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Liberty! The Timeline

Ancient 14th century Scottish castle sits behind double moat

Led by William Wallace, and wearing tunics and armour (kilts came into fashion in the 16th century), the warrior Scots put up a terrific resistance against Edward I, defeating the English Army at Stirling Bridge. Edward takes a number of castles, including Caerlaverock (above) and retakes Stirling. The Scots refuse to be defeated. The courage of the Scots does not flag.

Photo: rogerpilkington@istockphoto.com
Caerlaverock Castle is shaped like a shield with three sides.


Brits consolidate trial by jury, and
establish protections under Common Law.
They march on London to end the poll tax.
The Scots insist they will rule themselves.
The House of Commons arrives.

Statue of Robert the Bruce overlooking castle and wild country

Statue of Robert the Bruce and Memorial to William Wallace at Stirling.

Image: texasmary@istockphoto.com


Braveheart in battle gear

Image: Braveheart the movie

The complex, and enigmatic "Braveheart" is a knight and Scottish patriot. He begins his campaign for Scottish independence in the last decade of the 13th century. In 1297, he defeats an English army at Stirling, becomes Guardian of Scotland, and serves until his defeat at the Battle of Falkirk.

After several years in hiding, Wallace is betrayed and captured near Glasgow in 1305. He is handed over to Edward I of England, and tried for treason. Wallace responds, "I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject."

He is tortured and executed. The memory of Wallace's bravery endures.

Robert the Bruce takes up the struggle for Scottish independence after the English Army captures William Wallace and executes him. 

Outnumbered two to one, Bruce’s strategy and the bravery of the Scots win the great battle of Bannockburn against the forces of the English King, Edward II.

Interior of Abbot of Arbroath's house

The interior of the Abbot's house at Arbroath, where the great declaration is written.

Image: undiscoveredscotland


On April 6, thirty-eight Scottish Lords meet at Arbroath Abbey and formally and passionately declare that their King is Robert the Bruce, and that "Scotland will be forever independent of England." They have already testified to their intentions on the battlefield.

Abbot Bernard de Linton helps them put their actions into words. They assert that they speak for the whole community of the realm of Scotland, and ringingly affirm: “As long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”


The Great Famine devastated the Brits. Torrential rains ruined harvests.  Men murdered for food.

Despite hard times, freedom remains a priority.  The City of London expands as “a unique self-governing venture with its own rules and customs” and “a continuous history of resistance to the high-handedness of sovereigns.” The result of expanding freedom: Prosperity increases, lifting most boats.

Brits are figuring out that freedom works. They see that freedom is:

  • BASIC TO SCIENCE. Thinkers rarely make scientific advances unless they are free to think and develop their ideas.

  • ESSENTIAL TO PROSPERITY. Families support themselves best when they are free to decide who they will work for and free to start and run their own business. This makes the economy flourish, too.

  • VITAL TO HAPPINESS AND WELL-BEING. People are happiest when they have control over their own lives.


Increasingly the Brits who represent shires and towns are acting as a group.  They are becoming a force in Parliament, willing to control the power of the king, and advance their own needs and interests. For the first time in history, contemporary chroniclers call this group ‘the Commons.’ 

The Commons petitions the government to change harmful policies. The King pays particular attention when he needs money, but at other times he ignores them and may even try to buy the votes he needs. Unless members of Parliament are incorruptible, he will succeed.

The integrity of Members of Parliament is partly based on the fact they have to answer to their constituents – people they know.  It’s an example of the practical protections that Brits are building into representative government.

1300s Common Law TO THE RESCUE

Increasingly the Brits build fairness into the Common Law because they want to be treated fairly and because they are discovering that playing fair is practical: People who can't count on fairness from the law are people who are living in fear.  They will not build businesses and healthy communities. They will not treat others fairly. Recent research makes a direct connection between the prosperity of a country and its use of Common Law.

