ENGAGING WITH HISTORY
PRESENTED AT THE ANNUAL DINNER
NATIONAL SOCIETY MAGNA CHARTA DAMES AND BARONS
BY TIMOTHY GUY
APRIL 16, 2005
Chancellor, Ladies and Gentlemen of the National Society Magna Charta Dames and Barons.
My wife and I are delighted and honoured to be here tonight at the University Club on the occasion of your Annual Dinner and I feel privileged to follow last years eminent guest speaker, Dr. Alec Knight. Over the last 2 years we have become friends and it is because of him and our involvement in the United States tour of Magna Carta that I am in front of you this evening.
One of your objectives is to promote good fellowship and how important this is to you is clear to all of us who have had the privilege of attending this memorable Annual Dinner.
The Dean recalls Chancellor Neilson’s remarks last year when he said, and
I quote, “we emphasize fellowship and friendship and our shared heritage and responsibility. We enjoy each other. In a free country we are all entitled to the privilege of our own beliefs and expressions, which sometimes conflict. We put aside our differences to emphasize fundamental values as expressed in Magna Carta.”
It is about the values of this Great Charter; and the celebration of what I call the ‘Authors of Liberty’ that I want to talk to you about this evening.
But first, I would like to tell you something about the place we hail from. At a time in our history when I think it is important to have a sense of place it is helpful to know a little about where each other comes from.
We live and work in Cornwall, a county associated with childhood memories of sunny days, golden sands and blue skies but in reality it has its harsh side because it is largely made up of granite and slate. Situated in the far South West of England, a county almost entirely surrounded by the sea and several hundred miles away from London. Until very recently it had the lowest GDP in the United Kingdom and because of this it has been the recipient of EU intervention funding to the tune of many millions of pounds.
Today – unlike 1215, when travel between places often took weeks, and communication between people was only by the reading out of parchments such as the Magna Carta from the steps of cathedrals and other churches, I can now fly to London in an hour and a half from Newquay, the surf capital of Europe, and I am able to send you, large files of documents in nanoseconds.
Unlike Lincoln, Cornwall did not receive a copy of the Magna Carta but even here there are myths (or, perhaps I should say, legends!) that link us to each other in a common interest.
As I travel by car from the City of Truro to Plymouth in Devon (let me digress here and tell you a story). The Pilgrim Fathers left Holland in two boats, the Speedwell and the Mayflower, and set sail for their hoped for utopia. Sadly, one of the boats, the Speedwell foundered and they had to put into Plymouth. Sailing across the Atlantic in 1620 in the Mayflower they anchored off Cape Cod early in the morning. Before nightfall the forty-one males (women were not yet enfranchised!) had drawn up a compact for the government of the colony and chose one John Carver as governor for the first year. This compact was an agreement by which they pledged themselves “solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one another to form a body politic, to frame such laws as they might need to which they promised all due submission and obedience.” Many people believe that this is the first written constitution in the world.
But, let me return to that journey of mine from Truro to Plymouth, back onto the dry land of that road! I drive through a small village called Indian Queens. This village is so called to celebrate the visit of Pocahontas, an Indian Princess who saved the life of John Smith, a soldier and adventurer. Captured by Indians following one of the many skirmishes between the settlers and the tribes, Pocahontas interceded for his life. She later travelled with Smith to England to be presented at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. The story goes that on arriving in Cornwall they ran out of time and stopped overnight at a roadside inn in what is now called Indian Queens. A romantic story which Disney recognized and made into a film.
But the John Smith story has another aspect to it. Whilst travelling to Virginia Beach, where as you know we open our exhibition in 2007, he fell out with his fellows and was manacled to the ships mast (for his own safety, I understand!) until they reached New England as he called it. Smith was tried on the beach by a hastily convened court where he applied for Habeas Corpus. I am told that this is the first known application of Habeas Corpus in America. Smith survived and later become leader of the colony. Just 180 years later after that Jamestown landing, the Commonwealth of Virginia became the tenth state to ratify the Constitution and, most significantly, urged that the Bill of Rights be added to the Constitution as the first ten amendments.
