Royal Supremacy in the Middle Ages

See also: The Primitive Church.

By the time of Christ, the Roman Empire had conquered Europe from the Black Sea to the Atlantic. In AD 395 its territories were divided between a western realm, based in the city of Rome, and an eastern or Byzantine realm, based in Constantinople, with two emperors sharing power. The Western Empire collapsed in the year 476. Its colonies in Western Europe were abandoned and Roman government in the Italian peninsula itself was overthrown by the Visigoths. The Eastern Empire retrenched in Greece, Asia Minor, the Balkans, and the Levant. In the West, Christian kingdoms were founded in Britain, in the vast Frankish lands that became Germany and France, and in the Iberian peninsula. The conversion of Europe to Christianity coincided with these developments.

Christian church polity during the first millennium was organized around the office of bishop. The title comes from the Greek word, epískopos, meaning “overseer.” Bishops ordained parish priests or presbyters and governed the churches within their individual jurisdictions, which we now call dioceses. 

The order of bishops was a peerage not a hierarchy. All bishops were co-equal, every diocese sovereign.1 Writing in the third century, Cyprian of Carthage described the episcopal system as it existed in the early church. “For none of us makes himself a bishop of bishops,” he reported, “or by a tyrannical terror compels his colleagues to a necessity of obedience; since every bishop, according to the license of his own liberty and power, hath his own freedom, and can no more be judged by another, than he himself can judge another.”2 Cyprian’s testimony is confirmed by contemporary writers.3 In later centuries, national or regional churches made up of multiple dioceses would appoint an archbishop or patriarch to represent that church, with appropriate precedence and duties, but no power of command over his fellow bishops. 

The Bishop of Rome, called pope or patriarch, had none of the special authority claimed by his medieval successors. In a dispute with Constantinople at the turn of the seventh century, Pope Gregory I of Rome wrote, “I confidently say that whosoever calls himself universal bishop, or desires to be so called, does in his elation forerun Antichrist, because he proudly places himself before others.”4 The government of bishops was therefore local in the individual and universal in the corporate body. 

The church was multipolar. This allowed it to integrate with the culture and institutions of state in diverse realms without being divided. The creation of archbishoprics, papacies, and patriarchates was a reflection of political boundaries, not ecclesiastical hierarchy. Multiple dioceses within a realm ruled by the same king were grouped together as distinct national churches. An empire consisting of multiple nations would have multiple national churches represented by patriarchs.

In the Byzantine East the emperor was both head of state and supreme head of the church. It was his privilege to appoint the Patriarch of Constantinople and to call episcopal councils. The Western Empire had been governed according to the same arrangement. Both pre-Christian and Christian emperors held the title pontifex maximus: high priest.5 The double-headed eagle portrayed in Roman heraldry symbolized the emperor’s dual authority.

Royal supremacy was the norm in Western Europe during the first millennium. In the ninth century the Bishop of Rome put himself under the protection of the Frankish kings. On Christmas Day in the year 800, Charlemagne was crowned Western Roman Emperor. He was the first man to hold that title in over three hundred years. The arrangement did not restore the territories of the old empire. The new Holy Roman Empire was no more or less than the Frankish kingdom. Although Charlemagne and his successors rarely controlled the city of Rome itself, they possessed the traditional rights of the Roman emperors vis-à-vis the Church of Rome. As John Marion Riddle writes, Charlemagne was “head of the church in name and practice.” The Bishop of Rome “prostrated himself before the new emperor” at his coronation. “High-church appointments Charlemagne made himself, and he called church councils.” Official documents referred to him as rex et sacerdotus: king and priest.6 Royal oversight of the church had a corollary in aristocratic oversight at the local level. Charlemagne and his successors oversaw the spread of Christianity in Germany through the model of the eigenkirche, or proprietary church. These were parish churches founded by the lord of a village. The lord retained certain rights in the appointment of clergy and the administration of parish resources.7

The kings of England exercised the same powers as the Byzantine and Frankish kings. In England as late as the twelfth century, writes Roger Wickson, the official language “used at a bishop’s consecration stated that he was elected by our pious lord the king of the English, with the consent of the clergy and people.” The latter participated publicly in the process. “Once a bishop was elected he appeared before the king. He was now one of the king’s greatest tenants and had to perform homage to the king in the same way as any great lay magnate.” It was the king who invested him “with the ring and staff, the symbols of his spiritual office.” Thereafter he would be consecrated by bishops of the English church.8

The special status accorded to the institution of monarchy in the Christian social order relates to the universal kingship of Jesus Christ. The risen Christ is revealed in Scripture as a universal emperor who delegates authority to earthly governments. He is described in the First Epistle to Timothy as “the King of kings and Lord of lords,”9 and in Revelation as “the ruler of the kings of the earth.”10 Human monarchies partake of the divine monarchy, reflecting it and symbolizing it. Through the institution of monarchy, the human social order is made to reflect the divine order. This is the context of Psalm 82, wherein God addresses the kings and authorities of the world, telling them, “I have said, Ye are gods…But ye shall die like men.”11

