Magna Carta anniversary spurs merchandising mania

The 800th anniversary of the signing of the Great Charter - which established the rule of law - has spurred all manner of souvenir, from the staid to the surprising.

Rubber duckies, lanyards among commemorative souvenirs

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      For the baby who needs a reminder that they're not above the law, a soothing Magna Carta pacifier.

      For the puppy who holds habeas corpus dear, a fetching Magna Carta sweater.

      For the thirsty tourist who espouses the right of trial by jury, how about some cold Magna Carta beer?

      The 800th anniversary of the signing of the Great Charter — which first established the rule of law — has spurred all manner of souvenir, from the staid to the surprising.

      Take, for example, the British Library's best-selling Magna Quacka, a rubber duckie sporting a medieval hood and a scroll tucked beneath his wing. The national library is also selling a series of books, crowns, cushions and posters of the historic charter, which was forged as an agreement between the tyrannical King John and a group of rebellious barons in 1215.

      The document, which was recast and reissued in the 14th and 15th centuries, introduced principles of justice, including the right to a fair trial. It also set limits on the power of the monarchy.

      The precepts outlined in the Magna Carta later influenced the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the U.S. Bill of Rights and the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

      An exhibition about the Great Charter begins on June 12 in Ottawa, and will be shown in Winnipeg, Toronto and Edmonton later this year.

      The Magna Quacka rubber duckie is a bestseller in the British Library's online shop. (The British Library)

      Maxine Hellenkamp, the British Library's commercial manager, says they took a sweeping approach in selecting products to sell alongside their current exhibition, "Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy."

      But the Great Charter and a pot of jam, Hellenkamp says their strategy was well considered. 

      "We pride ourselves on ensuring everyone can take away a bit of the show," she said.

      "The lanyard is an inexpensive, compact and practical memento. The jam is locally sourced and produced by England Preserves in London."

      The Magna Carta Trust offers a similar range of items including books and facsimiles as well as a sterling silver goblet priced at £795.

      Jeremy Goldsmith, managing director of Event Merchandising, says tea towels, pin badges and bags have thus far been the most popular items.

      The Kate and William model

      A wide-net approach to commemorative merchandising is quite common in the U.K., says Kenneth Wong, a marketing professor at Queen's School of Business in Kingston, Ont.

      "Take Kate and William," he said, referring to the flood of souvenirs their 2011 wedding inspired. "Anything that could have something [royals-themed] stuck on it, got something stuck on it."

      He says that for comparable events in North America, such as the Canadian centennial, there is typically a central group that tightly controls brand development and licensing fees. With a centrally coordinated campaign, the merchandising effort tends to be more concerted as opposed to a mishmash of independents.

      King John agreed to the terms in the Great Charter following a revolt of rebel barons. The landmark agreement turns 800 this June. ( Photo: ALAMY)

      Wong notes that the abundance of products is also in part tied to a greater reverence in the U.K. for the Magna Carta. He also suggests the wealth of merchandise may be tied in part to a growing wave of nationalism in the U.K., alongside a general fascination with the medieval period thanks to TV series such as Game of Thrones.

      It also might just be that history fans have a true appreciation of the offbeat, suggests Wendy Zieger, an account manager with Bridgeman Images, a fine art distributor that is selling Magna Carta-themed posters, buttons, cellphone cases and binders.

      "We realize that fans of history and art like quirky products," she said.

      'Beats a Miley Cyrus T-shirt'

      Independent sellers have similarly put together extensive lines of commemorative merchandise. Jeff Grimshaw, who lives in Sydney, Australia, sells Magna Carta 800 T-shirts, ball caps and mousepads on the e-commerce site Zazzle.

      He says the anniversary offers an important opportunity to remember that we should hold our leaders to account.

      "I hoped people would see the merchandise as an educational tool, something they could give to children and grandchildren to encourage an interest in how our society has evolved from historic documents such as Magna Carta," said Grimshaw. "It certainly beats a Miley Cyrus T-shirt."

      Similarly, London-based Katie Collins hopes the "Team King John" buttons she sells on Etsy and her own site, The Creative Historian, encourage people to read more about the historic agreement.

      While King John was a rubbish king, and a not particularly nice man, there are still people who have studied the history of his reign and want to show that with a button.- Katie Collins, The Creative Historian

      Collins says despite the monarch's despotic reputation, the King John buttons have sold steadily and are usually ordered in tandem with Team Richard I buttons.

      She posits that customers like contrasting John with his more popular brother, Richard the Lionheart.

      "While King John was a rubbish king, and a not particularly nice man, there are still people who have studied the history of his reign and want to show that with a button. I don't want those people to feel left out, so John gets included alongside more popular kings such as his brother, Richard, and the hero of Agincourt, Henry V," Collins said.

      She has also recently added a new button, Team Barons, to recognize their pivotal role in the Magna Carta anniversary. Collins says the buttons offer people the opportunity to show a connection to the past.

      "At the very least I think more people will start to read more about John and the mistakes he made, and maybe a few of them will decide they need a badge to go along with what they've been reading."


      • This story originally reported that the Great Charter exhibition in Ottawa begins June 11. In fact, June 11 is a special preview day for invited guests, and the exhibition opens to the public on June 12.
        Jun 08, 2015 12:59 PM ET