The Medieval Tradition of English Political Thought

John B. Morrall describes how the ideals of monarchy came to be combined with the theory of Natural Common Law.

It is often imagined that distinctive political thought in England only began with Hooker. Those who upheld this view are prepared to concede that English political thinkers existed before Elizabethan times; but it is argued that they offered only local variations on continental European themes. This is not the view that will be taken here.

We may admit that medieval England shared fully in the streams of thought common to all Western Christendom; but this did not prevent the emergence of an individual character in English thinking about political matters; and it is this unique quality that the present article sets out to isolate and elucidate.

The existence of such a quality in the medieval English approach to political speculation should not after all come as a surprise if we bear in mind that medieval England did, in fact, attain a unique achievement in political practice. By the twelfth century it was already the most centralized secular community in Western Europe, the only country where kingship as an institution was established as the guardian of a national system of law.

Later in the medieval period it was also to become the only realm where monarchical centralization was to obtain a permanent link with a representative system that embodied in imperfect form the principle of participation of the community in government. It is surely to be expected that thinkers about politics who were nourished in this successful practical tradition should have something distinctive to say on the theoretical plane.

The late eighth-century scholar and monk, Alcuin of York, wrote to an Anglo-Saxon King, Ethelred, ‘In the King’s righteousness is the common weal, victory in war, mildness of the seasons, abundance of the crops, freedom from pestilence. It is for the King to atone with God for his whole people’.

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