David O’Mahony steps back in time to discover the ‘Magna Carta’.
You mightn’t think a piece of parchment could have such a legacy, but Magna Carta, now 800 years young, really has.
Given the momentous anniversary, it’s no wonder that it’s come on to the wider tourism map.
Magna Carta has become almost mythical because of its influence on everything from the US founding fathers to Mandela, but it was really a document of its time. It addressed the grievances of many English nobles against their king, John (he of the Robin Hood era), and was designed to punish him after years of misrule and war. It only lasted a few weeks before the Pope annulled it, and few of its statutes are still used today.
But it’s become a myth in its own right because it was a check on the right of kings to rule and meant they were at least supposed to operate within the law rather than being apart from it. This idea of guaranteeing individual liberty and justice, as you can imagine, is immensely appealing, and gives the document a resonance far beyond its size. You might not have a jury of 12 of your peers without it, for instance.
This was one of the few trips I’ve taken that I was actually sort of qualified for with a background in medieval history. I’m wild at parties. The hard part was people expecting me to know all about it, despite it being 500 hundred years outside my speciality, but I pulled it off.
Night one was spent at the Hospital Club, a funky private members’ club that’s part art gallery, part bar, and part hotel, with 15 individually-styled rooms on one floor. Located near Covent Garden and within walking distance of shopping areas like Regent St, each is kitted out by a different designer and is really quite chic. The rooms are small - it is a boutique hotel after all - but are really quite lovely. It’s a new hotel and I really enjoyed the Bohemian vibe. Those of you who partake may also enjoy the cocktail trolley that does the rounds at about 7pm.
One delightful touch — and in truth I don’t know if it was deliberate or happenstance — was that they had left Classic FM playing on the digital radio, meaning that when I entered for the first time it was to the soothing sound of classical music. I actually enjoyed that little touch so much (it made the room feel very warm and welcoming) that I left the radio on when I went out just so I could experience it again. It’s amazing how the little things can really make a difference (like the 38cm by 51cm parchment we’ve mentioned above).
Dinner was at the luxurious Goring Hotel, once largely booked out by Kate Middleton’s clan as she prepared to get married. The lobster bisque and beef wellington went down a treat with everybody and I may or may not have violated aristocratic protocols by introducing myself to a viscountess rather than wait for her to introduce herself. That’s just how I roll.
The highlight of our London sojourn was the British Library’s exhibition on the Magna Carta, which was so good I’m going again with my wife.
The exhibition, open until September 1, is an absolute must-see and has been very carefully built. It traces the document’s context from the medieval period to the Enlightenment, to its influence on 19th-century politics and the campaign for women’s rights, to its influence on Mandela and other icons of modern history. At the centre of the exhibition is the US Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence, both of which were heavily inspired by Magna Carta. It’s a great way to see how an ancient document has had such an impact on the world we live in, as well as a chance to see key artifacts from the American revolutionary period, a period which gave birth to a nation that continues to have enormous influence.
The exhibition is designed so that you don’t actually see one of the Magna Carta texts until the very end. That way you learn about it, the time it came from, and its legacy before coming to face with the document itself, and you appreciate it all the more because of it (even if it’s fragile and in a dimly lit space to protect it).
From London we ranged west to Runnymede, site of the treaty signing.
We stayed at the Runnymede-on-Thames hotel and spa, which overlooks the river and has an affinity for rubber ducks (my toddlers would have had great fun with them). It’s a family friendly hotel that could be a handy base for heading to Windsor Castle, Legoland, or the Chessington World of Adventures theme park/zoo. It’s modern and comfortable, and I can’t deny that I enjoyed the buffet dinner; give me dessert refills and I’m anybody’s.
Runnymede, despite being the site of the signing, is, well, pretty much just a field, so please wear shoes that you don’t mind getting muddy. In fact nobody’s quite sure just where the Magna Carta was signed, but the area is now steeped in history.
To mark the 800th anniversary, the National Trust has unveiled a permanent monument to try and make Magna Carta readily accessible. Called The Jurors, it consists of 12 bronze chairs with what the trust says incorporate “symbols and imagery representing concepts of law and key moments in the struggle for freedom, rule of law and equal rights”. But they’re not just pieces of art to be looked at (nor are they considered a memorial), they’re designed to be interactive, sat on, scrutinised, discussed, and learnt about via an app. I always love when somebody makes an effort to bring history to life, to make it relevant and accessible to the modern audience.
Runnymede is also the home of memorials from the American Bar Association (it looks like a small classical temple) and one to JFK, which overlooks the entire site and the Thames, quietly encouraging you to consider life and the world even as it pays tribute to a murdered man. Nearby is also a moving memorial to the 20,400 people who lost their lives fighting the Nazis but who have no known grave. It makes Runnymede quite a reflective place, even if at the same time it’s also great for a ramble with a number of marked trails and cycle paths.
Just down the river (the highway of its day) is Windsor, a picturesque town on the Thames, is one of the British royal family’s favourite homes, much as it was John’s.
The castle has changed quite a lot since it was built by William the Conqueror but the overall footprint remains the same. While it now rises on a hill in the centre of the town, in the Magna Carta era it would have been just as imposing: A solid tower on top of a hefty, man-made hill, dominating the countryside. While the tower itself is twice the height of John’s — a 19th-century king having decided to make it more romantic by adding a storey — it looks as robust as the day it was built. You have to work a little to imagine the place when it was mostly landscape and without any nearby buildings, but when you do, and when you appreciate the size of the hill it’s on (now mostly a garden), you really get a sense of what it may have been like for the medieval traveller.
The palace itself is not only aesthetically pleasing in and of itself but is one of England’s finest art galleries, with treasures from Renaissance masters and historical artifacts from the English monarchy’s own rich heritage, including armour and weapons. It’s open all year round, but September to April are quieter. You can take a guided tour, recommended if you want to learn more about the palace, or wander about at your own pace — but do be advised that if you see a small troupe of soldiers marching toward you they’re liable to walk over you as the guard changes. And their hats are just fabulous.
So if you’re looking to do something that gets you out and about while serving up a tasty slice of culture, this could be right up your alley.
I flew from Cork to London Heathrow with Aer Lingus. Outbound flights are four times a day — 7.20am, 11.45am, 4pm, and 8.15pm — with return flights at 9.30am, 1.50pm, 6.15pm, and 10.15pm. Prices start at about €41 but can vary substantially depending on how busy the flight is, so book as far ahead as you can to avail of the best fares. I’ve done the early out, late back approach before and you can get in a huge amount in that way.
I took the Heathrow Express which went directly from Heathrow to Paddington in the centre of London. Trains are about every 15 minutes and you should book ahead at heathrowexpress. com, though you can get the same lower fare from the ticket machine in Heathrow itself. The price goes up from £21.50 to £26.50 one-way if you buy on the train.
The Hospital Club boutique hotel is great for something different and on-trend. Prices range from £180 a night for smaller rooms to £580 for a suite. See thehospitalclub.com. The Runnymede on Thames Hotel is wonderful for couples and families and does a wide range of packages. There’s a Magna Carta Freedom Break (two nights, plus breakfast, two dinners, and spa access) for £199 per person. There’s wide variety so check out runnymedehotel.com
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