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Sovereigns selected and deselected


Edward the Confessor holding the ring that symbolizes the covenant between the people and the king. (From the Wilton Triptych)

Britain's colourful and often confusing pagaeant of kings - a jumble of Edwards, Richards and Henrys, and one John - obscures the deeper lesson - Brits entered into a covenant with each sovereign and had to depose many monarchs who broke their Coronation Oaths.

Reflecting the idea of a covenant between people and sovereign, a number of monarchs were selected for the throne - rather than inheriting it outright - and even more were 'deselected' - deposed because they had broken their Coronation Oaths in a variety of ways. They had imposed unjust laws, provided inefficient or corrupt justice, exacted high taxes, played favourites to an excessive degree or tried to turn the country over to foreign powers. You'll notice the modern echoes.

A list of these sovereigns follows. At the end we make a few comments about The Queen and the British people.

SELECTED Alfred (871-899) is the great pre-Norman example of a king selected by the Witan, which passed over his elder brother's son.

SELECTED Alfred's grandson AEthelstan (924-940) was first chosen king by the Mercians, and later named king of Britain by an assembly of less powerful rulers. He held his kingdom together with ‘national assemblies, in which every local interest was represented' (DNB). This Anglo-Saxon way of doing things bears some resemblance to the election of a president.

SELECTED Edgar (959-975) the great-grandson of Alfred the Great, was confirmed king by a conclave of magnates, and was the first to swear the Coronation Oath in the coronation ceremony created by St Dunstan that is still used today. Edgar swore - "First, that the church of God and the whole Christian people shall have true peace at all time by our judgment; second, that I will forbid extortion and all kinds of wrong-doing to all orders of men; third, that I will enjoin equity and mercy in all judgments."

SELECTED Edward the Confessor (1053-1066) was invited by English magnates to return from exile and become king. On his death the magnates elected Harold.

DESELECTED William II (1087-1100), the son of William the Conqueror, was "deselected" by an arrow in the heart. Whether an accident or an assassination, almost everyone saw it as a fitting conclusion to his reign. William Rufus had seized common lands to enlarge the New Forest, where he died, and had plundered the church and people.

SELECTED Henry I (1100-1135) was crowned king when his brother died, in preference to his elder brother Robert. He agreed to affirm the Coronation Charter, now known as the Charter of Liberties, and its essential principle - no one, not even the king, is above the law.

SELECTED Henry II (1154-1189) was selected to rule after Stephen.

DESELECTED John (1199-1216) broke his Coronation Oath by trying to turn England into a fiefdom of the Pope and by not giving justice. He was forced to affirm Magna Carta. When he resisted, the "Holy Army of God" marched against him, with the citizens of all the major towns in support. John died during the campaign.

TEMPORARILY DESELECTED Henry III (1216-1272) was made a prisoner when he refused to uphold Magna Carta and the Provisions of Oxford and Westminster. The struggle that ensued saw the birth of Parliament.

DESELECTED Edward II (1284-1327) was deposed due to extravagant favouritism and his refusal to carry through on promises of reform, including "ejecting evil counsellors". His government 'could not be mended, only ended' (DNB). Edward resigned his throne in favour of his son.

DESELECTED Richard II (1377-1399) troubled the House of Commons with his heavy taxation and his inner circle of ministers. Richard's claims of prerogative were backed by the courts, but not by the people or the lords, who executed his favourites. Richard regained power, and violated Magna Carta. Parliament charged Richard with breaking his Coronation Oath, and thereby breaking the legal bond between himself and his people (DNB). He was deposed "by authority of the clergy and people" with the help of Henry Bolingbroke.

DESELECTED Henry VI (1421-1471) inherited the throne when he was a baby. He was more interested in promoting education - he established Eton and King's College, Cambridge - than in ruling. He could not control greedy courtiers, remedy his court's inefficiency and lack of accountability, provide fair and effective justice or arrange an honourable peace with France. War resumed, trade collapsed, Henry had a breakdown and was deposed.

TEMPORARILY DESELECTED Edward IV (1461-1470, 1471-1483) Rebellions to his rule arose due to high taxes, a greedy court circle and lax justice, and the thorny Wars of the Roses. Edward was forced to flee to the Netherlands, mounted a successful invasion and reestablished his authority in Britain. Unfortunately he was indifferent to the concept of parliament, elevated persons rather than the law and created the new and unlawful tax invention of 'benevolences', an early example of double-speak.

