COMMEMORATING MAGNA CARTA Runnymede
BELOW Jean Rocque’s mid 18th-century map, from ‘The Actual Survey of Berkshire’, shows the site divided into two meadows: Runnymede and Longmead.
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was based in his, by then, large castle at Windsor. (It had been greatly enlarged, and strengthened with stone walls, by his father Henry II.)
A liminal zone
Runnymede was, however, in a sort of ‘no-man’s land’ where both sides could ‘cover their backs’ and feel secure. If we look at all the maps of the Runnymede area, from the geological ones to the whole series of Ordnance Survey maps, we will see that Runnymede is situated very close to the meeting point of four counties (Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Middlesex, and Surrey), and even more so of four great dioceses (Salisbury, Lincoln, London, and Winchester).
Earlier still, it was also where the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia, Kent (with Surrey), and the Middle and East Saxons met and had their boundaries. North of the Thames, the boundary between Middlesex and Buckinghamshire was the braided Colne river, running south from Uxbridge along poor soils to join the Thames at Staines Moor. (This is now the M25 ‘corridor’, with all the old gravel pits and London reservoirs.)
South of the Thames, the boundary between Berkshire and Surrey was the eastern edge of the great Royal forest of Windsor and, in Surrey, the large estate of Egham, which had belonged to Chertsey Abbey from well before the Conquest. Staines, on the other bank, where a small town was made in the 12th century, was given to Westminster Abbey by Edward the Confessor, and it is interesting to note that he also gave (Old) Windsor to ‘his’ great new Abbey in 1065; William the Conqueror quickly took it back, and gave Westminster Abbey the manor of Battersea instead (as Domesday Book tells us).
Sowhat about the archaeology of Runnymede itself? In 1978, when the enormous double roundabout and new bridge over the Thames for the A30 and M25 were being constructed, some rescue excavations – and, later, some research excavations – were undertaken (see CA 68). This work gave us much useful information about the prehistoric period, but nothing about 1215.
However, a study of the ‘drift’ geology of the area shows us that the whole of the flat area of the National Trust site was originally a large island about two miles long. At the foot of Cooper’s Hill, a long thin lake called Langham Pond is a vestige of the natural channel around the south side of this island. By 1215, however, the channel may already have silted up, and it had certainly done so by the mid 18th century, when Jean Rocque’s 1752 map ‘The Actual Survey of Berkshire’ does not show the channel.
Rocque’s map does, however, tell us that the National Trust site was originally made up of two meadows: Longmead to the west and Runnymede to the east. Unfortunately, it is the western part of the site that has, for the last half century at least, been promoted as the ‘real’ Runnymede, with the rather insipid Memorial (designed by Sir Edward Maufe) on the slope just above Longmead; not far away is the John F Kennedy Memorial. A more detailed study of the documentary and cartographic evidence is needed, but it seems most likely that Runnymede was, as in the 18th century, further east, and closer to Egham and Staines.
Future of the past at Runnymede
What is now needed, and I am surprised that the National Trust are not doing it for the 800th anniversary celebrations, is a full geophysical, LiDAR, and (dare I suggest it) metal-detector
current archaeology | www.archaeology.co.uk
July 2015 |
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