Another early colonist was a Cornishman called Hugh Peters. He was one of the founders of Harvard University and played a significant part in turning around the fortunes of Massachusetts. Drawing on his experience in Cornwall his knowledge of fishing led him to persuade the people to turn from the land to the sea and their economy never looked back! Mind you, following our trip last Thursday to Boston we learnt that they turned their back on the sea in the 19th century and reclaimed land from sea… today they realise the error of their ways and are reversing the situation as part of their ‘big dig’ project. I suppose that is progress.
Content with the values of the new colony this preacher and businessman left Massachusetts to help the Cromwellian army when the English Civil war broke out in 1641. Following the execution of Charles I however, he was hung, drawn and quartered; a remarkable and extraordinary end to the life of a man who had earlier promised and contributed so much to the fortunes of both Old England and New England. A friend of mine recently found himself sitting beneath Peters’ portrait which hangs in the dining room of a castellated manor house in the Cornish seaside town of Fowey. In America, as well as a plaque at Harvard, Peters is remembered by a memorial at Peter Hill near Wenham on the spot where he preached his first sermon as the pastor of Salem.
However, this evening I want to remember Hugh Peters for another very particular reason. Peters played a part in Oliver Cromwell’s Putney Debates where he sought a middle way to break the impasse that had been reached by conflicting arguments. The Putney Debates were a series of discussions about a new constitution for England and were held at the Church of St Mary, Putney in Surrey during the English Civil War. They may seem a little obscure and I can forgive you for not knowing much about them but they did in fact play an important part in England’s constitutional development – and subsequently in Americas!
Much of the debate centred around the right and privilege to vote at State Elections. A Colonel Rainsborough an officer in Cromwell’s army made the now famous declaration of democratic rights for all men,
“for really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is nor bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.” We know these were the exact words because they were transcribed by the secretary William Clarke.
The Army Council voted that the franchise, as it was called, would be granted to all men except alms-takers and servants. But Charles I unfortunately took this moment to escape imprisonment from the Palace of Hampton Court and that particular ‘window of opportunity’ was lost forever. The Putney Debates were abruptly curtailed as the participants turned their attention to other matters in hand and it was not until the Great Reform Acts of the 19th and 20th Century that the people of England were to be fully enfranchised! In 1976 Anthony Wedgewood Benn, a Labour member of the House of Lords, previously known as Viscount Stansgate surrendered his title to become a commoner in order to help him pursue his political career. He said of the Levellers (or dissenters as we would call them today) who were key players in the Debates, that “they developed and campaigned for a political and constitutional settlement of the Civil War which would embody principles of political freedom that anticipated by a century and a half the main ideas of the American and French revolutions!”
By the way the word leveller was a term of abuse coined by their opponents to exaggerate the threat of their ideas. They believed that the law should protect the poor and the wealthy and would be termed ‘liberals’ today. In 1649 their leader, John Lilburne, who spent practically all his life in prison for his beliefs had his ‘Agreement of the People’ smuggled out of the Tower of London hence Tony Benn’s reference to this ‘body of agitators and pamphleteers!’
It is important to remember the dates. The Putney Debates took place in 1647. Some twenty years later, again another Cornish link – this time the Member of Parliament for Liskeard, Sir Edward Coke, pronounced Cook, presented his Bill of Liberties that ultimately took the form of the Petition of Rights. This was Sir Edward’s greatest parliamentary hour. He proclaimed in Parliament that “Magna Carta is such a fellow, that he will have no sovereign”. The Charter had surfaced again in the hands of a very powerful advocate.
Coke moulded ancient precedents including the Magna Carta into a charter of liberty that influenced the original charters of the early colonists. It is, I think, worth quoting from the Act; “An Act for the better securing of every free man touching property of his goods and liberty of his person… Be it now enacted that no free man shall be committed by the command of the King or the Privy Council but the cause ought to be expressed and the same being returned upon a Habeas Corpus, he shall be delivered and bailed… Be it now enacted that no tax, tallage, or loan shall be levied by the King or any other Minister without Act of Parliament… and that none shall be compelled to receive any soldier into his house at will.”
