Magna Carta 1215 to the present day
Charting the development of legal frameworks around the Freedom of Religion or Belief in the United Kingdom
This timeline document sets out significant legal, social and political milestones that led to the evolution of legal frameworks around freedom of religion or belief (FORB) in the United Kingdom.
About the Timeline and its Purpose:
Each date on this chronological timeline represents a particular social, legal or policy event that has had an enduring impact on freedom of religion or belief in the UK. The timeline does not provide extended commentary, but aims for a short introduction to each date. It is hoped that this mapping and contextualising of events will guide students and teachers interested in the subject; that it will whet the appetite of future researchers, inform the thinking of professionals working in this field and also provide a context for policy developments.
Readers should note that this document focuses on the English, and later, British, contexts. This is not because we are ignoring the global context. We know that as Britain evolved its FoRB narrative, other narratives were emerging all around the world, with some being much more advanced in terms of attitudes to freedom and emancipation on the basis of religion or belief. For example, as early as 539 BC, the king of the Persian Empire – Cyrus the Great issued the Cyrus Cylinder that some scholars describe as the first charter of human rights, which granted individual religious freedoms to those in his empire. Some global developments have inevitably helped shape British thinking, attitudes and policy. For the purposes of this study, we have aimed to cast an eye upon ourselves and, in doing so, see clearly just how much pressure, over the centuries, our own laws and regulations have put on people whose religion or belief differed from the national norm.
Brief History of the Freedom of Religion or Belief in the UK
Freedom of religion or belief in the UK has evolved in response to social contexts, religious demographics and power hierarchies - national and international. This timeline begins with the Magna Carta or the Grand Charter of 1215. Despite some traces of the notions of the independence of religion from state authority apparent in the Magna Carta, the early history of freedom of religion or belief was scarred with prejudice, discrimination and violence towards non-Christian groups. Engrained prejudices were enshrined in law, seen down the years in the legally sanctioned expulsion of Jews, the burning of witches, the silencing of Catholics and the marginalisation of non-religious beliefs. After the Reformation, discrimination against all groups that were not part of the national church was widespread and indeed, in most instances, the groups were rendered entirely unlawful.
The Toleration Act 1689 introduced, for the first time, a measure of religious liberty by exempting Trinitarian Protestant Christian non-conformists from the penalties of heterodoxy. Further progress towards a freer and fairer United Kingdom continued in 1778 when the first Catholic Relief Act was passed. Over the next century Catholic, and other nonconformists (including the non-religious) were gradually given the freedom to worship, join the army, run schools informed by their faith and sit in Parliament. In 1871 the Universities Test Act opened universities to Roman Catholics, non-conformists and non-Christians. However, some inequalities remained for many years. As recently as 2013, the Succession to the Crown Act finally ended the historical disqualification of a person who married a Roman Catholic from the line of succession.
In the twentieth century, legal frameworks around freedom of religion or belief in the UK were shaped by international initiatives that emerged after the appalling human rights abuses seen during the two World Wars. As nations sought to prevent any recurrence of these in the future, they realised the need to protect individual freedoms and human rights. This led to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly including representatives of the United Kingdom, and of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) by the Council of Europe in 1953. Article 18 of the UDHR and Article 9 of the ECHR concentrate on the freedoms of religion or belief so necessary for building peaceful and productive societies.
The rights contained in the ECHR were given legal effect within the UK by the Human Rights Act 1998.
In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, migration has led the religion or belief contours of the UK to change completely. The UK population is now increasingly acknowledged as less Christian, more religiously diverse and more non-religious. The census figures from 2011 give a sense of the religion or belief diversity in the UK. The freedom of religion or belief legal frameworks reflect this change in the development of equality law. The Equality Act 2010 protects individuals from discrimination, harassment and victimisation under nine protected characteristics, including religion or belief.
In the context of Freedom of Religion or Belief, the UK has evolved from being a country that was quite repressive towards certain faiths or beliefs, and indeed, certain groups within the same faith, to one that now aims to be egalitarian towards all religious and non-religious beliefs, whilst still acknowledging that the Church of England is the established Church in England. Contemporary contexts are constantly throwing up new challenges - the refugee crisis, polemics about migration, and political changes such as ‘Brexit’, are all having an impact on how we perceive freedom of religion or belief. In our history there is much to reflect upon as we prepare for the future. Although it is not exhaustive, we hope this document gives a flavour of the UK’s own journey of freedom of religion or belief through various repressions to the present, more tolerant atmosphere of today. We also hope that the timeline will help us move forward in our collective reflections as we shape a still more resilient and emancipatory Britain.
Dr Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor
The Interactive Timeline
Click on the timeline or use your keyboards arrow keys to move to the next event.
You can also scroll or zoom the timeline along the bottom.
As the 800 or so years of this Timeline show, the current position of the right to freedom of religion or belief in the UK has been hard won. In a global perspective, the UK has been blessed by a relatively early recognition of FORB, and it now has a relatively strong political culture of liberty. But this has been at the cost of much historic suffering and discrimination. As the history shows, getting to this position has cost many lives and led to many fleeing persecution to live out their lives and faith abroad. That situation is replicated in many countries across the world today. This freedom has as often had to be wrested out of the hands of those with the political power as it was granted willingly, which is why the Timeline begins with the Magna Carta.
FoRB is a highly “sensitive” area of human rights law because it touches on the deepest and most intimate questions for humankind, namely why are we here and what, if anything is beyond this world. Disagreements can be profound, and to the vast majority of the world’s population, their beliefs matter as much, if not more, than national identity, leading rulers to the fear that they are a threat to the authority and stability of the state. UK history shows that there is nothing new under the sun; terrorist plots have been at the heart of the UK government as well as periods of aligning the head of state to a particular brand of Christianity to the exclusion of all else. The journey to an Established Church which sees its role as promoting the engagement of other faiths with the machinery of government and at times of national celebration is worthy of a study of its own.
Another potential study could be the impact that the British Empire had on the spread of any notions of freedom of religion and belief in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Whilst some of today's British Citizens whose heritage is in those places might speak fondly of the spread of Christianity, there are many who would speak of the suppression of local religious practices and the use of different ethno-religious groups by the ruling elite to keep the peace. Long is the shadow this legacy has left.
This is by no means the end of the story for freedom of religion or belief in the UK, which today, despite a robust legislative framework, is seeing great societal pressures on certain religious groups. Rising levels of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism speak of a culture that is not fully at ease with the many diverse faith groups that now make up the UK’s religions and beliefs. Inter-faith relations are also under strain in certain parts of the country, often from external influences carried by Satellite TV and Smart Phone into the UK.
Whilst there is regular focus by Government, NGOs, think tanks and faith leaders on the key role that religious education plays in ensuring the peaceful co-existence in the UK, much less attention has been paid to the need for education on freedom of religion or belief. Ensuring that the next generation of UK citizens understand both how to live well with those with whom they might disagree profoundly, but also how to exercise their own rights within freedom of religion or belief is vital for the future. Freedom Declared Foundation will be focusing on this important educational work.
Freedom Declared Foundation would like to thank Dr Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor from Coventry University for all her work on this Timeline.
Freedom Declared Foundation would like to thank Professor Sir Malcolm Evans, Professor of Public International Law, and Professor Julian Rivers, Professor of Jurisprudence, both at the University of Bristol, for their invaluable advice and guidance on this project.
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