Articles of Barons

Magna Carta comes of age: 800 years ago, nobody envisaged the manuscript’s influence on world history.

What a year for English and British citizens to celebrate and reflect on their illustrious and occasionally troublesome past: 2015 promises so much with a cornucopia of unique milestones and anniversaries.  The events that will be commemorated span 8 centuries and are not linked in any way, except perhaps by a recurring theme of determined resistance to autocratic rule at home and abroad.

Without doubt, the most significant celebrations will be those marking the 800th birthday of Magna Carta.  Between 6th January 1215, when the opening round of negotiations between the King and his magnates failed and 15th June when the charter was given the royal seal of approval at Runnymede by King John, England was a hot bed of mistrust and violence as self-seeking Barons struggled to overcome the more extreme excesses of the Plantagenet dynasty.  Although the agreement was annulled by Pope Innocent III on 24th August 1215, just 10 weeks after it had been bestowed, the tenets of that ancient manuscript inspired later generations to baulk at the prospect of absolute rule, wherever and whenever it occurred.  Arguably, for 800 years Magna Carta has proved its worth as the most influential document ever bequeathed to humankind.  Whilst celebrations will centre quite understandably on Runnymede, the events of 1215 will be marked in other parts of England.

A romantic depiction of the bloody battle at Waterloo

A romantic depiction of the bloody battle at Waterloo

Several appalling conflicts will be remembered this year.  Two centuries ago on Sunday 18th June 1815, the Battle of Waterloo was fought in a region that now forms part of Belgium.  Napoleon attacked the combined Anglo-Dutch-Prussian armies led by the Duke of Wellington and Field Marshal von Blucher.  The slaughter was terrible; approximately 25,000 Frenchmen were either killed, wounded or reported missing and the allies suffered similar casualties.

It was 600 years ago on St. Crispin’s Day, {Friday 25th October 1415} that the Battle of Agincourt was contested in France.  This ferocious conflict formed part of the struggle that we know as ‘The Hundred Years War’.  On that occasion King Henry V led 6-9000 men against a much larger force of French knights and men-at-arms.  Henry V secured an unlikely and spectacular victory during which 7-10,000 Frenchmen were massacred but the successes and territorial gains were over-turned during the life of  the King’s son who was Henry VI.

We will perhaps remember some of the characters associated with well-known battles and equally celebrated commanders.  It may come as a surprise to learn that 200 years ago on 15th January 1815, Emma Lady Hamilton died in ‘reduced circumstances’ after suffering amoebic dysentry at Calais in France.  Emma was 49 years old and she died in abject poverty.  Her birth name was Amy Lyon and she went on to become a ‘mistress’ of the heroic naval commander Horatio Nelson.

Mary Tudor Q of F

The beautiful Mary Tudor, sister to King Henry VIII

In 2015, BBC Two will broadcast their six part adaptation of Dame Hilary Mantel’s novels, which focus on aspects of the Tudor age.  The era features also in my calendar of unique anniversaries.  500 years ago on 13th May 1515, the renowned beauty Mary Tudor, younger sister of King Henry VIII and dowager Queen of France, married Charles Brandon in a ceremony at Greenwich Palace.  This was Mary’s third ‘wedding’ in 7 months and it ended tragically with her early death at the age of 37 in 1533.  Mary was a maternal grandmother of the equally tragic Lady Jane Grey.

5 centuries ago on 22nd September 1515, Anne of Cleves was born at Dusseldorf in Germany.  Thomas Cromwell, Chief Minister of Henry VIII, secured the treaty which betrothed Anne to King Henry.  They wed in January 1540 but the marriage only lasted 6 months: nevertheless, the couple stayed on good terms.  Anne of Cleves outlived King Henry and the remainder of his six wives.

The famous war poet Rupert Brooke

The famous war poet Rupert Brooke whose sonnet ‘The Soldier’ lives on.

The traumas of the First World War will be remembered through individuals who paid the ultimate price for their involvement.  100 years ago on St. George’s Day {23rd April 1915}, the war poet Rupert Chawner Brooke died on a French hospital ship, moored off an island in Greece: he was just 27 years old and was on his way to the slaughter at Gallipoli.  Brooke is renowned for the wonderful war sonnets that he composed, including the iconic work ‘The Soldier’, {see below}.

At 6am on 12th October 1915, Nurse Edith Louisa Cavell from Norwich, was executed by a firing squad at Schaerbeek in Belgium.; her only crime was to shelter British soldiers and funnel them out of occupied Belgium into the Netherlands, which was neutral.  Edith’s death outraged the civilized world and her demise sparked a large increase in recruitment to the Armed Services.  After the war, her body was taken to Westminster Abbey for a service and that was followed by a well-attended burial ceremony outside Norwich Cathedral.

The world of sport and entertainment has its share of anniversaries: some very famous names and events will be recalled.  100 years ago on 1st February 1915, Sir Stanley Matthews CBE was born at Stoke in the East Midlands.  He was without doubt the best known sportsman of his era and he remains the only footballer to be knighted during his playing career.  He was the first man to be awarded both ‘European Footballer of the Year’ and ‘Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year’.  On 23rd October 1915, the renowned cricketer Doctor William Gilbert ‘WG’ Grace MRCS LRCP passed away at Mottingham in Kent at the age of 67.  This remarkable man scored a huge number of runs during a record 44 seasons.

On 4th February 1915, the comedy actor Sir Norman Joseph Wisdom OBE was born in Marylebone, London.  Arguably, England’s greatest clown, he could sing well and was a fine actor.  Moreover, 100 years ago on 22nd September 1915, the legendary Arthur Lowe was born in Derbyshire; between 1968 and 1977, he portrayed the popular character ‘Captain George Mainwaring’ in the BBC sitcom, ‘Dad’s Army’.

HM Queen Elizabeth II

HM Queen Elizabeth II

The celebrations will reach their zenith in the autumn when HM Queen Elizabeth II acquires another unique and rare title.  On 10th September 2015, Elizabeth will surpass Queen Victoria and become the longest reigning monarch in English/British history.  This remarkable woman was born in London on 21st April 1926 and she succeeded to the throne following the death of her father, in February 1952.  She is ‘Head of the Commonwealth’ and ‘Supreme Governor of the Church of England’.  In September 2015, when she overtakes Victoria, Elizabeth’s reign will stand at 63 years and 217 days {or 23,227 days}.

It is worth considering that during her monarchy, Queen Elizabeth will have been served by twelve British Prime Ministers and she has seen twelve American Presidents take office; it is quite possible that those numbers will increase in the near future !  Although Her Majesty rarely comments on political matters, she is undoubtedly, the world’s most experienced leader; she has seen it, done it and got the T-Shirt !

Many of the issues and conflicts just described, have taken place on European soil.  It seems fitting to conclude my humble tribute with the first eight lines of ‘The Soldier’, composed by Rupert Brooke in 1914.

If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England.  There shall be

In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,

Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,

A body of England’s, breathing English air,

Washed by the rivers, blest by sons of home.