Waterloo and Magna Carta, important anniversaries

This was a big week for important historical anniversaries.

There are two of them. It is the 200th anniversary of one big event and the 800th of another.

You studied about both of these in history classes at school, and then, after the test, you promptly forgot, and maybe you haven’t thought about them since.

I remembered the battle of Waterloo because of a news report about a controversy about a new euro coin that commemorates that battle on June 18, a battle in which Napoleon and his French forces were decisively and finally defeated in 1815 by British forces under the Duke of Wellington and his Prussian allies.

The coin controversy developed something like this: Although the euro is a common standard currency managed centrally, individual countries can usually mint euro coins that celebrate national heroes, monuments and important national treasures. They can do this so long as the design of the coin does not offend some other country.

So Belgium, where the classic Waterloo battle took place, designed a coin to commemorate the event.

Understandably — maybe predictably is a better word — the French objected and the plans for the coin went in the tank. At least they did until the crafty Belgians found a loophole that allowed them to mint a Waterloo coin if they used it exclusively in Belgium.

The French lose again.

So why all the fuss anyway, and why is Waterloo so important?

It’s a complicated question that Lloyd Kramer and Max Owre from UNC’s history department and Program in the Humanities tackled at a weekend seminar earlier this month. Both are experts on French history and Napoleon.

They explained how the results of Waterloo and the peace settlements that followed ended centuries of constant European warfare and led to a period of general peace in Europe through most of the 19th century.

That other anniversary is the 800th of the signing of the Magna Carta on June 15. You remember now, don’t you? King John capitulated to the barons on the fields of Runnymede and he conceded that even the king is bound by the law when it comes to some individual liberties.

It is complicated.

But, if it helps enshrine the individual liberties so important to us, it is also too important to forget.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.

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