Campus close-up: Royal Holloway, University of London

A new doctoral centre will examine Magna Carta’s influence in the digital age

April 9, 2015

Source: Getty

Atlantic crossing: Magna Carta was revered by America’s Founding Fathers and is cited in US court judgments even today

The memorial that marks the spot where Magna Carta was sealed in 1215 is a modest one for a treaty widely regarded as the cornerstone of British democracy.

The small rotunda erected by the American Bar Association in Runnymede, the soggy Thames-side meadow, certainly lacks the grandeur of US monuments to the historic legal document, which include a permanent Magna Carta exhibit situated beneath the Capitol building in Washington.

But a new project located close to the fields visited by King John 800 years ago may soon provide a more fitting tribute.

Thanks to a £1 million Leverhulme Trust award, Royal Holloway, University of London is to establish a new doctoral centre focused on the study of Magna Carta, whose 800th anniversary is celebrated on 15 June.

Some 20 doctoral students – five of whom are funded by Royal Holloway itself – will undertake a range of multidisciplinary research projects into how the spirit of Magna Carta lives on in today’s very different society.

With the BBC covering the on-going significance of the “Great Charter” in its Taking Liberties series this year, one might think there is really nothing more to say about the famous document.

But the diverse selection of PhD subjects under consideration shows this is not the case. Students will examine how Magna Carta might be applied to issues of online privacy, state surveillance, ethical concerns around genetic testing for hereditary diseases and the rights of children.

Paul Hogg, vice-principal of Royal Holloway, believes there is a “phenomenal range” of issues to explore when it comes to considering personal freedoms in today’s digital age.

“We are trying to create a new legacy for Magna Carta, rather than simply look back at what it was,” said Professor Hogg.

He points out that Magna Carta’s resonance is primarily as a “concept”, rather than for the actual content of the treaty whose clauses extend to wrangles about fishing traps on the River Medway.

“It has come to represent a way of safeguarding individual rights and we need to carry forward how we think about this in a digital age,” he said. “For instance, young people think very differently about privacy and seldom understand what their rights are in this area.”

Several of the PhD projects will explore these themes, with projects examining youth protest and technology, parents’ rights to check up on their children’s online lives and different uses of social media within families. Professor Hogg said he hoped the work at the Magna Carta Doctoral Centre for Individual Freedom would establish Royal Holloway as the UK’s number one university for studying the peace treaty, which has inspired and informed countless fights for freedom and democratic rule over the past eight centuries.

The centre may host international conferences on the subject and draw in research from current Royal Holloway academics whose work overlaps with that of the centre, he said.

“It may become a type of thinktank where our academics and external people come together to work out how to apply the issue of personal freedom to modern problems,” Professor Hogg said.

He added that one example might be whether a company has the right to frack near someone’s house. “Where do individual rights start and end in these situations?” he said.

In addition to its doctoral centre, whose first students will start their research this autumn, more than 100,000 people have so far accessed a free online course on Magna Carta offered by the university, which it intends to repeat soon.

Professor Hogg said he believed the centre could run beyond its initial five years of Leverhulme funding if its momentum starts to build.

These days Magna Carta seems to belong more to America, where it remains as revered today as it was by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the country’s other Founding Fathers. It is still frequently cited in landmark Supreme Court judgments.

In contrast, when quizzed by David Letterman, the chat show host, in September 2012, David Cameron, the prime minister, was unable to say what the words Magna Carta meant.

Royal Holloway’s success might be the key to a wider reawakening in the UK of why Magna Carta still matters.

In numbers

20 doctoral students will undertake research projects at the Magna Carta centre.

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