The following is a guest post by Geri Silverstone, project director for the Magna Carta 800th Surrey Partnership at the National Trust.
As the phrase clearly states, time marches on and waits for no man, so perhaps it should not come as a surprise to think that we have just a year to go before the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta. This world famous document which has had a direct impact on the legal systems of countries as diverse as the United States and India is surely one of the best exports ever to come out of England. For millions of people around the globe this is where their democratic freedoms lie. And given the tension of today’s geo-politics, the significance of this document is as relevant today as it was when King John was forced to seal it in 1215.
The meeting of the King and the Barons back in the thirteenth century took place on the grassy meadows of Runnymede. The word Runnymede derives from the Anglo-Saxon work for meeting place on the meadows. Nowadays Runnymede is a 300 acre open space adjacent to the River Thames and just a stone’s throw away from Heathrow, the world’s busiest airport. It is a unique site and one full of symbols.At the top of the hill at Runnymede is the Commonwealth Air Forces Memorial building for Air Force personnel who died in combat during World War II but whose bodies have never been found. From here you can look out at what must be one of the most extraordinary landscapes in Britain. To your left in the distance you can see Windsor Castle. This is the castle first built by William the Conqueror. It serves as a reminder of the last invasion by a foreign power, and is also a symbol of our constitutional monarchy as her Majesty the Queen still uses it as one of her official residencies. The castle reminds us of our odd power sharing agreement between the monarchy and the people. And of course the Magna Carta serves as a reminder of the origins of this arrangement.
In the very far distance and on a good day you can catch glimpses of modern London, but slightly closer you can see across the river to Ankerwycke, and the 2,500-year old yew tree. Starting life well before the Romans arrived it was already ancient when the Magna Carta was sealed. It has been part of the landscape of the productive garden of Ankerwycke priory; and it was witness to the priory’s destruction as part of the English Reformation (and possibly where Henry VIII met Anne Boleyn, his second wife). That such an ancient tree should have survived in this landscape seems only right.On the meadows there are more modern memorials. Standing boldly on a slight incline is the American Bar Association’s memorial to Magna Carta and then adjacent to that is the UK’s only official memorial to President Kennedy. Designed by one of the 20th century’s leading landscape architects Geoffrey Jellicoe (who also designed the Moody Gardens in Texas) he drew on John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and is an allegory of life as a journey, and is a fitting memorial in honour of the late President. When the Queen gifted the land to the American people back in 1965 it technically became a piece of American soil – another first in the UK for this site. There are also two 1930s lodges on the edges of the meadows designed by Lutyens and commissioned by Lord Fairhaven (whose family home is Fairhaven Massachusetts). For a place so significant to British history it is interesting how many connections there are to America. For many decades Runnymede has been in the ownership of the National Trust, a very unique British charity which is dedicated to looking after special places forever for everyone in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. And with the 800th anniversary looming the National Trust with the two local councils nearby have plans to upscale what is currently on offer to the visitor and the local community. These plans are truly ambitious in their scale and will be able to show off Runnymede as the jewel in the crown of the Magna Carta story. On a recent trip to the United States I was completely overwhelmed by how much the 800thanniversary is exciting the American people. This passion is also being shared on this side of the pond too. Though being typically British we are slightly more reserved. The Charter Towns are busy making their preparations for the anniversary. Indeed the Dean of Hereford Cathedral has already allowed their version of the Magna Carta to travel to Texas; and the Lincoln version will be making its way in the fall to Washington DC. It seems like not a day goes by without some reference or other being made to the Magna Carta. In the recent elections held here in the UK to the European Parliament, Magna Carta was often cited by British politicians reminding us that our constitutional democracy dates back to the thirteenth century; and on the other end of spectrum just recently the British version of the popular Law and Order TV show featured at the heart of one of their storylines the right of trial by jury, another right afforded to us by the Magna Carta.
So with a year to go until the 800thanniversary, what will be happening in the UK? There will of course be the traditional lectures, and the BBC is making a series of impressive programmes around the Magna Carta. We shall be marking one year to go on the 15th June this year, on the meadows themselves with a family fun day, to remind old and young alike of the Charter’s importance. Eight giant puppets created by local school children will parade along the meadows with around 250 supporters. When the puppets have all assembled there will then be a chance for everyone to come together and have tea (this is England after all) and debate the values of the Magna Carta and what it means today. Each of the puppets represents historic individuals associated with Magna Carta values. For example, from the last Century the famous suffragette Emily Pankhurst is depicted as a puppet and Malala Yousafzai the Pakistani teenager who stood up to the Taliban for the right for girls to go school represents this current century.
It is all go for Magna Carta and Runnymede in particular. Later in the summer we will be announcing which artist has been shortlisted to commission a significant piece of artwork that will be set in the landscape at Runnymede. The artwork chosen will represent the values and spirit of the Magna Carta. This in itself will represent a truly interesting visitor experience to the site. This is indeed a really exciting announcement and will be the first major piece of work to be erected on the meadows for nearly half a century.
Our preparations for June 2015 are also well and truly gearing up. Runnymede for a while will be the focus of the world. An event of such international attention will certainly be remarkable and spellbinding. The guest list for this event will truly be international and will no doubt feature heavily in the US media. It would be great to involve as many people from outside the UK as possible and we are working on ways to make this possible. It would be great to hear what you think?
If you would like to know more about our plans please join our mailing list by emailing [email protected]
The Library of Congress will celebrate the 800th anniversary of the first issue of Magna Carta with a 10-week exhibition “Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor,” opening November 6, 2014 and running through Monday, January 19, 2015. The Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta, one of four remaining originals from 1215, will be on display along with other rare materials from the Library’s rich collections to tell the story of Magna Carta’s influence on the history of political liberty.