2015 marks 800 years since the sealing of the Magna Carta and 750 years since the Simon de Montfort parliament (more about that later). As part of the programme of activities to celebrate these events, we are hosting a huge exhibition of banners in Westminster Hall.
Each banner is a representation of a moment in our history, produced by nine artists from across the UK.
Each image here is just a small sample of the original. You can click on the images below to see the banners in their full glory – it’s worth it!
1. Magna Carta, 1215
Magna Carta increased the importance of Parliament while at the same time limiting the arbitrary power of government. Magna Carta states that no one, not even royalty, is more powerful than the law, forming the basis for many legal systems today.
Artist, Ruth Ewan: “The quote considers Magna Carta as a beginning–something about to unfold–which seemed suitable, given that this banner marks the first event in the chronological sequence represented by all the banners.”
2. Simon de Montfort Parliament, 1265
In 1265, Montfort called a ground-breaking Parliament. As well as the Lords, he summoned knights from the shires and representatives from towns, who were known as burgesses. This was the first time that both knights and burgesses – ‘common men’ – had attended Parliament together to discuss national issues and not just consent to taxation.
Artist, Ross Birrell: “The theme of ‘emergence’ is central to the very condition of democracy as democracy is always ‘democracy to come’. The red derives from the representation of Simon de Montfort in stained glass in Chartres Cathedral and de Montfort’s shield in Westminster Cathedral.”
3. Poor Law, 1601
Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries removed the main source of charity for those who could not support themselves. In 1601, Elizabeth I’s Government tried to fill the gap with the Poor Relief Act, which obliged each parish to collect taxes to support people who could not work.
Artist, Rachel Gadsden: “If the NHS had not been founded in 1945, it is unlikely that I would have survived into the 21st century. The banner therefore not only pays tribute to the Poor Law 1601 and its subsequent amendments, but restates, by depicting the key figures who followed, the need for a community to uphold and maintain such values.”
4. Abolition of the Slave Trade, 1807
In 1787, campaigners against slavery such as Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp founded the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, believing that ending the trade was the first step towards eradicating slavery completely. In Parliament, the campaign was led by William Wilberforce. It was only after many failed attempts that, in 1807, the slave trade in the British Empire was abolished.
Artist, Maria Amidu: I wanted the envelopes and their contents to allude to aspects of the transatlantic slave trade and the Act itself: the people enslaved; confinement and the body; the people lost on the Middle Passage; letter writing as a campaign tactic; and the signature as a personal mark of protest.”
5. Great Reform Act, 1832
In the early 19th century, only a small number of men could vote for MPs in elections, which were often corrupt. In response to popular pressure for reform, in 1832 Earl Grey’s Whig government passed the Great Reform Act. It extended the right to vote and redistributed parliamentary seats to industrial towns such as Manchester and Birmingham.
Artist, Paula Stephens-Hoare: “I looked for images of people who were key to the Act and was delighted to learn that Earl Grey was Prime Minister of the Whig Government that passed it. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he has a well-known blend of tea named after him. That fact sparked an idea for creating the image for the banner.
“…I experimented with brewing some strong tea to paint with. I was pleased with the effects and decided that this would add an extra narrative layer to the banner.”
6. Factory Act, 1833
In the early years of the Industrial Revolution there were few restrictions on the new mills and factories. Thousands of children worked in them for long hours in dangerous conditions. In the 19th century, campaigners such as the Ten-Hour Movement called for change, but new laws restricting child labour could not be enforced. That changed after the 1833 Factory Act introduced a small inspectorate to enforce laws preventing the employment of children under nine, applying restrictions on working hours for the under-18s, and ensuring provision of some education.
Artist, Joel Millerchip: “I collected tales and images from around Quarry Bank [mill] to arrange into a detailed factory illustration. I looked at 18th-century illustrations at the Cartoon Museum to find the dated style that I wanted. Since the mill was a place of illness, injuries, and deaths—including the death of childhood—I depicted the pauper apprentices as skeletons being worked to the bone, cleaning looms, carrying cans, and making money from old rope.”
