Once upon a time two reptiles sat by the river. One was a lizard which could open great frills around its head to appear much larger than it was. The other was a chameleon, constantly changing its colours to match its surroundings.
So might have opened Rudyard Kipling, the poet of empire, who had quite a fondness for animal fables. Instead, when he made his contribution to the legend of the riverbanks ahead in 1922, his preferred imagery was less animal, more animist:
And still when Mob or Monarch lays
Too rude a hand on English ways
The whisper wakes, the shudder plays
Across the reeds at Runnymede.
To which we might reply: well go on then?
|Runnymede. Lots of mud, but no shudder. Was Kipling’s idea of English ways the same as the Thames’s?|
Seventy-five years later, in 1997, I arrived to find an England rapt in triumphalist swagger. The Soviet Union had fallen. A fresh-faced Tony Blair had just swept to power. They had won. Their stories had won. They had won history.
To any suggestion that this country had serious problems, let alone that it was not as free and democratic as it claimed to be, the standard response was mocking hostility. The scorn for dissent and difference here alienated me even before its deeper structural cruelties, especially of gender, made that alienation catastrophic over the years to follow.
And then that history burst from the grave and clamped its bloodied hands round their necks on 9/11. Real history had kept going, indifferent to their myths, and in their reverie it totally blindsided them. It then unleased two of the most distressing episodes in England’s modern history, and these, at last, have shaken the general population’s confidence to its roots.
One was the invasion of Iraq in 2003. No-one who lived through that here will have forgotten the ugliness it brought down on the English social atmosphere (which nevertheless pales before what it did to Iraqis). The other is the unfinished Brexit-austerity-racism nightmare of the 2010s, whose most potent symbol is the blistering eruption of Grenfell Tower, a funeral pyre of something which, for its absence, the English psyche now unravels. The least that can be said coming out of these bloodbaths is that the gulf between England’s self-congratulatory myth of democracy and human rights on the one hand, and its inveterate tendencies to casual and mean-spirited violence on the other, appears to trouble far more of its people than it did at the turn of the millennium.
|North from Staines Bridge to a land of legends. How much has this view changed in those twenty years? How much in eight hundred?|
I didn’t have to wait twenty years for that. In 1997 my instruction in the gap between myth and reality was immediate, traumatic, and lasting. Entering an English boys’ school brought me in contact not with accountable leaders but a bristling-moustached, foam-at-the-mouth adult authoritarianism the likes of whose bellowing arrogance I had never encountered, even in a far less likely bastion of democracy, colonial Hong Kong. And the pupils, far from being a courteous and enlightened citizenry that knew its way round a social contract, exhibited instead a barbarism that was hysterical, violent and sometimes plain racist, eagerly following their scripts in that divine-right-of-adults diorama. If it was all to meld into a single message, it would have been this: We are a democracy, so STFU.
In that shock and turmoil one image has never left my memory. The back wall of the history classroom, packed floor to ceiling with parchments. Each was brown with a red wax seal, and though the handwriting varied, each’s text began, in huge capital letters, with the words: ‘JOHN, BY THE GRACE OF GOD, KING OF ENGLAND…’ before the text size diminished to illegibility.
English history was a morass to me. I had had next to no exposure to it and its contents were totally foreign. Kings with weird numbers after their names instead of Chris Patten; cryptic symbols everywhere like lions (but they don’t have any?) and fleur-de-lis (but they don’t like France?); important people named after places they had nothing to do with and weren’t pronounced how they were spelt, and endless random wars for no sensible reason. I went by the English name John then – were those suspicious documents directed at me? What would I want with the grace of their god? My history teacher’s name was also John. Was this about plastering his authority all over the wall, revering him as no less than their king?
That wall of charters, unexplained and ever-present, loomed over two years of English history lessons which, for lack of foundation and context, left me lost at sea. It was only much later that I pieced together what it was about. It was what they had studied the previous year, which I had missed on the other side of the world. It was the foundation. And the foundation revolved around a single document, one they deemed so important that they got each boy to re-create his own, dunk it in some yellowy-brown chemical to make it look historic, then hoist it high with the others so as to dominate the visual experience of the history classroom through all the centuries of material that followed.
Eventually I managed to put a name to it. Magna Carta. In English imagination, possibly the greatest story of all – the key word, of course, being imagination.
|The Magna Carta Memorial at Runnymede.|
There are facts, and there is myth. Both matter in history. In this particular history, the myth has mattered a hundred times more.
But charters are made of paper, and paper, real or mythic, has two sides. The English’s claims to democracy and rule of law are writ on the sunlit side. How often do they look on the shadowed side? They do not – because it screams. It screams a racial exceptionalism which wetted the chops of undying English authoritarianism and drove it on a genocidal rampage across the Earth. They do not look, because it still burns their eyes.
Oh yes. Today’s journey through the meadows where Magna Carta was verbally agreed (not signed – signatures as a binding instrument came much later) shall not be the same pilgrimage made by a neverending crocodile of approved storytellers, excited lawyers and awestruck schoolchildren. My path is the dark path and here it leads through the underworld. Come, if you dare face a reckoning with the Runnymede Horror.
|Staines Bridge in the light of an especially cold winter morning. Staines’s significance as a ford town as explored in the previous section will be of continued importance.|
|Oh, and there is also a great big fortress called Windsor Castle. That might be important.|
Start: Staines Bridge (nearest station: Staines)
End: Windsor Bridge (nearest stations: Windsor and Eton Riverside; Windsor and Eton Central)
Length: 12km/7.5 miles
Location: Surrey – Borough of Runnymede; Berkshire – Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead
Topics: The Magna Carta – history and mythology in Runnymede and Dark Runnymede; Old Windsor, Datchet, Windsor Castle, the Charter of the Forest
Runnymede lies across Staines Bridge. Eight hundred years ago a party of barons, armed to the teeth, went this way too. Look again at the map: a battlefield waiting to happen. Starting positions: the monarchy at Windsor, the rebel barons at Staines. Runnymede is in the middle.
|The towpath across Staines Bridge, following its south bank towards Runnymede. The central houses are on Church Island, a candidate for the location of some of Staines’s original Roman bridges.|
|The river is not in a good mood today. The flow is high and unsettlingly fast. Swans alight on the water and zoom beneath Staines Bridge just by sitting still.|
|They have built houses where they can, but increasingly now the riverbanks are yielded to the bush.|
Let’s have the facts first. The central figure in the Magna Carta story is King John (1166-1216), third in the Plantagenet Dynasty, specifically its Angevin line. Angevin means from Anjou and reminds us that this was not yet England the island country. At this stage it was a shambolic territory sprawled across half of both what is now Britain and what is now France, an unresolved product of the succession crises and power struggles that had plunged the realm of the Norman conquest into strife.
So we can dispense straight away with the idea of Magna Carta as a confrontation to established autocracy. The Plantagenet kings were murderous authoritarians but their authority was nascent, thrashing, threatened and oftentimes desperate, not some state-of-nature tyranny come rearing out of prehistoric ooze. It was constrained by the realities of controlling a turbulent realm of shifting borders, seething duchies and chiefdoms out for pieces of one another, and the regular flash of daggers in the dark. Political Christianity was a further constraint, not only in the moral dimensions of the king’s mandate but in the concrete power it gave a foreign leader, the Pope, to interfere with English life in a parallel structure that would exasperate the monarchs here again and again till it was brought down by Henry VIII’s wrecking ball.
