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.

Blue notes

I ENJOY ENTERING HOUSES in which famous characters once lived. It gives me a thrill to think that I am entering rooms where, for example Samuel Johnson or Benjamin Franklin, once lived and worked. But, how does one know where these personalities once resided? In London, that is quite easy because the homes and places where famous historical characters lingered are marked with blue (usually) plaques recording their occupation of these buildings. In other parts of the world, signing is often attached to the places which were occupied by well-known or, sometimes once famous, men and women.

BLUE BLOG

In London, many of these plaques which are circular with white writing on a blue background. They are known as “blue plaques”.  According to that font of all knowledge, Wikipedia, the first blue plaque scheme was started by the Society of Arts in 1867. The first of these was installed in 1867 (on a house which has since been demolished). It commemorated the birthplace of Lord Byron. Another early one (in King Street, London SW1) commemorates Napoleon III, who “lived here, 1848”. He lived there from February 1847 until September the following year. It is one of, if not the only, blue plaque to be put up whilst the person named on it was still alive.

We are fortunate to live in a part of London rich in blue plaques and similarly purposed plaques of different colours. Kensington was favoured by the rich and famous (in all fields of activity) and remains so. The names on the plaques differ, and that is not surprising, but so do the words describing the nature of the person’s occupancy of the marked buildings. A small plaque in Sheffield Terrace in Kensington, records that the author GK Chesterton was “born” in a house on that street but gives no indication of how long he stayed in that place. In contrast, there is a house not far away which records that “Dame Agatha Christie … lived here 1934-41”, a good length of time, accurately recorded. Incidentally, I have enjoyed strolling through the rooms of Greenway, the house overlooking the River Dart, which she used to own and occupied during her holidays.

Much vaguer than Agatha’s is the plaque in Palace Court, which reads “ALICE MEYNELL 1847-1922 POET AND ESSAYIST lived here”, because it gives the passer-by no clue as to how long the building was home to Ms Meynell (actually she was ‘Mrs’ but as a promoter of women’s rights, she would have probably liked the title ‘Ms). Not far from this plaque, there is another one in Portobello Road. It informs someone walking past that “George Orwell … lived here.” Again, we are not made privy to how long the author of “Animal Farm” and “1984” lived on this street, which in normal, virus-free times is flooded with tourists heading for the Portobello Road street market. It would fill me with a sense of well-being to know I was sharing the same roof as someone as illustrious as, in this case, George Orwell (the pen name of Eric Blair). And, no doubt it would impress some of my friends and family. However, if they knew that Orwell had only lived there for one winter in 1927, they might be less awed.

One of my favourite composers of western classical music is the Finnish Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). The first classical LP I ever bought was his Second Symphony. So, I was excited to find a blue plaque with his name in Gloucester Walk in Kensington. It is a “lived here” plaque. However, according to the memorial, he only lived in this lovely part of London in 1909.  A little research reveals that it was only a few weeks in that year. I think the wording “stayed here” would have been more appropriate than the wording on display. There is a brown circular plaque in Kensington Square, which reveals that “WM Thackeray … lived here”. This is an honest record because the novelist did live in the house from 1846 until 1854. Close to Thackeray’s former home, we can find a blue plaque recalling “TS Eliot (1888-1965) … lived and died here.” He lived there from 1957 until his death. This is also an honestly worded plaque.

I have long been interested in Hungary and the Hungarians. I was excited to discover recently that the Hungarian patriot Louis Kossuth (1802-1894; ‘Kossuth Lajos’, to use the correct Hungarian version of his name) had spent time near where I live in Kensington. His blue plaque is on a house in Chepstow Villas, not far from Portobello Road. According to the plaque, he “stayed here”, rather than “lived here”. He stayed there in 1851, whilst on a three-week lecture tour in England, during which he spoke to the English about Hungarian independence and his exile. Of these three weeks, maybe only a few nights were spent at this address in Kensington, or, he and his family, who did spend another seven years in England, might have lived in the house in Chepstow Villas. Possibly, the plaque should be worded “lived here”, rather than “stayed here”.

Number 18 Melbury Road, near Holland Park and the oddly-shaped Design Museum (formerly, the Commonwealth Institute), offers us two blue plaques, one a “lived here” and the other a “stayed here”. The pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) “Lived and died here”. The other plaque on the building records that Cetshwayo (c. 1832-1884), King of the Zulus, “stayed here in 1882”. When I first spotted this plaque several years ago, I was intrigued, and wrote a little about it (https://londonadam.travellerspoint.com/41/ ) , which I will repeat here:

“Earlier in 1882, this house, built in 1877, hosted a very important guest, King Cetshwayo (Cetshwayo, ka Mpande, c1832-1884), King of the Zulus. After being defeated by the British in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, Cetshwayo was held captive in Cape Town. During his exile, he visited London in 1882:

“On his arrival, 18 Melbury Road … was made more appropriate to his needs and those of his chiefs. The beds, for instance, were reduced to floor level. On waking on 5 August, the ex-king ‘made his way through the various rooms of the house, examining them with curiosity’.

Outside, a huge crowd of people had gathered, eager to see Cetshwayo. The Times described how ‘at times the ex-king would appear for a moment at one of the windows, and he was invariably greeted with cheers’. Cetshwayo himself looked upon the throng ‘as a display of friendly feeling towards him’. By the close of his visit, he had become something of a celebrity.

In an interview given while at Melbury Road, Cetshwayo said that he regarded the war as ‘a calamity’. He had made it clear that the purpose of his visit to England was his restoration to the throne, reasoning that his people wanted him and that there would be another war if he didn’t return. Following a meeting with Gladstone and a visit to Queen Victoria at Osborne House, his reinstatement was agreed.”. The British allowed him to return to Zululand in 1883.”

Would the famous artist have met the African king in Melbury Road? I doubt it because Holman Hunt only moved into his final home from 1903 onwards. However, Cetshwayo might have seen or been seen by another artist Colin Hunter (1841-1904), who lived nearby on Melbury Road from 1877 until his death. His home was destroyed by bombing in 1940. Woodsford Court, built on its site, bears a blue plaque, appropriately of the “lived here” variety. By the way, if you are ever near to it, a leisurely stroll along Melbury Road will delight those fascinated by late Victorian domestic architecture.

For my favourite memorial placed on a building to commemorate its occupancy by a notable person, we must transport ourselves to Palermo in Sicily. The island of Sicily is full of plaques celebrating the temporary presence of Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) in this place or that. This might not be surprising because he did travel a lot around western Sicily while fighting the Bourbons. In a square in Palermo, I spotted a grand marble plaque carved with the words: “In questa illustre casa il 27 Maggio 1860 per sole due ore poso le stanche membra Giuseppe Garibaldi”, which loosely translated means ‘Garibaldi, rested his weary limbs in this illustrious house for only two hours on the 27th of May 1860.” So, it sems that a two-hour stay is enough to bring fame to a building, providing the temporary occupant is worth remembering. I am not sure whether it would be justifiable for one of our local supermarkets used by a former Prime Minister  to put up a plaque with the wording “David Cameron stayed here”, or even “Peter Mandelson shopped here”,  but one can never tell what the future holds.