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Why War Crimes Matter

When the war ended in 1945, the intention to punish war criminals was almost universally approved, even by those who did not believe in trying them, and (perhaps more remarkable) by those who did not believe in Human Rights as such. There was a blind instinctive desire for retribution.

As grandson of David Maxwell Fyfe, British prosecutor at Nuremberg Trials and champion of the European Convention on Human Rights, Tom Blackmore was asked to sign the declaration for Justice for Ukraine calling for an international tribunal to try President Putin for the crime of aggression.

In 1950 Maxwell Fyfe gave a speech describing the need to hold war criminals to account, and how that need springs from a universal understanding of right and wrong in natural law, now described as human rights. Read an excerpt below.

Most people approach the subject of War Crimes Trials fundamentally either as cynic or idealist. This is, I think, because in essence the case for or against trying war criminals depends on that controversial subject which has become succinctly known as human rights. Your cynic says, “Human Rights? There are none.”

Your idealist, however, takes the view that there are certain rights and freedoms not created by lawyers but to which mankind as such are heir and which cannot be alienated. It is a conception akin to the idea of the Law of Nature which had such a wide influence on relationship in past centuries, although now somewhat outmoded.

This idea of fundamental Human Rights is one in which I firmly believe. The difficulty of course is, as human law givers are not the creators but only the interpreters or codifiers of those fundamental rights, opinions differ widely as to their precise definitions. But to the cynic I would say that there is no real difficulty, for we know well enough for practical purposes when particular infringement has occurred. There is a saying attributed to a famous Lord Chief Justice of England (Russell) that the common law of England is known to be based on a few fundamental principles, but it is strange that nobody has satisfactorily explained what they are. Yet our Common Law is a very real thing, and its’ basic principles, whatever they are, have encircled the world.

Maxwell Fyfe’s Athenaeum speech, January 1950

When the war ended in 1945, the intention to punish war criminals was almost universally approved, even by those who did not believe in trying them, and (perhaps more remarkable) by those who did not believe in Human Rights as such. There was a blind instinctive desire for retribution.

Fortunately, moderate views prevailed, and the demand for executive action without trial was refused. As far as concerns the major international trials at Nuremberg and Tokyo there were four overwhelming reasons against disposing of the accused by executive action.

First, Justice is a prerequisite of Liberty. It would have been unthinkable to deny to the first accused in the post-war liberal world the right to make a defence.

Secondly, people in the weary post-war world had to be enabled to realise that the crimes the world had suffered from were real and not figments of propaganda.

Thirdly, there had to be an answer ready to meet the German apologists who were sure to arise in due time.

Fourthly, executive action itself means a trial, a decision, a weighing of evidence. But it is a decision made without judicial process and behind closed doors. In fact, such was the complication and the ramification of the German and Japanese major war crimes, that I am sure that Executive Action was not only undesirable, but would have resulted in many instances in deadlock, or even in injustice.

David Maxwell Fyfe, Nuremberg Trials 1946

So much for the necessity of the holding the major international trials. But the minor trials conducted by national courts presented somewhat different problems. The significance of the trial in most of such cases was shifted from the general to the particular, but the enormity of the crimes judged from certain aspects were often greater than in the cases of the major war criminals themselves. For example Ohlendorf, whose extermination group gassed 90,000 people behind the German armies in the East. And Hoess, the Commandant of Auschwitz extermination camp, who presided over the gassing of two and a half million people. These, and many like them, had to be tried. But the line had to be drawn somewhere. I do not know how many war crimes trials the Allied nations have conducted, but the United States War Crimes Commission have received written records of over 1,600. Yet that figure is but a small proportion of the trials that could have been held if time and judicial resources had permitted. I suppose it is not an exaggeration, in view of the huge membership of the S.S. the Gestapo, and other criminal organisations, to estimate that in theory the number might have run into tens of thousands.

But time has called a halt, and time has called forth new sentiments.

For while even now there is little reluctance felt at the punishment meted out to the major war criminals, the lesser war criminals (though responsible perhaps for many deaths or much human misery) tend to become the objects of pity as time goes by and memories (in this country at least) grow fainter. There is a tendency to question the propriety of or morality of condemning people for crimes, which (who knows) the people of the victor nations might in the frailty of human nature have committed too in similar circumstances. Soldiers feel that the German generals only did their duty. Perhaps even judges may be tempted to feel that Nazi judges could not be blamed for enforcing Nazi laws. There is a feeling that we of the victor nations are exhibiting an unwarranted self-complacency, even arrogance, in condemning men who were perhaps the victims of circumstance, and the pawns in mass movements beyond their personal control.

It is a feeling of uneasiness mingled with resignation at the unfairness of fate. It is perhaps akin to the lament in AE Housman’s lines on the man about to be hanged,

In Shrewsbury gaol there sleeps tonight
Or wakes, as may betide
A better lad, if things went right,
Than most who sleep outside

A E Housman

‘If things went right.’ That is the tragedy of human life.  We are not all faced with the choice between right and wrong action in quite so stark a way as the people of Nazi German were faced with it… We may do well to ask ourselves what course we as individuals would choose if we were faced with the alternatives that would have faced us as Germans under Hitler.

