Magna Carta: uncovering 800 years of democracy at Runnymede
PUBLISHED: 13:41 12 June 2015 | UPDATED: 14:27 28 June 2015
As our county gets ready to welcome the world to Runnymede for the 800th anniversary celebrations of Magna Carta, which will include a visit from Her Majesty The Queen, historian Stephen Roberts takes us back in time to that momentous event – and reveals what it all means for Surrey today…
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine June 2015
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On the green meadows of Runnymede, 800 years ago, history was made – a history that would go on to spread around the globe. A revered spot not only for the citizens of Surrey but of the UK and the world at large, visitors come here in their droves to see where Magna Carta (‘Great Charter’) was sealed on June 15, 1215, by King John. This landmark document would establish the principle of freedom under law and, in time, become the basis of the rights enjoyed by millions.
This month, the anniversary of that momentous occasion is about to be celebrated with a whole host of special events here in Surrey, including a grand river pageant, a new memorial artwork and the unveiling of a statue of Her Majesty The Queen, culminating in an international gathering at Runnymede due to be attended by The Queen herself. To understand what it all means for us today, however, we need to go back to medieval times and an inauspicious muddy meadow in the north-west corner of Surrey.
Step back in time
Based at nearby Windsor, King John travelled on horseback to Runnymede, the leading figure of two wary, well-armed deputations, to parley with his barons who themselves had made the short journey from London via Staines (Runnymede was known as ‘the meadow of Staines’). Brought to book because of opposition to his disastrous foreign policy and arbitrary rule, King John found himself facing a determined group of barons who wanted constitutional restraints on his power. After several days of negotiations, during which the barons renewed their homage to the king, he and his officials scrutinised the document, which may even have been read out, before the king reluctantly put his seal to the Latin charter and a legend was born.
The barons may have been looking after their own, but everyone would benefit in the end. By the time of the English Civil War in the 17th century, Magna Carta was regarded as totemic.
“The sealing of the Magna Carta on Runnymede Meadows in 1215 was a defining event in our constitutional and legal history,” says the MP for Runnymede & Weybridge, Philip Hammond, who is also the Foreign Secretary. “Crucially, it established the concept of the due process of law – that to no man should justice be denied or delayed. Although its lasting significance was little understood at the time, the 800th anniversary is a great opportunity to celebrate the key principles of the Magna Carta that still stand. Developed over centuries of Common Law, they are no less important today than they were centuries ago – not just in this country but across the world.”
The exact location of the famed event is still disputed (meadows or island?) but its approximate spot is marked by a memorial. The island could well be wrong; based on Runnymede’s literal translation as ‘the meadow in council island.’ The fact that Runnymede was chosen is undisputed though, for this was a place that hosted open air ‘councils’ dating back to the time of Alfred the Great. It was a recognised point of assembly; it had ‘previous’.
The charter itself is comprised of a preamble and 63 clauses, the most famous of which guarantee every free man security from illegal interference in his person or property (no 39) and justice to everyone (no 40). The charter was to be enforced by a council of 25 barons, who if the king reneged on his promises, would take him to task, which is exactly what happened.
Today, there are just four surviving 1215 ‘copies’ or ‘exemplifications’ of Magna Carta, the best preserved of which is in Salisbury Cathedral in Wiltshire. All four copies were briefly united in February 2015 at the British Library, and then the House of Lords, before being returned to their homes (two at the British Library, one at Lincoln Cathedral and the one at Salisbury Cathedral). Here in Surrey, you can see an entire facsimile of the Great Charter at Guildford Cathedral.
Take a tour
Back at Runnymede, the worldwide significance of this revered document is shown by the fact that it was the Americans who set up the memorial; a pillar of English granite at its heart, surrounded by venerable English oaks. Created by the American Bar Association (ABA), the inscription reads: “To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of freedom under law.” It is moving that a nation not founded until nearly 600 years after Magna Carta should hold such store by it.
“The ABA’s motto has always been ‘defending liberty and pursuing justice’ – and the pursuit of justice can be traced back to the Magna Carta, as it stands for the enduring principle that no man (even a king) is above the law,” says Stephen Zack, president of the ABA, 2010-11.
“The ABA constructed the memorial at Runnymede as a permanent reminder of the importance of the rule of law, how difficult it was to establish and how important it is to protect on a daily basis. For these reasons, the ABA will rededicate the memorial at Runnymede and hold a year-long celebration of the principles of the Magna Carta.”
The document itself is held to be the cornerstone of democratic government, not only in Britain, the US and the Commonwealth, but around the globe. Indeed, world leaders have waxed lyrical about Magna Carta. Prime Minister David Cameron has said that, “the remaining copies of that charter may have faded, but its principles shine as brightly as ever,” whilst US President Barack Obama credited our side of the water. “Centuries ago, when kings, emperors and warlords reigned over much of the world, it was the English who first spelt out the rights and liberties of men in Magna Carta.”
