Sir James Clarke Holt (26 April 1922 – 9 April 2014)

By Emily Ward

Sir James Clarke Holt, perhaps best known by his publishing moniker of J. C. Holt, died on 9 April 2014 aged 91. Holt’s contribution to the field of medieval British history has been vast. His publications span a period of over fifty years, from the early 1950s to his last article published in 2007. His research helped to elucidate a range of substantial and diverse topics, from setting the background and history of Magna Carta in its context to exploring the mythical figure of Robin Hood.

Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge

In an interview with Holt on 16 May 2008 in Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, he attributed his introduction to the comparative and analytical skills of academic history to “two great history teachers” at Bradford Grammar School. His education continued at Queen’s College, Oxford. Although the Second World War came halfway through Holt’s undergraduate degree, when he was demobilised in 1945 he went straight back to Oxford to continue his studies. As a student he was particularly influenced by John Prestwich and Vivian Galbraith, both of whom were prominent and highly respected scholars of the medieval period. Holt held academic positions at the University of Nottingham and the University of Reading before taking up the post of Professor of Medieval History at the University of Cambridge in 1978. Three years later he became the third master of Fitzwilliam College and he held this position until his retirement in 1988.

Magna Carta, 1215 issue

Holt’s interest in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century was immediately evident from his doctoral thesis, then amended to become his first book on The Northerners: A Study in the Reign of King John. It was this fascination with the northern barons of England which led to Holt agreeing to write perhaps his most famous work, Magna Carta. It was published in 1965 as part of the celebrations of the 750th anniversary of the first issue of the great charter, to mark the meeting between the barons and King John at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. This work continued to be the definitive text for decades afterwards and, on the eve of celebrations for the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta which will take place next year, Holt’s work still remains as significant today. He will no doubt be poignantly remembered throughout the anniversary.

The influence and importance of Holt’s work for the field of history was recognised by his appointment to leading positions at both the British Academy and the Royal Historical Society. As president of the Royal Historical Society between 1981 and 1985 his accolades even culminated in the award of knighthood. Holt’s legacy will live on not just in the works that he left behind but in the many prominent scholars, who benefited from his teaching and in his active promotion of the importance of history as a discipline. In the 2008 interview, Holt proclaimed that “historians have to stand up and fight for themselves” and these are certainly motivational and pertinent words for him to pass on to future generations of historians.


Select further reading:

  • The Northerners: A Study in the Reign of King John (Oxford, 1961)
  • Magna Carta (Cambridge, 1965 and 1992)
  • Robin Hood (London, 1982)
  • Law and government in medieval England and Normandy: essays in honour of Sir James Holt, George Garnett and John Hudson (eds.) (Cambridge, 1994)
  • Foundations for the Future: the University of Cambridge (Cambridge, 1995)
  • Colonial England, 1066-1215 (London, 1997)

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