A mystical illustration of this doctrine can be found in Arthurian legend. The story of the Holy Grail was first recorded in the twelfth century, in the chivalric romance, Perceval, le Conte du Graal, by Chrétien de Troyes. It was expanded upon by subsequent poets over the following century. The legend tells of a young knight who happens upon the castle of a dying king. The king has suffered a dolorous blow to the thigh, or groin. The wound will not heal. Neither is it limited to his person. Like an extension of the king’s body, the kingdom itself is dying. Once-fertile countryside has become a wasteland. The fields are fallow. The forest is bare. The rivers have run dry. At the castle the knight is shown a procession of mysterious objects: a lance that bleeds from the point; a pair of candelabra; and a shining dish or chalice, the Grail. That night he dreams of the land brought back to rich and verdant life. In the morning he finds the castle empty and in ruins. He later learns that he could have healed the king and the kingdom if only he had thought to ask the meaning of the Grail. Though the young knight embarks on a quest to recover the lost treasure, his fate is unknown. Chrétien died before he could finish the story. The Grail legend suggests that some nourishing grace passes from God to a people through the institution of monarchy.12

Of course, the relationship between king and clergy was reciprocal. The king invested the bishop with his crozier and the bishop crowned the king. This reciprocity was present in all dimensions of society. The historian Norman Cantor described it as “the interpenetration of ecclesia and mundus”.13 The modern preference for the separation of church and state, whether de facto or de jure, would have been alien to previous generations, including the early Christians and the Protestant Reformers. Church, state, and society were a single unit. The church was not defined as a hierarchy of the clergy set apart from the laity. It was, as the apostles taught, the corporate body of all baptized Christians. The monarch and the nobility were representatives of the laity in the government of the church at the archdiocesan and parish levels respectively.

This wholistic model of society was the status quo in Europe until the eleventh century. In the 1050s an ambitious cabal formed within the Roman Church centered around Pope Gregory VII. The papal party sought a radical reorganization of the universal Church, placing the Pope of Rome in an exalted position above all bishops and kings. To this end Gregory issued the Dictates papae in 1075.The document claimed twenty-seven new powers and privileges for the pope: to be called universal bishop, to teach infallibly, to make laws, to judge all important questions of doctrine, to depose any other bishop, to depose emperors and absolve subjects from their fealty to the state, to have princes kiss his feet, to preside over General Synods, and, significantly, to use the Imperial Roman insignia.

It is impossible to overstate the scandal of the Gregorian Reforms. The Gregorian Papacy had no basis or precedence in the thousand year history of Christianity. The usurpations of the Dictates papae were exponentially more outrageous than the claims of ecumenical primacy that Pope Gregory I condemned as a sign of Antichrist. When the Protestant Reformers denounced the pope as Antichrist, they did so using a predecessor’s own words. Nor did these enormities go unremarked at the time. The first assertions of papal supremacy had caused the Great Schism of 1054 at which the churches of the East severed communion with Rome. The codification of papal supremacy two decades later provoked a centuries-long civil war in Italy.

To be clear: the universal ruler of the Church is Jesus Christ. No one bishop can claim to govern on His behalf or to sit on His throne in absentia because Christ is not absent. The risen Christ sits upon his throne now.

The papal party defended its innovations with two arguments, neither credible. The first appealed to a document called the Donation of Constantine, which purported to be an Imperial Roman decree, by which the Emperor Constantine had given the empire over to the papacy in the fourth century. On the authority of this document Gregory VII had claimed the right to depose emperors and to bear the imperial insignia. The Donation of Constantine is now universally acknowledged to be a forgery. Its provenance was disputed from the time of its appearance in the Middle Ages. It was proven to be a forgery—and a rather crude one at that—in the fifteenth century by Italian priest and humanist Lorenzo Valla who undertook a philological study of the text. In the sixteenth century Cardinal Caesar Baronius acknowledged the fraud on behalf of the Roman Church in his official Annales Ecclesiastici.

The second argument of the papal party appealed vaguely to Scripture. To this day the papal system in the Roman Church rests upon a post hoc ergo propter hoc reading of one verse from the Gospel According to Matthew. Christ addresses the disciple Simon Peter: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”14 The papal party argued that because Christ showed special affection for Peter among his disciples, and because unsubstantiated legend identified Peter as the first Bishop of Rome, all subsequent Bishops of Rome should be entitled to extraordinary powers that Christ specifically did not bestow upon Peter at the Great Commission of his disciples to evangelize the nations of the world.15

A succinct and thorough debunking of the Petrine defense of the papacy was written by Walter Herbert Stowe, an Anglican clergyman of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States. Stowe observed that:

(1) There is no evidence in Scripture or anywhere else that Christ conferred these powers upon St. Peter; (2) there is no evidence that St. Peter claimed them for himself or his successors; (3) there is strong contrary evidence that St. Peter erred in an important matter of faith in Antioch, the eating together and social intercourse of Jewish and Gentile Christians affecting the whole future of the Church and the Christian Religion, and this lapse was so serious that St. Paul withstood him to the face; (4) he did not preside at the first Council of the Church in Jerusalem and did not hand down the decision of the Council; (5) he was Bishop of Antioch before he was bishop anywhere else, and, if the papal claims are in any way true, the Bishop of Antioch has a better right to hold them; (6) that St. Peter was ever in Rome is disputed, and the most that can be said for it is that it is an interesting historical problem; (7) there is no evidence whatsoever that he conferred such powers upon his successors-to-be in the See of Rome; (8) there was no primitive acceptance of such claims, and there never has been universal acceptance in any later age.16

To the extent that the papacy was successful in consolidating power and support for its claims across a wide swath of Christendom during the three centuries that followed the Gregorian Reforms, that success accrued from an audacious gambit by Pope Urban II: the launching of the Crusades. In 1095, a mere two decades after the invention of the Gregorian papacy, Urban tested the still-hypothetical powers of his office. He announced a general absolution of sin to anyone who would take up arms against the Islamic Turks of the Seljuq Empire. Urban must have been pleased with the result. The initial response to his appeal was comical and tragic, but no less impressive for that. The following year tens of thousands of untrained and insufficiently armed civilians, including women and children, sparsely reinforced by professional soldiers, advanced upon the armies of Islam. This peasant’s crusade was destroyed almost to a man at the Siege of Xerigordos and the Battle of Civetot in Asia Minor. The few survivors converted to Islam in exchange for their lives.17 Urban’s appeal had been heard by cannier men than these, however. An alliance of noblemen enticed by the treasure-houses of the Orient18 raised a formidable army of knights and infantrymen. It advanced not only through Asia Minor but all the way to Jerusalem. By the summer of 1099 the crusaders had captured the holy city from the Fatimid Caliphate. A Christian kingdom was established in Jerusalem.