DESELECTED Richard III (1483-1485 ) Richard of Gloucester shockingly usurped the throne from his young nephew. Although Parliament approved his coronation, his reign was marked by large-scale seizures of land, unstable factionalism and rebellion. He was deselected at the battle of Bosworth.

DESELECTED Charles I (1625-1649) engaged in a great battle with Parliament over his belief in an absolute kingship superior to constitutional law. He tried to impose taxes without Parliament's approval, and ignored the right to petition government for redress of grievances. Charles lost the subsequent Civil War and the battle of ideas and was beheaded.

SELECTED Charles II (1660-1685), the exiled son of Charles I, was invited back to Britain to serve as King.

DESELECTED James II (1685-1688) succeeded to the throne on the death of his brother Charles, but was forced to flee when English cities rose in rebellion. The people believed that he was trying to disarm those who opposed him and reinstate Catholicism.

SELECTED William and Mary (1689-1694) were invited to rule England by "A People's Convention". Mary and William were accepted when they affirmed the liberties described in the Declaration of Right as part of their covenant with the people.

DESELECTED IN AMERICA George III (1760-1820) retained his crown to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, but Brits in America rejected his rule over the issues of taxes, the right to be armed and the right to self-government. They believed he had broken his Coronation Oath and covenant with them. It's poignant that George III made the most precise and eloquent statement about the Coronation Oath - "I can give up my crown and retire from power. I can quit my palace and live in a cottage. I can lay my head on a block and lose my life, but I cannot break my Oath. If I violate that Oath, I am no longer legal Sovereign in this country".

No crowned monarch has been forced from the throne for breaking his Coronation Oath since the Glorious Revolution. Edward VIII (1936) abdicated, but as he was never crowned he never swore the Coronation Oath. This leads us to a question of the utmost importance to the British Constitution in the 21st century.

Edward and his brother, the future George VI, received the same education. Their tutor was chosen for his sporting abilities. They learned little in the way of mathematics, literature or history. Frances Donaldson wrote that Edward had ‘only the haziest notions of the behaviour proper to a constitutional monarch’ (Oxford DNB).

To be blunt, do the Windsors understand the Coronation Oath and the Sovereign's right to Refuse Royal Assent to Parliamentary bills?

The Coronation Oath and the Sovereign's pledge to protect the laws and customs of the British people is part of the British Constitution as we understand it and, more significantly, as it has been understood for centuries. If the Sovereign refuses to protect the laws and liberties of the people, he has broken his Oath, and in the inimitable words of George III, is "no longer legal Sovereign in this country".

The sovereign's refusal of Royal Assent to a Parliamentary bill is the most notable way of protecting the people from the overweening powers and stupidities of Parliament. The Royal Assent has not been refused for some time, but this is because bills were withdrawn before Queen Victoria and Edward VII were obliged to refuse their Assent.

What is the point of a Royal Assent if The Queen cannot refuse to give it?

And why did The Queen give her Royal Assent to the Lisbon Treaty, which is an EU constitution that subverts Britain's sovereignty and common law?

It is the people, not Parliament, who give The Queen her constitutional authority. She had a constitutional obligation to refuse the Treaty. We note that to date three presidents of European countries have refused to sign the Treaty.

Britain once had a constitutional government in which the powers of the executive - the Sovereign - were balanced and checked by Parliament and the Courts. Equally the Sovereign and the Courts checked and balanced the powers of Parliament. Balance, counterpoise and equilibrium were the ideals and the reality.

The latest events suggest that Parliament has become sovereign and there is no power to check or balance it. Unchecked, any power quickly becomes tyrannical.

This government is unpopular. Constitutionally The Queen has the power to dissolve Parliament so that a new government may be established in a General Election. However, it is unlikely that The Queen will take this step unless the government loses a vote of confidence. In other words, it is up to the people to act.

As our list of deselected monarchs shows, the people corrected sovereigns who had broken their covenant. This often took them some time, but eventually Brits realized that they had to become the "masters of their fates".

This post has been rewritten.