbands and were created by an explicit act of state. Most were built on land owned by the King, and the traders who migrated there were his freemen with obligations to provide a number of logistical services. Furthermore they also paid a toll to the King on all their commercial transactions and were sometimes required to contribute to the maintenance of the forts out of their own pocket.
Clearly these men owed nothing to any Lord other than the King and were an unusually empowered class of people that existed outside the ranks of the aristocracy. However, the Earl (or Lord) was not always a frustrated and jealous bystander unable to interfere in this Monarchical-Burgess alliance. Far from being excluded, there were a minority of cases where the King would allow one of his Earls to take all of the public revenue (tolls) generated in his boroughs that had formerly accrued to him. Indeed, the mass construction of fortifications following Alfred the Great’s victory over the Danes at Edington in 878 eventually led to the ‘Earl’s Third Penny’, whereby he was entitled by public law (not Royal favour) to one-third of the tolls paid on commercial transactions in the boroughs of his province. It is doubtful whether he would seek to undermine the burgess class of his boroughs if they were a valuable source of income, whatever his views might have been on social inferiors. On the contrary, we might actually disagree with Fukuyama and still arrive at the same conclusion in this regard: the alliance between the King and the burgesses was not antagonistic to an excluded nobility, but an unwritten constitutional agreement based on consensus between all three institutions, in which all stood to benefit through compromise, led to a state of equilibrium in which tyranny could not gain the upper hand.
This form of political accountability in which burgesses and ceorls knew their rights and responsibilities and had recourse to justice could easily have been swept away if a majority of Earls and their Fyrds (Shire Armies) agreed to overthrow the King. However, the King could call upon the clergy and the burgesses for support, and by co-opting the Earls as recipients of the borough revenue streams (the Third Penny) in addition to the customs and dues that they already received as powerful Shire magnates, he had a means of keeping them on his side and maintaining a semblance of harmony. But why did the Earls and Shire Reeves accept their nominal role as presidents of local justice rather than as executive judges? Fukuyama does not ask this question but it is worth looking at the Germanic routes of our ancestors for an answer.
The Anglo-Saxon Hundreds have their origins in ancient Germania, where Tacitus observed in the first century AD that the whole community decided all major political decisions. He goes on to say in his classic work Germania: ‘In these assemblies they also elect the chiefs to administer justice in the districts and villages. Each is assisted by a hundred assessors chosen from the people, as an advisory body, and at the same time to increase his authority.’ Eight hundred years later these same institutions had been exported to England, and the hundred assessors were still thought necessary to give credibility to the authority of the peasant judges. It certainly makes it easier to understand why the Earls and Shire Reeves would not have seen anything unnatural or alien in this arrangement.
Fukuyama’s second point of discussion concerns the development of the rule of law in England. One of the most famous examples of this entering the thought of European constitutional history is manifest in the 1215 Magna Carta, where King John of England was forced by his feudal barons to concede that he could not rule arbitrarily, by issuing a charter protecting the rights of all freemen under the law of the land. However, few people are aware that King Andrew II of Hungary issued a similar edict in 1222 in which the nobility were able to guarantee their liberty and freedom from the King’s arbitrary coercion. Fukuyama ponders why the Golden Bull edict is not celebrated in Hungary as the Magna Carta is in England; the answer is in the nature of the relations between the feudal barons and their peasant subjects.
The Golden Bull of 1222 granted privileges to the nobility and clergy that were not extended to the English barons under the Magna Carta. In Hungary the edict exempted the land-owning elite from taxation and removed any obligation to fund the King’s future wars. By contrast the English Lords had grown accustomed to paying the majority of the Danegeld (tribute) to stave off Viking invaders in the ninth and tenth centuries, thus sharing a heavy burden with their impoverished peasant subjects. The Magyar barons may have secured their own liberties but they came at the expense of the peasantry, who would now be expected to pay heavy taxes. Indeed, most people see the Golden Bull as an attempt by a small elite to have the freedom to subjugate their serfs more intensely and without interference from the King. Consequently, the Hungarian monarch did not have any power to protect the peasantry; he did not have a court of justice to which hard-done peasants could appeal; he had no control over the way his Nobles ruled their territories; he received no taxation from them; and the peasants were locked into servitude to their feudal masters, lacking any necessity or incentive to support a centralising state-building project against their Lords.
