Magna Carta: Public Commemoration, Celebration, and Meaning,1915- 2015

Steven Franklin

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis explores the public commemoration and celebration of Magna Carta within Britain during the period of 1915-2015. Sealed in 1215 by King John at Runnymede, Magna Carta was a contemporary failure, annulled almost as soon as the wax of the seal had set. Against the odds,the charter survived, transitioning from a document of revolution to one of good governance
and kingship. Over the centuries, the charter has become synonymous with notions of individual liberty and trial by jury, acting as an icon and defender of these values in Britain, across the commonwealth, and in former colonies like America. During this legacy, Magna Carta has displayed a protean quality, equally adept at supporting the arguments of the establishment as it is radicals and reformers. From the position of the twenty-first century,
Magna Carta holds a prominent position in preconceived formulations and understandings of British liberty and national identity, simultaneously providing many western democracies with a foundation on which to legitimise principles such as the 'rule of law'.
This thesis provides an analysis of the legacy of Magna Carta in Britain throughout the twentieth and twenty-first century, bookended by the 700th and 800th anniversary of the charter. Unlike previous work, this thesis’ methodology is informed by theories of public history, particularly those tied to commemoration, memory, and heritage. It shifts the focus of
the historical analysis towards both the reception of the charter and how it has been publicly celebrated. This thesis argues that the memory of Magna Carta is best described and understood as a palimpsest: the layering of successive interpretations, arguing Magna Carta has been framed to suit contemporary needs and function. Alongside these developments in interpretation, society's relationship to and use of the past has not been static. In this context,
ideas associated with commemorative practice and the planning of historical anniversaries has also changed. As a result, Magna Carta commemorations provide a suitable case study in which changing attitudes towards the past, heritage, and public history can be traced.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Champion, Justin, Supervisor
  • Madigan, Edward, Supervisor
Award date1 Jan 2021
Publication statusUnpublished - 4 Dec 2020

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