Remember! Remember, the Sixth of November! It’s 800 Years Since the Signing of the Charter of the Forest!

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The World Turned Upside Down: The Trials of Freeborn John

514px-John_Lilburne_big_9

 

June and July are interesting months in the historical chronology of the Levellers. Three hundred and seventy two years ago next month sees the anniversary of the arrest of John Lilburne, the famous Leveller agitator, for the alleged slandering of William Lenthall, at that time the Speaker of the House of Commons. The grounds upon which the warrants were issued centred upon supposedly false accusations that Lenthall had been corresponding with Royalists. The fact that many of those within the English Civil War Parliamentary Movement, who were simultaneously members of the landed gentry and therefore represented the interests of wealth and privilege that had historically been aligned to the Crown, were ultimately seeking a compromise with the King and the establishment of a limited monarchy along modern constitutional lines, means that it is perfectly possible that these accusations were well founded. However, in the absence of hard evidence Lilburne had nothing to substantiate the claims that he had made and was therefore to find himself imprisoned.

That October, however, in spite of the gravity of what he had been accused of, Lilburne was to be released in the wake of a petition to the House of Commons which had been signed by over two thousand leading London citizens. This in itself would tend to suggest that many of the population, particularly among the limited classes who were at that time eligible to vote, not only shared his views but were willing to put their signatures to a document in order to defend them. Of further significance is the historic role of the London Citizenry in the crowning of each successive monarch in Anglo-Saxon times. Something that would feature much in the writings and discourse of many of those who were to become caught up in the Leveller Movement of which Lilburne himself was to all intents and purposes the founder.  A fact that is evidenced by reference to the transcripts of the Putney Debates.

But this was not to be the end of the affair by any means. The following year, in June 1646 Lilburne was to find himself arrested and imprisoned again. This time for slandering the Earl of Manchester, whom he had accused of protecting an officer who had been charged with treason. In addition to this he had also referred to Manchester, who had been Lilburne’s former commander prior to the latter’s resignation of his commission upon refusing to sign the Solemn League and Covenant, a matter we shall look at in detail in a future post, both as a traitor as well as a Royalist sympathiser.

On the eleventh of July 1646 Lilburne was brought before the House of Lords, and following a short trial, sentenced to seven years imprisonment. The Judgement of the House of Lords, dated the same day as his trial, that of 11th July 1646, is transcribed in full below:

“It is to be remembered, that, the Tenth Day of July, in the Two and Twentieth Year of the Reign of our Sovereign Lord King Charles, Sir Nathaniell Finch Knight, His Majesty’s Serjeant at Law, did deliver in, before the Lords assembled in Parliament at Westm’r, certain Articles against Lieutenant Colonel John Lilburne, for High Crimes and Misdemeanors done and committed by him, together with certain Books and Papers thereunto annexed; which Articles, and the said Books and Papers thereunto annexed, are filed among the Records of Parliament; the Tenor of which Articles followeth, in these Words:

“It was then and there, (that is to say,) the said Tenth Day of July, by their Lordships Ordered, That the said John Lilbourne be brought to the Bar of this House the 11th Day of the said July, to answer the said Articles, that thereupon their Lordships might proceed therein according as to Justice should appertain; at which Day, scilicet, the 11th Day of July, Anno Domini 1646, the said John Lilburne, according to the said Order, was brought before the Peers then assembled and sitting in Parliament, to answer the said Articles; and the said John Lilburne being thereupon required, by the said Peers in Parliament, to kneel at the Bar of the said House, as is used in such Cases, and to hear his said Charge read, to the End that he might be enabled to make Defence thereunto, the said John Lilburne, in Contempt and Scorn of the said High Court, did not only refuse to kneel at the said Bar, but did also, in a contemptuous Manner, then and there, at the open Bar of the said House, openly and contemptuously refuse to hear the said Articles read, and used divers contemptuous Words, in high Derogation of the Justice, Dignity, and Power of the said Court; and the said Charge being nevertheless then and there read, the said John Lilburne was then and there, by the said Lords assembled in Parliament, demanded what Answer or Defence he would make thereunto; the said John Lilburne, persisting in his obstinate and contemptuous Behaviour, did peremptorily and absolutely refuse to make any Defence or Answer to the said Articles; and did then and there, in high Contempt of the said Court, and of the Peers there assembled, at the open Bar of the said House of Peers, affirm, “That they were Usurpers and unrighteous Judges, and that he would not answer the said Articles;” and used divers other insolent and contemptuous Speeches against their Lordships and that High Court: Whereupon the Lords assembled in Parliament, taking into their serious Consideration the said contemptuous Carriage and Words of the said John Lilburne, to the great Affront and Contempt of this High and Honourable Court, and the Justice, Authority, and Dignity thereof; it is therefore, this present 11th Day of July, Ordered and Adjudged, by the Lords assembled in Parliament, That the said John Lilburne be fined, and the said John Lilburne by the Lords assembled in Parliament, for his said Contempt, is fined, to the King’s Majesty, in the Sum of Two Thousand Pounds: And it is further Ordered and Adjudged, by the said Lords assembled in Parliament, That the said John Lilburne, for his said Contempts, be and stand committed to The Tower of London, during the Pleasure of this House: And further the said Lords assembled in Parliament, taking into Consideration the said contemptuous Refusal of the said John Lilburne to make any Defence or Answer to the said Articles, did Declare, That the said John Lilburne ought not thereby to escape the Justice of this House; but the said Articles, and the Offences thereby charged to have been committed by the said John Lilburne, ought thereupon to be taken as confessed: Therefore the Lords assembled in Parliament, taking the Premises into Consideration, and for that it appears by the said Articles that the said John Lilburne hath not only maliciously published several scandalous and libelous Passages of a very high Nature against the Peers of this Parliament therein particularly named, and against the Peerage of this Realm in general, but contrived, and contemptuously published, and openly at the Bar of the House delivered, certain scandalous Papers, to the high Contempt and Scandal of the Dignity, Power, and Authority of this House: All which Offences, by the peremptory Refusal of the said John Lilburne to answer or make any Defence to the said Articles, stand confessed by the said Lilburne as they are in the said Articles charged:

“It is, therefore, the said Day and Year last abovementioned, further Ordered and Adjudged, by the Lords assembled in Parliament, upon the whole Matter in the said Articles contained,

“1. That the said John Lilburne be sined to the King’s Majesty in the Sum of Two Thousand Pounds.

“2. And, That he stand and be imprisoned in The Tower of London, by the Space of Seven Years next ensuing.

“3. And further, That he, the said John Lilburne, from henceforth stand and be uncapable to bear any Office or Place, in Military or in Civil Government, in Church or Commonwealth, during his Life.”

This passage, taken from the ‘House of Lords Journal Volume 8: 17 September 1646’, and subsequently published in the Journal of the House of Lords: volume 8: 1645-1647 (1802), pp. 493-494, presents the reader with a number of interesting legal anomalies: which may well explain the attitude of the defendant. The first of which is that the entire trial appears to have been conducted in the King’s Name, much as modern day criminal trials still are, by members of the English Civil War Parliamentary faction at a time when they themselves were engaged in armed struggle with the self same monarch in whose name Lilburne had been brought to trial.

The other interesting anomaly involves the fact that at no point in the trial transcript is there any mention whatsoever of the affair for which Lilburne was originally arrested. Namely, the accusations he is reported to have made against the Earl of Manchester. Indeed, this entire tract is suggestive of the fact that Lilburne was in reality on trial first and foremost for his ideas. And in particular those ideas which he himself had previously committed to writing. His’England’s Birthright Justified‘, published in October 1645, at about the same time as he had previously been released from prison, for example, defends the rule of law against arbitrary power. In it Lilburne argues that Parliament’s own power must be limited by law to protect the rights of the individual. The author also attacks the monopolies of preaching, in the form of the Established Church and its Ministers, the Merchant Adventurers who dominated the Wool Trade, and the Stationers’ Company who controlled the printing of all published books.