Common Law protects three property rights that are essential to our individual liberty and prosperity:

  • Our right to use property

  • Our right to transfer or sell our property

  • Our right to exclude other people from our property and be free from search or attack in our own homes.

The Common Law is not dictated downward by some remote authority. It rises up out of the real lives of people and their individual cases, and is based on precedents of justice as described in Magna Carta, the Declaration of Right, and the whole body of Common Law. The courts are guided by statutes that declare a principle, and by the traditions of freedom. The courts base their decisions on analogies with earlier cases – "Standing by things decided" (stare decisis). They do not make up laws, but interpret the law in a coherent and principled way. They try to be fair.

"Perfect injustice is a reality" in the world, while perfect justice can only be a matter of degree. Nevertheless, independent judges and juries who decide cases according to the rules of just law and in the spirit of fairness will come close to achieving satisfying, if not perfect, results.

Knight with lance on charger

“No sooner did some new area of conflict arise than the Common Law would rush into the midst of it, engaged like a knight errant on its ancient task of rescuing the individual from the wrongful use of power.” (Roger Scruton, ENGLAND: AN ELEGY)

Photo: gynane@istockphoto.com

What remains almost invisible is the way law and freedom become part of a country's institutions. Tendencies toward democracy and the rule of law may be natural, even universal, but creating the essential institutions that embody them and protect them are far more rare. To create this kind of organisation requires a passionate sense of fairness, imagination, a stubborn determination to grapple with the powers that be, ethics, and an eternal source of truth.


The right of Brits to be tried by their peers had made its first written appearance in Magna Carta. Gradually the grand jury becomes the method of hearing evidence and deciding whether a person should be tried before a jury for criminal charges, while trial by jury determines innocence or guilt. The jury presumes the innocence of the person being tried because this is fair. All the power of the state and prosecution are arrayed against the solitary defendant who is only shielded by the presumption of innocence. The presumption of innocence means that the burden of proof is on the prosecution, which has to convince the court that the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

We think Brits had several reasons for their fierce commitment to the presumption of innocence. To presume innocence is to be fair, to do to others what you would like done to you. Brits also knew that Jesus Christ had been presumed guilty, though Nicodemus had protested, saying, "Our Law does not judge a man unless it first hears from him and knows what he is doing, does it?" (JOHN 7:50-51) Both the Old and New Testaments support the presumption of innocence.

This and many other details of a jury trial are gradually worked out. By the reign of Edward III (1312-1377) the 12 men of the Grand Jury have become 24, and a brilliant innovation has replaced trial by ordeal: A jury of 12 men reviews the evidence at a trial, listens to witnesses, and delivers a verdict of innocent or guilty in crimes punishable by death.

This means that if a Brit is charged with a capital crime, he or she has the right to present his case not to one (possibly corrupt or idiotic) judge but to 12 local people who are sworn to deliver an honest judgment according to the law. They are bound by oath to go entirely by the facts and the evidence without fear or favour.

Modern jury looking at video of crime scene

Every citizen’s right to a jury trial can prevent an oppressive government from jailing or abusing innocent people. Juries also have a supreme but little-known responsibility -
if a jury believes that a defendant has been charged with an unjust law, it can and must hold that law invalid by returning a finding of ‘not guilty’.

Photo: www.trial.com/Blogger/Training


King John's disheveled reign had included a desperate effort to gain the Pope's support in his quarrel with his people by promising feudal tribute. This tribute had remained unpaid.

In menacing tones, Pope Urban V demands it be paid. Parliament responds by affirming a constitutional principle that should be quoted today. It declares that neither John nor any other king had the right to subject England to any foreign power. Should the pope attempt to enforce his claim by arms, he would be met with united resistance.


The Good Parliament faces the corruption of the King’s court by insisting on close scrutiny of the royal accounts. They impeach the King's minister, the cruel and avaricious 4th Baron Latimer, on the grounds he has stolen from the treasury. It is the first time a criminal proceeding has been launched against a public official by Parliament.

