Rosanne Kirk: Our city’s place in the history of human rights

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Eight hundred years ago today in 1217, a special moment in history took place. A moment that has had profound effects on democracy and human rights ever since.

The Charter of the Forest may sound like it only applies more to areas of woodland than is does to the public, but it laid down some strong roots for the protection of people that are still in place today.

There are only two remaining copies of the Charter of The Forest in existence, one in Durham and one in Lincoln.

Our city’s copy takes pride of place in a permanent exhibition alongside the older, more widely known Magna Carta.

The Magna Carta is commonly regarded as one of the most important documents of all time, and certainly does have some reason to stake that claim, but the Charter of the Forest should be considered as equally, if not more important.

The Charter of The Forest is about the people and their rights, about freedoms that to this very day need to be protected and even strengthened.

During the reign of William the Conqueror and his heirs, access to the forests of the UK was limited so that they could retain a monopoly.

All ‘free men’ were excluded, including those who had farmed these areas for generations. As the rule started affecting the economy, it created unrest amongst the public and pressure was put on the King.

Thus the Charter of the Forest was established, that set out the rights of access to land across Britain.

Issued on November 6 1217, and originally sealed by King Henry III, this was a partner document to the famous Magna Carta.

And this is where it gets interesting. Unlike the Magna Carta, which was about the rights of the Barons, it’s about giving rights not to the privileged few, but to the common person. And these were real rights, protections. Human rights, against abuses. Against the abuses of the aristocracy.

Land was to be available to commoners. Access, rights. This is powerful for the common person. Democracy arriving, right there in 1217.

That’s why this charter is amazing. And do you see how, in 2017, knowing this is empowering? That we the people have access, protections, given rights. We won’t be dominated by forces encroaching on our freedoms, trying to take away our rights. To protect and strengthen the rights afforded to us in the Charter of The Forest should be something we all take an interest in.

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