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Constitutional Theocracy

David Cowles

Mar 2, 2023

“Sadly, the option of a ‘Constitutional Theocracy’ hasn’t made it into most 21st century civics textbooks.”

Democracy, Republic, Monarchy, Dictatorship – we’ve ‘known them all already, known them all’! Sadly, the option of a ‘Constitutional Theocracy’ hasn’t made it into most 21st century civics textbooks. Yet, it offers a viable alternative to the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ (above). 

On February 21, 2023, we explored England’s resilient national identity. Contrary to popular assumption, the English monarchy did not begin with William the Conqueror (1066); but neither do we need to seek out the ‘once and future’ King Arthur. 

Anglo-Saxon England had a long line of kings (21 by most counts) stretching back from 1066 to Egbert (802 CE). Prior to uniting most of what is now Southern England and part of Wales, Egbert served in the French court of Charles the Great.

Remember Charlemagne? He was on the front lines of the struggle between ecclesiastical and secular authority in Medieval Europe. Apparently, Egbert paid attention in class. 

According to the miserable standards set by today’s so-called ‘statemen’ (sic), the Anglo-Saxon (and Danish) kings of England were exceptional rulers. For the most part, they were learned, pious, effective, and benevolent.  (When was the last time you used these adjectives together to describe a politician?)

The 9th century CE was book ended by two signature events – the Coronation of Charles the Great in 800 and the death of Alfred the Great in 899. These two men are in no small part responsible for what is often regarded by historians as the ‘First (or Carolingian) Renaissance’. 

Of the early English monarchs, Alfred is by far the best known…and for good reason. He reigned for 28 years (871 – 899) and was simultaneously a social reformer, an educator, a lawgiver, and a poet. In short, he was in every way what we think of today as the paradigmatic Medieval sovereign.

Alfred is a real life, strictly historical, symbol of Anglo-Saxon England: King Arthur freed from Avalon! Alfred played a crucial role in the development of English national identity, an identity that survived both the Danish and the Norman conquests. Alfred was the first to describe himself as Angelcynn, a term meaning both ‘King of England’ and ‘People of England’. 

Alfred oversaw (and perhaps participated in) the translation of important manuscripts, including the Bible, from Latin into Anglo-Saxon (Old English). He ‘suggested’ that primary and secondary education be conducted in Anglo-Saxon, reserving Latin for those pursuing a career in the Church.  As such, he ensured the survival and growth of the native tongue and, along with Geoffrey Chaucer 500 years later, is jointly credited with its survival in the face of linguistic incursions from the Continent.

Alfred is perhaps best known for his compendium of Anglo-Saxon law, the Domboc, which situates secular England squarely in the mainstream of Judeo-Christian legal tradition. The Domboc begins with a modified restatement of the Decalogue (from Exodus); but while acknowledging English secular law as the continuation and amplification of God’s law, Alfred feels free to modify the Exodus text as necessary to fit the exigencies of his realm. 

For example, he drops two commandments, the 6th (vs. adultery) and the 10th (vs. coveting a neighbor’s wife) altogether. For all his achievements, apparently Alfred was not woke

He also modified the 9th commandment against coveting a neighbor’s property by inserting a single phrase, mid unryhte (‘with injustice’) at the very end of the text. Perhaps unknowingly, Alfred was laying the legal groundwork for contract law…with a free market economy to follow: Covet all you want…within the bounds of justice.

All of which left Alfred two commandments short of a Decalogue.  (According to Variety, Charlton Heston turned down the role of Moses in The Eight Commandments. So Alfred had to do something!)

To make up for this shortfall, Alfred split the First Commandment in two: “You will not love false gods over me” (#1) and “You will not create gods of gold or silver” (#10). Then, like many a well-meaning parent, Alfred slipped in a commandment against lying in general (#6) where none exists in the Exodus text.

Ask any 4th grade Religious Ed class whether the Ten Commandments forbid lying and count the forest of hands raised. (In fact, the Decalogue only prohibits bearing false witness against a neighbor…in other words, perjury. ‘The dog ate my homework’ is not perjury…unless you look at it from the pup’s perspective.)

So to be clear, according to Alfred’s code, adultery is ok, but lying isn’t. How 20th century of him! 

The remainder of Alfred’s code, the bulk of it, is what you might expect from the 9th century: a long list of specific transgressions paired with specific punishments – a list of Dos and Don'ts like a parent might post on the dreaded refrigerator door.

Depending on your point of view, Alfred is either a social reformer set on humanizing ‘barbaric’ customs (e.g., Lex Talionis) or he is himself the ‘barbarian’, modifying but not outlawing slavery and discriminating among people according to their station.

Either way, the Domboc is everywhere couched in the language of Exodus. That said, the Domboc is not so much a translation as it is a ‘transplantation’. It is the Torah (second millennium BCE) projected 2500 years out onto Medieval England.

Accordingly, Alfred’s most lasting contribution may be in the realm of Political Philosophy. Amid a welter of competing models (above), he proposes something new, something that I call ‘Constitutional Theocracy’ (in contrast to the ‘Constitutional Monarchy’ of Charles III or the ‘Absolute Monarchy’ of James I.

In orthodox Islamic states (e.g., modern Iran), Sharia typically limits the legislative function to the implementation of the Koran. Alfred’s law code is steeped in Torah, but everywhere modified to reflect contemporary notions of justice and to incorporate the secular traditions of the Angelcynne (the English people). It is a codification of English common law, built on a foundation of God’s Torah, ergo a ‘Constitutional Theocracy’.         


Image: Alfred. The British Library (Public domain).

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