In 1215 the barons of England found themselves in conflict with King John, who was obliged to concede to their complaints. On 15 June of that year, after nine days of talks, the Magna Carta was agreed at Runnymede. It remains the nearest thing to a bill of rights that Britain has ever had. The Magna Carta has also formed the basis of the constitutions of many other countries, including the USA.
The King and his followers were encamped on the north shore at Wraysbury while the Barons and their great forces occupied the meadows of Runnymede, just across the river. Green in his "Short history of the English People" states:-
"An island in the Thames between Staines and Windsor had been chosen
as the place of conference; the King encamped on one bank, while the Barons
covered the marshy flat, still known by the name of Runnymede, on the other.
Their delegates met in the island between them, but the negotiations were
a mere cloak to cover John’s purpose of unconditional submission.
The Great Charter was discussed, agreed to, and signed in a single day".
There is no doubt Runingmed or Ronimed was the meadow which served as an encampment for the nobles and their retinues at the time of the signing of Magna Carta. There is, however, no record of the exact spot where the actual signing took place. The Magna Carta itself gives no clue other than "in the meadow that is called Runnymede between Windsor and Staines" The consensus of historical opinion inclines to the view that Magna Carta, or the Great Charter, was signed on an island in the river and some say that this island is Magna Carta Island which is in the Parish of Wraysbury, rather than the actual meadow of Runnymede. It is situated at TQ 000 730.
"BE IT REMEMBERED, THAT ON THIS ISLAND, 25 JUNE 1215, JOHN KING OF ENGLAND SIGNED MAGNA CHARTA; AND IN THE YEAR 1834, THIS BUILDING WAS ERECTED, IN COMMEMORATION OF THAT GREAT AND IMPORTANT EVENT, BY GEORGE SIMON HARCOURT, ESQ LORD OF THIS MANOR, AND THEN HIGH SHERIFF OF THIS COUNTY."
However, through evidence gathered over the last few years Allen Meredith has proved to the satisfaction of many historians that the great yew tree in the grounds of the ruined Benedictine convent on the small island of Ankerwyke itself was probably the site of the oath-swearing to the Magna Carta.
The convent was founded in about 1160, right next to the yew tree which must have already been there for about 1,700 years and which is still standing. The manor of Ankerwycke belonged to Richard de Montfichet, who was one of the 25 barons present at the signing of the Charter.
Historians agree that Runnymede was a special meeting place long before Magna Carta "Runnymede, said to be called the meadow of the Runes, or magical charms, the field of mystery, and the field of council" (Gordon Gyll, History of Wraysbury, 1861). In Saxon times it was known as Rune-mede, implying a place of council where, originally, the runes would have been consulted and runes at that time had deep associations with yew trees.
"In earlier days, when the Saxon Kings had a place at Old Windsor, Runnymede
had been celebrated as a place where the people assembled to discuss public
questions of great moment, and where now cattle graze and wild flowers
spring, grew a gigantic oak, under the shade of which Alfred or Athelstane,
perhaps had occupied a throne of stone, and sat in royal state, when rallying
their subjects to their standard to resist the inroads of Danes.
It was around this oak, which the English regarded with a superstitious veneration, the origin of which might have been traced back to the time when Druids performed their mysterious rites, and sacrificed and feasted under the shelter of its spreading branches, that the King and the barons met" .
The published work of J.G. Edgar has been described as English historical fiction, but it is known that Edgar followed very closely the chronicles of Roger of Wendover and his editor and continuator, Matthew Paris, who was the greatest of the thirteenth-century chroniclers. He also drew upon other sources of that period. The oak which is referred to may be in fact the Ankerwyke yew.
Writers around the thirteenth century may have used the word oak or evergreen oak confusing it with the yew tree as the yew fruits do bear some similarity to small acorns. For instance earlier botanists describes a Taxus glandifera bacciferaque, a yew bearing acorns. Gerard was one such person who mentioned this. The yew tree would have had spreading branches and is also connected with the Druids, and certainly could have been a large tree during the Saxon period of Alfred or Athelstane just over 1,000 years ago.
