We're in the middle of a heatwave, so I'm enjoying my lunch on a picnic table outside the café, gazing across a road at the banks of the Thames in Surrey. The mighty watercourse is attractive here, its 'lissom reeds' disturbed only by the rummagings of waterfowl and the ripples from occasionally passing riverboats. It is a quintessential English scene, its serenity somewhat belying the fact that this area holds a remarkable and resilient place in the national psyche. I glance to my left, across a huge meadow. Somewhere in this vicinity, over eight centuries ago, a document was signed. Initially unsuccessful, it was re-issued many times and has since come to be regarded globally as a beacon of freedom and liberty.
|King John signing the Great Charter|
My appetite for soup has been sated, so now I need to do something about my appetite for history. I actually made a start on that before lunch, by paying a visit to the peaceful churchyard a short distance west at Old Windsor, and tracing the resting places of a few historical persons... the Regency courtesan, actress and author Mary Robinson, a wife of the playwright/politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and the artist Thomas Sandby.
|Tomb of Mary Robinson, the Regency celebrity known as 'Perdita'|
I cross the road and glance back at the pavilion which hosts the National Trust café, and the two Portland Stone plinths that mark the entrance to this historic area. These were all designed in the 1930's by Edwin Lutyens, the celebrated sculptor responsible for the Whitehall Cenotaph and the fountains in Trafalgar Square (his godfather, after whom he was named, was Edwin Landseer, who sculpted the lions at the base of the Nelson Column). They were created to commemorate both Magna Carta and a local gentleman named Urban Broughton.
|The Lutyen plinths|
Urban Broughton, quite aside from his wonderful name, was an interesting chap. He was a civil engineer who emigrated to America in 1887, made a fortune, then returned to England in 1912 with a wife and two sons. He became MP for Preston, and used his wealth and connections for various acts of philanthropy. Nominated for a peerage, he sadly passed away in 1929 before he could take up his position in the House Of Lords.
In the meantime, trouble was brewing regarding the future of these historic watermeadows. In the aftermath of the First World War, there was a considerable public debt and the coalition government were eager to reduce it. One proposal was to privatise these watermeadows, as even the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, thought they would be an excellent venue for a fairground. In 1921, they were put up for auction.
This did not sit well with some people, including a remarkable woman called Helena Normanton. She was an ardent campaigner for women's rights, and became the first female barrister in England. She wrote to newspapers in protest, and gathered a group of supporters including the Marquess of Lincolnshire and local vicar Albert Tranter, who declared that he would 'throw into the Thames any auctioneer' who would attempt to sell the meadows.
The Government withdrew the sale, but Helena knew that the future of the meadows was far from secure. She continued to keep up the pressure, maintaining the high profile of Magna Carta's birthplace in the public eye. In 1929, Urban Broughton died, and his widow joined the cause. Now styled as Lady Fairchild, she and her sons purchased the meadows in 1929 and, two years later, donated them to the NT. Their future was secure..
I stroll along the riverbank, observing willows bowing and brushing the running water, watching waterfowl dabble and dragonflies dart. I glimpse the remains of Ankerwycke Priory, in the grounds of which stands a yew tree said to be 2,500 years old - making it the only structure in the landscape that was standing when Magna Carta was signed.
The track is part of the Thames Path, which runs from Lechlade in Gloucestershire to within a few miles of my home in SouthEast Essex. Kipling, whose evocative home in Sussex is another NT property, wrote poetry about this stretch.
At Runnymede, at Runnymede!
What say the reeds at Runnymede?
The lissom reeds that give and take,
That bend so far, but never break,
They keep the sleepy Thames awake
With tales of John at Runnymede.
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!
'When through our ranks the Barons came,
With little thought of praise or blame,
But resolute to play the game,
They lumbered up to Runnymede;
And there they launched in solid line
The first attack on Right Divine -
The curt, uncompromising "Sign!"
That settled John at Runnymede.
'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.'
I reach a point where the road and the river begin to diverge. I cross, pass through a gate and stand at the edge of the watermeadows. To my left, the floodplain known as Runnymede. To my right, the floodplain known as Longmede. Ahead, the wooded slopes of Cooper's Hill. I stand at a crossroads of history.
As I stroll toward Cooper's Hill, I consider the vissicitudes of Magna Carta, and its meaning across the centuries.
The discontent of the Barons began in the reign of the King's older brother, Richard the Lionheart. He spent a mere six months of his ten-year reign in England, the rest of his time being spent with the Third Crusade, fighting for his lands in France, or being held prisoner in Austria. This cost plenty of money, which Richard raised with a merciless series of taxes. When John came to the throne, he continued to hammer his Barons for money, mostly to defend his territories. He also developed a clique of favourites, many of them French, to whom he granted land and castles in England, and his court became infamous for intrigue and cruelty. He turned against one of his close allies, Baron de Braose, forcing him into exile, then imprisoning his wife and eldest son and starving them to death. The Barons reached a point where they had had enough, and began to discuss ways to curtail the monarch's almost limitless powers. John responded by capturing some baronial castles, but then the powerful City of London declared support for the Barons' cause. John found himself with no choice but to negotiate a settlement.