This would-be polity’s glue was not any kind of national consciousness such that exists in today’s world, but rather a network of hard-headed give-and-take feudal relationships. The only way for a king to maintain a semblance of central authority in that world was through deals and compromises with the barons and priests who actually controlled (and quite often, oppressed) people by collecting their taxes, running their courts, filling them with fear of God instead of the king and arming them to fight for – or when their mood changed, against – the monarch’s behalf. The Magna Carta was not the first of these deals and it certainly would not be the last.
|Another in the series of blatantly haunted houses, with the usual hasty attempt to disguise it with palm trees. The river is having none of it and wants to flood its sofas and grisly experiments.|
|Whereas this one looks like it’s got thrusters underneath and takes off three times a week to dock with its private space station.|
This was the world of King John, who the English storytellers, so reverently awestruck by other authoritarians like Henry VIII, sneer at with a singular disdain. John appears to have crossed some unspoken line by being not only authoritarian but bad at it, so irredeemably so that he forfeits even that precious number after his name (seriously – hardly any English or British royals have named their heirs John in the 800 years since because of him). No offence of John’s was more symbolic than his loss of the part of Europe that had bound the English territorial destiny to it in the first place, Normandy, setting off a two-and-a-half-century agony in which they would lose the rest of their continental territory, and that destiny with it, piece by piece to the rising kingdom of France – thus leaving them to chase after a new vision instead: the island country.
By most accounts John was also simply abusive, spiteful, incompetent and bewilderingly petty. He is said to have seized land and property and extorted money from his subjects with wanton brazenness, driving them into debt then blackmailing them, taking their relatives hostage, obsessively ruining or imprisoning anyone who got in his way; goaded the Pope into excommunicating him and putting humiliating religious restrictions on the English faithful; made arbitrary and sometimes downright vengeful misuse of the justice system; personally murdered his nephew Arthur and dumped his body in the Seine; and of course, raised huge taxes and armies to pour down the drain of the wars in France he kept losing. Their favourite anecdote of all is that he insulted the Irish kings by tugging on their long beards while roaring with laughter (which sadly turned out one of the least of the wrong things the English would do in that country). It is very difficult now to draw the line between fact and embellishment in this sorry catalogue, but what mattered, in short, is that John behaved such as to alienate every group of people he relied on for effective rule.
|You wouldn’t get very far trying to boat up here in these conditions. These reaches are also bathed in the regular roar of low-flying aircraft taking off from Heathrow Airport to the east.|
|This is probably the remains of whatever monument the barons saved their game at before confronting John.|
|People with extensive outdoor experience will tell you that lichens have a tremendous amount to say about their environment. This species only flourishes in air breathed by people who claim they have better rule of law than they actually do.|
By the time John lost Normandy in 1214 the barons had had enough and organised a rebellion. In April 1215 they went for it, seizing several major cities including London. John and his staff escaped upriver to Windsor Castle. The barons followed him up and camped at Staines. In a foreshadowing of the great civil wars five centuries later, the barons, like the later parliament, presented themselves not as rebels but defenders of the true English order, based on supposed finest Anglo-Saxon traditions in which the king was bound by rules of good conduct. In the later round Charles I would say no and raise an army, but John had exhausted his money, arms and authority with his misadventures in France and was left in no position to do so. With no choice but to hear the barons out, he agreed to meet them at Runnymede.
|A grand old willow offers a sense of how fast the water is running. Perhaps John would have tugged on this too.|
|The final symbolic threshold of London’s sphere of influence: the London Orbital Motorway, better known as the M25. Opened in stages in the 1970s-80s, it is interesting how it too has been drawn towards the old crossing of Staines in its choice of where to cross the river. The M25 is an onerous presence in the mythology of modern London – Iain Sinclair’s psychogeographic walking journey around it in London Orbital (2003) is worth consideration.|
At Bell Weir and Lock, built in 1818 and named after weir keeper and innkeeper Charles Bell, the legacy of John’s meeting with the barons begins its takeover of the scenery.
|The Runnymede Hotel beside this lock supposedly descends from Charlie Bell’s original inn.|
|And then it begins. From here keeping history and mythology apart will be impossible.|
|But now there’s no stopping them.|
By this lock an information board declares that ‘a stone’s throw from here is a place symbolic of freedom and liberty’. This is broadly correct if one emphasises the key word symbolic. It then goes on to state the Magna Carta ‘gave legal rights to all – the first English constitution’, and this is plain mistaken. In a single paragraph the fact of Magna Carta is conflated with the myth of Magna Carta. As on this signboard, so in popular consciousness.
|This imposing pile looks out beyond the lock and weir. It is not labelled on maps and I have no idea what it is. It probably once had a river-based working function that has since been taken over for unaffordable private housing.|
|Monied riverside houses and boatyards return to line the approach to Runnymede.|
|We are being watched. Though Runnymede draws its share of pilgrims, the incursion of more critically-minded strangers here provokes puzzled expressions.|
The last thing before Runnymede is a curvy meander occupied by the pleasure grounds of Egham, an old agricultural hamlet whose name comes from Ecga’s farm and which likely grew up as a satellite of Staines.
|I know this place from punting days. It was and perhaps still is the setting of two annual regattas, one of Egham and the other of Wraysbury whose Skiff and Punting Club is also here. Some of its competitors were nigh-unbeatable automatons, which together with the arrangement of the course along the curving river bend made this one of the toughest punt racing venues.|
|Some celebrity looks on past the bend to where Runnymede begins.|
|The base of this sculpture is a monument to the Magna Carta in its own right. This is perhaps the most famous clause from the charter. The claim that it remains in English statute is broadly true.|
|But the claim that it makes Runnymede ‘the birthplace of freedom’ is – to put it gently – hyperbolic.|
|They are relentless.|
Why, then, Runnymede? The name has an almost onomatopoeic quality – the river at its centre, dribbling, bubbling, clear and gentle over grass beneath puffy clouds in a bright blue sky. Birds chirp; the wind rustles in the trees; it is natural, rural, a place of safety that keeps its peace while the politics of the world roil outside it. A perfect instance, in other words, of the ‘green and pleasant land’ that so emotively reverberates in the English self-imagination. When they sing Jerusalem at the start of international cricket matches, is it Runnymede that takes shape in their minds?
|Surprisingly the actual Runnymede does contain a lot of those ingredients.|
|Perhaps the onomatopoeia leaves this to be expected, but Runnymede also has mud. Lots of mud. It’s since taken four sessions with bottles of magic stuff to get my boots back to serviceable condition because of Magna Carta.|
When John met the barons here that national romance did not yet exist. But perhaps fragments of the qualities it describes did make this a suitable venue. In edgy times this probably was a place of relative security: a middle ground which gave neither side an obvious military advantage. Its name also offers clues. Mede is a meadow but Runny does not mean what it sounds like, rather appearing to come from Anglo-Saxon Old English runieg: a regular council or meeting place. It is conceivable that this was already a well-established spot to hold such meetings, in some accounts going back as far as King Alfred’s witenagemot councils in the ninth century. Maybe that was where it got the name Runnymede in the first place.
|The opposite bank is Ankerwycke, home to the last surviving witness to John’s meeting with the barons: a gigantic yew tree, said to be 2,500 years old. The ruin is St. Mary’s Priory, another on the long list of English monasteries devoured by Henry VIII. It was a much more local affair than the Chertsey mammoth whose sphere of influence would have been well felt out here.|
The battery of demands the barons put before their king – in French, of course – had nothing to do with the well-being of the majority of the population. Nor did it express any broader constitutional principle. Rather it was but one more beat in a multi-generational dance of power, with the barons taking advantage of the king’s weak position to constrain his power in the moment and advance their own. The formal name of their forced agreement, which it didn’t receive till some years later, was Magna Carta Libertatum: the Great Charter not of liberty as in freedoms, but Liberties as in privileges. The point was that these powers were defined exclusively as the entitlements of the powerful baronial class against the king, not inclusively spread out to most people in the manner of the later human rights movements (hence human rights).
