Brits at their Best.com: British History, Culture & Sports, History of Freedom, Heroes, Inventors

LIBERTY! THE TIMELINE

145-1699

Brit walk home from shoot in the country with his dog

Many Brits leave country life to fight for their country's liberties on the battlefield and in the courtroom.

Photo: StuartBlyth@istockphoto.com

MAKING A GLORIOUS REVOLUTION
ADVOCATING REFORMS

Heroes risk jail to advance modern reforms. An unsung hero freely returns power to the people. A doctor lays the foundations of the American Revolution.
Brits launch the Glorious Revolution, and win the Declaration of Rights.

1645 LILBURNE RESISTS TYRANNY OF PARLIAMENT

The House of Commons arrests John Lilburne, charging him with libelling its speaker. He challenges the House's authority to investigate his political opinions by refusing to answer their questions. His behavior is unprecedented, but John Lilburne sees that every Brit is in danger if the House can haul any man in, try, and convict him.

Lilburne charges that the House is acting illegally and refuses to answer any questions about himself. He demands to know the charges against him. His strategy is to demand Common Law procedures, but the House committee scorns the law. "I have a right," Lilburne cries, "to all the privileges that do belong to a free man as the greatest man in England. . .and the ground and foundation of my freedom I build upon the Great Charter of England." The House throws him into jail. But this is not the last they will hear of John Lilburne.

1647 AGITATORS (CALLED LEVELLERS BY THEIR OPPONENTS) PROPOSE MODERN REFORMS

Brits from all parts of the country and walks of life who are soldiers in the Parliamentary Army begin meeting in inns and bivouacs across Britain. Called Agitators (New Agents) they are developing ideas that men and women in some modern democracies take for granted as rights. Their Agreement of the People includes:

The right to vote in biannual or annual parliamentary elections

Complete religious freedom for individuals with no religious direction from the state

Freedom of association

Uncensored books and newspapers

The right not to bear witness against oneself

The abolition of class privileges

The right of juries to acquit

No taxes for people earning less than £30 per year.

At the Putney Debates, factions of the Parliamentary Army discuss what a new Constitution should contain, and who should be allowed to vote. The Agitators present a petition of their demands signed by many thousands to the House of Commons.

The House ignores the petition. Cromwell moves to suppress the Agitators.

The most famous Agitators, John Lilburne and Richard Overton, are jailed. Richard's wife, Mary Overton, prints and distributes her husband's tracts, and is dragged through the streets by a cart while holding her six-month-old baby.

Tried and jailed due to the House of Commons libel action, Lilburne is released, but is incarcerated a year later by the House of Lords in a separate libel action. His wife Elizabeth is thrown into jail with him. But this is not the last that the Lords or Cromwell will hear from John Lilburne or passionate women Agitators.

Lilburne had insisted in print that women "were by nature all equal and alike in power, dignity, authority and majesty" to men. Now women in London mobilise a mass petition campaign.

1647 RAINBOROWE RISKS LIFE FOR PARLIAMENT, ADVOCATES VOTING RIGHTS FOR ALL MEN

Thomas Rainborowe (also known as Rainsborough), is a well-to-do young merchant who joins the forces of parliament against Charles I, and daringly wins a number of crucial victories. In 1643, he captures a ship off the east coast of Scotland that is bringing reinforcements to the king; defends Hull, leading 500 musketeers in a fierce sally that helps to lift the royal siege; and mounts an amphibious assault on Crowland Castle in Lincolnshire, recapturing the fortress.

In 1645 he raises a foot regiment largely officered by returning émigrés from New England, captures Gaunt House near Oxford, and less than two weeks later fights at Naseby. At Langport, on 10 July, he leads a party of 1500 musketeers ‘with admirable resolution’ across a stream and uphill through a narrow lane to the royalist position” (DNB/Sprigge, 65). He takes Nunney Castle on 20 August and Berkeley Castle on 25 September. At Bristol on 10 September he and his men scale the high walls of Prior's Hill Fort in the face of withering musket- and cannon-fire.

