A Note on Magna Carta – Not Signed, But Sealed

Magna Carta commands a semi-mythical status in the English-speaking world. There are still four surviving copies of this 13th-century document. These surviving copies bear the following date: 15 June 1215. Accordingly, articles have recently appeared, reminding us of Magna Carta’s significance.

At present, some statements, images and film scenes have given us the impression that Magna Carta was signed by the infamous King John. However, the copies of Magna Carta were sealed like other medieval charters. Thus, they had the king’s Great Seal.

 

Just One Photo – The Thames

The Thames

“Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth!…The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.”

Theses lines are taken from Joseph Conrad’s famous novella Heart of Darkness.

St George’s Day

Happy St George’s Day !

Although we know little about Saint George, he arguably served as a soldier and was martyred on this day (i.e. 23 April) in 303 during a persecution of Christians under the Roman Emperor Diocletian because he presumably refused to recant his faith. In legends  and in iconography he is usually depicted as a dragon slayer.

St George has been the patron saint of England since the 14th century. King Edward III founded the prestigious Order of the Garter in 1348, choosing St George as its patron. For this reason, the cult of St George became immensely popular.

Source

Cannon, John. Ed. Dictionary of British History. Rev. ed. Oxford: OUP, 2009.  

 

The American as the Englishman Left to Himself – Famous Quotes

Since this blog often deals with issues concerning the Anglosphere, it is worth quoting Alexis de Tocqueville. In the 19th century he famously stated:

It is true that each people has a special character independent of its political interest. One might say that America gives the most perfect picture, for good or ill, of the special character of the English race. The American is the Englishman left to himself.

This quote is taken from Daniel Hannan’s book How We Invented Freedom & Why It Matters (London: Head of Zeus, 2013).

Bare ruin’d quiers, where late the sweet birds sang – A Short (Visual) Reflection on a Line in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73

England’s monastic past is evoked through a line in William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. It  also reminds us of what happened to many monasteries and abbeys in Britain during and after the Reformation in England and Scotland.  

Poetry generally possesses a unique character. However, because of the metaphorical language and the elusive allusions, we frequently have difficulty in deciphering the stories poems tell or the messages they convey. The same applies to William Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Although Sonnet 73 is no exception in this regard, a single line is particularly striking. We find it at the end of the first quatrain:

“That time of yeare thou maist in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few doe hange

Upon those boughes which shake against the could,

Bare ruin’d quiers, where late the sweet birds sang.”

(This quatrain is taken from Duffy, Eamon. Saints, Sacrilege & Sedition: Religion and Conflict in the Tudor Reformation. London: Bloomsbury, 2012. P. 234.)

Here Shakespeare evokes England’s monastic past but also alludes to the monastic ruins in the post-Reformation period. In general, the one-line evocation gives a feeling of nostalgia. It permits the interpretation that Shakespeare arguably assumed a critical attitude towards the English Reformation, while he appeared to be in favour of late medieval monasticism and Catholicism.

During as well as after the Reformation in England and Scotland the overthrow of late medieval monasticism resulted in the dissolution, destruction and pillage of many monasteries, abbeys and other religious buildings. A large amount of church land was also transferred.

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The ruins of Battle Abbey (2012)
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Inside Battle Abbey (2012)

Today, we can still visit the romantic ruins. They are a reminder of a distant past. Examples are Battle Abbey, the partially ruined building on the alleged site of the famous Battle of Hastings, and the ruins of Holyrood Abbey beside the Palace of Holyroodhouse in the Scottish capital Edinburgh, even though in the 17th century the demolished Augustinian monastery was rebuilt and fell into disrepair in the 18th century.

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The ruins of Holyrood Abbey (2018)

Note: All photos were taken by me (Nils Zumbansen) in 2012 and 2018. 

Source

Duffy, Eamon. Saints, Sacrilege & Sedition: Religion and Conflict in the Tudor Reformation. London: Bloomsbury, 2012. 

Albion’s Seed of Liberty in America – The Basic Personal Rights of Englishmen and Freedom from Arbitrary Power

English concepts of natural rights popularised the idea of personal liberty and freedom from governmental power in U.S. America.

Individual liberty represents one of the defining precepts of Western civilisation. We primarily associate this principle with a concept the Russian-British philosopher Sir Isiah Berlin (1909-1997) calls negative liberty or freedom from coercion. Accordingly, the individual human being should be as free as possible from constraint, outside interferences or coercive state interventions. Berlin’s notion of positive liberty, on the contrary, amounts to freedom to self-realisation / self-determination (i.e. to be in control of oneself or to rule oneself).   

The idea of personal liberty, however, is not equally valued everywhere across the globe today. Various countries or their authorities highly restrict individual freedom in addition to violating basic individual human rights. By contrast, Western countries grant these human rights, even though several governmental agencies and / or organisations there also regulate, for example, economic activities and freedom of speech.

For many people, such regulations pose serious threats to liberty in general. Especially a lot of U.S. Americans regard the concept of (individual) liberty as sacred. This attitude has historical reasons which can be traced back to the colonial societies in British America during the 17th and 18th centuries and the U.S.A.’s founding in the latter part of the 18th-century.

In this context, we need to focus on the English / British impact on its (former) North American colonies or, with reference to the title of a book by the historian David Hackett Fisher, on Albion’s seed of liberty in America. We will start with Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769) because it gives an overview of the basic personal rights in English law.   