Urban died shortly before the news would have reached him, but his immediate successors could bask in the knowledge that the papacy had sent an unmistakable warning to its enemies. Those enemies were not the Turks or Fatimids, but the Christian kings of Europe. A mere word from the pope had mobilized a small but fanatical segment of European society, drawn from all classes, to war. A king who defended the traditional ecclesiastical order against the papacy might well find civil war stoked in his own realm by the same means. Protestant kings at the time of the Reformation faced precisely this form of terrorism from the papacy and its partisans.

The first victorious years gave way to centuries of defeat for the crusaders. By the fourteenth century almost every territorial gain had been lost. Jerusalem was surrendered to Islamic forces under Saladin in 1187. The city of Acre was surrendered in 1291 marking the end of the Crusades in the Holy Land. At one point the beleaguered crusaders attacked the Byzantine Empire instead of the Sultanate, looting the Christian city of Constantinople to enrich the coffers of Rome and Venice. The weakened Byzantine Empire was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

Even during the period of the Crusades when the papacy was at its most powerful, and commanded its widest allegiance from European princes, the legitimacy of the institution was never universally accepted.

In 1066 the Normans under William the Conqueror invaded England. William carried a commission from Pope Alexander II. But this was a decade before the Gregorian Reforms. William’s stated objectives were in direct opposition to the later Dictatus. Harold J. Berman writes, “William asserted that the king…has the power to determine whether or not a pope should be acknowledged in Normandy and England; that the king makes canon law through church synods; and the king has a veto power over ecclesiastical penalties imposed on his barons and officials.”19 As kings, William and his sons “successfully opposed papal claims to supremacy over the church in their dominions” following the Gregorian Reforms.20

In the twelfth century, during the de facto reign of King Stephen, amidst a civil war between his factions and those of Empress Matilda, the papal party gained significant ground in the Church of England. But Matilda’s son King Henry II reasserted royal supremacy and the traditional independence of the Church of England. This was not without difficulty, however. The reforms had introduced factions into the church. Those loyal to the pope became, in the words of Howard Bloom, “virtual foreign agents.”21 Thomas Becket, who served as Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of Henry II, belonged to the papal party. He wanted the clergy exempt from English civil law, specifically criminal prosecution. In 1164 Henry II issued the Constitutions of Clarendon, which restored many of the king’s rights in the church. A bitter political feud between monarch and archbishop ensued. Becket excommunicated clergy and nobility who sided with the king. The conflict culminated in the assassination of Thomas Becket by four aggrieved knights. Afterward the king negotiated a settlement with the Church of Rome that left the larger questions of autonomy and supremacy unsettled. Nor would these questions be settled during the subsequent reign of the Plantagenet dynasty. But there can be no doubt that the king was representing tradition while Becket and the pope were the revolutionaries. As Berman asks, rhetorically, if “the reign of Stephen was the period when the Papal Revolution finally asserted itself in England, should not Henry II’s claim to the customs of his grandfather be considered counterrevolutionary?”22

The papacy became a diplomatic vector that each monarch negotiated with or against depending upon the exigencies of his reign. The French sons of Henry II thought little of their English inheritance. Richard tried unsuccessfully to sell the kingdom to the Holy Roman Emperor to fund a crusade. His brother John, in a position of political crisis, gave the kingdom to the pope in 1213, receiving it back as a fiefdom. This act represented the only formal historical union between England and the Church of Rome. It earned John his role as villain in the Robin Hood legends. The act was also formally annulled, in a process that gives insight into the Church of England in the Middle Ages.

John’s successors Edward I and Edward II refused to pay tribute money to the pope. King Edward III, who took the throne in 1327, resumed the policy of royal supremacy championed by Henry II. During his reign in 1365, the arrangement between John and the papacy was finally adjudicated in Parliament, where it was declared void. The reason the act had not been valid, Parliament decided, was that it had been done without the assent of the bishops.23 The bishops (and thus the Church) of England had a right to autonomy dating back to the foundation of the episcopal system as described by Cyprian of Carthage. It was beyond John’s power as a Christian prince to subordinate them to another bishop.