Most English with any serious familiarity with this history will tell you the same: that there was little wider attempt here to fundamentally rearrange English political forms. The story the barons couched their rebellion in was conservative: a return to tradition, not a revolution. Yet the myth that has grown up to dominate memory of the Magna Carta today tells the exact opposite story. Look again at the signs around here. ‘Birthplace of freedom’. ‘Eight Centuries of the Rule of Law’. At its extreme, the myth has it that that 1215 was the moment when the embryo of modern democracy, liberty and human rights, whether in England or the entire world, chewed its way out of the bloody womb of traditional autocracy.
|One version of the Magna Carta, from the National Archives. Contrary to the myth of a timeless document, there is no single original version – John reneged on it immediately and it had to be copied, updated and reissued again and again in the decades that followed. The earliest surviving thirteenth-century copies are now kept at the British Library, the National Archives, and Salisbury and Lincoln Cathedrals. A few later versions have also made their way to the United States. Or, for the more creepily obsessive, there is this 800-year commemorative pacifier that lets babies literally suck on the Magna Carta word for word.|
The charter itself offers the myth little support. It contains sixty-three clauses (the numbering also added later), the majority of which catered to the barons’ interests concerning money, weights and measures, navigation and bodily safety in a feudal day-to-day context. A few of these, such as No. 23 about bridges and No. 33 on removing fish-weirs on the Thames (which impeded the barons’ navigation and rich London trade), point to the continued supremacy of the river in shaping the life and power relationships on top of it; the City’s assertion of its rights over the water up to Staines around this time was not unrelated. Other clauses were downright barbarous. No. 58 forbade that anyone be arrested when accused by a woman of murder, which, in a misogyny still extremely familiar today, was likely because these powerful men were tired of what they saw as the triviality of women’s voices tripping up their soaring reputations. Another such continuity is found in Nos. 10 and 11 which put limits on interest payments to Jewish moneylenders and subsequently fed one of medieval English’s many blood-spattered anti-Semitic pogroms.
Of this random mishmash only a tiny handful of slivers survived to become material for later mythmakers. The most prominent, which still exist in the laws of England and certain other countries, are clauses No. 39 and 40:
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 others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or the law of the land.
To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.
The very first clause is also still active, and contains this:
…that the Church of England shall be free…
Needless to say, the significance of phrases like no free man and judgement of his equals was again not to include, but to exclude. These were meant as the privileges of a tiny class at the top of English society, not the rights of the wider body of a predominantly peasant populace. Again this is not news to any of the English who have taken a closer look. They gave perhaps their most accurate interpretation in a classic parody of their own history, 1066 and All That, in 1930:
1.That no one was to be put to death, save for some reason (except the Common People).
2. That everyone should be free – (except the Common People).
6. That the Barons should not be tried except by a special jury of other Barons who would understand.
Magna Charter was therefore the chief cause of Democracy in England, and thus a Good Thing for everyone (except the Common People).
Was the later appeal of this contract simply that its articulation of the powers in question – access to due process, habeus corpus (no physical detention outside such a process) and freedom of religion – was so eloquent? Eloquent enough, in that case, to support the irony of it getting raised as a totem of its exact opposite intent by the democracy movements which only gained political momentum half a millennium later. By then, where Magna Carta had been drawn up to establish these powers as the privileges of a ruling class, the democracy movements sought to release them as rights to the majority of the population – indeed, as the most important political rights of all.
There was another level to this mythmaking. In its original reality the Magna Carta was a jumble of demands whose organising principle was the immediate position of power over the king that the barons found themselves in in that moment. Elevated to myth, that too grew wings and turned into a long-term English constitutional vision: nothing less than a fundamental restructuring of the power relationship between the monarch and the society he or she ruled. Thus, says the myth, what was birthed here was not only the content of freedom and democracy but also the broader framework necessary for those to function: rule of law. The idea that there exists a common invisible and independent framework – call it the law, the state, or any other name – that binds the conduct of everyone in society regardless of their power; and most importantly, that the most powerful of all, in this case the king, are part of that system (not above it), must follow its rules, and can be held to account for breaking them just like everybody else.
The charter itself expressed no such theory. Again it is the imagery, not the reality, that was potent for later mythmakers. The assertive confrontation; the king at bay, getting sat down and forced to accept limits to his power; the green and pleasant surroundings; the picture was pretty much an open invitation for later generations to caption it as the core mechanisms of the English democratic romance – accountability, the social contract – in action.
|No-one knows the exact spot where the meeting took place. The search for evidence is complicated by the river, casually rearranging the Runnymede landscape for 800 years.|
Thus was made the myth of Magna Carta. The moment the royal seal made contact with the parchment, English history, or indeed the history of humankind, entered a new phase, passing from an old age of tyranny to a new age of, if not yet democracy under rule of law, at least an age where the long-term democratic ascent was assured.
This could not have been further from the truth. John had no intention of keeping his word and it is unlikely the barons seriously expected him to. He was here not to participate in grand historic phenomena but to buy time, and no sooner did he leave this field than he flew into a rage about the treacherous barons and got the Pope to declare the Magna Carta ‘void of all validity forever’. It had lasted nine weeks. John would get his war with the barons after all, and it was a nasty one with sieges and mutilations up and down the country. To crown it all, in a sign of just how elastic the power relationships were in this period, the barons thought nothing of making an alliance with the French king and got him to send a foreign invasion to help take down their own. The following year John had the final indecency to die of dysentery after famously losing his luggage in the Wash bay, taking his troublemaking elsewhere (‘Hell is made fouler by his presence’, wrote chronicler and monk Matthew Paris) and dumping this mess on his nine-year-old son Henry III.
This climate of continued ruling-class tussle against the backdrop of constant wars with England’s neighbours explains why Henry and his son Edward I – ‘Longshanks’, known for his shocking violence against the Welsh and Scots – re-issued updated Magna Cartas over and over again to convince the barons to keep their weapons pointed outward rather than inward. More then by accident of the long English power struggle than for any other reason did its provisions get entrenched in English law, where they grumbled largely unremarked for hundreds of years. Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King John did not mention Magna Carta at all. Even in 1814, when a law was passed to protect the meadows of Runnymede from Enclosure, it had nothing to do with memory of what happened here in 1215 and everything to do with the popularity of the Egham horse races.
What, then, unfurled this charter across popular imagination as something it was not? Two later episodes appear to have done most of the work. The first will be well familiar by now to those who have followed this river journey from the outset: the civil wars of the seventeenth century, when the power struggle between the English monarch and the next set of people down the ladder broke once again into all-out war, only this time with far more in the way of blood spilled, constitutional theories brandished about and, ultimately, a more conclusive outcome in the sinking of English monarchical power for the long term.
Like the barons to John, King Charles I’s enemies in Parliament framed their rebellion in traditionalist terms, asserting they merely sought to hold him to rules that went back to Anglo-Saxon times. It so happened that Magna Carta had recently been made salient again by the barrister Edward Coke, who gave it its first serious reassessment in centuries in his Institutes of the Lawes of England (1628-44). Its legal analysis was questionable but the political gunpowder it offered mattered more. Coke’s writing had dug Magna Carta up; Charles’s dad James helpfully banged Coke up in the Tower (‘you meddle with things far above your reach’), thereby guaranteeing his work’s popularity; and now the new barons of Parliament built an engine into it and filled it with a fire that has never entirely gone out. Charles was violating the constraints put on his office by this ancient Magna Carta, they insisted, and that gave them the right to bring him to account. (More intriguingly, the real forebears of the English democracy effort, the grassroots movements of this period like the Levellers and the Diggers who were oppressed by the Parliamentary junta, were suspicious of Magna Carta and saw it as a further mark of deep structural impositions by the Norman occupation.) Parliament’s rise was confirmed after the revolution of 1688 when it passed the Bill of Rights, cementing this interpretation of Magna Carta’s principles in the English constitutional order. It was then given pride of place in the Whig approach to history which celebrated the English national journey as a long and continuous march to liberty. Disseminated over everyone's breakfast tables by the new mass media culture, it was harked to again and again in the English democracy movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and by then its mythic hold on the national mind was assured.