The current Master of the Rolls, the head of the judiciary, Lord Phillips of Matravers, believes that the Petition of Rights gave effect to Chapter 29 for the first time. It is quoted as Chapter three almost verbatim. A timely piece of work indeed. For it gave the early settlers a vision of Magna Carta which embodied the liberty of the individual and led to the founding principles of your Constitution.
The resonance with Chapter 29 of the 1225 Magna Carta is clear, distinctive and real.
The significance of Coke to the American nation also lies in his influence on events which directly led to the Declaration of Independence. By the 1760’s the colonists had come to believe that in America they were creating a better place to live, incorporating the best of the English system and way of life but adapted to their new circumstances.
The British were engaged in costly European wars and were burdened with the continuing expense of keeping troops on American soil. Parliament sought to finance these costs by imposing a new tax - the Stamp Act of 1769. Every document published in the colonies, newspapers, licenses, insurance policies, legal writs, even playing cards were to be taxed. The elected legislative bodies of the colonies had not been consulted and they might become very angry. The Massachusetts assembly, amongst others, reacted by declaring the Stamp Act, “against the Magna Carta” and therefore according to Coke null and void.
Regardless of whether the Charter forbade ‘taxation without representation’ or rather this was merely implied by the ‘spirit’ of the Charter the colonists used this to condemn the Stamp Act. They turned to a 1610 defence argument used by Coke where he claimed, “when an Act of Parliament is against common right or reason, or repugnant, or impossible to be performed, the common law will control it and adjudge such an Act void.” Because the Stamp Act appeared to tread on the concept of consenual taxation, the colonists believed it, according to Coke, to be invalid. People such as Benjamin Franklin and others in England eloquently supported these views and as we say today ‘the rest is history.’ Perhaps it was Coke’s Cornish air that made him thus. I am certainly not treading in his footsteps but, as a leading Cornish designer, my practice and I are proud to be engaging a wider audience in this fascinating part of our joint histories.
As I am addressing you after an excellent Dinner and not as your tutor in the lecture theatre I will digress again and add a bit of colour to this man; the sort of colour which sometimes illuminates the footnotes of our history books. Sir Edward was always at loggerheads with his King - James I. The King appointed him Chief Justice of the King’s Bench assuming that Coke would look after his interests! No such luck! Coke continued to maintain the supremacy of the common law and continued to upset the King. In 1616 he was dismissed. In order to regain his influence at court he offered his young daughter in marriage to an important family with the ear of the King. His wife hid the 14 year old girl; Coke abducted her and had her forcibly married to the man of his choice!
Remember that this was a man who espoused personal liberty! - But not for his own family and certainly not for women! I am reminded of that old adage, “Do as I say not as I do”!
As I journey with you through this period of English history I feel we are looking into a maelstrom, a whirlpool of events, which although the political leaders of the day did not know it then, were to shape our modern world.
It is this referencing to different periods of history that makes engaging with our past so relevant and interesting. Whenever I think of the way that the influence of Magna Carta permeated the thinking of our political leaders over the centuries I am reminded of the words of the American poet T. S. Eliot and the poem ‘Burnt Norton’;
“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past”
The spirit of Magna Carta, if not always its precise words, has been woven into the tapestry of English life in a way that can only be wondered at. Its influence through the early colonists on the foundation of the United States as a democratic nation is a rich inheritance that probably no other single event in history can replicate. The irony is of course that the men who sat down at Runnymede certainly didn’t have any of this on their minds. All they wanted to do was settle a civil war!
But to a greater or lesser degree we all engage with our past in a way which, as Eliot said, influences the future often in unforeseen ways. Karen Armstrong, an English theologian, speaks of myths as, “… a timeless truth, something that happened once but continues to happen again and again through time.” They are she said, “inside the minds of people.” Perhaps that is the secret of the Magna Carta. The event which in 1215 set in train a cascade of consequences that still resonate around the free world. Over the last few weeks I have been watching the battle between the House of Commons and the House of Lords in the British Parliament. Ostensibly the debate was about an anti-terrorism bill, the need for identity cards and the power to arrest potential terrorists, prior to trial on the say so of the Home Secretary. But in fact, if you listened closely, it was about primary freedoms and the rule of law in an age were random terrorism is the new enemy.
