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.

Republics v Monarchies

The Scottish National Party recently brought the question of the Monarchy back onto the political agenda by voting at their 2017 party conference in favour of cutting public funding for the Royal Family. Delegates supported overwhelmingly a motion calling for the repeal of the Sovereign Grant Act of 2011. While the vote will not bring immediate political change, since Westminster retains control of the Sovereign Grant, the vote has drawn attention once again to the alleged republicanism at the heart of the SNP and the idea that an independent Scotland might choose to replace the Queen as head of state. Such suggestions always produce strong views on both sides, usually labelled 'republican' and 'monarchist'.

On the surface, at least, the distinction between republics and monarchies is a crucial feature of our modern political landscape. Yet the history of these two constitutional forms is far more complex than this simple dichotomy would suggest. Indeed, according to one historical definition, Britain is and has long been a republic, whereas on the basis of another neither France nor the United States of America is worthy of that term. Monarchists and republicans alike might, therefore, benefit from a deeper understanding of the history of these political concepts.

Bust of Cicero. I am grateful to Katie East for providing the image.

Bust of Cicero. I am grateful to Katie East for providing the image.

The concept of republican government, in both theory and practice, dates back at least to ancient Rome. It was explored in a number of Roman texts, not least those of Marcus Tullius Cicero who was both a politician and a political thinker. In his De re publica Cicero did not define a republic or commonwealth in opposition to kingship, but instead argued 'that a commonwealth (that is the concern of the people) then truly exists when its affairs are conducted well and justly, whether by a single king, or by a few aristocrats, or by the people as a whole'. (Cicero, On the Commonwealth, ed. James. E. G. Zetzel Cambridge, 1999,  p. 59). The key distinction here, then, is between rule that serves the public interest and that which serves private interests. So, on Cicero's account, a monarchy, if properly organised and directed towards the public good, could be a kind of republic. That same idea was still being voiced as late as the mid-eighteenth century, when the Genevan-born political theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in his Social Contract:

I therefore call Republic any State ruled by laws, whatever be the form of administration: for then the public interest alone governs, and the public thing counts for something. Every legitimate government is republican.

The accompanying footnote might appear self-contradictory, if Cicero's position is not borne in mind:

Statue of Jean-Jacques Rousseau outside the Pantheon in Paris. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Statue of Jean-Jacques Rousseau outside the Pantheon in Paris. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

By this word I understand not only an Aristocracy or a Democracy, but in general any government guided by the general will, which is the law. To be legitimate, the Government must be not confused with the Sovereign, but be its minister. Then monarchy itself is a republic. (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, ed. Victor Gourevitch, Cambridge, 1997, p. 67)

   But while the Ciceronian understanding of a republic survived well into the eighteenth century, from the late fifteenth century onwards a second understanding was developing. This saw monarchy not as one form of republican government, but as its direct opposite. Several historians have recently traced the development of this tradition of republican thought, emphasising its debt to the writings of Italian Renaissance thinkers as well as to a tradition of Jewish Biblical scholarship that offered a distinctive take on the Israelites' plea to God in I Samuel 8 that they be given a king like other nations.

By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there were certainly those who saw republican government as requiring the destruction of monarchy. The English Civil War of the 1640s prompted some parliamentarians to attack not simply Charles I, or even just tyrants, but all kings. Marchamont Nedham was one of several figures who challenged the very distinction between kings and tyrants: 'Had they [the English] but once tasted the sweets of peace and liberty both together, they would soon be of the opinion of Herodotus and Demosthenes that there is no difference between king and tyrant and become as zealous as the ancient Romans were in defence of their freedom.' (Marchamont Nedham, The Case of the Commonwealth of England Stated, ed. Philip A. Knachel, Charlottesville, 1969, pp. 127-8). This view had practical import too. The 'Act Abolishing the Office of King', which was passed on 17 March 1649, declared the office of king to be 'unnecessary, burdensome, and dangerous to the liberty, safety, and public interest of the people' and the ensuing 'Act Declaring England to be a Commonwealth and Free State', which was passed in May 1649, insisted that this government was to be 'without any King or House of Lords'.

