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Established 1909

Councillor Andrew Varley - Bury St Edmunds 2004

Bury St. Edmunds Celebration June 13, 2004

Mr Mayor, my Lords, Ladies, and Gentlemen,


Firstly let me say how delighted I am to welcome all our distinguished guests who have joined us today to celebrate Magna Carta and to witness the conferral of the Freedom of this Borough on the D-Day Veterans Association. Master of the Rolls and Lady Philips, Vice-Lord Lieutenant and Mrs Kerr, High Sheriff, Lady Euston, General and Mrs Wooley and other representatives of our great American allies, civic dignitaries from our sister Magna Carta Towns, and all our guests from within the Borough and beyond, it is wonderful to see you all here in our beautiful town on this splendid day. There is another guest I should like to welcome who will not be able to join us until later and that is the Lord Abbot of Bury St Edmunds. It may surprise some of you to hear that such a being exists in corporeal form. He is Abbot Stephen Ortiger and he will be preaching at the Cathedral service by kind invitation of the Dean. It is the custom in the present day English Benedictine Congregation to confer on distinguished monks titular abbacies commemorating those ancient monasteries suppressed during the reformation. It is pleasant to think that we have the successor with us today of that Abbot who stood by whilst the barons swore their oath at the High Altar – probably hoping to God that, through no choice of his own, he had ended up on the winning side.


We are all, of course, familiar with the cock-up theory of history – each of us in our own small way can probably point to our own lives to provide examples. How else explain how I come to be speaking here today?


When all the more intellectually challenging, academically sophisticated, and plain dotty theories have fallen away, trampled underfoot by the inexorable march of events (and whose mind did not turn to the death of communism as we watched the poignant moments of President Reagan’s funeral the other day?), it is somehow comforting to know that so often the great events of the past were the result of miscalculation, incompetence, lack of foresight, the simple failure to be at the right place at the right time. What if Marshall Grouchy had marched to the sound of the guns and beaten Blucher to the field of Waterloo? An undergraduate friend of mine, later an expert literally in all things Byzantine but always an expert in hair splitting, subdivided the cock-up theory, identifying interesting variants, such as who was drunk at the time or who was trying to seduce whom. The subdivision which concerns us this afternoon is the law of unintended consequences – and there can be few better examples than the barons who swore here on the High Altar of the great abbey to force King John to grant a charter.


Mr Mayor, in taking for granted that this actually happened in Bury, I am respecting pious belief and ignoring those inconvenient and unimaginative historians who say that not such event ever took place.


The great American cultural historian Jacques Barzun makes the remark that: Except among those whose education has been in the minimalist style, it is understood that hasty moral judgements about people in the past is a form of injustice. So, if we say that the barons, led by Cardinal Stephen Langton, were interested only in preserving their own rights and the feudal law of England (in passing it is interesting that so many historians now find the root of the idea of personal freedom in Germanic customary law rather than in Roman jurisprudence) and so imply that they therefore fall short of our own irreproachable motives in public life, we are missing the whole point of the Magna Carta episode. The document was of its age, in many respects a re-echoing of previous charters, especially that of Henry I, it sought to limit monarchy by reasserting feudal rights and privileges – which existed for those further down the social scale quite as much as for our friends the barons. It contained seeds, however, which were to grow into mighty English oaks. The most famous articles, for example, number 39:


No freeman shall be arrested or imprisoned or deprived of his freehold or outlawed or banished or in any way ruined, nor will we take or order action against him except by the lawful judgement of his equals and according to the law of the land.


And number 40:

To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice.


Just like a seed in the earth, Magna Carta faded and lay dormant throughout the late Middle Ages and Tudor times until resurrected by the great jurist Sir Edward Coke, Lord Chief Justice at the time of James I. It sprang up, vigorously interpreted as we now understand it, during the seventeenth century struggles between king and parliament. It is interesting, as an aside, to note that Shakespeare, who lived and died within Coke’s lifespan, was able to write the play King John without making the slightest reference to the Magna Carta.


What Coke and his contemporaries began, succeeding centuries and their men of law have confirmed and that seed nurtured here and planted at Runnymede now stands as the pillar of freedom we recognise Magna Carta to be. Even its name had the ambiguity to sustain the role which hindsight and the development of history has given it. Originally it simply meant that it was a long or big charter now we cannot think of it as other than Great.


Which brings us to the other elements of today. We are honoured by the presence of our American allies and by the part they are to play in today’s ceremonies. They too have a claim on Magna Carta. It is part of the birthright of American freedom, it was the basis of the early colonial charters which led to the American Constitution.


Freedom and Democracy is the theme of these celebrations: if Magna Carta enshrines the legal basis of our freedom, then the heroism of the men who landed on the Normandy beaches ensured its survival into our own time. On about 9th June, 1944, the holy, learned, and, as it happens, noble priest who instructed me as a youth in the Catholic Faith was in his jeep with his driver several miles ahead of the rest of the troops in France. Entering a farmyard, he was greeted by a French farmer wielding a shotgun who, not unreasonably, demanded to know who he was. Pulling himself up to his full height, and calling upon all the confidence available to a subaltern in His Majesty’s Foot Guards, he said, “Je suis l’armee Britannique.” The farmer looked sceptically around and said, “Ou sont les autres?” Well twenty eight of les autres will be on parade this afternoon. They and their comrades fought and in many cases died for our freedom and our gratitude, and the humility with which we offer our tribute, are profound.


Accident did not bring these two events together under the theme of Freedom and Democracy. It was the Freedoms of Magna Carta that the men of D Day were defending so that we can continue to enjoy them. They include the rights to elect our own representatives – our own members of parliament are present and many councillors - and to have access to justice and recourse even to the court of the Master of the Rolls.


We must never forget these great lessons and examples of the past. But our own times tell us – as indeed do these two events we celebrate today - that it should not be a complacent remembrance. As was once said, The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.


Mr Mayor, Master of the Rolls, Vice-Lord Lieutenant, High Sheriff, my lords, ladies, gentlemen, and distinguished guests, I give you the Magna Carta Association and its aims.


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