Rainborowe becomes MP for Droitwich, Worcestershire, in 1647. He is devoted to his soldiers, and when New Model regiments revolt against Parliament, he joins them.

The army is in ferment. Many of the men who fought for Parliament have no right to vote for an MP. In October and November 1647, at the army general council's debates at Putney, Rainborowe joins the cause of the Agitators (also called Levellers). He advocates voting rights for all men.

Cromwell and other officers in the New Army oppose the struggle for rights. Risking his career, Rainborowe declares that every Englishman deserves to have a voice -

Really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it's clear, that every man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under . . . (DNB/Clarke Papers, 1.301)

He loses the battle, and dies in defence of this belief, but the struggle continues, and eventually it is won.

1648 BRITS OPPOSE WAR; WOMEN ADVOCATE PEACE

Brits increasingly oppose the horrible Civil War and the taxes levied to pay for it. At one time seventy merchants are imprisoned for refusing to pay taxes.

In one of the first peace protests in history, hundreds of women crowd into Westminster to present a petition to end the war.  Katherine Chidley, a preacher, described women who have to see "our children hang upon us, and cry out for bread, and not have wherewithal to feed them."

Parliamentary troopers ride the women down. 

1649 LILBURNE FIGHTS CROMWELL'S GOVERNMENT

Freed from the libel charges levelled by the House of Lords, John Lilburne faces a trial for treason at the Guildhall in London. Earlier he had refused to support the trial of the King on the grounds that it violated all the King's rights as a freeborn Englishman, including trial by jury under the Common Law. (Charles I, never more brave than when he faces death, declares on the scaffold that the King's duty is to keep the ancient constitutions which are the people's freedom. He has, in the event, discovered this role too late, but in time for future generations.)

Lilburne uses his trial as an opportunity to place the right against self-incrimination in the context of what he called 'fair play', 'fair trial', 'the due process of law', and 'the good old laws of England'. On behalf of all Brits he demands the right to counsel, time to consult with counsel, the right to subpoena witnesses in his favor, presumption of innocence, and trial by jury. He refuses to answer questions about himself, and asserts that only the jury is empowered to return a verdict, not the judges.

The jury returns its verdict after an hour of deliberation. They acquit Lilburne. The public is over the moon when he and his companions are released from jail.

Their victory is short-lived. Cromwell proceeds to crush the Agitators by executing some, imprisoning those who refuse to fight against the Irish, and banishing Lilburne. Though the Agitators are levelled, their ideas go underground, and survive to rise again.

1649-1660 PARLIAMENT RESISTS; COMMON LAW PERSISTS

Under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, Parliament’s Army takes control in a series of battles.  The Roundheads behead Charles I, purge Parliament of opposition members, create a military dictatorship, invade Ireland, massacre the Irish at Drogheda, and impose a brutal penal code.

Oliver Cromwell believes that God is on his side, but his actions, and a previous century of religious strife, convince many Brits that people who believe that God is on their side are quite likely to be fatally mistaken. Cromwell tries to force Parliament to do his will, but Parliament resists. In 1653 Cromwell dissolves Parliament, and names himself Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England.

Brits struggle to defend the Common Law against Cromwell's quasi-religious dictatorship. When the Puritans insist that convicted adulterers be hanged, British juries refuse to convict them.

man and woman dancing close

Cromwell’s rule has been called benign, but Brits experience a variety of oppressions. They are forbidden to dance or celebrate Christmas. 

Photo: sjharmon@istockphoto.com

1657-1664 FLUSHING REMONSTRANCE DEFIES AUTHORITY, DEFENDS RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN AMERICA

Thirty Englishmen in the Long Island village of Flushing protested Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant’s arrest, torture and expulsion of a Quaker preacher who had defied Stuyvesant’s ban on all religions but Dutch Reformed Protestantism. Defying possible repercussions the 30 Englishmen signed and delivered the Flushing Remonstrance to Stuyvesant.