John Milton, by unknown artist, National Portrait Gallery, NPG4222. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

John Milton, by unknown artist, National Portrait Gallery, NPG4222. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

Yet even this does not present the full complexity of the concept, since those who agreed that republicanism was, by definition, anti-monarchical, could nevertheless disagree over precisely what institutional form should replace the office of king. Most significant was the distinction between those who insisted merely on the absence of a monarch, and those who outlawed any form of single-person rule. Thus a third definition of republic required that the government was not headed by a single figure, but by a group or council. As John Milton asserted in The Readie and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth: 'I doubt not but all ingenuous and knowing men will easily agree with me, that a free Commonwealth without single person or house of lords, is by far the best government, if it can be had.' (John Milton, The Readie and Easy Way, in Selected Prose, ed. C. A. Parties, Harmondsworth, p. 338). Milton's formulation ruled out both monarchy (as in the reign of Charles I) and a Protectorate (as under Oliver Cromwell).

Moreover, the English revolutionaries had attempted to institute such a form a decade earlier. When Charles I was executed on 30 January 1649 he was replaced not by another single person, but rather by the Rump Parliament, which ruled together with its Council of State, until April 1653. Yet as its short life - and the rise of Oliver Cromwell - would suggest, experiments involving a purely conciliar government have often proved unsuccessful in practice. The experiments in France in the 1790s with the Committee of Public Safety, and later the Directory, further confirmed this conclusion.

Evidently, it is the second definition of a republic outlined above that is most common today, so that a republican wishes to abolish the Monarchy. According to the first definition, that of Cicero, modern Britain could, despite having a Queen as head of state, be counted as a republic so long as government decisions were made in the public interest. Indeed, there were those in the eighteenth century who made precisely that argument. In 1700, the controversial political thinker and activist John Toland declared that 'if a Commonwealth be a Government of Laws enacted for the Common good of all the People' and if they had some means to consent to those laws 'Then it is undeniably manifest that the English Government is already a Commonwealth, the most free and best constituted in all the world.' (John Toland, The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, London, 1737, p. vii-viii). According to the third definition, by contrast, which requires that a single person must not be given considerable power, neither France nor the United States of America (both of which have a President), would be deemed worthy of that label.

Viewed historically, 'monarchy', is no easier to define than 'republic'. We can see this if we consider precisely what features make a monarch. Hereditary rule might be thought of as one key element, but this does not hold in the case of the early-modern Polish monarchy, which was elective. We might, then, say that a monarch generally holds his or her position for life. This would work for the Polish system, but it was also true of the Doge of Venice during the same period, and yet most people would argue that the Doge was the head of a republic rather than being a monarch.  Instead of thinking about the nature of the position, then, we might consider the extent of the power wielded. But this seems no more satisfactory as a basis for distinguishing monarchies from republics, since from the late eighteenth century to the present the President of the United States of America has tended to wield far greater powers than the English monarch. While part of the problem here is that the modern British Monarchy is in some ways a misnomer, since our Queen is a hereditary figurehead rather than a power-wielding head of government, even in the late eighteenth century George Washington already enjoyed greater powers in certain respects than George III. (For an interesting exploration of the royal tendencies in the American system see Eric Nelson, The Royalist Revolution, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2014).

John Lilburne,  England's New Chains Discovered,  London, 1649. 18.10.17. Taken from the Online Library of Liberty [] hosted by Liberty Fund, Inc.

John Lilburne, England's New Chains Discovered, London, 1649. 18.10.17. Taken from the Online Library of Liberty [] hosted by Liberty Fund, Inc.

This is not to say that important differences between what are conventionally labelled as monarchies and republics do not exist. The expenditure of public money on the Royal Family and the upkeep of royal palaces has always been one of the stronger arguments in the British republican arsenal (though of course presidential systems and legislative assemblies also incur costs). But we must also be careful not to assume that all our political problems can be solved by establishing a republic. It did not take long even for those seventeenth-century English revolutionaries who had called for an end to the monarchy to realise that many problems remained in its wake. Perhaps the best illustration of this is the fact that, less than a month after the regicide, the Leveller leader John Lilburne published a pamphlet which he entitled England's New Chains Discovered.