The subsequent campaign to free Lilburne from prison was to lead to the establishment of the entire Leveller Movement, including the political party of the same name. Following the spreading of false rumours that the Levellers, who wanted a complete end to the Monarchy and the House of Lords, were conspiring with the Royalists to overthrow the new republican government, which had come to be dominated by the landed classes, Lilburne himself was accused of incitement. On 26 October 1649 he was brought to trial yet again. This time at the Guildhall in London, where he was charged with high treason and with inciting the Leveller mutinies within the Army.

At his trial Lilburne spoke eloquently in his own defence: ‘Sir, will it please you to hear me? and if so, by your favour thus. All the privilege for my part that I shall crave this day at your hands, is no more but that which is properly and singly the liberty of every free-born Englishman, viz. The benefit of the Laws and Liberties thereof, which by my birthright and inheritance is due unto me; the which I have fought for as well as others have done, with a single and upright heart; and if I cannot have and enjoy this, I shall leave this Testimony behind me, That I died for the Laws and Liberies of this nation; and upon this score I stand, and if I perish I perish.’

Once again his was released from prison just as he had been on 14th October, 1645, this time after being acquitted by a jury. Of further interest is the fact that during his previous trial before the Lords it had been ruled that ‘the said John Lilburne be sined to the King’s Majesty in the Sum of Two Thousand Pounds’. This refers to a fine of £2000 that he had been ordered to pay on being found guilty.

The particular point of relevance here is that following his previous release from prison in October 1645, John Bradshaw, who would himself rise to prominence as President of the High Court of Justice for the trial of King Charles I and as the first Lord President of the Council of State of the English Commonwealth, had brought a case before the Star Chamber on Lilburne’s behalf in the matter of a large sum of back pay that he should have received while serving as a Colonel in the Parliamentary Army. The sum that  Lilburne was awarded as a result of this case, which amounted to some £2,000 in compensation for his sufferings, was never paid by Parliament and appears to have been at the heart of the later decision to arrest him in the affair of the Earl of Manchester. It is interesting to note then that the money he had been owed, and the sum he would later be fined, amount to precisely the same amount.

 

Picture Credit:   John Lilburne: Wikimedia Commons Creative Commons Licence

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The World Turned Upside Down: Bill of Rights or Bill of Wrongs?

Theresa May’s recent announcement that she is to fight the 2020 United Kingdom Election on a Human Rights mandate, reported first in the Daily Telegraph and then by the Russian news service RT, may come as a bit of a surprise to those who are familiar with her longstanding opposition to the European Court of Human Rights. For, in spite of her previous opposition to Brexit, the European Court of Human Rights, and its ability to interfere in matters which many Eurosceptics have long seen as purely constitutional, has been one key issue that has put the present British Prime Minister onto a collision course with her European counterparts in Brussels and elsewhere. Once the original context of a distinctly British Bill of Rights is properly understood on both an historical and a political level, however, the reasons for the Prime Minister’s directly adversarial stance in these matters can be seen for what they are.

Although at face value May appears to be attempting to take Britain forward, by giving the British People their own unique Bill of Rights, in reality she is taking them back to the late Seventeenth Century, to the period directly after the so called ‘Glorious Revolution’. When, in the words of one of the greatest revolutionary writers of the Enlightenment Period, following ‘the English constitutional settlement of 1689, confirming the deposition of James II and the accession of William and Mary, guaranteeing the Protestant succession, and laying down the principles of parliamentary supremacy’, to quote the eighteenth century Radical, Thomas Paine, adherents of the incoming English Whig Ascendancy sought to set themselves free from ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ ‘and reestablished the liberty of Protestants to have arms for their defence within the rule of law.’