But this is no longer merely an English myth. Veneration of the Magna Carta has spread around the world, and events in this country alone cannot account for that. The other key episode is revealed by a closer look at the monuments that stand here and there on the meadows of Runnymede today.
|The Magna Carta Memorial again – revealed on closer inspection to be the work of the American Bar Association in 1957.|
|A memorial to U.S. President John F. Kennedy, placed in 1965. They even gave the land it sits on to the U.S. government.|
|The ‘Jamestown Oak’, a tree planted in 1987 using soil from the first English settlement on the American continent at what is now Jamestown, Virginia.|
Most of these memorials were placed by the Americans, to whom the Magna Carta myth means even more than to the English. While the English, if pressed, will likely eventually admit the gap between history and mythology, for the United States the symbolism of Magna Carta verges on the sacrosanct. It is there, in a culture drawn to the proclamation of grand principles, symbolic pieces of paper and (let’s say) selective readings of history, that Magna Carta’s second great mythological amplification is to be found.
Many of the English settlers in America founded their colonies on charters re-interpreting Magna Carta’s provisions as fundamental liberties of the (white, male, propertied, English-speaking) people. The notion of these liberties, especially against unjust taxation, became foundational to their fight against the British government, first against its violations of those rights and then for outright independence. In this war, from which much followed in this world, Magna Carta became the focal symbol of what was at stake. Leading intellectuals like Benjamin Franklin, William Penn and Thomas Paine explicitly channelled it, each reference casting another layer of concrete around it as an embodiment of the settlers’ ancient rights, permanent and inalienable, written in stone, ancient when the British king and the Tories in Parliament, that gang of petulant whiskered Johns, were young. And when the struggle was won, the myth was infused into the founding artifact and abiding holy of holies of the new country it created: the U.S. Constitution, whose Fifth Amendment all but paraphrases those clauses 39 and 40.
If in England the Magna Carta myth fits shakily into a long and ambiguous story, for the Americans its symbol is of their existential legend: a fundamentally new model of human society, based on freedom, secured by constraints upon the tyranny of government. They have since wheeled Magna Carta out for every legal process or constitutional dispute that gives them an excuse to hold it high and let its light shine forth, especially when they feel those founding values are at stake – including, of course, in the present impeachment of Donald John Trump.
|Important as this ground is to the English, evidence like this suggests it does not quite reach American levels of sanctity for them.|
Needless to say, to identify this reading as a myth is in no way to suggest it is not important. It is no less real for being imaginary; the myth has changed realities and created new ones. A better question might be: is that a problem?
So long as the myth is put towards improving the human experience on Earth, possibly not. There is no doubt that the legend of Magna Carta has brought energy and strategic clout to many movements that have struggled, and occasionally succeeded, to make democracy, freedom and human rights more real in this world. Neither England nor the United States are democratic and free – they have been far too violent, still exclude far too many people – but they have certainly witnessed enormous efforts by some among their peoples to change that, of whom many, from the Chartists and women’s suffrage movement in one land to the civil rights movement in the other, have drawn directly on the Magna Carta for inspiration. On top of that, the spread of its symbolic power then reached the many independence movements against British and American colonial tyranny in Africa, Asia and beyond, especially to those whose leading intellectuals studied in England or were otherwise exposed to its storytelling. Skilfully invoked by global icons of humankind’s liberation struggle from Gandhi in India to Mandela in South Africa, its legend was reproduced in a worldwide spread of constitutions and national mythologies which have raised it to the heights of the new global governance: from the framing of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as an ‘international Magna Carta’, to its recognition by UNESCO in 2009 as a registered Memory of the World.
Good for the myth of the Magna Carta then. How remarkable that a scrap of parchment at the centre of a pugnacious medieval power struggle has so outgrown its reality and fanned dreams of liberation across all the continents of the Earth. What would John and the barons think had they known their quarrel would reverberate so? Would they be proud of themselves?
If only it were so simple.
Something ominous lingers in the air. It scratches. It has fangs. It draws blood.
I wonder if they wrote anything on the back of the actual Magna Carta. They certainly did on the back of the mythic version. Did they mean to do that? Or did the ink seep through the imaginary paper by itself and scribe its own dark mirror?
Look at it there, afloat in its aura in the English imagination. Shall we see what happens if we turn it around?
There we go. Welcome to the realm of shadows.
The myth of the Magna Carta stands for more than what it claims to. Its reverse is written in blood.
|NO FREE MAN. NO FREE MAN. NO FREE MAN.|
Hear the rustle of the whispers in the dark. Familiar voices, sinister now. There, that sounds like Kipling again:
…when Mob or Monarch lays
Too rude a hand on ENGLISH WAYS
The whisper wakes, the shudder plays…
And there’s good old uncle Ben Franklin:
…the rights OF ENGLISHMEN, as declared by Magna Carta…
Another, still more strident. Is that Churchill?
…the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the ENGLISH-SPEAKING WORLD and which through Magna Carta…
The dripping reverse of Magna Carta’s myth of liberty looks something like this. Once upon a time, human nature was horrible. No society, no obligations, no love – only survival of the fittest, a war of all against all. Tyranny was the natural way. And then one day, perhaps in June 1215, the English advanced to a higher stage of history. They were destined to do so because they were English. They were special. They were white. Moral where others were depraved, civilised where others were savage, modern where others were primitive. They had the Magna Carta, others did not. We are a democracy so STFU.
So descended the chosen people myth, English flavour. Such exceptionalism takes root in many societies but in England it was not done yet. During the scientific revolution English intellectuals shared in taking this myth to the next level. The English’s position at the top of a hierarchy of peoples was no longer an instinctive belief to be overcome, they decided, but an empirical fact to be embraced, grounded in biological differences expressed in metrics like the shapes of skulls and skin colour. The crude belief in a chosen people was wrapped in the lab coats of pseudoscience and became the super-myth of race, which has proceeded down an unbroken chain to the belief systems of English nationalists today and still roosts in the subconsciousness of all people, for we have all inherited the genocidal world of its making.
In the same period a similar pseudo-empiricism caught up the study of history. History was re-framed as straight line of progress from savagery to civilisation, on which peoples’ positions were determined not by historical experience but innate racial traits that placed the English and their white settler societies further ahead than the rest of the world. This too is still with us. After its vocabulary was made distasteful by the atrocities of the Nazis, it was re-expressed by the arrangement of the world along a spectrum of developed and developing countries.
English ways. The rights of Englishmen. The myth of Magna Carta had a nasty sting in the tail. Its rhetoric was the expansion of its liberties to ordinary people, but its reality, in whose coils humankind lives on, is that it has been every bit as exclusionary as the original Magna Carta, only with a consequent scale of carnage neither John nor the barons would ever have had cause to imagine.
The mythic charter excluded Africans, indigenous Americans and Latin Americans on whose respective enslavement, genocide and ruination the U.S. was built. That ‘land of the free’ now locks refugees in concentration camps and puts a higher proportion of its population in prison than any other country in the world, typically not for any misdeeds on their part but for offending the national mythos by having dark skin. England has likewise deliberately and shamelessly excluded enormous sections of humanity – women, dark-skinned people, religious dissidents, people without money or property – of whom most had to wait till barely yesterday for even formal (as opposed to effective) access to the charter’s basic rights and who even now are abused and violated either by the explicit cooperation of the legal system or by the silence of its remedies. Most egregious has been its abject failure to deal with rape, that abomination whose existence in any country makes it unfree.