In Italy the papacy faced a more proximate and embarrassing opponent: the Holy Roman Emperor. The successors of Charlemagne had continued to exercise royal supremacy over the Church of Rome. Now the papacy was overturning the arrangement: asserting episcopal supremacy over the empire including the Frankish lands themselves. The controversy led to five decades of open warfare between imperial and papal factions. In 1122 the papacy won concessions from Henry V, the last emperor of the Salian dynasty, who renounced his right to invest bishops with ring and crozier. The emperors of the subsequent Hohenstaufen dynasty in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries proved more formidable. Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and Pope Alexander III denounced one another, with the emperor recognizing a succession of challengers to the papacy. Although they were later reconciled by treaty, their successors continued to struggle. Barbarossa’s grandson, Frederick II became emperor in 1220. He faced unrelenting opposition from Pope Innocent IV. The pope excommunicated Frederick II as a heretic, a “friend of Babylon’s sultan,” with “Saracen customs,” “provided with a harem guarded by eunuchs,” declared him deposed, fomented civil war by encouraging a rival landgrave to seize the throne,and ordered Frederick’s supporters massacred under the flag of truce at Viterbo. Throughout all of this Frederick II maintained power. He advanced an early Renaissance in art, law, and science. He led a crusade to Jerusalem, while excommunicated, recapturing the city and briefly holding it, making him the last Christian King of Jerusalem to set foot in that realm. The emperor’s English contemporary and admirer Matthew Paris described him as Stupor mundi, “the Wonder of the World.” The nineteenth century Oxford historian Edward A. Freeman wrote that, “in mere genius, in mere accomplishments, Frederick was surely the greatest prince that ever wore a crown.”24 The Reformed theologian Paul Schaff described him as “the most conspicuous political figure of his own age and the most cosmopolitan of the Middle Ages. He was warrior, legislator, statesman, man of letters.”25

Frederick II died in 1150, unreconciled with the pope but conciliatory toward the church, with last rites performed by his loyal Archbishop of Palermo. Upon hearing news of the emperor’s death, Innocent IV responded with characteristic pettiness, “heaven and hell rejoiced of it.”26 While Frederick was able to keep the Holy Roman Empire together during his lifetime it proved impossible to elect a successor. Upon his death the empire fell into a period of long interregnums and aborted restorations until the eve of the Protestant Reformation when the ambitious Habsburg family accepted the title however the papacy chose to define it.

The Hohenstaufen were not forgotten in later centuries. Regional conflicts between city states that were loyal to the emperor and those that were loyal to the papacy continued through the period of the Renaissance in Italy. The imperial faction were called Ghibellines, the papal faction were called Guelphs. The poet Dante Alighieri was famously exiled from Florence at the turn of the fourteenth century for his Ghibelline sympathies. In Germany the memory of the Hohenstaufen transcended history, becoming part of an earlier myth.

The king in the mountain is one of the great archetypal myths: a king who presided over a past golden age is said to have retreated with his warriors into a mountain cave where he waits, sleeping but not dead, one day to return. It is most famously associated with King Arthur at Avalon. After the death of Frederick II rumor spread in Italy that he had not died but gone to sleep in Mount Etna, and in Germany that he had gone to sleep in Kyffhäuser Mountain. During the sixteenth century the identity of the sleeping king was gradually transferred from Frederick II to his grandfather Frederick Barbarossa.27 Professor D.L. Ashliman has catalogued a number of related myths in his bibliography of folktexts at the University of Pittsburgh.The most famous account comes from the Deutsche Sagen by the Brothers Grimm:

Many legends are in circulation dealing with [Emperor Frederick Barbarossa]. They say that he is not dead, but that he shall live until the Day of Judgment, and also that no legitimate emperor shall rise up after him. Until that time he will remain hidden in Kyffhäuser Mountain. When he appears he will hang his shield on a dead tree, and leaves will sprout from the tree, and then better times will be at hand. From time to time he speaks to those who find their way into the mountain, and from time to time he makes appearances outside the mountain. Generally he just sits there on a bench at a round stone table, asleep with his head in his hands. He constantly nods his head and blinks his eyes. His beard has grown very long, according to some it has grown through the stone table, according to others it has grown around the table. They say that it must grow around the circumference three times before he awakens. At the present time it has grown around the table twice.

In the year 1669 a peasant from the village of Reblingen who was hauling grain to Nordhausen was taken into the mountain by a little dwarf. He was told to empty out his grain and allowed to fill his sacks with gold in its place. He saw the emperor sitting there entirely motionless.

In addition, a dwarf led a shepherd into the mountain who had once played a tune on his flute that had pleased the emperor. The emperor stood up and asked: “Are ravens still flying around the mountain?” When the shepherd answered “yes,” the Kaiser responded: “Then I must sleep for another hundred years.”28

A monument to Barbarossa was erected in the Kyffhäuser range in the 1890s. It depicts him awakening. On a plinth above him stands an equestrian statue of Emperor Wilhelm I, connecting the legend to German unification under the Prussian monarchy in the nineteenth century. Artist Bruno Schmitz successfully captured the metaphysical subtext of the story recorded by the Grimms. As the head of a Protestant national church, Wilhelm was the first king of the German Reich since the Hohenstaufen to stand in correct alignment with the ecclesiastical order. That “no legitimate emperor” would rise up after the Hohenstaufen was a repudiation of the Habsburgs who ruled as Roman Catholics during the period when the legend told to the Grimms likely originated. In the symbolism of the monument Wilhelm represents the waking Barbarossa, or vice versa.

The Protestant Reformation was a reaction to the encroachment of the papacy against the traditional Christian order in both its political and theological dimensions. Because this encroachment first impacted the political order we find the earliest antecedents of the Protestant Reformation in Medieval opposition to the Gregorian Reforms. What had been the status quo throughout Christendom before roughly AD 1080 was defended by arms through the thirteenth century and maintained in open protest thereafter.

