Going back almost a thousand years, the English have had an enormous impact on the democratic ideals we value today. Learn how the English were among the first to use trial by jury and many other democratic practices.
As far as countries go, in Medieval Europe, England in the 11th century was a strange place. For starters, it took some time for the king to actually speak English, since he was originally from France. Second, whereas many kings treated their kingdom as their most important holding, some early rulers were more obsessed with French politics, treating England solely as a source of tax revenues in a never-ending struggle to become King of France and England.
In fact, one of the most famous medieval English kings, Richard the Lionheart, bankrupted England to pay for his wars in France. This hands-off attitude meant that England didn't have the intense oversight that other countries had, with the authorities told largely to collect taxes, maintain order and otherwise keep their hands off. One of the most interesting ways they did this was through the courts.
From the time that William the Conqueror beat Harold the Saxon at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, securing England for his own, the courts were an issue. Think about it - how would our society be different without government-sponsored courts? Who would hold criminals responsible or make sure people didn't infringe on the rights of others? Needless to say, for William, this was a top priority. However, there was a problem - William and his Norman barons did not speak English, and the English definitely did not speak French.
To get around this problem, William had a genius idea: just let the common people do what they had always done, allowing the use of juries, or groups of local people who know those involved, to decide the verdict. Of course, they would be guided by judges, often priests of the Church, but their job would be to make sure that the broad rules of the King were respected.
Importantly, these judges also had a second job. They had to write down the rulings, as well as the facts of the case, and send them back to London. That way, if a similar case emerged, people could look back on what the previous court had decided as guidance for how to solve the case. This idea of looking back at a previous decision is called precedence, and in English-speaking countries, it is one of the most important parts of understanding law. This new way of deciding cases based on the traditions of the people was called Common Law, since it was essentially law written by the common people. Needless to say, such law was actually pretty popular with the English, because it meant less interference from a foreign king.
A Loser Made Winner
150 years after the Norman Conquest of England, the kings had not only started to speak English but also to listen to the demands of the English barons. During this period, the English barons wanted to fight wars and win. For kings, like Richard the Lionheart, even having to ransom him out of jail was a price the English barons would pay for a winning leader. However, for his little brother, King John, losing battles was not tolerated, especially since the barons were called upon to pay for them. By the way, if these names sound familiar, that's because these are the same rulers from the tale of Robin Hood, where the evil Prince John steals money to pay for his own failures.
By 1215, the barons of England had put up with enough and forced the King to sign a document known as the Magna Carta. Despite what people say, the Magna Carta only helped about ten percent of the English population, since it did nothing at all for the poor or the Church. It did, however, help to strengthen a body known as parliament that was made up of the nobility and rich merchants, requiring their permission to authorize any tax increase the king wanted. Not since the Roman Senate had a formal body existed that a European leader had to convince of something to make it a law.
One thing that the Magna Carta did not do was establish the idea of Habeas Corpus, which is a term that means someone cannot be held in jail without knowing why he or she is being held prisoner. At the time of the signing of the Magna Carta, English rulers could still lock people away in dungeons for any reason. It wasn't until a later king, Edward I, that the concept of Habeas Corpus was introduced, at which point, a reason was required to lock someone up. Still, this progression shows that England was moving toward more and more freedoms, although at a slow rate.
So far, we've talked mainly about the rich and powerful gaining rights. Right now, you may be tempted to think that the peasants lived in the shadows of these increased rights. However, the English peasants were smarter than that. In 1381, after they were taxed too highly twice in the same year, the peasants decided that they had dealt with enough and revolted. Known as the Peasants' Revolt, the event itself largely failed, with many of the leaders being killed by nobles. However, it does show that peasants were capable of political organization, which is itself a very powerful tool. As such, many peasants found that they received higher wages afterwards, and others soon moved to the new cities in search for a better life.
In this lesson, we talked about how England moved toward more democratic practices after its conquest by the Normans. This process began with the encouragement of jury trials as a practical solution after the French-speaking Norman kings gained control of a country that could not speak French. The kings of England then expanded rights for the nobility, first with the signing of the Magna Carta and then later with the introduction of Habeas Corpus, before finally experiencing the consequences of ignoring the masses in the Peasants' Revolt.
By the time you are done with this lesson, you could be prepared to:
- Evaluate the importance of medieval courts and the practice of 'precedence'
- Indicate the purpose of the Magna Carta and its significance for politics
- Discuss the results of the Peasant's Revolt