An English History of Freedom

Andy guided us on an immensely informative journey through English History, from the Roman invasion of 54BC to the present, via Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Vikings, Normans, Plantagenets, Tudors, Stuarts, and Hanoverians, among others, demonstrating how that concept of freedom which we jealously uphold has developed over several centuries.

One omnipresent aspect is taxation. An issue for King John, before Richard II introduced a Poll Tax, Charles I devised Ship Money, and George III tried taxing the American colonists, a hubristic Margaret Thatcher presented us with a 20th century Poll Tax. Modern life embraces Income Tax, VAT, Inheritance Tax, Community Charge, etc., taxation in one guise or another having loomed over England’s people down the ages.

Understandably, there have been revolts, not only against taxation, but against religious intolerance, and to establish human rights. The so-called Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, led by the middle-class Wat Tyler, was followed, in 1450 by a rebellion, under Jack Cade, against the government of Henry VI.

During the early 1500s, Martin Luther, in Germany, sought reforms within the Catholic church, while England’s Henry VIII rejected papal supremacy, in favour of spiritual freedom. The Tudor period witnessed Henry dissolving the monasteries, which had grown obscenely wealthy, Mary Tudor (“Bloody Mary”) ordering the execution of opponents of her Catholicism, and various death warrants being signed by Elizabeth.

Early in the Stuart years, Catholic insurrectionists attempt to blow up Parliament, while, during subsequent decades, Charles I believed that God spoke through him, fell out with Parliament, and lost his head (literally) after a bloody Civil War. Around the mid-1600s, reform groups known quaintly as Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, and Quakers sought freedoms of various kinds for the English people.

A further revolution, the Glorious Revolution, took place in 1688, when the Dutch William of Orange effectively ousted James II. The Bill of Rights (1689) demonstrated an eminently sound way to run a nation. On William’s death without issue, and Anne’s similar circumstance later, in 1714, England’s crown passed, in turn, to the Elector of Hanover, the first of four Georges, William IV, Victoria, Edward VII, and, since 1910, the Windsors.

During the reign of George III, the American colonies gained freedom from England, as a consequence of the American War of Independence, and, a few years later, in 1789, there was a momentous upheaval for the French, whose own  Revolution ushered in a time of terror and tyranny. Napoléon eventually came to power, vowing to conquer Europe, but suffered final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. A peaceful rally in Manchester, in 1819, ironically punned “Peterloo”, saw the crowd dispersed by the military, amid much savagery and bloodshed, a national disgrace only four years after the triumph of Waterloo.

The Reform Act (1832) allowed for the widening of the electorate, but certain freedoms were removed. Although Britain had her Empire, it could hardly be advanced that Africa and India were in any way “free”. The slave trade left a blot on human history, Britain being very much involved, but, on its abolition in 1833, it was apparent that certain forms of slavery were still thriving, child labour blighting our country, and working-class Trade Union movements being discouraged, to the point where some Union leaders suffered transportation.

The year 1848 saw great agitation here (Chartism), and especially in Europe, where patriotic feelings demanded nationhood, leading to the founding of the French Republic, Swiss Federation, unification of German states, and the Italian Risorgimento, while Britain’s Representation of the People Act ( 1867) increased the electorate, yet denied representation to many, giving rise, indirectly, to the suffragist and suffragette movements, culminating in partial adult female suffrage in 1918, and full adult suffrage (men and women) in 1928.

Undoubtedly, the 20th century will be forever remembered for its World Wars, effectively one continuing war which changed the world order for ever, rang the death knell of colonialism as subjugated nations sued for independence, and  heralded the notion of a “United Europe”, of which our electorate will imminently have the freedom to choose whether or not to remain a member.

Food for thought, indeed. Those “20½ generations” (Andy Thomas’ phrase) since Julius Cæsar seem not so very distant, the struggle of the English people to achieve acceptable standards of personal freedom has been evident throughout several centuries, and, despite pestilence, wars, and political wrangling, the ogre of taxation of the populace has never strayed far from the minds of those in power.

Stefan Gatward