The first positive measurement of the tree that we know of was in 1806, when Dr. Samuel Lyons gave a girth of over 30 feet. In 1989 it was measured at over 29 feet, and it is not much different now to John Lowe’s description in 1897: ’The base was a good deal broken away, and hollow up to five feet. The trunk above this point, which at one time was hollow, is now filled with a mass of large trunk-like roots, to a degree more remarkable than any I have seen’.’ It is likely that there has been a great deal of internal growth, and probably little change in the girth measurement over the last two or three centuries. In 1850 it was thought to be 1000 years old but recent research on dating yews has shown that this yew is more likely to be 2,500 years old.
The convent must, then, have been built when the yew was already of a venerable age. It is possible, as seems to have been the case with so many other Christian buildings, that Ankerwyke was chosen for the site of a religious house precisely because it was already a sacred site, thanks to the yew which was probably the sacred central focus of ancient tribes of the area. The word ’Ankerwyke’ suggests an early hermitage (’ankerage’, a place of retreat). Perhaps in the days before the arrival of the Saxons a hermit or holy man would have used the tree (quite likely hollow even then) as his shelter and his cell. Such practice is known of in other places, and a Saxon – Norman manuscript called the Ancren Riwle, dated around the thirteenth century, gives evidence of a hermitage tree.
Ankerwyke would thus have been the ideal place for the signing of the Magna Carta. Both the barons and King John would have wanted to meet in territory which afforded them protection, as each side distrusted the other. Ankerwyke would have provided some protection from a surprise attack, being surrounded by water. It may well have been regarded as neutral ground, For neither side would have wanted the reputation of having desecrated a convent by acts of violence. More importantly, the tradition of the axis mundi may well have lingered, and John could have derived authority from the tree as chieftains and kings had done in the past. To the nobles, too, the site may have appealed as the natural and traditional spot where weighty matters of state were adjudicated. Yet, if Ankerwyke is the most likely place in the area for the swearing of the great charter, how can the fact that it is clearly stated to have been signed at Runnymede be explained.
At the time of the signing of the Magna Carta, Ankerwyke was probably part of a larger area known as Runnymede, comprising all the water meadows in the area. The Thames has changed course several times since the thirteenth century; Runnymede and Ankerwyke are now on opposite sides of the Thames, but were then probably one united area.
Dr. Andrew Brookes, a geomorphologist from the National Rivers Authority, supports this theory: "Ten thousand years ago, the Thames flowed around a series of islands. It had a braided pattern, and only in the last 400 years or so has its main channel been centralised, widened and deepened for the needs of navigation." Indeed, the old course of the Thames can be clearly seen at the base of Cooper’s Hill, and local historians point out that Langham Ponds were once part of the old river course. The shifting of the course of the Thames may have been caused, at least in part, by the causeway built in about 1250 during the reign of Henry III, on the Egham side.
In the thirteenth-century the Benedictine monk Matthew Paris wrote: ’propre villam de stanes, juxta flumen Thamasiac, in quadam insula’ – indicating that the final agreement of the Magna Carta took place on a small island in the river Thames near Staines. It also became apparent that Sir Gilbert de Montfichet, one of the signatories of the Magna Carta, was a benefactor of the convent alongside the yew.
A meeting close to Cooper’s Hill would not have been practical, it would have been ideal for an ambush with longbows. Since the meadows around Runnymede were open, the only safe place in the area would have been the island of Ankerwyke, not only physically protected by the river but the very sanctuary that neither King John nor the barons would violate. King John is likely to have known of the yew’s ancient significance; his chief aide, Gerald de Barri, had written a book called Topographica Hybernica which details the importance of sacred yews.