In fact, the US looms large here, for an acre of land opposite Magna Carta Island was presented to ‘the land of the free’ after the 1963 assassination of President John Kennedy. Here sits a seven-ton block of Portland stone, Britain’s lament to a young and popular president. There, it is possible to stand on US soil, ascending 50 granite steps, one for each US state, to a memorial that quotes from the President’s inauguration address (“…the survival and success of liberty.”)
Memorials abound in a setting that is picturesque as well as historic. On Cooper’s Hill, to the south, is the mighty Commonwealth Air Forces Memorial, designed by Sir Edward Maufe, architect of Surrey’s Guildford Cathedral, and consecrated in 1953. In an age when remembrance seems to get more important by the year, it is worth reflecting on the 20,500 or so names that adorn the monument’s arcaded galleries, for these are just the brave World War II airmen who have no known grave. Their monument looks out across seven counties. It is appropriate that the memorial should be here, remembering those who fought for freedom, in a place that is forever a symbol of freedom and of the sacrifices necessary for freedom’s sake.
Looking at the lush setting today it is perhaps no surprise to learn that horse races were once held here, popular from the 18th century, until they ceased in 1886. There may be no galloping steeds now, but there is much else to see and do. Runnymede was purchased by Sir Urban Broughton MP to safeguard its future, then donated to the National Trust by his widow, Lady Fairhaven, who commissioned Sir Edwin Lutyens to design the memorial lodges in honour of her late husband. Lutyens was also responsible for the design of Whitehall’s Cenotaph. A National Trust tea room resides in the southern lodge.
“We have been preparing for this moment for a number of years, putting staff in place and ensuring that there is a visible presence on site,” says National Trust visitor services manager, Michelle Kent. “We have been working with our neighbours to get fences repaired and open up views – for example, Ankerwycke, across the river, is now visible. We also have a ranger team in place to deal with hedgerows, maintenance, drainage and so forth. The visitor experience has been improved with toilet refurbishment and the tea-room is now back ‘in-house’. There is also a new guidebook to Runnymede and there are backpacks for children with Magna Carta trails to follow.
“Perhaps most excitingly though, a new British memorial to Magna Carta will also be unveiled here at Runnymede. This substantial artwork by British artist Hew Locke will emphasise the struggle for liberty and democracy and will be our national memorial for the future. There is a legacy here that is so important, which we are determined to preserve and enhance for our visitors for many years to come.”
Indeed, the coming weeks will see all sorts of anniversary events at Runnymede. As well as the formal celebrations surrounding the new memorial, which take place on Monday June 15 and will be attended by The Queen, there will also be a spectacular river pageant on the Thames (Saturday June 13 and Sunday June 14) led by the Queen’s row barge, Gloriana. Also happening on the Sunday of that weekend, there will be the unveiling of the statue of the Queen by sculptor James Butler (read more about that on page 101) and the Liber Teas event, when the nation will join Runnymede in taking ‘tea at 3’ to reflect on Magna Carta.
The events are expected to attract literally thousands of people, as Surrey hosts all those wanting to share in this extraordinary anniversary, including representatives of the Government and Commonwealth, as well as other members of the Royal Family.
One of those looking on over all this with particular pride will be chairman of the Magna Carta 2015 800th Anniversary Commemoration Committee, American Sir Robert Worcester, who has been the deputy chairman and trustee of the Magna Carta Trust for over 20 years.
“The first time I saw Magna Carta, I was seven years old,” says Sir Robert. “My parents took me to the New York World’s Fair in 1940, where the Lincoln version was exhibited, otherwise it was secured in Fort Knox for the duration of the war. On my first visit to the UK, the very first morning, I went to the British Museum to see Magna Carta and the Rosetta Stone – the rule of law and communication between nations.
“The events at Runnymede in June will be the culmination of four to five years of dedication, a reverent commemoration of the most important legal document in history. Most people have heard of Magna Carta, but relatively few will understand its symbolism and philosophy, or its enduring significance. I will probably have a tear in my eye.”
When considering the great events that have shaped British history, Magna Carta is right up there. In 2015, as we mark its 800th anniversary, the county of Surrey occupies centre stage, with Runnymede’s role in those distant events celebrated anew. Magna Carta is surely the most significant event ever to have occurred within the confines of our county; in fact, such is its reach, there are now a dozen other ‘Runnymedes’ dotted around the globe.
The barons realised the king would try and wriggle out of Magna Carta and the charter tried to prepare for this eventuality. Within three months, civil war had broken out. The liberties were hard won and they had to be fought for – something that we continue to fight for to this day.
