Runnymede is a water meadow on the banks of the River Thames, between Egham and Old Windsor. It can quite justifiably claim to be the most famous meadow in the world. Here, twenty-five miles from London, on 15th June 1215, King John agreed the terms of the Great Charter of Liberties and sealed the Magna Carta. There is not a signature on the document.
Runnymede is not an island, although nearby in the River Thames, is Magna Carta Island, a privately owned secluded island of 3.72 acres, connected by a small bridge to the north bank of the River Thames and the Ankerwycke Estate. There is a grade II listed private house on the Island, built in 1834 by George Simon Harcourt, Lord of the Manor. He included within the house an octagonal stone, on which he alleged the Magna Carta was sealed. It is not known with any certainty where King John agreed the Magna Carta, almost 800 years ago in 1215, with his rival barons, but the road sign does state, “Site of Magna Carta”. Over hundreds of years, the River Thames has frequently moved its boundaries and Runnymede has been submerged under water. This pattern continued as recently as the winter of 2013/2014.
Today, there is not any sign of medieval England at Runnymede, nor any evidence that King John himself camped there. Runnymede was a convenient location for the rival parties to meet and negotiate, being close to the royal residence at Windsor Castle and the safest crossing point of the River Thames for travel to the City of London.
Across the River Thames, on the Ankerwycke Estate, is the famous Ankerwycke Yew Tree, which can be dated back an incredible 2,000 years. This tree probably witnessed the historic negotiations and centuries later, Henry VIII is said to have met Anne Boleyn there. Runnymede and Ankerwycke Priory were part of the monastic estate of Chertsey Abbey, one of the wealthiest abbeys in Britain, but when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, the land was given to the Crown in 1537.
In 1921, to raise much needed revenue, the Liberal-Conservative coalition government under David Lloyd George, proposed to auction the site to a private owner. This resulted in a public outcry and protest that the meads belonged to the nation. The sale was abandoned, but in 1929, Lady Fairhaven bought the 188 acres to preserve Runnymede in its open and natural state in memory of her late husband, Urban Broughton. In 1931, Lady Fairhaven and her sons gave the land to the National Trust to protect the natural beauty and historic interest of the site. She also commissioned the famous architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens, who also designed the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London, to design two lodges in memory of her late husband. These lodges can be seen at the Old Windsor side of Runnymede, where they are used as National Trust offices and provide refreshment facilities.
On Runnymede Meadows, where the foundations of civil liberty were established, it is entirely appropriate that other events of world history are commemorated. The John F. Kennedy Memorial and the Commonwealth Air Forces Memorial, as well as the American Bar Association’s Memorial, are all here at Runnymede.
Magna Carta, or the Charter of Liberties, is the foundation of Great Britain’s otherwise unwritten constitution. It has become an important symbol of individual rights and liberties, although the document was never intended to have such universal relevance. In 1215, King John, to preserve his position, was forced by his leading barons to relinquish some of his absolute powers.
The greatest legacy is probably the ideas expressed in clauses 39 and 40, confirming the right of habeas corpus (freedom from imprisonment without trial) and the right to justice. Magna Carta has been the inspiration for political systems around the world, including the constitution of the USA and the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights.
June 2015, was the 800th Anniversary of King John putting his seal on Magna Carta under the watchful eyes of his rebellious barons. There were events around the country celebrating the occasion, but focussed on the banks of the River Thames at Runnymede, where HM Queen Elizabeth II was joined by 5,000 guests. The year of celebration featured the British Library’s major exhibition, “Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy”, but preceding this, the Library displayed the only four original surviving Magna Cartas together for the first time, as part of a joint event with Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral.
The John F. Kennedy Memorial is set in an ‘Acre of English Ground’, which was given to the citizens of the United States of America in 1965, by HM Queen Elizabeth II, in the presence of his widow, Jacqueline Kennedy. A passport or visa is not required to enter this tranquil site, which was chosen because of its connection with freedom, justice and human liberty. The memorial was designed by Sir Geoffrey A. Jellicoe and is based on the themes of John Bunyan’s, Pilgrim’s Progress – Life, Death and Spirit. The “Pilgrim” enters the site and climbs the “Steps of Individuality” – 50 different individual steps representing the 50 U.S. States, which rise through typical English woodland. This is an enclosed journey up to the Memorial Stone, with ever changing colours, according to the seasons. At the top of the steps is the Memorial Stone, a seven ton block of Portland Stone, which contains shells that indicate that the stone is 100 million years old. The Stone bears an extract from President Kennedy’s inaugural address on 20th January 1961, proclaiming his support of freedom. In front of the Memorial Stone, is a hawthorn tree, reflecting President Kennedy’s religion and behind the Stone, is an American Scarlet Oak tree, spectacular in November, the anniversary of his assassination on 22nd November 1963.
The whole site may appear unkempt, but it is designed to be natural landscape, not closely tended flower beds. This is a place of tranquility and contemplation.
The Magna Carta Memorial
Not far from the Kennedy Memorial, is the Magna Carta Memorial, which was erected by the American Bar Association in 1957. It was designed by Sir Edward Maufe RA and consists of a domed classical temple in the Greek style, supported on eight octagonal pillars. In the centre, is a pillar of English granite on which is inscribed ‘To commemorate Magna Carta, Symbol of Freedom Under Law’.
Eight English oak trees surround the Memorial and two further oak trees were planted either side of the path leading to the Memorial; one in 1987 by HRH Duke of Gloucester and the other in 1994 by the Prime Minster of India. The Pilgrim Fathers took a copy of the Magna Carta with them on their voyage to America. The Principles of the Charter granting ‘Freedom Under the Law’, went on to form the basis of the Constitution of the United States and later the Bill of Rights. Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, wrote, “…. all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.
There are twelve bronze chairs set out together in the meadow. The Jurors is an artwork created by Hew Locke to mark the 800th anniversary of the sealing of The Magna Carta. Each chair incorporates an image representing a critical moment in the campaign for freedom, rule of law and equal rights.
Writ in Water
This is an installation, or some might call it a work of art, which was opened in 2018. It is a circular well-like structure. In the centre is a pool with the words of Clause 39 of The Magna Carta inscribed on the inner side reflected in the water. It takes its name from the words on the gravestone of the poet, John Keats.
‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’
The National Trust says, the work provides an inspirational space for reflection.
The Air Forces Memorial
High above Runnymede, on Cooper’s Hill, is the Air Forces Memorial. Here are commemorated over 20,000 men and women who were based in the United Kingdom and Europe and lost their lives serving in the Royal Air Force and Air Forces of The Commonwealth. Many were lost without trace and do not have a grave.
The Memorial overlooks the riverside meadow, where Magna Carta was sealed. It is fitting that in the location that has become a symbol of individual rights and liberties, the missing men and women who gave their lives in the cause of freedom, are remembered. When Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II opened the Memorial on 17th October 1953, she proclaimed, “wherever and for as long as freedom flourishes on the earth, the men and women who possess it will thank them and will say they did not die in vain.”
The Memorial consists of a shrine embraced by a cloister in which the names of the airmen and women are recorded according to the year of death. From the shrine, two staircases lead to a gallery and a further staircase leads to the roof of the tower, above which is an Astral Crown of blue and gold. From the roof there are extensive views. Windsor Castle and Heathrow Airport are clearly visible. It seems appropriate in this Memorial that the tranquility is regularly disturbed by the roar of jet engines, as aircraft make their way to and from Heathrow.