Thursday, 5 February 2009

When Adam delved and Eve span...

In England in 1536 there came about what was in due course labeled the “Pilgrimage of Grace”.

This was a popular protest against the policies of Henry VIII.

First in Lincolnshire, and then in Yorkshire these “spontaneous” protests were aimed not at Henry, but at his henchman, Thomas (not Oliver – he comes later) Cromwell. The issues were the unpopular dissolution of the monasteries and seizing of Church lands, and “believe it or not) high taxation.

The Lincolnshire group dispersed under the threat of military action. The Yorkshire group was ably led by one Robert Aske, who was determined that this would be a well organized and peaceful demonstration.

35,000 protesters converged on Pontefract in Yorkshire. A deputation met with the Duke of Norfolk in Doncaster, Yorkshire where they presented their claims. A smaller deputation went to London, leaving Aske in charge of the larger group in Yorkshire.

Henry VII played for time and stalled in his response to the protesters. Cunning as he was, he knew that Aske could not possibly maintain a force of 35,000 men for anything but a short time, and his cunning (or was it skill) payed off.

This protest against Henry’s policies involved not only “working people”, but also lesser nobles, and members of the emerging middle class. Robert Aske himself was a lawyer.

And the “pilgrimage” was led with men bearing religious banners. It was a religious impulse which led people to resist Henry’s growing tyranny.

Just over one hundred years later another “movement” arose. It was not so much an organized group or faction, but a spirit of the age.

This was in the era of the Civil War, an War in which Parliament fought for its rights and prerogatives against King Charles I. Oliver Cromwell raised what was called the “New Model Army” an army designed to resist and rout the King’s armies.

Many of the members of the New Model Army were men of a distinctively radical mind. They were called (by their opponents) “Levellers”.

Among them was a man of great integrity and brilliance named John Lilbume.

In 1649, Lilburne published the “Agreement of the People”, a manifesto for constitutional reform in Britain. This particular version was smuggled out of the Tower of London, where Lilburne and the others were being held captive. All Leveller soldiers, and they were the majority in many regiments, carried this agreement proudly tucked into their hat-band. The agreement proposed a written constitution to define England’s government, abolish arbitrary power, set limits to authority, and remove grievances.

Included in the Agreement of the People (1649):

right to for all people to vote for their representatives
right against self-incrimination
freedom of religion and press
equality of all persons before the law
no judgment touching life, liberty or property but by jury trial
abolition of capital punishment except for murder
no military conscription of conscientious objectors
no monopolies, tithes, or excise taxes
taxation proportionate to real or personal property
grading of punishments to fit the crime
abolition of imprisonment for debt.

(Italicised portion "taddled" from the web)

Many of these ideas found fresh roots in the American Declaration of Independence, and our subsequent Constitution and Bill of Rights.

It is of interest to note that the United Kingdom still does not have a written constitution!

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