In February 2014 we were approached and asked if we would prepare a new edition of J.C. Holt’s landmark book on Magna Carta, first published to accompany the seven hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Great Charter, for republication at the beginning of the eight hundredth anniversary. Since 2011 Jim Holt had been so physically infirm that he was no longer capable of revising his book himself. We had both visited him frequently during the period of his infirmity, and knew well that he continued to reflect on these matters and still relished discussing them. ‘Bloody rubbish!’, he exploded when one of us had the temerity to suggest that the true identity of ‘Glanvill’ might just conceivably be Samson, abbot of Bury St Edmunds. If anything, medieval history grew in intensity and immediacy because his circumscribed, house-bound existence provided little alternative stimulation.
Neither of us hesitated for a moment about accepting the invitation, both out of filial piety and because we were confident that the book which Jim had greatly expanded for the Second Edition in 1992 was not going to be surpassed in the deluge of publications which would inevitably swamp 2015. It deserved to be brought up to date, to take account of what had been published since 1992, and also to explain how and why Jim had rethought so much for the Second Edition – the magnitude of the rethink is evidenced by the fact that the Second Edition is 175 pages longer than the First. But we did so with a scintilla of trepidation, because we were all too aware that he knew we were at work. He had approved of our taking on the job, but we could sense his critical eye skimming over what we had just written, and we wrote in the expectation that he would soon be taking us to task about it. The tone we adopted was therefore one of current debate, not valedictory summing up. We were due to go and see him with a preliminary draft of our Introduction on Friday 11. Then, as we were making last-minute revisions to it in preparation, came the news – an e-mail message flashing up in the corner of the screen, as is the way of things nowadays – that he had died suddenly, on Wednesday 9 April. It is always later than you think. This is not the place for an obituary, or an assessment of Jim as an historian – probably the greatest historian of medieval England of the later twentieth century. We trust that there will be opportunities enough for these. But his death has forced us to adjust the tone of our draft, because it can no longer aspire to secure his imprimatur as a living contributor to the debate. That he nevertheless has an authoritative contribution to make has been clear to us as we have weighed his book, and the recent attempts of others to build on it and disagree with it, with an even keener intensity. His death has also prompted us to write at somewhat greater length, because our new Introduction to the third edition seems likely to constitute the most substantial assessment of his work on Magna Carta, and will mark his vicarious last word on the subject. Amongst his papers – which will henceforth be lodged in the Department of Mediaeval History at St Andrews – we found a very long hand-written letter commenting on a typescript of the First Edition. It was written by Jim’s own, greatly revered, doctoral supervisor – ‘the Old Man’, as he referred to him – who had encouraged him to write the book. Fifty years on, its opening sentence seems to us accurately to estimate Jim’s place in the Pantheon of historians of medieval England. Who could be better qualified to pronounce such a judgement than Galbraith? In 1964 his words were to some degree prophetic; but the prophecy came to pass, in Jim Holt’s development of his work on Magna Carta and on many other subjects. Like his book’s subject, ‘It set no mean standard.’