In 2015, England marks two major anniversaries. It will be 800 years since the signing of the Magna Carta and 750 years since the formation of the first English parliament.
Anyone who is interested in seeing the document that has been described as England’s greatest export need only visit the British Library, where not one but two copies are on display in a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition.
Embodied in the Rule of Law in over 100 countries, the Magna Carta established for the first time that everyone, even the king, had to obey the law.
The document inspired early American settlers, with its principles echoed in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights; it has been used to argue for freedom of the press; and for extending the vote to ordinary people and to women.
It is also the foundation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Written after the atrocities of World War II, this declaration states that people around the world are protected by fundamental human rights, regardless of their citizenship, race, gender or beliefs. Eleanor Roosevelt famously said that the Declaration may well become ‘the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere’.
Events are taking place around the UK to celebrate the anniversary of the Great Seal being placed on the document at Runnymede, in southern England, in June 1215.
The UK’s stable and prosperous democracy is among the legacies of the Magna Carta.
Over the centuries, England has developed rich traditions that include the pageantry of the State Opening of the Houses of Parliament, the Queen’s Speech, and the lively debate of Prime Minister’s Questions.
The second great English export has to be a sport – but which one? Sports that can trace their origins to England include cricket, rugby and football.
Take the Afghanistan national cricket team. They have just debuted in the 2015 World Cup, playing six matches and winning one against the finest players in the world, and dismissing two of their opponents’ opening batsmen for golden ducks (for non-cricketers, a golden duck means that a batsman is out at the first ball).
Rugby draws its name from Rugby in Warwickshire, where schoolboy William Webb Ellis picked up a ball and ran with it in 1823.
This year, the Rugby World Cup comes to England. Twenty teams from six continents will compete to lift the William Webb Ellis Cup on 31 October in Twickenham, the home of English rugby.
And it was at the Freemasons’ Tavern in London where the rules of association football were first standardised.
Representatives of football clubs and schools met in the Covent Garden pub, and over the course of six meetings in autumn and winter 1863 they codified a definitive set of rules. From these humble beginnings, football spread across the globe and is now the most popular sport in the world.
England cannot claim to have invented athletics, despite the unforgettable 2012 London Olympics, but it was an Englishman, Roger Bannister, who first broke the Four Minute Mile at a running track in Oxford in 1954.
The third great English export has to be the English language, which is now spoken by many times more people than the 53 million who live in England itself.
It is the language in which Shakespeare wrote, and The Beatles sang, and the number one language on the world wide web, which was itself invented by English computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
English language and English literature are now taught to hundreds of millions of school children around the world.
St George’s Day falls on 23 April, and is the day that England celebrates its patron saint.
To mark the occasion, and for all of those who are studying or have studied English literature, we have produced a quiz about England’s poets, looking at their international links and the landscapes that inspired them.
Did you know, for instance, that three of our greatest poets all died on St George’s Day? This is why we commemorate not only William Shakespeare but also the poets Rupert Brooke and William Wordsworth on 23 April.
Enjoy the quiz, and I hope you’ll be inspired.