Runnymede – The Birthplace of Modern Democracy and a good place to walk the dog

Runnymede 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.  Visitors, especially tourists from overseas, are surprised to find that Runnymede is not a town or village, but essentially a meadow on the banks of the River Thames where there are memorials.  In the Magna Carta itself, Runnymede is described as a “meadow between Windsor and Staines”.  Today, there is not any sign of medieval England at Runnymede, nor any evidence that King John himself camped here.

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.  It is not known with any certainty where, over 800 years ago, King John agreed the Magna Carta with his rival barons.  Over hundreds of years, the River Thames has frequently moved its boundaries and Runnymede has been submerged under water.  The English are reticent about promoting the importance of the Magna Carta.  Many Americans still revere the document as a sacred text of their democracy.  They are puzzled as to why it was left to the American Bar Association to erect The Magna Carta Memorial in 1957.  Many people do not appreciate the significance of the events that took place at Runnymede, but do know it is a good location to walk their dogs.

The importance of Magna Carta

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.  Clauses 39 and 40 are probably the most important.  They confirm 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.  The Pilgrim Fathers took a translation (the original being in Latin) of the Magna Carta with them on their voyage to America.  They turned to it for inspiration and guidance.  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”.

The Magna Carta Memorial

The Magna Carta Memorial, 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’.  On 15th June 2015 on the 800th anniversary of the peace treaty between King John and his barons, the Memorial was rededicated by the American Bar Association and Loretta Lynch, US Attorney General, in the presence of HM The Queen and other members of the Royal Family.

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, are also at Runnymede.

The John F. Kennedy Memorial – an acre of American ground at Runnymede not requiring a visa or passport to enter

This acre of ground, the site of the John F. Kennedy Memorial, 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 and his children.  The Queen, in her speech, referred to the shock that left her people “almost in despair” at the news of President John Kennedy’s assassination on 22nd November 1963.  This tranquil site  was chosen because of its connection with freedom, justice and human liberty.  At the top of fifty individual steps representing the US States, is the Memorial Stone, a seven ton block of Portland Stone.  The Stone bears an extract from President Kennedy’s inaugural address on 20th January 1961, in which he states that, “we shall …. support any friend or oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty”.

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.”

From the roof there are extensive views.  Windsor Castle and Heathrow Airport are clearly visible.  It seems appropriate in this Memorial that the tranquillity is regularly disturbed by the roar of jet engines, as aircraft make their way to and from Heathrow.

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