Do we owe our democracy to coincidence?

Serendipity can sometimes be more than merely serendipitous. A few days ago, for example, my next-door neighbour reminded me that three months ago, in June, those who know about such things celebrated the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, the medieval document that most jurists and constitutional experts consider to have been the first genuine, pragmatic step towards the formation of the parliamentary system of government and the rule of civil law under which we live in North America today.

The reference, coming as and when it did, had a peculiar resonance for me because I had been surprised to discover, mere days earlier in the course of a media interview, that I couldn’t remember some of the plot details from one of my own books. That had never happened before, and it worried me until I realized that I hadn’t actually read the book in question since it was published.

It’s a novel called “Standard of Honour” and it deals with the events of the 12th-Century war in the Levant known as the Third Crusade, which pitted a European army commanded by King Richard I of England, Richard the Lionhearted, against Saladin, the first sultan of Egypt and Syria, in a confrontation that eventually led to the expulsion of the Christian armies from the territories known as the Holy Land.

Richard never returned home after the Crusade. He died in Europe, probably by assassination, and was succeeded by his brother King John, the villain of every Robin Hood tale ever told. A disastrous king, John became known as John Lackland, because through his own ineptitude and arrogant bungling he lost or forfeited all of his family’s enormous possessions in France, among them the great medieval Dukedoms of Aquitaine, Anjou, Normandy and Gascony.

John antagonized and alienated everyone with whom he had dealings, including the Pope and the Catholic Church (there were no Protestants in those pre-Lutheran centuries) plus his own immensely powerful barons. In the case of the barons, his single-minded attempts to suppress their rights and privileges, together with the rapacious taxes he imposed upon them, incensed them to the point where they rebelled against him.  Once thus combined in rebellion, they were too strong a force for John to withstand, and eventually, at an island in the River Thames called Runnymede, they forced him to accept, and attach his royal signature to, a set of documents that has become known collectively as Magna Carta, the Great Charter.

So why should you care about any of that? Well, the signing of the Great Charter marked the earliest beginnings of what we now know as constitutional monarchy, and it guaranteed, among other things, the right of every person to a fair trial, embodied in what we call habeus corpus today. Everyone has heard of habeus corpus, but very few people understand it. On its most simple level, though, habeus corpus safeguards the rights of ordinary people against arbitrary and lawless action by the state.

Magna Carta has been changed beyond credence over the intervening centuries, but the basic rights established by it and within it, governing the rights of kings and commoners alike, have become fundamental principles of international human rights and there are distinguished thinkers all over the world who will argue strongly that democratic societies—all of them—owe their emergence and existence to King John’s barons and the way they forced the monarch to sign that document 800 years ago.

John’s brother Richard, though, was an even bigger anomaly in some ways than John was, and that’s what got me thinking about serendipity. If Richard had come safely home from the Crusades, then the Barons’ Rebellion would probably never have occurred, and that, in turn, suggests that Magna Carta might never have been drawn up in the first place, let alone signed into law…

As for me not remembering my own book, that looks nonsensical, I know. I wrote the thing in the first place, so I ought to remember it clearly. But it doesn’t quite work that way. In a previous column here I talked about how easy it becomes, during the editing process, to lose sight of the size and scope of the overall book when you are focusing your attention increasingly, for months on end, on refining and perfecting smaller and smaller details of story and plot.

That’s why authors will walk around for days after their new book is published, cradling the newborn as tenderly as any other proud parent—because they had actually forgotten that their much-amended and emended manuscript would one day be a real, bound book.

At the time that “Standard of Honour” was published, I was already so far into my next book that I simply never got around to reading the newly published one. I’m reading it now, though, eight years later. And I’m happy to say I’m enjoying it, too, because it reads like something somebody else wrote. Now that’s serendipity.