Footnotes:

  1. Johann Karl Ludwig Gieseler; Francis Cunningham (trans.), Text-book of Ecclesiastical History. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, and Blanchard, 1836; 1:153-155.
  2. William Cathcart, The Papal System: From Its Origin to the Present Time. Aurora: The Menace Publishing Company, 1872; 61.
  3. Cathcart, 1872; 61-70.
  4. Cathcart, 1872; 69.
  5. Alan Cameron, “The Imperial Pontifex.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology Vol. 103 (2007); 341-384.
  6. John Marion Riddle, A History of the Middle Ages, 300-1500. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008; 200.
  7. George William Outram Addleshaw, The Development of the Parochial System from Charlemagne (768-814) to Urban II (1088-1099). London: St. Anthony’s Press, 1954; 4-5.
  8. Roger Wickson, Kings and Bishops in Medieval England, 1066-1216. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015; xxiii-xxiv.
  9. KJV, 1 Timothy 6:15.
  10. KJV, Revelation 1:5.
  11. KJV, Psalm 82:6-7.
  12. Nigel Bryant (trans.), The Complete Story of the Grail: Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval and its Continuations. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2015.
  13. Norman F. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages. New York: Harper Collins, 1993; 395.
  14. KJV, Matthew 16:18.
  15. KJV, Matthew 28:16-20.
  16. Walter Herbert Stowe, The Essence of Anglo-Catholicism. New York: Morehouse-Gorham Co., 1932; 15.
  17. Steven Runciman, The First Crusade. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951, 1980; 58-61.
  18. Martin Hall; Jonathan Phillips, Caffaro, Genoa and the Twelfth-Century Crusades. London and New York: Routledge, 2013; 9-10.
  19. Harold J. Berman, Law and Revolution, the Formation of the Western Legal Tradition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983; 255.
  20. Berman, 255.
  21. Howard Bloom, The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995; 120.
  22. Berman, 258.
  23. Thomas Erskine May, A Treatise on the Law, Proceedings, and Usage of Parliament. Eleventh Edition. London: William Clowes and Sons, Ltd., 1906; 3.
  24. Edward A. Freeman, Historical Essays. London: Macmillan and Company, 1896; 293.
  25. Philip Schaff, The History of the Christian Church, Volume V Part 1: The Middle Ages. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1923; 196.
  26. Schaff, 299.
  27. Norbert Kamp, “Federico II di Svevia, imperatore, re di Sicilia e di Gerusalemme, re dei Romani”. Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani Vol. 45 (1995). https://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/federico-ii-di-svevia-imperatore-re-di-sicilia-e-di-gerusalemme-re-dei-romani_(Dizionario-Biografico)/
  28. Jacob Grimm; Wilhelm Grimm, Deutsche Sagen. Munich: Winkler, 1965; 49-50. Translation: D. L. Ashliman, “Sleeping Hero Legends,” Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts. (1999) University of Pittsburgh. https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/sleep.html. See also: Juleigh Howard-Hobson, “The Mountain Kings.” Counter-Currents (August 16, 2011) https://counter-currents.com/2011/08/the-mountain-kings/

American Classicism

The White House has drafted an executive order that would make neoclassicism the default style for new federal buildings. If the administration follows through it will be cause for celebration. Neoclassicism was the architectural language of American public buildings for two hundred years.

In the post-war period this style has been abandoned in favor of egregious modern designs. Marion Smith of the National Civic Art Society, which proposed the order, tells The New York Times, “For too long architectural elites and bureaucrats have derided the idea of beauty, blatantly ignored public opinions on style, and have quietly spent taxpayer money constructing ugly, expensive, and inefficient buildings.”

The National Civic Art Society is fast becoming one of my favorite organizations. NCAS is also leading the campaign to rebuild Charles McKim’s original Penn Station.

As an aside, I wonder who in the administration is a champion of classicism. Probably not the president himself since we know what his taste in architecture looks like.

Rest in Peace, Sir Roger

Sir Roger Scruton has died. We lose the greatest contemporary English philosopher and an irreplaceable voice for Burkean conservatism. A statement from his family reads:

It is with great sadness that we announce the death of Sir Roger Scruton, FBA, FRSL. Beloved husband of Sophie, adored father to Sam and Lucy and treasured brother of Elizabeth and Andrea, he died peacefully on Sunday 12th January. He was born on 27th February 1944 and had been fighting cancer for the last 6 months. His family are hugely proud of him and of all his achievements. (12.01.2020)

At the time of his death Sir Roger was working on the government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. He had been appointed, removed, and finally reinstated as a commissioner in 2019. I wrote about his appointment at the time.

The commission has now published its report, Living with Beauty. The entire report is compelling, accessible, and worth reading. Its recommendations fall under three broad aims: Ask for Beauty, Refuse Ugliness, and Promote Stewardship. Specific recommendations include a “fast track” for beauty and a “re-greening” of towns and cities.

The report has been received warmly by the government, and if acted upon will be a worthy legacy for Sir Roger who has been a crusader for traditional architecture and urban planning.

Ruskin at 200

RuskinHunt24
John Ruskin (left) with William Holman Hunt circa 1894

The Victorian art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) believed that “wise work” has three characteristics: it is honest, it is useful, and it is cheerful.

Ruskin looked with admiration upon gothic architecture of the High Middle Ages. He determined, writes P.D. Anthony, in John Ruskin’s Labour, “that it required forms of social organization and forms of manual labour that are superior to those of contemporary society” and “which are essential to human development and happiness.” Modest masons and craftsmen working in their own limited spheres had the opportunity “to express themselves in magnificent creations which transcended the humble contributions of ordinary men.”

By 1854 Ruskin was contemplating “a great work” he meant “to write on politics—founded on the thirteenth century.” However Nicholas Shrimpton writes, in The Cambridge Companion to John Ruskin, that by the end of the decade he “had turned away from overt medievalism to a deeper, more implicit use of medieval assumptions. Pre-modern concepts, such as intrinsic value and the ‘just price,’ were applied to modern problems in a series of controversial books and lectures.”

