Friday 20 February 2015

Condensing Eight and Two Centuries of History - Magna Carta and Waterloo

Following my last blog entry about astronomy, a subject in which hundreds of years as they are measured on Earth are merely microcosmic, realising that 2015 sees the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta and the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, in feel it is appropriate for this to look at hundreds of years in the context of human history. Not only are hundreds of years a long time in human terms, but the hundreds of years that have followed these events show us how interlinked a process history is, as a opposed to a series of isolated events.

A tendency that people with Asperger's Syndrome, including myself, can often have is in being able to see detail, however minute, not initially seeing the bigger picture or chain of events. In clinical speak and as described by Professor Uta Frith in her public lecture at Newcastle University last December, this form of perception is often referred to as Weak Central Coherence. Frith also did say though that despite the use of the word weak, Weak Central Coherence is also a strength in being able to see detail. Rather than Weak Central Coherence, as a person with Asperger's Syndrome, I like to describe it as 'eye for detail'. Eye for detail combined with cultivated awareness helps to see the wider context as to where the detail fits.

The tendency of going off on a tangent presents a bit of challenge to me in writing this entry. The two anniversary subjects that it is about are indirectly made possible by one another and their relevance to the present day are separated not only by hundreds of years but by many details into which it is easy to become sidetracked into, which my old school reports suggested that I had a tendency to do, including into those irrelevant. So to condense it down, in some instances, I may skip across hundreds of years in a single paragraph or sentence, which Shakespeare described as 'compressing years into an hourglass'.

Magna Carta Moument, Runnymede, Surrey
When going into the details of historical events, one may eventually read into their origins, and it is surprising how many such significant historical events together with many present-day rights and civil liberties have their roots in a document handwritten on sheets of sheep skin (vellum). Signed by King John at Runnymede following a dispute with a group of rebel barons in 1215, the Magna Carta, or 'Great Charter', itself originated from a sequence of events with King John's unsuccessful attempts to reclaim his ancestral lands in France culminating in a disastrous and costly military expedition in 1214, escalating his barons distrust of him. The singing of the charter that followed saw that the king would be under law and lay the foundations for modern democracy not just in present-day Britain, but throughout the world.

Though in the broader spectrum of human history, going back thousands of years, many of the earliest known ideas of democracy and representative government originated in ancient Greece, many democratic principles and civil liberties familiar in our lives today can be traced to Magna Carta's detailed clauses, including Clauses 39-40 that focus on liberties and properties, permitting no free man to be seized except by law and the state not to help itself to private land. As described by the respected historian David Starkey, though the document contains extensive detailed clauses, it lacks any great statement of principle, leaving its principles hidden within its finer details.

The format of Magna Carta, being full of fine detail but lacking in weight-carrying statements has left it open to different interpretations, resulting in it being a subject of dispute among ruling elites and its importance as a mandate resurface in both times of peace and war. All of which has led to a course of history that has seen two invasions by invitation, a civil war and further afield, a war of independence and a revolution. After signing Magna Carta, King John's appeal to the Pope to have the charter annulled led to the First Barons War, which saw England's lesser-know 'invitation to invade' when rebel barons attempted to install Prince Louis, son of Philip II of France, to the throne as their 'anyone but John' candidate. The lack of a rival claimant to the throne had only strengthened King John's power.

Magna Carta's purpose of keeping the King under law wasn't truly to awaken until over 400 years later when Charles I, whose belief in the divine right of kings, saw him ignore both the Magna Carta and parliament trying to rule like an absolute monarch. To enforce Magna Carta, a civil war lasting seven years was needed, followed by the king's trial and execution. The freedoms that Magna Carta sought to protect were then denounced by the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell's unpopular puritanical regime, resulting in the Restoration of the Monarchy after Charles II returned from exile. Magna Carta would resurface once again towards the end of the 16th century when religious tensions mounted with James II secret conversion to Catholicism opened the way for the better known invitation to invade in 1688, which history would call the 'Glorious Revolution', when William of Orange and James II's daughter Mary were offered the crown providing they accepted both Magna Carta's terms and the sovereignty of parliament.

While royalty gradually conceded power in Britain, on the other side of the channel, royal absolutism held firm in France. Meanwhile, Magna Carta's principles were taking root across the Atlantic in Britain's American colonies, with the charter forming the basis of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, won in 1783. While the American Declaration of Independence can be seen as a 'descendant' of Magna Carta, the French Revolution that took place a few years later (1789), can be seen as a 'child' of the American Wars of Independence. French involvement in the wars of independence together with the loss of its North American colonies following the Seven Years War (1756-1763) had contributed to huge debts, placing a heavy burden on the French peasantry, which the Court of Versailles appeared oblivious to. With no Magna Carta or equivalent, violent revolution was needed to overthrow royal absolutism.

Lion Mound overlooks the Waterloo Battlefield, Belgium
The collapse of the Ancien Regime in France would later see the rise to power of Napoleon and his ambitions bringing the whole of Europe, including Britain which he famously described as a 'nation of shopkeepers' under his rule. The Napoleonic Wars that followed lasted over 12 years resulting in over six million casualties,saw Napoleon gain and regain domination of Europe until his eventual defeat at the Battle of Waterloo (1815) in present day Belgium by the Allied Forces led by the Duke of Wellington and Prussian Field Marshall Gebhard Lebrecht von Blucher. Wellington wanted everyone involved in the battle to have a medal to be designed by master engraver Benedetto Pristrucci. Due to its size and weight, the medal was never completed. But 200 years later, the London Mint Office has issued 500,000 free medals to mark the battle's bicentenary.

One of 500,000 free medals issued to mark the Bicentenary of Waterloo
As well as peace in Europe for much of the next 50 years after Waterloo, a legacy that emerged from the Napoleonic wars, currently a topical and divisive issue in British politics, was the concept of a unified Europe, sharing the same principles of government, units of measurements, a single currency and civil code. I rarely cover politics in my blog entries due to its divisive nature which sometimes 'overheats', but something I will say is that while the present day system of European unity, the European Union, isn't without its controversies, I am grateful that it has contributed to preventing full scale war in Europe on the level of the Napoleonic Wars or the two world wars. That said, the current situation in eastern Ukraine will be a test of its ability to uphold peace and security. Recent times have also seen rights and freedoms, many of which have their roots in Magna Carta, come under threat with the war on terror, in which tensions have been heightened by recent events including the Charlie Hebdo shooting in France and cafe shootings in Denmark and Australia. Such rights are often overlooked during times of insecurity, making Magna Carta as relevant in many ways now as it ever has been.

Interlinking historical events often ends up with one's walls being covered in flow diagrams, as the walls of Clare Sainsbury's (author of Martian in the Playground) hall of residence room at the University of Oxford was! Being a visual thinker, flow charts often help. What this particular writing exercise has shown me is that, as well as interlinked, as Leo Tolstoy described, history is an inexorable process, a continuum, which one man alone cannot influence. There are theories and principles from the past that have relevance to the present day, as well as mistakes from which to learn for the benefit of humanity.

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