They asserted that “If any persons. . . Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist or Quaker. . . come in love to us, we cannot in conscience lay violent hands upon them.” They asked that “the law of love, peace and liberty . . . [extend even] to Jews, Turks and Egyptians . . .”, and declared, “Let every man stand or fall to his own Master.”

The Remonstrance enraged Stuyvesant. He forced the signers to retreat. Nevertheless the Remonstrance was never forgotten, and was an inspiration for the religious freedom clause in the US Constitution.

In 1662 Stuyvesant arrested and exiled Flushing citizen John Bowne, who had allowed his house to be used by Quakers. Sent to Holland to be tried, Bowne took his case to the board of the Dutch West India Company. The company buckled before his resolve and the undeniably persuasive argument that tolerance was more profitable than intolerance. The next day Bowne was released and sent with a letter to Stuyvesant, who was told to allow full liberty of conscience in New Amsterdam. In 1664 New Amsterdam fell to the English and was renamed New York.

Bowne farmhouse

The farm is gone, but the Bowne Farmhouse still stands in Flushing, Queens.

Image: Gotham Gazette

1660 MONCK’S UNEXPECTED DECISION

George Monck is a general who will fight on both sides of the Civil War, and at sea against the Dutch. Born the second son of an impoverished landowner, George tackled an abusive Sheriff when he was a boy, then joined the King’s Army where he distinguished himself on a number of daring missions. During the Civil War he was captured and imprisoned, but refused to abandon the Royalist side. 

After Parliament defeats the King, it offers to hire Monck, and since he needs a job, and perhaps because he is a patriot, he joins the army.  His ability to win the hearts of his men and to fight victoriously on land and sea is sensational. By early 1660, Cromwell has died (in 1658, on the anniversary of the massacre of Drogheda), and Monck is Commander-in-Chief of the Commonwealth Army. He marches his men south from Coldstream in the Scottish borders to London. Ever after they will be known as the Coldstream Guards.

At first the general's intentions are unclear. It is assumed he wants to be dictator, and the Army will make him so. But when “the dark, glistening columns” enter the city, Monck declares that he will not rule the country, and calls for new elections.

Samuel Pepys, later a famous diarist and reorganizer of the Navy (and, alas, womanize)r, writes that when Members of Parliament hear that Monck supports free elections their faces are transformed ‘with joy.’

1663 RHODE ISLAND RECEIVES ROYAL CHARTER WHICH AFFIRMS COMPLETE RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

Roger and Mary Williams established the colony of Rhode Island as a sanctuary for those who wished complete freedom to worship as they chose. In 1663 the colony received a Royal Charter from the British Crown. Uniquely, the Charter affirmed complete religious freedom in Rhode Island. The Charter's provisions later formed the basis for religious freedom in the first amendment to the US Constitution.

1660s - 1680s GEORGE FOX FIGHTS FOR THE RIGHT TO ADVOCATE "THE INNER LIGHT"

By the time he is eleven, George Fox has read the Bible through, though he has never gone to school. He begins work as a shoemaker then, feeling called by Christ, wanders the countryside on an inner journey of the spirit. He finds "the inner light" of Christ in silence, and goes to prison eight times because he dissents from the established religion. Fearless, eloquent, patient, the integrity, simplicity and power of his life draw thousands to him, and he helps to found the Society of Friends. He is an advocate for the rights of women and Native Americans, and an ardent supporter of peace. His efforts, supported by his wife, Margaret Fell, lead to Parliament's 1689 Act of Toleration, which frees thousands of dissenters and Friends from prison.

