‘King John was not a good man, he had his little ways.’From King John’s Christmas, A. A. Milne
The barons of early 13th century England would have agreed with A. A. Milne (the creator of Winnie the Pooh). In 1215 England was in political turmoil. King John had become vastly unpopular; his disagreements with the Pope over the appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury led to a papal interdict against the country and the king’s excommunication, while the imposition of high taxes to fund the war with France led to mounting anger.
In early 1215 the barons seized control of London; and the king was left with no choice but to negotiate with them. The outcome of those negotiations was the sealing of the Magna Carta Libertatum, the Great Charter of Liberty, usually known simply as Magna Carta. The document held the king accountable to the rule of law; enshrined the rights of ‘free men’ to justice and a fair trial (free men in those days meaning a relatively small number of noblemen); and established a council of 25 barons to oversee it.
The simplified account of our history usually stops here, suggesting that once the charter was sealed the matter was settled; but of course it wasn’t that simple. The charter lasted less than a year before being annulled. But subsequent kings revised and revived it in various forms; and it is still regarded symbolically as the basis for much of British law and the workings of our Parliament.
Magna Carta was sealed at Runnymede, a water-meadow on the south bank of the River Thames, in June 1215. Runnymede offered neutral ground located between the royal fortress of Windsor Castle and the barons’ rebel base at Staines.
Today the meadows and the hill above them are owned and managed by the National Trust. There are several interesting memorials, lots of space for picnics and family fun, and pleasant riverside and woodland walks. I used to come here regularly as a child. It was a favourite family outing, an easy drive from our home in a north west London suburb. But I hadn’t been for decades; until the COVID lockdown in 2020 and subsequent slight easing, coupled with an exceptionally warm and sunny spring / early summer, led to an increased interest in discovering the sights close to home.
We made two visits to Runnymede. The photos on this page were taken during both of them, just a few weeks apart. As Beth is asking us in this week’s Lens-Artist Challenge to ‘feature images from places you have visited in the past when you needed a change of scenery’, this seems the perfect opportunity to introduce you to a place that I think makes a perfect day trip from London whether you love history, nature or both.
Magna Carta Memorial
The monument to the sealing of Magna Carta sits on the slope of Coopers Hill, overlooking the meadow where that sealing is thought to have taken place. It was erected by the American Bar Association in 1957, reflecting the influence the document had on the US Constitution. It is said that the founding fathers turned to Magna Carta for inspiration and guidance when they drew that up.
The monument is in the style of a small Greek temple. At its centre is a granite pillar on which is inscribed, ‘To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of Freedom Under Law’.
John F Kennedy Memorial
The US links to this site continue with another memorial on Coopers Hill, this one a little higher. The British memorial to President John F. Kennedy was jointly dedicated on 14 May 1965, by the Queen and Jacqueline Kennedy. It consists of a Portland stone tablet inscribed with a famous quote 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.’
There are several oak trees planted near the Magna Carta memorial. One was planted by Narismha Rao, Prime Minister of India, in 1994; one by the Queen in 1987 to mark National Tree Week that year; and one also planted that year by John O. Marsh, Secretary of the US Army, marked by a plaque reading:
‘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.’
Runnymede has changed little since my childhood visits; but there have been a few additions to the sights dotted around the landscape here, in the form of art installations. On the grassy meadow below the Magna Carta and Kennedy memorials is this group of twelve bronze chairs, created by artist Hew Locke to mark the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta in 2015.
The designs on the chairs incorporate imagery representing key moments in the struggle for freedom, rule of law and equal rights. The captions on the images in my gallery describe some of them; click on any one to open a slideshow if interested.
You can see all of the chairs and read about the art work’s symbolism on the National Trust website.
Writ in Water
While I found The Jurors to be both artistically effective and powerful, I was less taken by the other large installation, Writ in Water. This stands on the slope of Coopers Hill not far from the Magna Carta memorial. It should be impressive but the combination of harsh sunlight and dirty water in its central pool made the inscription within the stone tower almost illegible. This inscription is engraved in a metal strip that frames the pool, but in ‘mirror writing’ so as to be read indirectly from its reflection – hence ‘writ in water’. It is taken from Clause 39 of Magna Carta:
‘No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.’
Others have evidently been more impressed than we were, as the installation won the RIBA National Award 2019. This recognises, ‘buildings which have made a significant contribution to architecture in the UK’.
The Thames at Runnymede
But Runnymede isn’t all about history, and many of those who visit, possibly most, are here simply to enjoy its riverside setting; to walk a stretch of the Thames Path, to picnic and play in the sun, maybe enjoy an ice cream. There are also moorings for pleasure boats and barges.
It’s hard however to escape the fact that you are very close to London, only just outside the M25 ring road. At the eastern end of the meadows you can hear the motorway traffic; across the river you see the probably rather expensive homes of commuters whose gardens slope down to its banks; and planes fly fairly overhead at regular intervals as you are in the flight path for Heathrow Airport. Or at least, they do so in ‘normal’ times; one silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic, I guess, was that our recent visits were rather more peaceful with only the occasional jet flying above us. Personally, however I would rather have the planes and no virus, as I am sure most would agree.
Coopers Hill and Langham Pond
On the other side of the meadows from the river are the wooded slopes of Coopers Hill. Here various footpaths lead up to the Commonwealth Air Forces Memorial which commemorates the men and women of the Allied Air Forces who died during the Second World War and records the names of the 20,456 airmen who have no known grave.
Where the wood meets the meadows is tranquil Langham Pond. This was created when the meandering River Thames formed an oxbow lake, and today is a wetland Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The pond and surrounding meadow form a habitat that is considered unique in Southern England and of international importance. There are nationally scarce plants and insects here, including a species of fly unrecorded anywhere else in the United Kingdom! But being unknowledgeable about flies I find myself drawn instead to the beautiful shades of green in this landscape, the waterfowl and the colourful dragon and damselflies. Here at least you can forget how close you are to London and imagine yourself deep in the country.
Here, and above in the woods, you can find wildflowers in the spring and summer; and of course the leaves will turn gorgeous shades of orange and red in the autumn, as they are largely deciduous. Another reason for a return visit later in the year!
Statue of Queen Elizabeth II
In the Runnymede Pleasure Gardens to the east of the National Trust land, where families picnic and locals walk their dogs, stands a larger-than-life bronze statue of Queen Elizabeth II. It was placed here in 2015 to mark the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta. The work of sculptor James Butler, it was inspired by the famous 1954 and 1969 portraits by Pietro Annigoni. It may seem slightly ironic that the anniversary of an event that helped to restrict the power of the monarchy should be marked by the unveiling of a statue of the current monarch, but so it was. And supporters argued, perhaps fairly, that the Queen represents all that is good about our monarchy as it has evolved since those very different times.
In front of the statue two parallel timelines are etched into the paving stones. One shows the successions of kings and queens from King John to Queen Elizabeth II; while the other is described as a ‘democracy timeline’ highlighting significant evolutionary milestones in Britain’s democratic heritage.
In these ‘interesting times’, not just for our country but for the whole world, Runnymede offers us a place to reflect on other events that shaped the course of our history. Perhaps more importantly, it also offers us a place to discover nature on our doorstep and escape the everyday.