Magna Carta Island
Magna Carta Island is on the right bank (North East) and, as far as navigation is concerned,
is only by courtesy now an Island.
The only channel is to the South West of it.
The name comes from this being the traditional site of the signing of Magna Carta. All the other Magna Carta references are to Runnymede, on the Left bank, the other side of the river.
1215: June 15th, the signing of Magna Carta
1810: John Evans -
Near Runnymede, on the river Thames, is Magna Charta Island, said to be the temporary and fortified residence of the Barons, to which they retired from the pressure of the surrounding multitude assembled on Runnymede, that they might have a better opportunity of obtaining the signature of King John confirming the rights held under that palladium of our Liberty; it is now nearly covered with willows that shade the hut of the fisherman.
1859: The Thames, Mr & Mrs Hall
MAGNA CHARTA ISLAND
The small ait or island — Magna Charta Island — is situate midway
between Runnymede and Ankerwyke — now a modern mansion of the
Harcourts, but once a nunnery, founded by Sir Gilbert de Montfichet and
his son, in the reign of Henry II. Even the walls are all gone; but
some ancient trees remain, under one of which tradition states the eighth
Henry met and wooed tbe beautiful and unfortunate Anna Boleyn.
It is a mooted point whether the barons held the island, or the king selected it as the place where the eventful meeting was to take place. In Tighe and Davis's "Annals of Windsor", the name of Runnymede, which the field then bore, and still retains, is said to be derived from Run and mede, signifying in Anglo-Saxon, the Council Meadow. It is probable, therefore, that Edward the Confessor occasionally held his witan or council there during his residence at Old Windsor, and that the barons chose the ait as well on account of its previous association with those very rights they met to assert, as because it was a convenient distance from Windsor, sufficiently near for the king, but far enough removed to prevent any treacherous surprise by his forces. The early historians, indeed, expressly assert that the spot was chosen by the barons, the king, according to some, having suggested Windsor as the place of meeting.
According to local tradition, the conference took place and the charter was signed on a little island in the river near Ankerwyke, and opposite the meadow, and now called Magna Charta Island. The Charter bears date June 15, 1215. It is certain that John "took refuge in Windsor Castle in 1215, as a place of security against the growing power of the barons"; nor did he quit the protection its walls afforded him until after the signing of Magna Charta. The result of this great political gathering is one of the events in the world's history. Hence, as Hume hut coldly writes, "very important liberties and privileges were either granted or secured to every order of men in the kingdom: to the clergy, to the barons, and to the people."
Magna Charta may be considered as a general condensation of the laws for the proper guidance of the kingdom, and the liberty of its subjects, which had descended from the time of Edward the Confessor, and had been confirmed by other kings, particularly the Conqueror. The severe forest laws, and other obnoxious introductions of Norman usage, were always distasteful to Englishmen; and on the accession of Henry I. the celebrated Charter of liberties abolished many vexatious enactments, and placed the right of the subject on a clearer basis. Stephen and Henry II. both confirmed these laws; but the troublesome days which succeeded supplied excuses for their infringement, and the gradual encroachment of the crown on the general privileges of the subject, induced the barons and people to demand from John a clear and full declaration of their rights, to be solemnly confirmed for ever.
There has long been preserved in our British Museum an ancient
Charter which purports to be that which John signed at Runnymede.
It is part of the manuscript treasures so industriously collected by Sir
Robert Cotton; there is a somewhat curious history of its discovery by
Sir Robert at his tailor's, just when he was about to cut it into strips for
measures. The story is related by Paul Colomies, who long resided in
England; but the indefatigable historian of Magna Charta, Mr. Richard
Thomson, inclines to doubt the truth of the Story, and prints a letter
from Sir Edward Bering at Dover Castle, in 1630, to Sir Robert Cotton,
in which he states that he possesses the document, and is about to send
it to him. This famous parchment was much injured by the fire that
took place at Westminster in 1731, and destroyed the building containing
the Cottonian Library; it is greatly shrivelled and mutilated, and
the seal reduced to a shapeless mass. Mr.Thomson is of opinion, that
though this famous copy "has been considered of inferior authority to
some others brought forward by the Record Commission, on account of
its deficiency in certain words and sentences, which are added for insertion
beneath the instrument, yet the same circumstance may very
probably be a proof of its superior antiquity, as having been the first
which was actually drawn into form and sealed at Runnymede; the
original whence all the most perfect copies were taken. *
* The Charter purports to be given "under our hand at Runningmede, between Windsor and Staines." The signature of the king was in all probability "his mark", as was usual with the uneducated nobles of his era. It is a curious fact that no sign-manual of a British sovereign is known to exist before that of King Richard II. The usual sign-manual was a rude cross placed before the name written by some "learned clerk".
