Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Year of Anniversaries

This is a year of significant anniversaries in English history. In 1215 King John was presented with Magna Carta, or the Great Charter, by barons who were in rebellion against him. He repudiated it soon enough, claiming that his oaths were sworn under duress and therefore not binding. The barons were interested only in their own grievances, not those of the whole population, and it is debated whether the charter contained anything new, or was just a statement of what the barons believed to be established custom which the king was ignoring.

Nevertheless, Magna Carta has come to be seen as an important step in the evolution of the English, later British, constitution, and of limitation of the power of the monarchy. Its most famous clauses guaranteed free and fair access to justice for all free men:

'No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.'

This year is also the 750th anniversary of Simon de Montfort summoning the knights of the shire and the burgesses of the towns to Parliament for the first time - the origin of the House of Commons. Again, de Montfort was a baron in rebellion against the king, then Henry III, and probably more interested in his own grievances than in long term constitutional reform. But like Magna Carta, de Montfort’s action has taken on a much greater significance than was intended at the time.

This year is the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, in which a small English army led by Henry V defeated a much larger French force. Henry V’s position in France could not be maintained under Henry VI. The greatest long term consequences of the victory at Agincourt were the opportunity it provided for Shakespeare to write some rousing speeches and the marriage of Henry V to the French princess Catherine de Valois. Her second marriage produced the Tudor dynasty, which had such an impact on English history.

It is also the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, which finally broke the power of Napoleon. Although it was not appreciated at the time, the battle ended the long series of wars between Britain and France.

These are the anniversaries surrounding which there are events, books and articles and television programmes. But they are not the only anniversaries this year which are worth noting.

In 1065, Edward the Confessor’s Abbey of St Peter’s at Thorney Island was consecrated - the West Minster.

1315 was the start of the Great Famine which continued into the 1320s. Climate change brought cold, wet summers and bad harvests causing high prices and food shortages.

In 1715 James Edward Stuart, the 'Old Pretender', led a rebellion aimed at deposing the Hanoverian George I and replacing the Stuarts on the throne.

In 1765, HMS Victory was launched at Chatham Dockyard.

Several significant events happened in 1865. Among others, Lord Palmerston, Prime Minister and former Foreign Secretary, died. He had dominated British foreign policy for more than thirty years. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson qualified as Britain’s first woman doctor. And Crossness Pumping Station opened. It was part of Joseph Bazalgette’s sewage system which had a major impact on the health of London.

In 1615 Pleasance Caporne, widow, of Brimpton in Berkshire, died. So did William Keate, a weaver of Newbury in Berkshire and Thomas Segrave, a yeoman of Helpringham in Lincolnshire. They are not famous. We do not know if they were exceptionally good or clever people or if they performed any heroic acts. But they lived and died and possibly have descendants who are alive today.

While it’s right to remember the great achievements, the events that had a national and long lasting impact, we should also remember the millions who have made their own contributions to their communities and to the life of the nation, over millennia.

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