Professor Richard Fletcher

Historian of medieval Spain

Richard Fletcher was a distinguished historian who made weighty contributions to the study of medieval Spain, Anglo-Saxon England and the Christianisation of Europe.

Richard Alexander Fletcher, historian: born 28 March 1944; Lecturer in History, York University 1969-87, Senior Lecturer 1987-91, Reader 1991-98, Professor 1998-2001 (Emeritus); married Rachel Toynbee (one son, two daughters); died Nunnington, North Yorkshire 28 February 2005.

Richard Fletcher was a distinguished historian who made weighty contributions to the study of medieval Spain, Anglo-Saxon England and the Christianisation of Europe.

He was born in 1944 and educated at Harrow School and Worcester College, Oxford. Upon gaining a well-deserved first class degree in Modern History, in 1965 he started research. Rejecting a suggestion that he should make a study of the medieval herring trade, he set out on a lifelong intellectual adventure in medieval Spain. His thesis was published as his first book, The Episcopate in the Kingdom of León in the Twelfth Century (1978). His exact and energetic work enabled him to make important advances in the study of the Church in Spain in an epoch of determinative change.

In 1969 Fletcher was appointed as a lecturer at York University. He thus joined one of the youngest and most vital and successful history schools in the land. A cursus of promotion followed, culminating in his appointment to a personal chair in 1998. He was a scrupulous, generous, and illuminating teacher. His taking early retirement in 2001 did not indicate reduction in his affection for York University. But it was partly due to his becoming increasingly unable to tolerate the bureaucratisation, almost industrialisation, imposed from outside.

He published a new book every few years. Four of his works were on medieval Spain. After his published thesis came Saint James's Catapult (1984). This was a study of Compostela during the prelacy of Diego Gelmírez (1100-40). It made new and powerful use of a major source, the Historia Compostellana, and put forward important arguments on the strange, mysterious, and probably shady origins of the cult of St James at Compostela.

The Quest for El Cid (1989) is a brilliant description and analysis of the life of the 11th-century military leader Rodrigo Díaz, "El Cid", as a player in frontier politics. It undermines, indeed demolishes, the view long held in Spain, that he can be seen as a national Christian hero. For this book Fletcher was awarded the Wolfson Literary Award for History (1989) and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History (1990).

In 1992 came Moorish Spain, which is modestly presented as a quasi-popular introduction, but is really much more. The Cross and the Crescent (2002) was a further product of his Hispanic studies. It is a brief but pregnant description of the relations between Islam and Christianity over many centuries.

His published work on Spain represents a lifetime's scholarly achievement. It is surprising, indeed astonishing, that he could have found the time to write on other subjects. But he did, and well he did. Who's Who in Roman Britain and Anglo-Saxon England (1989) is a biographical dictionary, chronologically arranged. It can be read as a sharply intelligent introduction to Anglo-Saxon history. Bloodfeud (2002) is a study of painful episodes in the 11th and 12th centuries. It is written with elegant learning and with a particular enthusiasm that owes something to much of the action's being in Yorkshire.

The Conversion of Europe (1997) is his longest work and that with the widest scope. It rests on wide reading and is brilliantly presented and deeply reflective. It is yet another of his books which is in many ways the best on its subject. At the time of his death Fletcher had in hand a book on the fall of the Roman Empire; an obviously challenging subject. He would have been equal to the challenge.

Deep consideration was characteristic of him. So too was the fluency of his prose and his skill in composition. His style bears analysis: one notes the skilful variation in the structure and length of his sentences and the way in which he deploys sometimes the expository style of formal instruction, sometimes a disarmingly conversational mode.

He knew how to surprise his readers into curiosity. Thus on beginning chapter six of The Quest for El Cid one is puzzled to find the author embarking on an account of Harald Hardrada, King of Norway (1046-66). The reader enjoys a period almost of anxiety as to what this Norseman is doing here. Fletcher then uses him, arrestingly, to show how important in the 11th-century scene was adventurous mobility, whether for Hardrada or for the Cid.

Though he was well capable of such fertile general insights, fundamental to Fletcher's approach was a distrust of over-ready generalisation. It was characteristic of him to write of the papacy, "The closer you look at the papal wood the more obstinately it remains just a lot of trees." He had a strong sense of individuality, of the ultimately unknowable complexity of events. Among the quotations that introduce The Conversion of Europe is this from Jane Austen: "Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure."

His was a complex character. He was convivial, very hospitable, fond of food and drink, of shooting and fishing. His conversation and manner were at an opposite pole from those academics who have never fully recovered from once having been the best boy in the class. At the same time, he had an altogether remarkable capacity for hard, sustained and orderly work. He was a very private person with a vein of melancholy, but was also humorous, taking great pleasure in even small jokes and minor incidents.

As a Conservative and an Anglican most of his judgements were measured and tempered. He was something of a foe to impositions of change. Hence, no doubt, his characterisation of the pontificate of Gregory VII as "disastrous". Very occasionally reflection on some item of politically correct twaddle could provoke him to printed exasperation, as in the final pages of Moorish Spain.

His life and work were closely at one. He was unusual in fairly often giving in his books some account of when, where and how he came to write them. Characteristic is a page at the very end of The Conversion of Europe. He describes the view from the window beside which he was sitting: cattle munching beside a tiny stream, a tributary of the Hodge Beck. He goes on to describe the unusual conduct of the beck, which buries itself underground for a space, and muses on whether this may have created a pagan holy spot preceding the nearby Anglo-Saxon church of St Gregory, Kirkdale. He belonged to his Yorkshire environment. Rightly will his funeral service tomorrow be at St Gregory's Minster where an Anglo-Saxon inscription takes us back to the 11th century.

Fletcher had a very strong sense of place. For example he said that he would never go to Venice by air; its history demanded a maritime approach. His home was an isolated farmhouse on the edge of Ryedale. In improving its garden he used the same imaginative and organised drive that he showed in his books: planting an avenue, digging a pond, arranging for a wood. His strong character enabled him to make time for the things he wanted to do. Thus he seldom read a newspaper and would not have minded a bit had he never seen one. All the books he read were in some sense serious.

His marriage to Rachel Toynbee was a most happy one. She and their three children, Eleanor, Humphrey and Alice, were at the heart of his life and his great achievements depended on them.

James Campbell

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