Many Germans chose the concentration camp, suffering and death. Many more chose to throw in their lot with the regime, some wholeheartedly, some as secret enemies or saboteurs. Those who took the latter course… played with fire…

What are we to say of a man who is required to issue orders which will result in the deaths of perhaps 100 people, and who decides to send out the orders in such a way as to cause the deaths of only 10 people? He knows that if he refuses he will be dismissed (perhaps liquidated) and the order will probably be issued by someone else in his stead. Has he committed a crime? Undoubtedly. Has he committed a moral or ethical wrong? To my mind he most assuredly has committed a moral or ethical wrong. One must not be misled by the good  fact of his having saved 90 people into discounting the bad fact that he has murdered 10. Would it be any different if he saved only 10 but murdered 90? No. He has no right to murder any at all, whatever his motive.

These are ideal sentiments. But is it permissible to take any other standard in such matters? That most people will fall below that standard goes without saying, but that is a different question. Their fellow mortals may pass a more lenient judgement upon them if they have mitigated their wrongs with good intentions, but their moral guilt is unpardonable, for who can pardon a moral wrong?

Find out more about Justice for Ukraine and sign here.

Discover Maxwell Fyfe’s Nuremberg story at https://www.thehumansinthetelling.org/

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Prelude to European Unity

Every episode in which we are involved looks forward as well as back. This is particularly true of the Nuremberg Trial, now that we can get it in reasonable retrospect, and it is my intention today to try and see what assistance the lessons of that Trial give towards the establishment of a sounder and saner Europe.

On 21st February 1947, David Maxwell Fyfe addressed a Foyle’s Literary Lunch event. It was just 6 months since he had returned from the Nuremberg Trials, where he had spent the best part of a year leading the British prosecution team, and like many others he was thinking about the future of Europe after the bloodshed of the Second World War. Here are excerpts from that speech.

At the present moment and in the present conditions I do not think that you will have difficulty in accepting my first proposition.

Life is a perpetual January.

Every episode in which we are involved looks forward as well as back. This is particularly true of the Nuremberg Trial, now that we can get it in reasonable retrospect, and it is my intention today to try and see what assistance the lessons of that Trial give towards the establishment of a sounder and saner Europe. This does not mean forgetting or misrepresenting what we have learnt…

Honesty of outlook and clear vision compel us to assess the qualities of the crimes that were disclosed at Nuremberg. We must not underestimate their extent, the publicity that must have attended them, both to the rulers and the ruled in Germany, or the fact that they are distinctive from previous examples by the cold, calculated, and reasoned plan which was behind their commission. Further, one of the most important statements made at Nuremberg was that of the defendant Speer, that

‘humanity simply cannot afford tyranny being harnessed to the modern scientific state.’

Albert Speer, Minister of Armaments and Production 1942-45

It inevitably brings cruelty and crimes and if it is manifested again may mean an end to our civilization…

Further, we must face that crimes of that magnitude and extent could not have been carried out without the spreading hand of the Nazi Organisations whose members included so many of the German people. That tyranny was based on speed of government, widespread informing, absence of free thought and speech, internal stimulation combined with control by a fanatical party leadership, continued physical and mental preparation for war, and early planning for external aggression…

Full text available to view at the Churchill Archives

It is said of George Washington, that when his members of his cabinet reproached him with remaining at peace in the 1790s, he turned to them and said,

‘Gentlemen, is there anything in my past which makes you think  I am averse to fighting Great Britain.’

George Washington, first president of United States 1789-1797

Magno componere par-vum, I might say that I have not shown much reluctance in attacking the Nazi system, but I hope I am able to put the preservation of Europe as even more important. Despite all that has happened I am sure that we should try to make Germany survive as a country and endeavour to bring her back into the European stream of thought and development. It is beyond argument that Germany must have control and a comprehensive control. That does not mean that she should be denied the right to assume her own government. We must always remember that the power for aggression of countries with powerful neighbours on both flanks has invariably and inevitably declined….

Like everyone else I am most worried about education… I feel that there is no aspect which demands more urgent attention and I hope that the Government will redouble its’ efforts in this sphere. It is an undoubted fact that the youth of Germany are at the moment looking inward, with moral standards almost gone, and not outward towards democratic nations as an example… I still believe most strongly in the power of example. It is by decent treatment and the exhibition of good qualities  on the part of those who actually come in contact with them, the most influence can be exerted. It is in no spirit of self-satisfaction but in a sober realisation of the responsibility cast upon us that we can use Pitt’s words

‘England has saved herself by her exertions and may yet save Europe by her example’

William Pitt the Younger

…Let us now take the steps to heal Europe. The world without European civilization is like a year without its Spring. That great stream will not complete its’ course if it is blocked by the present ugly German morass.

This speech is available to read in full at the Churchill Archives in Cambridge, where the papers of David Maxwell Fyfe now have a permanent home.

Join us as we countdown to the 75th anniversary of the signing of the European Convention on Human Rights at thehumansinthetelling.org.

The first Foyle’s literary lunch was in October 1930 and became an institution which ran for 75 years. Originally the brainchild of Christina Foyle, designed to fulfil customers’ desire to meet authors, amongst the guests to speak over more than 700 lunches were General de Gaulle, Margaret Thatcher, Lauren Bacall, TS Eliot, George Bernard Shaw, J M Barrie and John Lennon.

British United Europe Movement Launch January 1947

One day in 1947 Winston called me across the smoking room of the House of Commons and asked me if I would join the committee of the United Europe Movement, of which he was chairman.