The Englishman’s (Natural) Rights to Life, Liberty and Property

Blackstone (1723-1780) was a seventeenth-century English legal scholar and a practicing lawyer. His Commentaries was among the most well-known works in 18th-century British North America, as one of America’s founding fathers, James Madison (1751-1836), indicated by remarking that the Commentaries was “in every man’s hand.” The first chapter of this work Of the Absolute Rights of Individuals contains notable aspects concerning the rights of Englishmen.   

Alongside other features, Blackstone presented basic individual liberties or the rights of the people of England in three major categories. These are the right of personal security, the right of personal liberty as well as the right of private property. While the right of personal security guarantees protection for a person’s life, physical integrity, health and reputation, the right of personal liberty ensures a person’s freedom of movement and an individual’s freedom from unlawful imprisonment. Furthermore, the right of private property, in principle, allows for the free use and disposition of one’s own property.

Blackstone basically defined what summarizing analyses of his Commentaries called – with the help of his own words – “[t]he absolute rights or civil liberties of Englishmen.” Nevertheless, he did not mention anything unfamiliar to British Americans. As early as the 17thcentury, the liberties of Englishmen had been guaranteed in several charters across the American colonies.   

Similar ideas had also been stated by the famous English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) in his Two Treatises of Government (1689):

“Man being born…with a title to perfect freedom…hath by nature a power…to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty, and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men…”

We usually sum up Locke’s natural rights in the often-quoted slogan life, liberty and property.

Appropriately enough, Locke’s Two Treatises provided philosophical inspirations for the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). Although the famous document’s principal author, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), altered the phrase “life, liberty, and property” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the changed phrase did not exclude the idea of the security of private property since property was synonymous with liberty for many 18th-century Britons and Americans. 

A Source of Liberty – The Vital Importance of the Security of Property  

Liberty required the security of property to exist, while, at the same time, liberty was a necessity for personal property to be secure. Consequently, the survival and enjoyment of liberty depended on the security of property.

Besides the mutual interdependence of liberty and the security of property, what is noteworthy is that in 18th-century English political thought liberty was interconnected with security in general. Of course, the protection of property was vitally important.

But the concept of security also included the protection of the person. Locke, for instance, in his Two Treatises saw the state’s primary purpose as protecting persons, their property and property rights. Interestingly enough, his use of the term property not only encompasses material possessions, estate and land but also an individual person and his/her labour.      

As is the case today, private property and / or material goods in the 18th-century constituted a means of survival as well as a standard of well-being. However, it was more viewed as a source of liberty, rather than a kind of capital resource for economic development. We can infer from this that the concept of property then carried a certain immaterial value or ideal and was, thus, not only restricted to the physical or material.

For numerous 18th-century Britons and Americans, property as a source of liberty opened the door to independence from arbitrary power. Such a power was not necessarily abuse of authority. Instead, it epitomized power without restraint and could appear in any form of government – whether democratic, parliamentarian, republican, monarchical or oligarchical.   

Freedom from Arbitrary Government

With respect to the prevailing idea of liberty in 18th-century Anglo-American thought, liberty epitomized a defense against arbitrary governmental power, which was conceived of as liberty’s antithesis. Because the 18th-century notion of liberty entailed freedom from arbitrary government, from today’s perspective, it tends to correspond to Berlin’s concept of negative liberty. Likewise, from today’s viewpoint, Locke’s rights are, first and foremost, negative.

Sources

Ackermann, Ulrike: “Freiheitsliebe – Einleitung.” Welche Freiheit: Plädoyers für eine offene Gesellschaft. Ed. Ibid. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz Berlin, 2007. 7-25.

Audi,  Robert. Ed. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. 2nded. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (CUP), 1999.

Berlin, Isaiah: “Two Concepts of Liberty.” Four Essays On Liberty. Ed. Ibid.  Oxford: Oxford University Press (OUP), 1969.

Blackburn, Simon. Ed. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. 2nded. Oxford: OUP, 2008.

Blackstone, William. Commentaries on the Laws of England. (1765-1769; see link).

Cannon, John. Ed. Dictionary of British History. Rev. ed. Oxford: OUP, 2009.

Dahrendorf, Ralf: “Freiheit – eine Definition.” Welche Freiheit: Plädoyers für eine offene Gesellschaft. Ed. Ulrike Ackermann. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz Berlin, 2007. 26-39.

Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York: OUP, 1989.

Hannan, Daniel. How We Invented Freedom& Why It Matters. London: Head of Zeus, 2013.  

Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. (Written during the 1670s; see link).

Loughlin, Martin. The British Constitution: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: OUP, 2013.

McDonald, Forrest. Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1985.

McDonald, Forrest: “The Intellectual World of the Founding Fathers.” Requiem: Variations on Eighteenth-Century Themes. Eds. Ibid., and Ellen S. McDonald. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988. 1-22. 

Reid, John Phillip. The Concept of Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Rüb, Matthias: “Freedom Isn’t Free. Amerikas quicklebendiger Gründungsmythos: Freiheit.” Welche Freiheit: Plädoyers für eine offene Gesellschaft. Ed. Ulrike Ackermann. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz Berlin, 2007. 287-302.

Vincent, Nicholas. Magna Carta. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: OUP, 2012.