Rowing to Runnymede: The River Relay for the Magna Carta 800th

Pic 1. In this romanticised Victorian illustration, King John is told off for attempting to sign Magna Carta with a pen when every schoolchild knows that he should have affixed his wax seal to it. John is one of England’s most unpopular kings, not least because he persecuted Robin Hood (the fact that Robin is fictitious does not seem to make any difference). A. A. Milne’s poem for children, “King Johns Christmas”, begins ‘King John was not a good man, / He had his little ways. / And sometimes no one spoke to him, / For days and days and days’.
In this romanticised Victorian illustration, King John is told off for attempting to sign Magna Carta with a pen when every schoolchild knows that he should have affixed his wax seal to it. John is one of England’s most unpopular kings, not least because he persecuted Robin Hood (the fact that Robin is fictitious does not seem to make any difference). A. A. Milne’s poem for children, “King Johns Christmas”, begins ‘King John was not a good man, / He had his little ways. / And sometimes no one spoke to him, / For days and days and days’.

Tim Koch writes:

Magna Carta, the charter agreed by King John at a meeting with rebel barons besides the Thames at Runnymead in 1215, is popularly supposed to be the foundation of English liberty. Its influence has reached far beyond the United Kingdom and, because of its effect on the Founding Fathers of the United States, the average American may be more aware of the ‘Great Charter’ then the average Briton. 

Pic 2. A memorial at Runnymead https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Runnymede created by the American Bar Association. On a pillar of English granite is inscribed ‘To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of Freedom Under Law’. Picture: WyrdLight.com
A memorial at Runnymead  created by the American Bar Association. On a pillar of English granite is inscribed ‘To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of Freedom Under Law’. Picture: WyrdLight.com

This seemingly sacred text has not, however, been held in awe by everyone. In 1553 for example, Oliver Cromwell dismissed it as ‘The Magna Farta’ – which is not a great joke but is probably the best that the notorious Puritan produced.  An example of a contrary view was that taken in 2013 by Jay Z, the popular hip-hop recording artist, when he released an album entitled ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’, confusingly mixing unrelated semi-myth with total myth. It is generally accepted that the 1215 Magna Carta attempted to secure rights only for an already privileged class and it was in fact through later acts that it become an enduring symbol of liberty and the rule of law. Its real importance is that at its heart was the idea that ‘the law’ is not simply the whim of a king or a government.

Pic 3. Britain’s memorial to President Kennedy is also sited at Runnymead. Picture: Andrew Mathewson.
Britain’s memorial to President Kennedy is also sited at Runnymead. Picture: Andrew Mathewson.

Regardless of any criticisms, this summer even the most churlish seemed ready to mark the 800th year of this powerful and iconic document. One enthusiastic supporter of the anniversary was Thames Alive which is ‘a catalyst and an umbrella organisation harnessing and promoting the River Thames’. A director of Thames Alive and an old friend of HTBS, Malcolm Knight, ‘a man who makes things happen on the river’, has produced the following account of the River Relay for the Magna Carta 800th.

Pic 4. Malcolm Knight (on the right) at a previous event that he was involved with, the river procession for the 2014 Lord Mayor’s Show. He has, as he says, ‘a flair for organising rowing events’. On the left is Peter Warwick, Chairman of Thames Alive and in the centre is Lord Stirling, who initiated the project to build the Queen’s Row Barge, Gloriana.
Malcolm Knight (on the right) at a previous event that he was involved with, the river procession for the 2014 Lord Mayor’s Show. He has, as he says, ‘a flair for organising rowing events’. On the left is Peter Warwick, Chairman of Thames Alive and in the centre is Lord Stirling, who initiated the project to build the Queen’s Row Barge, Gloriana.

MalcolmKnight writes:

We’ve all been there – propping a bar at Henley Royal Regatta having supped a few pints of Pimm’s and someone says “Why don’t we ……?” and goes on to propose some outrageous rowing event, so it was in 2011. The seemingly outrageous proposal was to recreate the arrival of King John at Runnymede aboard a boat to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta in June 2015. Most people walk away from these ideas but once again I found myself picking up the challenge gauntlet and making off in to the sunset with an idea…

Firstly the Thames Alive Team was stirred in to action, a proposal written and a plan of action formulated, fast forward over three years – after many fruitless meetings to get support for the idea eventually a Councillor from the Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead suggested a River Relay carrying a facsimile of Magna Carta. The other local authorities of the Boroughs of Runnymede and Spelthorne agreed to support the event and in late 2014 the planning finally began.

