Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Democracy, on its 750th Anniversary

Democracy as we know it began in England in the summer of 1258. The document that set forth its shape and functions is not the much lauded Magna Carta,  but the Provisions of Oxford, and the slightly amplified Provisions of Westminster written three months later. 

These two Constitutions are little known because knowledge of them and their champion Simon de Montfort was suppressed for seven hundred years. Fifty years ago today Queen Elizabeth II signaled recognition of England’s stupendous leap toward modern government by celebrating the event that regained the government of the Provisions: Simon de Montfort’s miraculous victory over the royal forces at Lewes, May 14, 1264.

That victory has been re-enacted this year, and it’s hoped that, though the Queen’s gesture fifty years ago brought little on-going acknowledgement of Montfort and the Provisions, now and in the coming years his astonishing achievement -- and the importance of the document created by committees of lords and clergymen at Oxford in 1258 -- will be realized and celebrated as they ought.

What did the Provisions set forth? A Parliament composed of two Houses, one elected by the common people; a Chancellor (keeper of the royal seal without which no document was official) and Justiciar (head of the royal courts of law) chosen by the Parliament. The King remained upon the throne (the executive branch: president or prime minister in most modern democracies) but had power only to officially ratify Parliament’s decisions.

There had been “parliaments” before 1258, the word means merely a “gathering to talk.” Emperors, kings, warlords and tribal chiefs from time immemorial had sought advice from their followers, priests and even some common subjects they selected. What marks the Parliament of the Provisions as unique is that the Parliament had power over the king. And it met thrice yearly at a regularly appointed time and place – whether the king summoned it or not. 

Edward I summoned a “parliament” that included common men. Diverting attention from the far more radical powers of the Provisions, his is often called “the great Parliament.” Edward was in no way compelled to follow his gathering’s decisions – and for the most part he didn’t. Not until the revolution of Oliver Cromwell did Parliament regain its full force -- with the exception of the years 1264-1265, and it is this restoration that is celebrated on its 750th anniversary today.

What happened between the close of the meeting at Oxford in 1258 and May 1264 that many celebrate today as if it were the anniversary of the birth of England’s Parliament? 

At the Oxford meeting’s close the lords who, in committees, created the Provisions, departed in haste, pursuing King Henry III’s Lusignan half-brothers. They feared the brothers would escape to the continent and raise an army against the astonishing new form of government just proposed. Besieging the Lusignan brothers in the castle at Winchester, the lords fell victim to poison – a favorite Lusignan response to siege (they had poisoned King Louis IX’s army when they were besieged at Frontenay in Gascony in 1242.) 

Simon de Montfort, the Earl of Leicester and England’s chief military tactician, alone of the lords, did not go to Winchester but remained at Oxford deftly putting the Provisions into effect, sending summons to all England’s sheriffs to hold elections of “knights of the shire” to come and represent the common people’s will at the newly constituted, and regularly scheduled, Parliament to be held in October. 

At that October meeting King Henry and his heir, Edward, were made to swear to uphold the Provisions and the Parliament it created. In the following year, at the next Parliament, the slightly amended, and strengthened, Provisions were adopted under the name of the Provisions of Westminster.

But now opposition to the innovations was gaining strength. The very lords (those who had survived the poisoning) who’d been delighted to curb the royal prerogatives of taxation and Henry’s particular offenses, were infuriated when those same curbs of law were applied to their own powers over their peasantry. 

And there were the Ordinances – a proposal that would radically change the economic system of feudalism to something approaching modern socialism. The Ordinances were repeatedly blocked from coming up for vote. 

From what did such radical, almost socialist, thinking spring? 

The philosophical/theological foundation upon which this amazing revolution was built was the millennial theory of a twelfth century theologian, Joachim de Fiore. He held that the year 1260 was to mark the advent of the Third Era of mankind: a thousand years in which kingship, individual nations and the church would dissolve into a single world order governed by the common man through the process of free elections.

The revolution of 1258 was a practical response by the lords and clergy of England to a long pattern of abuses by King Henry, but their actions were seen by the common people, and by the Franciscan and Dominican friars who preached to them, as the advent of the New Age. 

And Simon de Montfort, taking upon himself the responsibility of making the government of the Provisions a reality, was seen as God’s agent – the Angel of the Millennium.

King Henry, never acquiescing in the Provisions, worked for its suppression and by 1260 he was ready to oppose Parliament with an army brought from France. Montfort, in a move that stuns the imagination, stole the army initially collected and brought it to England to defend the Parliament. When Henry eventually arrived in England, protesting his innocence and love of Parliament, Montfort was tried for treason.

