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Human Rights

glossary document index

A complete list of all the supporting documents for the time periods between 1215 and 1945.

800 years of human rights in the United Kingdom explored using original documents from The National Archives.


The inhabitants of these islands have prided themselves on their struggles for social, economic and political rights over many centuries: from the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 to the Roundheads versus the Cavaliers in the mid-17th century; from the Luddites, Swing Rioters and Chartists of the early to mid-19th century to the match girls, suffragettes and Independent Labour Party of the 1890s, 1900s and beyond.

The concept of 'human rights’ in the modern sense was unknown in the early medieval period. People began with few, if any, positive rights and these were granted only piecemeal, not comprehensively: the right to education, the right to join a trade union, the right to vote. Successes in the extension of rights were not linear, so it is possible to see historical dead-ends or circular routes where rights were secured in one area and not in others.

We could do worse than characterise this history as the struggle for human rights.

Using original documents from The National Archives, this exhibition provides a historical background to some of the rights we today take for granted. Select a time period on the left to explore the struggle for and development of rights, browse the timeline of events and see images of original documents.

"When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may ( if ye will ) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty."

John Ball, a priest who took a prominent role in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381

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