January 2022 marks the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the British United Europe Movement. David Maxwell Fyfe’s invitation to join by Winston Churchill later in the year led directly to his notable work drafting the ECHR.

75 years ago, in January 1947 Winston Churchill and his son-in-law, Conservative ex-minister Duncan Sandys launched the British United Europe Movement. It was one the network of non-government organisations that sprung up at the end of World War II.

This was the statement of purpose when launching:

The anarchy of Europe has already brought about two world wars in our time. If allowed to continue, it must surely lead to an even more terrible catastrophe. The final elimination of war can be assured only by the eventual creation of a system of World Government. As a practical step towards this ultimate ideal, appropriate nations should be encouraged to group themselves together in larger units.

Groups of various kinds already exist, such as the Pan-American Union, the British Commonwealth and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Our continent, however, still remains in a chaotic condition. If Europe is to survive, it must unite. Its peoples must join together to secure their mutual peace and common prosperity and to preserve and enrich their heritage of civilization and freedom. The aim must be to unite all the peoples of Europe and give expression to their sense of being Europeans, while preserving their own traditions and identity.

Some countries may for the present feel unable to take action; but those that can should make a start. Others will join with them later. United Europe would have the status of a Regional Group under the Charter of the United Nations Organisation and would naturally seek the close friendship and co-operation of the Soviet Union and the United States of America.

It would be premature to define the precise constitutional relationship between the nations of a unified Europe. Unity can grow only from free consultation and practical experience of concerted action. Britain has special obligations and spiritual ties which link her with the other nations of the British Commonwealth. Nevertheless, Britain is part of Europe and must be prepared to make her full contribution to European unity. The responsibility falls upon individual citizens. The task is urgent. Before it is too late, let men of goodwill in all countries take counsel together that Europe may arise.

A little later that year, Churchill asked Nuremberg prosecutor Maxwell Fyfe to join the Movement, as he recalls in his autobiography, A Political Adventure.

Transcript of Maxwell Fyfe’s autobiography

One day in 1947 Winston called me across the smoking room of the House of Commons and asked me if I would join the committee of the United Europe Movement, of which he was chairman. I had always been anxious to do something positive after the part I had played in destroying Nazi ideology, and I accepted with enthusiasm. I wanted to do something about human rights.

Together they would attend the Congress of Europe in May  1948 at the Hague. During his defining speech there Churchill said:

The Movement for European Unity must be a positive force, deriving its strength from our sense of common spiritual values. It is a dynamic expression of democratic faith based upon moral conceptions and inspired by a sense of mission. In the centre of our movement stands the idea of a Charter of Human Rights, guarded by freedom and sustained by law.

During the next two and years Maxwell Fyfe championed and drafted this Charter which became the Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms In Europe. The Convention was signed in November 1950.

Join us as we countdown to the 75th anniversary of the signing of the European Convention on Human Rights at thehumansinthetelling.org.

David Maxwell Fyfe’s papers are held in the shadow of the Churchill collection at the Churchill Archives in Cambridge.

Read about Maxwell Fyfe’s personal account of his journey to Strasbourg in our blog which has excerpts from A Gleam in Alsace from his autobiography here.

T.S. Eliot and The Human’s in the Telling

TS Eliot was a poetic contemporary of David Maxwell Fyfe, living like him in central London through the chaos of the Blitz. His wisdom, and poetic vision of that time, with the spiritual struggle it induced in him, provide both atmosphere and a frame to our ghost story.

As Ralph Fiennes begins a limited run of his extraordinary tour de force performance of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets in London’s West End, Sue Casson explores the themes that resonate with The Human’s in the Telling.

The inspirational writing of poet and philosopher T S Eliot casts a long shadow over The Humans in the Telling.

The Human’s in the Telling logo

Its’ logo, white on black with a dancing flame depicts the symbol conjured in the final lines of Little Gidding, the closing poem of Eliot’s monumental poetic meditation on time and salvation, Four Quartets‘the fire and the rose’ made one.

Dreams of Peace & Freedom, the song cycle at its’ heart, closes with a setting of lines by the 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich quoted in the same poem, ‘All shall be well’, whilst the immersive performance opens with a quotation from Burnt Norton, projected on a photo of roses taken at Kew Gardens.

In this way, lines from Four Quartets clearly bookend our story of David Maxwell Fyfe’s journey from Nuremberg to Strasbourg, a story we tell in his own words and through musical settings of poems he found inspiring. But as the writers who tell that story, T S Eliot’s Four Quartets, largely written whilst the world was at war, are an inspiration that stretches beyond the beginning and the end.

T S Eliot

Eliot was a poetic contemporary of Maxwell Fyfe, living like him in central London through the chaos of the Blitz. His wisdom, and poetic vision of that time, with the spiritual struggle it induced in him, provide both atmosphere and a frame to our ghost story.

In Little Gidding, which in Section IV references the Battle of Britain in its’ imagery, Eliot tries to see an unseen, unknowable future.

‘History may be servitude / History may be freedom’

Little Gidding III

The war through which he is living as he writes, its’ overwhelming physical and mental darkness, clouds his thinking and freezes expectation for the future. ‘Where is the summer’ he asks in Little Gidding, published in 1942, ‘the unimaginable, zero summer’. His spirit longs for salvation, purifying ‘pentecostal fire / In the dark time of the year’. The longing for spring in the depths of frozen, lifeless Midwinter.

