Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech: Treaty of Perpetual Peace

Margaret Tudor, dated c. 1620-1638, by Daniel Mytens. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Margaret Tudor, dated c. 1620-1638, by Daniel Mytens. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Treaties are tricky things. It is all very well promising to follow the terms of the agreement, but how can either side make sure that the other party is going to keep their word? And even if both sides trust each other at the moment of signing, what happens a few years later when there are other people responsible for upholding the agreement?

Contracts between individuals are enforceable in courts. There may be penalties written in to the contract, or perhaps one side decides to sue the other for breach of contract. And once the judges make a ruling, their decision is enforceable, using police if necessary.

But what about agreements between nations? Sure, there is an international court. But it has no police force and no way of enforcing treaties. It does not even have the ability to force the two signatories to appear before the court.

This week Brandon Lewis, the British Northern Ireland Secretary, stood up in parliament and admitted that legislation the government was about to introduce would break international law and go against the terms of the Brexit withdrawal agreement signed last year with Brussels. But apart from expressing disappointment, there is not very much the European Union can do to prevent the UK breaking the treaty.

We see this so often. Countries sign agreements, and a short while later, those agreements are worthless pieces of paper. Sometimes, even while negotiating a treaty, before the pens have even been filled with ink, one of the signatories is already breaking the rules.

For example, on June 13, 2018, a day after a meeting in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un, US President Donald Trump tweeted that there was no longer any nuclear threat from that country:

Yet, two years later, the North Korean foreign minister declared that meeting the president had given his country a “reliable force to cope with the long-term military threats from the US.” North Korea has considerably expanded its nuclear capabilities which it had promised not to do back in 1994 under the Agreed Framework, and in 2005 when the country pledged to abandon “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs” and again in 2007.

Or Iran, which on July 14, 2015, signed up to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and agreed to limit its nuclear capabilities for 15 years and to allow the United Nations to inspect potential nuclear sites. It even included a list of sanctions that would be imposed on Iran by the P5+1 countries if it failed to live up to its obligations. Yet it now seems that even while signing the agreement, Iran was continuing its covert operations to develop nuclear weapons.

Despite the many international bodies and modern technology, it is almost impossible to enforce treaties. What did they do hundreds of years ago, when it was far more difficult to gather the international community or impose sanctions?

For most of the 15th century, England and Scotland were engaged in almost constant border skirmishes, followed by negotiated truces that never lasted long. But in 1502 James IV of Scotland and Henry VII of England signed the Treaty of Perpetual Peace to end conflict between the two nations (not to be confused with the Treaty of Perpetual Peace signed on May 6, 1686, by Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which actually remained in effect until 1772).

The reason it was named the Treaty of Perpetual Peace is that it was supposed to be binding not only on the two kings but also on their descendants and future rulers. The document states:

There [shall] be a true, sincere, whole and unbroken peace, friendship, league and amity, not only for the term of the life of each of our said princes … from this day forth in all times to come, between them and their heirs and lawful successors, heritable and lawfully succeeding …

Portrait of Henry VII, in National Portrait Gallery. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Henry desperately needed stability for his kingdom. He rose to the throne following the bloody Wars of the Roses. His claim to the crown was tenuous at best – his mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, was the illegitimate great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt. However, since most of the other top Lancastrians were dead, Henry was almost literally the last man standing. After defeating the Yorkist King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, Henry united the white and red roses by marrying Richard’s niece, Elizabeth of York.

Thus, Henry was the first Tudor King, and his reign was relatively peaceful, but he was constantly worried by the threat of a new uprising by the Yorkists or another invasion by the Scots who supported Perkin Warbeck – a pretender to the throne who claimed to be Richard’s nephew, one of the so-called “Princes in the Tower.” His followers may or may not have believed his story, but he was a good rallying figurehead for those wishing to depose Henry.

So Henry was looking to end war with Scotland so he could focus on uniting England and quelling rebels.

James IV, King of Scots, by Daniel Mytens, in National Gallery of Scotland. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

James had also come to the throne following the Battle of Sauchieburn, when rebel Scottish nobles defeated and killed James’s’ father, James III. The rebels had made the future James IV their figurehead, and they crowned him immediately after his father’s death. For the rest of his life, James IV felt guilty about his role in the defeat and killing of his father, and wore a heavy iron chain around his waist, against his skin.

But his rule was not secure, and the same nobles who put him on the throne could have easily removed him from it. So, he wanted to end the wars with England to focus on stabilizing his realm. He was considered the most successful of the Stuart Kings, and went on to defeat John MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, taking control of the Western Isles. James build Scotland’s navy, introduced compulsory education, founded King’s College in Aberdeen and the Edinburgh College of Surgeons (England would not have a medical school for another 35 years).

Both Henry and James wanted a peace treaty. But how could they ensure it would last?