William Penn at 22,  just before he began to fight for freedom of conscience

At seventeen, William Penn is a sportsman. He is fluent in Greek and Latin, and has had a seemingly brief flirtation with the simple Christian faith of the Society of Friends. At Oxford he refuses to attend services in the Church of England and is expelled. His father, an admiral, sends him a continental tour and then to London to study law. When London burns in 1666, Penn returns to the family estate in Ireland, and finds his Quaker faith reinforced. He becomes a champion of freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

Photo: America's Library Assets

1670 WILLIAM PENN AND WILLIAM MEADE FIGHT FOR FREEDOM OF CONSCIENCE; THEIR JURORS FIGHT FOR THE FREEDOM OF JURIES TO ACQUIT

The son of the King's vice-admiral, William Penn experiences the "inner light" and becomes a member of the Society of Friends. Believing in a direct experience of God unmediated by any church, the Friends are persecuted by the government. Penn deliberately risks jail when he asserts freedom of conscience by delivering a sermon outdoors in London.  Arrested, he is charged with disturbing the King’s Peace, and brought to trial.  Still in his twenties, he makes a daring and witty defence of himself and William Meade, who had been arrested with him, until the court gags him.

After centuries of conflict over how to be Christian, many Brits are following Christ's commandments to love, and to "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's" (Matthew 22:21). They have come to understand that religion cannot control government, and, equally important, government cannot control religion.

The jury refuses to convict William Penn of breach of peace for speaking publicly about his religious views. To force them to convict, the court has the jurors locked in a room without food, water, bathroom facilities or (and this seemed especially onerous, smoking privileges). As they leave the courtroom Penn cries, “Ye are Englishmen, mind your privilege, give not away your right!”

His jurors reply “Nor will we ever!”

Hauled back into court and threatened with jail, the jurors stubbornly refuse to convict Penn and Meade. The judge has them fined and thrown into Newgate Prison. Eight of them fold, pay the fine, and are released, but four, led by Edward Bushell, refuse to pay the fine or convict Penn, even though Newgate is a urine-soaked hole and they are suffering daily from privations and loss of income.

Bushell manages to have a writ of habeas corpus taken to the High Court and the Lord Chief Justice, Sir John Vaughn. The Court studies the writ, and in a remarkable victory for justice declares that jurors cannot be forced to convict and cannot be punished for their verdicts. It orders Penn and Meade and their four jurors to be released.

1679 HABEAS CORPUS HURRY UP

Sheriffs and jailors are supposed to respond promptly to a writ of habeas corpus, and either charge their prisoner with a crime or release him from prison.  But they often refuse to respond to the writs, and keep men and women penned up in prison for months without charging them with a crime or bringing them to trial. 

Parliament rights this injustice by passing the Habeas Corpus Act, which gives sheriffs just three days to respond to a writ.  As Winston Churchill points out in his History of the English Speaking Peoples, “No Englishman, however great or however humble, could be imprisoned for more than a few days without grounds being shown against him in open court according to the settled law of the land.” 

This remedy against the tyranny of the state is found in all countries with Common Law, including Britain, the U.S. and the core countries of the Commonwealth. It is not found in countries with civil law, nor is it to be found in the European Union's justice system.

1679-1681 THE PARTY ANIMAL

Anthony Ashley Cooper (Lord Shaftesbury) supports both Roundheads and Cavaliers, serially, not simultaneously. He advocates religious tolerance because without it political stability is impossible, but he violently opposes allowing a Catholic to sit on the throne because he is afraid a Catholic King will become a pawn of the Pope.

Shaftesbury and his supporters transform government by starting the world’s first political party, the Whigs. Despite the obvious negatives associated with modern parties, a political party can channel and magnify an individual’s energy, create a coherent national policy, criticize an inadequate one, and protect and sustain freedom.

Shaftesbury goes too far when, in an effort to force his point, he arrives with armed followers at Parliament.  Disgraced and dying, he flees to Europe.  By then he has started a dynasty of reformist earls. 

New York City skyline glitters at night

The Brits gain a small town in the New World from the Dutch, and Charles II names it New York. 

Photo by NJPro@istockphoto.com

1681 PENN RISKS LIFE TO CREATE FREEDOM IN AMERICA

Charles II pays off the huge debt he owed William Penn’s father by giving William a land grant in America. In turn, Penn buys the land from the Indians who live there.  He wins their trust by being brave enough to negotiate without carrying a weapon.  (His treaty with the Indians is never sworn to and never broken.) Population pressures in the century following will drive out the Indians and the bear.