Little Gidding

Four Quartets documents a very personal struggle, but what happened after the war, which is the largest part of our story, needs to be seen in this context. The attempts made to reassert order out of chaos and attempt to put right what has gone catastrophically wrong.

As part of Winston Churchill’s wartime cabinet, and the immediate post-war parliament, David Maxwell Fyfe was in the position of having the power to shape what happened next. First at the trials at Nuremberg, where he was part of the team identifying those culpable and establishing evidence to prove their guilt and the opportunity to confront their crimes in a courtroom. And later, as part of the United Europe Movement which ultimately led to the European Convention on Human Rights, which Fyfe championed and drafted.

‘History is a pattern / Of timeless moments’

Little Gidding V

Here are two not taught in school, which is disturbing, for those who lived through these events are dwindling year by year and the result is they have become widely unknown and worse, misunderstood.

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Santayana

Throughout his meditation on the nature of Time in Four Quartets, Eliot makes us aware that the consequences of our actions and decisions live on in the future they create. ‘In my beginning is my end’ he writes at the beginning of East Coker. Or in the very first poem in the sequence, Burnt Norton, published in 1936, three years before war broke out.

Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end which is always present.

Burnt Norton I

Which is why Eliot’s words seemed a fitting beginning to our Dreams of Peace & Freedom performance, in which Maxwell Fyfe expresses his distress that ‘the hopeful enthusiastic beginnings’ of the European project ultimately dissolved into ’doubt, hesitation and pain’.

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose garden.

Burnt Norton

The Four Quartets centre on resolution and struggle, and the tension between these, has marked Britain’s recent relationship with Europe, which has been the unfortunate background to our telling. It may never have been ‘a rose garden’ (to use Eliot’s symbol), but in the wake of Brexit, the Convention that countries who had only recently been at war worked so hard to create together in its’ aftermath, has lost its’ significance. In such a political climate, can ‘All be well’, as Dame Julian of Norwich hopes, or has the ground shifted?

‘… what you thought you came for/ Is only a shell, a husk of meaning’

Little Gidding I
Etching in Salisbury Cathedral

Eliot, searching for reconciliation after a struggle of the spirit concludes Four Quartets with cleansing Pentecostal fire.

All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one                         

Final lines of Four Quartets

The Humans in the Telling tells the story of how a lasting peace is wrought from the fires of war. That fashioning, with international co-operation and diplomacy, of what Fyfe called ‘a simple, safe insurance policy’ from the ashes of holocaust and barbarity, leading to 75 years of peace deserves to be celebrated by fortunate generations untouched by the trauma of war. Only by confronting the stories of the past can we hope to build a secure future.

What we call the beginning is often the end.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

Little Gidding V

A livestream performance of Dreams of Peace & Freedom is now available to watch on demand at C the Arts. Book tickets here.

Where the streams of natural law flow

Dreams of Peace & Freedom evokes the streams that carried David Maxwell Fyfe on his journey and the river of rights and freedoms that flowed first from Nuremberg to Strasbourg, and then on into 75 years of liberty.

August 28th and 29th this year are the 75th anniversary of the only speech given by David Maxwell Fyfe at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. Tom Blackmore writes about the ‘deeper magic’ of Natural Law, which Fyfe extols in this speech, and underpins the Convention he was later to draft and champion in the Council of Europe.

Nature is a revelation. And as just now we are seeking to protect our environment, we must at the same time protect the best of our nature. Wherever and whenever humans have roamed the earth, they have carried with them an instinct for rightness and fairness, a respect for the freedoms and rights of others. This instinct can be swamped by others, instincts for brutality, power, and control through fear. But that finer instinct remains and has been named natural law, which like a stream, is a mutable constant.

By the River Itchen, Winchester

There are countless streams of natural law.

On Instagram this summer, we have been exploring just some of them -capturing the rivers that run through the great Magna Carta cities, which saved and preserved copies of that early testimony to freedom. That Great Charter was the first written expression of natural law that has since formed a basis for democracy all over the world.

David Maxwell Fyfe was carried through his life along his own streams to Nuremberg and then Strasbourg, from his Scottish childhood, through university at Oxford, an early working life in Liverpool and so to the Inns of Court and Westminster. Prepared, he made his mark in Nuremberg and Strasbourg, and sowed the seed for human rights protection in Europe. In each stream he found further wisdom that developed his understanding and appreciation of natural law. (Read more about Maxwell Fyfe’s Stream of Natural Law in our previous blog here.)

During this 75th anniversary year, I have been spending time examining my grandfather’s only speech at the trial, his closing in the case against the Nazi organisations.

First, I looked at his forensic analysis of institutions of the Nazi party and state, and his attempts to describe their evil. As a lawyer it was the corruption of the law and its execution that moved him most. In this extract he focuses on that corruption: 

Let me conclude by reminding you of the opinion of the Supreme Court. Of the murders committed during the 1938 demonstrations by Hoheitstraeger (bearers of sovereignty) and members of the SA and SS it was pleaded that, I quote,

“in such cases as when Jews were killed without an order or contrary to orders, ignoble motives could not be determined.” 

The purpose of those proceedings in the Party Court were, I quote again,

“to protect those Party comrades who, motivated by decent National Socialist attitude and initiative, had overshot their mark.”  

