Edward Cavanagh is an Isaac Newton Research Fellow in History at Downing College, Cambridge. He works both in history, mostly in the history of ideas and in world history, and in law, with a focus on legal and constitutional history. Switching between epochs and also straddling premodern to modern times, his interdisciplinary work focuses upon scales of government from officeholding to monarchies to empires over the longue durée. For the Royal Studies Journal, he demonstrated this by incorporating rhetorics and literary scholarship into English legal history in order to explain what exactly flowers are doing in the crown – literally.
RSJ Blog: Hi Edward, thank you for doing this interview! You just published your article Flowers of the Crown in English Legal Thought. Metaphorical Assessments of Royal Power in Transitional Periods of Monarchy in the Royal Studies Journal! Often, legal history can be a bit dry, but you managed to find flowers in it – could you please elaborate a bit on that?
Edward: This is a treat for me, Cathleen, because I respect your own work on deposition and the comparative history of monarchy. You are right. Legal history does have a reputation for its dryness. It also has a reputation for the burden it can impose upon readers to grasp immediately the esoteric details of procedural and substantive aspects of the law as it was practised and understood in the past. Both reputations are fairly earned. The challenge, I think, is to approach legal history as a history of ideas. This was something that F. W. Maitland used to harp on about over a century ago, but we appear to have lost our way since then. To continue to see the history of law as the history of ideas, we are able to feel for certain patterns in both the language and the logic of the law reports. We might also be tempted to look beyond the traditional sources of law, as I attempted to do in places here, albeit I think with mixed successes.
RSJ Blog: What are you unsure about? Personally, I think, using a broader approach to sources to really understand law is quite helpful! Although, in my experience, political practice – though based on legal thought – was often times contrary, or at least different, from the ideas and debates in courts and parliaments. What is usually missing is an element of representation, and how normal people on the streets (usually of London) viewed things.
Edward: Indeed it is very sensible to insist that ordinary people experienced the law differently to those judicial officeholders whose job it was to expound that law in court. On the other hand, the case could be made for historians to expand their definitions of ‘law’ to account for both kinds of experiences. Quite whether it’s possible to uphold such an all-encompassing definition of law while attempting to sketch out the contours of a history of legal ideas is another question.
Tomb effigy, in gilt bronze, of Henry III of England (b.1206; d.1272) in the Confessor’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey; by William Torel, about 1292
RSJ Blog: You are approaching legal thought through language and rhetorics and with political culture in mind as well – how difficult was it to combine these different approaches, or was this something which came naturally from the subject of research?
Edward: English legal thought did not appear from nowhere in the early modern period, of course. Its evolution had taken place over many centuries as part of a wider European phenomenon. Rhetoric was a key factor in this development. So too was the ideological clout of the institutional Church across Christendom. We are able to account for many other attributes across the ‘long’ middle ages as well.
Legal thinkers in England, as elsewhere, often prided themselves on the receptivity they showed to foreign ideas. At other times, English legal thinkers were rather protective of the borders established around their own intellectual domain. In a sense, to write the history of English law is to recount the ongoing saga of how generations of lawyers attempted to get this balance right.
By the sixteenth century, English law had become endowed with hundreds of quirky traits. Many of these derived in part or in whole from the beautifully awkward multilingualism of the country. Consider the linguistic lay of the land. As law reporters wrote down the details of common law proceedings in Law French, they seldom did so consistently. As scholars wrote in neo-Latin, they did not always do so particularly well. As scribes and chroniclers moved away from Middle English towards early modern English, they did not immediately care to follow orthographical conventions all that strictly. Once more, to come to the history of law like the history of ideas, it is often necessary (indeed, it is sometimes quite amusing) to observe the movement of concepts between these different languages. (I accept that political thought is little different in this respect to legal thought.)
RSJ Blog: Sounds like the legal scholar in you is searching for cases where the norm and the historical reality match, while the historian in you has long accepted that the norm is basically an idea depending on contexts, languages, and meanings. Does this kind of sum it up?
Edward: That may be right, but if so, then I am far more of a historian than a legal scholar.
RSJ Blog: You trace the expression of „flowers of the crown“ back to the 15th century, although it might have become much more popular under the Tudors and Stuarts. Could you pinpoint moments when the flower metaphor was used more widely, or – the opposite – not used at all?
Edward: While the crowns of English monarchs were often embedded with decorative ‘fleurons’ from the twelfth century onwards, it would not be until the early fifteenth century that the expression ‘flowers of the crown’ was appropriated for poetic, legalistic, and moralistic ends. There may be earlier instances of the expression, but I have not been able to find them. Conventional wisdom holds that the expression emerged out of the unique constitutional predicament of the Tudor-Stuart transition. The expression was indeed used more commonly into the Stuart period, but it is also to be encountered in many pamphlets and reports of the Hanoverian period. It disappears from English vocabulary during the reign of Victoria, and that, I argue, is because the crown itself was becoming a metaphor for the modern administrative state at this moment. Such is the way we are expect to dress the windows of our modern scholarly articles. Really, the purpose of the article was to draw attention to an action brought into the Court of Common Pleas in 1430. I had found it in the Year Books, which is now a much less daunting body of source material to sort through because of the magnificent Seipp Abridgement of Professors David J. Seipp and Carol F. Lee. Chief Justice William Babington is reported to have used the expression to emphasise the temporariness of royal donations (in this particular instance, some jurisdictional privileges conferred in letters patent by Richard II and Henry IV).
RSJ Blog: Using flowers as metaphor also relates to the separation of an individual monarch, restricted by their humanity and mortality, and the everlasting crown, existing beyond and apart from individuals carrying it. In what ways do flowers help to bring this idea forward?
