On June 15th 1215, King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta by his rebellious barons. The event has a romantic association for me. My first true love was a nine year old baron called Leigh Dunstan, who made my heart flutter in grade four when he brandished a blackboard pointer under the king’s nose and shouted: ‘Sign here if you please!’
Of the Charter’s 63 clauses, number 39 is the most well known; spelling out the individual’s right to justice and liberty:
‘No man shall be taken, imprisoned, outlawed, banished or in any way destroyed, nor will we proceed against or prosecute him except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land’.
Approaching Runneymede on our journey down The Thames Path, I read my partner Rob a humorous account of the signing of the Magna Carta, written by Marriott Edgar in 1937. The early verses have the Barons, led by Fitzwalter, preparing the Charter. By the fourteenth verse they are about to confront King John, who was enjoying a picnic tea at ‘Runningmead’;
Next day, King John, all unsuspecting,
And having the afternoon free,
To Runningmead Island had taken a boat,
And were having some shrimps for his tea.
He had just pulled the ‘ead off a big ‘un,
And were pinching its tail with his thumb,
When up came a barge load of Barons, who said,
‘We thought you’d be here so we’ve come.’
When they told him they’d brought Magna Charter,
The king seemed to go kind of limp,
But minding his manners he took off his hat
And said ‘Thanks very much, have a shrimp.’
Perhaps the Barons did accept a shrimp from the King. According to the thirteenth century chronicler, Walter of Coventry; ‘At length, after much deliberation, they made friends, the King granting them (the barons) all that they asked and by his charter confirming this. The kiss of peace was exchanged, and homage and fidelity having been renewed, they ate and drank together.’
So they spread Charter out on’t tea table,
And John signed his name like a lamb,
His writing in places was sticky and thick,
Through dipping his pen in the jam.
But subsequently it was all downhill for King John. Trying to deal with more disenchanted Barons in the north, he lost the crown jewels when his baggage wagons sank in the quicksands of Norfolk’s Wash. Arriving at Swineshead Abbey in a foul mood, he ate and drank too much and died ignominiously from an upset stomach.
At Wraysbury, across the river from Egham and the Runnymede meadows, is Ankerwycke, site of an 11th century Benedictine priory, St Marys.
There is also a wonderful old yew tree nearby known as the Ankerwycke Yew. It is believed to be 2,500 years old, and has a girth of 10 metres. This is one of the most atmospheric sites along the Thames.
We once joined a group of interested locals for a National Trust archeological walk around Ankerwycke. Our guide interpreted the ruins, pointed out the old stew ponds, and showed us a channel that brought barges of Chiltern chalk to the priory building site from the Thames. He was just getting into his stride when a row erupted within the group over his passing reference to the Magna Carta. There was a sudden split betweeen Wraysbury (Middlesex) and Egham (Surrey) camps over exactly where the Magna Carta was signed. ‘They always try to claim the credit at Egham, because they’re a lot of bloody snobs’, a Wraysbury woman muttered to me. She and her supporters argued that the Ankerwycke monastery would have been a logical place for the signing, as scribes would have been available to help draft documents. (For the sake of historical accuracy I should point out that the charter would not have been agreed by King John signing it with a quill dipped in jam, but by the applying of wax seals.)
I tried to ease the tension with a joke. ‘A busload of retired Australians pulled up at Runnymede one day and their guide explained: ‘Well ladies and gentlemen, this is where the Magna Carta was signed.’ ‘So when did that happen then?’, one old bloke called out from the back. ‘1215’ , was the reply. ‘ Oh buggar’, said the fellow, looking at his watch. ‘We only missed it by an hour! ‘ I’d like to think my levity helped a bit.
By the time things settled down we were at the old yew tree and I heard the guide’s assistant ask quietly. ‘Are you going to discuss the MC and the YT? He turned pale, shook his head and talked about bluebells and snowdrops. I didn’t blame him for avoiding more conflict, although there is a theory that the Magna Carta was signed under the yew. It was certainly ancient enough to be venerated by 1215. In 1977, the environmentalist David Bellamy and some like minded supporters met under the tree to sign the Green Magna Carta.
THIS PIECE IS A SLIGHTLY ABRIDGED EXTRACT FROM MY BOOK ALL ALONG THE RIVER: TALES FROM THE THAMES. FOR MORE INFORMATION, CLICK HERE.