The Inspiration Behind Oceana: 6. Sir John Fortescue

James Harrington is often seen as an aristocratic republican who like others in that tradition placed power in the hands of a narrow political élite. It is certainly true that he believed that within every society there was a natural aristocracy whose members were 'wiser, or at least less foolish, than all the rest' (James Harrington The Commonwealth of Oceana and A System of Politics, ed J. G. A. Pocock, Cambridge, p. 23). For this reason, in his constitutional system, he insisted that only the senate should debate legislation, the lower house being restricted to voting to accept or reject the senate's proposals. Yet his views were more complicated than this might suggest. As noted in last month's post, he was explicitly committed, via the mechanism of an agrarian law, to ensuring that landed property within the country did not become concentrated in the hands of a few, but would in future be relatively evenly spread among the population. Moreover, he was emphatic that his natural aristocracy was determined not by birth, but by wealth and election, embracing the role that social mobility could play within society. 

Harrington's relative political inclusivity is encapsulated in his manipulation of the traditional idea of the body politic. He was innovative in how he used that metaphor, subverting an idea conventionally used to shore up kingship so as to support democratic government. (The full case for Harrington's democratic credentials is made in my forthcoming book). Yet, novel as his conception was, it was indebted to the ideas of the fifteenth-century legal and political theorist Sir John Fortescue.

Sir John Fortescue by William Faithorne, line engraving, published 1663. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License from the National Portrait Gallery - NPG D22739.

Sir John Fortescue by William Faithorne, line engraving, published 1663. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License from the National Portrait Gallery - NPG D22739.

Fortescue, who lived c.1395-1477, was a key figure in the government and judiciary of fifteenth-century England, serving as MP eight times between 1421 and 1436 and being made Chief Justice of the King's Bench in January 1442. Exiled following the defeat of the Lancastrians under Henry VI at the Battle of Towton (1461), Fortescue ploughed his extensive knowledge and experience into works such as In Praise of the Laws of England. Having repudiated his former support for the Lancastrians following the Battle of Tewkesbury (1471), he was pardoned and presented his work The Governance of England to King Edward IV.

In his works Fortescue employed the metaphor of the body politic. Though the use of this idea dates back to Plato and Aristotle, the understanding of the concept in the early modern period owed much to medieval developments. An analogy was drawn between the human body and the state (and within it usually between the head and the king) and both were generally viewed as microcosms of a divinely inspired natural order

Fortescue was crucial in adapting the metaphor to fit the particularities of the English system. His major contribution to political thought was to contrast 'royal dominion', which he associated with continental nations, and especially France, with the 'political and royal dominion' of England. As he explained at the beginning of The Governance of England:

There are two kinds of kingdoms, one of which is a lordship called in Latin dominium regale, and the other is called dominium politicum et regale. And they differ in that the first king may rule his people by such laws as he makes himself and therefore he may set upon them taxes and other impositions, such as he wills himself, without their assent. The second king may not rule his people by other laws than such as they assent to and therefore he may set upon them no impositions without their own assent. (Sir John Fortescue, The Governance of England, in On the Laws and Governance of England, ed. Shelley Lockwood, Cambridge, 1997, p. 83).

This understanding required Fortescue to adapt the conventional notion of the body politic. He accepted that a people cannot constitute a body without a head, and therefore when a people 'wills to erect itself into a kingdom or any other body politic' it 'must always set up one man for the government of all that body' (Fortescue, In Praise of the Laws of England, p. 20). Nevertheless, he insisted that the body was prior to the head, drawing on Aristotle's theory about the heart being the first part of the body to be formed: 

And just as in the body natural, as the Philosopher said, the heart is the first living thing, having in itself the blood which it sends forth to all the members, whereby they are quickened and live, so in the body politic the intention of the people is the first living thing, having in it the blood, namely, political provision for the interest of the people, which it transmits to the head and all the members of the body, by which the body is nourished and quickened. (Fortescue, In Praise of the Laws of England, pp. 20-1).

The heart, representing the people, is then both prior to the head and crucial for giving life to the whole. Moreover, Fortescue likened the laws of a nation to the sinews of the physical body in their capacity to hold that organism together. And he argued that just as the head of a physical body cannot change its sinews 'or deny its members proper strength and due nourishment of the blood' so a king could not change the laws or deprive the people 'of their own substance uninvited or against their wills' (Fortescue, In Praise of the Laws of England, p. 21).

Harrington's articulation of the body politic analogy combined Fortescue's insights with observations based on William Harvey's theory regarding the circulation of the blood (which I discussed in more detail in an earlier post):

So the parliament is the heart which, consisting of two ventricles, the one greater and replenished with a grosser store, the other less and full of a purer, sucketh in and gusheth forth the life blood of Oceana by a perpetual circulation (Harrington, Oceana, p. 174).

The frontispiece to William Harvey,  Exercitatio Anatomica Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus  (Florence, 1928). Reproduced from a copy held in the Special Collections department of the Robinson Library, Newcastle University. Pybus X.v.09.

The frontispiece to William Harvey, Exercitatio Anatomica Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus (Florence, 1928). Reproduced from a copy held in the Special Collections department of the Robinson Library, Newcastle University. Pybus X.v.09.

Here the heart represents not simply the people, but specifically the legislature. In addition Harrington, like Fortescue, emphasises the role of the blood, though he uses this to justify his theory of rotation of office. Just as blood moves around the body being constantly replenished but never completely replaced, so rotation ensures that the popular element of the political system is continually in existence and yet regularly renewed. Harrington's account of the body politic, then, builds on that of Fortescue, but pushes it in a more democratic direction through the emphasis on rotation and the associated idea that all should rule and be ruled in turn. At the same time, using that metaphor and associating the legislature with the heart, implied that there would still be a single figurehead at the apex of the system. In Oceana that position was to be held by the Lord Archon, a role that Harrington appears to have designed for Oliver Cromwell. Yet, just like Fortescue, Harrington insisted that such a ruler had to be constrained by the laws.

Harrington's body politic metaphor thus encapsulates the complexity of his system. While he was clearly influenced by classical and Renaissance thinkers from the republican tradition, their ideas were combined with native legal perspectives such as that offered by Fortescue. Similarly, Harrington's republicanism was not simply aristocratic, but also incorporated important democratic and monarchical elements. While some republicans were intent on securing the rule of a narrow political élite, the recent tendency to see that as the republican position and, consequently, to dismiss the insights that republicanism could offer us today is a mistake. The republican tradition was not uniform. Competing views were expressed by its exponents and it was flexible and adaptable. It has the potential to offer a more open and democratic vision of government, one that could serve us in the twenty-first century.