Michael Maclagan

Richmond Herald and an Oxford don of the old school
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The Independent Online

Michael Maclagan, historian and herald: born London 14 April 1914; Lecturer, Christ Church, Oxford 1937-39; Fellow, Trinity College, Oxford 1939-81 (Emeritus), Senior Proctor 1954-55; Slains Pursuivant 1948-70, Portcullis Pursuivant 1970-80, Richmond Herald 1980-89; Senior Librarian, Oxford Union 1960-70, Trustee 1970-99; Chairman, Oxford Diocesan Advisory Committee 1961-85; Lord Mayor of Oxford 1970-71; CVO 1988; Master, Scriveners' Company 1988-89; married 1939 Brenda Alexander (one son, marriage dissolved 1946), 1949 Jean Garnett (died 2003; two daughters, and one son deceased); died Oxford 13 August 2003.

In Henry James's short story "The Real Thing", one of the principal characters is a retired major, "very high and straight, with a moustache slightly grizzled and a dark grey walking-coat admirably fitted . . . he was six-feet two and a perfect gentleman." Those words could equally be used to describe Michael Maclagan - except that he was even taller - and he did indeed serve as a major in the Army. But his more substantial role was that of the quintessential Oxford don - a scholar of the old school, erudite, antiquarian and stylish.

As it happens, Henry James had been a great admirer of Maclagan's mother when she was a young woman. Helen Lascelles, later described by James Lees-Milne as "a sweet woman looking like a bundle of old clothes", belonged to an aristocratic family. On both sides Maclagan had an impressive array of cousins, including Alice Liddell, the eponymous inspiration for Lewis Carroll's heroine.

His grandfather, William Maclagan, was Archbishop of York and wrote numerous hymns. His father, Sir Eric Maclagan, for many years Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, was a fastidious scholar, a discerning collector and a man of wide interests, many of them inherited by his son.

In early life, Maclagan was on easy terms with a number of elderly relations, including his great-great-aunt, Lady George Hamilton, who had vivid memories of Disraeli, and his great-aunt, Lady Wenlock, whose husband had been Governor of Madras in the 1890s. These close links with eminent Victorians may help explain why Maclagan himself seemed to have strayed from an earlier age. His manner was little less than Olympian - and on first acquaintance he could be a forbidding figure. But beneath the ornate and starchy exterior was a man of enormous kindness and consideration.

Born in 1914, a few months before Europe was plunged into war, he was educated, suitably, at Winchester and went up to Oxford in 1932. His achievements as an undergraduate were summed up in a pen portrait that appeared two years later in Isis, the university magazine:

Came from Winchester to Christ Church with the one ambition of becoming President of the Archaeological Society. Has succeeded in this: leads great expeditions to discover flints, splints, jaw-bones, etc.: is interested in blazonings, quarterings, bends, mullets and cocka-

trices. Also dabbles in politics . . . A pillar of Oxford's stern, unbending Tories . . . Can converse freely in both Latin and Greek. Undoubtedly a man who has had greatness thrust upon him. Tall, thin, care-worn, very clever.

He duly took a First in history in 1935 and was awarded the Gladstone Memorial Exhibition. After two years as a lecturer at Christ Church, he was elected a Fellow of Trinity in the spring of 1939.

Commissioned into the Territorial Army in 1938, Maclagan served in the 16th/5th Lancers during the war. In after years he regretted not seeing more action but he had an interesting stint in Cairo - and his abilities were put to good use in the War Office, where he served in Military Operations, overseeing the London end of the Mediterranean campaign. He was also involved in the more clandestine aspects of warfare, having a hand in the appointment of Colonel Eddie Myers as liaison officer with the Communist guerillas in German-occupied Greece.

His first marriage, to a cousin, Brenda Alexander, took place a few days after the outbreak of war, but was a casualty of wartime. However, he had the good fortune to find himself working in Military Operations with a bright and attractive ATS officer named Jean Garnett. They married in 1949. It was an enduringly happy union that lasted almost 54 years.

He resumed his teaching career in 1946, remaining at Trinity until his retirement. His colleagues and pupils ranged from Anthony Crosland (later Foreign Secretary) to Kit Lambert (the flamboyant and self-destructive manager of The Who). Maclagan's tutorials were somewhat formal affairs, although he was quite capable of conducting them in cricket flannels while a match was in progress. He was also a noted aficionado of real tennis. Walking was a particular enthusiasm, and his tall, erect figure, striding about the university, cane in hand, was a familiar Oxford sight for half a century.

He devoted a good deal of time to Trinity affairs, writing a quatercentenary history of the College in 1955 and assiduously filling a succession of college offices - dean, librarian, senior tutor, vice-president and wine steward. To the last position he brought all the acumen of a connoisseur who even at the age of 20 could be heard expatiating sadly on the time when he had been able to drink rum bottled in 1787.

Maclagan was also active at university level, serving as Senior Proctor in 1954-55. In 1960 he succeeded the eccentric Canon Claude Jenkins as Senior Librarian of the Oxford Union and from time to time was asked to take part in Union debates.

