2017 programme

800th Anniversary of the Charter of the Forest 2017

To celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Charter of the Forest, a group centred around New Putney Debates organised a series of events in 2017 to highlight the contemporary relevance of the Charter. First sealed at St Paul`s Cathedral  in 1217 as a companion document to the better-known Magna Carta, the Charter of the Forest was a more significant document for ordinary folk because it aimed to stop royal encroachment of common land and to protect the rights of commoners to gain a livelihood from commons resources.

It was also the first environmental charter, the first to offer a defence of the commons in general and a fundamental part of the British Constitution that stayed on the statute books longer than any other piece of legislation—repealed finally only in 1971. The charter was intended as a permanent law to ensure every person`s right to share the commons and also to sustain it.

New Putney Debates campaigns for a new Charter of the Commons for today, and for the revival of its ethos to protect and sustain the natural environment. We campaign to give legal rights to nature and to build community charter movements. The aim of the celebrations in 2017 was to highlight the ongoing plunder of the commons including through fracking, privatisation of common land, commercialisation and neglect; and to show how the issues and principles behind the charter can help point to solutions today.

A summary of the events of 2017 is set out below. A full report with pictures can be found here.

Barge trip to Runnymede and Ankerwhyke

The opening event to mark the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Charter of the Forest in November 1217 was a travelling workshop on a barge as it went downstream from Windsor to Runnymede where the Magna Carta was signed in 1215. 

Messages of support from John McDonnell, shadow chancellor of the Exchequer, and from Caroline Lucas, joint leader of the Green Party were read out before the real work began with a talk about the importance and relevance of the charter today by Guy Standing, professorial research associate at SOAS.

The Charter of 1217, he said, asserted the rights of commoners to access the forest and the commons and curbed the power of the monarch to seize the land for himself and his friends. But today, he said, enclosure is accelerating without our knowledge or consent and many people cannot meet their basic needs for food and housing.

This was followed by a contribution by Julie Timbrell, of New Putney Debates, on the importance of the principles of the Charter of the Forest to modern environmental and democratic movements. She said the Charter gave people a mechanism to self-manage their local environment, which has been preserved to this day in several places including the New Forest. Today modern commoning takes place in food forests and local co-operatives which become social commons as well as forms of land. This approach, she said, allowed for a different type of democracy, underpinned with a different ethos.

Full house…

The next workshop, Towards a new Domesday Book, chaired by Tom Connor, began with a talk by Marion Shoard, author of This Land is Our Land; and was followed by contributions by Dave Wetzel, of the Labour Land Campaign, by Guy Shrubsole, of Friends of the Earth and author of Who Owns England; and then by Christian Eriksson, one of the Private Eye journalists behind the investigations into the offshore property map.

At this point the mooring ropes were cast off and the barge moved swiftly towards the first lock. Below decks, a specially prepared medieval soup with venison and lentils (did they have lentils in medieval times, one wonders) was served, together with a vegetarian soup, bread, and tea and coffee, all prepared by Julie and assistants the day before.

After lunch there was a workshop on the Timeline, a record in words and pictures of the historical evolution of the Charter and of commons rights, introduced by Peter Dean, Carl Fraser and Julie Timbrell. The timeline was displayed along the length of the meeting place.

Carl Fraser talks about the Timeline

The next workshop, From Right to Subsistence to Basic Income, produced a lively debate on the campaign for a Universal Basic Income. Introduced by Guy Standing and facilitated by Barb Jacobsen, the case for a basic income for everyone was made (and opposed).

By this time the barge had arrived and tied up at Runnymede. The company made their way a short distance across the meadow to The Jurors artwork, which was commissioned to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta. People sat on the 12 chairs or stood to listen to the contributors to Workshop 5, titled Latin American social movements for the commons and for Mother Earth to be accorded rights.

Mothiur Rahman spoke on the campaign for rights for Mother Earth; Fidel Ernesto Narvaez, the first secretary at the Embassy of Ecuador, told the meeting about the inclusion of these rights into the constitution of Ecuador; Amancay Colque spoke of the water rights movements in Bolivia; and Helena Paul of EcoNexus gave a talk on Food Sovereignty and La Via Campesina.

Meeting at the 12 Jurors at the end of the day.

And in the final session, on local charters and the commons, Tim Flitcroft, of Commons Rising, spoke about the contemporary commons.

A group of 8 people went on a “pilgrimage” by taxi to the other side of the river to see the 2,500-year old yew tree, the Ankerwycke yew, which may even be the tree under which King John and the barons sealed the Magna Carta.

To round off the day Natasha Langridge gave a preview performance of her one-person play about love and protest—a lov call to neighbours and a revolutionary call to the world to protest the commons.


Sherwood Forest anti-fracking protests

New Putney Debates and Charter of the Forest 800 joined up with local anti-fracking groups in Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire for a day of protest on 5 Nov 2017. Over 100 people assembled at the Major Oak in the forest, with many of the Land and Water protectors dressed as characters from the myths and legends of Robin Hood.

Activists at the Royal Oak showing what they thought of fracking plans for the forest.

Songs were sung and speeches were made on the history of land rights and the contemporary threat of fracking. Plans to establish a gas field across much of the North of England had been announcd, and INEOS had recently been licensed to frack under Sherwood Forest and were preparing to undertake seismic testing. In an attempt to prevent local protesters from defending their heritage, the company had taken out injunctions against some of them.