The fact that Magna Carta’s constant invocation was necessary by justice movements from the margins of society indicates just how uncomfortably the values of the Magna Carta myth have challenged, not reflected, the dominant tendencies of the English power culture. What good has it done to shake what this very decade has revealed to be a still incorrigibly authoritarian culture, whose weak democratic experiments have failed to surpass a thuggish popular belief that democracy consists in the right of a majority to force violent outcomes down the throats of a minority – and whose instinct, when faced with a hint of dissent, is a reflexive roar of condescension followed by clamping down, getting tough, to punish and punish and punish some more, even in those classrooms where thirty Magna Cartas hang high over the walls? How shown up is this culture by a populace like that of Hong Kong, which in contrast has no pretence to democratic forms and structures and bits of paper but has demonstrated one heck more vibrant a democratic spirit of informed discourse, rigorous protest and defiance of the haughtiest authoritarianism?
|John. F. Kennedy’s commitment to ‘the survival and success of liberty’ is not quite as beyond question if you are, say, Vietnamese.|
History is the present as much as the past. Recall the two great episodes that have disturbed the English entry to the twenty-first century. The more recent, the Conservative Party-led assault on the most vulnerable sections of society, speaks for itself in the exclusion of the victims of austerity and the hostile environment from any effective redress for the violation of their basic rights. The problem is plainer still in the other concern, English violence in the Middle East, where it manifests on both sides of the debate. On one side we find a belief that Englishness, or more broadly, English-speaking whiteness, so exemplifies freedom and democracy that dropping English bombs onto Iraqis or Afghans will cause these principles to magically flower from the smithereens of their guts. On the other side are those who dismiss those cultures as so hierarchically oppressive by nature that there is no point trying to change them, arguing that rather than unreasonably measuring them by democratic standards, one should feel no loss of comfort in aligning with atrocious Saudi or Egyptian despots. From both directions the long arm of racist mythology grips their imaginations with a greater weight then the generations of British colonial history that have done so much to actually vanquish liberty in that region and embed its patterns of violence and oppression.
This is where the myth of Magna Carta does become a problem. Its myth of ancestral liberty has been soldered into these myths of the English and their settler offshoots (you're in this too, Australia) as a chosen people in a global power structure built on racism. Their conviction that they are the greatest peoples in the world has been fleshed out with the corollary that the superior moral values of the Magna Carta myth – freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law – are built uniquely into their national genomes. By that logic they can dispense with any need for effort, reflection, or critical scrutiny, let alone accountability, on how far they are living up to those values: Magna Carta shines automatic out of their ethnic skin, is what they are and always will be no matter what they do. Conversely, there is no point applying those values to those excluded from the chosen people because they, by equal and opposite logic, are innately incompatible with those values. The best those primitives can hope for is to take instruction from the chosen rich white English men to build an inferior copy, but more often such hope is futile and they simply need to be put in their place through violence to keep the chosen safe. Needless to say, because they do not count as people, the chosen are free to arbitrarily kill and oppress as many of them as they want to this end without it bringing their embodiment of rule of law into question.
Magna Carta is thus reduced to a MacGuffin of civilisation in a racist world. It is the magic chalice, the blueprint, the ball, the conch, the hat, the briefcase. Whoever holds it is always right, whoever lacks it is always wrong. Hold it, and you can slaughter a million people and still be called moral and civilised. Without it, you cannot so much as sneeze in the direction of your superiors without it marking you as a wretched barbarian to be beaten into the dirt.
Belief in mythic liberty has butchered real liberty. And now, having so blinded itself to the difference, it has allowed the authoritarians to retch back to power where they haul open the doors for the return of naked fascism. Thus the curse of Magna Carta shall drag them yet again to the genocidal destiny of their chosen people myth. We shall all pay the price for this folly.
Behold, you English, your rivers of blood.
This has not happened yet. It does not have to. If you wish for a different outcome, do not forget what you have seen on the back of the mythic charter. As we are now we can flip it back round and escape. There will not be a second chance.
The tinge of spilt iron fades from the tongue. What is this?
It appears to be another monument. We are back in the world of light – for now.
Look at this. It is a more recent installation called ‘Writ in Water’, placed here by the artist Mark Wallinger eight hundred years after a bunch of squabbling chieftains came and shook their fingers at each other on this field with not a clue what they were setting in train.
Inside is a pool of reflection. There are two reflections. One is that which goes on inside people’s heads which it invites them to undertake while sitting on that bench there. Reflection – a good start. But look closely. There is another. The charter’s Clause 39 – ‘No free man’– is inscribed in the centre ring, but in reverse. It can only be read in its echo in the water.
This is more like it. The values they attached to Magna Carta are not set in stone but, indeed, written in water. Water changes shape. The writing is all well and clear in conditions like these, but imagine looking at this in a storm. Do the Words remain readable – do they still exist – when the gales of authoritarianism and pounding rains of violence shatter the surface of the pool? Does it even need a storm? – is not ripple after ripple enough to innocuously wash the Words away? When the sky is still again, do the Words come back? Or is the pool smashed, the water drained, the Words lost forever?
The impermanence of those words is the impermanence of law. They are the same. Law is not words on a paper. Law is an idea that dwells in the mind, shared and expressed through the culture which gives it physical effect. The writing is nothing more than a symbol. Thus, rule of law exists not if the paper exists, but if a society’s outcomes and its people’s lived experiences accurately reflect what is (or would be) written upon it. If it is written that, say, sexual abuse is illegal, but in practice survivors are disbelieved by the police, humiliated by the courts and have no effective mechanism to hold their abusers to account, then what is left of that ink and paper but a meaningless doodle, a fiction, a symbol of nothing but failure, of work that has to be started all over again by the next generation?
Hmm. Clever to disguise this as just another of Runnymede’s memorials. More likely it is a lock, installed on a set of vast subterranean chains to keep that nightmare-world sealed away.
Oh look. There’s another.
This one’s The Jurors, by sculptor Hew Locke, which appeared around the same time as Writ in Water. Twelve bronze chairs. A powerful number. Twelve is the standard number of people in a jury, but its ordering resonances are deeper still. Twelve children, twelve Apostles, twelve Imams, twelve Zodiac signs in both Western and Chinese astrology, twelve hours, twelve months of the year. Twelve stars – say it quietly – on the EU flag, not the number of founding members but ‘the symbol of perfection and entirety’. And now all people are invited to take a seat, to become one of these magic twelve, and judge for themselves – this time, momentously, with context.
In this circle of chairs the Magna Carta is no longer an English beacon shining alone above the clouds. Each seat is inscribed, front and back, with scenes from the global storybook to which it properly belongs. These scenes appear to fall into two overlapping categories.
In one: the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol. A 1920 march of blind trade unionists in Trafalgar Square for the rights of disabled people. An indigenous American headdress. Nelson Mandela’s prison cell. The faces of the forcibly disappeared. The slave ship Zong. Here are reminders of the countless harrowing ways the children of Magna Carta have fallen short of their professed values. Sitting in these chairs you must factor into your judgement that freedom and rule of law are not realities yet, and that the challenges to make them so are as formidable today as ever in human history.
In the other category: the xiezhi, a mythical righteous beast and symbol of the Chinese pursuit of justice going back to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE). The scales of Ma’at, ancient Egyptian goddess of justice and ancestor of that blindfolded lady whose statue stands on so many European courts, England’s too. Interlocked rings representing the ‘Golden Rule’ to treat others as you would wish to be treated, an anchor in millennia of philosophical systems all over the world. Oh – and Clause 39 of the Magna Carta.
