It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that only in English society, and those societies deriving from it, is the notion of individual liberty built into the social fabric. The English have been free not primarily because of legal rights, but because it is their evolved social nature. They accept liberty because it seems natural to them.
The cry for liberty and a freeman’s due are felt throughout English history and in all classes of society. It is seen in the constant demand after the Conquest for charters from the king to found boroughs. It fuelled the baron’s demand for Magna Carta. It drove the Peasant’s Revolt. It provided the emotional and legal backdrop for the formal ending of Serfdom under Elizabeth. The Leveller’s made it their ideological centrepiece in the Civil War. Their leader, John Lilburne, revelled in the name of “Freeborn John” . “Wilkes and Liberty” was the mob’s popular cry in that most aristocratic of centuries, the eighteenth. The Chartists used it in the nineteenth.
The notion that an Englishman had a life beyond that of a subject, that he was an individual in his own right, is crystallised in the idea that an Englishman’s home was his castle. The elder Pitt put it forcefully:
The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail – its roof may shake – the wind may blow though it – the storm may enter – the rain may enter – but the King of England cannot enter! – All his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!
The desire for freedom eventually spread beyond the mundanities of life. Here is Milton in the Areogapitica in the 1640s:
‘ And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose upon the earth, so truth be in the field [and] we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter…’
Perhaps the most important practical adjunct of this desire for freedom, has been that the English long hated and mistrusted the idea of a standing army as the creature of tyrants. The English were happy to have the strongest navy in the world because it could not be used against them, but a substantial army was not accepted as reasonable until the experiences of the Great War accustomed men to the idea. Soldiers were held in contempt before then. “Gone for a soldier” was little better than “taken for a thief”. The needs of Empire produced more ambivalence into the English view of soldiers as Kipling’s poem “Tommy” shows: “Oh, it’s Tommy this an’ Tommy that, and chuck him out the brute! But it’s ‘Saviour of ‘is country’ when the guns begin to shoot.” But the old resentment, fear and contempt remained until the trenches of Flanders tempered the English mind to tolerance.
Because of a lack of a large standing army, English kings were long dependent on the will of others, be it their nobles, parliament or the gentry. The practical governance of day-to-day life in England until the late nineteenth century lay largely in the hands of private gentlemen occupying the post of JP, whose powers were much greater than they are today. The central state impinged little on the ordinary Englishman before 1914. George Bowling, the hero of George Orwell’s “Coming up for air” reflecting on how the arms of the state touched an honest citizen before the Great War could think only of the registration of births, deaths and marriages and the General Post Office.
By keeping the king dependent upon the will of others, the English ensured that a despot such as Louis X1 could not arise in England and in so doing underwrote their general liberties. Without that, it is improbable that parliamentary government would have arisen. It is probable that England would have been involved in many debilitating wars for the aggrandisement of the king. It is unlikely that England as a modern state would have arisen. Had the English not had such a profound attachment to their rights and freedom the world would be a vastly different place.