The meadows by the River Thames belong to a site of special scientific interest today, but their historic interest is as the birthplace of Magna Carta, traditionally considered the founding charter of English liberties. Runnymede was a convenient meeting place for King John and his advisers from Windsor Castle and a group of rebel lords based not far away in Staines. The rebels were bent on reining back the king’s tyrannical behavior. His position had been weakened by his military failures in France, and in November 1214 a powerful group of barons had sworn to withdraw their allegiance unless he issued a charter to confirm their accustomed liberties. In May the following year they carried out their threat and advanced on London , which they took without opposition. King John accepted that he had no realistic choice but to give way. He may have signed the document that the barons had prepared on the island now called Magna Carta Island. In it he stated that he was acting “by divine impulse and for the salvation of our soul.”
Subsequent monarchs were expected to conform to the charter, though revisions were made and some clauses that pertained to King John in person were dropped. Over the centuries the document was interpreted in ways that none of those present at Runnymede that day would have intended or probably even understood.
Runnymede was given to the National Trust in 1931, and three memorials have been erected on the slope of Cooper’s Hill nearby. The Air Forces Memorial of 1953 honors those who “died for freedom” in World War II. The second memorial was given in 1957 by the American Bar Association in honor of Magna Carta and “freedom under law.” The third was dedicated in 1965 to the memory of President John F. Kennedy.