James Lloyd visits the Isle of Man to observe a tradition going back to Viking times, a tradition that was once much more common in the British Isles than it is today.
Every year, on the fifth of July, thousands of Manxmen (and not a few tourists) gather in the village of Saint John’s, congregating around a four-tiered artificial hill. Around the levels of the hill sit the captains of the parishes, the members of the House of Keys and the Legislative Council and, right at the top, the President of the Council, the Lord Bishop of Sodor and Man and the Lieutenant-Governor, representative of Her Majesty the Queen, Lord of Man.
This is the Midsummer Court, a special joint-session of the Tynwald, the parliament of Man. The Isle’s unfortunate position, tucked in between Britain and Ireland, meant that in the early middle-ages, as British, Anglo-Saxon, Pictish, Irish, Scottish (themselves an off-shoot of the Irish) and Vikings, both Danish and Norse, fought over the British Isles, Man, right at the epicentre of this jurisdictional whirlwind, found itself being passed – violently – from one pair of bloody hands to another, with the Vikings emerging, at least initially, the winners. In the eleventh century, the Isle became the capital of a kingdom that, at its height, included the Hebrides, Kintyre and part of Argyll and the western Lowlands, though its king was a vassal of Norway.
The greater powers around it, however, had not yet finished playing Pass the Manx Parcel. In 1266, under the Treaty of Perth, the King of Norway ceded the suzerainty of the Isle to the King of Scots, who dispensed with the Manx King’s services. The Isle might have become absorbed into Scotland altogether had it not been conquered by Edward I in 1290 as part of his wider war with the Scots, precipitating another forty years of conflict that were resolved, as far as Man is concerned, in England’s favour, in 1333. Edward III re-established the kingship of Man as a fee within his own gift and it would be bestowed upon several different English noblemen in turn until 1405, when it ended up in the hands of the Stanley family. Perhaps the best known of these to an English audience was the Lord Stanley who withheld aid from Richard III during the Battle of Bosworth, thereby indirectly inaugurating the Tudor dynasty (and giving the Welsh control of England again only a thousand years after they lost it). To the Manx he is known as King Thomas II but his son Thomas III, as a gesture of loyalty to Henry VII, he demoted himself from “King” to “Lord” of Man.
The lordship continued to pass down the Stanley line until 1736, when it was inherited by James Murray, second Duke of Atholl. Despite also serving as Lord Privy Seal in the British Cabinet and Lord Justice-General of Scotland, the Duke found time to visit his feudal statelet, presiding over the Tynwald in person and making welcome new laws (how often does one read that phrase?), only for his son John to lose the lordship altogether.
In 1765, the British Government, frustrated by the endemic smuggling activities on the Isle, resolved to end its “devo-max” status and bring it under direct control. The original plan was to incorporate it into Cumberland. Local resistance caused a change of plans and instead the lordship was transferred to the Crown, thus making the British monarch both vassal and suzerain.
It was a mushy compromise but it allowed Man to maintain the very ancient tradition of the Midsummer Court. The Tynwald claims to be the oldest Parliament in the British Isles, established in 979. This is slightly disingenuous. Not only is the 979 date completely arbitrary (the Tynwald is not documented in detail until the fifteenth century) but, when it does emerge into history, it was not a legislature in the modern sense. The Midsummer Court began as just that, a court, where Manxmen might appeal to the King for redress of grievances. The House of Keys was originally a grand jury and the legislature and government of the medieval kingdom was simply the King and his Council.
As a judicial body, however, the Tynwald is indeed ancient. Its very name is a clue. In Old Norse it means “council field” (Modern English “thing”, which comes from the same Germanic root, originally meant a cause for discussion). Today, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council is the final court of appeal from the Isle but as part of the ceremony on Midsummer Day, the Deemsters, the Isle’s highest resident judges, read out (in summary) the laws passed in the previous year, in both English and Manx, without which performance they are not binding. A similar custom was performed in many other places of Norse settlement. In medieval Iceland, where the Althing claims (equally dubiously) an antiquity greater even than the Tynwald’s, it was the duty of the Lawspeaker, at the opening of the Althing, to recite one third of the whole body of law, then regarded as immutable, against which the Law Council (the Icelandic equivalent of the Manx King’s Council) judged the appeals submitted to it. The Althing then met, as the Tynwald does, in the open air, on a field called (not coincidentally) Thingvellir.
Yet perhaps the most exciting thing about the Midsummer Court is that, though it is a very precious survival, it was not, originally, unique even in the British Isles. The village of Thingwall in the Wirral, the town of Dingwall in Ross-shire and the hamlet of Tingwall in Orkney also refer to the verdantly located assemblies of Viking settlers. In this author’s opinion, however, the best example of a thing-wold within the United Kingdom is Tingwall, on the Shetland Islands.
Shed a tear for Shetland. Amidst 2014’s arguments over whether the Scots were in fact Scots or Britons, the complex identity of the Northern Isles was overlooked. Like the Kingdom of Man, Orkney and Shetland were once a state of their own, an earldom in vassalage to the King of Norway. Like the Manx, the Shetlanders had a thing to hear appeals against the decisions of local courts. The thing met in a valley in the middle of Mainland, the centrepiece of which was a loch, with a small promontory jutting into it. Every year, freemen from all over the Shetland Islands would set up camp in Tingwall, while the Law Ting itself would gather around a stone table on the promontory, to consider the islanders’ appeals.
By the fifteenth century, however, there had been some serious developments. The throne of Norway had been inherited by the Danish sovereigns, who paid scant regard to their more northerly, less pecunious, less imperially promising kingdom, while the earldom of Orkney had passed to the Saint Clair family, whose interests were in Scotland, who had served the Scottish Crown for generations and who paid only nominal suzerainty to Norway’s absentee king. So, in 1469, King Christian I of Norway and Denmark thought little of pawning the suzerainty of the earldom to King James III of Scotland to top up his daughter’s dowry. The Orcadians and Shetlanders protested that their way of life was at stake and how right they were. In 1471, the earldom itself was absorbed by the Scottish Crown, Norse law and language were suppressed in favour of Scots and Norway now regrets the deal, since oily Shetland has turned out to be worth considerably more than King Christian thought.
The name of Tingwall survives, as the name of the valley, of the loch and of the adjacent airport but nothing else remains of that tradition. Even the stone table, around which the islanders’ fates were once decided, was broken up for building material in the eighteenth century. It was in the same century that Man came close to being gobbled up by Cumberland but, happily, the Isle retained its semi-detached nature and the Tynwald, by that time re-invented as a parliament in the modern sense, continued and to this day continues a custom once common in several parts of the British Isles, of meeting upon an ancient mound in the open air, before the people whose lives its decisions affect.