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Magna Carta and the historical features of Runnymede

17th October 2017

Signing of Magna Carta at Runnymede 1215 painting

“At Runnymede, at Runnymede,

Oh, hear the reeds at Runnymede:--

‘You mustn't sell, delay, deny,

A freeman's right or liberty.

It makes the stubborn Englishry,

We saw 'em roused at Runnymede!’” – The Reeds of Runnymede by Rudyard Kipling

Magna Carta is one of the world’s great legal documents, a true milestone in the fight for liberty against the coercive state, and has not only been hugely important to UK legal history but has influenced and inspired legal documents all over the world – including the U.S. Constitution. This charter was sealed at Runnymede in Surrey where there is today a fascinating monument to the document along with various other historical structures, memorials, and even art installations. To celebrate Magna Carta we decided to assemble a guide to Runnymede, the monuments on display there, and what visitors can expect to see at the site.

Before we go into depth regarding the site at Runnymede, we thought we would bring you a few words from Karen Roebuck of Visit Thames – a tourism resource promoting the Thames River – on what she believes makes the Magna Carta memorial and Runnymede so worth visiting.

“As somebody who loves history, standing where the Magna Carta was sealed over 800 years ago, and on a site that is so little changed over the years, allows me to imagine King John and the barons in these meadows. It’s a reminder of how our parliament and justice system has developed over the years, from this historic moment. It is also interesting to discover how important it is to other countries as well, particularly America and our links to each other. Additionally, the fact that Queen Elizabeth gave a plot of land to the Americans for the Kennedy Memorial continues those links.”

Magna Carta Memorial

Magna carta memorial in Runnymede photography

Copyright Alison Avery Beautiful England Photos

Magna Carta was sealed 800 years ago in 1215 when King John met at Runnymede with a group of rebel barons, signing a charter that promised church rights protections, limitations on feudal payments to the Crown, protection for the barons from legal imprisonment, and access to quick and decisive justice. As the historical resource website The History Learning Site puts it: “Magna Carta was an attempt by the barons to stop a king – in this case John – abusing his power with the people of England suffering.”

Magna Carta, or ‘Magna Carta Libertatum’ (Latin for ‘the Great Charter of the Liberties’), has since become an important symbol of individual rights and protection of personal liberties, even though the charter itself was a protection merely for the barons. Magna Carta has the upmost respect in the British and American legal spheres, is often cited by politicians, and has also inspired myriad individuals to pursue legal jobs within the institutions it helped build.

The importance of this great document cannot be overstated, and it was no surprise when, in 1957, Sir Edward Maufe designed the Magna Carta Memorial that was erected by the American Bar Association. The memorial is nestled in a grass enclosure on the very site that the document was signed and sealed. 

The monument is sat today on a picturesque slope overlooking the Thames and provides a truly magnificent spot to sit and ponder the legal history of this country and indeed the modern world.

Sarah Walsh from Runnymede Borough Council, who was the lead officer for the Magna Carta 800th anniversary commemorations, says: “Visitors to the Runnymede Meadows area can easily imagine the scene of King John and the barons in 1215 as very little has changed over the period of time other than the course of the river and the additions of a road, some recreational amenities, the memorials, and an art installation.”

Runnymede Borough Council also add that the events of 1215 can be viewed as “the symbolic first step on the road to modern democracy.”

magna carta memorial inscription

Copyright Alison Avery Beautiful England Photos

Visit Surrey spoke to us about the monument and the site at Runneymede, helping to paint a picture of the scene to be found:

“The Runnymede Magna Carta site is an open field site, left deliberately natural as it was in 1215.  The site lies next to the River Thames and is part of the flood plain. It’s an open grassy meadow which is beautiful in summer, and a bit more wild and windswept in winter.

“Many people probably have no idea that this one event in 1215 has such an impact on their lives today. Noted in many official documents around the world, it’s one of a few pieces of legislation that have had significant impact on the way we live our lives.”

In terms of design, the Magna Carta Memorial is a domed classical monopteros that contains a granite pillar at its centre, inscribed with the sentence: “To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of Freedom Under Law.”