Elsewhere in this same work, his celebrated ‘Rights of Man’, dated 4th November 1789 and written primarily as a response to those who sought to quell the flames of European Revolution, ‘Being An Answer To Mr. Burke’s Attack On The French Revolution’ in particular, Paine describes the Seventeenth Century ‘Bill of Rights’, and the so called ‘Act of Settlement’ which was to establish the present ruling dynasty, that of the House of Hanover, in the opening years of the succeeding century, in the following terms:

 ‘The act, called the Bill of Rights, comes here into view. What is it, but a bargain, which the parts of the government made with each other to divide powers, profits, and privileges? You shall have so much, and I will have the rest; and with respect to the nation, it said, for your share, YOU shall have the right of petitioning. This being the case, the bill of rights is more properly a bill of wrongs, and of insult. As to what is called the convention parliament, it was a thing that made itself, and then made the authority by which it acted. A few persons got together, and called themselves by that name. Several of them had never been elected, and none of them for the purpose. From the time of William a species of government arose, issuing out of this coalition bill of rights; and more so, since the corruption introduced at the Hanover succession by the agency of Walpole; that can be described by no other name than a despotic legislation. Though the parts may embarrass each other, the whole has no bounds; and the only right it acknowledges out of itself, is the right of petitioning. Where then is the constitution either that gives or restrains power?’

For, in spite of the fact that, according to the Guardian newspaper, Theresa May recently hired the former head of Tony Blair’s policy unit ‘to review workers’ rights’, the Bill of Rights we are likely to see is almost certainly going to be more akin to the ‘bill of wrongs’ described in the preceding paragraph than anything remotely resembling many of the freedoms we have previously enjoyed, or those so many of us so desperately want. Indeed, according to the Daily Mirror, the Prime Minister’s recent vow to create ‘a new centre ground in British politics’, which came under press scrutiny back in October, is little more than a rather weak and feeble attempt to recruit Labour voters.

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 followed hot on the heels of Monmouth’s Rebellion, and the ‘Bloody Assizes’ of Judge Jeffreys; which sent some 1,400 Rebel Prisoners to the gallows, the block or to the colonies. There, many of those who had been spared the axe or the rope were to follow those who had died of the ‘Gaol Fever’, most probably Typhus, in prison at home; by way of a slower and often lingering death from malnutrition, over work or tropical disease. In many ways these victims of late seventeenth century oppression could and should be compared to the thousands of victims of contemporary government ‘Austerity Measures’ who are viewed by the ruthless Neoliberalist policy makers of our own century as surplus to requirement. This considered, May and her cronies in the Tory Party would do well to remember that, after the Glorious Revolution, Jeffreys himself was to be incarcerated in the Tower of London where he too likewise succumbed to disease on April 18th 1689.

arrestduke

             The Arrest of the Duke of Monmouth after the Battle of Sedgemoor marked the onset of the ‘Bloody Assizes’.

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Remember! Remember the 5th and 6th of November!

Inspired by the Levellers and the Diggers

New Putney Debates celebrates the 799th anniversary of the Charter of the Forest on 5th & 6th November with a weekend of events looking at how social protest won the commons and ongoing struggle for land rights and democracy – from Robin Hood to recent protest to keep our housing and protect nature.

Starting with a trip to Hackney Marshes at 2pm on 5 November, a timeline exhibition at 5pm , followed at 7:30 a boat party with folk & protest songs ,  all on Fordham Gallery barge.  Sunday has a walk plotting the steps in the evolution if the Charter of the Forest, through the streets and parks of London , starting at 1pm, Lambeth Palace.
Programme

5th November

2pm: Boat Trip visit to the Hackney Marshes common land. Meet 2pm at Fordham Gallery Boat, River Lee, White Post Lane, Hackney Wick, E15. FREE

5pm: Opening of the timeline. This shows a history of land-rights and protest in and around London and the Thames Valley, from the first settlement of London to the entering of the Charter of the Forest and the Magna Carta into statute in 1297. Venue: Fordham Gallery Boat, River Lee, White Post Lane, Hackney Wick, E15. FREE

7:30pm until late: Lands & Housing Rights protest song sing-a long with Robin Grey, featuring songs from the ‘Three Acres and a Cow, followed by boat party with acoustic music and pizza, featuring musician Pete Deane, Tim Flitcroft and friends. Venue: Fordham Gallery Boat, River Lee, White Post Lane, Hackney Wick, E15. £5 tickets can be booked at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/boat-party-charter-of-the-forest-celebration-tickets-28145723617

6th November

1pm: Walking tour featuring important points in the development of the Charter of the Forest. Meet by the roundabout outside  Lambeth Palace at 1pm, ends at St Paul’s Cathedral at about 3:15pm. FREE
More information here:

Source: Welcome

 

merlincarouse

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The World Turned Upside Down: A Just and Elected Monarchy?