The trial, held in France and postponed until 1262, released Montfort from all charges. But by that time Parliament in England had fallen victim to King Henry’s undermining and the lords’ betrayal of the principals that would have given their own people recourse against abuse.

Having had enough of England, preparing to go to Palestine, Montfort was approached by clergymen and the young heirs of England’s nobility who embraced the Provisions. An army was raised to oppose the King and lords, and, succumbing to temptation, Montfort returned to England and agreed to lead it.

At first victory was his. City after city capitulated or was conquered, King Henry and Edward were effectively held prisoners and made to accept the Provisions. But with the King and Prince’s escape. Facing direct military confrontation against the monarch to whom his loyalty had been solemnly sworn, Montfort opted for arbitration by the King of France – supposing he again would win in France’s Court. 

But, injured in a riding accident, Montfort could not attend, and the Mise of Amiens declared the Provisions null – against God’s principals of Creation -- as currently interpreted by Thomas Aquinas whose theology now was favored over that of revolution-provoking Joachim.

Montfort refused to accept the decision at Amiens and openly went to war against his king. The common folk hailed him as the Angel with the Sword of the Apocalypse. But his army consisted of his sons, a few young lords, noble youths untried in battle, archers from Wales and from the criminal hideouts of Sherwood and the Weald and several thousand Londoners distinguished for rapine.

These amateurs faced the large, battle-wise army of the lords of England and their knights, King Henry himself, Prince Edward and Henry’s clever brother Richard, the elected King of the Germans. 

After the Londoners in his following raped and murdered their way through the city of Rochester, Montfort clearly came to doubt the divine mission of his cause. Repeatedly he begged King Henry for peace and amnesty — up to the night of May 13 when, following the royal army at a slight distance, he sent ahead the Bishops of London and Worcester, offering his personal surrender and payment of reparations to the sum of thirty-thousand pounds.

King Henry, lodging at the priory in the village of Lewes, refused to grant mercy. 

With no recourse -- with death inevitable as inexperienced youths and rabble faced the King’s well-armed, well-taught military, Simon de Montfort had the two bishops administer the Last Rights to his whole army. 

Then, through the night, they marched to Lewes, taking up positions on three peninsulas of the high downs that probed above the little valley of Lewes. Dawn was their signal to gallop headlong to their deaths amid the King’s camp gathered round the priory. At dawn Montfort’s army made their hopeless attack. It was the morning of May 14, 1264, 750 years ago this day.

Miraculously, by afternoon the army of the Provisions and its commander Simon de Montfort were victorious. The royal arm was destroyed, most of the lords of England, the King and his brother Richard were held prisoner. Prince Edward, who had absented himself and his soldiers from the battlefield, intent upon pursuing fleeing Londoners across the downs, was held tightly at siege in Lewes’ little castle. 

The Angel of the Apocalypse and his army of innocents (cleansed by Edward of its murderous Londoners) had won. It seemed indeed a miracle. And it confirmed that the Provisions were God’s Will for mankind.
Nothing, not even God’s so manifested will, seems to move with steady progress in history. Within a year the forces opposing the Provisions had regrouped, and vanquished the Provisions’ partisans at the battle of Evesham. 

Montfort was slain and his body desecrated, but from beneath all that remained -- his naked torso -- a spring came forth, its waters proclaimed to have healing powers. 

Montfort was revered as the champion of the great lost cause, the Angel with the Sword, or possible the Risen Christ returned to bring God’s kingdom to mankind: that new order governed through direct divine inspiration and election -- when God’s Will would be done on earth as it is in heaven.

We have yet two hundred years to go in this millennium of revolution. Thomas Merton foresaw the coming of a united world ruled by all mankind as achievable through technological. This advent of World Consciousness we seem on our way to achieving through the internet. 

But will mankind be wise? The revolution of Joachim and Simon de Montfort was one of faith. We might achieve dominance of a unified world by the common man in two hundred years – but where is the divine spirit guiding each soul to act and vote well?  We can create the new tools of the Millennium – but can we create the new man?

Katherine Ashe is the author of the four-volume novelized biography of Simon de Montfort. The volumes relevant to the above article are Montfort the Revolutionary 1253-1260 and Montfort the Angel with the Sword 1260 – 1265, and both contain a full bibliography of medieval and modern sources.

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