They have found what is missing from the Magna Carta myth and at last begun to fill those yawning voids. Because they are not voids at all: the struggle against oppression and tyranny, for freedom and human rights, has been taking place all over the world for longer than recorded history. Every society has had its tyrants. Every society has had its love-capable human beings who have struggled to hold them to account. Though these heroes and villains and their principles have gone by many names, their core meanings are shared across all humankind. None are innate to any society. None alone define any time period.
|Two memorial lodges designed by the architect Edwin Lutyens and installed in 1932. They are currently used by the National Trust who manage the Runnymede site.|
If there is an antidote to the chosen people racism that clings to the back of the Magna Carta myth, it is surely to be found on a quest to further explore these stories. No one culture invented freedom, democracy, the rule of law or human rights – all have contributed to them and all have fallen short of them. A thousand years before Magna Carta arguments were getting made by Greeks like Plato and Aristotle and Romans like Cicero for binding the government to submit to the law. The emperor Ashoka of the Mauryan Empire in India carved edicts onto pillars which expressed the emperor’s duties to all people. The Chinese Confucian cosmic framework positioned the emperor within a network of reciprocal duties and obligations extending even to the supernatural realm, while the concept of the Mandate of Heaven, older still, provides metaphysical justification for revolt against tyrannical rule. Religious toleration has an even vaster constellation of precedents including, roughly contemporaneously with Magna Carta, the best of the melting pots in Norman Sicily and Muslim Spain. Even in the English story it was neither the first nor greatest effort of its purported kind, especially when set against the educating and lawbringing efforts of King Alfred three centuries earlier. His Doom Book is worth a look in this connection – doom (also as in the Domesday Book) comes from the Anglo-Saxon for judgement, which takes little away from marvellous pieces of legal advice like this:
Doom very evenly! Do not doom one doom to the rich; another to the poor! Nor doom one doom to your friend; another to your foe!
No doubt this perspective perturbs those who insist that all these examples represent different things, and that to lose sight of those differences is dangerous whether to the rigour of the historical record or the formal exactitude that lawyers depend on to keep getting paid. This is a fair warning, and it is important to understand each of these efforts in their own context, but it is the opposite mistake that already reaches us dripping with blood. The elevation of the myth of the Magna Carta, as though it somehow represents a more meaningful effort than all others in history to create a more just world, where the strongest too must play by the rules, only makes sense in the context of the bias of white male privilege in a racist and sexist world. And if what they say of Uncle Alfred is true, he would be most disappointed and urge them to try again to doom very evenly.
Let the English be admonished then to re-balance the myth of the Magna Carta and cleanse it of its curse of the chosen people. If they do not wish to watch their future ripped to chunks in the jaws of a reawakened fascism, then let them teach the Magna Carta not as a magic spell that raises them above the peoples of the Earth, but one that joins them together with those peoples as equals in the shared human struggle against authoritarianism.
It’s time to get out of here. The river is long and there is a way to go yet.
Beyond Runnymede we enter a new province. The Royal County of Berkshire is the only one in England that gets that ‘Royal’ designation owing to its long association with the English monarchy and the presence of its most formidable privilege fort of all, Windsor Castle. Inevitably it also gets counter-intuitive pronunciation. For berk, they say bark.
|Take one step outside Runnymede and there are the Enclosers. They lick their chops, waiting for the magic barrier to fall so they can feast even on the English’s most hallowed meadows.|
Though Runnymede ends, the mud does not. The river’s mood has not improved and there are signs it is about to make its feelings clear.
|Old Windsor – 'Home of Saxon Kings'. Please drive carefully so you don’t run any over.|
|So much for fences.|
The riverbank has flooded. The towpath glubs into the water and beyond The Bells of Ouzeley pub becomes unnavigable, forcing us inland on a detour through Old Windsor.
|The Bells of Ouzeley, now owned by the Harvester restaurant company, gets its name from the bells of Osney Abbey in Oxford, supposedly secreted here and buried under the mud after that abbey’s destruction by Henry VIII.|
|The rise of the water reduces the land to a vulnerable sliver between river and sky.|
|And then there is no land. This is the first point on this journey that the river itself has pushed us away from its banks.|
|Barkshire. Like this.|
|That’s one way around the problem. But enabling flight would fundamentally change the nature of this journey and make it harder to doom very evenly.|
Before Windsor there was Old Windsor. Excavations here have turned up evidence of a very long history of settlement. But the site seems to have gained special popularity with the Anglo-Saxon kings who took advantage of its river access and proximity to forests with good hunting, and at a certain point their presence earned it the name Kingsbury.
By the time of Edward the Confessor it had sprouted a fortified royal residence. By then it was already known as Windsor. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle this name first appears in 1061 to record the consecration of an archbishop here. It has an innocent origin, indicating a winch or windlass (windles) on the riverbank (ōra). The latter element is uncertain, but it would be little surprise if this name, which has travelled so far, began as yet another humble reference to that which underlies all life here, the river, and the humans’ reliance on it to transport the goods they winched on and off.
Half a century later, in 1110, the Chronicle notes that king Henry I ‘held his court for the first time in the New Windsor’. This reflects the shift away from this site to the now more familiar Windsor to the north, drawn away by the awesome gravity of the castle the Normans built there. That edifice and the stories flung off its battlements now dominate this whole area, but little remains of the old meadows of Kingsbury right here where it all started. Old Windsor is now a suburban village, known only off signposts by the throngs from around the world who pile past to visit its replacement.
|A residential street in Old Windsor. This house is considerably more remarkable than most of the others here.|
|And here is a resident, whose eyes glow gold with the clarity of one who dooms very evenly.|
|They also have bunnies.|
After far too long on roads because of all the private houses incorrectly in the way, a path emerges back to the river near Old Windsor Lock.
|Old Windsor Lock, built in 1822. This one was built not for navigation round a weir but as part of another piece of cheeky river engineering.|
This is another instance, like Desbreko Island downstream, where they cut through a perfectly good meander because they could not be bothered to navigate all the way around it. So instead of following the river’s natural course we are now funnelled up the equally impatiently-named New Cut.
And now some landowner has greedily monopolised the entire 250 hectares inside the river bend and forbids the common people from continuing along this bank, Magna Carta or no Magna Carta. A head-on assault to liberate it would require a little more equipment, so the better option for now is to cross this bridge and orbit their grounds with a wary eye from the far bank.
|All of that is merely the corner of the private estate in question. You could probably fit a few small countries in there.|
|Some cute life-forms growing on the bridge. Look at the tiny green nodules coming out of them. These live to a far more ancient ruleset than the humans and in this case look a lot more relaxed for it.|
|Not really sure what their notion of ‘concealed’ is here.|
Relegated to the outer bank, the commoner must endure a path with no such meticulous manicuring and contend with floods, bumps and triffids to find a way through.
|It’s not the river’s fault that it’s constrained from dooming very evenly here.|
|On this side one sees them increasingly fitting agriculture into the gaps between settlements.|
|Some token gabions, hidden in the riverbank to reassure the peasantry that the authorities do think from time to time about their flood safety.|
|Thames Water is installing eel screens here too so that No Free Eel be seized, imprisoned, or deprived of its standing in any way.|
Eventually the walker surfaces in the settlement of Datchet. This is a picturesque little village, crammed with listed buildings, whose quaint architecture and convenient location suggest it grew as a satellite of Windsor Castle to which it used to ferry the monarchs across the river.
