Just a little downstream from Windsor is Runnymede, where the Magna Carta was sealed by King John in 1215. The document was an attempt by the fudal barons to limit the powers of the king, forcing him to accept that he did not have absolute right to do anything he wanted and was in effect subservient to the law. Magna Carta also contained clauses to protect the historic privileges the barons had enjoyed.
It was sealed by John at Runnymede on June 15th 1215 after the king rode out from Windsor and the barons from Staines. Runnymede is approximately halfway between the two on very soft ground (therefore an unlikely spot for a battle). The name also indicates that there was a tradition of meeting here and it may well have been where the Anglo-Saxon parliament (Wittangamoot) once met. King John was pretty much at the point of civil war with his barons and getting him to sign Magna Carta was either a genuine attempt to resolve the dispute or a holding tactic whilst both sides prepared for war. It all depends on your interpretation of the facts.
The Thames which flows through the area has meandered many times over this flood plain, so it may well be that the actual signing occured at a site that is now on the north bank of the river near the remains of Ankerwick Priory.
The document was written in Latin and although modern translations split it into a great many numbered clauses, the original was written out like one long paragraph, with each sentence immediately following on from the other.
the National Trust looks after the land and there is a tea shop at one end of the meadow (in a building designed by Lutyens) . Unsurprisingly they have a facimile of the Magna Carta on their wall. They also do really good home cooked food. We had a delicious stilton and courgette soup with thick crusty bread and a perfect cup of tea. So, thoroughly fortified, we felt ready to go exploring, and from this north end of Runnymede there are some great walks to be enjoyed.
Walks around Runnymede
To the left, just across the road is the river Thames and you can enjoy a pleasant walk along the riverbank, downstream to the pleasure grounds. But rather than simply turning back to retrace your route to the teashop, if you cross the road and enter the meadows you will find paths leading up into the wooded hillside. It is definitely worth heading all the way to the top to visit the Commonwealth Air Forces Memorial. A beautiful building where the names of all the aillied airmen of the second world war whose bodies were never recovered are recorded. The spiral staircase leads up to the roof which being the highest point for several miles around has great views of Windsor in one direction and London in the other.
Heading back down into the woods there is the Magna Carta memorial which was placed here by the American Bar Association.
The Magna Carta Memorial
Why is Magna Carta so important? Why, after 850 years does this document which was annulled just a few months after the King signed it hang in Australia’s parliament. Why does another copy hang next to the Declaration of Independence in the Smithsonian in Washington?
The answer is actually quite simple. The signing of the charter was the first time that the rule of law was given official supremacy over everyone including the King and State itself. It set a direction for the evolution of modern western democracy and made the English speaking world into what it is today. The rights of life, liberty and property are there in the document and are still in the statue to this day.
Rudyard Kipling’s poem, The Reeds at Runnymede contains the following verse.
At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
Your rights were won at Runnymede!
No freeman shall be fined or bound,
Or dispossessed of freehold ground,
Except by lawful judgment found
And passed upon him by his peers.
Forget not, after all these years,
The Charter signed at Runnymede.’
For many historians this really is the crux of why we remember Magna Carta. It was one of the key foundations of the society we have today and it came into being at Runnymede.
These are thoughts to ponder as we head back toward the car park, but there is one treat more to come. If you fancy a trip abroad, you can do this at Runnymede too. One acre of land was given as a gift by the people of Britain to the people of the United States and on this spot stands a memorial to J F Kennedy, the president who was assassinated in 1963.