The Greeks get a lot of credit (that’s the ancient ones, not the current crop, who couldn’t get credit off a loan shark moonlighting from Wonga.com) by which I mean that they are frequently praised for their radical ideas and enlightened attitudes, not to mention the fact they invented all sorts of cutting edge technology and pioneered everything from philosophy and medicine to sport and open sexuality.
But if there’s one thing that they really are the godfathers of, it’s democracy.
The first historical reference to proto-democracy is widely thought to be from sixth century Athens (508 BC is the generally accepted date of adopting the system) and their society seems to have been run with at least a token attempt to involve ordinary people in the decision-making process.
Which isn’t to say that other societies didn’t have the same idea.
Star of the original superhero epic, Gilgamesh, (who I have written about before) didn’t wield the same autocratic powers that many of his contemporaries bestowed upon themselves, instead preferring a more consultative form of rule, nearly 1500 years before the Greeks tried it.
Then there were the Indian republics (or “ganas”) which were active at almost the same time Cleisthenes was having his big idea in Greece. They were governed by a monarch, but in concordance with a council of free men who could speak out on issues that affected the common people.
And then of course, there were the Romans.
Their common citizens (the “plebs”, as they were collectively known) were allowed to weigh in on topics that concerned them, at least until Octavius got all full of himself and made himself emperor in 27 BC. After that, things took a bit of a dive, democracy-wise.
But it’s not just the ancients who should be getting all the plaudits for attempting to make the world a fairer place to live in.
As far back as the 9th century, the Isle of Man set up the Tynwald, which still has the honour of being considered the longest sitting continuous parliament in the world.
Not far behind are the Icelandic Allthing, set up in the tenth century, along with the fabulously named Thing of all Swedes in, you guessed it, Sweden, which ran from the early 11th century onwards.
Which brings me to us, the English.
I know, I know, we’re quite keen on taking credit for being at the leading edge of world events (winning wars, beginning industrial revolutions,
enslaving millions to an empire, inventing cricket etc..) even when it’s not always strictly accurate, historically speaking. But I think we have a pretty reasonable claim for bringing fair play and democracy to the modern world.
Twice, in fact.
2015 is the eight hundredth anniversary of the “grand charter” drawn up by King John, the document that was meant to remove absolute power from the monarchy and give the common man a say in the running of the country, The Magna Carta.
All of which would have been very laudable, if it wasn’t for the fact that His Majesty was, not to put too fine a point on it, a complete bastard.
King John – “Who are you calling a bastard, you peasant?”
I’m sure John’s historians would have us believe that the idea of a people’s charter was brought about by a beneficent monarch who wanted his subjects to take some control over their lives, largely for their own good, but sadly this wasn’t even close to being the case.
Because to say that John was a good king, with his subjects’ best interests at heart, would not only be hugely inaccurate, it would also be missing the opportunity to use words like “sadist” and “greedy megalomaniac”.
Here was a man who thought nothing of having his nephew murdered; of sexually preying on the wives and daughters of his closest allies in the nobility; of starving to death the family of a formerly close companion and, last but by no means least, using prohibitively high taxes to keep his baronial landowners in check.
These same barons, fed up with paying out massive levies to the king, finally forced him, in 1215, to draw up the Magna Carta, revoking his right to rule with absolute power.
But as we know, absolute power corrupts absolutely and, barely two months later, John went to Pope Innocent III, who used a papal bull to reverse the charter, claiming it was “illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people”.
What the “English people” thought of this move went unrecorded, although I suspect there was a fair amount of plebian grumbling about backhanders to the Vatican at the time.
The good news (for everyone but the king) was that within a year, John was dead, either from dysentery or, if you choose to believe the contemporaneous rumours, from poisoning by an unhappy nobleman. Yet it took another decade for his successor, his son Henry III, to reinstate the charter that his father had abortively introduced.
Indeed, on John’s death in 1216, a monk called Matthew Paris – in those days, monks often doubled as sort of early journalists – said of the king;
“Foul as it is, Hell itself is made fouler by the presence of John”
So it’s fair to say he was not a popular man, by any standards.
But on the other hand, he did give us the blueprint for a society that makes us (theoretically) all equal under the law, including royalty.
So when somebody tells you that we should thank Good King John for providing us with equality and enlightenment, take it with a pinch of salt and remember that many rulers had attempted to give the same thing to their subjects, often with greater tolerance and integrity, many hundreds of years previously.