Pic 5. The route of the river relay. Illustration by Peter Kent.
The route of the river relay. Illustration by Peter Kent.

The Magna Carta was to be carried by local Charter Bearers on board a traditional rowing boat down the River Thames over two days from Hurley (the upstream boundary of the Borough) stopping at different places for plays to be presented by costumed character actors telling the story of Magna Carta and finish at Runnymede with ‘King John’ re-enacting the sealing of this historic document. The Charter Bearers’ boat was to be escorted by other river craft and have a Herald craft of The Queen’s Row Barge Gloriana lead the way.

Day 1
So it was on the 13 June 2015 the Charter Flotilla of The Queen’s Shallop Jubilant escorted by the Draper’s Shallop Royal Thamesis and the Watermen & Lightermen’s Shallop Lady Mayoress with Charter Bearers (selected from the local area) and characters from the Magna Carta story (the rebel Barons) were sent on their way from Hurley by the Mayor and the Town Crier of the Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead.

Pic 6. Gloriana and some of her escort. The royal barge was privately commissioned as a gift to Queen Elizabeth on her Diamond Jubilee in 2012. Her Majesty asked that Gloriana be retained by the Maritime Heritage Trust http://www.maritimeheritage.org.uk/ and, with the assistance of Thames Alive, be used to promote better use of the Thames.
Gloriana and some of her escort. The royal barge was privately commissioned as a gift to Queen Elizabeth on her Diamond Jubilee in 2012. Her Majesty asked that Gloriana be retained by the Maritime Heritage Trust and, with the assistance of Thames Alive, be used to promote better use of the Thames.

 

Pic 7. The Royal Shallop Jubilant leaves Hurley. She was commissioned by The Thames Traditional Rowing Association http://www.traditionalrowing.com/ to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002.
The Royal Shallop Jubilant leaves Hurley. She was commissioned by The Thames Traditional Rowing Association to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002.

 

Pic 8. ‘King John’ aboard Gloriana.
‘King John’ aboard Gloriana.

 

Whilst a short distance downstream, at Bisham Abbey, Gloriana, with a crew from Maidenhead RC, embarked on the Royal Progress passing through Marlow Town Regatta which kindly suspended racing to allow the Royal Barge to pass unhindered.

Below Marlow lock at The Longridge Centre the first of four escort groups totalling 100 boats of many types from all over the UK were waiting to join the core boats.

The Charter flotilla arrived at Bisham Abbey and in front of a crowd of spectators ‘Robert Fitz Walter’ took the opportunity to put the Rebel’s case to Radio Berkshire, whose reporter had followed along the Thames path by bike.

Pic 9. Arriving at Cookham.
Arriving at Cookham.

 

Gloriana meanwhile arrived with her escort with all due splendour at the next stop, Cookham Reach Sailing Club, where the actors were already mingling with the crowds. After a short stop for VIPs to embark she moved off downstream.

The charter boats continued downstream through Marlow lock where they were joined by the first of their escorts and with a short stop off Upper Thames Sailing Club, onwards to Cookham.

They arrived to a rousing welcome at Cookham Reach Sailing Club and once again the festivities and play unfolded to the ever increasing crowds.

Gloriana had now moved on to Cliveden House where the ‘Archbishop of Canterbury’ awaited the boats and once again after a short stop for the Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire to take the salute from the local Sea Rangers she moved off downstream with her second escort group of boats.

Pic 10

Pic 11

Pics 10, 11, 12. The flotilla took three fills of Boulter’s Lock. (This and two images above).
The flotilla took three fills of Boulter’s Lock. (This and the two images above).

 

By now downstream at Boulters Lock the crowds packed the footpath above and below the lock and the waiting cruisers watched as the MC 800 River Relay escort boats were called in to the lock (thank you Environment Agency staff!) recreating the wonderful 1887 Gregory painting not once but on three occasions.

The Charter flotilla arrived at Cliveden and once more the story of Magna Carta was told to the watching crowds who thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle cheering as the flotilla moved off down river with the fourth escort group of boats.

The last stop of the day was at Bridge Gardens beside Maidenhead Bridge which was once again full to capacity with onlookers. The actors stepped ashore to a rousing cheer and told their story once more whilst the 100 escort boats and Gloriana made their way downstream through Bray lock to overnight moorings at Oakley Court Hotel and some onward to Datchet.