In those few lines you have the secret of all the death and suffering, the horror and tragedy, that these defendants and the members of these organizations have brought upon the world. You see to what depths of evil they corrupted the human conscience. No ignoble motive – the murder of women and children through

“decent National Socialist attitude and initiative.”   

From David Maxwell Fyfe speech at Nuremberg against the Nazi organisations

 The Court’s explanation of slaughter as reasonable, reveals the abyss that had grown between fair judgement and monstrous justification. The evil was clear to all, except those who could not see because of indoctrination into the power of sovereignty (as expressed in the fuhrerprinzip), and a subsequent capacity to judge wrong as right. All of this was of course built on a foundation of fear. 

Time and again the Nazi state turned its back on the rigours of natural justice and the sense of natural law.

But secondly, and perhaps most importantly, at the end of the speech Maxwell Fyfe seeks to describe how this could be put right.

It might be presumptuous of lawyers who did not claim to be more than the cement of society to speculate or even dream of what we wish to see in place of the Nazi spirit, but I give you the faith of a lawyer, some things are surely universal: tolerance, decency, kindliness.

When such qualities have been given the chance to flourish in the ground that you have cleared, a great step will have been taken. It will be a step towards the universal recognition that :

“sights and sounds, dreams happy as her day/ And laughter learnt of friends, and gentleness/ In hearts at peace…”

Are not the prerogative of any one country. They are the inalienable heritage of mankind.

David Maxwell Fyfe quotes Rupert Brooke in his speech at Nuremberg against the Nazi organisations

It is here that he conjures the need for the restoration of natural law for all, which was beginning to become known as universal human rights.

In 1950, months before he tied together natural law with the need for effective international criminal law and human rights in the European Convention, he stated his creed in this speech:

Most people approach the subject of War Crimes Trials fundamentally either as cynic or idealist. This is, I think, because in essence the case for or against trying war criminals depends on that controversial subject which has become succinctly known as human rights.

Your cynic says, “Human Rights? There are none.” Your idealist, however, takes the view that there are certain rights and freedoms not created by lawyers but to which mankind as such is heir and which cannot be alienated. It is a conception akin to the idea of the Law of Nature which had such a wide influence on relationship in past centuries, although now somewhat outmoded… The idea of fundamental Human Rights is one in which I firmly believe.

David Maxwell Fyfe’s speech at the Athenaeum January 1950

On the 75th anniversary of Maxwell Fyfe’s turning point speech at Nuremberg, we will perform a live streamed performance of Dreams of Peace & Freedom. This is our commemoration of Maxwell Fyfe’s work in Nuremberg and Strasbourg. Dreams of Peace & Freedom evokes the streams that carried Maxwell Fyfe on his journey and the river of rights and freedoms that flowed first from Nuremberg to Strasbourg, and then on into 75 years of liberty.

English Cabaret are performing a special livestream performance of Dreams of Peace & Freedom on the anniversary dates. Find out more here.

Discover our Instagram feeds exploring #streamsofnaturallaw here.

Read more excerpts from Maxwell Fyfe’s speech at Nuremberg here.

Streams of Natural Law Diaries : No. 9 : Lincoln and the River Witham

The latest instalment in our Streams of Natural Law Diaries, is Lincoln, home to one of the four surviving 1215 Magna Cartas, and the River Witham. As we walk beside the water, we discover how the river divides the ancient and modern that stand side by side in this cathedral city.


To launch our film, book and recording of Dreams of Peace & Freedom : The Humans in the Telling and preview forthcoming performances, we are walking streams of natural law in the UK. Visit our multi-media hub at www.thehumansinthetelling.org.

LINCOLN & THE RIVER WITHAM

The strong twin towers of Lincoln Cathedral rise above the surrounding flatlands, making them a visible beacon for miles. For years the home of the best preserved 1215 Magna Carta (though it’s now on display in a special vault in next door Lincoln Castle) the cathedral’s significance in the landscape seems a stone symbol of the high aspirations of the original Great Charter.

A fair framework, fixed
Justice assured, signed and sealed
Balanced towers reaching

A HAIKU BY SUE CASSON

The latest stop on our Streams of Natural Law tour was Lincoln, and a walk along the River Witham. Lincoln is home to one of four surviving original 1215 copies of the Magna Carta and is also the birthplace of Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury who played a significant part in its’ creation and final signing.

Arriving over the flat plains of the Fens, the cathedral dominates the landscape. However you approach Lincoln, it always seems like a distant citadel that takes much longer than you might expect to reach. So I was delighted when we drove into the city centre and were able to park at the far end of the high street.

Walking through the bustling shoppers and modern shops, as we made our way towards the ancient cathedral and castle our journey was broken by the River Witham, which runs directly through the city centre.

Just steps down from the buzzing shops, the river runs serenely, flowing gently under High Bridge, the oldest bridge with buildings on in the UK. This style of bridge was common in the Middle Ages including the famous old London Bridge over the Thames but few examples still stand today.

The Witham is enjoyed by canal boats and swans alike, a quiet oasis amongst the hustle and bustle. The timbered buildings reminded me of European cities such as Strasbourg and Nuremberg where the old houses overlook the water, reflecting the architecture back at you.

An imposing gateway marks the boundary between the new and ancient city. We walked through it, up Steep Hill, which is aptly named as it takes a certain amount of puff to get up it (!) We passed beautifully kept cafes and fascinating shops on either side as we made our way to the top.

