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Forgers of Law and Their Readers: The Crafting of English Political Identities between the Norman Conquest and the Magna Carta

  • Bruce R. O'Brien (a1)

A short time after 1206 and before 1215, a Londoner assembled a massive collection of older and near contemporary English laws, called the Leges Anglorum by historians, and inserted long interpolations and spurious codes that enunciated many of the principles that guided the baronial opposition to King John and later became part of the Magna Carta. To those familiar with the struggle leading up to the creation of the Magna Carta, these principles should cause no surprise. These ancient laws were made to proclaim that “in the kingdom right and justice ought to reign more than perverse will” (ECf4, 11.1.A.6; Liebermann 1903, 635). In another part of the collection, King Arthur, making his first appearance in English law, is credited with establishing as law the requirement that all nobles, knights, and freemen of the whole kingdom of Britain swear “to defend the kingdom against foreigners and enemies” (ECf4, 32.A.5–7; Liebermann 1903, 655). More surprising is the attribution of the regularly assembled Hustings court in London to the Trojans (who became the Britons). The seventh-century West Saxon king, Ine, suddenly looms large in the ranks of Britain's lawmakers; he not only reigns for the good of all, but is also given the lordly virtues of twelfth-century chivalric romance: he is “generous, wise, prudent, moderate, strong, just, spirited, and warlike” (as was appropriate for the time and place) (ECf4, 32.C.2, 32.C.8; Liebermann 1903, 658–59). A confection of bits of other law, attributed here to King Alfred, orders an end to vice, national education for freemen, and unity for all “as if sworn brothers for the utility of the kingdom” (Leges Angl, Pseudo-Alfred 1–6; Liebermann 1894, 19–20). Finally, in the grandest statement of English political ambition, Arthur appears again as the great conqueror, whose spirit was not satisfied by Britain alone: “Courageously and speedily he subjugated all Scandinavia, which is now called Norway, and all the islands beyond, namely Iceland and Greenland, which belong to Norway, Sweden, Ireland, Gotland, Denmark, Samland, Vinland, Curland, Runoe, Finland, Wirland, Estland, Karelien,Lapland, and all other lands and islands of the eastern Ocean as far as Russia” (ECf4, 32.E; Liebermann 1903, 659).

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PS: Political Science & Politics
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