King James IV of Scotland and Queen Margaret, published 1796. (CC BY, lisby1/ Wikimedia Commons)

As part of the negotiations, it was agreed that James, who was 30-years old, would marry Henry’s 13-year-old daughter Margaret. Marriage has long been a useful tactic in securing treaties, on the assumption that leaders wouldn’t attack their own family. Ultimately, a century later, this marriage led to James’s great-grandson uniting the kingdoms of Scotland and England. But before that it would become a source of conflict because the promised dowry was never paid.

As well as marriage, James swore to uphold the treaty. On December 10, 1502, James stood at the altar of Glasgow Cathedral and took an oath to keep the terms of the agreement (in a blooper for the ages, James had to repeat the oath because the first time he accidentally said he was making a deal with France, because the wrong country had accidentally been inserted into the text). The oath was witnessed for England by Sir Thomas Darcy, Dr Henry Babington and Sir Richard Hastyng.

Marriage and an oath were still not enough. If either party broke the treaty, they would be subject to Divine punishment.

… It is agreed that each of the foresaid princes shall… require the sacred apostolic see and the supreme pontiff to impose sentence of excommunication… on either of the said two princes and on their heirs and successors who shall violate, or permit to be violated, the present peace or any clause of the present treaty…

In April 1503, Henry sent the Bishops of Hereford and Worcester to Rome, and Pope Alexander VI issued a papal bull excommunicating anyone who broke the treaty..

Henry died in 1509 thinking that the Treaty would remain in effect forever.

However, the outstanding dowry still rankled with James, and he demanded that Henry VIII pay his father’s debts. For his part, Henry considered himself master over James. Then, in 1513, England declared war on France. The Auld Alliance between Scotland and France, which dated back to 1295, obligated James to stand with Louis XII against the English.

James led his army south to England. On September 9, 1513, the two sides met at the Battle of Flodden. Despite fighting valiantly, James was fatally wounded by an arrow and his body taken to Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Having broken the terms of the Treaty, James was excommunicated and could not be buried in sanctified ground. His body was taken to the Carthusian Monastery of Sheen in Surrey. His body was eventually taken to London and on October 12, Henry VIII wrote to Pope Leo X asking him to allow the King of Scots to receive a proper Christian burial. On November 29, Leo replied that James had presumably repented before his death and should receive a proper funeral. However, before the Scottish king could be buried, Henry famously broke away from the pope, starting his own religion and dissolving the monasteries. In the confusion that followed, James was lost, and to this day, nobody knows what happened to his body.

The Scottish and English kings had hoped that the combination of marriage, oath and threat of Divine punishment would ensure their peace treaty could last forever. In fact, the Treaty of Perpetual Peace lasted for only 11 years.

In this week’s double Torah portion of Netzavim-Vayelech, Moses spoke to the Israelites immediately before his death. He wanted them to uphold the terms and conditions of their covenant with God for all eternity. And he employed similar tactics to James and Henry.

He makes them swear that not only they, but their children, grandchildren and descendants forever will remain faithful to the terms of the agreement (Deuteronomy 29:9-14).

You are all standing this day before the Lord, your God, your leaders, tribes, elders, officers, every man of Israel. Your children, your wives and the converts within your camp… to adjure you to the covenant of the Lord your God and his His oath that the Lord, your God makes with you today… And not only with you do I make this covenant and this oath, but with those who are here, standing with us today, and those who are not standing here with us today.

And just as Henry made sure there were English witnesses to James’s oath, Moses invoked heaven and earth to witness the oath of the Israelites (Deuteronomy 30:19):

I call to bear witness against you today the heaven and earth.

Like James and Margaret, cementing the treaty through marriage, God is wedded to the Jewish people. When they stood at Sinai, 40 years earlier, the Israelites entered into a symbolic marriage with God, and the Torah serving as a wedding ring. Which is why Moses reminds the Israelites so many times in these Torah portions about the book of the Torah.

But, like the threat of excommunication for anyone who broke the Treaty of Perpetual Peace, if Jewish the nation does not keep the treaty, it will face Divine wrath. God will bring upon Israel all the curses written in the Torah and destroy the land (Deuteronomy 29:23-26).

All the nations will say, why did God do this to that land, what caused this great anger? And they shall say because they abandoned the covenant with the Lord, God of their fathers, that he made with them when they left the Land of Egypt… And God was angry with that land and brought upon it all the curses written in this book.

However, the covenant with God is not all threats and punishment. Like all international treaties ancient and modern, keeping the terms of the agreement will ultimately bring peace and tranquility (Deuteronomy 30:9,16):

The Lord, your God shall give you more in all your handiwork, in the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your animals and the fruit of your earth for God, and God will rejoice over you for good like he rejoiced over your ancestors… you shall live and be prosperous and the Lod, your God will bless you in the land.

May we all merit to live up to our obligations in the coming year and be blessed with life, health and prosperity.

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About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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