Close to, the sheer size of the Cathedral was awe-inspiring – it is the fourth largest in the UK. Around it, the cobbled close and surrounding streets have a different atmosphere – it’s almost like stepping back in time. Inside, there is a copy of the Magna Carta which was held for so many years by the cathedral, however the original is now housed in a specially built vault in the Castle where it can be visited across the square. It is one of the best preserved versions of the Great Charter, which in recent years has enabled it to travel to Australia as well as to the United States.

We walked from the Cathedral, over the picturesque square, past a pub taking its name from Magna Carta and through the stone arch into the Castle. From inside the castle walls, an elevated walkway offers stunning panoramic views across the rooftops to the city laid out below.

Then it was time to move on to our next location – come back to read the next instalment of the Stream of Natural Law diaries!

River Witham at Lincoln

Follow our journey as it happens on Instagram @streamsofnaturallaw and share yours with #streamsofnaturallaw.

Streams of Natural Law Diaries : No. 8 : Durham and the River Wear

The latest instalment in our Streams of Natural Law Diaries, is Durham and the River Wear, home to 3 different copies of Magna Carta. As we walk beside the stream, we discover the bounty of bridges and natural beauty in this Cathedral city.


To launch our film, book and recording of Dreams of Peace & Freedom : The Humans in the Telling and preview forthcoming performances, we are walking streams of natural law in the UK. Visit our multi-media hub at www.thehumansinthetelling.org.

DURHAM & THE RIVER WEAR

Durham Cathedral has three issues of Magna Carta, dated 1216, a year after the original, 1225 (sealed by Henry III) and the final charter of 1300 (of which the cathedral holds the best preserved of the seven that survive) “…although it is not entirely clear why.” (Durham Cathedral website.)

We don't know how they got there
And their contents are unclear
But the Durham Magna Cartas
Are most definitely here

And here they've always been we think
Safe under lock and key
Near perfect in condition
If you saw them you'd agree

Three issues signed and sealed, intact
And though not on display
These Charters for our freedoms
Still protect us to this day

A POEM BY SUE CASSON

Next stop on our Magna Carta tour was Durham, where the enormous cathedral is home to 3 different editions of the Great Charter. As a legal document, editions were circulated to centres that could ensure the contents were made widely known and obeyed, so usually earlier issues were destroyed when an updated version was issued to avoid confusion. It’s thought that the cathedral’s large and comprehensive library is what made it possible to archive outdated copies, and although they are not on display, they are noted to be in excellent condition.

As we drove into the city centre, the skyline was dominated by the Cathedral, perched high on the top of its hill, towering over everything below. The river Wear meanders around the cliff below, making it seem as if the cathedral is built on an island of its’ own. Parking at the Princes Bishop car park, we made our way down the stairs and were delighted to find that it was set just beside the river, and the Elvet bridge was visible from the windows.

Down at river level, the air was full of the cheerful sound of ducks quacking and the water had a beautiful delicate movement as if the surface was gently eddying underneath the bridge. The sun was clamouring to get through the clouds, turning them almost every shade of grey, which reflected in the water creating an immense amount of drama. Some tourists were enjoying the imposing scenery with a trip in a rowing boat.

Walking beside the river, we found our way up a flight of steep stairs to the contrastingly modern Kingsgate Bridge, whose height offers amazing views over the landscape from a completely different perspective.

Over cobbles, we made our way up to the Cathedral, where the most important medieval saint of Northern England, St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne is buried. Surprisingly given the number of visitors, there was an almost celestial hush over Palace Green. Until the 12th century this was the market square, marking Durham’s centre, but it’s now an open space flanked by the castle with its’ impressive keep (home of the Prince Bishops in former times) and a number of historic buildings which are part of the university. Once a busy meeting place, it now feels very tranquil to walk around, admiring the architecture.

There was a queue to enter the Cathedral but as soon we were inside it was worth the wait. It was extraordinary to think of all the pilgrims over the centuries who had passed through to visit and pay homage, who are joined by still more today. The sunlight finally broke through the clouds and made a beautiful rainbow of colours through the stained glass.

After our trip to the Cathedral, with a quick pit stop for lunch, we wandered back down to the winding river, now alive with butterflies in dappled sunshine, with the giant green trees towering over us. We chose the side of the river which hugs the base of the cathedral cliff, so although we missed seeing its’ towers above the foliage, we walked past the Fulling Mill, making us aware of the Wear’s industrial history, which with coal and lead mining, and limestone quarrying has contributed to increasing mineral pollution since Victorian times. Over the last ten years much has been done to clean it up, and it is now listed amongst the top ten most improved rivers in the UK. As if to confirm this the verdant green seemed to be everywhere, and whenever you turned around another bend there was always some new wildlife to enjoy. We passed a Weir (on The Wear!) as we returned to our starting point, back with the car.

Then it was time to move on to our next location – come back to read the next instalment of the Stream of Natural Law diaries!

River Wear at Durham

Follow our journey as it happens on Instagram @streamsofnaturallaw and share yours with #streamsofnaturallaw.

Streams of Natural Law Diaries : No. 7 : Grantchester and the River Cam

The latest instalment in our Streams of Natural Law Diaries, is Grantchester on the River Cam, where Rupert Brooke lived and worked, who was Maxwell Fyfe’s inspiration. As we walk beside the stream, we discover how the landscape impacted his poetry and still linger there to this day.


