Professor Austin Woolrych

Historian of the Civil War and a founding professor of Lancaster University

Austin Herbert Woolrych, historian: born London 18 May 1918; Lecturer, then Senior Lecturer, Leeds University 1949-64; Professor of History, Lancaster University 1964-85 (Emeritus), Pro-Vice-Chancellor 1971-75; FBA 1988; married 1941 Muriel Rolfe (died 1991; one son, one daughter); died Tias, Lanzarote 14 September 2004.


In the autumn of a long career Austin Woolrych became the most authoritative historian of that most densely populated and keenly contested of subjects, the civil wars of mid-17th- century England. It was a slow ascent, for there were bushels to hide his light. There were his profound modesty and his courteous restraint in controversy, features at odds with the gladiatorial habits of the field. There was his exact, pellucid, but undemonstrative prose, built to endure but not to catch headlines.

Austin Herbert Woolrych, historian: born London 18 May 1918; Lecturer, then Senior Lecturer, Leeds University 1949-64; Professor of History, Lancaster University 1964-85 (Emeritus), Pro-Vice-Chancellor 1971-75; FBA 1988; married 1941 Muriel Rolfe (died 1991; one son, one daughter); died Tias, Lanzarote 14 September 2004.

In the autumn of a long career Austin Woolrych became the most authoritative historian of that most densely populated and keenly contested of subjects, the civil wars of mid-17th- century England. It was a slow ascent, for there were bushels to hide his light. There were his profound modesty and his courteous restraint in controversy, features at odds with the gladiatorial habits of the field. There was his exact, pellucid, but undemonstrative prose, built to endure but not to catch headlines.

There were also other commitments, dear to his heart. In 1964 he was a founding professor of Lancaster University, where History was planned as the leading arts subject. It has become hard to recall the sense of excitement and opportunity offered by the new universities. Woolrych's own research was sidelined as he built up the department and became, through an effective mixture of good nature and firmness, a major influence in the shaping of the university, of which he was Pro-Vice-Chancellor from 1971 to 1975. He was also an accomplished and dutiful teacher.

Consequently he was in his sixties when his most searching work began to appear, and was in his 70th year when elected a Fellow of the British Academy.

Austin Woolrych came of a middle-class London family whose income was broken in the wake of the Depression. He had to leave Westminster School and worked for four years as a clerk at Harrods until war came. His service from 1939 to 1945, during which he was wounded at El Alamein, was his shaping experience as a historian.

For a time he thought of a military career, and there was always something faintly military in his manner, as in his moustache. Yet his small stature and correctness of demeanour concealed his stamina and inner steel. They also disguised the passionate nature of a man of great energy, an ardent devotee of music and an inexhaustible traveller and walker who loved the spread of oceans and the vistas and silences of fells and mountains.

Woolrych's grasp of the realities, military and psychological, of soldierly experience is shown to vivid advantage in the first and most widely read of his books, Battles of the English Civil War: Marston Moor, Naseby, Preston (1961). Unlike the later ones it was not notable for original research, but it remains the best way into its subject.

Despite wide differences of subject-matter and literary technique, there is a touch of Richard Cobb, a colleague at Leeds University where Woolrych held his first teaching post, in the reconstruction of the terrain and dispositions of battle and of the interaction of men and landscape. The strenuous marches, the aching limbs, the long fearful waits before combat, the courage and comradeship, are all there. So is Woolrych's epigrammatic gift for the drawing of character, a talent he shared with C.V. Wedgwood, to whose evocative and common-sense approach his work is sometimes closer in spirit than to the academic theory and language favoured by younger generations.

His years in uniform left a second mark. Politically he was the product of 1945 and of the mood which, among the troops waiting to go home, anticipated the general election of that year. That memory took him into the minds of the Cromwellian soldiers of 1647 (the year of the Putney debates), who were likewise radicalised as they awaited disbandment, and whose perspectives and travails he brought to life in Soldiers and Statesmen: the General Council of the Army and its debates 1647-1648 (1987).

The book was the last of three studies united by a distinctive method. Each brought a deft combination of narrative and analysis to a short period of radical ferment. In Commonwealth to Protectorate (1982), his most deeply researched book, he did for 1653, the year of Barebone's Parliament, what Soldiers and Statesmen did for 1647.

During the decades when those books were prepared, Civil War radicalism was a trendy subject, one sometimes coloured by anachronistic enthusiasms. Woolrych restored the radicalism to the context of the concrete experiences and practical concerns of its exponents. Even so his basic sympathies (despite a royalist ancestor) were with the Roundhead cause - though more with its politics than its religion. There was a side of him that wished it had gone further, and that ruefully regarded the late 1640s as a chance, like 1945, for permanent change.

In that regret he was at one with John Milton, around whose experiences in 1659-60, when the republican cause revived only to collapse, he built the third book-length study. It is an under-known one, having appeared as an introduction to an otherwise largely calamitous volume (the seventh, 1974) in the Yale edition of Milton's Complete Prose Works.

Milton might have figured still more in Woolrych's career had not Pembroke College, Oxford, to which he applied to read English at the end of the Second World War, lacked a tutor in the subject and invited him to read History instead, an accident for which he would be thankful.

His largest book came last. Britain in Revolution 1625-1660 appeared only two years ago, around his 84th birthday. Even from a writer in his prime it would have been a towering achievement. This time narrative and analysis blended on a much wider front, as Woolrych synthesised the massive range of publications of the past half-century and stamped his own interpretation on every theme and episode. There has not been a more judicious or more widely informative book on that tumultuous epoch.

The influence of historians often reaches beyond their publications and teaching. Woolrych's letters, written in an imperturbably elegant hand, became, though he scarcely knew it, an art form savoured by younger scholars who queued to send him drafts of their work. In missives of unconquerable patience he corrected the fallacies, and disentangled the muddles, with the most delicate tact and kindness. Affection is not always a governing emotion among academics, but Woolrych was a magnet to it.

Blair Worden

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