In this, the third of my responses to the LSX Occupy Group’s ‘New Putney Debates’, we look at the highly contentious issue of the British Monarchy, in relation to the original Leveller Debates of 1647. With questions being asked on a number of different levels with regard to the Monarchy’s relevance and future in a modern, and increasingly more secular society, what sort of institution should replace it? And what sort of a Republic should we set up in the event of its possible future abolition?
The last British Republic, itself to all intents and purposes the first modern European republic, and the first republic outside of Italy since the old Senatorial Republic of Rome had been superseded by the Dictatorship of the Caesars, had come into being the year after the original Putney Debates; its original foundation having culminated in the trial and execution, for High Treason, of King Charles the First. At his trial King, whose own knowledge of the law and of legal process was indeed extensive, argued his own case before the Court as follows:
‘A King cannot be tried by any superior jurisdiction on earth. But it is not my case alone- it is the freedom and liberty of the people of England. And do you pretend what you will, I stand more for their liberties- for if power without law may make laws, may alter the fundamental laws of the kingdom, I do not know what that subject he is in England that can be sure of his life or anything that he calls his own. Therefore, when that I came here I did not expect particular reasons to know by what law, what authority, you did proceed against me here…..’
These words, taken from the Court transcript of the trial itself in 1649, are illustrative of the ambiguities involved in any attempt to take a British Monarch before a Court of Law. The corner stone of Charles Stuart’s defence, when taken before those legal minds who had previously been selected by Parliament as those best suited to passing judgement over him, was that under the then present system prevalant at the time at which the trial had taken place, in which the so called ‘Royal Prerogative’ made him the ultimate legal power in the land, it was legally impossible for anyone to bring him before a court at all.
‘Remember, I am your King- your lawful King and what sins you bring upon your heads and the Judgement of God upon this land, think well upon it!’ was the King’s response to his captors after the principal charge of High Treason was read out to him before those assembled. The response of President John Bradshaw, the most senior of those involved in the proceedings, was as follows:
‘Sir, you spoke very well of a precious thing you call peace, and it had much to be wished that God had put it into your heart that you had as effectively and really endeavoured and studied the peace of the Kingdom as now in words you seem to pretend. But, as you were told the other day, actions must expound intentions, your actions have been clean contrary…..For, sir, as you have held yourself and let fall such language as if you had been no ways subject to the law, or that the law had not been your superior. Sir- the court is very well sensible of it- and I hope so are all the understanding people of England- that the law is your superior, that you ought to have ruled according to the law- you ought to have done so…..’
President Bradshaw’s words can be shown conclusively to have been derived directly from many of the original ideas expounded by the Levellers at the Leveller Debates of 1647. And, as has been noted during the course of an earlier posting, amongst the other ideas originally expounded by the Levellers and their supporters at the Putney Debates was the idea of a Parliamentary system based on one man, one vote. When speaking about these ideas before those assembled at Putney Church on 28th October 1647, General Henry Ireton, a senior Parliamentary leader, described their intended implementation, with respect to individual Parliamentary votes, by those who had first proposed them, as follows:
‘The exception that lies in it is this: it is said they are to be distributed according to the number of inhabitants. ‘The People of England’, etc. And this does make me think that the meaning is that every man that is an inhabitant is to be equally considered, and to have an equal voice in the election of those representatives, the persons that are for the general representative, and if that be the meaning then I have something to say against it, but if it be only that those people that by the civil constitution of this kingdom which is original and fundamental, and beyond which I am sure no memory of record does go….’
At this point in the proceedings there appears to have been an interjection from an unknown member of the crowd:
‘Not before the Conquest!’;
to which Ireton’s response was as follows:
‘But before the Conquest it was so. If it be intended that those that by that constitution that was before the Conquest, that has been beyond memory, such persons that have been under that constitution should be electors, I have no more to say…..’
In the next posting in this ongoing thread we shall look at those ideas being expounded by the Levellers, in relation to the constitution that existed before the Norman Conquest, as referred to here, and its possible place in a future Parliamentary Republic, in more depth: with particular reference to the Parliamentary Commonwealth of Cromwell and the subsequent creation of the limited ‘Constitutional Monarchy’ under which we currently live. And, in the course of so doing, we shall see that the idea of a truly elected Head of State is not, as those who are opposed to it would have us believe, some modern notion arrived at during the Age of Enlightenment, but a concept hundreds of years older than the so called ‘Mother of Parliaments’ itself.