Margaret Aston: Historian who illuminated the study of religious life in England between the late Middle Ages and the Civil War

She was an authority on the role played by images and printing in changes to religious belief

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The Independent Online

Margaret Aston was an historian whose work illuminated the study of English religious life between the late Middle Ages and the Civil War. Although she was from the most establishment of backgrounds her chosen field was that of popular belief, and her main subjects were heretics and iconoclasts.

An independent historian of the highest calibre, Aston combined exact scholarship with wide-ranging ideas and interpretation, bringing out the crucial part played by images and printing in changes to religious belief. Her beautifully written work has had a profound impact on all subsequent interpretations of the English Reformation.

Born in 1932, Margaret Evelyn Bridges was the youngest of four children. Her father, Edward Bridges, the first Lord Bridges, was the son of the poet Robert Bridges and his wife Monica, the daughter of the architect Alfred Waterhouse. Edward Bridges, Cabinet Secretary during the Second World War, has been described as the greatest civil servant of the 20th century. His wife, Katherine, was the granddaughter of Lord Farrer, the Permanent Secretary of the Board of Trade from 1867-86.

Part of a close-knit family, to whom she was known as Martha, Margaret grew up at Goodman’s Furze in Surrey before going to Downe House, where she had an inspiring history teacher in Isabella Bewick. With a huge appetite for ideas she became head girl and won a scholarship to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. She made her intellectual mark even as an undergraduate, but also found time to paint watercolours and to play piano and clarinet to a high standard, studying the latter with Jack Brymer.

After graduating, she began a doctorate under the formidable KB McFarlane, the pre-eminent authority on 15th century England, but notorious as a woman-hater. Undeterred, Bridges proved the exception to the rule, staying on cordial terms with her supervisor. Her highest praise of others’ work remained the judgement that “Bruce McFarlane would have approved of it.” As well as remarkable powers as a scholar, she had a great ability to enter into minds very different from her own. She was outstanding at getting to the heart of a question and at making connections. Her appreciation of the arts, including painting and architecture, made her exceptionally aware of the importance of images. 

In 1954, as a research student, she had married Trevor Aston, a fellow of Corpus Christi, Oxford, and editor of the influential journal Past and Present. They shared an interest in the new, broader approaches to history epitomised by the journal. Margaret subsequently used her married name for all her work, but the marriage itself did not last, breaking down after four years.

Aston’s first book, Thomas Arundel (1967), was a highly accomplished biography of an aristocratic prelate. It led her towards a subject that she was to make very much her own, as Arundel had taken a leading part in the drive to eradicate Wycliffite teaching in Oxford. A scintillating and groundbreaking series of articles on Lollards, the heretical followers of the theologian John Wycliffe, and on late medieval religion, were later collected in two volumes, Lollards and Reformers (1984) and Faith and Fire (1993).

A research fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge, Aston spent several highly productive periods in the US. While working at the Folger Library in Washington she met her second husband, Paul Buxton, an Oxford-educated classicist and diplomat. It proved a conspicuously happy marriage. Described by Margaret as “pure contentment”, the partnership lasted 37 years until Paul’s death in 2009.

In England, they lived at Chipping Ongar. Fittingly for a medieval historian, Castle House was next to the moat of a motte and bailey castle. For eight years, however, they lived in Holywood, County Down, at the height of the Troubles, while Buxton was Under-Secretary for Northern Ireland. He already had three children, Charles, Toby and Mary, from a first marriage and he and Aston had two much-loved daughters, Sophie and Hero. Hero, who was born with Down’s Syndrome, died in 2002. Margaret was an exceptionally loving and patient mother, and later grandmother. Even when faced by the many challenges of looking after Hero, she never lost her temper.

In 1988 Aston published the first volume of her most ambitious work, England’s Iconoclasts, extending her range through the 16th century and beyond. It demonstrated with great vigour the centrality of attitudes towards images as a defining feature of religious views before and after the Reformation. The long-awaited second volume, carrying the story up to the Civil War, was completed by the time of her death and will be published next year.

A remarkable by-product of Aston’s unrivalled knowledge of English iconoclasm appeared in 1995. The King’s Bedpost was a reinterpretation of Edward VI and the Pope, an enigmatic painting in the National Portrait Gallery. In a compelling detective story she demonstrated that the picture was painted much later than had been previously thought and reflected the crisis that led up to the excommunication of Elizabeth I in 1570.

Public recognition of the importance of Aston’s work was made by her election as a Fellow of the British Academy in 1994; by the presentation of a festschrift in 2009; and by the award of a CBE in 2013. In private she combined her father’s immensely high standards with her mother’s warmth. Modest, courteous, considerate, kind and witty, she was held in affection by all who knew her.

Margaret Evelyn Bridges, historian and author: born Headley, Surrey 9 October 1932; CBE 2013; married 1954 Trevor Aston (dissolved 1969), 1971 Paul Buxton (one daughter, one daughter deceased, one stepdaughter and one stepson); died Chipping Ongar, Essex 22 November 2014.