Magna Carta is perhaps the most famous example from history of a monarch conceding powers to his subjects. The Great Charter of Liberties was agreed on the meadows of Runnymede in Surrey 800 years ago this year in June 1215.
Runnymede is today managed by the National Trust, but it very nearly was lost to development. Its open, natural character was only saved by the generosity of the Broughton family, who also went on to bequeath Anglesey Abbey near Cambridge to the nation. This link explains why visitors to Anglesey Abbey are able to see numerous references to Magna Carta in the collections on display in the house.
Magna Carta was a peace treaty between King John and his disgruntled barons, who had been angered by years of excessive taxation and arbitrary royal rule. The charter represented a colossal climb-down for the king, who not long afterwards reneged on the agreement and plunged the country into civil war.
But Magna Carta survived. After John’s death in October 1216 it was reissued in the name of his 9-year-old son and heir Henry III, in a smart piece of statecraft by William Marshal, the king’s regent. The move was enough to end the civil war and restore order.
Magna Carta went on to be reissued again several times by Henry III and his successors, each an attempt to unify the nation by reaffirming the limits of the king’s authority. King’s may have ruled by divine right, but Magna Carta demonstrated that they operated within some commonly agreed constraints.
Two clauses in particular remain of fundamental importance to us today – the freedom from arbitrary imprisonment, and the right to a fair trial. These clauses are now regarded as the basis of our modern system of law and governance, and are the reason why Magna Carta is still venerated, 800 years on. The barons and King John himself could never have imagined it, but their actions on that June day in 1215 changed the course of human history forever.
Magna Carta has not always been held in such esteem in the country of its origin. By Shakespeare’s time, the charter had almost been forgotten (the bard’s play about King John does not even mention it). Its significance grew in the era of the Civil War, at a time when the limits of monarchical authority were again under intense scrutiny.
But in many ways we owe it to our American cousins for keeping faith with the Charter of Liberties. Its clauses directly influenced the USA’s founding documents, and some US states still keep Magna Carta on their statute books today.
This may explain why Urban Broughton, an English civil engineer who made his fortune in America, chose to take a house near the meadows after returning to England in 1912.
Urban had married the daughter of a wealthy American industrialist, and the family’s fortune enabled them to acquire several properties in England. Urban served as MP for Preston from 1915 to 1928, while his wife promoted charitable causes in her adopted country.
In 1921 Runnymede appeared on a list of Government property that was up for sale as development land. A huge local outcry ensued, and the coalition Government of the time was forced into a u-turn, withdrawing the 252 acres of meadowland from sale.
Ironically nothing at the meadows contained any link at all to the events of 1215. For centuries the grassland had been preserved as an open space not because of Magna Carta but because it was the venue for the Egham horse races.
The pressure for development meant that the meadows’ future was far from secure. Urban and his wife therefore offered to buy the meadows, in order to save them for the nation. Urban was nominated for a peerage, but died in January 1929 before he could assume the title.
Cara, his wife, became Lady Fairhaven, and his eldest son became the 1st Lord Fairhaven. Lady Fairhaven and her sons purchased the meadows at Runnymede in December 1929 in Urban’s memory, and passed them to the National Trust for protection in perpetuity.
Lord Fairhaven by this time had also acquired Anglesey Abbey near Cambridge. For more than thirty years he carried out extensive improvements to the property, and filled it with fine art. A special gallery was built simply to display Lord Fairhaven’s collection of views of Windsor Castle, which include one of nearby Runnymede. His library meanwhile holds a unique edition of Magna Carta, produced to mark its 600th anniversary in 1815 and printed using gold leaf.
A special LiberTeas event will take place at Anglesey Abbey on Sunday 14 June of this year, as part of the Magna Carta 800 celebrations.
This article appeared in the Cambridge News on Saturday 7 March 2015
The National Trust guidebook to Runnymede and Magna Carta - written by me! - is out now.