In the 1870s Ruskin founded the Guild of St George. Its mission was to encourage arts education, independent craftsmanship, and sustainable agriculture among the working classes. He attempted to spread the message of the guild through a series of pamphlets collectively titled, Fors Clavigera. Shrimpton writes, “these texts would seek to suggest an alternative to the industrialism, capitalism, and urbanization of modern society.”

Ruskin’s program was the inspiration for the Arts and Crafts movement developed by William Morris in the 1880s. Morris’s philosophy was a somewhat uneasy amalgamation of Ruskinian and Marxist ideas. But Ruskin’s own critique of laissez-faire came from the Right, not the Left. “I am, and my father was before me,” he once wrote, “a violent Tory of the old school,” whose politics were marked by “a most sincere love of kings, and dislike of everybody who attempted to disobey them.” He was a strict Protestant, and although he had a religious crisis in middle age, Anthony writes, his “Christian faith developed and broadened as he grew older.”

From the perspective of the present day, when the interests of labor are considered the purview of the political Left, it is interesting to consider someone who devoted the whole of his considerable talents to the welfare of the working classes, for reasons of traditionalism and noblesse oblige. Shrimpton traces Ruskin’s thought, writing that he was not,

an ancestor of the British Labour Party…Neither the Marxian nor the Fabian branch of English socialism was significantly Ruskinian…his politics and economics belong to a different and more marginal tradition which stretches from the Ultra-Tories and Götzists…of the 1820s and ‘30s, through the Tory Young Englanders of the 1840s, to the Arts and Crafts and ‘back to the land’ movements of the 1880s, and the Guild Socialism and Distributism of the early twentieth century, with partial echoes in some of the Green or Ecological parties of the present day.

This entire “marginal tradition” has been pushed well outside the margins of political debate in the twenty-first century and our civic life seems poorer for it.

Sources:

Anthony, P.D. (1983) John Ruskin’s Labour: A Study of Ruskin’s Social Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ruskin, John. (1866) The Crown of Wild Olive: Three Lectures on Work, Traffic, and War. New York: John Wiley & Son.

Shrimpton, Nicholas. “Politics and economics,” in O’Gorman, Francis (ed). (2015) The Cambridge Companion to John Ruskin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The Dysgenics of War

Jack London writing in Cosmopolitan (November, 1900):

The stronger, the braver, the more indomitable, are selected to go to the wars, and to die early, without offspring. The weaker are sent to the plow and permitted to perpetuate their kind. As Doctor Jordan has remarked, the best are sent forth, the second‑best remain. But it does not stop at this. The best of the second‑best are next sent, and the third‑best is left. The French peasant of today demonstrates what manner of man is left to the soil after one hundred years or so of military selection. Where are the soldiers of Greece, Sparta, and Rome? They lie on countless fields of battle, and with them their descendants which were not.

Villages, Genetics, Genius

In The New York Review of Books this month Freeman Dyson reviews Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies by Geoffrey West. Dyson offers insight into why small cities and villages have historically produced men of genius and why the present-day trend toward mega-cities is almost certainly dysgenic.

If a small population is inbreeding, the rate of drift of the average measure of any human capability scales with the inverse square root of the population. Big fluctuations of the average happen in isolated villages far more often than in cities. On the average, people in villages are not more capable than people in cities. But if ten million people are divided into a thousand genetically isolated villages, there is a good chance that one lucky village will have a population with outstandingly high average capability, and there is a good chance that an inbreeding population with high average capability produces an occasional bunch of geniuses in a short time. The effect of genetic isolation is even stronger if the population of the village is divided by barriers of rank or caste or religion. Social snobbery can be as effective as geography in keeping people from spreading their genes widely.

A substantial fraction of the population of Europe and the Middle East in the time between 1000 BC and 1800 AD lived in genetically isolated villages, so that genetic drift may have been the most important factor making intellectual revolutions possible. Places where intellectual revolutions happened include, among many others, Jerusalem around 800 BC (the invention of monotheistic religion), Athens around 500 BC (the invention of drama and philosophy and the beginnings of science), Venice around 1300 AD (the invention of modern commerce), Florence around 1600 (the invention of modern science), and Manchester around 1750 (the invention of modern industry).

These places were all villages, with populations of a few tens of thousands, divided into tribes and social classes with even smaller populations. In each case, a small starburst of geniuses emerged from a small inbred population within a few centuries, and changed our ways of thinking irreversibly. These eruptions have many historical causes. Cultural and political accidents may provide unusual opportunities for young geniuses to exploit. But the appearance of a starburst must be to some extent a consequence of genetic drift. The examples that I mentioned all belong to Western cultures. No doubt similar starbursts of genius occurred in other cultures, but I am ignorant of the details of their history.

West’s neglect of villages as agents of change raises an important question. How likely is it that significant numbers of humans will choose to remain in genetically isolated communities in centuries to come?

Young England

John_James_Robert_Manners,_7th_Duke_of_Rutland_by_Walter_William_Ouless
John Manners, 7th Duke of Rutland, painted by Walter William Ouless

The minor nineteenth-century poet and political figure Lord John Manners has long seemed to me worthy of reappraisal. That he was a minor poet was a matter of his own inclination. He published two significant volumes as a young man, England’s Trust and Other Poems, in 1841, and English Ballads and Other Poems, in 1850. But although he lived until 1906 he never returned to verse. That he was, in the end, a minor political figure is a loss for Britain.

