Why was Magna Carta sealed at Runnymede?
Runnymede – from Old English runieg (council island) and mede (meadow) – was the location for the sealing of the Magna Carta by King John on the fifteenth of June 1215, with the 1225 version becoming the definitive version.
Even though nearby Windsor was a royal residence from the time of Henry I and used for the meetings of the king’s councils, little is known about why Runnymede was chosen for the sealing of such a significant document.
It is an area rich in speculation but without written verification of its claims, therefore much historical opinion and many myths surrounding its origins have emerged over time.
What do we know?
We know from the Magna Carta itself that the charter was sealed at “Ronimed inter Windlesoram et Stanes” (Runnymede between Windsor and Staines), but why a water-meadow and Thames flood plain was chosen in the first place is less certain.
We also know from thirteenth-century sources such as Matthew Paris, Ralph of Coggeshall, Roger of Wendover and the Barnwell Chronicler, however, that the location had been used for assemblies since ancient times and we are told the names of those who apparently attended the sealing of the document.
Although not recorded in Domesday, Runnymede is not without its historical and legendary associations. Its name purportedly derives from the place where King Alfred held his Witanagemot or advisory council, and faces Ankerwycke across the river where Henry VIII reputedly courted Anne Boleyn and the ancient Ankerwycke Yew may have represented to Pagans the intersection of heaven and earth or axis mundi.
Was it a good choice?
Runnymede is situated close to the Roman river crossing at Staines where King John’s barons were residing during the Magna Carta negotiations while he was at Windsor Castle. By using this crossing, the barons would have had direct access to the bank opposite the meadow, perhaps suggesting a fixed location for the agreements.
From a strategic perspective, it was not only equidistant from the bases of the negotiators and politically neutral, but it was also safe. It has restricted access from east and west, thus rendering surprise attacks difficult, and the marshland would be unsuitable for sustained fighting.
There is also a view that Magna Carta Island opposite the meadow was where the charter was actually sealed and Henry III met Louis, future king of France, in 1217. The Charter Stone kept on the island, with a later inscription added, attests to this.
Runnymede is still used today as a site for significant commemoration and is the location of the Magna Carta memorial (erected 1957), the John F. Kennedy memorial (1965), the Commonwealth Air Forces memorial (1953), and the Fairhaven Memorial Lodges (1931).
Although we know verbatim that the Magna Carta was sealed at Runnymede, it is still unclear where exactly this took place. There is much to be said in favour of it being an island, the meadow, or even under the Ankerwycke Yew, but what remains certain is that, irrespective of the precise location of its sealing and its restriction to the rights of an elite, the Magna Carta has come to symbolise the importance attached to individual liberties eight hundred years later.