Medieval England's Impact on Modern Democratic Thought

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  • 0:08 Unique England
  • 1:10 Courts
  • 3:05 A Loser Made Winner
  • 5:10 Revolt!
  • 5:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

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.

Unique England

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.

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