Runnymede is a Thames-side water meadow between Egham and Old Windsor. It is currently managed by the National Trust and is a beautiful though unremarkable example of a ‘Thames Basin Lowland’. Its fame, though, is not due to its topography.
In the north part of Runnymede is an island. It was here, so most historians agree, that on 15 June 1215 King John was compelled by his leading subjects to sign a document addressing their grievances. The name ‘Runnymede’; derives from the Anglo-Saxon for ‘a meeting place in a meadow’. Few place names have better lived up to their linguistic origins.
The document, of course, was Magna Carta. It has been cited as the inspiration for many later expressions of liberty including the English parliament, the English Civil War and the US Constitution. Many people have believed it to have been many things. It¹s easier to describe it in terms of what it was not.
It was not effective, remaining in force for only three months and not preventing civil war. It was not revolutionary, being but one episode in the medieval barons’ constant attempts to force the king to respect their traditional role as his principal advisors. It was not an assertion of individual liberty, rather an attempt to preserve aristocratic privileges. It was not well-observed, being re-issued over 30 times over the following two centuries: indeed, re-issuing Magna Carta was an instinctive response to most late-medieval constitutional crises.
A small island but a large international legacy, however unintentional or misconstrued. Perhaps much the same could be said of Britain itself. As for the name, Magna Carta is the Latin for ‘great charter’. You knew that, of course; even if David Cameron didn’t…
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