Magna Carta – Foundation of Liberty, Runnymede 800

A lot was written last week about the significance of Magna Carta. Almost across the board politicians, academics and commentators explained to us why it was the foundation of many rights we have today, and why it still remains relevant.

“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 other to do so, except by the lawful judgements of his equals or by the law of the land”

It seems to clear to me how that clause (39) has relevance in a lot of UK law today, as well as that of the Commonwealth countries and indeed of the USA.

I was lucky enough to join 4,500 other people at Runnymede, the place where the Great Charter was signed, last Monday to attend a celebration of the day 800 years ago, when the Charter was approved.

The invite came through some voluntary work that I do, several weeks before and offered a secure web site for all of the guests to register their information. Name, address, date of birth as well as ID information (passport or drivers license) were required. About a week before the ticket, with instructions, came in the post.

In order to prevent traffic problems, visitors were directed to various locations in the area where coaches would shuttle them to the site, early enough for us all to be seated ready for a 9am start. Although I don’t live far away, my pickup location at Staines Bus Station is diagonally across London. Joining a throng of builders, cleaners, and other early morning workers I boarded the first Victoria Line at around 5.20am.

First Tube Train

The train was fairly busy but as we crossed through central London it became quieter. Getting off at Vauxhall about 25 minutes later, I located my rail train to Staines. Operating on time, it took about 40 more minutes for me to get to Staines station. A few people got off here, at least one or two smartly dressed ones that I suspected were looking for where I was heading.

South West Trains at Vauxhall

Discrete signs showed us the way, along the railway line path, under the bridge and through the car park, complete with a ‘Red Carpet’

Magna Carta 800 signage

The Red Carpet to the bus station

A further ten minutes and we were in the ‘lovely’ bus station at Staines, where we were directed to wait for our coaches by the marshals and police offices on duty. Fairly soon the coaches turned up, and after a quick security check on the coaches we were loaded for the twenty minute trip to Runnymede. Past security checkpoints, Police officers with firearms and in to the parking area for the coaches we were whisked.

Through a thorough security check – think TSA but with manners and no x-ray machines – we entered the area for guests. 4,500 seats were laid out in areas marked on your ticket.

Runnymede stage

Refreshments were available and as the day started cold and windy, they were most welcome. They had a selection of food too, all of it for sale at a reasonable price by the National Trust, who own the site.

I met colleagues fairly soon afterwards and we went to identify our seats. Fully one third of the chairs were reserved for the American Bar Association who have had a long association with the site. Their conference had been in London the previous week and many had stayed on attend the celebration.

ABA representatives and memorial

Most of the events were to take place on the main stage or in the area of the memorial which is funded by the ABA on a slope to the right of the stage. We had a fairly good view from our seats which were in the front third.

Runnymede 800 - Picking Seats
A wander off to the Memorial revealed that the Royal Navy and Guards were arranging where they were going to stand later in the ceremonies. Unfazed by the great and good wandering between them they got on with their mission.

Runnymede 800 - Guards and Navy

The Sargeant Major (in the centre) was terrifying, especially when telling his officer where to stand.

Runnymede 800 - Guards and Navy

Wandering back to our seats, a series of musical events were laid on to keep people entertained. The Royal Philharmonic and students from Royal Holloway, University of London played a selection of classical music.

Runnymede 800 - London Philharmonic

The band of the Royal Marines marched through an area behind the seating:

Runnymede 800 - Royal Marines Band

At 9am we were all asked to sit down so that we could be welcomed and listen to some further performances. Children brought in banners representing the counties of England, Scotland and Wales designed to represent the particular county from which it came. Young people aged 7-11 designed the flags.

Runnymede 800 - Flag bearers

HRH The Duke of Cambridge then arrived and spent time talking with the designer of a new piece of sculpture installed to make the 800 year anniversary – ‘The Jurors’. The symbolism of a future king taking the 12th seat in the installation was not lost on many.

He then walked through the flags which had been installed by the children and spent time talking to many of them. We were very lucky in that our seats were probably two metres away from HRH.

Runnymede 800 - HRH The Duke Of Cambridge

Runnymede 800 - HRH The Duke Of Cambridge

The Archbishop of Canterbury also walked amongst the children, although I suspect many had little idea who he was.

Runnymede 800 - Archbishop of Canterbury

Her Majesty The Queen and His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh, whizzed past in the car:

Runnymede 800 - The Queen

Several speeches later, including a very political one from the Prime Minister, who wishes to see the UK leave The European Convention on Human Rights, talking about how the concept of ‘rights’ had be brought in to disrepute in recent years.

Runnymede 800 - American Bar Association Memorial

The weather had brightened up as the focus of events switched to the American Bar Association Memorial, where Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal led the ceremony, together with a number of other speakers.

Runnymede 800 - American Bar Association Memorial - Princess Anne

Runnymede 800 - American Bar Association Memorial

The best speech in my view came from the US Attorney General, Loretta E. Lynch. You can read her full remarks here. I was struck by this passage:

Even today, America continues to pursue these goals. We are engaged in initiatives to promote trust and understanding between law enforcement officers and the communities we serve. We are working with partners in the United States and around the world to pursue those who would deny human dignity, whether through trafficking or corruption, violence or terrorism. And we are carrying out a historic reorientation of our criminal justice practices to end an over reliance on incarceration. At every turn, we are driven by that same devotion to the rule of law whose seeds took root in this field so long ago.

She was by far the best in explaining why Magna Carta meant anything these days.

Fairly soon after that the VIPs left through the corridor provided by the Guards. Not, however, before one unfortunate trooper collapsed in the heat. Having stood there for an hour in his bearskin I can understand why. Of course he fell still at attention and still holding his rifle, with an enormous bang. The senior NCOs were on the situation in a moment and he was clearly dazed when he came around, and there was a real concern about his welfare. No feeling he had let the side down, just let’s make sure he is really OK. The rest, of course, continued about their duty. He was walked to the back of the arena to make sure he was OK.

Runnymede 800 - American Bar Association Memorial - Guard of Honour

This concluded the formal events for the day and we went to collect a sandwich lunch. The sun was getting pretty hot by then and I nipped off to get on the coach back to Staines. The Royal Navy marched past on their way to the bus, and the police had their boat on the river to ensure security.

Runnymede 800 - Royal Navy marches away

Runnymede 800

So an interesting day, and I was delighted to have been asked.


  1. Fascinating report! Thanks for describing an event that not many of us will ever see in person.

Comments are closed.