Runnymede and Magna Carta

On the 15th June 1215, a Surrey meadow was the setting for one of the defining events in English history, when King John gave his grudging assent to a Charter of Liberties curbing royal power. The Charter is now known throughout the world as Magna Carta.

Opposition to King John
The sequence of events that was to culminate in the meeting at Runnymede began with local opposition to John’s levying of taxes to pay for his campaigns in 1214. The resistance began in the north of England and spread to East Anglia. By the beginning of 1215, as John refused the rebels’ demands, England tottered on the brink of civil war. At Stony Stratford the rebels renounced their oaths of homage to the king, in effect declaring war on him. With the fall of London to the barons in May, John was obliged to negotiate. He moved from Odiham in Hampshire to Windsor, while the advance guard of the barons moved west to Staines. Runnymede, where the two sides met, was half-way between.

On June 15 in a formal peace-making ceremony at Runnymede John gave his assent to the Charter of Liberties. Four days later oaths were sworn by the two sides to observe the terms of the Charter, and the barons then renewed their homage. The making of Magna Carta ended one civil war, and it was shortly to start another, the war of Magna Carta.  It was not until 1225, when John’s son Henry III reissued the charter, that it achieved official status and became England’s basic law, the essential ground-rules for the working of political society. 

Only four clauses of the original 1215 version of Magna Carta remain on the statute book today.  These are clauses 1 and 13, guaranteeing the liberties of the Church and the City of London respectively, and the famous clauses 39 and 40, which assure free and fair justice.

Nevertheless, Magna Carta is the cornerstone of our liberties, a source of inspiration for people all over the world seeking liberty, and a reminder of the importance of the rule of law in shaping human society.  Runnymede, where the terms of the Charter were agreed, is for many a hallowed site.  It was acquired for the nation in 1929 and is today owned and maintained by the National Trust. 

Edited from a text by Professor Nigel Saul, Royal Holloway, University of London.

You can visit the site at Runnymede as its owned and managed by the National Trust.  Left as an open water meadow, the area is very similar to what King John and the Barons would have seen.  There are memorials to the event on the site, recognising its importance in history.

2015 was the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta, and events up and down the country took place including a ceremony attended by HM The Queen and other members of the Royal family.

You can see original copies of Magna Carta at Salisbury Cathedral in Wiltshire and at the British Library in London.

You can learn more about Magna Carta by looking at the Exploring Surrey's Past website.

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