At the Court of Macbeth: Last Elected King of Scots

At the Court of Macbeth: Last Elected King of Scots

In this, the fourth of my responses in this current blog thread to the LSX Occupy Group’s ‘New Putney Debates’, we look for a second time at the highly contentious issue of the British Monarchy, in relation to the original Leveller Debates of 1647. The institution of Monarchy, and the reaction of the Levellers to it, is dealt with in some detail in Christopher Hill’s ‘Puritanism and Revolution’, a key work on the politics and Republican Spirit of the Age in which they lived; by an author who was himself a major influence on those directly involved in the initiation of the Putney Debates to begin with.

As was previously noted in my last essay, many of the rank and file membership of the Levellers, as a movement, were familiar with a whole host of semi-oral traditions relating to certain aspects of Custom Law and Common Right which were to have a direct bearing on the disdainful view that many of them were to adopt in relation to the English Crown at the time of the First and Second Civil Wars. One of these traditions, that some sort of primitive democracy of sorts had existed before the Norman Conquest, is backed up by direct references in surviving Anglo-Saxon documents that date before the arrival of William the Conqueror: whose own Conquest of England in 1066 was to impose the autocratic rule of the Norman and Plantagenet lines upon the indigenous English people that was to last right down until the establishment of the Commonwealth under the Parliamentary Republic at the end of the 1640s.

Although the earliest Parliaments as we know them date from well after the Norman Conquest, there are direct references to be found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and elsewhere of the direct participation of the so called ‘Burhwaru’, or Free Citizens of London, and others, in the election of the West Saxon Kings: King Alfred the Great’s own dynasty. Indeed, Asser, the Welsh monk responsible for Alfred’s own biography, refers directly to how Alfred could have taken the throne for himself at any time before the death of his brother forced him to accept the Crown reluctantly from his predecessor:

‘Indeed, he could easily have taken it over with the consent of all while his brother Aethelred was alive, had he considered himself worthy to do so….’

These words project a very different image of Monarchy to the one that most of us are used to, and a very different one indeed to the one used by King Charles I, at his own trial, to set out his own personal position in law. In relation to this last point, it is perhaps significant that according to a number of legends circulated by the Stuarts themselves, King James I’s ancestry, and right to the throne of Scotland, as James VI of that country, was rooted in his supposed descent from Banquo; by all accounts one of the heros of the Shakespearean drama ‘Macbeth’; whose death at the hands of the villain, or Anti-Hero of the piece, appears to have been rooted in the supposed prophecy that his own descendants would eventually rule.

Interestingly enough, Macbeth, who was himself a contemporary of the founder of the Anglo-Norman Ascendancy in Britain who had been killed in battle just nine short years before the arrival of the Conqueror on these shores at the head of an army, is remembered in Highland Scottish history and folklore as the last elected King of Scots. In addition to being a wise and just ruler, his supposed usurpation of the Crown appears to have been a later fabrication, like the Stuarts’ supposed descent from Banquo, in order to obscure the electoral origins of the Scottish Crown. Again, a band of Norman mercenaries dispatched by William and led by one of his kinsmen, himself the founder of the Sinclair Dynasty north of the Border, appear to have been the hidden hand behind the suppression of traditional Custom Law and Common Right in Scotland too. And in so doing, appear to have paved the way for the chain of events that was to lead to the English Civil War in the first place.

