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Magna Boring

The less-than-thrilling site of the Magna Carta’s signing

Author John Scott Lewinski Illustration Marc Rosenthal


ENGLAND – On a damp and blustery Monday afternoon, a group of reporters stands in a marshy field just outside London, staring at a mud patch. Some take pictures. Others take notes. One woman, who’s come here from Mumbai, bends over and grabs a clump of grass, then promptly stuffs it into her pocket.

The setting might not look like much, but this bog is one of the most significant spots on the planet, says the bespectacled, gray-haired man leading the group, British historian and TV host David Starkey. “Both sides agreed to meet on Runnymede, partly because it was and is a stretch of useless ground,” he says. “No one would fight over this field, and—even if they did—no army could fight on it.”

He’s referring to King John and a group of rebellious barons, who met here in 1215 to ratify the Magna Carta, the charter that is said to have inspired not only the American Declaration of Independence but the very idea of human rights. Today’s junket is one of many, many events held this year to celebrate the document’s 800th anniversary, but the site is not the splashiest—except in the literal sense.

“Runnymede is such an extraordinary patch,” Starkey says, his voice rising above the whoosh of traffic on the nearby A308 motorway, “because it’s so entirely unextraordinary.”

Maybe so, but you can go only so far with the unextraordinary, even of the extraordinary variety, and one or two of the reporters are starting to look antsy.

“When did we get here?” one American whispers to a colleague.

“About 12:30,” the colleague replies, before pausing and adding, “A.D.”

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