Marcus Merriman

Exuberant historian at Lancaster


Marcus Homer Merriman, historian: born Baltimore, Maryland 3 May 1940; Assistant Lecturer in History, Lancaster University 1964-66, Lecturer 1966-92, Senior Lecturer 1992-2006; married (two daughters, and one son deceased); died Lancaster 23 March 2006.

This summer Marcus Merriman was to retire after a record 42 years at Lancaster University, perhaps the longest-serving full-time academic in the UK. While he was to become a prize-winning author and a renowned historian of early modern Britain and Europe, particularly of 16th-century Scotland, his first love was teaching.

His unforgettable performances - sometimes dressed in military uniform or a kilt - made him much in demand for conferences and as a pungent and hilarious after-dinner speaker. In the 1990s he presented a history television programme, and was gratified when the camera crew dubbed him "One-Take Merriman". A series simply entitled "Merriman" was mooted though to his chagrin never filmed.

Born in 1940 in Baltimore, Maryland, Merriman was educated at a private school and at Bowdoin College in Maine. A year at Edinburgh University changed his life as he became enraptured by the Scottish capital. He embarked on a London PhD with the Tudor historian S.T. Bindoff, whom he venerated and who secured him a post at Lancaster University in 1964.

Merriman was a founder member of the university, joining a then tiny history department as a temporary lecturer, but he so relished participating in the creation of a new university that his appointment was quickly made permanent. In later years, whenever a member of the department encountered a former student, the first question asked was "How is Marcus Merriman?"

His office became cluttered with the gifts presented him by grateful students. In 1990 he won (with two colleagues) the Cadbury Schweppes National Award for innovation in teaching. His provocative style captivated students of all intellectual levels.

He earned scholarly repute as an authority on 16th-century map-making, propaganda, and Scottish castles and other fortifications, and was regularly used as a consultant. His 2000 book The Rough Wooings: Mary Queen of Scots 1542-1551 won the Saltire History Book of the Year award for the best book in Scottish history. It was an extraordinary piece of work, in which meticulous scholarship and idiosyncratic and witty asides were conveyed in graphic prose. The acknowledgements contained not only the customary tributes to family and other academics, but also to publicans, bank managers, newsagents and cleaners.

Merriman's exuberant nature made him a favourite with students, and when the university entered the era of turbulent student politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s he was often called on to serve a mediating role. For a period almost every committee of the university senate seemed to contain what the Vice-Chancellor referred to as "the statutory Merriman", affording him a central part in the university's formative years.

In time this role diminished, partly because of the increasing deafness that afflicted him from his early thirties. The early deaths of his brother and of particular friends hit him hard, too, though truly devastating was the death of his son Nat at the age of 15. In his later years he was periodically harried by depression; he smoked and drank too much, and his singular behaviour often exasperated those around him. He rejoiced in and took sustenance from his family. A man of many enthusiasms, he had a lifelong passion for steam trains, and his imposing collection of railway artefacts is now destined for a museum.

Merriman was always there for people in serious difficulty. He jollied and beguiled his partner Irene through an encounter with cancer. When, because of cancer, a student had to withdraw from university, Merriman visited him regularly, although the family lived in a distant part of the country. After the lad died he arranged for him to be given a posthumous university qualification.

Michael Heale

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