For those of us who are familiar with the exact chronology of misadventures that were to lead up to the fateful rift between King and Parliament that was to plunge the nation into chaos for the best part of a decade, the spark that was to ignite the fire that eventually became the furnace was an attempt by Bishop Laud, King Charles I’s chief religious adviser, to impose a series of reforms upon the Scottish Church. With the arrival of a Scottish army at Newcastle and no standing military body of any consequence to oppose it, the series of totally unforeseen developments that would lead to the defeat and execution of Charles himself, and the establishment of the first modern Republican State, as we ourselves understand the interpretation of the term, were set in motion in such a way as to be beyond the power of any one individual, other than the King himself, to arrest.

In a future posting we shall look once again at the original concept of monarchy in relation to what we have seen here, with particular reference to the attempted revival of the electoral system by the self styled followers of ‘King Arthur’.  Arthur’s own, albeit comparatively recent, attempt to revive this long lost monarchical tradition is recorded as having taken place in the immediate vicinity of where King Alfred the Great’s own West Saxon Dynasty were themselves traditionally invested: at Kingston in Surrey; in the shadow of St. Mary’s Church: itself located within an ancient ritual landscape generally referred to as ‘The Kingston Zodiac’: an oft visited location during the course of a number of my previous threads; and a place to which we are likely to return.

Church Effect

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The World Turned Upside Down: Towards a Parliamentary Republic?

Clemence 1

In this, the third of my responses to the LSX Occupy Group’s ‘New Putney Debates’, we look at the highly contentious issue of the British Monarchy, in relation to the original Leveller Debates of 1647. With questions being asked on a number of different levels with regard to the Monarchy’s relevance and future in a modern, and increasingly more secular society, what sort of institution should replace it? And what sort of a Republic should we set up in the event of its possible future abolition?

The last British Republic, itself to all intents and purposes the first modern European republic, and the first republic outside of Italy since the old Senatorial Republic of Rome had been superseded by the Dictatorship of the Caesars, had come into being the year after the original Putney Debates; its original foundation having culminated in the trial and execution, for High Treason, of King Charles the First. At his trial King, whose own knowledge of the law and of legal process was indeed extensive, argued his own case before the Court as follows:

‘A King cannot be tried by any superior jurisdiction on earth. But it is not my case alone- it is the freedom and liberty of the people of England. And do you pretend what you will, I stand more for their liberties- for if power without law may make laws, may alter the fundamental laws of the kingdom, I do not know what that subject he is in England that can be sure of his life or anything that he calls his own. Therefore, when that I came here I did not expect particular reasons to know by what law, what authority, you did proceed against me here…..’

These words, taken from the Court transcript of the trial itself in 1649, are illustrative of the ambiguities involved in any attempt to take a British Monarch before a Court of Law. The corner stone of Charles Stuart’s defence, when taken before those legal minds who had previously been selected by Parliament as those best suited to passing judgement over him, was that under the then present system prevalant at the time at which the trial had taken place, in which the so called ‘Royal Prerogative’ made him the ultimate legal power in the land, it was legally impossible for anyone to bring him before a court at all.

‘Remember, I am your King- your lawful King and what sins you bring upon your heads and the Judgement of God upon this land, think well upon it!’ was the King’s response to his captors after the principal charge of High Treason was read out to him before those assembled. The response of President John Bradshaw, the most senior of those involved in the proceedings, was as follows:

‘Sir, you spoke very well of a precious thing you call peace, and it had much to be wished that God had put it into your heart that you had as effectively and really endeavoured and studied the peace of the Kingdom as now in words you seem to pretend. But, as you were told the other day, actions must expound intentions, your actions have been clean contrary…..For, sir, as you have held yourself and let fall such language as if you had been no ways subject to the law, or that the law had not been your superior. Sir- the court is very well sensible of it- and I hope so are all the understanding people of England- that the law is your superior, that you ought to have ruled according to the law- you ought to have done so…..’