Edward: Of course, you are right. Lawyers had to dance very carefully around this distinction between ‘the king’s two bodies’, and the strategic use of abstract language, through the invocation of cutesy metaphors, could be handy for dullening the thump of their arguments. But the metaphor is more intriguing for me because of its situation between this dichotomy. A flower is organic and begins in the crown, and it can only be enjoyed for as long as it does not decompose, and when it appears to be decomposing, it can no longer be enjoyed and must then be replaced by a new one from the same source. Here we are to come to terms with the finiteness of time that attaches to an expression of royal favour; this does not necessarily require us to read anything else into the formula about the mortality of the individual monarch who may have expressed such a favour in the first place. What it does require, on the other hand, is some acknowledgment that judicial officeholders in courts were the best placed in England to know when to discard or to replant particular flowers.
RSJ Blog: In the end, flowers of the crown refer as such less to the one monarch wearing it, but more to the whole system of government ‘gardening’ – so to speak?
Edward: Very good, even if I am concerned that we are ‘transplanting’ a modern understanding of government into the late Middle Ages.
RSJ Blog: Are there any specific flowers symbolising specific ideas of monarchy, and if so, why are they associated with a specific idea?
Edward: The fleur-de-lis – the heraldic lily – is perhaps the most obvious candidate for consideration in this frame. By the thirteenth century, in both England and France, each of the three petals of this flower had become associated with distinct tenets of the Holy Trinity. It therefore conveyed the need to show reverence to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Long before this, however, the flower had already been imbued with a Christian symbolism, in France, to reflect the endorsement of the king by God. We might say, therefore, that it also conveyed one of the oldest and most established ideas in European political theology about kingship as a royal office holdable only of God.
RSJ Blog: Flowers connecting the sphere of the holy and the worldly powers!
Edward: And more!
RSJ Blog: Indeed – in your article, there are recurrent connections between nature and legal-political authority as well. Were such metaphors used due to an easier understanding of a mostly rural population (as the miller in Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms did), or was there also another understanding of nature behind this?
Edward: Rural folk may never have been party to high-brow discussions in the central courts or in parliament about the prerogatives of the crown, but they came face to face with kings in floriated crowns whenever they held common coins in their hands. And there were many opportunities for ordinary people to come into contact with royal iconography on town streets, at the market, or in church: I think here of seals, effigies, portraits, coats of arms, and even hearsay. On the other hand, what they knew of the virtues of kingship, they mostly experienced through the burdens of taxation, the patchiness of justice, and the vices of lordship. It may be interesting, if inevitably fruitless, to speculate on the extent to which, if at all, some association of a floriated crown with kingship in popular culture mirrored the high legalism of lords temporal, lords spiritual, judges, and serjeants.
Copyright Museums Victoria / CC BY
Photographer: Justine Philip; Museums Victoria
RSJ Blog: I am not so sure if trying to find out what the flower meant to rural or town folk is really fruitless, or, if there might not still be sources we can use to shed light on this question. But this might be a perspective from my own research where the fate of monarchs often was decided by their subjects 😊.
Edward: If we must accept that God had no such control over the fate of monarchs, then we have no choice but to accept that all royal power was determined by subjects. I would only add that some subjects (owing to their birth, education, profession, and comportment) were better suited than other subjects to curtail royal power while giving the convincing impression that such actions were all-the-while lawful. Writing this as the UK Supreme Court begins to ponder both the justiciability and the lawfulness of the Prime Minister’s request of the Queen to prorogue parliament, such a perspective would seem to provide a glimpse into the reality of constitutional monarchy today, too. Crucially, however, questions about executive misconduct and its accountability to judicial review necessitate far less engagement with the crown in the jurisprudence of the United Kingdom today than they did centuries ago in England, when the first judicial chidings of officeholding negligence are to be discovered in the Year Books.
RSJ Blog: Coming from the medieval flowers in the crown full circle to todays politics! Finally, what are you working on right now? Was this article part of a bigger project, or just a curiosity you found in your research material?
Edward: This article was a happy distraction from larger ongoing projects of mine on the development of English legal thinking about war, monarchy, and the constitutional separation of church and state. It had an unusual trajectory before publication. I had originally prepared the article to appear as a short corrective to J. W. Gough’s appearance in the Notes and Comments section of the English Historical Review. Contrary to decades of convention and the editorial policy laid out on that journal’s own website, I was informed by the managing editors that a distinct Notes and Comments section in the English Historical Review ‘no longer exists’. This had been my favourite section of that journal, where quick findings and correctives could be displayed for curious readers. I immediately thought of Notes & Queries, an outlet which has published antiquarian and historical research of exactly this kind for centuries (some of which I had even cited in my own article!). But I was told that my piece was ‘not of wide enough interest for N&Q’. Undeterred, I resolved to expand the article and try my hand with a journal more committed to interdisciplinary thematic research. The Royal Studies Journal was perfect for this end and I am very glad to have published my article here. May this journal be produced, published, and read for as long as its editorial policy remains to impose no restrictions upon authors owing to some perception of ‘audience interest’. As historians, we need outlets that discriminate on research, not on topic. I am under no illusions about the popularity of my research. If only 10 or 20 people bother to read my article, so be it.
Thank you for your engagement!
RSJ Blog: Thanks for this interview, and we’re happy to fill in an open gap left by the EHR, and especially due to our focus on all things royal – be they legal, political, representations, or flowers in the crown! We’re curious about your further research, and hope to see it then in the bookshops where it will certainly find its readership!