Alt histories

What we can learn from re-writing the past

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September 17, 2020

It is June 1215. Thousands of tents line the water meadows of Runnymede, on the banks of the Thames, as England’s worst ever King, John, meets the ranks of his rebellious barons, to negotiate peace. Drafts of a treaty are circulated, setting out what will become foundational principles of our nation-state in the document known as Magna Carta.

King John is reluctant to accept the idea that the monarch should be subject to the rule of law, and he believes God — at least in the form of Pope Innocent — is on his side. But John is at an impasse. He cannot defeat the barons, who now hold London. And Pope Innocent is far away.

The worst clause in Magna Carta, from John’s perspective, is the one which gives authority to 24 Barons to adjudicate disputes, and overrule the king if they believe he is breaking the law — known to us as “Security Clause”, or Clause 61. So, John pulls off one last trick: he attaches his seal to the document before the barons have chosen their 24 names. The chance to name them in writing is gone, and by the time John’s son Henry III re-issues Magna Carta in November 1216, after his father’s death, that crucial clause is gone. Yes: the king is subject to the law in theory. But there is no mechanism to enforce that law.

Despite its flaws, we British love Magna Carta. But what if John, who reignited the civil war by trying to flout its restrictions almost immediately, had never agreed to it?

The barons hated their king. The medieval chronicler Matthew Paris gave a good sense of the esteem in which the monarch was held when he wrote upon his death in October 1216: “Foul as it is, hell itself is defiled by the foulness of John.” John’s greatest predilections were for arbitrary justice and punitive taxation, much of which might have been forgiven if he hadn’t also had a remarkable ability to lose the expensive wars on which he embarked.

He lost all the territory in France that his father, Henry II, had conquered, and when he attempted to retake those lands in the Anglo-French War of 1213-14, he was comprehensively defeated at the Battle of Bouvines in July 1214. The barons, who had been taxed through the nose to pay for this war, were furious. It is hard to overstate their determination to bring the king under the rule of law.

To do so they forged allegiances with Alexander II, King of Scotland, and Llewelyn the Great, the Welsh Prince, and both rulers took up arms against John — despite the fact that each was married to one of his daughters.

If John had refused to agree to Magna Carta, the rebellion would have continued, and the determination to shift the balance of power against the monarch would have deepened still further. John had castles, and armies — largely of French mercenaries — but with Alexander to the north, and Llewelyn to the west, he was in trouble. Llewelyn’s wife Joan had already told her father in 1212 that he was likely to be killed by the Welsh if he tried to take their lands. So it is not hard to imagine the assassination, or death in battle, of the king, if the war had continued.

You might argue that, given John died of dysentery the following year anyway, history would have plotted a very similar course. Prior to his death, half the barons had turned to Prince Louis of France as an alternate monarch, and invited him to invade, which he did. When John died, allegiances shifted to Prince Henry, John’s nine-year old son, as he looked easier to control than an ambitious French prince. In the end Louis had to be bribed to give up his claim and go home, becoming King Louis VIII of France the following decade.

But without a legal declaration of Magna Carta, I believe history would have played out very differently. The terms of peace treaties are settled by power. With John dead and only a boy prince to turn to, the barons would never have dropped their demand for that crucial legal power: the right to overrule the king. This would have made us unique across Europe, effectively giving us a constitutional monarchy 400 years early.

First: this would have put us at odds with the most powerful man in Europe, Pope Innocent III. Innocent issued a papal bull annulling even the watered-down Magna Carta: he condemned it as “illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people”, and declared it “null, and void of all validity for ever”. He would have been horrified by the complete version — as would Prince Louis, who I doubt would have taken up the invitation to invade if it had come at such a cost.

As Henry VIII discovered 300 years later, disagreeing with the Pope is rather a slippery slope. If he’s wrong, why agree with anything inconvenient about the hegemony of the Catholic church? Why have a king at all, even one you can control, if you can just agree the laws among yourselves?

Those 24 barons could have formed a different way of running the state — similar, perhaps to the system developed by the Swiss Confederacy a hundred or so years later. An oligarchy of the great families, each with their own dominion, and an Extra-Magna Carta to take the rule of law to an even higher level. Llewelyn and Alexander might have joined as equals, or partners. Instead of the nation of England dominating these islands, we might have seen England fragment to a loose alliance between micro-nations like Northumbria, Cornwall, Mercia and Yorkshire, living largely peaceably with the other small nations of Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

If that sounds outlandish, remember that most of Europe was made of tiny states for the first 800 years of the last millennium. Of course, the Holy Roman Empire brought many nations — including the Swiss confederacy — under its orbit, but the countries it comprised still existed, and were small. A confederated realm of German princedoms existed until 1871, when it united as a nation-state. The unification of Italy’s city-states and princedoms was completed in 1861. France consolidated earlier, but its territorial history remains immensely complex, including unification with Brittany, Burgundy and Savoy, and various degrees of autonomy in more remote regions. England didn’t have to be England.

Would the British confederacy have been as ambitious in its colonial ambitions? It seems unlikely. The baronial oligarchy would have been established as a direct result of failed attempts at territorial expansion in France; it seems likely they would have given up on expensive wars at least for a time, not least because any attempt to take their pioneering system of government across the channel might have brought papal authority down upon them. Simply defending their shores, and ironing out the inevitable inter-baronial disputes, would have been the priority.

In our national myth, we think of England as manifest destiny: it’s there in the Arthurian legend. The formation of Albion, as John Hurt endlessly intoned in BBC adaptation of Merlin a decade ago. It’s King Alfred’s tireless goal in the Last Kingdom series, adapted from Bernard Cornwell’s novels about a Viking warrior who fights alongside the West Saxon king.

But the reality is that England is too big for these islands. Its size is what makes the Union impossible. England has about 56 million inhabitants, 84% of the UK’s population, and 78% of all those living in the British Isles, including the Republic of Ireland. We cannot have an English Parliament, because it would so absurdly dominate the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish equivalents. And that leaves the English with a sense of national identity that has been sold in myth and legend for 800 years, but no government of their own.

If the British confederacy had been founded back in 1215, it might have unified like Germany and Italy in the nineteenth century. But it would have been a partnership of many equals, instead of a single giant state setting out to dominate its smaller neighbours. England might not be England. But, unlike our current, fracturing union, my hypothetical Union of the British Isles might have a chance of remaining united. It might even have stayed in the European Union.