The birthplace of democracy

IT SEEMED APPROPRIATE to visit Runnymede, the so-called birthplace of democracy on a day (7th November 2020) when  Donald Trump, the current president of the USA, appears to be losing faith in it and might be about to attempt to undermine it.

Runnymede, a water meadow of the Thames close to Windsor, is close to a former Roman river crossing near the town of Staines. The name is probably derived from the Anglo-Saxon words ‘runieg’, meaning ‘meeting place’, and ‘mede’, meaning ‘meadow’. The ‘Witangemot’, a council of Anglo-Saxon kings, used to meet at Runnymede between the 7th and 11th centuries (AD). This pre-Norman Conquest meeting place was used again on the 15th day of June in 1215, when King John reluctantly signed the Magna Carta in the presence of a group of barons who had met a few months earlier in the Suffolk city of Bury St Edmunds (www.visit-burystedmunds.co.uk/blog/2018/discover-bury-st-edmunds-historic-role-in-the-creation-of-the-magna-carta). Runnymede is the most probable location of the signing, as this is what is written at the end of its text (translation from www.bl.uk/magna-carta/articles/magna-carta-english-translation):

“Given by our hand in the meadow that is called Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines, on the fifteenth day of June in the seventeenth year of our reign.”

The Magna Carta, whose evolution is too detailed to be described here, was, and still, is of great importance because it aims to ensure a fair relationship between the rights of ruler and those of his or her then powerful subjects, his barons, but nowadays its principles have extended to cover all subjects of the realm,  It contains chapters such as:

“In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.” (chapt. 38)

“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.” (chapt. 39)

“In future it shall be lawful for any man to leave and return to our kingdom unharmed and without fear, by land or water, preserving his allegiance to us, except in time of war, for some short period, for the common benefit of the realm. People that have been imprisoned or outlawed in accordance with the law of the land, people from a country that is at war with us, and merchants – who shall be dealt with as stated above – are excepted from this provision.” (chapt. 42)

“We will appoint as justices, constables, sheriffs, or other officials, only men that know the law of the realm and are minded to keep it well.” (chapt. 45)

The Magna Carta includes a number of items that are hardly relevant in the modern world, but those such as I have quoted above are deeply relevant and extremely important. However, the document signed by King John has some elements that illustrate attitudes that we would consider unacceptable today, notably antagonism to Jewish people as can be seen in chapter 10:

“If anyone who has borrowed a sum of money from Jews dies before the debt has been repaid, his heir shall pay no interest on the debt for so long as he remains under age, irrespective of whom he holds his lands …”, and in chapter 11:

“If a man dies owing money to Jews, his wife may have her dower and pay nothing towards the debt from it. If he leaves children that are under age, their needs may also be provided for on a scale appropriate to the size of his holding of lands…”

Seventy-five years after the signing at Runnymede, King Edward I issued an edict expelling all Jews from the Kingdom of England, thus throwing into question whether or not everyone in England was protected by the mostly virtuous intentions of Magna Carta.

In brief, Runnymede was the site of the signing a far-reaching document of great importance to the rights of citizens. Several centuries later, the Magna Carta influenced the formulation of the Constitution of the USA in the late 18th century. The area of Runnymede is now maintained by the National Trust. It contains several monuments and artworks relating to the historic significance of the place.

On arrival at the parking place, we passed a sign that reads:

“Runnymede. A home to politics and picnics for over 1000 years.”

The car park is next to one of a pair of lodges designed by Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944), son-in-law of Edward Robert Lytton Bulwer-Lytton (1831-1891) the Viceroy of India from 1876-1880, and the architect of some of the government buildings in New Delhi. The lodges were built between 1930 and 1932.  They are not the only connection between Runnymede and India as I will explain soon.

During our visit to Runnymede on a crisp sunny morning, we walked across the muddy ground to four features of interest in its meadows dotted with lovely trees, many of them oaks. The first place we reached is a cylindrical stone monument standing within a ring of eight square pillars that support a circular ring whose centre is open to the sky. It is approached via a staircase with names carved in its steps. These are the names of lawyers from the USA. The cylindrical stone bears the words:

“To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of freedom under law”

This monument was designed by the English architect Sir Edward Maufe (1883-1974) and erected by the American Bar Association in 1957.

The American monument stands a few feet above the base of an oak tree, which is growing beside a square marble stone that bears the words:

“Quercus robur, planted by PV Narasimha Rao, Prime Minister of the Republic of India, as a tribute to the historic Magna Carta, a source of inspiration throughout the world, and as an affirmation of the values of Freedom, Democracy, and the Rule of Law, which the people of India cherish and have enshrined in their constitution. March 16 1994”

‘Quercus robur’ is a type of oak tree and Rao (1921-2004), a member of the Indian National Congress Party, was Prime Minister of India from 1991 to 1996.

Twelve bronze chairs are placed in the midst of the meadow closest to the raised wooded area containing the American and Indian monuments. They are arranged in two rows of five facing each other with another two chairs at the two ends of what is effectively a rectangular dining table with the table removed.  Each chair back’s two surfaces are decorated with bas-reliefs, one facing the chair opposite it and the other away from it. The bas-reliefs depict the various people, events, and ideas resulting from the ideas expressed  in the Magna Carta. One of them depicts Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954), a Parsi, the first Indian woman to practise law in India. Another depicts Mahatma Gandhi’s portable spinning wheel, his symbol of resistance to the importation of British goods to India. Other motifs are described in an informative website, https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/runnymede/features/what-does-the-jurors-represent . Seeing the empty chairs set out so formally in the field made me feel as though someone had put them there in readiness for King John’s famous meeting with the barons in June 1215. This effective and moving artwork was created by Hew Locke (born 1959) for the 800th anniversary of the signing of the charter. It is quite likely that the sun would have been shining as brightly on that significant day as it did when we visited Runnymede.

Dramatic as is Locke’s work at Runnymede, it is rivalled, or, better, complemented, by another fantastic creation not far away.  From the outside, it looks like a recently constructed circular military bunker with a tall entrance in its wall. Step inside and you find yourself in a dark passageway that runs parallel with the outer wall and another inner circular wall. Soon, you reach an opening in the inner concentric wall. This leads into a circular chamber lit by daylight coming through a circular orifice in its ceiling. The inner circular chamber contains a circular pool of water surrounded by a metal band in which words are written as a mirror image, just like the way that Leonardo da Vinci used to write. The words are reflected in the water, where they appear the right way round. They spell out the words of chapter 39 of the Magna Carta (translated into English). The effect is both dramatic and very moving. The artwork is called “Writ in Water”, the words coming from the inscription on the gravestone of the poet John Keats, which are:

“Here lies one whose name was writ in water”.

This spectacular piece of art was designed by Mark Wallinger (born 1959) as a place to reflect on the principles of democracy that were born at Runnymede in 1215. It was completed in 2018 and it alone is a good reason to visit Runnymede.

While I was writing this, news began arriving from the USA. It suggested that barring any devious surprises from the current president of the USA, the democratic process in the USA might well have a chance of remaining guided by the noble principles enshrined in Magna Carta under a new president, Mr Joseph Biden.

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