One year on - an intellectual biography of James Harrington

Given that this is my twelfth monthly blog, it seems a good moment to reflect on where I have got to, and on plans for the year to come. The blog posts have been anchored in the twin themes of Harrington and grief, but have ranged widely, exploring such topics as: the origins of modern democratic government; the life of the Queen of Bohemia; seventeenth-century wills and grave monuments; and the origins and uses of the Virgilian phrase 'Mens Molem Agitat'. In the course of the year my Harrington project, originally inspired and gifted to me by my late husband John Gurney, has blossomed. At the end of this month I will embark on a Mid-Career fellowship, kindly funded by the British Academy, which will provide me with the opportunity to complete my research on Harrington and to finish writing an intellectual biography of him. This will be published by Oxford University Press. Having spent the last two posts considering intellectual biography as a form, I want to say a little more here about my plans for my intellectual biography of Harrington and the work that I will do more generally during my fellowship.

James Harrington by an unknown artist c. 1635. National Portrait Gallery, NPG513. Reproduced under the National Portrait Gallery's Creative Commons Licence.

James Harrington by an unknown artist c. 1635. National Portrait Gallery, NPG513. Reproduced under the National Portrait Gallery's Creative Commons Licence.

As I noted in last month's blog, one reason why I see the intellectual biography as a useful form, and one particularly appropriate to Harrington, is the opportunity it provides to acknowledge the interconnection between the external life and actions of the subject and the internal life of the mind. This seems particularly appropriate to a political thinker who was keen for his writings to have an impact on the politics of his own day. Much of the focus on Harrington to date has been on his writings rather than his life, largely because no personal papers have survived, making reconstruction of that life difficult. Yet information about his life can be gleaned from other sources and, as I argued in my paper at the workshop, integrating discussion of Harrington's life and works complicates and enriches our understanding of both. In particular, uncovering details of his life before 1656, not least his positive relations with members of the Stuart family, raises questions about the nature and extent of his commitment to republican government. Thus, one of the key arguments of my book will be that while Harrington did advocate republican government to some degree, the nature of his republicanism was not typical of the time; and he challenged, and even subverted, conventional republican ideas and practices.

James Harrington after Sir Peter Lely, based on a work of c. 1658. National Portrait Gallery, NPG41090. Reproduced under the National Portrait Gallery's Creative Commons Licence.

James Harrington after Sir Peter Lely, based on a work of c. 1658. National Portrait Gallery, NPG41090. Reproduced under the National Portrait Gallery's Creative Commons Licence.

As well as complicating our understanding of the precise kind of republican government that Harrington was committed to, the book will also argue that a more comprehensive account of Harrington's life and thought can be produced if we move beyond the recent obsession with his republicanism. During my fellowship I will explore Harrington's contribution to four other fields of thought. First, there is his status as an historian. Harrington might be seen as rather traditional in his attitude to history, given his belief that past (particularly ancient) models can be utilised in the present. Yet, in fact, his approach was dynamic. Rather than simply seeking to revive and apply such models in the present, he approached them as a basis for future innovation. Harrington was also innovative in being one of the first thinkers to address the causes of the English Civil War, offering a distinctive long-term explanation for the outbreak of that event. Secondly, I will examine Harrington's contribution to religious debates of the age, particularly those concerning the Hebrew Commonwealth and the method of ordination within the church. Here, too, Harrington adopted a novel position, combining religious toleration with a national church, and Erastianism with democratic church government. Thirdly, I will pay attention to Harrington's philosophical thinking. His complex understanding of the relationship between body, reason and spirit underpinned his entire political model, but also set him at odds with leading thinkers of the day, particularly those associated with the Royal Society. Finally, it is my contention that Harrington was innovative not just in the content of his works, but also in their form and style. His literary interests, including his translations of the works of Virgil, have largely been ignored by historians of political thought; and the fundamental importance of the interaction between form and content in The Commonwealth of Oceana is only just beginning to be uncovered. Yet just as Harrington's philosophical thinking underpinned his politics, so the content of his works was reflected in and demonstrated by the form in which it was expressed.

Harrington's playfulness when it comes to the form and style of his work is not just something I plan to investigate, but also something I have been attempting to imitate, not least through this blog. During the fellowship, then, I will continue my monthly posts, but the focus will shift slightly. In each one I will use Harrington's ideas as a springboard for approaching contemporary political issues. The topics may evolve as the year progresses, but are likely to cover such topics as: republics versus monarchies; what is democracy?; holding representatives to account; and popular initiative in a parliamentary system.

The fellowship begins in October and these posts will start in November, once the project is properly underway. For October I have a final more anecdotal post about coinage, which seems appropriate to the month in which the version of the pound coin that has been in circulation since 1983 will cease to be legal tender, being replaced by a new twelve-sided design.