Yet another rebuke to a king

Scene from the Battle of Bannockburn in the Holkham Bible, 1327–35 (Wikipedia) You’re not really supposed to remember all the details, are you? In Josephine Tey’s excellent The Daughter of Time the protagonist reflects at one point that things like Alfred and the Cakes, Canute and the Tides (the real story where he “rebuked his courtiers on the shore”), Nelson on the Victory were what people remembered from history “when tonnage and poundage, and ship money, and Laud’s Liturgy, and the Rye House Plot, and the Triennial Acts, and all the long muddle of schism and shindy, treaty and treason, had faded from their consciousness.” And the Ordinances of 1311 weren’t even on that list.

So let’s just fess up here. I’ve been writing and filming on liberty, on Magna Carta and all that, on our Constitution, and I hadn’t even heard of them. But in a strange and not totally self-serving way it proves my point.

You see, they were a set of rules imposed on the feckless King Edward II on October 11, 1311 to make him smarten up, be less arbitrary and be less spendthrift. And the reason it’s hard to keep track of it all is that so much of this happens in English and then British and then Anglosphere history, as opposed to its glaring absence elsewhere.

In this case the hapless Edward, soon to lose the pivotal battle of Bannockburn further disgracing himself and strengthening Parliament, was obliged to accept a restatement and reimposition of the Provisions of Oxford and of Westminster imposed on his hapless grandfather Henry III. But with an added twist, a new concern with reforming chaotic fiscal procedures and in particular redirecting revenues from the king’s personal control to the “exchequer” or Ministry of Finance in embryo. (Called the exchequer from the use of a checkered cloth to do the sums, a far less quaint and irrational procedure than it sounds once you realize they were working with Roman numerals… which is itself admittedly both quaint and irrational now that I come to write it down.)

In short, more formal procedure subject to scrutiny, less arbitrary authority. Again. And again. And again. Kings come and go (including in Edward’s case being deposed in 1327 with the enthusiastic support of his own wife for being both tyrannical and ineffective although I suppose if you’re going to have the former it’s better to have the latter). So indeed do dynasties. But popular control of the executive branch just keeps getting stronger regardless of the vicissitudes of politics, civil wars and temporary setbacks.

Uh, at least into our own day. Still some work to do there. So while we don’t have to memorize every dang Provision and Ordinance, we should remember why there were so many of them: the restless desire of the ambitious to secure unchecked power, and the unwavering determination of the people not to let them.