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A Magna Carta MOOC

The following is a guest post by Emm Barnes Johnstone, historian of medicine with the Centre for Public History, Heritage and Engagement with the Past at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Royal Holloway, a college of the University of London, sits just two miles from Runnymede. We are home to some of the world’s experts on Magna Carta in its thirteenth century context and on its reinterpretation and reinvigoration in the seventeenth century, so we’re invested in making the commemorations of the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta as successful as possible. This means ensuring the commemorations do not only celebrate past achievements, but show how the legacy of Magna Carta continues today.

Royal Holloway's Founders Building offers views over Runnymede

Royal Holloway’s Founders Building offers views over Runnymede. Photo Source: Royal Holloway, University of London.

While anniversary events on the meadows and in local towns next year will be colourful and exciting, we want to share the expertise of our academics and the beauty of Runnymede and its memorials as widely as possible in a format that can be accessed in future years. A Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) seemed an obvious choice to help us connect with people interested in Magna Carta wherever they live. Working with the University of London and Coursera, a group of Royal Holloway’s historians put together a six week introductory course to take learners through the historical development of Magna Carta and its meanings. The course will encourage students to consider both the material history of Magna Carta – from original manuscripts to print and museum artefacts – and the changing international history and reception of ideas inspired by the document. The course will be offered for the first time in January 2015 and is open to everyone free of charge. Visit https://www.coursera.org/course/magnacarta to find out more and to register for the course.

The course will feature Professor Nigel Saul, a member of the Magna Carta 800th Committee’s Education subcommittee, who will discuss the context of Magna Carta’s creation in 1215 and show how reissues of Magna Carta through the thirteenth century led to the establishment of its clauses on the English statute book and the creation of Parliament. Professor Justin Champion, President of the Historical Association,  will take students through the reinvention of Magna Carta between 1508 and 1776, tracing the process by which Magna Carta transitioned from being a thing to being an idea, and from being a document of authority to being an icon for protest. Dr. Graham Smith and I then will focus on Magna Carta and the wider world, looking at how Magna Carta has been claimed by many and conflicting parties over the past 200 years. Dr. Nicholas Allen from our Politics Department will explain Magna Carta’s role as a foundational document in other countries’ constitutions, and Dr. Alasdair Pinkerton and Professor Peter Adey will take students on a walk from the ABA’s Magna Carta Memorial to the John F. Kennedy Runnymede Memorial, to explore the reasons for the emergence of Runnymede as a landscape of commemoration. Filmed in mostly glorious weather at sites across Runnymede, the lectures will introduce students to the birthplace of liberty alongside the timeline of and reasons for Magna Carta’s importance.

Dr Graham Smith filmed at the Commonwealth Air Forces Memorial on Coopers Hill above Runnymede.

Dr Graham Smith filmed at the Commonwealth Air Forces Memorial on Coopers Hill above Runnymede. Photo Source: Still from the MOOC ‘Magna Carta and its Legacy,’ University of London, filmed by iMotion.

The peace treaty drawn up on the meadows of Runnymede in June 1215 between King John and his barons has become one of the most globally recognised icons in human history. Whether in India, North America, China, or Europe, Magna Carta – the material object and the complex meanings associated with it – has significance for a set of powerful values pertinent to the twenty-first century and is still frequently cited in political debates around rights to privacy, property, and prosperity. Over the course of eight centuries, the meaning of Magna Carta has been refashioned and embellished by legal traditions, communities protesting against political injustice, individuals protecting their environments, and minorities seeking tolerance of their cultural values. We hope that this MOOC will further strengthen Magna Carta as a living historical tradition, evolving and adapting as different interests explore its value in new contexts and challenges.


The Library of Congress will celebrate the 800th anniversary of the first issue of Magna Carta with a 10-week exhibition “Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor,” opening November 6, 2014, and running through Monday, January 19, 2015. The Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta, one of four remaining originals from 1215, will be on display along with other rare materials from the Library’s rich collections to tell the story of Magna Carta’s influence on the history of political liberty. 

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