To launch our film, book and recording of Dreams of Peace & Freedom : The Humans in the Telling and preview forthcoming performances, we are walking streams of natural law in the UK. Visit our multi-media hub at www.thehumansinthetelling.org.

GRANTCHESTER & THE RIVER CAM

The war sonnets of Rupert Brooke, first published in 1914, are at the heart of Dreams of Peace & Freedom. After he studied at Kings College, Cambridge, he lodged in Grantchester from 1909 – 12 and his presence is still very much felt there today.

Along the Cam in Grantchester
'The peace and holy quiet there'
Still loiter by the 'slumbrous stream'
Where Rupert Brooke once lived and dreamed
And though a hundred years are gone
Since he was here, his words live on,
Riverborne, upstream they flow
His poems in the undertow
To quarterlies and magazines
Collections, books and other means
They're spoken, quoted, even sung
Because of this - his name lives on
So now, 'the centuries blend and blur
In Grantchester, in Grantchester.'

POEM BY SUE CASSON

The latest stop on our streams of natural law tour was Grantchester. It really belongs on David Maxwell Fyfe’s stream rather than Magna Carta (although the Cam which flows through on its’ way to Cambridge carries on into the Great Ouse of which the River Lark in Bury St Edmunds is a tributary) but as a river where poet Rupert Brooke lived, whose poems form the musical heart of our telling of David Maxwell Fyfe’s story, it is undoubtedly a tributary of his stream of natural law. Fyfe’s papers are all held a little further upstream, in Cambridge.

Rupert Brooke settled in Grantchester after taking his degree at Cambridge, and before he went away to war. He captured this beautiful natural landscape that he came to love in words, and already making a name for himself as a poet, many famous writers and thinkers of the day came to visit him there.

Having performed in Dreams of Peace & Freedom for years, it was exciting to visit the place where Brooke had lived and worked. His presence is still very much felt in his adopted village, and his name appears on the war memorial by the picturesque church.

Driving in, we were immediately surrounded by the ebullient greenery he writes of in one of his most famous poems describing Grantchester – ‘green as a dream.’ Although there is now a large and successful gastro pub named after him, we drove past it, and made our way to park on a road beside the Orchard Tearooms, which have been created in the garden of one of the places he used to live, where writers from the Bloomsbury set like Virginia Woolf and Bertrand Russell met to discuss their ideas.

It took us some time to find the towpath beside the stream along which Brooke reputedly walked from his lodgings into Cambridge. We first made our way towards Byron’s Pool, to which another famous poet who enjoyed bathing there gave his name. It was overshadowed with trees waving in the breeze and the emerald green reflected in the water. However, we discovered that we were heading in the wrong direction for Cambridge, so double-backed on ourselves, via the Mill pond, (very popular with paddle boarders) the Old Vicarage and Orchard House, which commemorates Brooke’s life as a resident and poet. We finally found a public entrance to the Cam down a small path which led towards the river via the Meadows.

Once we made it to the river, it was brimming with wildlife – ducks, swans and even a statuesque heron amongst the reeds – it was no wonder Brooke was inspired by living here. The willows swayed in the breeze, creating nature’s bead curtain, and the water rippled, gently moved by fish. The flatness of the landscape accentuated the curve of the river and made it look like a painting.

Walking along the long grass of the meadows, we continued the path until we reached the view to Cambridge. It was a popular route, many people – tourists and locals alike were enjoying the stunning surroundings, walking dogs and even swimming. I think Brooke would be delighted that the place he loved so much and captured for others, is still loved to this day!

Come back soon for the next location!

River Cam at Grantchester

Follow our journey as it happens on Instagram @streamsofnaturallaw and share yours with #streamsofnaturallaw.

Streams of Natural Law Diaries : No. 6 : Bury St Edmunds and the River Lark

The latest instalment in our Streams of Natural Law Diaries, is Bury St Edmunds on the River Lark, a pivotal location in the creation of Magna Carta. As we walk beside the stream, we live its’ history in the beautiful Abbey gardens and reflect on the surrounding nature.


To launch our film, book and recording of Dreams of Peace & Freedom : The Humans in the Telling and preview forthcoming performances, we are walking streams of natural law in the UK. Visit our multi-media hub at www.thehumansinthetelling.org.

BURY ST EDMUNDS & THE RIVER LARK

The Abbey at Bury St Edmunds is situated where the rivers Lark and Linnet converge. It once housed the relics of beheaded martyr King Edmund, and in 1214 the barons met at its high altar to swear an oath to compel King John to sign the Magna Carta. Fittingly, the borough’s motto is

Shrine of the King, and cradle of the law

Motto of Bury St Edmunds
Two songbirds meet 
At the shrine of a king
'Freedom for all'
Is the song that they sing
Their message has spread
To the world : rich and poor
Where lies Edmund's head
Long lives natural law

A POEM BY SUE CASSON

Next stop on our Magna Carta tour was Bury St Edmunds, which played a leading role in the history of the Great Charter as it was at St Edmund’s Abbey in 1214 that a group of barons swore an oath on the high altar to make King John sign the limitation on his power that became Magna Carta. The altar is now a pile of stones, but it is marked by two plaques – one with a poem explaining its’ significance, and the other with the names of all twenty five barons involved.

