The concept of 'human rights' in the modern sense was unknown in early medieval England. All men and women were subject to the will of Almighty God and, under Him, to his earthly agents, principally the king and the higher clergy, and could only practice what they wished with the consent or at least the tacit acceptance of the authorities.
Developments which ultimately led to modern notions of the rights of lesser individuals began in 1215 with the issue by King John of Magna Carta, the "Great Charter", which granted to barons and free men in England certain specific rights, most notably freedom from imprisonment without trial. The Charter was established as a permanent part of the political and legal landscape by its confirmation in its final form in 1225.
Magna Carta was generally accepted only because of fortunate political circumstances during the decade between 1215 and 1225, a period of royal minority. The Charter was confirmed many more times during the 13th century; the most significant occasion was in 1297, when as well as new copies being issued the text was entered on the statute roll, giving it the status of a parliamentary statute.
Three of the Charter's chapters remain valid in English law, including one (1225, chapter 29) that guaranteed to each of the king's subjects that they would not suffer imprisonment "except by the judgment of his peers or by the law of the land". This phrase - not dissimilar to modern ideas of human rights - was for the first time equated with "due process of law" in a statute of 1354. In that statute the phrase "no free man" was replaced by "no man of whatever estate or condition he may be". This hugely broadened the number of people who could consider themselves covered by it.
During the same period a philosophical belief in natural rights, such as freedom and the safe possession of belongings, began to appear in the writings of philosophers like William of Ockham. However most "ordinary people" remained untouched by such writings, as they were unable to read.
The age of Magna Carta also witnessed the creation of Parliament. With the gradual involvement of representatives of local communities, it eventually developed into the focal point of representative democracy which it is today.
The first recorded Parliament began in January 1237. Representatives of local communities were first included in 1254, and the first surviving summons, to the county of Kent, dates from 1275.
The concept of the "community of the realm" represented something which might have been termed "commonwealth" in a later period. It became established even among the lower orders of society. It was quoted in 1265 by some of the inhabitants of the village of Peatling Magna in Leicestershire, when they made what could be interpreted as a political statement: they took action against the servants of a man whom they considered to be an enemy of the community of the realm. Those responsible spent several months in prison.
During the 13th and 14th centuries those who were not represented in Parliament sometimes took actions on their own behalf. In many cases this brought them into conflict with the local and national authorities. Often they were crown tenants, living on manors anciently part of the royal demesne and claiming a privileged legal status. Communal actions also took place on the estates of private landlords, especially monastic houses.
In 1280 the tenants of the abbot of Burton on Trent at Mickleover in Derbyshire proceeded against their lord by resorting to the common law, suing out royal judicial writs to distrain him. Their efforts failed in the end and they had to submit.
An early example of an agricultural "trade union" was a group of 80 landless farm labourers at Barton upon Humber in north Lincolnshire. In 1302 the group attempted to impose a local minimum wage and certain restrictive practices.
This was suppressed by the king's bailiff, on the orders of the king's council, although one of the participants complained to the court of King's Bench about his arrest.
Prisoners in Nottingham gaol awaiting trial, petitioned the king and council in c.1318. They claimed to be starving, and asked for the appointment of justices to try them promptly and, they hoped, release them.
The Black Death of 1349 and subsequent outbreaks of plague, such as that of 1361, drastically reduced the supply of tenant farmers and agricultural labour. This helped to improve the economic position of manorial tenants and labourers in the countryside. The landlord classes reacted immediately though the Statute of Labourers, passed by Parliament in 1351, which tried to freeze wages at the pre-plague level.
Unrest in the countryside led 30 years later to the Peasants' Revolt, during which rebels from Essex and Kent, inspired by the radical speeches of preachers like John Ball, took and held control of London itself for a time. The revolt was suppressed, but not before its effects had spread to many parts of England. Ball was hanged at St Albans a month later. Commissions were set up to deal with the aftermath of the Peasants' Revolt. Immediately after the hanging of Ball, John Shirle, from Nottingham, was arrested and tried in Cambridge after he had defended Ball and his views and spoken against the ruling classes in a local public house.
The 15th century was dominated by dynastic struggles for the throne of England following Henry Bolingbroke's usurping of Richard II in 1399. There was little political advancement, which benefited the "common man", although favourable economic conditions, due to a shortage of tenants and labourers, may have led to an improvement in living standards. Their status improved too: the parliamentary franchise in county elections extended to include freeholders holding land whose annual value amounted to 40s. This provision lasted until the great reform act of 1832.