Obituary: Professor G. O. Sayles

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The Independent Online
George Osborne Sayles, historian: born Chesterfield 20 April 1901; Assistant in History, Glasgow University 1924-25, Lecturer 1925-34, Senior Lecturer 1934-45; Professor of Modern History, Queen's University, Belfast 1945-53; Burnett-Fletcher Professor of History, Aberdeen University 1953-62; Vice- President, Selden Society 1954-86; FBA 1962; Kenan Professor of History, New York University 1967-68; married 1936 Agnes Sutherland (one daughter, and one son deceased); died Crowborough, East Sussex 28 February 1994.

G. O. SAYLES was an outstandingly original and productive historian whose publications over more than 60 years radically changed understanding of the medieval British parliament and advanced very considerably knowledge of the medieval English law courts.

George Sayles was born in 1901 and brought up and educated in Derbyshire. The son of a Glasgow- educated father and a Glasgow-born mother, he graduated at Glasgow University in 1923 with a First in History and the Ewing Gold Medal. After a year of research at University College London, he taught at Glasgow as a lecturer and senior lecturer in History, from 1924 until 1945. His very successful Medieval Foundations of England (1948) was based on an original undergraduate lecture course he gave regularly there.

In those days few academics could be altogether specialists and among the other courses he taught was a Special Subject on the French Revolution. In 1945 he was appointed Professor of Modern History at Queen's University, Belfast, and at once became active in Irish history and published a number of texts and commentaries on Irish parliaments and councils. In 1953 he moved to Aberdeen University as Burnett-Fletcher Professor of History and in 1962 to the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies in London to give all his time to research. He was awarded honorary doctorates by Glasgow and by Trinity College Dublin, a Fellowship at the British Academy and a number of honours and fellowships by universities and societies in the United States and Europe.

Sayles wrote extensively on Irish and Scottish history, but his most important work was on English parliamentary and legal history. When he published his first English Historical Review article in 1925 on 'Representation of Cities and Boroughs in 1268', the accepted view of the medieval English parliament was still basically that of confident English liberal thinking 50 years before. Sayles, often in collaboration with the late HG Richardson, advanced a more practical interpretation, seeking to see Parliament only in contemporary terms. They published its documents; established lists of parliaments - a bitter battleground at the time; they wrote of its officers and its work.

Sayles's views were novel and at times expressed combatively in the face of stubborn disbelief and criticism. Time has proved that they were mostly correct. Where they were once considered heresy they have been accepted as orthodoxy. Sayles never published a major history of the medieval parliament but his (and Richardson's) collected papers on The English Parliament in the Middle Ages (1981) and his own Functions of the Medieval Parliament of England (1988) provide the basis for one.

Sayles's other specialised and parallel field was medieval English legal history. Between 1936 and 1939 he published three volumes of Select Cases in the Court of King's Bench under Edward I for the Selden Society and between 1956 and 1972 he continued this series of texts, commentaries and apparatus with four volumes down to the reign of Henry V. His three-volume Selden Society edition of Fleta, the late 13th- century legal treatise, was completed with a brief introduction to the text in 1984.

George Sayles spent much of a very long working life in both these fields in meticulous research, working through masses of documents in the Public Record Office and libraries, seeking out significance in the details and the mass. His work in its subject matter and its influence can be compared only with that of FW Maitland. Sayles held strongly to his historical opinions but he was a concerned and kindly man, particularly to younger scholars. He had the support of a close and happy family. His wife, Agnes, and his daughter, Hilary, survive him.

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