In 2000, a new inscription was placed on one of the commemorative stones that recalls the American Bar Association’s visit in 1985. The inscription reads:

“15 July 2000: The American Bar Association returns this day to celebrate Magna Carta, foundation of the rule of law for ages past and for the new millennium”.

You can read more about the memorial and the entire site at Runnymede via the National Trust website and find the monument’s listing over at Historic England – the public body that helps preserve England’s historic environment.

John F. Kennedy Memorial

John F. Kennedy memorial

Copyright Alison Avery Beautiful England Photos

There are other monuments and fascinating historical features to see at Runnymede of course, and one that might surprise many is the John F. Kennedy Memorial. Kennedy is one of the most recognisable American presidents in history, and an iconic figure in politics, particularly after his assassination in 1963.

The memorial to JFK was dedicated in 1965 by Queen Elizabeth II and Jacqueline Kennedy. It consists of a memorial tablet that is inscribed with the president’s famous quote stemming from his inaugural address:

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend or oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

The monument can be reached by 50 unique steps of hand-cut granite, and the area on which the monument lays was gifted to the USA by the people of Great Britain, today maintained by the Kennedy Memorial Trust.

The Kennedy Memorial Trust kindly spoke to us about the monument, what it entails, and its significance:

“Jellicoe’s design of the Kennedy Memorial deliberately incorporates the natural features of the landscape as it reflects on a young President assassinated at the height of his powers. You climb up a steep path through the woods, where each individual granite sett represents pilgrims on their journey through the cycle of life, death and rebirth experienced in the woodland. You then reach a clearing and the path levels off, so you can view the stone itself and read President Kennedy’s words. You are then further invited to branch right and enjoy the upper meadow of the memorial site and sit and contemplate the view.

“It is a site to be experienced as much as visited and it works at deeper levels than a more typical parkland setting might. Runnymede, with its longstanding association with individual freedom under the law, is the obvious site for remembering our deep association with the US in this regard.”

Commonwealth Air Forces Memorial

Commonwealth air forces memorial photography

Copyright Alison Avery Beautiful England Photos

To commemorate the brave men and women of the Allied Forces who perished during World War II, the Commonwealth Air Forces Memorial was unveiled in 1953 by Queen Elizabeth II. 20,456 airmen and women died during the war’s various operations, souls sadly lost with no known graves for their bodies. The memorial was designed by Sir Edward Maufe and is constructed of Portland stone, consisting of a shrine that is adorned by three stone figures that represent justice, victory, and courage.

The memorial is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who further described to us the importance of the site, as well as its connection to Magna Carta:

“When the CWGC’s air forces memorial at Runnymede was unveiled by HM The Queen in 1953 she referenced the signing of Magna Carter in the fields below where the memorial now stands. In doing so, she recognised not only the significance of that document and its place in the evolution of our democracy but the link between that belief in the rights of all, and the sacrifices made by the more than 20,000 individuals commemorated on the walls at Runnymede.

“When you visit the memorial, you can’t help but notice its design and the deeply personal nature of remembrance one encounters at the site. The design specifically mirrors features that air force personnel would recognise at the bases from which they operated, while on the walls of the memorial are the names of Spitfire pilots, secret agents, bomber crews and coastal command personnel. They came from all over the world to help Britain in her fight against Nazi Germany and tens of thousands paid the ultimate sacrifice. What makes it really special are the photographs and personal mementos people leave at the site – powerful reminders that behind every one of those names there’s a human story and a family torn apart by war.

“We’d encourage people of all ages to visit the memorial and see for themselves the sheer volume of names. They might come to remember someone they know, or purely out of curiosity, but they all depart the better for the experience.”

For those that climb to the top of the Air Forces Memorial, a view of two counties awaits, providing a sublime glimpse of the country that the memorialised men and women fought to protect.

The Jurors 

The Jurors at Runnymede photography

To celebrate the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta in 2015, artist Hew Locke was commissioned along with Surrey County Council to create the striking piece of art known as The Jurors.

Once again, Visit Surrey help describe the scene: “The Jurors are twelve individual chairs positioned facing each other on the meadow, created to represent the struggle for freedom, equal rights and the rule of law. The site is ideal for a picnic in summer and a walk all year round, from a summer stroll through the grassy meadow to a bracing walk up the hill in the winter.”

