Last week, the art exhibit, Canaletto: Celebrating Britain, finished its run at the Holburne Museum in Bath (it opens later this month in Kendal for three months, for anyone interested and able to travel to Kendal). I enjoy Canaletto’s work, but I’m far from an art expert, nor am I particularly an art lover (I just love someone who loves art), and this is not an article about art, or about Canaletto. 🙂
In the final room of the exhibit at the Holburne Museum, there were some paintings of Alfred the Great. I don’t know whether they were part of the Canaletto exhibit, or whether the Canaletto exhibit had taken over the other parts of that room, and these were just residing in their usual home. If there was a connection to Canaletto, I missed it — but this isn’t about Alfred the Great, either, but rather about a caption next to one painting.
A “Legal Fact”
The caption said that Alfred, who lived and reigned in the second half of the 9th century, was commonly believed to be the founder of University College, Oxford. It says, “This apocryphal claim became legal fact in 1728.”
Hardly anyone, anymore, believes that Alfred founded University College. Hastings Rashdall (The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages, 1895) wrote:
It was to extricate themselves from their legal embarrassments, by procuring the evocation of their cause to the Royal Council-chamber, that the Master and Scholars of University first devised the impudent fiction of a Royal Foundation by Alfred the Great, which has now become part of the law of England by a decision of the court of king’s bench.
His footnote goes on to describe this as “a characteristic illustration of the way in which English lawyers have manipulated history.” A court decision created “legal fact” about historical events some 800 years earlier.
University College no longer makes this claim, now saying it “owes its origins to William of Durham who died in 1249.” The Alfred story is one “apocryphal claim” which is completely spurious — yet it became “legal fact.”
But “legal facts” can’t change history. Lawyers may scheme, courts may make their decisions, politicians may legislate, but when “legal facts” overstep the bounds of what law can actually do, they simply become legal folly. Legal declarations have no power to change events that happened hundreds of years ago.
“Legal facts” can’t change science. The legendary story of King Canute and the Waves is often told, but often forgotten by those with legal power. Governments may decree, but the waves will still come in and crash upon the shore, the tide will still rise and fall.
Nor can “legal facts” change economic truth. Whether a family or a government, you can’t spend more money than comes in, year after year, decade after decade, without unpleasant consequences. Eventually, you pay your debts, or no one will loan you more money. You then have the option of losing your possessions or stealing from others (by fraud, force, or extortion). The “legal fact” of European Monetary Union is facing economic reality, and no one knows where the legal follies will end.
“Legal facts” can’t change moral truth, either. Fortunately, moral authority does not reside with those who rise to governmental power. The policies and practices of Caligula and Nero, of Genghis Khan, of Hitler and Mussolini, of Stalin, of Idi Amin or Saddam Hussein, of any person with civil authority, never became moral just because they wielded legal authority.
Legal authority can force historical books, science texts, and even religious / moral / philosophical documents to be rewritten, but in these realms there is no such thing as a “legal fact.” The facts are the facts, whatever the law might say.
The Arrogance of Legal Power
We live in a world where the kernel of truth depicted by King Canute’s legend is often neglected. Those with political and legal power build their houses and their thrones on the sand, ordering the tide to stop, creating their own “legal facts” and pretending that they’ve changed reality.
Politicians may have the power to legislate what will be taught in science textbooks about the origins of the world in which we live, but no legislation can do away with the scientific difficulties of modern evolutionary theory. No legislation or court ruling can do away with the biological fact that men and women are different, and that there is a huge gulf between the God-ordained union of husband and wife and the other kinds of relationships that people have developed.
Lawyers, judges, and legislators can’t redefine morality, right and wrong, any more than they can turn back the pages of history and change what happened, and it takes a special kind of hubris to think they can. The fact that someone holds high office does not make them more moral than anyone else, nor does it give them the right to override Biblical morality. It is astounding egotism to think you have the right to dictate what is morality for everyone else, overturning religious beliefs and thousands of years of historical precedent, simply because you have been given legal power.
The real problem of those with legal power in Western societies today is not that they don’t understand science, economics, history, or morality. Their problem is pride — unlike King Canute, they don’t understand the limits of their own power. They create “legal facts” that simply illustrate their arrogance in regard to their own power and their ignorance of the areas in which they legislate. They order the tide not to rise without even understanding that the waves won’t listen.
Sometimes Christians get caught up in debating “the issues” on these matters, but the real issue is pride. “Those that walk in pride He (God) is able to abase.” Thus said Nebuchadnezzar after he learned that painful lesson.
28 All this came upon the king Nebuchadnezzar.
29 At the end of twelve months he walked in the palace of the kingdom of Babylon.
30 The king spake, and said, Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power, and for the honour of my majesty?
31 While the word was in the king’s mouth, there fell a voice from heaven, saying, O king Nebuchadnezzar, to thee it is spoken; The kingdom is departed from thee.
32 And they shall drive thee from men, and thy dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field: they shall make thee to eat grass as oxen, and seven times shall pass over thee, until thou know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will.
33 The same hour was the thing fulfilled upon Nebuchadnezzar: and he was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws.
34 And at the end of the days I Nebuchadnezzar lifted up mine eyes unto heaven, and mine understanding returned unto me, and I blessed the most High, and I praised and honoured him that liveth for ever, whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom is from generation to generation:
35 And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?
36 At the same time my reason returned unto me; and for the glory of my kingdom, mine honour and brightness returned unto me; and my counsellors and my lords sought unto me; and I was established in my kingdom, and excellent majesty was added unto me.
37 Now I Nebuchadnezzar praise and extol and honour the King of heaven, all whose works are truth, and his ways judgment: and those that walk in pride he is able to abase.