- Freedom & Representation: The Politics of Magna Carta -
On 15 June 1215 the signatories to a momentous document gathered in a field by the banks of the Thames: a disgruntled King John, a gaggle of rebellious barons and a group of senior clergy led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton. Magna Carta (the Great Charter) is widely regarded as the founding text of English liberties, a key part of constitutions across the globe and the inspiration behind the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
But all was not as it might seem from the vantage point of the present. The barons were far from being champions of the people. The Archbishop was not as impartial as he pretended. And even the Charter did not quite say what people later claimed it meant. How did it survive and take on a force and reach that the original parties never intended or imagined?
- Science & Progress: A Watershed In Understanding -
By any reckoning, Sir Isaac Newton is one of the towering geniuses of science. Active across an astounding range of disciplines, somehow he also found time to be an MP, Master of the Royal Mint and a magistrate. Yet to what extent was the fullest flowering of this driven man’s mind only possible in a particular set of circumstances? Was there something about the England of his day that made it particularly fertile ground for intellectual enquiry?.
- Decadence & Revival: Transformation of A Society -
Behind an elegant frontage, England in the early eighteenth century was in a sorry state. There were echoes of our own age at every turn. Politics was corrupt, the democratic system broken. There had been a huge Stock Market crash. Many were trapped in addiction and despair. What had once been trusted institutions had no solution to offer. Then something remarkable happened. A thirty-five-year-old man called John Wesley started travelling the country. Wherever he went, he preached in the open air, telling people that there was a God who loved them and wanted better for their lives. Despite often violent opposition, crowds turned out, with many falling to their knees weeping and resolving to be born again into the Christian life. As individuals were transformed, so was a nation. Out of this religious revival grew the campaign to abolish the slave trade, a new impetus to the fight for worker rights and an emboldened commitment to a political voice for the common man.
- Law & Dissent: Wilkes & Liberty -
John Wilkes is a comparatively little-known figure today, but in the mid- to late-eighteenth century he was at the epicentre of events which shook the British Establishment and helped prepare the ground for modern civil liberties. Wilkes was part of a successful campaign to compel governments to publish the full text of Parliamentary debates. He took the side of the American colonists in their disputes with the Crown. He fought for freedom of the press. And his actions led to general warrants (which named the crime rather than the alleged perpetrator and so allowed dozens to be caught in police dragnets) being declared illegal. Wilkes was the inheritor of a tradition which is grounded in Magna Carta but can be traced centuries earlier to the Anglo-Saxons.
- Sacrifice & Remembrance: The Battle of Waterloo -
The battle of Waterloo (the last engagement of Napoleon’s so-called Hundred Days) was fought on Sunday 18 June 1815, just south of Brussels in modern Belgium. It began late in the morning, as the French Emperor waited for the ground to dry after the soaking rain of previous days, but once battle was joined it raged until evening.
Napoleon had 71,947 men and 246 guns under his command, the Duke of Wellington slightly fewer with 67,655 men and 156 guns. In practice, the Duke’s army was considerably weaker: only 24,000 of its number were British, the rest being German or from the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The Dutch were of doubtful loyalty. Many had previously fought under French colours and no-one knew for sure how they would perform in the battle to come. By contrast, Bonaparte’s troops were seasoned veterans willing to die for their Emperor and had given Blücher’s Prussians a bloody nose at Ligny just a few days earlier.
MAGNA CARTA UNLOCKED – A TEXT FOR OUR TIME?
Magna Carta, widely regarded as a foundational text of the British Constitution and an essential guarantor of basic freedoms, has inspired imitators across ages and across continents. The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 has been billed as a Magna Carta for the world, but to what extent is it right to see the Great Charter as a fount of freedom, democracy and rule of law, and how relevant is it today?