First published in A School History of England (1911) by C.R.L Fletcher and Rudyard Kipling and in all subsequent school and non-school editions of the book. It was used to close Chapter IV, ‘Henry II to Henry III, 1154-1272; The Beginnings of Parliament,’ where it carries the present title “My Father’s Chair.” The same chapter also contains “The Reeds of Runnymede,” the two poems being closely linked thematically. It was reprinted in I.V., 1919, when the sub-title was added; in D.V., 1940; the Sussex Edition, vol. 34; and the Burwash Edition, vol. 27. In ORG it is numbered 978(h). For the Sussex, one slight correction was made to the text. In line 11, the first letter of chair was capitalised, bringing it in line with the usage in the rest of the poem.
The subject of the poem is the early attempt to establish an English parliament (and an English constitution ) in the thirteenth century. This is presented as a long evolutionary process, its major stages being the law reforms initiated by Henry II, the revolt of the Barons against King John leading to the signing of the Magna Charta in 1215, and the first parliaments formed during the reigns of Henry III and Edward I. For further relevant details, see the notes to “The Reeds of Runnymede,” the poem immediately preceding ‘My Father’s Chair’ in the School History.
“My Father’s Chair” is concerned very specifically with the rebellion of the barons, led by Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester (1208-65) against King Henry III (1216-72). In the years 1264-5 de Montfort virtually replaced the king as ruler of England. During that period he tried to set up a general assembly (or parliament) which was to consist of representatives of all classes of people who would consult together and advise the monarch. The experiment was very much a continuation of the unfinished business of the Magna Charta. It was also an important step forward.
Both Fletcher and Kipling regarded these events as crucial points in the creation of a highly distinctive English constitution, and, therefore, as largely responsible for the gradual, and relatively peaceful, development of England’s (and later Britain’s) political and social institutions. They shared the view, common then and now, that the English parliament was one of the nation’s most important contributions to the development of democratic ideals throughout the world. They also understood that because this constitution was unwritten it was regarded by many people as weak and ineffective. This was a view they always fiercely opposed.
Here is Fletcher explaining the situation and defending the Constitution’s continuing relevance in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries:
When in later years we have talked big about about the
immortal “British Constitution,” we have always meant the
British system of parliamentary government, and always
regarded the barons of 1215 as its founders and fathers.
We have asked this Constitution to give during the last
eighty years the strongest proof of its immortality by
altering it every day, until its founders and fathers would
not recognise it; so much so that a witty French writer has
said that it “does not exist,” by which he means that King
and Parliament can make in it from hour to hour any
change which they please. Most people have considered
this to be a great virtue in our Constitution, which can thus
adapt itself to the changing needs of changing times; others
think that such a virtue may be carried too far.
[An Introductory History of England, vol., 1, 1904, pp. 182-3.]
Fletcher’s allusion to the constant alterations to the Constitution over the previous eighty years refers to the various stages in the extension of the franchise which, by the time the School History was published, had already created a one-man-one-vote system and a current, very active compaign by women to be included in the new electoral process.
Kipling’s response to the poetic challenge posed to him by Fletcher was to focus all of the issues involved – political, social, democratic, judicial – in one plain domestic image. It is a good example of his great skill at communicating highly complex ideas in a simple effective manner. A father, sitting on a very ordinary chair, is teaching his young son one of life’s fundamental lessons. In a tone that is homely, down-to-earth, even hearty at times, he explains why his son can, and should, always rely on a four-legged chair ( or constitution) and why he must never trust a chair (or constitution) that lacks any of those four essential safeguards.
©Peter Keating 2006 All rights reserved