Professor Sir Rees Davies

Medieval historian with chairs at Aberystwyth, then Oxford

Saturday 13 July 2013 04:22
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Robert Rees Davies, medieval historian: born Llandderfel, Merioneth 6 August 1938; Assistant Lecturer, University College, Swansea 1961-63; Lecturer, University College London 1963-76; Professor of History, University College of Wales, Aberystwyth 1976-95, Vice-Principal 1988-91, British Academy Research Professor in Humanities 1993-95; FBA 1987; Chairman, National Curriculum History Committee for Wales 1989-91; President, Royal Historical Society 1992-96; CBE 1995; Chichele Professor of Medieval History, Oxford University 1995-2004 (Emeritus); Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford 1995-2005; Chairman, Ancient Monuments Board for Wales 1995-2005; Kt 2005; married 1966 Carys Lloyd Wynne (one son, one daughter); died Oxford 16 May 2005.

Rees Davies - until last year Chichele Professor of Medieval History at Oxford University - was one of the foremost of the historians who, during the last half-century, transformed the scholarly study of medieval Britain.

Born at Llandderfel, near Bala, the fourth and youngest son of William and Margaret Davies, Robert Rees Davies grew up at Blaengwnodl Uchaf, near Cynwyd, the family's hill farm in Edeirnion in Merioneth. His upbringing in a family and neighbourhood in which Welsh was the natural and often the only mode of expression endowed him with numerous qualities, not least a prodigious capacity for hard work, an acute sensitivity to the landscape and culture of a rural society and a profound awareness of the hardships endured by those who wrested a living from the soils and pastures of the Welsh uplands. Combined with a rigorous and perceptive intellect, a sophisticated and urbane command of English prose style and a piquant wit, these attributes would produce a scholar and teacher of outstanding calibre and extraordinary achievement.

Educated at the village school at Cynwyd and the County School at Bala, he went on to University College London, where he secured a First of legendary distinction. Graduate study at Oxford followed, under the exacting discipline of K.B. McFarlane, an enduring and generously acknowledged influence that set the standards to which Davies aspired and, writing as R.R. Davies, so impressively attained. Early publications on Welsh law and a critical study of baronial records presaged the appearance of the first major consolidation of his studies, Lordship and Society in the March of Wales, 1282-1400 (1978). A work of exceptional maturity, the volume was marked by an imaginative analytical presentation and a mastery of the baronial archives, the discussion set firmly within the context of modern investigations of Western European society.

By the time the volume was published Davies had been appointed to the Chair of History at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth (now the University of Wales, Aberystwyth), following periods as lecturer at University College, Swansea (1961-63), and University College London (1963-76). Never physically robust, he set himself a punishing schedule that would have daunted many men of stronger constitution, revealing a deeply conscientious commitment to his students and the demands of departmental administration. He served as Vice-Principal and at the same time, ever concerned for the broad advancement of his subject, chaired the National Curriculum History Committee for Wales.

He was not, however, to be enticed to positions of authority that drew him away from his steadfast loyalty to his vocation as an historian, and the many bodies that he graced as president or chairman were invariably related to his subject or to the written and material culture of his native country. Outside the precincts of the universities his stature made him a source of guidance to whom countless enquiries were directed, requests which were answered with exemplary promptness in a hand as meticulous as that of a medieval Chancery scribe.

His unremitting commitment to his own studies bore fruit in Conquest, Coexistence and Change: Wales 1063-1415 (1987), for which he was awarded the Wolfson Literary Award for History. This was a masterly survey of the Welsh medieval centuries, presented in an elegant, persuasive and eminently readable style that carried his work to a broad reading public.

Specialist studies in article form continued to flow from his pen, among them contributions to Festchriften that reflected his standing within the community of medieval historians in Britain and further afield. While still at Aberystwyth he had also delivered a work which he described as one of "personal piety" and one which affirmed his affection for the neighbourhood in which he grew up and for its people. The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dwr (1995) was none the less a volume to which he applied the same academic rigour that had characterised his earlier work. He would later contribute a concise history of the revolt in Welsh, written with an ease of expression that had already marked his contributions in the language in article form.

In 1995 Rees Davies was appointed to the Chichele Chair of Medieval History at Oxford, where he revealed the same assiduous attention to his students, to the university and to the furtherance of scholarly work that he had shown at Aberystwyth. The emphasis in his own studies witnessed an extension, already evident in earlier work, of his interests to Scotland and Ireland and to what proved to be an influential exploration of the validity of a "British History" of the medieval period. In a series of "exploratory and interpretative" essays he was concerned less with the exercise of material power than with the sense of identity, the laws and customs and the historical mythologies of the peoples of Scotland, Ireland and Wales, countries that, in one way or another, maintained a political relationship with the English crown.

His approach is first indicated in a volume of essays that he edited in 1988 (The British Isles, 1100-1500: comparisons, contrasts and identities), and the progress of his own work is signalled in three sequences of lectures. Beginning with the Wiles Lectures at Queen's University, Belfast, published as Domination and Conquest (1990), his interpretation was developed further in his presidential lectures to the Royal Historical Society in 1992-96, and then, albeit with a change in focus, in the Ford Lectures at Oxford, published as The First English Empire (2000) and awarded the British Academy Book Prize.

Despite his eminence, Rees Davies remained engagingly unstuffy and retained to the end the impishness of the younger man. An accomplished pianist, he found pleasure and recreation in music and in walking the mountains in Wales and abroad, frequently in the congenial company of close friends. He was blessed by the happiest of marriages. In 1966 he married Carys Lloyd Wynne, whom he had met in the fellowship of the Welsh Presbyterian Church which they both attended in London. His appointment to the Chair at Aberystwyth enabled them both to realise a long-cherished wish to bring up their young daughter and son within a thoroughly Welsh environment, and family life at Aberystwyth and at Oxford, in their elegant and hospitable homes, was deeply fulfilling. He unfailingly acknowledged his immeasurable debt to Carys and to their children, especially during the gruelling months of his cancer.

Almost to the end, he maintained his scholarly writing, his efforts, in circumstances of great difficulty, concentrated on the completion of a long-envisaged volume on the English nobility. This was an undertaking which, fittingly, brought him back to his early years under the guidance of Bruce McFarlane, when the foundations of a scholarly career of such great distinction and achievement were being laid.

J. Beverley Smith and Llinos Beverley Smith

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