It was fortunately engraved in facsimile by Pine, before the fire had injured it; and one of the most important clauses is given in our woodcut; it is that which provides for the free and immediate dispensation of justice to all, in the words: —
"No freeman shall be seized or imprisoned, or dispossessed, or outlawed, or in any way destroyed; nor will we condemn him, nor will we commit him to prison, excepting by the legal judgment of his peers, or by the laws of the land." *
A CLAUSE OF MAGNA CHARTA
* The original abbreviated Latin would read in full thus: —
Nullus liber homo capiatur, vel imprisonatur, aut
dissaisiatur, aut utlageter, aut exuletur, aut aliquo modo
destruatur, nec super eam ibimus, nec super eam mittimus,
nisi per legale judicium parium suorum, vel per legem terrae
By this important clause
the liberty and property of the subject were preserved until after
There is another fair copy of this document in the Cotton Library. The Record Commissioners, however, seem to attach most importance to that preserved in Lincoln Cathedral, which is supposed to be the one sent by Hugh, then Bishop of Lincoln, to be placed among the archives there. This is very carefully written, and contains all the words and sentences noted for insertion in the body of that preserved in the British Museum. There is another among the archives of Salisbury Cathedral, which is thought to be the one entrusted to Herbert Poore, the Bishop, or William Longespee, the Earl of Salisbury, for preservation there, in accordance with the old custom of placing copies of such important documents in the great clerical depositories. These are the only ancient examples of this great grant; but there are many early entries of it in old legal collections, reciting the whole of its clauses, and verifying their accuracy. These were confirmed by other English sovereigns; and the Great Charter was thus the foundation of English liberty.
It is to be regretted that no monument marks the spot, at Runnymede, where the rights and liberties of the people of England were maintained and secured, although several attempts have been made to raise one here. The very name, however, is a memory imperishable: the ait and meadow are places of pilgrimage to all who boast the Anglo-Saxon blood; and few are they who cross the Atlantic to visit Fatherland without offering homage to their great ancestors in this meadow of eternal fame — repeating, with raised and hearty voice, the lines of the poet: —
This is the place
Where England's ancient barons, clad in arms,
And stern with conquest, from their tyrant king
(Then render'd tame) did challenge and secure
The Charter of thy freedom. Pass not on
Till thou hast bless'd their memory, and paid
Those thanks which God appointed the reward
Of public virtue.
In the island which forms so charming a feature in the landscape, the Harcourts have built a small Gothic cottage — an altar-house, so to call it. It contains a large rough stone, which tradition, or fancy, describes as that on which the parchment rested when the king and the barons affixed their signatures to "the Charter". It has the following inscription:
Be it remembered that on this island,
in June, 1215,
King John of England signed
the Magna Charta;
and in the year 1834,
this building was erected in commemoration of that great event
by George Simon Harcourt, Esq.,
Lord of the Manor, and then High Sheriff of the County
COTTAGE OF MAGNA CHARTA ISLAND
1870: Magna Carta Cottage, Henry Taunt
Magna Carta Cottage, Henry Taunt, 1870
© Oxfordshire County Council Photographic Archive; HT01282
Lantern Slide (1883-1908) - "Picnic at Ankerwyke" [Magna Carta Cottage]
Pictures by W.C.Hughes. Thanks to Pat Furley, research by Dr Wilson.
1885: Dickens's Dictionary of the Thames -
Magna Carta Island ... one of the most charming islands on the river, and of historical interest
as the scene of that little arrangement between King John and his barons,
which, as "every schoolboy knows", was the foundation of the freedom of England. ...
The usual uncertainty and vagueness which characterise all history step in even at what ought to be so very simple a matter as this. Tradition undoubtedly assigns the honour of being the scene of signature to the island. But in the charter itself it is said to be given at Runningmede, so that it would seem to be doubtful whether the finishing stroke was given to the palladium of English liberties on this island itself. ...