Further evidence that the Ankerwyke yew was the site of the signing of the Magna Carta has been put forward by some historians, and older references to it have been unearthed. For instance, J.J. Sheahen, writing in 1862 , says: "Here the confederate Barons met King John, and having forced him to yield to the demands of his subjects they, under the pretext of securing the person of the King from the fury of the multitude, conveyed him to a small island belonging to the nuns of Ankerwyke, where he signed the Magna Carta."
In 1840 the historian S.C. Hall wrote:
"It is probable, therefore, that Edward the Confessor occasionally held his witan or council there during residence at Old Windsor, and that the barons chose the site as well on account of its previous association with those very rights they met to assert as it was a convenient distance from Windsor, sufficiently near for the king, but far enough removed to prevent any treacherous surprises by his forces."
Apart from the ancient yew, there is also a mysterious avenue of around thirty old yews. Nothing is currently known about these, but it has been suggested that they might have been planted in 1215 to commemorate the agreement of Magna Carta.
A Tree Preservation Order was granted in April 1990, and in early l992 the dense undergrowth surrounding it was cleared.
Other stories of the tree’s history are also slowly emerging. There
is a legend that a dove conveyed a bough of the Ankerwyke yew in its bill
to Germany, where a convent was built to protect the relic. It was later
allegedly transplanted to Spain.
J.G. Strutt wrote in 1822 : "The yew tree at Ankerwyke, near Staines, the seat of John Blagrove Esq., is supposed to have flourished there upwards of a thousand years. Tradition says, that Henry VIII occasionally met Anne Boleyn under the lugubrious shade of its spreading branches, at such times as she was placed in the neighbourhood of Staines, in order to be near Windsor, wither the King used to love to retire from the cares of state. Ill-omened as was the place of meeting under such circumstances, it afforded but too appropriate an emblem of the result of that arbitrary and ungovernable passion, which, over-looking every obstacle in its progress, was destined finally to hurry its victim to an untimely grave. It is more pleasing to view this tree as the silent witness of the conferences of those brave barons who afterwards compelled King John to sign Magna Carta, in its immediate vicinity, between Runnymede and Ankerwyke House, than as the involuntary confidant of loves so unhallowed and so unblest as those of Henry and Anne Boleyn. Both events, however, are happily alluded to in the following lines:
"What scenes have pass’d, since first this ancient Yew
In all the strength of youthful beauty grew!
Here patriot Barons might have musing stood,
And plann’d the Charter for their Country’s good;
And here, perhaps, from Runnymede retired,
The haughty John, with secret vengeance fired,
Might curse the day which saw his weakness yield
Extorted rights in yonder tented field.
Here too the tyrant Henry felt love’s flame,
And, sighing, breathed his Anne Bolyn’s name;
Beneath the shelter of this Yew-tree’s shade,
The royal lover wood’d the ill-star’d maid;
And yet that neck, round which he fondly hung,
To hear the thrilling accents of her tongue;
That lovely breast, on which his head reclined,
Form’d to have humanized his savage mind;
Were Doom’d to bleed beneath the tyrants steel,
Whose selfish heart might doat, but could not feel.
O had the Yew its direst venom shed,
Upon the cruel Henry’s guilty head,
Ere Englands sons with shuddering grief had seen
A slaughtere’s victim in their beauteous queen!"
On 15 June 1992 777 years after the signing of the original Magna Carta, a group of people again assembled under the Ankerwyke yew to make an oath. This pledge was as relevant to its time as the first had been; it was a ’green’ Magna Carta, drawn up by David Bellamy and setting out to protect the world’s wild spaces and wildlife. It reads:
"We the free people of the islands of Great Britain on the 777th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta do: Look back and give thanks for the benefits that the signings, sealing and swearing of oaths on that document handed down to us. Look forward to a new age of freedom through sustainability by granting the following rights to all the sons of plants and animals with which we share our islands and our planet."
Ten pledges then follow for protecting all forms of life, and allowing
them to ’live and complete their cycles of life as ordained by nature’.