As Visit Surrey mention, the installation is made up of twelve stunningly intricate bronze chairs that incorporate imagery representing the rule of law and the struggle for freedom. The Jurors is not so much of a memorial to Magna Carta but a piece of art which aims to highlight and examine the continued significance and permeating influence of the charter.

The image of the jury system was chosen as this is a central tenant of the British justice system and has its origins in Magna Carta. Visitors to Runnymede are invited to sit any day of the year and ponder the issues depicted.

Ceremonial Tree Plantings

ceremonial tree planting at Runnymede photography

Copyright Alison Avery Beautiful England Photos

In 1987, the Duke of Kent along with David K. Diebold (a Minister-Counsellor at the US Embassy in London) came to Runnymede to plant an oak tree across from the Magna Carta memorial. The Prime Minister of India also came to the site for a ceremonial tree planting, leaving a plaque that includes the following inscription:

“As a tribute to the historic Magna Carta, a source of inspiration throughout the world, and as an affirmation of the values of Freedom, Democracy and the Rule of Law which the People of India cherish and have enshrined in their Constitution. March 16, 1994.”

Two more trees were planted near the memorial in 1987, these by Queen Elizabeth II and Secretary of the US Army John O. Marsh. The tree planted by Secretary Marsh has a plaque which reads:

“This oak tree, planted with soil from Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in the New World, commemorates the bicentenary of the Constitution of the United States of America. It stands in acknowledgement that the ideals of liberty and justice embodied in the Constitution trace their lineage through institutions of English law to the Magna Carta, sealed at Runnymede on June 15th, 1215.”

Ankerwycke Yew

Ankerwycke Yew dedication at runnymede

Copyright Alison Avery Beautiful England Photos

Across the river from the Magna Carta Memorial is the ancient and revered Ankerwycke Yew tree, 2,500 years old and another possible site of where Magna Carta might have been sealed. The tree is thought to be sacred and may well have been the location of the Witan council – an Anglo-Saxon political institution emanating from the 7th century.

Ankerwycke Yew also influenced the founding of St Mary’s Priory which is also in the area. As a religious site, the area could very well have been a preferential neutral meeting ground for Magna Carta’s sealing. Another fascinating piece of history revolves around Henry VIII who is said to have met Anne Boleyn under Ankerwycke Yew in the 1530s.

A dedication to Magna Carta was laid at the yew in 1992 by botanist David Bellamy:

“We the free people of the islands of Great Britain on the 777th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta do:

“Look back and give thanks for the benefits that the signings, sealing and swearing of oaths on that document handed down to us. Look forward to a new age of freedom through sustainability by granting the following rights to all the sons of plants and animals with which we share our islands and our planet.”

Fairhaven Memorial Lodges

Fairhaven memorial lodges

Copyright Alison Avery Beautiful England Photos

There is yet another fascinating historical building to be found at Runnymede, this one known as the Fairhaven Memorial Lodges. We asked Visit Thames to tell us a little more about it:

“The meadows of Runnymede were given to the nation in 1929 ‘in perpetual memory’ of Urban Broughton by his wife Lady Fairhaven. She also commissioned Sir Edward Lutyens to design a scheme for the area which included: the Fairhaven Memorial Lodges, the Egham roundabout, with the Bell-Weir Bridge (now M25) over the Thames, and the A308 that passes by Runnymede.

“Lady Fairhaven had inherited her wealth from her father, Henry Huttleston Rogers, who grew up in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Cara and her husband came to live at Englefield Green, on the edge of Windsor Great Park. Runnymede is marked by the red brick and Portland stone entrance kiosks, with the white lodges at the far, Old Windsor end. The North Lodge entrance has the Fairhaven arms and houses the National Trust estate office. The South Lodge is now the tea room and art gallery.”

Runnymede

As you can see, Runnymede is a special location; a monument not just to Magna Carta but to who we are as a nation, and as people; a celebration of our past and the values we strive to live up to as long as we shall exist.

"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." - The Reeds of Runnymede by Rudyard Kipling

 

Image Credit: Antony McCallum