A couple of hours later the enthusiastic crowds filling the lawns at Oakley Court Hotel had their own full performance of the Magna Carta story as the sun set over the moored boats  – Day 1 completed.

Day 2
Early on Sunday the 3,000 Windsor Triathlon competitors were swimming in the river in Windsor so the escort boats made their way slowly downstream followed by Gloriana and the Charter flotilla which stopped for the last time at The Brocas, Eton for the full play to be acted out to the spectators waiting in the light drizzle.

By now another 80 boats were arriving, launching and creating the Parade of Boating at Runnymede being joined by the escort boats from Day 1 that had over-nighted at Datchet.

Pic 13. The ‘Archbishop of Canterbury’ with the (real) Mayor of Runnymead.
The ‘Archbishop of Canterbury’ with the (real) Mayor of Runnymead.

 

The Mayors of Windsor & Maidenhead and Spelthorne were delivered by two launches Verity and Jolly Brit to Runnymede where the Mayor of Runnymede Cllr. Cottey welcomed them ashore in front of the newly unveiled statue of HM Queen Elizabeth II – and finally the sun began to shine.

On instructions from the Marshal boats all the 180 manpowered craft made their way up to the weir stream of Old Windsor lock and mustered ready for the finale row pasts.

On schedule Jubilant and the Charter flotilla with an escort of over 50 boats rowed gently down the Runnymede meadows waved and cheered on by 1000s of spectators, was saluted by a toss of oars from the escort, coming in to moor delivering the Charter Bearers, the Magna Carta and the last of the Barons to the waiting crowds.

Pic 14. ‘Gloriana’ arrives at Runnymead.
Gloriana arrives at Runnymead.

 

Finally The Queen’s Row Barge Gloriana, rowed by Windsor Boys School, came round the corner with her escort of 100 boats led by two Gondolas (one rowed by a crew from Venice) who again, as the Royal Barge carrying ‘King John’ moored on the Runnymede meadow, tossed oars and gave a rousing three cheers.

Pic 15. Gloriana with ‘tossed oars’, salutes the row past.
Gloriana with ‘tossed oars’, salutes the row past.

 

The escort boats then all rowed past the Royal Barge with her crew standing in salute to them, eventually stopping all other river traffic by sheer numbers – 180 traditional boats, many in period costume, all proudly flying the MC800 River Relay flag rowed, paddled and motored past the ceremony of the re-enactment of the sealing of Magna Carta being performed in the arena.

PIc 16

Pic 17

Pic 16, 17, 18. They keep on coming! The row past of the MC800 River Relay. This image and the two above.
They keep on coming! The row past of the MC800 River Relay. This image and the two above.

 

The MC800 River Relay was a marvellous celebration of this historic document enjoyed by 100s afloat and 1000s on the river bank over the 20 miles of the River Thames. The flotillas moved safely through 10 locks, stopped on time at six locations for the plays and all arrived on time at Runnymede – well done to all those who took part, many thanks to the Environment Agency for all their assistance, the three local Borough Councils for their support and to all those volunteers who made the plan work.

Malcolm Knight,
Events Manager Queen’s Row Barge and Director Thames Alive

The Thames Alive Team have brought you the re-enactment of Lord Nelson’s river borne funeral procession, the Henry VIII 500th and Henry’s Honeymoon flotillas, the Manpowered Division of the Queen’s Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant, Day 70 of the Olympic Torch Relay, the Lord Mayor’s Flotilla and has been involved in the annual Royal Watermen’s Tudor Pull.

2 comments

  1. That is a brilliant article with such beautiful pictures. I am lucky to have been on the Gloriana thanks to Malcolm Knight at St Katherine’s Dock. Malcolm is a member of Dittons Skiff Club and has rowed in the Radley Skiffs built by my uncle Sid in about 1960. Last week I met Mark Edwards at Richmond who built the Gloriana. He looks after the skiffs at Dittons so was already aware of my late uncle. He showed me round the workshops at Richmond and purchased a copy of the Radleys of the Lea

    There are some strange coincidences re Dittons skiff club. Malcolm Pemberry a member of Dittons contacted me earlier this year re the Radley Skiffs. When I went to Dittons it turned out he worked at QinetiiQ at Farnborough where I worked until 2004 when I retired. His desk was about 100 yards from mine but in a different building. He’s a wind tunnel specialist where Boeing etc test their winglets etc. It then turned out that person who managed the business group I had been in had moved to manage the wind tunnels. Both Malcolm and I didn’t get on with that person.

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