Magna Carta and Waterloo

This week sees centenary celebrations of the signing of the Magna Carta (800 years ago) and the victory of the British led forces at the Battle of Waterloo (200 years ago) – and while the media have alerted us to these events, it has been on the whole lower key than I might have expected. Other than each in their own way being among the most significant events in all of British history (at least that was what I was taught at school), they had little else in common. One of the positive aspects of remembering such events is we can reflect on what happened and why, and what lessons we can draw from these today. I do not purport to be even a modest expert on either event but like the next person I can reflect and have, and am sharing here.

A handy guide to the Magna Carta that gives many relevant facts can be downloaded (here). The Christian Institute’s  “36 things worth knowing about Magna Carta” briefing also makes handy reading. It has always fascinated me how that the mostly unwritten British constitution has evolved over many centuries, with the signing of the Magna Carta playing a vital part. While it was limited in the protections it gave to the peasants (serfs, common man) it was at least a start that others who came after built upon. While little remains on the statute nowadays, much that came after, including extending those rights in the original charter, particularly around natural justice, and making these universal, and providing checks and balances for when rights may be ignored, was much as a result of the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta has played an important part in establishing laws and constitutions, particularly that of the USA. One of the aspects I particularly find appealing in this era of culture wars and curbs made on freedom of conscience, was it was firmly rooted in a Christian world view and that it recognized our laws, particularly around what is right and just, has to be subservient to the law of God (something these days it is much harder to argue). In a day when human rights and agreeing the laws and processes to protect these continues to be a hot topic, it might be worth going back to the Magna Carta and see how others tackled this issue.

It is rather ironic that given my last post was concerning the film Zulu that I should be considering another film to do with a battle – Waterloo (1970), and this was triggered by news of this anniversary. Watching the film (even if not entirely accurate) and reading about the battle got me thinking about why the battle was significant and whether it was more than merely the end of a long line of battles against the French. I will let historians argue this one, although it appears the aftermath was relative peace and stability in Europe for nigh on 100 years, broken by the outbreak of the First World War. While the 50000 people killed in the battle is a lot less than some of the battles in the two World Wars, given the high proportion it was significant. I was struck reading some of the quotes by the victorious English commander, the Duke of Wellington, one being “our army is composed of the scum of the earth”. My reading of his character is that it wasn’t said out of disdain but recognizing what drew many who joined up was they were escaping from something. Besides the tragedy of all those deaths, which was as a result of ferocious fighting, a further tragedy was the destitution many demobbed soldiers suffered as a result of the recession that followed the war. It did occur to me in the work I am involved in among the homeless that meeting ex-squaddies sleeping rough is a common occurrence and without wanting to over pontificate, reasons including the difficulty of adjusting to civilian life and the trauma having been involved in active service. While I am impressed that there are charities and well meaning folk helping our ex-military, more might be done just as what was needed in the Waterloo aftermath. Also, while the nature of war may have changed, the need for military intervention has increased (and, despite needing to be selective, as a nation we are under resourced to meet the needs that are presented) as is the need for properly trained and equipped soldiers who are supported while they are serving and when they have served. While these days there is no Empire to defend, in this dangerous and unpredictable world with the enemies of freedom and justice more devious and dastardly than ever we still need to secure the peace.

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