In this, the fourth of my responses in this current blog thread to the LSX Occupy Group’s ‘New Putney Debates’, we look for a second time at the highly contentious issue of the British Monarchy, in relation to the original Leveller Debates of 1647. The institution of Monarchy, and the reaction of the Levellers to it, is dealt with in some detail in Christopher Hill’s ‘Puritanism and Revolution’, a key work on the politics and Republican Spirit of the Age in which they lived; by an author who was himself a major influence on those directly involved in the initiation of the Putney Debates to begin with.
As was previously noted in my last essay, many of the rank and file membership of the Levellers, as a movement, were familiar with a whole host of semi-oral traditions relating to certain aspects of Custom Law and Common Right which were to have a direct bearing on the disdainful view that many of them were to adopt in relation to the English Crown at the time of the First and Second Civil Wars. One of these traditions, that some sort of primitive democracy of sorts had existed before the Norman Conquest, is backed up by direct references in surviving Anglo-Saxon documents that date before the arrival of William the Conqueror: whose own Conquest of England in 1066 was to impose the autocratic rule of the Norman and Plantagenet lines upon the indigenous English people that was to last right down until the establishment of the Commonwealth under the Parliamentary Republic at the end of the 1640s.
Although the earliest Parliaments as we know them date from well after the Norman Conquest, there are direct references to be found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and elsewhere of the direct participation of the so called ‘Burhwaru’, or Free Citizens of London, and others, in the election of the West Saxon Kings: King Alfred the Great’s own dynasty. Indeed, Asser, the Welsh monk responsible for Alfred’s own biography, refers directly to how Alfred could have taken the throne for himself at any time before the death of his brother forced him to accept the Crown reluctantly from his predecessor:
‘Indeed, he could easily have taken it over with the consent of all while his brother Aethelred was alive, had he considered himself worthy to do so….’
These words project a very different image of Monarchy to the one that most of us are used to, and a very different one indeed to the one used by King Charles I, at his own trial, to set out his own personal position in law. In relation to this last point, it is perhaps significant that according to a number of legends circulated by the Stuarts themselves, King James I’s ancestry, and right to the throne of Scotland, as James VI of that country, was rooted in his supposed descent from Banquo; by all accounts one of the heros of the Shakespearean drama ‘Macbeth’; whose death at the hands of the villain, or Anti-Hero of the piece, appears to have been rooted in the supposed prophecy that his own descendants would eventually rule.
Interestingly enough, Macbeth, who was himself a contemporary of the founder of the Anglo-Norman Ascendancy in Britain who had been killed in battle just nine short years before the arrival of the Conqueror on these shores at the head of an army, is remembered in Highland Scottish history and folklore as the last elected King of Scots. In addition to being a wise and just ruler, his supposed usurpation of the Crown appears to have been a later fabrication, like the Stuarts’ supposed descent from Banquo, in order to obscure the electoral origins of the Scottish Crown. Again, a band of Norman mercenaries dispatched by William and led by one of his kinsmen, himself the founder of the Sinclair Dynasty north of the Border, appear to have been the hidden hand behind the suppression of traditional Custom Law and Common Right in Scotland too. And in so doing, appear to have paved the way for the chain of events that was to lead to the English Civil War in the first place.
For those of us who are familiar with the exact chronology of misadventures that were to lead up to the fateful rift between King and Parliament that was to plunge the nation into chaos for the best part of a decade, the spark that was to ignite the fire that eventually became the furnace was an attempt by Bishop Laud, King Charles I’s chief religious adviser, to impose a series of reforms upon the Scottish Church. With the arrival of a Scottish army at Newcastle and no standing military body of any consequence to oppose it, the series of totally unforeseen developments that would lead to the defeat and execution of Charles himself, and the establishment of the first modern Republican State, as we ourselves understand the interpretation of the term, were set in motion in such a way as to be beyond the power of any one individual, other than the King himself, to arrest.
In a future posting we shall look once again at the original concept of monarchy in relation to what we have seen here, with particular reference to the attempted revival of the electoral system by the self styled followers of ‘King Arthur’. Arthur’s own, albeit comparatively recent, attempt to revive this long lost monarchical tradition is recorded as having taken place in the immediate vicinity of where King Alfred the Great’s own West Saxon Dynasty were themselves traditionally invested: at Kingston in Surrey; in the shadow of St. Mary’s Church: itself located within an ancient ritual landscape generally referred to as ‘The Kingston Zodiac’: an oft visited location during the course of a number of my previous threads; and a place to which we are likely to return.