There is no doubt that Magna Carta was sealed in June 1215 at Runnymede in Berkshire, on the south bank of the Thames. This was in sight of King John’s castle at Windsor and less than a day’s ride from London, now controlled by rebel barons.
The very fact that the document’s place of issue is specified as “the meadow which is called Runnymede between Windsor and Staines” indicates that this was no ordinary royal charter but a peace treaty. Such treaties were traditionally negotiated at ‘liminal’ spots – frontiers, bridges or even in boats midstream on rivers dividing two territorial powers.
A contemporary, translating Magna Carta into Anglo-Norman French, was so bemused by the name that he recorded it as the unintelligible ‘Roueninkmede’, which perhaps indicates quite how obscure a place this was.
Wraysbury, lying to the north of the river in Buckinghamshire, opposite to Runnymede, belonged in 1215 to the rebel baron Richard de Montfichet. It was not until several centuries later, after many unrecorded changes in the meandering of the Thames, that Magna Carta Island, within the parish of Wraysbury, acquired both its name and its historical associations. Jerome K Jerome, in his Three Men in a Boat (1889) records the island (where his incompetent heroes struggled to pitch a tent), and the stone slab on which Magna Carta was supposedly signed.
Answered by: Nick Vincent, professor of history at the University of East Anglia