Friday, 19 June 2015

Magna Carta Week: The Magna Carta Memorial: Past and Present

The Magna Carta Memorial

Runnymede, Surrey

by Emma Powell
Photographs by and courtesy Jayne and Adrian Smith

The 15 June 1215 is rightly regarded as one of the most notable days in the history of the world. Those who were at Runnymede that day could not know the consequences that were to flow from their proceedings. The granting of Magna Carta marked the road to individual freedom, to Parliamentary democracy and to the supremacy of the law. The principles of Magna Carta, developed over the centuries by the Common Law, are the heritage now, not only of those who live in these Islands, but in countless millions of all races and creeds throughout the world.

--The Magna Carta Trust

Jayne Smith (right) at Magna Carta Memorial
© 2015 Adrian Smith
Runnymede. It is quite disconcerting to learn that nothing marked this historic spot, where constitutional freedom was born, until this memorial was built by the American Bar Association (in recognition of statutes of liberty that were transferred to the American colonies and thus their later basis of law and democracy) and opened in 1957. The memorial and site is today managed by the National Trust and is open to everyone, all year round.

John F. Kennedy Memorial
© 2015 Adrian Smith 
Steps leading to JFK Memorial
© 2015 Adrian Smith

The area of Runnymede has much history going back way before 1215. Of course, there’s no forgetting its proximity to Windsor Castle where King John was staying during that world-changing event in 1215, from the Roman river crossing at nearby Staines-upon-Thames (modern-day Staines Bridge, once part of an important route out of Roman London to Bath), to adjoining Egham Manor, to which Runnymede once belonged. Egham, my birthplace, is now a small, bustling town within a commuter belt but geographically lies next to Runnymede meadows, along the ancient track we know as the A30. Originally Echga’s Ham(let), this ancient settlement became part of the extensive lands belonging to Chertsey Abbey at its founding in 666 A.D. Many Roman finds have been discovered over the years along with Saxon and medieval discoveries. 

View of the river from JFK Memorial
© 2015 Adrian Smith 

Another claim to fame for Egham is the fact it was the inspiration for the famous best-selling 1960 book Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss!  Also known as American author Theodor Seuss Geisel who was briefly stationed in Egham during WWII, he found Egham not to his liking, despite being reminded how green and lush the area was. He is known to have said he did not like a green Egham and cited this as his inspiration for the afore-mentioned book. 

That other, more illustrious tome known as the Domesday Book notes the place as Egeham in 1086 and this is how, in 1215, King John and his barons would have known it. I like to think they may have procured provisions from here! Today, a sculpture of King John and Baron Fitzwalter stand in the town to commemorate the Magna Carta.

Also here were regular meetings of the Witan, Anglo-Saxon council meetings. The name itself, Runnymede, is possibly derived from runieg, meaning meeting place and mede, meaning meadow.  The water meadows have a long history of good-quality hay production, as well as further extending as low marshy land that went as far as what is now Virginia Water and even today, remain a flood plain.

View of Magna Carta Island 
© 2015 Adrian Smith 
From the memorial looking across to the opposite side of the River Thames, is Magna Carta Island.  Some sources say this is also a plausible site where King John signed the Great Charter (so named due to its length, not so much the detail!) but others seem to think it was an area where the barons could retire to. The Thames has possibly changed course occasionally since 1215, so it maybe this site was originally part of Runnymede meadows. Henry III is known to have met Louis, the future Louis VIII  of France here in 1217, and nearby are the ancient ruins of a Benedictine priory and a 2,500-year-old yew tree, both of which would have been witness to the illustrious gathering for the Magna Carta. 

So from the 13 June 2015, this area will be thronged with regattas, memorials, parties and remembrance. And rightly so.

The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail, its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storms may enter, the rain may enter – but the King of England may not enter; all his forces dare not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement.  

--William Pitt the Elder defining Magna Carta (via Daniel Hannan 12.6.15)

American Bar Association Memorial to Magna Carta information board © 2015 Adrian Smith  

The History of Magna Carta information board
© 2015 Adrian Smith 

Emma Powell has been reviewing for us since The Review's debut. She has since joined the admins team and you can find more of Emma's scribblings on her blog here.

Jayne Smith is an admin with The Review since its inception, and a great lover of history and cats. She maintains and manages several related Facebook groups. Jayne and her husband Adrian made a special trip to Runnymede specifically to make the photographs for this entry, for which we are very grateful. Hats off to you, Smiths!


  1. Absolutely smashing blog, Emma! I love how you connected Runnymede to us in ways big and small. And Jayne, awesome pics, thank you so much for making a special trip for them!

  2. Sharon Bennett Connolly19 June 2015 at 09:38

    Great post Emma - lovely photos Jayne. Well done all!

  3. My gratitude to Jayne for the fabulous photos and Emma for this wonderful educational piece. I've garnered so much knowledge from all Our posters this week. This it's a great way to end our Magna Carta Week!