The Magna Carta, a series of concessions wrung out of King John in 1215 by his rebellious barons, is sometimes referred to as the acorn out of which the mighty oak of law and liberty grew. Attention is often drawn to the passage that reads: "No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned... or in any other way destroyed... except by the lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice" (Section 29). The American Bar Association has built a memorial to the signing of the Magna Carta, and a memorial to President Kennedy at Runnymede, in honour of such sentiments. An oak has been planted at the site using soil from Jamestown Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in the United States. This commemorates the American Bicentenary.
Some historians question the revolutionary status of the Magna Carta, suggesting that other charters from France and Germany were claiming the same rights at about the same time. It is also suggested, by Norman Davies in The Isles for example, that an embittered lawyer, removed from his position by King James I in 1616, resurrected and amplified the document's importance. He did this to try and undermine the royal power which had lost him his job. It should also be remembered that the barons who drew up the Magna Carta were not attempting a revolution but were harking back to rights they had lost. Ironically aristocratic power had been eroded by a professionalisation of government which valued merit over status or accident of birth. This process had begun during the reign of John's father Henry II, and gained momentum during John's reign. It was because the barons were being squeezed out of hereditary power by the modern idea of people selected on merit that they demanded their Magna Carta. History is not straightforward, and as W.L. Warren makes clear in his book King John, the Magna Carta was more an attempt to preserve old aristocratic rights than win new democratic ones.
The park of Runnymede near Windsor is a lovely place to reflect on the long and winding road which led to modern conceptions of justice and liberty. An oak tree near the memorial commemorates ideas of American freedom, supposedly based on the tradition first established by the Magna Carta. But as the history of Magna Carta illustrates, liberty and freedom are the most contradictory of ideas. As Eric Foner points out in The Story Of American Freedom many American settlers went to the New World because they wanted to be free to live a more religiously proscriptive life. They wanted to be free to be less free. Runnymede wasn't the birthplace of liberty. Liberty, by its very nature, is too ill-defined to be found in any one place.
There is a network of footpaths, guided walks, a programme of special events, a tea room, and a small shop.
Opening Times: Runnymede is owned by the National Trust and is open to visitors. Please use contact details below.
Address: Runnymede Estate Office, North Lodge, Windsor Road, Old Windsor, Berkshire SL4 2JL
Directions: By road come off the M25 at exit 13 onto the A308. Go past the Runnymede Pleasure Ground and the site of the memorial will be on your left. The turning into the car park didn't seem to be very well signposted. Look out for these two buildings, housing the teashop and gift shop, as a guide to your turning. Runnymede lies three miles east of Windsor. The nearest railway station is Egham, half a mile from Runnymede. Click here for an interactive road and satellite map cented on Runnymede.
Access: for the disabled there is limited designated parking, an adapted toilet, and a Braille guide. The walk to the memorial is over grass.
telephone: 01784 432891