7. The People’s Charter, 1838
In 1836, cabinet maker William Lovett formed the London Working Men’s Association, which in 1838 published a People’s Charter. Presented as a popular Magna Carta, its famous ‘six points’ demanded universal male suffrage, the removal of the property qualification for MPs, annual elections, equal constituency sizes, payment for MPs, and secret ballots in elections. Its supporters, known as Chartists, launched a petition in Glasgow backing its aims.
Artist, Ross Sinclair: “I wanted my banners to be colourful, bright, like new proclamations; fresh and sharp, to give a sense of how these changes must have been experienced when brand new and radical; as if they were hot off the press, ready to be announced by your local town crier.”
8. Foundation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society, 1897
From the mid-19th century women began to campaign for the vote across the country, and in 1897 local societies united to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Led by Millicent Fawcett, the NUWSS grew to 50,000 members by 1913. The suffragists used peaceful methods such as petitioning, lobbying, and marching. In 1903, the Women’s Social and Political Union was founded, led by Emmeline Pankhurst. It used direct action, including stone-throwing and window-breaking, and in June 1908 tried to ‘rush’ the Houses of Parliament. Many militant campaigners, known as suffragettes, were imprisoned, went on hunger strike, and were force-fed.
Artist, Alinah Azadeh: “A forerunner of digital media, it symbolises the movement’s extraordinary capacity to communicate their campaign at a crucial time. I have used a mix of the NUWSS, Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and the Women’s Freedom League colours, and the chain represents what it took to make sure the message was heard in public.”
10. Sexual Offences Act, 1967
In 1957, the Wolfenden Report shocked many – including the Government that commissioned it – be recommending that homosexual relationships be decrimilaised. For centuries, gay men had been prosecuted in the United Kingdon (laws did not apply to women), but Wolfenden argued that what anyone did in private was ‘not the law’s business’.
Artist, Paula Stevens-Hoare: “I wanted to design a banner that acknowledged the struggle, but celebrated the gains. Most of the people connected with the first significant changes in law were men and their contributions are well documented: Oscar Wilde, HG Wells, John Wolfenden and Leo Abse. Little is known about the three women who abseiled onto the Floor of the House of Lords in protest against clause 28; or April Ashley, one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery in the ’60s, who has campaigned for the rights of transsexuals and was awarded an MBE in 2012 for services to gender recognition; or Ruth Hunt, CEO of Stonewall, the largest gay equality body in Europe.”
11. Disability Discrimination Act, 1995
In 1970, the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act legislated for equal access to recreation and education facilities, and stipulated that local authorities had to provide care for people in their own homes, but it did not cover discrimination. It took many failed Bills and a long campaign inside and outside parliament before the Disability Discrimination Act was passed in 1995. Strengthened in 2005, it was replaced in 2010 by the Equality Act.
Artist, Jason Wilsher-Mills: “I have tried to illustrate how my life has changed as a result of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 by showing all the things I am now able to do with my family. I am also able to work as a professional artist, as I have a personal assistant funded by Access to Work, which is truly liberating.”
Over the centuries, England’s Parliament changed its character, as representatives from Wales, Scotland and Ireland joined Westminster, following various Acts of Union. In 1922, the south of Ireland left the United Kingdom. ‘Home rule’ was established in the north, although it was suspended during the Troubles from 1972. In 1998, the Northern Ireland Assembly was established under the Good Friday Agreement, and devolved arrangements were introduced in Scotland and Wales with the creation of the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales. After the 2014 Scottish independence referendum these arrangements, and the constitution, are likely to evolve once again.
Artist, Joel Millerchip: “To engage a younger audience, my focus turned to tattoos. People adorn themselves with national symbols, but never for the whole UK. I created a tattoo sleeve design to lock the country together even if devolution separated our Governments. I added a horse-shoe as we are lucky still to have Scotland with us. The pocket watch shows 20:15, and a mace shows order and strength. All is locked together with a love-lock; only one person holds the key to the heart: the voter.”