Wednesday, 24 June 2015

What Game Of Thrones Can Teach Us About Magna Carta

Under Duress: In the end, John Plantagenet had nothing but bad options to choose from. Cornered by his barons at Runnymede, about 20 miles west of London, and chivvied by Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, King John affixed his seal to the charter which, its high-flown promises about freedom, justice and the rule of law notwithstanding, was drawn up to ensure that government of the barons, by the barons, for the barons, would endure.
“FOR THE WATCH!” With that grim cry, the conspirators of Castle Black struck down their Lord Commander. How fitting that the assassination of the fictional Jon Snow should coincide with the 800th anniversary of a legal document sealed at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. Why fitting? Because the breath-taking brutality and treachery of Game of Thrones offers us a much truer guide to the political realities underpinning Magna Carta (as that legal document is now known) than the pious platitudes offered up by its latter-day celebrants.
The power of Game of Thrones, and the likely explanation for its worldwide popularity, is its clear-eyed refusal to pretend that good character and effective policy are somehow inextricable. The very real John Plantagenet, like the fictional Jon Snow, was a man confronted with a multitude of poor options – none of which were likely to significantly improve his position.
George R.R. Martin, the author of Game of Thrones, presents Jon Snow to his readers as a man of honour and courage who, in spite (or is it because) of these qualities, is required to make his choices from a set of dwindling military and political options – each one carrying a higher risk of death, either in battle or by assassination. With every decision Jon Snow makes, his personal circumstances grow more perilous, until, eventually, nothing remains to him but fatal choices.
Very few historians (if any) would attempt to present John Plantagenet as an honourable man. The historical clichĂ© of “Bad King John” (so unlike his “good” brother, the chivalrous King Richard the Lionheart) does possess a reasonably solid foundation in historical fact. With brutality to match the very worst scenes in Game of Thrones, John ordered the deaths of the young Welsh noblemen sent to his court as hostages to their fathers’ good behaviour. And, to prevent her spreading rumours (which were, almost certainly, true) that he had personally murdered his own nephew, Arthur, John ordered Maud de Braose, along with her eldest son, to be shut up in the dungeon of Corfe Castle and starved to death.
John Plantagenet was, clearly, no Jon Snow when it came to matters of good character. He did, however, have much in common with the fictional hero when it came to poor political options. The vast Angevin Empire, which John inherited from his father, King Henry II, and his formidable mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Cersei eat your heart out!) was under constant pressure from barons loyal to the French king. To hold onto his family’s territories across the English Channel, men and money were urgently required – and they did not come cheap.
If John had refused to defend his inheritance, he would have been in all kinds of trouble. (His enemies already called him John “Lackland”, or, even worse, “Softsword”!) But, in raising the resources required to defend the empire, he was bound to displease his feudal support-base, the barons. Indeed, it was John’s success as an administrator – and tax collector – that incited his barons (especially those who owed him lots of money) to rebel.
And these barons were very far from being the lordly defenders of the rights of freeborn Englishmen that the celebrants of Magna Carta like to paint them. On their own lands they wielded the same sort of brutal authority as the murderous Bolton family displays in Game of Thrones. One could even argue that it was the royal encroachments on baronial power represented by John’s administrative innovations (he invented to post of Coroner, the “Crown’s Man”) that made his rebellious barons so determined to roll back their King’s expanding authority.
Good man or bad man, John Plantagenet, like Jon Snow, was ultimately left with nothing but bad options to choose from. Cornered by his barons and their “bannermen” at Runnymede, about 20 miles west of London, and chivvied by Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, King John affixed his seal to the charter which, its high-flown promises about freedom, justice and the rule of law notwithstanding, was drawn up to ensure that government of the barons, by the barons, for the barons, would endure.
Jon Snow over-ruled his enemies in the Night’s Watch – and paid the price. John Plantagenet bowed to his barons’ assembled swords – and survived. Three months later, at John’s insistence, their long-winded charter was annulled by the Pope.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 19 Junes 2015.


Jigsaw said...

