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Who Rules?


In our system of government, the addition of the democratic element has been the last of many changes to rule by monarch. Our system is based on the British system because the first white settlers in Australia came from Britain, and Australia was part of the British Empire. The British system still has a monarch at its head and so does ours. Australia is now an independent country, but we have kept the British monarch. In her Australian role, the Queen is called Queen of Australia. Since she can’t live in Australia, she appoints a governor-general in Canberra and governors in the State capitals. They play the part of the monarch in our system.
Australia combines democracy with monarchy

The predecessors of the kings of Europe were elected. They were warrior chiefs who were made kings by the shouts of their tribesmen. A system of kingship where the king is the eldest son of the previous king was no good for them. Their leader had to be a great warrior; they couldn’t run the risk of getting a weakling. Gradually they accepted that the king should come from a royal family, but they still kept the system of election. When a king died, they would choose the best warrior from among his sons – it might be the second or third son rather than the first.
Elected kings

These tribespeople lived in northern Europe in the first and second centuries AD. They were outside the boundaries of the Roman Empire, but they frequently crossed into the Empire on raids and sometimes settled there. In the fifth and sixth centuries AD so many of them invaded the Empire and seized territory that the Empire itself collapsed. Quite unexpectedly the warrior kings found themselves in charge. They formed a number of different kingdoms in what is now France, England, Spain and Italy.
Europe’s early kingdoms

When the Roman Empire collapsed, the Christian church survived. It was often the town’s bishop who went out to meet the invaders in an attempt to settle matters peacefully. The bishop organised what lands the invaders should take and once their leader was settled in the palace of the former Roman governor, he visited him to assist with administration. The new kings were illiterate.
Christian kings

The bishops quite soon persuaded the kings that the Christian God was superior to their many gods. They became Christian kings and according to the formula supplied by the bishops, they ruled ‘by the grace of God’. The practice of electing kings faded away. The eldest son became king after his father died. At his coronation the bishop anointed him with holy oil – he was now ‘God’s anointed’ – and put the crown on his head. This ceremony still continues. At her coronation, Australia’s Queen was anointed with oil and crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Christian church taught that Christians should obey their rulers no matter whether they were Christian or not. The authority they exercised came from God and to disobey them was the same as disobeying God. This was the teaching of Saint Paul, the early Christian missionary. His words recorded in the Bible were:
The king’s authority is from God

Every person must submit to the supreme authorities. There is no authority but by act of God, and the existing authorities are instituted by him; consequently anyone who rebels against authority is resisting a divine institution, and those who so resist have themselves to thank for the punishment they will receive.

The kings, now blessed by God, were actually very weak. They couldn’t keep the old Roman administration going. Taxes were no longer collected. In the chaos caused by the invasions the old civilisation almost disappeared. Imagine a government without taxation: it’s almost a contradiction in terms. If the king was to protect his territory and remain king, he needed an army. Since he couldn’t pay for an army, he allocated land to his followers on condition that they supply him with soldiers when he needed them. This allocation of land in return for services is known as ‘the feudal system’. The great landowners who received land from the king were the barons, who were to become the nobility.
The feudal system

At the heart of feudal society was a contract: barons would serve the king but only so long as he served them. When a baron made his oath of allegiance to the king, he knelt, but then he stood and baron and king kissed each other as equals. This was the survival of the bonds between warriors.
Kings and barons

Once they were secure on their land, the barons could exercise some discretion in their service to the king. They might have to supply troops when the king asked, but they might not send all he asked for or might send second-rate men. The king didn’t know who might turn up. We still observe the custom of the head of government inspecting troops. They walk up and down the ranks, perhaps stopping for a word with one soldier. This is a survival of the practice of a feudal monarch who inspected his troops once they were assembled. For him it was no formality. As he went up and down the lines, the king was saying to himself, ‘What sort of rubbish have they sent me this time?’

Kings who had mighty subjects with mini-armies of their own were obliged to be consultative kings. If they wanted their barons to fight for them, they had to ensure beforehand that they supported the war in question. Kings had acquired the right to tax the barons, but only with their consent. When taxpayers had armies, a tax revolt was a real revolt. A king who put too many barons offside was in trouble.

