Sophie Campbell



Runnymede joins the dots

April 2, 2018

In the middle of a water meadow at Runnymede, a short drive from Windsor Castle, sits Hew Locke’s thoughtful artwork The Jurors. It was made for the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the short-lived agreement with long-lasting implications, brokered between King John and his barons in June 1215.

Twelve bronze chairs, alive with symbols of freedom and restraint, of law and its abuses, of human rights and what happens when you don’t have any, sit around an empty space.

Hew Locke's 'The Jurors', Runnymede SC

Which says it all, because at the heart of this site, arguably one of the most significant in western political history, is an empty space. We don’t know precisely where the barons presented their demands to the King. We don’t have a record of the exchange between monarch and subjects. We don’t even have an intact seal on the four iterations of the 1215 document, which in any case was replaced by the 1225 version under the boy king Henry III.

We do have Runnymede, though, where the barons were encamped, and Wraysbury, on the other side of the River Thames, where the King was stationed. There’s a Magna Carta Island, but no evidence of its role that day. Beyond that, nothing. It’s tempting to think that for the past 90 years or so we’ve been trying to fill in the gaps.

Jurors detailing SC
Floral symbols SC
Refugee boat SC

Runnymede Meadow was given to the National Trust in 1929 by the widow of Sir Urban Broughton, its owner. She also commissioned the enclosing stone gates and lodges from Edwin Lutyens (South Lodge is now the very jolly Magna Carta Tearoom.)

In 1953, Edward Maufe’s memorial to the 20,456 Allied Air Force men and women who died with no known grave rose high above the site on Cooper’s Hill.

ABA Memorial ceiling SC
JFK Memorial SC

And in 1957 the American Bar Association, mindful of Magna Carta’s influence on the Bill of Rights, commissioned Maufe to build a delicate stone memorial, a flattened dome on a circle of columns, with stars on its ceiling. That was joined by Geoffrey Jellicoe’s sensitive 1965 tribute to the assassinated John F Kennedy, on an acre of land donated to America by the Queen, approached by a pilgrims’ trail of thousands of uneven steps.

Mark Wallinger's incomplete 'Writ in Water' SC

Now the artist Mark Wallinger is working on a new structure called Writ in Water, which aims to make more sense of the site and will be unveiled in the summer. And the National Trust has a Heritage Lottery Fund development grant for a potential ferry crossing from Runnymede to Ankerwycke.

There is a school of thought that believes that the most likely place for the Great Charter negotiations to have taken place would have been beneath the Ankerwycke Yew, now 2,500 years old, but tricky to reach from the Runnymede side. It already had centuries of history behind it as meeting place by the summer of 1215.

So fingers crossed for a ferry, which will re-draw the historical landscape at a stroke, and let’s see what the always-intriguing Wallinger produces to add to our understanding.

Then perhaps it’s time to stop adding more interpretation, and to let the site speak for itself.

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