A rally was then held at the South Forest Leisure Centre in the afternoon. Professor Guy Standing, author of Basic Income and How We Can Make It Happen, said the Charter of the Forest of 1217 gave all the land back that William the Conqueror and King John had enclosed and taken from the commons. “It was a class-based charter, and was only passed because the king, Henry III, was only ten years old and was guided by his regent, William Marshall. The king was furious when he became an adult and made hundreds of attempts to revoke it, but failed.”

It was the first charter in history to give everyone the right to subsistence, including the right to fish, collect peat, clay and wood, he said. “It was also the first environmental charter in history….Principles of stewardship, preserving the commons rather than depleting them, and reproducing were all contained in it.”

Its importance for the “restoration and reparation of the forest” was also stressed by Professor Peter Linebaugh, author of Magna Carta Manifesto. “The Charter of the Forest was all about returning what you have taken,” he said.

It allowed commoners to have wood from the forest to build roofs and as fuel for warmth, use pastures for their cattle, and put their pigs out from September to November. He read a passage from the memoirs of land reformer Thomas Spence (1750-1814) who proclaimed “the land is the people’s farm” to be shared equally.

The charter, was also the first to end capital punishment for a particular crime, concluded the professor, in this case for illegally killing deer.

The Rev Deborah Hodson, an inter-faith vicar, said that one of her ancestors took part in the Pentrich Rising of 1817 when several hundred quarrymen and ironworkers set out on a march to Nottingham, armed with pikes and scythes, with a series of demands for change. The uprising was thwarted in part by the collusion of local landowners with the justice system, and her ancestor was one of the three that were hanged. A descendant of that landowner is party to the present plans to frack Sherwood Forest, she said. She read out a poem from her nieces and nephews about the forest.

The Royal Oak in Sherwood Forest.

Mothiur Rahman, of the Falkirk Community Charter, spoke about the lessons from the successful anti-fracking and extreme energy extraction movement  in Scotland. This was developed with local people, he said. He was part of the legal team that organized an objection to the planning process.

The charter that the local community developed argued that Cultural Heritage included not only historic buildings, but also “the inseparable ecological and socio-cultural fabric that sustains life and which provides us with the solid foundations for building and celebrating our homes, families, community and legacy….”. The corporation planning to do the fracking had stated in their Environment Impact Assessment to the government that there was no local heritage. During the Scottish Independance movement, the charter was used as an example of government that represented the will of the people.

Joe Boyd, the main defendant in the injunction obtained by the multi-national, INEOS, denounced the attempt to stop the actions as an affront to “our right to lawful protest”. The injunction had implications for the ability of all campaigners in general to protest against the conduct of giant corporate firms.

Julie Timbrell, of New Putney Debates, said the 1217 Charter of the Forest re-established the rights of ordinary people to use the land for their own purpose, but that nowadays politics was moving in the opposite direction. The National Government had passed legislation making it difficult to oppose companies that promote seismic testing, test drilling and eventually hydraulic fracturing.


Forging a new Charter of the Commons—Meeting in Parliament

A joint partnership between the Shadow Chancellor, New Putney Debates and the Charter of the Forest 800 organising group, celebrated the 800th anniversary of the Charter of the Forest, at a meeting in Parliament.

The meeting focussed on the commons and the plan to forge new charters, inspired by the principles in the original charter, including the right to subsistence and to manage the commons. It also provided a defence of the commons in general, and prevented enclosure.

The meeting in the Speakers House, Parliament.

Hosted by John McDonnell, and chaired by him, in the magnificent room of The Speaker`s Hall, with large portraits of previous speakers hanging  round the hall, the invited audience heard Professor Peter Linebaugh, author of The Magna Carta Manifesto and Stop, Thief!, speak about the history and contemporary relevance of the charter today.

Professor Guy Standing spoke about the current plunder of the commons, as corporations and the rich used their influence and money to take over and privatise large parts of the commons. He called for a basic income for all.

Matt Larsen-Daw, from the Charter for Trees, Woods and People, set up by the Woodland Trust, spoke about the Tree Charter as being a contemporary offshoot of the original Charter of the Forest. The Woodland Trust had reached out to all sections of society to define the new charter as a people-powered movement for trees. More than 70 organisations and 300 local community groups helped to collect over 60,000 stories about trees and the important part they play in the lives of people. These stories had helped to define the 10 principles of the Tree Charter.

Matt Larsen-Daw from the Woodland Trust speaking at the meeting.

Julie Timbrell, of New Putney Debates, called for new charters of the commons to be drawn up, with the priority being to re-claim and protect the commons. Guy Shrubsole and Anna Powell-Smith, from Friends of the Earth, authors of Who Owns England, demonstrated their new on-line maps identifying secret corporate, often overseas, owners of large parts of the UK.

The meeting ended with questions, discussion and closing remarks, before wine and refreshments were served to all—with a few songs from the group Three Acres and a Cow.


Lincoln meeting

New Putney Debates, with the Charter of the Forest Organising Group, joined forces with the Labour Party at a meeting in Lincoln, the home of one of the two surviving copies of the Charter of the Forest.

The meeting was one of a series that the Labour Party held throughout the country to introduce the new policies. John McDonnell outlined his plans to bring back key industries into public ownership and introduce more democratic structures for their management. Professors Peter Linebaugh and Guy Standing spoke about the Charter of the Forest and its importance for today as the attack on the commons and the ideas of a cooperative economy  come under persistent attack.

Workshops were held on three topics: Public Ownership–ending  the era of privatisation; A Social Commons—the role of cooperatives, social enterprises and self-organised groups and platforms in moving towards a new economy fit for the 21st Century; Land—new concepts of land ownership and government.