This is what happened to King John in England in 1215. He had taxed the barons heavily to pay for a war in France which he had lost and with this loss went most of the English possessions in France. He had also pushed hard his rights as feudal lord of the barons’ lands in order to raise more money. He had exacted high fees when land passed from father to son and he had ruthlessly exploited the lands he held temporarily until an heir came of age. The barons fought and beat the King and, having cornered him, they made him sign what became known as the Great Charter or (in Latin) Magna Carta.
Magna Carta

Magna Carta
Magna Carta was part of English law brought to Australia: the copy held in the Australian Parliament was passed by the English parliament in 1297 and accepted by Edward I.

King Edward I
Inspeximus issue of Magna Carta (Confirmation of Great Charter), 1297
Parliament House Art Collection, Parliament House, Canberra

It is a hotch-potch of a document. The King promised to abandon a whole range of policies and practices that had given offence, chiefly those concerned with taxation and his position as feudal lord. What gave the document a life beyond its own time was a general statement about government and law. The King declared that:

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.

These promises did not apply to many people. Most English people were not free – they were serfs (semi-slaves) working for the great landowners. Only later were these guarantees extended to all the king’s subjects. The important principle it enshrined immediately was that kingship was limited; it had to operate according to law; it was not above the law – at least in matters of property which is what the barons cared most about.

Proclaiming a principle and making it practice are different things. Within three months King John disowned Magna Carta. The principle was kept alive by the continuing weakness of the kings and by the feudal idea that government was cooperative rule.

Later in the same century the king’s need to consult was creating a new institution, the parliament, which means literally a place of speaking. There was no standard form for these meetings at first and different groups were invited at different times. It took some time for the gathering to assume the shape we know: two houses meeting together at the same time. The great barons and leaders of the church – bishops and archbishops – had always been consulted by the king. They sat together in the House of Lords. The representatives of the lesser landholders (who were not nobles) and of the towns were newcomers to the consultation process. They constituted the House of Commons, distinctly inferior to the House of Lords, and fully deserving the name it still keeps, the lower house.

The other element in the parliament was the king who called it together when he chose to and who could dismiss it at any time. Its function at first was not chiefly to make laws. The king called it together when he needed money. Before the parliament agreed to levy taxes, it presented the king with complaints and suggestions. The king would have to attend to these if he wanted his money. Sometimes this led to the passing of new laws. On many occasions, as part of the bargaining process, parliaments made kings commit themselves to Magna Carta.

Parliaments developed in other countries of Europe and for the same reason. Only in England, however, did parliament have a continuous life from feudal times until today. Elsewhere kings found ways of raising money without calling parliament. The French king sold the right to hold government jobs; the Spanish king obtained gold from his possessions in central and South America. Once kings had obtained resources to build up their own army, they could put down the armies of their nobles and govern without consultation. One reason why parliament survived in England was that the king could not claim that he needed an army since England was an island. He needed a navy, but ships could not be used against his own subjects.

The kings who ruled without parliaments are known as absolute monarchs. They could pass laws and levy taxes on their own authority. They rested their claim to rule on the church’s teaching that they were God’s agents on earth, and much more than the feudal monarchs, they were god-like, setting themselves far above all their subjects. You might kneel and kiss their hand; you did not embrace them. The greatest of the absolute monarchs was Louis XIV of France (1643–1715). He put himself out of reach of his subjects by shifting from Paris to Versailles, 23 kilometres away, where he built an enormous, sumptuous palace. All authority came from him. He declared that he was the state.
Absolute monarchs

And yet something survived from feudal times when kings were not supreme. Even these absolute monarchs were expected to govern according to the laws and customs of their realm. They could not be arbitrary monarchs, doing just what they liked. They could not, for instance, just seize the property or goods of their subjects if they were hard up, as some Eastern potentates did. Nor were the parliaments which had been put into mothballs forgotten. When Louis XVI of France was on the verge of bankruptcy in the 1780s he was driven to summon a parliament – the Estates General was the French term – which had not met for 170 years.
Subjects still have some rights

Not everything is the king’s. That was an important principle. In particular the property of the subject was his own. On that right, wider rights for all would later be built. The first country to achieve this was England.

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