Obituary: Caroline Bingham
Friday 16 January 1998
Caroline Bingham made her name as a historian and biographer with an interest in Scottish history. She never held, or wanted to hold, an academic post, preferring to retain her independence even if it entailed a measure of financial insecurity. Yet, although she wrote for the general reader rather than the specialist, when it came to her research and writing, she set herself the highest of standards.
Her first published work, in 1968, was The Making of a King: the early years of James VI and I, and she returned to this theme 10 years later with a two-volume study which covered James's rule in England as well as Scotland, James VI of Scotland (1979) and James I of England (1981). She thereby made a significant contribution to the re-evaluation of the first Stuart ruler of Great Britain, usually (and erroneously) dismissed as a windbag and poltroon.
Other works covered the entire spectrum of Scottish history, from the earliest times down to the Union, but Bingham also shifted her attention south of the border and wrote a life of Edward II (The Life and Times of Edward II, 1973) as well as The Crowned Lions (1978), which dealt with the early Plantagenet rulers of England. She resisted the temptation to add yet another biography of Mary, Queen of Scots to what is already a more than sufficient number. In Darnley (1995), she preferred to bring out of the shadows Mary's husband Lord Darnley, a distinctly unattractive character, but one who, by virtue of his birth and marriage, was a person of consequence.
She was born Caroline Worsdell, in 1938. From a Quaker family, she later converted to Roman Catholicism. One of the factors which impelled her to take this step was the desire to get back behind the Reformation and rejoin the historic Church. She was deeply attached to the Latin mass, which had its roots in the earliest centuries of Christianity, and felt betrayed when the modernisers turned their backs on the past and substituted vernacular versions lacking in both dignity and the authenticity which time alone can confer.
She was educated at Cheltenham Ladies' College and Bristol University, where she took an honours degree in History. Caroline Bingham derived great benefit, as well as enjoyment, from her undergraduate studies, and was therefore delighted to be asked in later years to write the centenary history of a pioneer institution in the field of women's education, the History of Royal Holloway College 1886-1986 (1987). She was enchanted by this ebullient late-Victorian version of the Chateau de Chambord, crowning the heights above Egham in Surrey, and much appreciated the award of a Jubilee Fellowship by the college in 1985. This gave her easy access to the archives as well as to students and staff, with whom she had warm and friendly relations.
The biography of Darnley was Bingham's last published work and further cemented her reputation. By the time she finished it, she was suffering from renewed attacks of the cancer which eventually killed her, but she showed a determination worthy of her Quaker ancestors by completing a life of Robert the Bruce which will be a worthy memorial. She also, in her last months, achieved another ambition, that of reading the whole of Proust before she died.
Caroline Bingham never thrust herself forward and was inclined to underrate her abilities. Yet an innate shyness did not prevent her from winning the love and admiration of a wide circle of friends, for she was not only a woman of striking beauty and elegance but had an unaffected charm and sweetness of nature. Although she spent the greater part of her life in London, and relished visits to theatres, galleries and restaurants, she had a genuine love for the countryside. She also had a soft spot for animals, especially dogs.
Although she was caught up, as we all are, in secular affairs and the struggle to earn a living, she never lost sight of the spiritual realities behind the material world. In a lecture in 1986 on Thomas Holloway, the founder of the college which bears his name, she stressed that, whatever the appearances,
he did not "lay waste his powers" and did not suffer from the atrophy of imagination and loss of ability to see visions which Wordsworth lamented as the cost of constant attention to mundane matters.
Bingham could have been writing about herself. It is a most appropriate epitaph.
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