Our writer Stephen Roberts is an historian, writer, public speaker and private tutor. He has been published in over 50 different magazines and has his first book coming out this summer.
• The official Magna Carta 800th anniversary website (magnacarta800th.com)
• The National Trust website (nationaltrust.org.uk/runnymede)
• The National Trust Facebook page (facebook.com/NTrunnymede)
• The Visit Surrey website (visitsurrey.com/magna-carta)
• The Guildford Cathedral website (guildford-cathedral. org/news/2015/magna-carta)
• The Surrey Life website (surreylife.co.uk) and Facebook and Twitter pages
Magna Carta 800 – at a glance...
• Three months of celebrations at Runnymede (June to September)
• Renovation of the Magna Carta Memorial
• Unveiling of a substantial new artwork
• New bronze statue of the Queen to be unveiled
• National Trust improvements to the site
• US/UK honour guard and flags
• Improved public transport, road access and traffic calming measures
• Peal of bells to sound
• Commemorative stamps and coins
• Changes to the National Curriculum in our schools
• Specially composed opera staged at London’s Royal Albert Hall and featuring over 1,000 Surrey singers
• Performances of Shakespeare’s King John, including at London’s famous Globe Theatre
• Magna Carta tourist trails
• River Thames Pageant
• Publication of The Magna Carta Chronicle, an official young person’s guide
What to see at Runnymede...
• The Magna Carta Memorial (1957), which was set up by members of the American Bar Association
• The John F Kennedy Memorial (1965) designed by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe
• The Commonwealth Air Forces Memorial (1953)
• Lutyens Lodges (built as memorials to Urban Broughton MP, whose widow donated the land to the National Trust)
• The river, landscape and views from Cooper’s Hill
• Cooper’s Hill House
• Symbolic oak trees
• Langham Ponds Site of Special Scientific Interest
• Ankerwycke (across the river) – with the ruins of a Benedictine Priory and a 2,500-year-old yew tree
• The National Trust tea room where you can enjoy a drink and a snack
Those other Runnymedes around the world...
• Runnymede, New Jersey (USA)
• Runnymede, Kansas (USA)
• Lake Runnymede, Vermont (USA)
• Runnymede Road and Subway Station in Toronto (Canada)
• Runnymede Avenue, Victoria, British Columbia (Canada)
• Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania all have a Runnymede (Australia)
• Place de Runnymede, Joinville-le-Pont (France)
• Runnymede Station, Udhagamandalam (India)
• Runnymede College, Madrid (Spain)
• Send your own to email@example.com
A round-up of just a few of the many events taking place across our county
• Exhibition at Chertsey Museum (all year)
• Commemorative mosaic in Egham High Street walkway (from March 2015)
• Exhibition at Guildford Cathedral (Monday June 8 to Saturday August 8) and other Magna Carta themed events, including display of facsimile of Magna Carta and replica seal, peal of bells and performance of specially commissioned anthem (Sunday June 14) and family activity day (Saturday July 25)
• Short exhibitions and events etc also planned for Bletchingley, Caterham, Dorking, Egham, Epsom, Farnham, Godalming, Haslemere, Oxted and Woking, among others
• The river pageant (Saturday June 13 and Sunday June 14) will include charter bearers from Surrey, as a copy of Magna Carta is transported downstream to Runnymede. Around 220 craft will take part
• An exhibition by Alan Perriman, Runnymede Ghosts, celebrating Runnymede’s variety of environments, takes place at Royal Holloway, Egham (Friday June 12 to Tuesday June 16)
• Students at Royal Holloway have designed an app (‘Runnymede Explored’), which gives visitors to the site the option of seven trails to follow in Runnymede Meadow
• Collage artist Tracy Satchwill tours Surrey with her Magna Carta Women project (see tracysatchwill.com for venues and dates)
• Around 60 re-enactors will bring the time of King John to life in Rosebery Park, Epsom, on Saturday May 30 (10am-5pm) in the Echoes of the Past 2015 event, Magna Carta and all that
• On Monday June 15, members of the Order of Knights Templar, in robes and regalia, will form part of the procession at Runnymede. Templar events also include a church service at the chapel at Royal Holloway on Saturday June 13
• Royal Holloway also hosts the Great Charter Festival (Sunday June 14, 10am-5pm), a free summer fair exploring the 800-year legacy of Magna Carta through art, music, talks, workshops, dance and drama (also includes the Magna Carta Women exhibition above)
• The Runnymede Hotel is sponsoring a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show to celebrate the sealing of Magna Carta. After the show, this special garden, whose formal layout will evoke those of medieval times, will be installed in the grounds of the hotel, where it will be freely available for the general public and local residents to visit