“You have to really menace me with those swords,” I reminded my friends. “Don’t hold back.” They rolled their eyes at me, but obliged by brandishing their sticks more threateningly. The woman taking our photo looked bemused. Welcome to traveling with me–there’s probably going to be some ridiculous posing, and it might well involve liberal interpretations of what a historical moment might have looked like. In this case, the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede.
The Magna Carta is held up as a sort of proto-democratic document, the fledgling beginnings of constitutional rights. And it was the first document in Western society of its kind, even if it was an agreement reached between a weak king and his disgruntled barons, dealing in large part with the property rights of those barons. But never mind, it’s got a lot of symbolic power. It was used throughout the centuries as the basis for laws granting liberties in England, and the Founding Fathers looked to it when they were drawing up the United States Constitution.
King John signed the Magna Carta on June 15, 1215, which means that when I visited last year, it was nearly the 800th anniversary of the signing. There were probably some ceremonies in June last year to commemorate the anniversary, but on that overcast April day, the site was pretty empty. We met only a few people on our walk from the start of the National Trust trail, through the woods and fields, to the monument itself.
Once at the monument, we saw that the American Bar Association had put it up and maintained it. There was also a monument to John F Kennedy, and a tree planted to commemorate the bicentennial of the United States–that last seems a bit cheeky on English soil. So pretty much everything there was put up by the Americans. My mom said it was typical of both countries: the English took it for granted that this major historical site was just there, and the Americans needed to mark it ostentatiously. Sounds about right.
When I mentioned to my mom that I’d gone to Runnymede, she asked how I’d got on the island. What island, I wanted to know. She’d been taught at school that the Magna Carta was signed on an island in the Thames. I didn’t even see an island when I was there. I did see the ruins of a priory across the river, unreachable from where we were, and an old yew tree near it, which the Internet tells me is likely the actual spot the document was signed. So the memorial isn’t quite in the right spot. We can only fetishize historical places so much, because it’s all an approximation. I suppose, as usual, it’s what we’ve done with that historical moment that matters.