Latimer is found guilty, imprisoned and fined.  Impeachment, a weapon of last resort, has not been used in Britain since 1806. In the U.S. it is an effective but rarely used remedy against the misconduct of public servants.


A controversial Oxford scholar and philosopher with an energetically logical mind, John Wycliffe calls for a church that follows the New Testament and is dedicated to a simple, charitable life without wealth or endowments. He asserts that the King can take the church’s property if it is misused, basing his revolutionary proposal on the principle that the King has been consecrated to rule and has a covenant with the people to protect them from injustice. At the same time Wycliffe cautions that ‘it is indeed an insupportable mistake for the king or any other lord of the realm to tyrannize over his people’.

In 1377 he is summoned before the Bishop of London "to explain the wonderful things which had streamed forth from his mouth". John of Gaunt and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, defend him, and the interrogation abruptly ends.

Realizing that few people can hear Christ’s radical teachings of equality and love because they do not understand Latin, Wycliffe organises the Bible’s translation from Latin into English – “into the language not of angels but of Englishmen, so that he made that common and open to the laity, and to women who were able to read, which used to be for literate and perceptive clerks’ (Knighton's Chronicle, 242–4).

The English Bible had a profound effect because it spread the word that God loves justice and that freedom is God’s gift to every person. The scriptural idea that every individual is created in the image of God, and has equal and inestimable value, will be crucial to the development of democracy

In 1381 the Great Revolt was fueled by some of his ideas. Wycliffe was deeply sympathetic to the revolt and to the plight of the poor, and fiercely critical of the policies, whether ecclesiastical or lay, that had led to their plight (DNB).

Wycliffe’s criticism of Church and secular power and his spiritual ideas about the sacrament of the Eucharist infuriate the powers-that-be. In 1382 he is driven from Oxford, and his original translation of the Bible is burned. However, copies survive. The seed of reform has been planted, in England and in Bohemia, where Wycliffe’s ideas inspire Jan Hus.

Wycliffe died naturally in 1384. After his body was buried, officials exhumed his bones, burned them and scattered the ashes on the River Swift. Impossible though it is to agree with all of John Wycliffe’s ideas, it is not possible to destroy them. 

A man turns the pages of a Bible as he reads

Quoting the Old and New Testaments to support demands for justice and freedom.

Photo: kiddaikiddee@istockphoto.com


Some historians call the Great Revolt “the Peasants’ Revolt,” but the rebels don’t. They call themselves not peasants but farmers and artisans. Sending “messengers carrying letters and instructions from village to village," they march on London, full of “confidence and hope.”

They want an end to the much-hated poll tax; an end to serfdom; and the repeal of the law that unfairly freezes their wages to pre-Black Death rates. In short they want equality and justice. Feeling they are as much children of God as any rich, titled person, they sing,

When Adam delved, and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?

The Revolt turns violent.  The rebels pour into London, burn rich John of Gaunt’s Savoy Palace, threaten the Queen, and behead the Lord Treasurer and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The King is Richard II, a fourteen-year-old. After Wat Tyler, the leader of the Great Revolt, is killed, Richard disperses the Brits with false promises.

The survivors return to their homes with one success. They have forced the government to end the poll tax. The movement to end serfdom goes underground, where it gains strength.


Older but no wiser, Richard II packs Parliament with his cronies, loads his favourites with gifts, and rules like a tyrant. Of this time John of Gaunt (no innocent himself) observes in Shakespeare's Richard II,

This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out. . .
England that was wont to conquer others
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.

When John of Gaunt dies, Richard II exiles Gaunt’s son, Henry Bolingbroke, and seizes his inheritance. Brits respond in the ancient tradition of the Witan.  They consult with each other, and decide to support Henry and depose Richard.

Henry defeats and captures the friendless Richard; and rules as Henry IV. The leading Brits are clear: They expect their King to treat them fairly.  If he doesn’t, they will send him packing.

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