Runnymede: Exploring Legacies of Rebellion in a Field in Suburban Surrey

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King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta by rebellious barons at Runnymede in 1215 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Apart from playing host to Royal Holloway, Egham’s other claim to fame is Runnymede, the meadow by the river Thames where King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215. It is a significant location in British history, as well as the history of democracy more generally. there are several memorials located on the meadow, maintained by the National Trust. Despite studying at Royal Holloway for over 7 years, I visited the memorials for the first time a few weeks ago.

As you would expect, there is a memorial to Magna Carta at Runnymede. What you might not expect is that it was paid for by American lawyers. The memorial was funded by the American Bar Association, a kind of union for lawyers. Built in 1957, the aesthetics remind me of Captain America. A sloping paths leads from the meadow up to the classical columns, which are surrounded by 10 English oak trees. Magna Carta as a symbol has provided hope and inspiration to campaigners and radicals for hundreds of years. I think in some ways it is more important to Americans than the English, as it is cited as a basis for the American constitution and the Bill of Rights. There certainly are a lot of American connections on Runnymede meadow. As well as the Magna Carta memorial there is the JFK memorial nearby, and an oak tree planted in soil fro, Jamestown, Virginia, which was the first permanent English settlement in America.

magna-carta-memorial

The Magna Carta memorial was built in 1957 and is maintained by the Magna Carta Trust (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

2015 marked the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta. As part of the celebrations, a new piece of art by Hew Locke was installed at Runnymede. Entitled The Jurors, the artwork consists of 12 bronze chairs, each decorated with images and symbols of struggles for freedom and rights. You can pick up a leaflet explaining what each of the chairs represent, and providing a bit of information about the artist and the work’s commission. This leaflet states that “The Jurors is not a memorial, but rather an artwork which challenges us to consider the ongoing significance and influences of Magna Carta.” I found this interesting, and it got me wondering about the difference between a memorial and a piece of art. I would think that a good memorial is just as capable of making people think as art is. From my perspective, I enjoyed searching the chairs for images and symbols I recognised, such as the portrait of Mary Prince, a lesser-known anti-slavery campaigner.

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The Jurors (2015) by Hew Locke is designed to encourage to sit and think or discuss the images and issues represented on the chairs (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The other large memorial is for John F. Kennedy, President of the United States from 1961 until his assassination in 1963. After his death, the British government wanted to establish a memorial somewhere in the UK. They chose Runnymede because of the association with freedom and democracy. The land on which the memorial sits was given to the United States, so when a visitor passes through the entrance gate they are stepping onto American soil. The memorial itself is full of symbolism; 50 steps represent the 50 states, two stone seats represent the King-Queen/ President-Consort relationship, a hawthorn represents Kennedy’s Catholicism, and the overall theme is that of life, death, and progress, taken from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The wide range of metaphors and analogies seem messy on paper, but when I visited the different elements seemed to fit together well; I got a sense of peace and harmony.

jfk-memorial

The JFK memorial has a lot of interesting symbolism involved in its design, and is a lovely place to sit and think (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I visited Runnymede meadow the day after the US presidential election. Despite the busy A308 running alongside the meadow,  it is a wonderfully tranquil place to be, especially on a sunny Wednesday afternoon in late autumn. Visiting the memorials gave me a chance to reflect on the events on the previous day. I was not surprised about Trump’s election, the Brexit vote in the summer has taught me to take nothing for granted in politics, but I was shocked. As I sat on the benches of the memorials I wondered what JFK would make of Donald Trump. I also thought about how Trump relates to the ideals that the magna carta has come to embody; he is a product of democracy, but I fear for his impact on freedom and civil rights. Whatever happens, Runnymede meadow will remain a lovely place to spend a few hours, whether you need a place to think or just somewhere to walk the dog.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. “The Jurors.” No date, accessed 06 January 2017. Available at  http://artatrunnymede.com/

National Trust. “Memorials at Runnymede.” No date, accessed 06 January 2017. Available at https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/runnymede/features/memorials-at-runnymede

One thought on “Runnymede: Exploring Legacies of Rebellion in a Field in Suburban Surrey

  1. I visited Runnymede some years ago on what had to have been the hottest day of the year, and I was too worn out from straggling across an open field in the baking hot sun to appreciate the significance of all the monuments here, so it was great getting to read your descriptions of them! And indeed, I think we’re all going to need a quiet place for contemplation to get us through the next four years or so…

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