1889: Jerome K Jerome -
We had originally intended to go on to Magna
Charta Island, a sweetly pretty part of the river, where it winds through a
soft, green valley, and to camp in one of the many picturesque inlets to be
found round that tiny shore. But,
somehow, we did not feel that we yearned for the picturesque nearly so much now
as we had earlier in the day. A bit of
water between a coal-barge and a gas-works would have quite satisfied us for
that night. We did not want
scenery. We wanted to have our supper
and go to bed. However, we did pull up
to the point - "Picnic Point," it is called - and dropped into a very
pleasant nook under a great elm-tree, to the spreading roots of which we fastened
We went over to Magna Charta Island, and had a look at the stone which stands in the cottage there and on which the great Charter is said to have been signed; though, as to whether it really was signed there, or, as some say, on the other bank at "Runningmede," I decline to commit myself. As far as my own personal opinion goes, however, I am inclined to give weight to the popular island theory. Certainly, had I been one of the Barons, at the time, I should have strongly urged upon my comrades the advisability of our getting such a slippery customer as King John on to the island, where there was less chance of surprises and tricks.
Magna Carta in 20 places by Derek J Taylor says:
Runnymede isn't a specific spot. It covers an area of several square miles along the River Thames halfway between Windsor
and Staines, plenty of room in fact for the site of the birth of Magna Carta to be
the subject of as many errors and falsifications as anything else associated with
the Great Charter.
There's a persistent myth, given worldwide credence by Jerome K.Jerome in his 1889 best-selling novel Three Men in a Boat, that the great event happened on an island in the Thames, across from the meadow at Runnymede. Jerome treats us first to rousing images of slippery' King John and his 'French' mercenaries facing the grim ranks of the barons' men' before they all step ashore "on the bank of the little island that from this day will bear the name of Magna Carta and a great shout cleaves the air and the great cornerstone in England's temple of liberty has, now we know, been firmly laid.
There's even a stone in the grounds of a cottage on the island that marks the spot where the Great Charter was 'signed'. Three Men in a Boat is one of the funniest books ever written. But, historically speaking, it's rubbish - charming rubbish but rubbish nonetheless. Even so it is still popularly believed today. Just to be clear, nothing, not the thinnest sliver of evidence, supports the idea that John and the barons assembled on any island.
And prepare to be shocked. There are doubts too about the positioning of the official memorial itself. According to the Ordnance Survey map for south-west London, it's in a field towards the bottom of a gentle slope. And that's the problem It's shown on the side of a hill, not a steep hill, but a hill nevertheless, running parallel with the river. It's called Cooper's Hill. However, that doesn't fit with contemporary accounts. Magna Carta itself ends with the words, "Given in the meadow that is called Runnymede between Windsor and Staines, 15 June'. The name Runnymede is Anglo-Saxon, and doesn't mean, as we might imagine, 'runny', i.e. a 'wet' meadow but derives from the word 'runieg' meaning meeting place. Since as far back as at least the ninth century, the meadow at Runnymede had been somewhere where kings gathered to consult their vassals, and where enemies could meet to negotiate in safety. Security was guaranteed because it was bounded by the River Thames to the north, by a stream to the west, and by marshy ground to the east and the south It was almost an island, not a real island, but more like a reverse oasis of dryness surrounded by water. It was accessible only by the causeway road from Windsor in one direction and from Staines in the other. This was important because King John and the barons had a deep distrust for each other. And the last place either would have chosen for their meeting was one where attack was possible from nearby high ground.
Finding the exact spot today that fits that definition is no easy task. Over a period of 800 years, marshland has been drained so houses and roads could be built and small streams can disappear at the same time. But what doesn't tend to rise up out of the earth unexpectedly over just a few centuries is a 3-mile-long hill. In 1215 it would have been exactly where it is now. So the conclusion seems clear:
Magna Carta cannot have been born where the official memorial is shown on the map, on the side of Cooper's Hill, nor can the big event even have taken place in front of the memorial where the stretch of meadow is exposed to attack from that hill.
So, where did it take place? What we're looking for is a section of flat land alongside the Thames, which is not overlooked by sloping ground to the south. And the OS map shows that the only place that meets that specification is right where they've built the Runnymede- on-Thames Hotel and Spa. In fact, given that the two opposing camps would have occupied several hundred square yards of meadow, the betting must be that much of the site where the Great Charter was born lies somewhere under the hundred thousand tons of concrete and tarmac that make up the several roundabouts, bridges, underpasses and slip roads by the M25 motorway -
Truth can be ugly.
Click link on Google map at top of page
1906: Magna Charta Island, Mortimer Menpes -
Magna Charta Island, Mortimer Menpes, 1906