Dorothy Owen

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The Independent Online

Dorothy Mary Williamson, historian and archivist: born Hyde, Cheshire 11 April 1920; Assistant Archivist, Lincoln Record Office 1948-58; Archivist, Lambeth Palace Library 1958-60; Curator of Ecclesiastical Archives, Cambridge University 1968-87, Keeper of the University Archives 1978-87; Fellow, Wolfson College, Cambridge 1969-2002; MBE 1995; married 1958 Arthur Owen; died Thimbleby, Lincolnshire 13 February 2002.

Dorothy Owen was an historian whose work was solidly grounded in the rigorous examination of original sources, most especially manuscripts, for which she had developed the greatest respect through her work as an archivist. Her main, and very considerable, contribution was to the study of the medieval Church at a local and regional level, but her treatment was never parochial; rather it was informed by her expert knowledge of the Roman canon law, which provided a universal code for Western European society.

Born at Hyde near Manchester in 1920, Dorothy Williamson attended that city's university, then home to the famous "Manchester school" of medieval historians. She went on there to postgraduate study under Professor Christopher Cheney, and her dissertation subject, the legation of Cardinal Otto in the British Isles, 1237-41, set the tone for much of her later work.

In the 1940s university lectureships were few and far between, and, after a few years as a schoolteacher in Pontefract, she was in 1948 appointed assistant archivist at the Lincoln Record Office, then emerging as a model for county repositories. For 10 years, while spending much of her time in the search room, where she gave enormous assistance to readers, she made tremendous strides in the classification, cataloguing and interpretation of the archives, especially those of the dean and chapter.

Her links with the county and its historical community were long to outlast her departure from the office on her marriage in 1958 to Arthur Owen, a fellow archivist and historian, who, although then working in London, is himself a native of Lincolnshire.

On moving to London, Dorothy Owen spent two years as Archivist at Lambeth Palace Library, where she accomplished important work of classification. Soon, however, she was on the move again, to Cambridge, where Arthur had been appointed to a senior post in the University Library. It did not take the History Faculty long to appreciate what an asset it had accidentally acquired in his wife.

By the late 1960s she had proved herself indispensable, providing instruction in palaeography and diplomatic which was otherwise lacking. Generations of young postgraduates were grateful for her patient training in the arcane but essential skills of reading and interpreting medieval documents, but also for the concern shown by her, and by Arthur, for their general happiness and well-being.

At the same time she was reducing to order the records of the bishop and chapter of Ely, recently deposited in the University Library, on the interpretation of which she published many perceptive papers. She was formally appointed Custodian of Ecclesiastical Archives in 1968 and Keeper of the University Archives in 1978, while an academic home outside the library was provided by her election in 1969 to the Fellowship of Wolfson College.

Meanwhile she was publishing extensively. There are immaculate editions of medieval manuscripts, foremost among them John Lydford's Book (1974), a rare surviving notebook of a 14th-century ecclesiastical administrator, and The Making of King's Lynn (1984), in which she gathered a large sheaf of documents from one of those east coast ports on which so much of medieval England's wealth depended.

Reliance on manuscripts characterised, too, her Church and Society in Medieval Lincolnshire (1971), a model study of the workings of the Church at local level, and her Sandars Lectures in Bibliography at Cambridge, published as The Medieval Canon Law: teaching, literature and transmission (1990), in which she examined the operation of a legal system which, as much as the common law, regulated the lives of medieval English people. She frequently ventured, too, far beyond the Reformation, making telling contributions to the history of the Anglican Church. The chronological breadth of her scholarship is symbolised by her editorship of the fine History of Lincoln Minster (1994).

Dorothy Owen was a home-loving person, happiest in the company of her husband and dog, diligent in the service of institutions but never much preoccupied by her status within them. In the last 20 years of her life, however, her long and selfless work was recognised on many fronts. Cambridge University in 1964 conferred upon her the degree of Doctor of Letters, and in 1995 she was appointed MBE. Her leading role within her profession was marked by her chairmanship of the British Records Association. She was elected chairman of the Canterbury and York Society and president of the Lincoln Record Society and the Society of Lincolnshire History and Archaeology, the three societies closest to her heart and for which she had done so much.

Her 75th birthday was celebrated by a Festschrift (Medieval Ecclesiastical Studies: in honour of Dorothy M. Owen, 1995) in which almost every contributor personally owed much to her own pioneering work at the documentary coal-face of medieval church history.

Christopher Harper-Bill