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The Red King and equality before the law

The idea of one fair law for all, a concept apparently foreign to the current Archbishop of Canterbury, arose in England. We think that the Red King's indirect role in establishing it might interest you.

William Rufus, the third son of William the Conqueror, was red-haired and red-faced and muscular, “a wild bull” who terrified men when he was angry, though at a distance he cut a somewhat absurd figure, with a protruding belly under his short tunic and shoes whose long points “curled like scorpions' tails”. Few laughed, however, when William II made his country tours, “likened by the sufferers to the ravages of an invading army” (Oxford DNB).

The Red King had seized England from an elder brother in a coup d'état and recruited support by distributing the country’s treasure among the barons. He kept his throne by defeating rebellions with ruthless dispatch. He was known to have captured enemies blinded and castrated.

During the last decade of the 11th century, his youngest brother and the Conqueror’s fourth son, Henry, spent some time wandering Normandy penniless. Eventually Henry built a stronghold, and an alliance with William Rufus.

Church historians were not kind to the Red King, partly because of his ribald contempt for Christian teachings and partly because of the heavy taxes he exacted from the Church to pay for his wars and lavish expenditures. On the 2nd of August 1100, he was shot through the heart with an arrow while hunting deer in the New Forest. It was called an accident. Murder suspects included angry Anglo-Saxons who had lost their hunting rights in the forest and his brother Henry, with him at the time.

The Red King’s body was carried by slow wagon to Winchester while Henry raced ahead to secure the King’s fortune and seize the crown before his older brother Robert arrived back from Crusade.


The Tower of London chapel, built by William the Conqueror, 1078. Image: A Short History of the English People, John Richard Green

The eleventh and twelfth centuries were “marked by a novel impulse to explain the cosmos and the everyday world in rational terms” (Oxford DNB). Thinking people who grasped that there were natural laws governing the construction of towers and stone arches concluded that there were natural laws governing the actions and relations of people.

They considered the king was a necessary center of executive power; the problem in England was controlling him if he did not respect Christian teaching. Even if he did, he was unlikely to be perfect, and even if he was, the next king was unlikely to be. The problem extended to any man who had power or wanted it.

An ancestor of the Conqueror’s sons through their mother, Alfred the Great had developed the solution. The challenge was applying it. The oppressive rule of the Red King provided the inspiration. Henry’s avid reach for the crown provided the opportunity for barons and bishops. They realized they had leverage.

In exchange for electing him, rather than his older brother, King of England, they had Henry swear the Coronation Charter, which became known as the Charter of Liberties. On the 5th of August they hastily crowned him in Westminster Abbey. The Charter of Liberties still has the power to surprise -

Know that by the mercy of God and the common counsel of the barons of the whole kingdom of England I have been crowned king of said kingdom; . . .

Remarkably, Henry I admitted that he was king because his barons had agreed to his kingship.

. . .because the kingdom had been oppressed by unjust exactions, I, through fear of God and the love which I have toward you all, in the first place make the holy church of God free, and I take away all the bad customs by which the kingdom of England was unjustly oppressed. . .

In England at that time, freedom of religion meant freedom from the state.

Then Henry made his great promise. It was a simple sentence.

I restore to you the law of King Edward with those amendments introduced into it by my father with the advice of his barons.

In binding himself to the common law established by Alfred the Great and affirmed by Edward, England's last Anglo-Saxon king, Henry established the historic principle that the law was for everyone and that not even the king was above the law. No man or woman was.

The principle that no one is above or beyond the law makes just law possible. It is fair. It embodies the idea that everyone is equal before the law. It is grounded in reason. Its absence is a sure indicator of discrimination and oppression.