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Subject

Magna Carta

Concept  From 15/6/1215 

There are four surviving original copies of Magna Carta - two in the British Library, one at Lincoln Cathedral and one at Salisbury Cathedral.  The British Library is the place to go to learn about it.  But the modern information board at the Runnymede memorial provides a good, albeit simplified, introduction to how it came about, so we transcribed it for you:

 In 1199 King John ascended the English throne with enormous resources at his disposal – but they were not to last.

A political marriage went disastrously wrong, resulting in John losing his continental lands and earning him the nickname ‘Lackland’.  Furthermore his attempt to keep the lands by force led to a humiliating defeat and the new nickname ‘Softsword’.  The battle of Bovines, in 1214, saw overwhelming victory for Philip Augustus, King of France, and John returned to England and civil war.

The Barons of England were now in open revolt having financed John’s failed war effort.  There was no obvious contender to the throne so they created an alternative: a programme for reform or, as we have come to know it, a Charter of Liberties.

By capturing London in June 1215, the Barons forced John to the negotiating table and it was here, at Runnymede, that the King placed his seal on the Magna Carta on 15 June 1215.  However, this was not to be the Charter’s only incarnation.

John merely saw the document as a means of buying time and by mid-July 1215 he had asked the Pope to annul the document.  Driven to revenge by autumn of the same year, the barons had offered the throne to Louis, son of the King of France, and a bitter civil war ensued.

However, the Magna Carta was not dead.  Upon John’s death in 1216, his 9 year-old son succeeded to the throne as Henry III, and his minority council, appointed to govern in his infancy, resurrected The Charter.

Henry’s strength grew after victories over Louis and his supporters at Lincoln and Dover.  Support for Louis dwindled and in September 1217 he signed a peace treaty on Magna Carta Island and withdrew to France.  The defeat of Louis was used as an opportunity to re-issue the Magna Carta with modifications, including a supplementary charter dealing with forest law.  As this new addition was much smaller, the main charter became known as the ‘big’ charter of Magna Carta.  In 1297 the Magna Carta entered the statute book becoming the first constitutional document in the world.

The use of the Magna Carta in subsequent years as a basis for reform and protection against tyranny has led to the development of democracy throughout the world.  It provides the basis for law and individual rights under clause 39 which states:
‘No free man shall be taken, imprisoned, outlawed, banished or in any way destroyed, nor will we proceed against or prosecute him, except by lawful judgement of his equals and by the law of the land.’

Or as Tony Hancock said in 1959, demonstrating his unique grasp of history: "Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?"

Lady Fairhaven's page gives some history of the Runnymede meadows where most of the memorials to Magna Carta sit but there is no certainty that the charter was sealed here. Having read about a Runnymede memorial to Magna Carta that existed in 1792 we did some more researching and discovered that many historians think the deed was probably done on Magna Carta Island. This is a narrow strip of land (3.7 acres) so close to the north bank that GoogleMaps does not even show it as an island. It is just south of Magna Carta Lane. In Satellite View you can easily see the swimming pool attached to the only house on the island. The island, with this substantial house, is privately owned and was for sale in 2014 (Telegraph, Wall Street Journal).

The Wall Street Journal page quotes the then-owner as saying, about the house: "The building was constructed in the 1600s as a two-room chapel commemorating the Magna Carta. {This surely is the memorial which Thomas Paine mentioned in 1792.} It was expanded over the years and eventually transformed into a large house in 1834 by George Simon Harcourt, the sheriff of the county. The house has a Magna Carta memorial room containing a stone upon which, Mr. Harcourt claimed, King John sealed the document." He also recalls "the rainy day in 1974 when Queen Elizabeth visited the house, planting a walnut tree in the garden to commemorate the signing of the Magna Carta." Now, how can we get an invitation to visit the island, with our camera? 

Go to map of other memorials in this area

This section lists the memorials where the subject on this page is commemorated:
Magna Carta

Information Commemorated at

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71695

Jamestown tree

Virginians seem keen on sending us their soil: in 1921 they gave us a statue ...

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72465

Magna Carta fountain

Interesting that no artist is named for this sculpture. As far as we can tel...

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71679

Magna Carta monument - Runnymede

{At the front of the plinth/wall:} This memorial was dedicated on 28th July ...

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72461

Magna Carta pier - north

In these meads on 15th June 1215 King John, at the instance of deputies from ...

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72464

Magna Carta pier - south

In these meads on 15th June 1215 King John, at the instance of deputies from ...

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