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The history of Runnymede and Ankerwycke

The circular domed structure supported on columns of the Magna Carta memorial at Runnymede and Ankerwycke, Surrey
The Magna Carta Memorial at Runnymede, Surrey, marking the spot where the Great Charter was sealed | © National Trust Images/John Miller

These two areas of countryside on opposite sides of the Thames include the spot where the Magna Carta was sealed, the ruins of a 12th-century priory, and an ancient tree with a royal past. They’ve also been home to 16th- and 19th-century mansions, and even a 1930s night club.

Runnymede and the Magna Carta

Runnymede’s most famous role in history is as the site of the sealing of the Magna Carta, the ‘Great Charter of Freedoms’.

Sealed in 1215 by King John, the Magna Carta aimed to bring England’s sovereigns under the rule of law and was the foundation for the country’s legal system.

Background to the signing

In 1215, England was in political turmoil. King John had become hugely unpopular, thanks to a feud with the Church, a reputation for cruelty and connivance, and a costly ongoing war with France that led to him raising taxes for his Barons, the country’s major landowners. 

An alliance of rebel Barons had tried for years to curb John's cruelty. In early 1215 they took control of London, leaving the King no choice but to negotiate in order to avoid civil war. 

On 15 June 1215, King John met the Barons at Runnymede and finally signed – or, more accurately, put his seal to – the Magna Carta. 

A young girl with a dog exploring the Magna Carta Memorial, Runnymede, Surrey, showing the inscription 'To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of freedom under law'. The memorial marks the spot where the Magna Carta was sealed in 1215.
The inscription on the Magna Carta Memorial at Runnymede, commemorating its role in founding the rule of law | © National Trust Images/John Millar

What did the Magna Carta say? 

The Magna Carta required England’s sovereigns to obey the law, just as their subjects must.

A total of 63 clauses protected the freedom of the Church, prevented the king from levying taxes without discussion and ensured legal protection – at least for some – against an otherwise tyrannical ruler.

The most famous and important of these clauses enshrined the right of ‘free men’ to justice and a fair trial. 

Although ‘free men’ at this time only referred to powerful landowners like the Barons, and members of trade guilds, this passage has acquired symbolic significance over the years.

Today, it is one of three original clauses of the Magna Carta that are still preserved in British law. 

Why was it signed at Runnymede? 

By the end of May the King had retreated to his fortress at Windsor Castle, so the Barons rode out to meet him, setting up camp on the north side of the River Thames at Staines. 

We know from 13th century sources that the field of Runnymede had been used for outdoor council meetings since ancient times.

It was also halfway between the two camps, and was bounded by the Thames to the north and Cooper’s Hill to the south, making a surprise attack unlikely. 

How important is the Magna Carta? 

King John had the Magna Carta revoked by the Pope almost immediately after it was signed, and the Barons and the King went to war. 

But the signing of this first Great Charter led to further versions. After John's death in 1216, his son King Henry III issued three revised and expanded Charters that paved the way for an English legal system. 

In fact, numerous constitutional documents – from the 1791 United States Bill of Rights to the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights – were inspired by this landmark charter of individual rights and freedoms signed on that summer day in 1215 at Runnymede. 

How Runnymede was saved

For centuries Runnymede has been part of the manor of Egham and was used as common land on which the livelihoods of hundreds of people depended: as pasture for cattle, sheep, goats and horses during part of the year and as hay for their animals in the winter months.

Egham Races

By 1813, Runnymede's status came under threat, but the Runnymede Enclosure Act of 1814 prevented its development. This was not because of its history, but because it had been used for the annual Egham Horse Races since the late 18th century.

After the First World War, the government was looking for sources of funding and the sale of Runnymede was debated in Parliament. This time, the history of the site prompted the formation of the Magna Carta Commemoration Society (later the Magna Carta Society) in 1923 which actively campaigned for its rescue.

An American heiress, Cara Leyland Rogers, Lady Fairhaven (1867-1939) who lived nearby provided the money to buy Runnymede in 1929 and entrusted it to the care of the National Trust. She commissioned the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869 –1944), to design the two lodges and the two kiosks at either end of the site, which, alongside four tall stone monuments with urns, commemorate Magna Carta and her husband Sir Urban Broughton, to whom she dedicated her gift to the Trust.

This rectangular block of pale Portland stone is a memorial to assassinated US president John F Kennedy, and is carved with words from his inaugural address in 1961
This memorial to assassinated US president John F Kennedy features words from his inaugural address in 1961 | © National Trust Images/John Millar

Runnymede today

Runnymede is still used today as a site for significant commemorative events and is the location of national and international memorials and major works of art, celebrating the ideals represent by the Magna Carta.

Its symbolic significance in the story of democracy meant that it was chosen as the site of UK's memorial to President John F. Kennedy following his assassination. On 14 May 1965, Her Majesty was joined by President Kennedy’s widow, Jackie, and their two children to inaugurate the memorial. During her speech, The Queen formally bequeathed the acre of land on which the Portland stone cupola is set to the United States.

John F Kennedy Memorial Video

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John F Kennedy Memorial

This video tells the story of the John F Kennedy Memorial and why it is located at Runnymede.

View of two walls of St Mary's Priory ruins where recent conservation work has taken place.
The ruins of the medieval St Mary's Priory at Ankerwycke | © NT Archaeology

The history of Ankerwycke

Ankerwycke is named after an enclosure where an anchorite – a solitary nun or monk – once lived and is home to the remains of a 12th-century priory, and an ancient yew tree.

It’s also been the site of some opulent mansion houses and even a nightclub. 

The Ankerwycke Yew

The Ankerwycke Yew is a piece of history in itself. Dating from well before the time of Christ, this gnarled and twisted tree is thought to have been around for as long as 2,500 years, making it the oldest tree in the care of the National Trust.

But its historical relevance doesn’t end there. King Henry VIII is said to have courted Anne Boleyn beneath the Ankerwycke yew – and some even believe it is the real site where the Magna Carta was sealed.

Ankerwycke Priory 

Founded in the 1160s, this secluded priory was a Benedictine nunnery dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene for nearly four centuries, until King Henry VIII disbanded the Catholic Church in the 16th century.

Although its walls are now in ruins, its tranquil atmosphere remains. 

Home to a royal courtier

Later in the 16th century, Ankerwycke was owned by the Tudor diplomat, academic and courtier Sir Thomas Smith.

Sir Thomas transformed Ankerwycke into parkland and a formal garden for his new riverside mansion, which once hosted Queen Elizabeth I. 

Read about archaeological investigations at Ankerwycke.

A Georgian country seat

In 1804, Sir Thomas's house was demolished and a Georgian house and farming estate built in its place.

Its owner, John Blagrove had returned to England after making his fortune as a plantation owner in Jamaica. He used his wealth to create a country seat for himself and his family, with tree-lined carriage drives and a fashionable pleasure garden close to Windsor Castle. 

A 1930s nightclub

In the 1930s, the Georgian mansion was repurposed as the Santa Monica nightclub. With its own riverside swimming pool, it was a haunt for movie stars from the nearby film studios at Elstree and Pinewood.

In 1937, after the club closed, Buckingham County Council bought the site to protect it from future development and keep it as part of the green belt around London. 

By the 1960s, the house was in ruins. In the 1990s, the land was taken into the care of the National Trust.

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Immerse yourself in history

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