In fact Datchet is considerably more ancient than the castle and even the Anglo-Saxon palace. The first clue is in its strikingly unusual name. Datchet is supposed to come not from Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Scandinavian or Roman tongues but one of the Celtic languages spoken here before them all. This would make it one of an extremely small number of such survivals in southeast England, all the more astonishing for its persistence right beneath the most fearsome cockpit of the Norman steamroller. A wealth of ceremonial weapons and ornaments dug up from the river further support the probability that this was an established settlement for thousands of years before the idea of England came around.
Another Celtic whisper here is inaudible not for its quietness but its loudness. Berkshire. King Alfred’s biographer Asser suggests that it ‘receives its name from Berroc Wood, where the box-tree grows very abundantly’ (Alfred himself was born not far away in Wantage). The wood no longer exists, but Berroc appears to derive from a Celtic word indicating hills or a summit. It is this sort of tangled linguistic lineage that accounts for – and if you feel generous, might partially excuse – this country’s pronunciation problems.
|The centre of Datchet is built on raised ground, making it safer from the floods. That is not the case of its public wharf garden, on whose benches one might be advised not to fall asleep lest they wake up in Staines.|
|Central Datchet, with the church and surrounding buildings clustered onto the highest point.|
|Then at last, the land-grabbing culprits come into sight.|
Beyond Datchet there is supposedly a nice little wooded river island called Sumptermead Ait which offers views into the castle’s territory, including a strategic sighting of the Royal Boathouse. This might have been a useful reconnaissance for any potential invasion plan, as taking quick control of that facility might stop the defenders producing battleships, submarines and aircraft carriers and allow the opening of a new front by river landing.
Alas, the river has other ideas. It probably wants to see how this monarchy will navigate its current crises without such timely intervention.
|The way to Sumptermead Ait. The answer is no.|
|There is something wrong here. Those look like either birds’ nests or clumps of greenery, but the whole incongruousness of that landscaping suggests them to be something more sinister. Perhaps it is best not to touch them.|
Today’s exploration ends in the castle town of Windsor in the shadow of one of the toughest, and certainly physically heftiest, privilege forts of the Thames valley.
|There it is. Notice the suspiciousness with which it arranges even the sun so that those looking out of its windows have a perfect view of their subjects on this field but those looking towards it are dazzled.|
The official name of the castle’s eastern penumbra, both its public and private bits, is Home Park. They say it was once known as Little Park, which was probably someone’s idea of a joke. Though the royals’ encroachment on it goes back to Plantagenet kings’ appetite for deer-hunting, it was only with the Windsor Castle Act of 1848 that the Crown Estate consolidated their hold and brought down the law to protect its present boundaries. All this is only a barnacle on the 5,000-acre enormity of Windsor Great Park to the south, though most of those grounds at least are open to the public.
|In the distance, what looks like a major cathedral or node in a network of world-domination antenna arrays is in fact the private chapel of Eton College.|
|The Crown Estate wishes all its colonial subjects who come through Windsor to know that the English are civilised, and invites the public to show it by not carrying their fish in this manner.|
Unfortunately one last bout of flooding has claimed the tunnel beneath the railway, barring access to the riverside once again. The only recourse is to cut across the Home Park parking area to where the river penetrates right into central Windsor.
|The final approach to Windsor alongside one of its train stations. It has two. Windsor and Eton Riverside here connects to Waterloo in London, while Windsor and Eton Central is a branch line from the major town of Slough.|
|Then turn a corner and there it is. Again, look at it. Does that look like a wall that wants you to come in and have some tea?|
It’s interesting this. When you look at all those stories the English tell about liberty and democracy, the primary antagonist in most of them, including the Magna Carta myth, is their own hereditary monarchy. Simultaneously, with no apparent contradiction, they have cultivated a global brand in which there could be nothing more English than that monarchy. When foreigners think of England they think of the Queen, Buckingham Palace, red-suited guards with preposterous towering hats. When the English write fairy tales or role-play in fantasy worlds, their default unit of political authority is a king. Even when they put their king to death in the name (if not the fact) of liberty and rule of law, they quickly got fed up of life without their monarchy and brought it back. And today, even with no remaining overt political role, it attracts such a vehemence of love and hate alike that it is as though its fate still decides the fate of the nation.
Perhaps brand is the key word now, the secret to the monarchy’s survival since it was defanged of political authority. Some things haven’t changed: it still takes up lots of their land and maintains itself on a huge bite of taxpayers’ money. But its power is now a soft power, its service to England measured not in laws passed or territories conquered but visitors attracted, charities patronised, mugs sold. Its role is to create symbols and imbue them into people’s minds. And as at Runnymede, symbolism has often mattered more than substance.
Windsor Castle was always a symbol. The irony is that in spite of its creation in that most stalwart of materials, stone, it has constantly changed what it is symbolising. It is a chameleon, and to follow its changes in meaning, from its bullying Norman walls to its nesting of fairytale television spectacles like state visits and royal weddings, is to chart how the monarchy it embodies has itself learnt to change its colours, ever adapting to a world where no king rules forever.
|This is where the visitors go in. This late in the afternoon there are only a few people milling about, but during the day the queue stretches all the way down the hill.|
What it first symbolised began with ‘F’ and ended in ‘off’. The castle was a direct result of the Norman conquest of 1066, after which the conquerors set about transforming English landscape and culture in their own image. The most visible part of that process, on purpose, was the installation up and down the country of gigantic motte-and-bailey castles. The strategy of planting these in the faces of people they were trying to subdue, still effective in Age of Empires II, was more or less invented by the Normans, as were the edifices themselves whose dominating likes the Anglo-Saxon population had never seen in their lives. The effect was twofold: a hub of reinforcements for a rapid response to any local trouble, but more importantly, a symbolic projection whose crushing psychological weight more often precluded that trouble from those caught living in its shadow.
This particular castle’s situation, on the Thames near the established hunting residence at Old Windsor, made its fortifications especially convenient in the centuries after the conquest when, as King John found out, monarchical authority was precarious and prone to breakdown amidst succession crises, feudal power struggles and enervating foreign wars. Several times these brought the castle under siege, including by the barons and their French allies after Magna Carta failed, but more often than not it was the symbolism of the castle’s impregnability, rather than its fact, that led monarchs to seek their safety here. In their wake came merchants and craftspeople eager for the business opportunities in supporting these kings and their staffs; they amassed into this castle town where they got their own charter of privileges tossed out of an arrowslit to them, held markets and trade fairs, and quickly superseded the Old Windsor settlement.
Later Plantagenets, feeling more secure, invested in the castle’s accommodations. Edward III in particular lavished a great deal of attention on building it into a royal headquarters whose every crenellation towered with wealth and muscularity. The ongoing tradition of great set-piece visits to butter up foreign notables emerged, never more so than when Henry V brought Sigismund, future Holy Roman Emperor, here to try to impress him into helping out with his war against the French. Its enjoyment by the self-aggrandising Tudors kept it in prominence, even more so the Stuarts with their delight in bankrupting themselves through the spendthrift decking of their lairs in art and sophistication. A symbol of royal power was changing into a symbol of royal authority.
