‘Freedom!’ – The battle cry of William Wallace, the blue-faced Scottish army leader played so memorably by Mel Gibson in the Hollywood blockbuster, Brave Heart. What is this elusive state, ‘Freedom’? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as, ‘The state or fact of being free from servitude, constraint, inhibition’ and is closely related to Liberty, defined as: ‘Exemption or release from slavery or imprisonment.’ In fact, for as long as humans have lived in organised society, with hierarchical structures, there has been conflict between leaders and those who do not want to be led, or have other ideas.
The struggle for freedom is as old as systems of governance and organised religion. The Scots, under Wallace, fought for their freedom from the hated English who had conquered them and subjugated them to demeaning conditions, leading to their collective rebellion. Rebellion is a common theme in history, and events leading up to 1215 in England were to prove to be pivotal in the creation of laws to protect the individual from the unchecked tyranny of powerful leaders. The influence of the ‘Great Charter of Freedom’ or Magna Carta, sealed 800 years ago in 1215 by a reluctant King John, has spread across western civilization and formed the basis for the definition of human rights and individual freedoms under the Law, such as the right to a fair trial. As Winston Churchill put it, “Magna Carta was…the foundation of principles and systems of government of which neither King John nor his nobles dream’d.” It may have been a slow burner, but the influence of Magna Carta started to form the basis of English Law and Governance about a century later.
It was not the first time that an English king had made a contract with his nobles to get them off his back. In 1014 Anglo-Saxon king Ethelred II gave similar promises, and so a precedent had been set. Magna Carta was therefore not a unique one-off, but part of an ongoing process whereby nobles sought to clip the wings of an all-powerful monarch. By 1215 the nobles had simply had enough of the greedy, cruel and unpredictable rule of Plantagenet kings, and pushed for a firm set of rules to which the king must adhere. Heavy stuff for a Christian Nation with a King by Divine Right. The true authors of Magna Carta are not known – it was probably drafted by a group of Nobles and Churchmen, and contained a whopping 97 clauses. King John may have put his seal to it, but he had no intention of honoring it, and spent the next few years making war on the 15 rebel barons who were set up as a sort of steering committee to ensure the king complied with the charter.
Magna Carta has been described as a mixed bunch of ideas and demands, some timeless and others odd, petty or malicious. There are clauses on standardising weights and measures, firing French officials, the unrestricted movement of merchants, and the supply and control of corn. There is even a clause on the removal of fish-weirs on the river Thames. These perhaps petty clauses rub shoulders with a few inspired ones that have stood the test of time and influenced a number of republican constitutions, law books and the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
However, the terms of the document are set out at the beginning, with the ground-breaking assurance that “…we have granted to all the freemen of our realm for ourselves and our heirs forever all the liberties written below…” For a king to grant such rights to ‘freemen’ in perpetuity was a momentous step. Clause 39 contains perhaps the most important sentence in legal history: “No freeman shall be arrested or imprisoned or dispossessed or outlawed or banished or in any way molested… except by the lawful judgement of his peers and the law of the land.” Clause 40 states that “to no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice.” These last two clauses are still in the law of England, and form the basis of the principle that no one could be detained without trial. These ideas of due legal process and equality under the law have spread across the western world, to the extent that they are almost seen as universal rights. The implications for our times are that most developed countries have advanced to having democratic systems of government and high levels of personal freedoms for its citizens, under the Rule of Law. However, some still see it as restrictive that all must comply with the Law (a set of guidelines or rules evolved over generations that define the boundaries of acceptable behaviour). Some may seek to live outside of organised society to avoid complying, and thus assert their personal freedom to live how they want. We have an elected Parliament of regional representatives who ensure that citizens have a say how the country is run and follow debates in Parliament concerning issues and laws through a free and fair media (in theory!).
Of course, there will always be debates, discussions and disagreements concerning what is the right course of action in any instance, but this process is ‘out in the open’ and all can contribute to it through freedom of speech. Some say the ‘freedom’ agenda has been hijacked by the rich and powerful, who twist it to serve their own purpose (see my short story, Runnymede Rebellion, in Thames Valley Tales for my take on this… http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B011PQHJUQ). Unscrupulous political leaders, with extreme agendas, will always try to subvert or constrain our rights and freedoms. However, the onus is on us, as individuals, or by mobilising civil society, to resist such actions and re-affirm the hard-fought freedoms others before us have battled to win, and defend them with vigour. We no longer have to fight for our basic human rights as a society (although sometimes we may have to fight to assert our individual rights, usually through the law courts). Now we are the custodians of our rights, and must defend them to the hilt!
Aside…Ronald Reagan must have had inspired speech writers…Will never forget the ‘dissidents are disagreeable’ blunder…’err… no Mr President, the dissidents are fighting for freedom…we’re supporting them.’
Long live freedom!