Penn invites oppressed religious minorities from England, France, and Germany to settle in the land that will be called Pennsylvania. (The name is the King’s idea. Penn prefers Sylvania.) He urges his settlers to spare one acre of trees for every five cleared.

Long a friend of Algernon Sidney (see below), Penn drafts a Frame of Government that will inspire the founders of the American Constitution. His Constitution includes religious freedom for all.

1680s – 1690 IDEAS THAT CHANGE THE EARTH

Algernon Sidney, a younger son of the Earl of Leicester, detests "arbitrary power" and fights on the side of Parliament during the Civil War. Gallant in battle, he becomes disillusioned with Cromwell’s despotism, goes into exile, and becomes the target of assassins. He escapes unscathed, is involved in some unsavoury favours for the French, and decides to write a logical and passionate defense of popular government.    

Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government is still in manuscript form when, back in England, he is arrested for plotting against Charles II. The prosecution quotes from his manuscript, derisively reading aloud his ideas about freedom in a republic. 

Judge Jeffreys (he will become notorious as the Hanging Judge) orders him executed. Sidney goes courageously to the block on Tower Hill. Perhaps he knows that his manuscript will survive his death. Fifteen years later it is published. Fifty years later it will help to change the world.

John Locke is also secretly writing a book, Two Treatises of Civil Government. He flees to Holland when Sidney is arrested, and remains there until the Glorious Revolution. 

A doctor who enjoys talking and dining with friends, he is expert enough to save the first Earl of Shaftesbury's life "by using a silver tube to drain his infected liver" (Paul Johnson). Locke believes that we understand the world by using our senses and by thinking. This idea, fairly accepted today, seemed avant-garde at the time. Using the language of commerce, Locke suggests that Christian morals make sense because they are "the long-term and prudent pursuit of happiness." His idea will influence American revolutionaries. As John Adams will remark, "Our Constitution was made only for a religious and moral people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other."

Locke is most famous for writing Two Treatises on Civil Government (1690). Here he describes the four ideas that he believes are essential to freedom:

1) Religious tolerance

2) An individual’s right to own property

3) A government based on popular consent

4) The right to rebel when government does not protect life, liberty, and property.

Not surprisingly, Locke and his ideas become extremely unpopular with the government, and he flees to the Netherlands. After the Glorious Revolution, he returns, and publishes all his works. During the next century revolutionaries in America will seize on the books of Locke and Sidney as a resource as valuable as land and ships.

These lines in the Letter on Toleration especially affect them, as they protect the state from religion and give to the religious their freedom: "Whether the magistrate join himself to any church, or separate from it, the church remains always as it was before, a free and voluntary society," Locke writes in his. "It neither acquires the power of the sword by the magistrate’s coming to it, nor does it lose the right of instruction and excommunication by his going from it. This is the fundamental and immutable right of a spontaneous society…"

1687 JAMES II DECLARES FREEDOM OF RELIGION

At the urging of William Penn, James II declares freedom of religion. More than a thousand members of the Society of Friends are freed from jail.

1688 - 1689 THE BLOODLESS REVOLUTION AND THE GLORIOUS DECLARATION OF RIGHT

Despite his act declaring freedom of conscience, Brits are worried that James II plans to establish a Catholic monarchy in the style of France’s despotic Louis XIV. French religious persecution has driven 200,000 Huguenots to Britain. There are suspicions that his brother, Charles II, has betrayed England in the secret Treaty of Dover by accepting Louis XIV's offer of soldiers and money to force England to become Catholic in exchange for England's help in conquering the Netherlands for France. Parliament was able to scuttle this treachery, but James has formed a powerful standing Army without the consent of Parliament, and he is trying to repeal the right of habeas corpus. 

Alarmed for their “religion, liberties and properties,” the Brits rebel in city after city. They repudiate James, and invite James’ beautiful and determined daughter Mary and her stubborn husband, William, the Dutch King (a grandson of Charles I) to become King and Queen.

William lands in Devon. John Churchill, who heads the army, decides to support the people and repudiate James. He takes the army with him, and James flees into exile in France. As he hurries off, he tosses the Royal Seal into the Thames.