However I have now really digressed, BIG time! My timeline has moved forwards 300 years and I am in Eliot country so I must briefly return to the 17th century to continue my story of the influence of Magna Carta on our two nations.
On the restoration of Charles II in 1660 the Speaker of the House of Commons thanked the King for “restoring our Magna Carta liberties.” In 1679 the Habeas Corpus Amendment Act was passed and from then onwards Habeas Corpus became the prime protection of the individual against wrongful imprisonment, embodying in our law the pledge that had originally been given by the signatories to Chapter 29 (or if you prefer Chapters 39 and 40 of the original!!). In 1969 in Harris v Nelson the US Supreme Court recognised that, “a writ of Habeas Corpus is a fundamental instrument for safeguarding individual freedom against arbitrary and lawless state action.”
In England, by 1688 the pack of cards protecting the citizen was, theoretically at least, almost in place. The 1688 Bill of Rights established parliamentary supremacy over the King. It is interesting and revealing to recall what Winston Churchill said of Magna Carta, “Here is a law which is above the King which even he must not break. This re-affirmation of a supreme law and its expression in the general charter is the great work of the Magna Carta and this alone justifies the respect in which men have held it.”
The resonance of the Magna Carta, described by our last Lord Chancellor Irvine of Lairg, he of the flocked wallpaper fame, as a “defining document” continues to this day. Some may say that the charter is a document of its time which surfaced from time to time in our constitutional life more by what it was thought to represent than by what it actually says (it is after all at one level a fine description of life under King John in feudal England). But lawyers such as Lord Irvine put it very clearly. He says that for some, Magna Carta represents no more than a distant constitutional echo. His proposition to the contrary is that the spirit of Magna Carta continues to resonate in modern law. It remains contemporary in spirit as well as influence.”
Let me quote Winston Churchill once again. Speaking of the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English speaking world he said “through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, Habeas Corpus, trial by jury and the English common, law they find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence.”
Magna Carta continued to influence events up to the 20th century. The 1900 Australian Constitution, the 1947 Indian Constitution and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These are significant and continuing influences of the Magna Carta. And this year President Bush declared that the policy of the United States was in the traditions of the Magna Carta. The Charter is alive and well!
Earlier I suggested that, today, the Magna Carta might be considered to be a myth. I would suggest that this is a good thing. A myth is a story. My schoolboy Greek reminds me that the word ‘mythos’ means story. Myths can provide people with a view of the world and a set of values. Human beings understand themselves by the stories they tell about themselves; that we carry a sort of account of ourselves with us, in which past episodes as we recall them illustrate who we are in a way which gives meaning to the present and focuses our hopes for the future.
All the people that I have mentioned in my talk have had real lives. They have had hopes and fears, lovers and families, dreams and aspirations. That they have held views or taken actions affecting our human rights is almost incidental to the fact that they were real people. For we all engage with people better than things. I believe that we must continue to tell the story of Magna Carta and all that it has meant to the generations of men and women over the centuries. We must do this through stories of the people and their times, in order that young people in particular, are excited and see its relevance to the preoccupations of today thereby ensuring that the lessons of the Magna Carta continue to echo over the next millennium.
So now to finish I remind you of our weighty task ahead. Our 2 or 3 year tour, starting April 24 at Virginia Beach, the site of Colonist’s first landings to be called ‘Magna Carta & The Authors of Liberty’ and I believe that Lincoln Cathedral’s initiative will provide that inspiration to the next generation to further democracy and the vital human rights that are not yet universally accepted throughout the whole world.
My partners and I are proud to have taken up the challenge and, without your help and that of your Chancellor could not even begin to engage in the process. From your kind attention I believe I have engaged with you – but then you are a biased audience – aren’t you!
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