Magna Carta, as a bastion of freedom and democracy, is mostly symbolic. In reality it is mostly reactionary, seeking a return to older forms of governance and a balance between the various elements of the feudal system. The points with the most relevance today are those that deal with the right to a fair trial and the right not to be imprisoned unlawfully... elements that later formed the basis of Habeus Corpus.
|One of the survivng copies of Magna Carta|
John and the Barons met here at Runnymede, and on the 15th June 1215, the beleaguered King reluctantly capitulated to their demands and signed the Great Charter. By September, full of resentment, he reneged on the deal.
John announced that he rejected Magna Carta, and had the Pope annul it. This led, unsurprisingly, to the First Baron's War. John and his allies marched around the country, laying seige to rebellious castles such as Rochester (which was undermined and had one of its towers destroyed), while the Barons allied with Prince Louis of France, who crossed the Channel and laid seige to the loyalist Dover Castle.
|Looking chuffed to bits, John signs the Charter|
In October 1216, in the midst of this crisis, King John took ill at Newark and died of dysentery, although many have speculated that he was poisoned. The crown passed to his nine year old son Henry III, with the very able William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, acting as Regent. Marshall kicked out Prince Louis after the Battle of Lincoln and the naval Battle of Sandwich, and reissued Magna Carta in 1217. Some of its clauses were reissued in a separate document known as the Charter of the Forest, and to distinguish the two, the older document was called magna carta libertatum. It was reissued several times during Henry's reign to placate the Barons at rocky times, and also reissued by his son Edward I. It has been invoked ever since during periods of political uncertainty, and was considered an exemplar of democratic process by later politicians such as America's Founding Fathers.
|John's tomb at Worcester Cathedral. The historian Dr Ben Robinson on the left, the historian Prince Vulpine in the background|
|View of Windsor and Runnymede from Cooper's Hill, after EJ Niemann|
The Commonwealth Air Forces Memorial was designed by Sir Edward Maufe and unveiled in October 1953 by our new Queen. It commemorates over twenty thousand pilots who died in the Second World War.
The quote from the Queen, spoken at the opening ceremony, reflects the siting of the Memorial above Runnymede with its reference to 'free men'.
I descend through the woods, reaching the point where the trees give way to the meadow, and stroll along the treeline. Pretty soon, I encounter one of Runnymede's more recent memorials, the remarkable 'Writ in Water'.
|Writ in Water|
This was created by the artist Mark Wallinger in collaboration with Studio Octopi. A plain circle, situated at the liminal point where the incline of Cooper's Hill meets the even ground of Longmede, its entrance takes you into a circular corridor which leads to an inner sanctum.
A round pool sits in its centre, light provided by an oculus that reflects the shape of the pool. Laser-cut into the steel rim of the pool are the words of Magna Carta's Clause 39:
'No man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights and 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'.
They are in reverse lettering, and can only be read properly in the reflection. Writ in water indeed. The phrase comes from the epitaph on the poet John Keat's gravestone, still extant in Rome's Protestant Cemetery: 'Here lies one whose name was writ in water'. It reflects Keat's mistaken belief that both he and his poetry would become forgotten after his death.
|The pool and the quote|
I follow the edge of the field until I encounter another monument, the American Bar Association Memorial, more commonly called the Magna Carta Memorial. It was commisioned in 1957 as a Greek Temple in Portland Stone and, like the Air Force Memorial at the top of the hill, was designed by Sir Edward Maufe. Its central pillar reads 'To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of freedom under law.' It stands, an Arcadian echo in the Surrey countryside. One almost expects to see nymphs and satyrs peeping from behind the trees.
|A Greek Temple in Surrey|
Still further along the treeline is a patch of land gifted to the United States, and a flight of steps leads to the Kennedy Memorial.
|American property, also in Surrey|
Designed by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe and unveiled by the Queen in 1965, in the presence of the late President's wife Jacqueline and his doomed brother Robert. It is a large Portland rectangle containing a quote from JFK's 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 ensure the survival and success of liberty.'
Nearby stands the Jamestown Oak, planted in 1987 with soil from the first permanent English settlement in North America. It commemorates the bicentenary of the US Constitution. Other trees in the area are fronted by plaques revealing their planting by various dignitaries over the years, including one in the grounds of the Bar Association Memorial that was planted by the Prime Minister of India.
Across the meadow, I can see the Lutyen building where I had my lunch. After my explorations I'm feeling somewhat peckish again, and my thoughts drift to the Thameside pub restaurant I passed earlier while driving here from Old Windsor, a nicely sited Harvester. I strike diagonally across the meadow to return to my car, passing the final art installation of the day: The Jurors.
Created by the artist Hew Locke, the installation consists of a dozen bronze chairs surrounding an invisible table. The chairs are richly decorated with 'images and struggles relating to past and ongoing struggles for freedom, rule of law and equal rights'. These images include allusions to suffragism, environmentalism, slavery and religion. Each explores the principles of freedom that the Magna Carta was meant to enshrine.
Back to the car, and a few minutes later I am safely ensconced in the Harvester that overlooks the river between Runnymede and Old Windsor. It is Ladies' Day at Ascot, and the Queen is in attendance; the local traffic is a little busier than usual. I order a refillable drink and a meal that originated in the maritime, and choose a window seat to await its delivery. The Thames rolls past, carrying egrets and canal boats, whispering through the lissom reeds as it rolls indefatigably toward the lively chaos of the capital. Its journey remains overlooked by an ancient Ankerwycke tree, a mighty yew with branches that shiver and whisper as they remember ages past, recalling times of flowing waters, of kings and pageantry and documents. As constant as the principles of liberty.