With the concept of good king Richard and bad King John I think that you have again fallen into the trap set by the church at the time which equated good by being the fact that Richard left his throne to fight a crusade-hardly a 'good' thing at all for a king and bad king John who stayed behind and ruled if not always wisely. Your comment that the Pope as it were cancelled the Magna Carta is only partly true. It was raised again several time and in the two centuries after was endorsed some 45 times so it was hardly dead-although much modified. Interesting of course is the fact that it was written in Latin-a language that the people who set their seal upon almost certainly could not read as most spoke French-the English court did so until around 1350. The power of the church is evident in the fact that it was certainly written down by priests. Most of its parts relate to righting wrongs such as scutage etc but it's too easy to dismiss it. It should be seen I think as part of the process that would lead eventually from absolute power of the monarch to the democracy we have today. I find it ironic that 800 years after Magna Carta there are people who would happily do away with some of the principles of that democracy to further their own racial ends. They need to be resisted as energetically as we possibly can.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

All English kings at the time tended to regard England as a source of money for foreign adventures. Especially Richard the first, who practically bankrupted the place. The Magna Carta was nothing new, and relied on extensive foreign precedents. That clause about not throwing free men into jail without a trial became a sort of a rallying cry, it seems – particularly in America in the 1770s. But most of it was concerned with feudal stuff such as land tenure. It is one of the most overrated documents around. It was difficult to enforce, and pretty much totally irrelevant for hundreds of years.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

The Magna Carta was "raised several times" simply because it wasn't being observed. I doubt the popes nullification of it had a great deal of influence, it was simply impossible to enforce. The principles of democracy. Ironic.

Victor said...

Subsequent declarations down the centuries made reference to Magna Carta, often asserting principles that weren't in the original document.

What became important was the "myth" of the great charter and what people made of it, particularly after the "Black Death" had shattered the feudal economy.

The "Ancient Constitution" of England was another mythical entity. But its influence was profound during the revolutionary seventeenth century.

Jigsaw said...

Certainly ironic-the people who today are promoting unelected representation on councils based on race have no idea apparently about the evolution of democracy. We can debate the effect of the Magna Carta but it got more than just 'raised' the 45 times at least in the two centuries. Easy to sneer at it influence it seems.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

What about those promoting unelected councils in the South Island? I.e. the national government. And it's easy to 'sneer' at its influence not that I was – that's in your mind, because it had very little. I do believe that paragon of democracy Oliver Cromwell is alleged to have referred to it as 'magna farta'.

Richard Christie said...

I quite enjoy GoT. I don't subscribe to Sky, along with perhaps about half the viewing population. We wait for the free to air broadcasts and endure the disruptive advertising etc. That's bad enough without plot spoilers being broadcast by those with the means to pay for Sky or purchase DVDs because they presume everybody is in the same position as them or they don't give a damn about them.

Twice you've done this Chris. Thanks a million. How hard is it to include a plot spoiler warning?

Jigsaw said...

When are you going to address the unelected Maori given voting rights on council committees Chris - or is that just too hard. As in spite of your distortion GS you know very well that the government -any government has the right to replace a council with an appointee as they have done in Kaipara (notice you ignored that!) We are losing our democracy by bits and pieces right now.

Jigsaw said...

Perhaps you could give a reference for Oliver Cromwell's supposed remarks-not that they matter- Guerilla Surgeon 2015 I suspect. You are certainly a master at ignoring the question and bringing in something completely irrelevant. Just practice I guess....

Guerilla Surgeon said...

If the government has the right to replace a council with an appointee then it surely has the right to co-opt Maori onto Council committees. I'm not sure I mind either, depending on the circumstances, because councils elected or not, can be dysfunctional. Seems to me that the more local the politics the more vicious the politician. But in answer to your question, I'm quite happy to see Maori co-opted onto Council committees. I don't regard it as particularly undemocratic, just some form of compensation for a couple of hundred years of exploitation. I have mentioned this in a number of previous 'discussions' with you. So why you need a reiteration I don't know.
I don't take a huge interest in local body politics outside my own area, so if I had known they had replaced the Kaipara Council I probably would have mentioned it. It seems that they were fiscally irresponsible. You should be quite happy to see them replaced then? Isn't fiscal responsibility part of the right-wing ethos? Or do you just resent it because councils are in the main run by businesspeople?
And on the subject of not answering questions, you still haven't answered mine on whether you think you can heat a house by opening the windows and letting the sunshine in. In case you haven't noticed I tried it the other day. It doesn't work.
As far as Cromwell is concerned, you notice I said 'alleged'. It's mentioned in various academic journal articles and if you care to Google it, it's mentioned in thousands of other sources. Even if the story is apocryphal, Cromwell did not particularly like the Magna Carta. He was by no means a democrat.
Losing our democracy? I lived in West Auckland in the late 50s, as far as I remember, the more money you had the more votes you got in local body elections. So on the whole we've probably gained a bit of democracy over the last 50 years or so.