Manners was a principle member of the conservative Young England group, which he co-founded with George Smythe (later Viscount Strangford) and Alexander Baillie-Cochrane (later Baron Lamington). At Cambridge together in the 1830s, these young men rebelled against Utilitarianism and the new priorities of the Industrial Revolution.

By the mid-nineteenth century industrialization had drastically changed the social order, economy, and landscape of Britain. The nation’s wealth had shifted from the countryside to the cities, taking with it vast populations. The sweet rural economy of manor, cottage, and craft was being undermined by policies that favored heavy industry. A decentralized society based on inherited rights and traditions, in harmony with nature, and built to the human scale was becoming increasingly centralized, mechanized, democratized, and dehumanized.

A generation earlier, Edmund Burke had written that civilization is a partnership between the dead, the living, and the yet unborn. Traditionalists of the nineteenth century viewed the modern project as an unraveling of that partnership. The delicate system of organic institutions and relationships that underpinned the old order could not be swept away without taking with it the civilization it had brought into being. By the time Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837 a number of political figures, artists, philosophers, and theologians were contemplating how traditional society might be recovered. Largely independent of one another they found inspiration in the legacy of the Middle Ages.

Young England fought to restore power to the monarchy, the peerage, and the Church of England. Manners and his friends advocated a romantic revival of feudalism and agrarianism. They promoted the interests of the countryside, its rustic economy, landed gentry, and working classes. They opposed the consolidation of power by a bourgeois oligarchy which had brought with it Blake’s “dark satanic mills,” slum-cities, and class warfare.

The contemporary historian Edward Barrington de Fonblanque painted a charming prose-picture of the type of society that the Young Englanders wished to create:

The nobles of England were once more to occupy their legitimate place around the throne and in the order of chivalry; the Church was to become the revered guardian and benevolent educator of the masses; commerce and industry, literature and art, were to be fostered by generous patronage; and a grateful and contented peasantry, clustering for shelter under the shadow of lordly mansions, were to vary the monotony of their toilful lives by merry dances on the village green, and perennial feasts of roast oxen and barrels of ale provided by their munificent lords and masters, the hereditary owners of the soil.

In 1841, Manners published England’s Trust and Other Poems, dedicated to Smythe. In his book Young England, to date the only book-length history of the movement, Richard Faber described the titular poem as “the most complete manifesto of Young England’s basic philosophy” at that point. Manners recalled to mind “a nobler age”:

When men of stalwart hearts and steadfast faith
Shrunk from dishonour, rather than from death,
When to great minds obedience did not seem
A slave’s condition, or a bigot’s dream…
When kings were taught to feel the dreadful weight
Of power derived from One than kings more great,
And learned with reverence to wield the rod
They dreamed entrusted to their hand by God.

Each knew his place—king, peasant, peer or priest,
The greatest owned connexion with the least;
From rank to rank the generous feeling ran,
And linked society as man to man.

Must we then hearken to the furious cry
Of those who clamour for ‘equality?’
Have not the people learnt how vain the trust
On props like that which crumble into dust?
Are the gradations that have marked our race,
Since God first stamped His likeness on its face,
Gradations hallowed by a thousand ties
Of faith and love, and holiest sympathies,
Seen in the Patriarch’s rule, the Judge’s sway
When God himself was Israel’s present stay,
Now in the world’s dotage to be cast
As week pretences to the howling blast?
No! by the names inscribed in History’s page,
Names that shall live for yet unnumbered years
Shrined in our hearts with Crécy and Poitiers,
Let wealth and commerce, laws and learning die
But leave us still our old Nobility!

When Manners wrote, “leave us still our old Nobility” he did not, of course, mean that his own class alone should endure: he meant the whole system of hierarchy and heredity and mutual loyalty that ensured a place for every man and protected the ancestral rights of the dynastic farmer or craftsman every bit as much as the rights of the dynastic lord. The politics of “equality” not only disenfranchised the nobility but destroyed the protections that the working classes had inherited over generations.

By 1843, Manners, Smythe, and Baillie-Cochrane were all seated in Parliament. They represented a High Tory bloc within the larger Conservative party of which they were members. In a speech to the House of Commons on May 18, 1843, Manners staked out his position, extolling those “principles which, while they would render the Church triumphant, and monarchy powerful, would also restore contentment to a struggling, overworked and deluded people.”  A contemporary summary, in Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, records the substance of the speech. He argued that,

As power was taken away from the mitre and the crown and transferred either to the people in that House or out of it, their physical and moral happiness had been lessened…He would extend the feeling of responsibility between the rich and the poor, and shorten the interval which in his opinion was growing too wide between those for whom wealth was made and those who made it.

Manners campaigned against the Mortmain Act of 1736 which put restrictions on the devising of property to charitable uses. He proposed lifting the law to encourage the establishment of religious houses. He argued that “it is inexpedient, in the present condition of the country, to continue the existing restrictions on the exercise of private charity and munificence.” Manners hoped that by overturning the Act the government could not only facilitate but encourage the founding of charitable religious institutions. “In an age confessedly devoted to money-making,” he said in a speech to Parliament, “I ask you to have the courage to believe in the nobler impulses of our nature; to appeal to the glorious spirit which built our cathedrals, our colleges, our convents.” Although he was unsuccessful in this initial campaign, the law was eventually superseded in 1888, in part through his advocacy.