The rule of law was enshrined in Hungary to such an extent that the Nobles who benefited from it as a check on the monarch’s power were not inclined to extend it to any other power group, least of all the gentry, and of course not to the peasantry, a notion that would have been spectacularly radical anywhere in the world at the time, especially in England. This raises an interesting question about the rule of law: number one being that our modern notions of equality before the law for every person born within a sovereign territory, no matter what their ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation, is of no use to us here. The rule of law in medieval Europe has a more limited meaning and can be applied to situations where a small elite secured liberties and legal guarantees that they could disobey the Head of State if he acted contrary to the written law.
Anglo-Saxon England did not produce anything that could be considered a milestone in constituting a body of law that subjected the King to a form of social contract with his people, but the later Magna Carta definitely offered a precedent for the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War of the mid-seventeenth century, who legitimised the uneasy concept that Christian rulers could be overthrown if they governed without consideration for the liberty of their subjects.
The lesson that Fukuyama draws from the fate of Hungary, annexed by the Ottomans in 1541, is that the power of the nobles was too strong, both to the detriment of the puppet King, and as an obstacle to reform for the masses of peasants clamouring for change. The country avoided being a tyrannical, absolute monarchy only to become an equally oppressive client state ruled by a few noble families with a ferocious determination to maintain the status quo, even in the face of invasion. The lasting legacy of the Anglo-Saxons was its sophisticated division of power in which everybody below the nobility to the lowliest ceorl had recourse to justice free from the ruling of their Lords. Furthermore the ancient Germanic emphasis on the loyalty between a Lord and his subjects had an element of reciprocity about it that was rarely violated, but had been broken in thirteenth century Hungary. As Frank Stenton points out on page 302 of his masterful study, Anglo-Saxon England: ‘The sanctity of the bond between lord and man, the duty of defending and avenging a lord, the disgrace of surviving him, gave rise to situations in which English listeners were always interested until new literary fashions of Romance origin had displaced the ancient stories.’
Yet parallel to the development of the Hundreds, the Shires, and the Boroughs, England had also developed the most advanced central state in Western Europe. Fukuyama concentrates on the development of the English central bureaucracy during the seventeenth century and rightly observes that the country was unique in that the elite were happy to pay more taxes to fund ship building and foreign expeditions, as long as they had representation and the veto of Parliament to block unaffordable demands from the monarch. Yet a few notable achievements of the Anglo-Saxon period are worth mentioning, not least the fact that in 973 King Edgar introduced a single currency into the country at a time when no less than 30 different currencies were circulating in the Frankish lands across the North Sea.
The obvious example of state development in the England of the first millennium is Alfred’s landmark fortifications, or burhs, that appeared in the years immediately after 878. The crash-course in town-planning, brought on by the existential threat of the Danish invaders, set a precedent for political organisation that the former Mercian King Offa, (the Overlord of all other Anglo-Saxon Kings in the eighth century) could only have dreamed of. Perhaps the Earls’ entitlement to a third of the burgesses’ toll payments was a reward for the heavy burden they shouldered in funding these enclosed boroughs. If so, it goes to show that the nobility were willing to accept an unusually high degree of interference from their King, something that would have been anathema anywhere else in Western Europe at the time.
Fukuyama makes it quite clear in The Origins of Political Order that a strong central state can only emerge when kinship has ceased to be the criteria for selecting holders of political office and has been replaced or, at least, heavily infused with, a determination to have non-hereditary agents serve the central state on behalf of the executive. By the mid tenth century even the formerly independent Kingdom of Northumbria had fallen under the vassalage of Wessex, where the Earl was one of the King’s appointed agents without any automatic rights to pass on the title to his sons.
