Mankind has a history of hierarchical political systems. Whether you call him them King, Czar, or Emperor the source of power in this system comes from God (which god, of course, depends on where and when you are crowned), and from him to the people.
God chose who would be King, who would be Nobles and who would be the Peasants; you are who you are because God made you that way. Peasants owed fealty to their Lord and King, Nobles owed fealty to the King. You swore an othe to the King, people, not to a country. There were no country loyalties in the old order, there was only loyalty to the King; treason, for example, was disloyalty to the King! The idea of a nation was a concept that wasn’t really in existence, you simply had a Kingdom.
So, you see, the King is your everything.
Embedded in this old order is the belief that the King gives you your rights. Everything you have is all given to you from the King, every right you have comes from him. It is easy to see that if the King gives ‘em to ya he can take ‘em away. If he believes it is best for the country to take your land, your animals, your head, he has the right to. No trial, no jury, just Kingly justice. They were his in the first place to be given out, they are still his now to be taken back.
“I as King deem it best for my kingdom that I should take your car. It pollutes the earth and hurts others so I have decided that you will give it up. No recompense, I’m just taking it.”
So how did this change? It began in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings.
No, really, it did.
The Duke of Normandy (a French Duke) managed to win the battle and gain the right to the English crown. With him came the ideals of the Greeks and Romans. Prior to the Norman invasion the English were a very Germanic people, with the very tribal and hierarchical ideals that the Germans had maintained. The Anglo-Saxons of Germany had never been conquered by the Romans, had never integrated the theories of the Latin thinkers. The French, on the other hand, had assimilated that thinking; Greco-Roman thinking included such ideas as Democracy and of Republics. With this new King came an influx of these new ideas.
King Henry the 2nd, in the 12th century, takes England another step on the road away from hierarchy as he begans to consolidate power in his own hands and away from the individual fiefdoms. But that seems counter to movement away from hierarchy! Yes, but go with me here. He consolidated his own power by removing certain judicial powers from the Nobles; he instituted the Kings Court where a level of common law (or equality before the law) applied across the kingdom. That meant that if you could eat the apples hanging over the road in Suffolk, you couldn’t be arrested for the same thing in Dorset.
Okay, great, so what? Prior to the Kings Court each fiefdom had the right to make its own laws; each had its own set of punishments for those laws, and there was no knowing what those laws may be from one day to the next. With the new courts there is a pattern of sameness everywhere. A peasant may be a peasant but now he has certain rights that he carries with him that are the same for him as they are for the guy down the street.
It also illustrates the fight between the Nobles and the King. The Nobles had always maintained a degree of autocracy in their individual fiefdoms. The Nobles had rights and freedoms that they wanted to protect; rights like not paying taxes, and not being forced into military service. But those rights were a threat to the total control of the King and the nobles began to fear that a strong king would begin to take those rights away. In 1215, with a weak king on the throne, the Nobles forced King John to sign the Magna Carta.
The Magna Carta introduces the idea that some rights are given, not by the King, but by God; and since they were given to the Nobles by God the King had no right, or ability, to take them away. This is a document laying out the idea that some rights are natural rights. The rights laid out were very specific to the Nobility and had nothing to do with the peasants, but the point is that they were there. There and written down! (This is important, remember it.)
This written document told the King you can’t do this, this or this, limiting the Kings power and tilting the hierarchy slightly sideways. Now, no one paid much attention to it for about 400 years, but the point is that the step was taken.
In 1381 the peasants start to get into the mix a bit. The Black Plague had reduced the numbers of able bodied men to work, and the peasants finally had the gumption to demand better pay and conditions for themselves. The peasants started to get in on the idea that they had the right not to be treated so badly and rebelled. (To read more, this is a good place to start.)
The point of the rebellion came down to an idea that no peasant had before voiced. From a priest named John Ball comes a sermon that sums up the new idea of peasants natural rights:
When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?
From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men.
For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free.
And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may ( if ye will ) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.
Next up, from the Reformation to the Glorious Revolution. Background, ain’t it grand?