Godfrey Davis will be chiefly famous for two achievements, the compilation of Medieval Cartularies of Great Britain, published in 1958, and a radical reform of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, of which he was Secretary from 1972 to 1982.
In the first, he looked back to a tradition of historical scholarship that went back for centuries, in the second, he looked forward, questioning assumptions about the way the Commission worked, and trying to anticipate the demands of the future. In both directions he had a very sure idea of what had happened and what ought to happen; it was the present that was apt to dissatisfy him.
We first met at the Bibliographical Society, 40 years ago. I was a very junior member, he already a senior and powerful figure. He went out of his way to talk to me, asking me about my work and interests. I was too shy to ask him about himself, or I would have discovered sooner how much we had in common.
His father, like mine, was born in 1874. Both owed everything to their mothers in childhood; from then on their careers had an astonishing resemblance. H.W.C. Davis won his scholarship to Balliol in 1891, two years before my father. Both got Firsts in Mods and Greats, before moving on to medieval history. Both taught history at New College (though Davis returned to Balliol), both worked on Aristotle's Politics and William Stubbs's Charters, both contributed volumes to the Home University Library. They collaborated on the "Oxford Pamphlets" on the Allied cause in the First World War. Davis wrote his famous England under the Normans and Angevins in 1905, and I still have my father's copy, with a sheet of notes on the Crusades, on which he was to write a book. Both led busy academic lives in the Twenties, but there and then the resemblance stopped, for Godfrey Davis's father died in 1928, when he was only 11, while mine lived on till 1960.
It was a cruel blow at such an age, and one that might have turned him in a different direction. But he began to follow his father's trail. He went to Highgate, and thence to Balliol. He took a Second in Greats and was Rome Scholar in Ancient History in 1938. His MA and DPhil came later. Then came the war, and service first in the Devon Regiment then in the Intelligence Corps, in which he became a captain. After the war Davis gravitated to the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum as an Assistant Keeper, becoming Deputy Keeper in 1961.
He found the task of providing the tools for research absorbing. He was a large contributor to the departmental task of compiling the Catalogue of Additional Manuscripts. He enjoyed the discipline, and enforced it rigidly on others. He was not an easy man to work with, but if you showed the same respect for the rules that he did, you in turn earned his respect.
The work that produced Medieval Cartularies was part of his departmental routine, even if it took him all over the country to the repositories where the cartularies and their evidence were to be found. He took a particular interest in conservation, and was largely responsible for setting up an independent workshop for the department. With his solid frame and powerful neck and shoulders, he looked rather like a bull, and those who locked horns with him felt the full force that he could bring to bear on them. It was this that cost him the keepership when it fell vacant in 1972; as acting Keeper after the retirement of T.C. Skeat, he had expected to succeed, and should have done, but recognising the inevitable he went to the Royal Commission.
He succeeded Roger Ellis, under whom the Commission had grown, acquiring a new advisory role as well as expanding the National Register of Archives and its prime task of listing and publishing the resources of historic manuscript material. Davis continued this, his own bent firmly indicated with the inauguration in 1980 of the series of Guides to Sources for British History.
But he also embarked on thorough examination of the way the Commission worked, and what its objectives were. It was hard not to admire the thoroughness with which he would break down a problem or practice into its smallest parts, to be reassembled in a more logical order. Not surprisingly, his ability to set down on paper both analysis and solution was of the highest. The efficiency of the Commission today is his monument.
If he was tough in public, he was anything but tough in private. Happily married for over 50 years, he loved his children and grandchildren, and indeed all children, his warmth of feeling perhaps accentuated by his own early loss. If one of his colleagues got into difficulties, at or away from work, he would instantly do something about it - have a firm word with a perhaps unhelpful supervisor, have the sufferer in to dinner to talk over the problem with as much warmth as clarity. That was Davis as I first met him, whom his friends will remember.
- Nicolas BarkerReuse content