Only a King can call Parliament into session. Without a king, representatives of the British people assemble. They include the bishops - the Lords Spiritual. In February 1689, the Convention of British people formally offers the crown to Mary and William, but only if the two royal cousins affirm the Declaration of Right, which confirms the “ancient rights and liberties” that belong to the British people.

Curiously, some of the Glorious Revolution’s most significant achievements have been forgotten. 

First, the Declaration of Right is established not between Parliament and the monarchy, but between the people and the monarchy. The people loan their power to government to act in their behalf. Governments often have the mistaken impression they are “giving” freedoms to the people. In fact governments are established to protect our freedoms which belong to us as natural and God-given rights.

Second, the Brits’ insistence on a Declaration of Right suggests they are wisely mistrustful of a powerful executive. At the same time they recognize that an executive (in this case the monarchy) is a fundamental part of government along with Parliament and the courts. This concept will profoundly influence the Americans when they create three “separate but equal powers.” The rights and liberties described in the Declaration will become part of their Bill of Rights (see below).

1689 BRITS OBTAIN PRECEDENT-SETTING BILL OF RIGHTS

In December Parliament passes the Bill of Rights which includes the earlier Declaration of Right, and William and Mary stamp it with their Great Seal, swearing that "No foreign prince, person, prelate, state or potentate hath or ought to have any jurisdiction, power, superiority, pre-eminence or authority, ecclesiastical or spiritual, within this realm." That is still the law today, as asserted in the Bill of Rights, but it has been ignored and flouted by Parliament in a series of unconstitutional treaties with the European Union

The Bill establishes a constitutional monarchy whose powers are limited by Parliament. It will inspire what many Americans consider their most precious possession, the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. The Brits’ Bill of Rights affirms their "ancient rights and liberties" and declares in addition:

  • Suspending or executing laws without the consent of Parliament is illegal, and Parliament should meet frequently.

  • Levying money without the consent of Parliament is illegal.

  • The people have the right to petition the king; prosecuting them for petitioning is illegal.

  • The people (limited at this time to Protestants who were 98% of the population) have the right to bear arms in their defense. This means every person has the right to stand his or her ground and meet violence with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm.

  • The election of members to Parliament ought to be free.

  • Freedom of speech within Parliament is protected.

  • "Excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

  • Jurors ought to be duly impanelled.

  • All fines and forfeitures before conviction are illegal and void.

An Englishman in America, out in a field for target practice with guns

Since Alfred’s time Brits have had the right and the duty to bear arms. When criminals are armed, and attacking, self-defence with a weapon is a reasonable response. It is a brutal fact that all the genocides of the 20th and 21st centuries have been perpetrated by armed governments against people who were disarmed. The idea that good people can give up their arms and somehow be protected is a fantasy that has cost millions their lives.

Photo: Kevin Cooley

1689 A STEP TOWARD TOLERATION

Parliament passes the Toleration Act, providing a measure of religious freedom. Less tolerant than its name suggests, the Act protects some of those who dissent from the nation’s official religious doctrine.

1694 TRIENNIAL ACT ENDS KING’S POWER TO CANCEL PARLIAMENT

Parliament passes the Triennial Act to ensure that elections are held every three years and to prevent the King from dissolving Parliament. Brits have figured out that freedom requires regular elections and the right of a representative body to meet. (They will guarantee these rights in the U.S. Constitution, Article I, Sections 2 - 4.) 

Elections also require voters. The franchise is still limited, but expanding. Fierce resistance and ingenuity are the order of the day when the powers-that-be move polling places, hoping voters will not ride for miles across country to vote. But hundreds of voters on horseback set out before dawn to surprise them.

1695 PRESS FREEDOM UNCHAINED

Decades earlier, Parliament had banned all publications that did not conform to Church of England teachings. Those that were published had to receive approval under the Licensing Act. When Parliament lets the Licensing Act lapse, Brits seize the new freedom with both hands. Social, political, scientific, and religious papers pour off the presses.

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