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Why you've never heard of a Charter that's as important as the Magna Carta

The Charter of the Forest was sealed 800 years ago today. Its defence of the property-less and of ‘the commons’, means the Right would prefer to ignore it - and progressives need to celebrate and renew it.

  Image: Ampthill Forest, Bedfordshire. Flickr/UK Garden Photos, Some rights reserved.

Eight hundred years ago this month, after the death of a detested king and the defeat of a French invasion in the Battle of Lincoln, one of the foundation stones of the British constitution was laid down. It was the Charter of the Forest, sealed in St Paul’s on November 6, 1217, alongside a shortened Charter of Liberties from 2 years earlier (which became the Magna Carta).

The Charter of the Forest was the first environmental charter forced on any government. It was the first to assert the rights of the property-less, of the commoners, and of the commons. It also made a modest advance for feminism, as it coincided with recognition of the rights of widows to have access to means of subsistence and to refuse to be remarried.

The Charter has the distinction of having been on the statute books for longer than any other piece of legislation. It was repealed 754 years later, in 1971, by a Tory government.

In 2015, while spending lavishly on celebrating the Magna Carta anniversary, the government was asked in a written question in the House of Lords whether it would be celebrating the Charter this year. A Minister of Justice, Lord Faulks, airily dismissed the idea, stating that it was unimportant, without international significance.

Yet earlier this year the American Bar Association suggested the Charter of the Forest had been a foundation of the American Constitution and that it was more important now than ever before. They were right.

It is scarcely surprising that the political Right want to ignore the Charter. It is about the economic rights of the property-less, limiting private property rights and rolling back the enclosure of land, returning vast expanses to the commons. It was remarkably subversive. Sadly, whereas every school child is taught about the Magna Carta, few hear of the Charter.

Yet for hundreds of years the Charter led the Magna Carta. It had to be read out in every church in England four times a year. It inspired struggles against enclosure and the plunder of the commons by the monarchy, aristocracy and emerging capitalist class, famously influencing the Diggers and Levellers in the 17th century, and protests against enclosure in the 18th and 19th.

At the heart of the Charter, which is hard to understand unless words that have faded from use are interpreted, is the concept of the commons and the need to protect them and to compensate commoners for their loss. It is scarcely surprising that a government that is privatising and commercialising the remaining commons should wish to ignore it.

In 1066, William the Conqueror not only distributed parts of the commons to his bandits but also turned large tracts of them into ‘royal forests’ – ie, his own hunting grounds. By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, there were 25 such forests. William’s successors expanded and turned them into revenue-raising zones to help pay for their wars. By 1217, there were 143 royal forests.

The Charter achieved a reversal, and forced the monarchy to recognise the right of free men and women to pursue their livelihoods in forests. The notion of forest was much broader than it is today, and included villages and areas with few trees, such as Dartmoor and Exmoor. The forest was where commoners lived and worked collaboratively.

The Charter has 17 articles, which assert the eternal right of free men and women to work on their own volition in ways that would yield all elements of subsistence on the commons, including such basics as the right to pick fruit, the right to gather wood for buildings and other purposes, the right to dig and use clay for utensils and housing, the right to pasture animals, the right to fish, the right to take peat for fuel, the right to water, and even the right to take honey.

The Charter should be regarded as one of the most radical in our history, since it asserted the right of commoners to obtain raw materials and the means of production, and gave specific meaning to the right to work.

It also set in train the development of local councils and judiciary, notably through the system of Verderers, which paved the way for magistrate courts. In modern parlance, it extended agency freedom, giving commoners voice in managing the commons, as well as system freedom, by opposing enclosure.

The Charter set the foundation for what is now called the communal stewardship of pooled assets and resources. Its ethos is the antithesis of the Government’s pretentious Natural Capital Committee, which is trying to capitalise the natural commons, to make them ‘profitable’. The commons exist for a way of living, not profits.

Over the centuries, the ethos of the Charter has been under constant attack. The Tudors were the most egregious, with Henry VIII confiscating ten million acres and disbursing them to favourites, the descendants of whom still possess hundreds of thousands of acres. The enclosure act of 1845 was another mass landgrab, mocking the pretensions of private property rights. Between 1760 and 1870, over 4,000 acts of Parliament, instituted by a landowning elite, confiscated seven million acres of commons. It is no exaggeration to say that the land ownership structure of Britain today is the result of organised theft.

Despite having endured centuries of abuse, the ethos of the Charter is still alive. But one feature of the neo-liberal economic paradigm that has shaped recent governments is a disregard for the commons, which the current British government has turned into a plunder under cover of the ‘austerity’ terminology. In the USA, the Trump administration has quietly prepared for the giveaway of millions of acres of federal commons.

For neo-liberals, the commons have no price, and therefore no value. So, they can be sold for windfall gains, or given away to their backers. By asserting the right to subsistence on the commons, the Charter recognised an alternative principle, something our ancestors defended with courage. We must do so now. We must resist the plunder of the commons and revive them.

A group is organising a series of events to do so. Everybody is free to join. Developing national and localised Charters of the Commons should go alongside the worthy Charter of Trees, Woods and People that will be issued on the anniversary day. Our modest efforts will not only emphasise environmental principles enshrined in the Charter, but also its subversive commitment to the right to subsistence that underpins the basic income movement of today.

The campaign began with an event laden with symbolism, a barge trip on the Thames from Windsor to Runnymede on September 17, where a public event highlighting the need for a Charter of the Commons was held under the awesome 2,500 year old Ankerwycke yew. The Runnymede meadow symbolises the commons. An earlier Tory government tried to privatise it, but an occupy movement organised by Britain’s first woman barrister succeeded in blocking the auction.

The barge trip’s symbolism does not stop there. Margaret Thatcher privatised our water in 1989. She gave nine corporations regional monopolies and gave them over 400,000 acres from the commons. Today, those corporations, mostly foreign owned, are among the country’s largest 50 landowners. They mock the principles of the Charter of the Forest. Thames Water, while paying its foreign shareholders £1.6 billion, has been convicted and had its hands slapped for pouring 1.4 billion tonnes of untreated sewage into the Thames, and is also doing too little to fix leaks. The Charter asserted that the commoners had the right to water. It should be a public good, and be renationalised as a matter of high priority.

As well as an event in Sherwood Forest emphasising fracking, there is an event in Durham, where one of the two originals of the Charter is preserved.

And on November 7, a meeting in the House of Commons will discuss a draft Charter of the Commons. In Lincoln, where the other original Charter is held, the Labour Party is organising an event on November 11.

Further information can be obtained from www.charteroftheforest800.org . If any organisation feels their agenda is relevant and that has not been contacted, let us know. We want all voices to be heard, all commoners to stand up and all of us to remember that reviving the commons is about recovering the future.

About the author

Dr Guy Standing is Professorial Research Associate, SOAS University of London, Fellow of the UK Academy of Social Sciences, and co-founder and honorary co-president of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN). Subjects of recent books include basic incomerentier capitalism and the growing precariat.

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