The sky was a mottled grey as we drove over the flat plains of East Anglia and into the town itself. Confusingly, although it has a cathedral, Bury St Edmunds doesn’t have city status as it is presided over by the Bishop of Ipswich which means both are designated towns rather than cities.

The borough is very proud of its’ pivotal role in Magna Carta, and we parked near the aptly named Charter Court, a new shopping development, walking from there down to the Abbey Gardens, where the Lark is situated. As we neared the imposing Abbey Gate on Angel Hill, the architecture gradually got older and more picturesque.

Although the Abbey was largely destroyed by townspeople during uprisings in the fourteenth century, the gate, and nearby Norman Tower remain intact, and ruins mark the outline of what was once a powerful political force. As we passed through the entrance, the gardens were bursting with beautiful flowers of all sorts of colours, which looked like nature was at work. Ruins of the original abbey remain throughout the Gardens, making you aware of the history all around.

Under a battered bridge at the edge of the Abbey Gardens runs the River Lark,  a tributary of the Great River Ouse. It was a rather murky colour, almost like a milky cup of builder’s tea, surrounded by deep green and red foliage. Walking beside it, the striking Cathedral tower, only completed in 2005, was visible as it rose above the trees. Nettles, weeds and flowers were growing together in perfect harmony, busy with butterflies and bees.

Making our way back along the river into the Abbey Gardens, we visited the Grade 1 listed Abbots Bridge – another lasting reminder of the history that surrounds this city. In the gardens, everyone was enjoying the unexpected sunshine and the freedoms that were enshrined in law so long ago in Magna Carta.

Then it was time to move on to our next location – come back to read the next instalment of the Stream of Natural Law diaries!

River Lark at Bury St Edmunds

Fun fact – our own songbird Sue Casson was born and brought up in Bury.

Follow our journey as it happens on Instagram @streamsofnaturallaw and share yours with #streamsofnaturallaw.

Streams of Natural Law Diaries : No. 5 : St Albans and the River Ver

The latest instalment in our Streams of Natural Law Diaries, is St Albans & the River Ver, where the story of Magna Carta began! As we walk beside the stream, we uncover the Roman history that lies below the surface and the spring after which the river is named.

To launch our film, book and recording of Dreams of Peace & Freedom : The Humans in the Telling and preview forthcoming performances, we are walking streams of natural law in the UK. Visit our multi-media hub at www.thehumansinthetelling.org.

ST ALBANS & THE RIVER VER

In a speech prior to the dedication of the Magna Carta monument in Runnymede in 1957, David Maxwell Fyfe drew a parallel between natural law and the natural world as expressed by a Roman poet.

“You can throw out nature with a pitchfork, But she will always come back.”

Horace
From the river spring Ver
Verulamium rose
To the green river Ver
It's returned


On the banks of the green River Ver
Verulamium grew
For centuries the city was there
And a river Ver too

But were you to visit today
The Ver runs through the plain
Verulamium's vanished away
Just remains remain

And is there a moral to learn?
Poet Horace wrote truth
Disturb nature and it will return
And here lies the proof


From the river spring Ver
Verulamium rose
To the green river Ver
It's returned

A POEM BY SUE CASSON

The latest stop on our Magna Carta tour was St Albans and a walk along the River Ver, a rare chalk stream like the ones in Winchester and Hereford, that is situated in Verulamium Park.

Arriving on a grey muggy Saturday, I was surprised by a huge wave of energy that hit me as I walked through the bustling city centre towards the river. The streets were full of vendors and people out enjoying brunch. We walked past the Cathedral to Holywell Hill, which was quite a steep descent, before finding our way to the valley, and entrance to the River trail.

The River Ver is set in over 100 acres of parkland, a swathe of green that is now a magnet for families and nature lovers. It stands over what was once used the ancient city of Verulamium, the third largest in Roman Britain after London and Colchester. Although very little is visible today, there are remains breaking through the grass in places, and even a mosaic to remind walkers of its’ ancient past. A museum nearby explores the Roman history in more detail, with a collection of fascinating artefacts.

As the river winds through overgrown greenery, remembering my schoolgirl French the name seemed apt, but Ver (rather than vert) means ‘spring’ in Latin and refers to the underground Aquifer that is the river’s source. As we walked along the path, it was sometimes quite difficult to see the water as there were so many nettles! But there were breaks here and there where we could not only see water, flowing quite slowly, but several steps and falls that added charm and interest to its’ course.

We found the source, coming out of the bridge, as we made our way out the park. It made a sparkling pool, and was covered in a canopy of green leaves and branches, which reflected in the water, making it rather magical. During Victorian times, the stream was used to cultivate watercress, but like many chalk streams, the Ver has clearly suffered from pollution in recent years. It is presently undergoing a programme of ‘revitalisation’ to banish the slime and return it to its’ original health, which judging by the signs on the bank, is a project that is bringing the whole community together.

Just up the hill, St Albans marks the start of Magna Carta’s story. It was here that Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, met churchmen and barons in 1213, to discuss what could be done to limit the powers of King John. That history is all around us – the natural setting and wildlife, a reminder that the Great Charter was rooted in natural law.

Come back soon for the next location!

River Ver at St Albans

Follow our journey as it happens on Instagram @streamsofnaturallaw and share yours with #streamsofnaturallaw.

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