Obituary: Sir Robert Somerville

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Robert Somerville, historian and administrator, born Dunfermline 5 June 1906, Hon Research Assistant History of Medicine University College London 1935-38, Chief Clerk Duchy of Lancaster 1945-52, Clerk of the Council Duchy of Lancaster 1952-70, Hon Secretary Council British Records Association 1947- 56, Chairman 1957-67, CVO 1953, KCVO 1961, Chairman London Record Society 1964-84, books include History of the Duchy of Lancaster volume one 1953, volume two 1970, The Savoy 1960, Duchy of Lancaster Office-Holders from 1603 1972, married 1932 Marie- Louise Bergene (died 1976; one daughter), 1981 Mrs Jessie Warburton, died Blackheath London 16 July 1992.

FOR MOST people, to be remembered as kind, modest, and good-humoured would be memorial enough. Few, however, would deserve it as Robert Somerville does. Somerville had a scholar's brain, and the financial shrewdness which seems naturally to accompany a native of Scotland, but in the 22 years that he lived following retirement he willingly assumed again the sort of painstaking tasks of research and record which might well have occupied him 60 years earlier.

Robert Somerville joined the Duchy of Lancaster Office in 1930. His association lasted four decades, in the course of which he compiled a history of the Duchy, covering the first 700 years of the 'Lancastrian inheritance'. The first of two volumes was published in 1953.

The Lancashire inheritance was founded in the 14th century by Henry III, who granted extensive estates and the Earldom of Lancaster and Leicester to his son Edmund (known as 'Crouchback'). In 1351 the then Earl, who had served Edward III with distinction as his Lieutenant in Brittany and as a principal negotiator with the French in the Hundred Years War, was created Duke of Lancaster and the county was raised to Palatinate Status. The Duke then exercised the royal franchise in Lancashire: all royal duties, rights and privileges, including the administration of justice, lay with him.

In 1399, on the accession of Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster, as Henry IV these rights would have merged with the Crown had he not specifically separated the Duchy from other possessions. The Lancastrian occupation of the throne ended with the Wars of the Roses, and the Duchy was incorporated as an entity in its own right by Charter in 1461 - to be held for the Kings of England and their heirs. It was a collection of estates and rights, of 'castles, manors, . . . honors, lands, . . . advowsons, . . . and possessions'. Its separate identity from the Crown Estates excluded it from the surrender of those estates in exchange for the Civil List in 1760.

Somerville joined the Duchy Office as a First Class Clerk. The title may not have been elevated, but it did accurately reflect the double first in classics with which (after leaving Fettes) he had graduated from St John's College, Cambridge. He very nearly left the Duchy shortly afterwards, finding too little of interest in the job. However, he had conceived the task of sorting the extensive records still in the Duchy's direct care and then of writing its definitive history. The Chancellor of the day (JCC, later Viscount, Davidson) approved the project, and so began a work of historical scholarship which culminated in the publication of the second volume of the History of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1970. Other books and many learned articles were published by Robert Somerville during his lifetime.

The historical work was, however, secondary to his main career in the administration of the Duchy. This was interrupted by the advent of the Second World War, when he was seconded to the Ministry of Shipping to work for the national cause. In 1945 he returned to the post of Chief Clerk, when the Duchy's varied administrative duties in the County Palatine became his prime concern.

By the time he became Clerk of the Council in 1952 and took over the Duchy's business affairs - the landed estates and investments - he was already thoroughly familiar with the assets with which he was dealing. The Duchy's ownership of surface land had diminished substantially by the 1920s, but doubled again in the years immediately before and following the war. Somerville was completely at home in these matters: his financial good sense and grasp of detail enabled him to initiate policy as well as exercise effective control.

After his retirement in 1970 he was able to give more time to his many outside interests. These included the Historical Manuscripts Commission, the British Records Association, the London Record Society and the Seldon Society, in all of which he played a leading part at various times. His scholarship and knowledge of the history of the County Palatine were rewarded with the conferment of an honorary degree by Lancaster University in 1990, and he was for many years a Vice-President of the Association of Lancastrians in London. A list of such interests may belie the human quality of the man: he would return regularly to the Duchy Office and patiently help with sorting papers as if he were a student on a vacation task. How delightful and illuminating it was to be able then to tap his knowledge at first hand, or to encourage some anecdote of life in the Duchy Office of 60 years ago.

His wife Marie-Louise died after 44 years of happy marriage. In his second marriage, to Jess, he found a charming and intelligent companion with whom he was able to lead a full life of travel and of social activity until the day he died.

(Photograph omitted)