What follows are the notes for my talk “This Golden Thread” given to the English Democrats AGM and Conference in St Albans on the 22 September 2013. In my research I used mainly wikipedia and information from Robert Henderson’s blog.
For me the mystery of the Magna Carta is why did this happen in England? After all the main protagonists in the story are a Norman King, Norman Barons, and a Norman Church that had somewhat unceremonially dumped the Anglo-Saxon church.
To begin with we should recognise that what the Barons wanted was a good old fight with the king, to defeat him and then to put someone else suitable in his place. In other words they wanted to act just like Norman Barons do act! Unfortunately for them the only suitable candidate to take the crown was a Frenchman, and he was not interested.
So the barons went to the Abbott of St Albans Abbey in 1213 to ask his advice and he contacted the Archbishop of Canterbury
We know of course that thanks to Archbishop Langton of Canterbury that much of the Magna Carta was based on the Charter of Liberties sometimes known as the Coronation Charter of Henry I made in 1100 AD more than a century before Magna Carta.
Henry’s brother William II, or William Rufus as he was called, issued a Charter in 1093 AD proclaiming the freedom of the people.
Now both William Rufus and Henry I were sons of William the Conqueror so what part did their Dad play?
Well William I was a great admirer of the laws of Edward the Confessor. Now where did Edward’s laws come from? According to the historians the laws were last codified in Cnut’s time and not by Edward. Cnut, a Dane, died in 1035 AD.
Up to this time there had been several systems of Saxon law. For example of Wessex, of Mercia and the Danelaw. But when did they start? King Æthelberht’s law code (603) was the first of a long series of Anglo-Saxon law codes that would be published in England for the next four and a half centuries. Almost without exception, every official version of royal law issued during the Anglo-Saxon period was written in Old English. Presumably the Saxon King’s thought that the law was so important for their subjects that it should be written in a language they could understand and not, for example, in Latin.
Another feature of importance in the history of Anglo-Saxon law is its tendency towards the preservation of peace. Society is constantly struggling to ensure the main condition of its existence — peace. Already in Æthelberht’s legislation we find characteristic fines inflicted for breach of the peace of householders of different ranks—the ceorl, the eorl, and the king himself appearing as the most exalted among them.
Peace is considered not so much a state of equilibrium and friendly relations between parties, but rather as the rule of a third within a certain region—a house, an estate, a kingdom. This leads on one side to the recognition of private authorities—the father’s in his family, the master’s as to servants, the lord’s as to his personal or territorial dependents. On the other hand, the tendency to maintain peace naturally takes its course towards the strongest ruler, the king, and we witness in Anglo-Saxon law the gradual evolution of more and more stringent and complete rules in respect of the king’s peace and its infringements.
So unwittingly William the Conqueror, in accepting the law of Edward the Confessor, was in fact accepting a tradition that went back, in written form, 463 years and had three important features.
1. The establishment of a peaceable society.
2. They were from the start written in a language that everyone could understand when it was read to them.
3. People met at meetings or ‘moots’ of the shire and hundred to adjudicate local justice – the folkright – and discuss local matters.
These institutions only disappeared in the late 1800’s when county courts and local government districts were set up.
So the forces acting to produce the Magna Carta can be traced back 613 years, from 1215 to 603, the start of that Golden Thread. But how did the Magna Carta fare?
Well to begin with very badly. Neither William Rufus, Henry I or John had any real intention of doing what they had said they would do – a situation we still have with us with regard to our elected MPs! But with the Magna Carta people were more insistent than with previous charters. The Charter was reissued in 1216, 1217, 1225, 1297 when it entered the statute books for the first time, it was reconfirmed at least 32 times between the 12th and 15th centuries, the last time in 1423 AD by Henry VI. During this period clauses were added to the charter In 1829 a clause of the charter was repealed and by 1969 all but three clauses had been repealed.
1. That the Church of England shall be free, and shall have all her whole Rights and Liberties inviolable. . .
9. THE City of London and all other cities, Boroughs, Towns and the Barons of the Five Ports shall have all the old Liberties and Customs which they hath been used to have.
29. NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.
The Charter had one clause in particular, clause 61, that sought to control the king by appointing 25 barons to decide if the king had kept the charter. If he had not they could then appropriate his castles and lands until such time as he did keep to the Magna Carta. Needless to say John and subsequent kings did nothing about this and the Provisions of Oxford in 1258 and the Provisions of Westminster in 1259 were attempts to impose in Henry III a council with power to restrain the king.
De Montfort’s Parliament was an English parliament of 1265, instigated by Simon de Montfort, a baronial rebel leader. It met on 20th January 1265 in Westminster Hall and was dissolved on the 15th February. Although this gathering did not have the approval of King Henry III, and the members convened without royal approval, most scholars believe this was the first gathering in England that can be called a parliament in the dictionary sense of the word.
It was not until 1295 AD that commoners attended regularly. Most members were elected from individual boroughs. Initially it was thought that all free inhabitant householders (so no women) could vote until 1430 AD when the requirement to hold land worth an annual rent of 40 shillings was added. This of course excluded many people and we still have this with the requirement for a deposit for many elections.
Parliament gradually grew from this point both in representation and in number of sittings until the Spanish Ambassador to the court of Elisabeth I was able to report mockingly to his king that the Queen of England did not make decisions in her realm.
Eventually a burgeoning parliament met a recalcitrant King. The result was the English Civil War. As Robert Henderson writes in his blog “It created a political class which saw politics as something they could control rather than merely be part of as a adjunct to the crown. It began the constitutional process which resulted in cabinet government. It laid the foundations for the formation of political parties. In short, it sowed seeds of modern representative government.”
