Obituaries: Roger Virgoe

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The Independent Online
Roger Virgoe ranks high as an historian of late medieval England.

He developed his lifelong passion for the medieval world during the early l95Os as a brilliant undergraduate at Queen Mary College, London. Following his national service, he returned to London University to study for a research degree, choosing as his thesis topic the Parliament of 1449-50, with Professor May McKisack as his supervisor.

Between 1955 and 1961 he worked for the History of Parliament Trust under the direction of Professor Bindoff, by whom he was greatly influenced. This research interest in parliamentary history always remained one of his chief preoccupations - to which was later added a strong commitment to the study of legal history.

In 1961, eager to see more of the world, Virgoe set off to pursue his academic career at the University of Khartoum, to which eminent scholars from far and wide were then being attracted. In this seemingly incongruous setting he developed his skills as a teacher of late medieval and early modern England. He also became friends with several of his Sudanese colleagues and formed an abiding sympathy with the Arab peoples.

But Khartoum was not an ideal place in which to bring up a family, and in 1964 Virgoe returned to England with his young wife, Norma, to take up a lectureship at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, where he already had family connections. Thereafter most of his publications were concerned with the region which had become his cherished home.

Virgoe sought to further an understanding of the society and political structure of England in the late middle ages by linking together the work of economic and social historians with that of political and institutional historians, a task to which he was pre-eminently suited. Out of this enterprise came a stream of important articles and essays, the meticulous scholarship of which won him the respect of fellow medievalists.

He showed another side of his personality and reached out to a wider readership when in 1989 he published his delightful Illustrated Letters of the Paston Family, a selection of correspondence from the famous Norfolk family, which he framed with his own telling vignettes explaining and evoking the social and political life of 15th-century England.

Virgoe was a scholar of the old school, one who quietly spurned the egotistical careerism now so rife in the academic profession. He worked devotedly, and with no expectation of reward, to spread interest in history among the local community. He jointly edited the journal of the Norfolk Record Society for some 20 years, and for over 30 years ran extra-mural and continuing education classes on local history.

Within the university Virgoe was a rigorous teacher, whom no one could ever accuse of contributing to "grade inflation". But if he made high demands of his students, he also made high demands of himself; besides which, his rigour was softened by an immense kindliness which endeared him to successive generations of undergraduates and research students. He was equally popular with his university colleagues, though it is to be feared that they often took unfair advantage of his legendary sense of public duty.

In the midst of so much hard work, Virgoe still found the time to read widely and lead a full and varied social life. He loved sport, playing rugby and cricket in his younger days, and he later became a swimming official. Though reticent about himself, he was ever attentive to the problems of others.

He was an essentially gregarious man, with a remarkably wide circle of friends who admired him for his rock-like integrity and relished his conversation, which was characterised by trenchantly expressed opinions showing a sublime disregard for intellectual or political fashion.

In the early summer of 1996 he was diagnosed as suffering from motor neurone disease. His incapacity spread rapidly and he died with his life's work not entirely complete, since in retirement he would have hoped to produce those major studies of 15th-century East Anglia on which he had long set his heart.

Despite his premature death, Roger Virgoe was the author of an irrepressive body of historical writing. Steps are afoot to bring together his most important articles for publication in book form.

Roger Virgoe, historian: born London 16 December 1932; Lecturer in History, University of Khartoum, 1961-64; Lecturer in History, University of East Anglia, 1964-71, Senior Lecturer 1971-96; married 1963 Norma Pencavel (one son, two daughters); died Swaffham, Norfolk 15 October 1996.

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