That was not an easy transition amidst the great English power struggle which in its ugliest moments left the castle a symbol of neither. Rival kings cowered pointlessly in it during the Wars of the Roses or otherwise built it up to assert that they were better than each other. More perilously, in the civil wars it fell for the first time to the monarchy’s enemies. The Parliamentary army ransacked the castle, looted its treasures, smashed its icons, massacred its deer, held its walls against a Royalist attempt to take it back and finally held the king himself prisoner in it ahead of his fatal trial. In an echo of mythic currents that by now will be familiar, when King Charles asked his guard, Colonel Thomas Harrison, if he would like to have him killed, Harrison, who did, only replied darkly that the king must face the law which was ‘equally obliging to great and small’. (Cromwell’s view of rule of law was more straightforward: ‘I tell you we will cut off his head with the crown on it’). After he did, they brought his corpse back here to be interred beneath its chapel. He’s probably still down there, if any ambitious necromancers happen to be reading. They sewed his head back on but bring sellotape just in case and be prepared for a long and exhausting argument to get anything you want out of him. (Less experienced necromancers in search of an easier challenge might go look for John in Worcester first. There’ll be less argument and more name-calling but make sure you can speak French.)
|The opposite poles of the English class spectrum in one image. To the right, the grandest accommodations in the country. To the left, a homeless person’s nest of rags and pillows. Doom very evenly would they?|
For the first time Windsor Castle’s symbolism had been broken. Impoverished commoners, as usual labelled squatters by the propertied elites, took refuge in its corridors. That might have been it for Windsor had the English not decided that no, they wanted the monarchy back, whereupon Charles II threw the common people out on their ears and poured public money into its restoration. Each monarch who liked it thereafter continued to polish and upgrade it, but with the monarchy now on its long shunt away from power following the Revolution of 1688, Windsor’s defensive functions were obsolete. Within a few decades tourist guidebooks were recommending the castle, which was allowing those who could pay to come in and marvel at its interiors. The monarchs’ power was a soft power now, their claim to political authority replaced by an effort at cultural indispensability upon the face the English nation projected to the world: an identity symbol, a rallying flag, an unstoppable moneymaker for the newspapers and souvenirs of the merchants that had clustered around them all along. So did the castle’s symbolism shift accordingly, and the railways took care of the rest. Windsor now caters less to the royals themselves than to the millions of visitors who pour in here every year, many of them from overseas, to run their individual tongues through the cream of the English royal fairytale.
|The problem, as they have had repeated cause to know, is that things fall apart when real human beings refuse to fit the fairytale character archetypes.|
This shift appears to have secured the English monarchy in a world whose loss of patience with monarchy in general has sunk many others. Yet perhaps they have only bought themselves time. In government, monarchs and monarchies are measured by their effectiveness at governing. In this national-symbolic role a different measuring stick is brandished: how enthusiastically they perform that nation’s idealised norms. As these norms are always contested and always changing, that is a much more difficult moving target, and in a polarised culture war like the present, an impossible one. A chameleon cannot be all colours and none at once. The residents of what was once the core English privilege fort are increasingly its prisoners.
Physically these walls no longer matter; symbolically they are everything. If the royals move one way, they are besieged by those assailants who have sought to abolish their privileges all along, even though what is left of their oppressive footprint pales in comparison to that of politicians, corporations and public prejudice. If they move the other way, it is the nationalists, with their merciless tabloid cannons and social media poison-barrels, that bombard them for failing to conform to the strict rules of their golden-age fairytale in which gallant princes wear military uniforms, shoot at savages and clink glasses with influential high-flying sex offenders, while fragile princesses seal their lips and submit with a smile as they are locked in towers to spam out heirs to the throne. The moment one of the royals breaks the script of this white masculinist wet dream, upsetting the nationalists’ collective ejaculation thereto, then rather than bothering with the niceties of sitting them down like John or putting them on trial like Charles I they now go straight for the throat, rending their private lives to pieces before a baying national audience till they are hounded to death like Diana Spencer or into exile like Meghan Markle.
That is the significance of the latest in their long line of royal dramas: the Harry-and-Meghan story, reduced from the glinting, picture-perfect diorama of England and its monarchy for which it was held up not even two years earlier to a free-for-all festival of bile. Much may be said about the individual human beings involved, but this row has become less about them and more about a ferocious battle for control of their institution’s symbolism – specifically, the desperation of the nationalists, whose world is the nightmare of racist and gendered violence we saw beneath Dark Runnymede, to wrest control (wrest back control they would say) of that symbol and keep it fit to sit on the bonnet of their drive to their genocidal promised land.
To their racism Windsor offers a final irony. English identity of course has no ethnic basis, this being a population grown from millennia of immigration. What perhaps occurs to fewer people is that the monarchy itself is entirely a sequence of foreign dynasties: Germanic Angles and Saxons, French Normans and Plantagenets, Welsh Tudors, Scottish Stuarts, a Dutch Orange and German Hanoverians (George I couldn’t even speak English). Then as the monarchy completed its transition from political to symbolic power, it was this castle town that crowned it with its name for that new age. It happened because the present lot were also Germans, specifically the house of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, which understandably made them anxious when World War I swept up their subjects in a tide of anti-German xenophobia. To make matters worse, the Germans then began to bomb London with an aircraft that shared their name, the Gotha G. IV. This was the last straw for George V, and he issued a proclamation changing his dynasty’s name, just like that, to the toponym which by then embodied more than any other the English royal heritage: the winch by the river, Windsor.
Who do the English walls let in, and who do they keep out? For so long the monarchy has played its part in placing those walls, but at times, whether in the 1910s or at the present moment, it too must share in the struggle of common humankind to negotiate the impossible boundaries of a tribalistic world. The harsh cruelty of those boundaries, still wanton in spite of Magna Carta’s best mythographers, has done in the lives of many who have deserved better. I am perhaps one of the lucky ones, who could never pay the price of entry, could never belong within, but at least, for now, have lived to tell of it and can continue to offer this critical scrutiny from the outside.
Once upon a time two reptiles sat by the river. One was a lizard which could open great frills around its head to appear much larger than it was. The other was a chameleon, constantly changing its colours to match its surroundings. They are still there – for now.
We have patted the chameleon. But before we leave, the frilled lizard utters a noise. Stroking it one last time beneath the frill, we feel something. There is some kind of horn there. A real part of its head, so well hidden that most who pass by are sure to miss it.
It was not called Magna Carta – ‘Great Charter’ – because they thought it was great as in huge and wonderful. We have seen that they did not. Rather it was great to distinguish it from a smaller charter, added at its first re-issuing in 1217 at the peace treaty that ended the First Barons’ War.
In contrast to the main legend, it is likely only a tiny minority of the English have heard of this smaller counterpart which came to be called the Charter of the Forest. This might be surprising, given that unlike the Great Charter this one explicitly catered to the rights of the common people. Where Magna Carta concerned civil and political privileges, the Charter of the Forest set out economic rights that physically mattered to most people in their day to day lives. It rolled back the land seized by successive monarchs for exclusive use as royal hunting grounds, established people’s rights to graze their animals and forage for vital resources there, and forbade cruel punishments for taking the king’s deer.
What happened to this Charter of the Forest? Why, when the myth of the political charter has soared to the stars, has this one dropped out the national mythology despite its fairytale-perfect name? Well, if nothing else it was a rabbit in the headlights of English capitalism which, while eating chunks out of the illusion of English political democracy while never quite killing it, drove front and centre through any equivalent culture of economic rights or equity. Any ethos of common access to resources was swept away by Enclosure, industrial capitalism, polarising Cold War ideology and the present-day cult of the market.
And yet, this is not a done deal. There have been counter-efforts, not least the post-World War II welfare state which, despite its present struggle to stay afloat against that remorseless cultural tide, has generated a rousing mythos of its own, especially around the National Health Service (NHS). The outcome of this struggle will be decisive in the fate of the English and their Magna Carta story. Liberty is meaningless if people are left too hungry, ignorant, unsheltered, tormented and disease-ridden to participate in them. So is democracy – because when most of the population is left in that state, encouraged to chomp on each other while its resources are made the preserve of an exclusive club of land and capital holders, then its material bonds disintegrate, its civic relationships wither, and it is left, in the end, with no togetherness – no demos.
If they would build up this weaker socio-economic side of the mythos, perhaps they might find helpful materials in the Charter of the Forest. As the river has made well clear today, myths, whether they puff out big frills or re-adjust their colours, are powerful. Their blessings and curses can make or break reality.