President Bradshaw’s words can be shown conclusively to  have been derived directly from many of the original ideas expounded by the Levellers at the Leveller Debates of 1647. And, as has been noted during the course of an earlier posting, amongst the other ideas originally expounded by the Levellers and their supporters at the Putney Debates was the idea of a Parliamentary system based on one man, one vote. When speaking about these ideas before those assembled at Putney Church on 28th October 1647, General Henry Ireton, a senior Parliamentary leader, described their intended implementation, with respect to individual Parliamentary votes, by those who had first proposed them, as follows:

‘The exception that lies in it is this: it is said they are to be distributed according to the number of inhabitants. ‘The People of England’, etc. And this does make me think that the meaning is that every man that is an inhabitant is to be equally considered, and to have an equal voice in the election of those representatives, the persons that are for the general representative, and if that be the meaning then I have something to say against it, but if it be only that those people that by the civil constitution of this kingdom which is original and fundamental, and beyond which I am sure no memory of record does go….’

At this point in the proceedings there appears to have been an interjection from an unknown member of the crowd:

‘Not before the Conquest!’;

to which Ireton’s response was as follows:

‘But before the Conquest it was so. If it be intended that those that by that constitution that was before the Conquest, that has been beyond memory, such persons that have been under that constitution should be electors, I have no more to say…..’

In the next posting in this ongoing thread we shall look at those ideas being expounded by the Levellers, in relation to the constitution that existed before the Norman Conquest, as referred to here, and its possible place in a future Parliamentary Republic, in more depth: with particular reference to the Parliamentary Commonwealth of Cromwell and the subsequent creation of the limited ‘Constitutional Monarchy’ under which we currently live. And, in the course of so doing, we shall see that the idea of a truly elected Head of State is not, as those who are opposed to it would have us believe, some modern notion arrived at during the Age of Enlightenment, but a concept hundreds of years older than the so called ‘Mother of Parliaments’ itself.

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The World Turned Upside Down: Ancient Sites and Bardic Rights

The vanished prehistoric earthwork on Kennington Common: focus for the Chartists’ Meeting of 1848: the forerunner of the 1990 Anti-Poll Tax Rally and the 2012 Student Protests.

Just over a month before Christmas 2012 participants in the latest round of national student protests converged unexpectedly on Kennington Park in South London, having been redirected from Westminster by senior Metropolitan Police officers anxious about possible disturbances; in the event of the March getting too close to the Houses of Parliament. It is unlikely that many of those present on the March, which culminated in the throwing of eggs and fruit at a Student Union leadership viewed by many of its rank and file membership as being too weak and ineffectual to deal with the politicians in control, remembered, if they ever knew, that Kennington Park was the starting point, on March 31st 1990, for the great Anti-Poll Tax Rally; that was to bring Margaret Thatcher’s evil, wicked and despotic rule to its ultimate end.

Fewer still would have known, if any at all, that Kennington Park, before its nineteenth century enclosure, when it was still known as Kennington Common, was the also the site of the great Chartist Meeting of 1848: after which participants had marched on the Houses of Parliament; ushering in the great series of events that was to lead to the inevitably snail’s pace reform of both Houses and the long hard trodden road towards what passes for a Parliamentary Democracy, however nominal, that many of us still attempt to participate in today. And, it is also doubtful if any of those on the March would ever have realized that the original impetus behind the convening of so many people on that fateful day in question was rooted in the Ancient British Radical Tradition of Custom Law and Common Right. The now vanished prehistoric earthwork on Kennington Common that had acted as a focus for the Chartists’ Meeting itself having been known to have been an ancient Moot Hill; or centre for traditional Folk Moots or primitive parliaments.

In the first installment of this newly reactivated thread I looked at the role of the Levellers and the Diggers in preserving and reviving many of the ideas and traditions of the Medieval radicals who had preceded them. In this posting I intend to look at some of those who could perhaps be described as their lineal descendants in many ways; on account of their enactment of many of the same traditional folk customs that had previously experienced a revival of interest during the English Civil Wars.

Although it has been largely forgotten by most conventional  English historians, Oliver Cromwell, the some would say infamous Lord Protector, was himself of Welsh descent: his family having arrived in London with the army of King Henry VII at the end of the Wars of the Roses. Originally carrying the traditional Cymric patronym of ‘ap Gwillim’, or Williams, Old Noll’s direct ancestor had adopted the surname Cromwell after marrying into the family of the equally infamous Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex.