In contrast the landscapes of West Francia (modern France) were dotted with castles, where powerful Dukes ruled their own provinces with an iron fist. Surprisingly, Fukuyama does not mention that England from Alfred (c.871-899) up until King Harthacnut (c.1040-42) never had the equivalent of a Count of Anjou, as in France, where a noble such as the formidable Fulk Nerra (972-1040) effectively ruled his feudal subjects without interference from the monarch.
The phenomenon of the Castellans in modern France - the nobles that built castles to enclose whole villages of peasants into a subordinate class of rent-paying dependents owing personal service to their Lords - did not materialise in Anglo-Saxon England, despite the widespread existence of feudalism, because the state was too strong and invested with too much authority to tolerate rival autonomous bureaucracies. Edward the Confessor’s decision to award the Earldom of Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire to his Norman brother-in-law, Ralf, in 1053, seems to have been the first and only successful attempt to build an impregnable castle in England before William the Conqueror arrived in 1066. It survived, despite its unpopularity amongst an understandably nervous peasantry, only because it acted as a useful bulwark against the Welsh threat on the frontier; but no English Lord would have dared to insult his ceorls with such an outrageous provocation.
Nevertheless, all historians are taught to avoid a rose-tinted view of the past without consideration for inconvenient truths and it is necessary to stress in these final paragraphs that, for all of its wonderful achievements in the realm of political organisation, the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom was subject to regular raiding and large-scale settlement from the Danish Vikings from 793 up until 1066. Northumbria, Lincoln, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Stamford, East Anglia and the south east Midlands were all governed under the Danelaw throughout the latter half of the ninth century up until the Norman Conquest. The local courts were known as the Wapentake and were very similar to the Anglo-Saxon Hundredal system of local justice, although punishments for disturbing the peace were more draconian and often levied collectively. Constitutionally they differed from the Hundred in that the twelve leading Thegns (Royal or Noble companions) of the district were required to swear on relics that they would never accuse an innocent person or protect a guilty one. They kept these arrangements even after the successes of Edward the Elder and King Athelstan in unifying the English and Danelaw provinces of the country in the tenth century; and the ‘Twelve Sworn Jury’ was to become the first political body to introduce the notion into England that majority opinion must prevail in council, where a majority of eight was needed for a decision to be legally binding.
The peasants living under the Danelaw were also freer than their English counterparts, with a peasant aristocracy emerging, known as the Sokemen, which was more or less exempt from the back-breaking labour and service that the English ceorls were obliged to offer their Lords. It is understandable why Fukuyama has missed this out, for it is nothing more than a footnote in what is a monumental book spanning from ancient China up until the French Revolution. The ultimate irony, though, is that the English ceorls, the free peasants that formed the bedrock of Anglo-Saxon society in the first two hundred years of settlement, had become progressively enserfed in the long period of the Danish invasions. Their property was constantly under threat in this era, their livelihood never rose above subsistence levels, and their services were increasingly needed in the Fyrd to keep out the Vikings. It became more expedient to place themselves under the protection of a Lord rather than eke out a precarious living on their own, and the manorial economy that had previously existed in Roman Britain slowly resurfaced. Consequently, the Norman victors inherited a well-governed, feudal state that needed little changing except from the transfer of property from one elite to another.
Of course the dimension of Christianity has not even been explored in this blog and religion would go on to play a decisive role in the English Civil War, as Anglicans and Puritans fought each other and Scottish Presbyterians revolted against the imposition of the English Common Prayer Book. In earlier Anglo-Saxon times, Archbishops could give legitimacy to usurpers and constituted another power group that could not be ignored or taken for granted, their landholdings and tax base often being on a par with the Earls. Thankfully Fukuyama goes on to consider the impact of the Reformation on England’s political development, but I shall leave that for another time. Nevertheless, his analysis of the lands that were settled by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes after the fall of the Western Roman Empire is remarkably prescient and stands up well to independent historical study.