On retiring as Senior Librarian in 1970, he was presented with a swordstick during a debate, and in reply spoke of his love of books, quoting with approval the words of Lord Falkland, who amidst the upheavals of the English Civil War escaped whenever he could to the seclusion of his library: "I do pity unlearned gentlemen on a rainy day." Apposite quotation of this kind, magisterially deployed, was one of his most remarkable qualities.

His scholarly interests ranged wide and far. He was reputed to have written a paper on the capacity of butts and the viscosity of malmsey in the late 15th century in order to demonstrate that the Duke of Clarence could not have been drowned in the manner suggested by Shakespeare and others. His published works included a biography of "Clemency" Canning, Governor-General of India at the time of the Mutiny ("Clemency" Canning, 1962), which won the Wheatley Medal for its meticulous index.

A collaboration with the Czech armorist Jirí Louda produced his best-known publication, Lines of Succession (1981), to which he contributed narrative accounts of the various European monarchies. Written in his delightfully sonorous style, these provide immensely readable and useful summaries of dynastic history.

Maclagan's lectures were also memorable, not least for his highly distinctive voice - deliberate and precise but pitched from the back of his throat, giving it a slightly husky timbre. He discoursed to undergraduates on such subjects as the Macedonian Dynasty and the ill-fated Fourth Crusade. Enumerating the quantity of horses supplied to the crusaders by the Venetians in 1202, he would observe drily: "Speaking as a former cavalry officer, I must say I find the number of remounts wholly inadequate."

In 1970 he became Lord Mayor of Oxford. Elected to Oxford City Council in 1946, he had served as Sheriff of the City in 1964-65, attracting notice for performing on horseback the tradition of rounding up Oxford's cattle in Port Meadow. He had an interesting mayoral year. As the city's returning officer, he could be seen on television during general election night declaring the Oxford result. Students supporting a dustmen's strike tried to stop him planting a Tree of Peace on United Nations Day. He had a more congenial time leading a procession of mayors into Christ Church for the enthronement of a new Bishop of Oxford.

The ideal retirement job awaited him at the College of Arms. Heraldry had been an abiding interest from childhood. He was a walking encyclopaedia of armorial knowledge and had an allied taste for state ceremonial. The Princess Royal (married to the Earl of Harewood, his mother's cousin) procured a seat for him at the 1937 Coronation. Later, he acted as a staff officer at the 1953 Coronation and the Investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1969.

Meanwhile, in 1948, he had been made Slains Pursuivant, personal herald to the Countess of Erroll, Lord High Constable of Scotland, an honorific position that he held until his appointment as Portcullis Pursuivant in 1970. Thereafter he regularly donned the colourful garb of a royal herald for ceremonies at Westminster and Windsor.

Promoted to Richmond Herald in 1980, he did not go into professional practice as a herald until his retirement from Trinity the following year. The College of Arms benefited from his scholarship, and for Maclagan it was an agreeable postlude to his academic career.

But these years also involved great sadness for him when his younger son Andrew died from leukaemia in 1984 at the age of 26. He and Jean bore this loss with impressive fortitude. And they took comfort in the accomplishments of their other children, Ianthe, who trained as an anthropologist and is now children's rights commissioner for Oxfordshire, and Helen, an archaeologist responsible for museum services in Warwickshire. David, Maclagan's son by his first marriage, has also had a fulfilling career as an artist, writer and art therapist.

In the 1950s the Maclagans had acquired the former home of J.R.R. Tolkien in north Oxford. Visitors to Northmoor Road therefore found themselves taking tea in the room in which The Hobbit was written, and last December the city council attached a blue plaque to the front of the house. Michael and Jean were imaginative hosts, entertaining his fellow medievalists with dishes based on recipes of suitable antiquity. Medieval blancmange turned out to be a rather different substance from its 20th-century counterpart.

Three years ago he achieved a childhood ambition by reaching MM, the year of his initials. In the last weeks of his life he greatly enjoyed having poetry read to him. Shelley's Ozymandias provided endless delight - appropriate for someone who himself seemed like "a traveller from an antique land".

It was indisputably sad to witness the waning of his formidable powers, but the final years were made infinitely easier by Jean's loving care and devotion. She predeceased him by only 10 days. He himself died just a few hours before her funeral - an unbearably poignant coincidence, yet at the same time a wonderfully neat bowing out. "I am nothing," he once declared, "if not an orderly man."

In Henry James's short story, the impeccable major and his graceful wife offer themselves as models to a fashionable artist. But when the artist tries to portray them as society figures, he finds it impossible to capture their quality. They are, quite simply, too much the real thing.

Maclagan possessed a similar authenticity. When he wore spats, or dropped into Latin in mid-sentence, or identified an obscure quartering, it was to the manner born. In his love of correct language, his punctiliousness, his sartorial elegance, his lapidary wit, his gentle courtesy and his conspicuous kindness, Michael Maclagan was emphatically the real thing, the genuine article.

P. L. Dickinson