This considered, it is perhaps significant that on the Summer Solstice of 1792, on Primrose Hill of all places, another Welshman by the name of Williams, better known under his nom de plume of Iolo Morgannwg, successfully attempted to restore the Ancient Druidic Gorsedd in a revived eighteenth century ritual which can rightly be claimed as the direct ancestor of many of the modern Bardic and Druidic rituals enacted right the way across Britain today. Of further significance, in view of that we have previously noted in relation to Kennington Common above, is that not only was Iolo Morgannwg himself a major influence upon the revival of Welsh Nationalism, he was also an outspoken opponent of the Slave Trade and a major player in a Europe wide radical movement of little lost peoples, including Basques, Catalans, Slovaks and others, whose espousal of many of the ideas and ideals of Thomas Paine and the French Revolutionary Enlightenment, had seen them become radically opposed to the old social order of the day.

Of particular significance too, in view of the influence of Enlightenment Revolutionary principals upon Iolo’s, some would say curious, even eccentric, Welsh Bardic Revivalism,  was the impetus that Iolo himself was to pass on to the Chartists and others; whose later attempts to re-invoke the ancient traditions of Custom Law and Common Right, in the true spirit of the Diggers and the Levellers, was to manifest itself around what are known to have originally been prehistoric centres of gathering and convention at places such as Parliament Hill and Kennington Common; as a direct result of his original Bardic  inspiration. These self same ideas were to make a lasting impression upon the young William Blake, whose sporting of the French ‘Bonnet Rouge’ was to single him out as among the most uniquely radical of his own contemporaries; in addition to inspiring the Bardic theme of some of the most visionary of his poetical writings.

Eleven years previously, in an ancient tavern in Poland Street, just off Oxford Street, known as the King’s Arms, an organization generally known as the Ancient Order of Druids was founded in 1781. And, just as the revived interest in Custom Law and Common Right that had been espoused by the Levellers at the Putney Debates had taken place at a time of great political turmoil and social unrest, the eighteenth century revival of Druidism was to take place under not dissimilar circumstances. In 1781 the disastrous American War of Independence was finally coming to an end, as the Revolutionary New World Colonists’ successful bid to cut their ties with the Mother Country was finally bearing fruit.

Bearing this in mind, it is therefore perhaps significant that those who are on record as having been initiated into the Ancient Order of Druids, not so very long after its foundation, in 1783 to be precise, are known to have included Charles James Fox; himself soon to become the outspoken opponent of war with Revolutionary France: a conflict that was to break out in the self same year of Iolo’s fateful Solstice ceremony; which is still recognized today as the principal foundation date of the revived British Gorsedd among practicing pagans world wide. Once again, we find evidence for the renewed interest in ancient rights and practices, relating to archaic forms of government in particular, rising to the surface at times of unrest and social upheaval. The revival of Druidism coinciding approximately with the foundation of the newly independent North America and the revival of the Bardic Gorsedd amid the turmoil and conflict of the onset of the Great French War: which had been intended to thwart the expansion of the newly created French Republic as far as its natural border on the Rhine.

Of particular interest then, to star gazers and Astrologers of all kinds, given the Astrological basis of much of Druidic and Bardic Pagan belief, is that our present decade sees the transit of the all powerful planet Pluto through the sign of Capricorn in exactly the same manner as it was transiting then. Thus, the new political consciousness and the revival of Custom Law and Common Right seems destined to provoke a similar global political reorganization to that occasioned by the American and French Revolutions more than two centuries ago: albeit in a completely different and socially renewed manifestation. In a future posting we shall look at some of the implications of this particular transit in depth. With the arrival of a new comet in the skies above us in the months to come it is perhaps worth considering how the seventeenth century Levellers would have viewed such an Astronomical phenomenon; taking into account their uniquely millenarian world view; so it will be with this purpose in mind that I shall update this posting in the days and weeks to come…..

Kennington

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