And he goes on “But something else occurred which was to be even more momentous in the long run. It was during the 1640s that the belief that men should only be ruled by those they had themselves elected first became a serious political idea, not merely in England but anywhere.”
The bud of that Golden Thread of the past 1000 years was slowly starting to bloom.
The civil war gave rise to a number of different political philosophies. Most interesting amongst these were the Levellers. “To call them a political party in the modern sense would be misleading. Yet they were the closest thing to it both then and arguably for several centuries. Their tactics and organisation were modern – the use of pamphletering and newspapers, the ability to get large number of supporters onto the streets (especially in London) at the drop of a hat, the creation of local associations. They also developed an increasingly sophisticated political programme in a series of documents known as The Agreements of the People. These Agreements dealt extensively with political representation and structure.”
In 1688 Prince William and his wife Mary were invited to take the throne of England in the place of James II. This was called the Glorious Revolution. But before William could land he had to agree to a list of rights including
1. The right to bear arms (if you were a Protestant),
2. Only parliament could raise money or approve a standing army,
3. That the right to petition the king could not be prosecuted
4. That juries had to be properly impaneled
5. That only parliament could make laws.
6. Election of MPs to be free
7. That what was said in parliament could not be impeached or judged in a court
8. That excessive bail or fines should not be imposed
9. That no cruel nor unusual punishment should be inflicted
These rights were preceded by a list of 15 complaints against James and the whole document is often referred to as The English Bill of Rights of 1689.
Note the phrases that are now so familiar; no cruel nor unusual punishment, the right to bear arms, taxes could only be imposed by a parliament in which, by implication, you were represented.
This Bill of Rights by its protection of MPs, regular parliaments, protection of the liberty of the people and the clear right of parliament to control the king by controlling his revenues opens the way for an executive in Parliament and puts politics in England on a path that we can recognise today.
The development of political structures and freedoms over the 623 years since William I accepted Saxon law (and the 1086 years from the first English law code) had been a nearly constant battle between a monarch who did not want any curbs on his power and a people convinced in the main that he had no right to these powers, a conviction born in the shires and hundreds of Anglo-Saxon England over a 1000 years earlier. Now at last those battles could be put to rest even if only momentarily.
For our purposes the story now transfers 3,000 miles to the west. A colonial population, many from England, of whom many had gone to the American colonies in order to ensure their freedom and liberty from oppression, decided that they wanted the same rights as given to Englishmen in the 1689 Bill of Rights.
The Declaration of Independence (1776) justified the independence of the United States by listing colonial grievances against King George III, and by asserting certain natural and legal rights, including a right of revolution. Having served its original purpose in announcing independence, the text of the Declaration was initially ignored after the American Revolution. Since then, it has come to be considered a major statement on human rights, particularly its second sentence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”
This harks back to Aristotle’s goal from 2,000 years earlier for a just state which was to provide “the good life”.
But more important in my view is the next statement, one that gives the authority for revolution against an existing government:
“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness“.
We are back 130 years earlier in the English Civil War! This Golden Thread has now lasted 1173 years.
It did not stop there. One hundred years after the English Bill of Rights, they produced, in 1789, their Constitution and Bill of Rights.
The Bill of Rights are the first 10 amendments to the constitution:
1. Freedom of speech, assembly, the press and religion
2. The right to bear arms
3. Protection from quartering of troops
4. Protection from unreasonable search
5. Due process, freedom from double jeopardy or self-incrimination, eminent domain.
6. Trial by jury and rights of the accused; Confrontation Clause, speedy trial, public trial, right to counsel
7. Civil trial by jury
8. Prohibition of excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment.
9. Protection of rights not specifically enumerated in the Constitution.
10. Powers of States and people
The final document I will cover is Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. This summarises everything that was struggled for in the preceding 1260 years of the Golden Thread. “It was delivered by Lincoln during the American Civil War, on the afternoon of Thursday, November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, four and a half months after the Union armies defeated those of the Confederacy at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Abraham Lincoln’s address, secondary to other presentations that day, came to be regarded as one of the greatest speeches in American history. In just over two minutes, Lincoln reiterated the principles of human equality espoused by the Declaration of Independence and proclaimed the Civil War as a struggle for the preservation of the Union sundered by the secession crisis, with “a new birth of freedom,” that would bring true equality to all of its citizens, ensuring that democracy would remain a viable form of government and creating a nation in which states’ rights were no longer dominant.”
It ends with “. . . that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”
And that phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” is on the first page of our Manifesto.
Ladies and Gentlemen I give you “This Golden Thread, Democracy’s DNA, is England’s Glory”
“The Magna Carta is the first rung on the ladder to freedom, followed by the great American charters of freedom – the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and The Gettysburg Address. This document symbolizes mankind’s eternal quest for freedom; it is a talisman of liberty.” – David Redden, Vice Chairman of Sotheby’s –
PS. I did not mention initially one of the more amazing facts. In 1213 the Archbishop of Canterbury was a man named Langton. He had been appointed by the Pope as the best man for the job because the monks of Canterbury and King John could not agree on who should fill the post. As was usual at the time the two candidates would have been Norman, as was the Abbot of St Albans. But Langton was English! So at this pivotal moment in English history the man who made the key decisions about what should happen was English. I assume that the Abbot of St Albans travelled to Canterbury and if so this meeting must be the least well known and one of the most significant in history!