Like Charles Dickens, in his pamphlet, Sunday Under Three Heads, Manners also argued that the working classes needed more leisure time. If civil society was to be nurtured it would require those conditions of leisure, festival, and camaraderie which were the natural expressions of a healthy community. In his 1843 pamphlet, A Plea for National Holy-Days, Manners asked: “Will the old parish church send out of its time-honoured portals and old men and women, the lads and lasses, to the merry green, where youth shall disport itself, and old age, well pleased, look on? Alas! no. Utilitarian selfishness has well nigh banished all such unproductive amusements from the land.”

In Parliament, Young England attracted the attention of the MP from Shrewsbury, Benjamin Disraeli, who saw its members as potential allies. Disraeli’s own philosophy of “one-nation conservatism,” which he represented in the novels Sybil and Coningsby, grew out of his intellectual relationship with them. It was Disraeli who marshaled the circle into a larger political faction. As the most experienced politician among them he became the de facto leader of the group.

They also attracted the attention of critics. The Morning Herald wrote of Manners and Smythe: “These two gentlemen are the prime movers of Young England; and that tomfoolery is the political offshoot of Tractarianism. Mental dandyism is its chiefest characteristic.” Tractarianism refers to the Oxford Movement in the Church of England. The Tractarians emphasized the broadly catholic inheritance of the Anglican tradition. At its best the movement inspired a revival of piety and ritual in the Church of England. Its apologists demonstrated that Anglicanism had an equal claim of descent from Ancient and Medieval Christianity as the ultramontane Roman Catholic Church, which had, for all intents and purposes, been created at the Council of Trent. (The Anglican Book of Common Prayer predates the Roman Missal by two decades). At its worst the movement displaced our authentic High Church Protestantism with the trappings of nineteenth-century Roman Catholicism; in this it may have done more harm than good.

The members of Young England were all High Anglicans of one school or another. Manners and Smythe in particular belonged to the Oxford Movement. Manners imagined the church engendering new quasi-monastic orders and institutions that would transform industrial cities, providing charitable services and cultural roots to increasingly atomized populations.

Clearly the Young Englanders were romantics. In later years, Baillie-Cochrane wrote that they had desired to lighten the servitude and add to the enjoyments of the people: “in fact, to restore ‘Merrie England.’” They did not accomplish anything so grand. The word “dream” appears often in assessments of the group. De Fonblanque described Young England as “a pretty and harmless dream.” They were not without realism or political skill, however.

During their Parliamentary careers the Young Englanders were engaged in the day-to-day business of government. They had successes and failures. The Factory Act of 1847 which limited the working hours of women and children was passed after years of advocacy by the group.

Young England was not opposed to industrial capitalism per se. Disraeli wanted to unite the “aristocracy of wealth” with the aristocracy of birth and instill in the former the sense of paternalism and noblesse oblige for the working classes that the latter possessed. Manners also wanted the great capitalists to take on a neo-feudal responsibility for their workers. He was impressed by the Grant brothers of Manchester, affluent merchants on whom Dickens had based the magnanimous Cheeryble brothers in Nicholas Nickleby. But Manners doubted that the marketplace could ever produce the stability necessary for the emergence of an actual “aristocracy of wealth.”  He wrote to his brother Granby, after a tour of Manchester cotton mills in 1841, “the worst of this manufacturing feudalism is its uncertainty, and the moment a cotton lord is down, there’s an end to his dependents’ very subsistence: in legislating, this great difference between an agricultural and a trading aristocracy ought not to be lost sight of.” In the 1840s the working population was divided roughly evenly between the traditional economy of the countryside and the new economy of the factory town. The Young Englanders were adamant that this balance not tip too far toward the city. Without the equilibrium of the unchanging rural economy they believed that the protean upheavals of the factory system would lead to social unrest. To this end, Baillie-Cochrane said, “The only way to arrest the march of revolution in this country was to decide at once against all concession…if the agricultural party were only true to themselves, no influence…would be able to destroy them.” Even long after the heyday of Young England, Manners was confident that with proper leadership the “agricultural classes” could “fight for the existing order” against “democratic Revolution.”

In truth the Factory Act was a rearguard action by the agricultural party. By 1847 laws were in place that would cripple the rural economy and put the industrial party firmly in control of Britain’s destiny. The first of these was the Reform Act of 1832 which had stripped parliamentary representation from small rural boroughs and doubled the representation of many industrial cities. The second was the abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846; free traders finally achieved their long-held ambition to remove tariffs on foreign grain, tilting the market to the disadvantage of British farmers.

Young England was dormant by the end of the 1840s. Disraeli went on to political glory, becoming prime minister in 1868, and again in 1874, but by that time he had left Young England behind. Manners had a long, useful, and distinguished career in government under several Conservative administrations. He served as First Commissioner of Works under Lord Derby and Postmaster-General under Disraeli and Lord Salisbury. Disraeli offered him the viceroyalty of India but he declined. His last public office was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster under Lord Salisbury. In 1891, Queen Victoria knighted him to the Order of the Garter. By that point he had inherited his father’s peerage, becoming the seventh Duke of Rutland. Despite prominent careers, however, neither Manners, Smythe, nor Baillie-Cochrane ever controlled policy to the extent that they could advance the agenda of Young England.

Sources:

de Fonblanque, Edward Barrington. (1887) Lives of the Lords Strangford. London: Cassell, Petter, & Galpin.

Faber, Richard. (1987) Young England. London: Faber and Faber.

Manners, Lord John James Robert. (1841) England’s Trust and Other Poems. London: Francis & John Rivington.

Michell, John. (2005) Confessions of a Radical Traditionalist. Waterbury Center [VT]: Dominion Press.

Whibley, Charles. (1925) Lord John Manners and His Friends. Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons.