We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  Henry William Carless Davis (1874–1928), by Lafayette Henry William Carless Davis (1874–1928), by Lafayette
Davis, Henry William Carless (1874–1928), historian, was born at Ebley, near Stroud, Gloucestershire, on 13 January 1874, the eldest of the five children—three sons and two daughters—of Henry Frederick Alexander Davis, solicitor, of Ebley, and his wife, Jessie Anna, third daughter of William Carless MD, of Stroud. He and his brothers and sisters were brought up in somewhat straitened circumstances by their mother, who was a woman of character and ability. She removed in 1884 to Weymouth, opened there a school for young children, including her own, and managed it so successfully that she was subsequently (1903) appointed first headmistress of Weymouth College preparatory school. Henry Davis entered Weymouth College in 1886, made his mark there as a boy of unusual capacity, and in 1891 proceeded to Balliol College, Oxford, with a Brackenbury history scholarship. Except to his close friends, who admired his qualities, and to his tutors, who recognized his promise, he was not well known in college; but he came to the front when, after gaining first classes in classical moderations (1893) and literae humaniores (1895) as well as the Jenkyns exhibition, he was elected in 1895 to a fellowship at All Souls College.

Davis's interest in history had been awakened at school by the teaching of the Revd Thomas Brace Waitt; and at Oxford, under the guidance of Arthur Lionel Smith, of Balliol, he found in that subject his true bent. He therefore abandoned his intention of entering the civil service, and settled down to the career of a student and teacher of history and especially of medieval history. Save for a short spell of teaching at University College, Bangor (1896–7), he lived in All Souls from 1895 to 1902, where among his friends and contemporaries were Herbert Hensley Henson, afterwards bishop of Durham, John Simon, and C. Grant Robertson. In 1897 he won the Lothian prize. In the same year he was appointed to a lectureship at New College, and thus began his twenty years' experience as a college tutor at Oxford, in the course of which he built up a great reputation as a scholar and teacher of the most exacting standard. In 1899 he exchanged his post at New College for a lectureship at Balliol, and on the expiry of his All Souls fellowship in 1902 he was appointed an official fellow of his old college.

Davis had already published Balliol College (1899) in the series College Histories, Charlemagne (1900), a life for the Heroes of the Nations series, as well as articles, from 1901, in the English Historical Review. But it was the appearance in 1905 of his book England under the Normans and Angevins which revealed the full measure of his gifts as a historian and made his name. The book at once became a standard authority and by 1930 had reached a tenth edition; but it was the only substantial contribution to narrative medieval history which Davis made. He wrote in 1911 a masterly little summary, Medieval Europe, in the Home University Library series, and many articles and reviews in historical journals, but after 1905 he devoted a great part of his literary energies to editorial work, preparing an edition of Jowett's translation of Aristotle's Politics (1905), a revision of William Stubbs's Select Charters (1913), and embarking upon a valuable, if ambitious, calendar of royal charters, Regesta regum Anglo-Normannorum (vol. 1, 1913), which, as events proved, he was never able to complete, though it was later finished by others.

Davis's influence as a teacher, however, was of greater moment than his reputation as a writer. Few Oxford tutors can have inspired in their pupils more genuine respect and regard. If his austere manner, steady gaze, and precise speech compelled attention and a touch of awe, closer acquaintance revealed behind the reserve a friendly soul, much quiet humour, and above all an unstinting devotion to his pupils' needs. He lacked entirely the infectious enthusiasm of a teacher like A. L. Smith, but he set an example of hard work and fine scholarship which won immediate response from almost everyone whom he taught. His lectures were very carefully prepared and delivered, and largely attended, but he made no effort to draw big audiences. With his writing and teaching he combined much examining and administrative work. He was junior dean of Balliol from 1906 to 1910, an examiner in the final school of modern history from 1907 to 1909 (and again 1919–21), and Chichele lecturer in foreign history in 1913; he served on the board of his faculty from 1905, on the general board of the faculties from 1913, and became a curator of the Bodleian Library in 1914. He was much interested in women's education and joined the council of Somerville College in 1908.

Davis married in 1912 Jennie Rosa, only daughter of Walter Lindup, of Bampton Grange, Oxfordshire; three sons were born of the marriage, including , medieval historian, and Godfrey Rupert Carless Davis, secretary to the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts.

The First World War made a complete break in Davis's university activities and came near to deflecting the whole course of his career. After collaborating in the production of the series of Oxford Pamphlets on the war, and publishing a dispassionate analysis, The Political Thought of Heinrich von Treitschke (1914), he went to London early in 1915 and helped to organize the ‘trade clearing house’, a bureau of commercial intelligence arising out of the postal censorship, sponsored by the Admiralty and the Board of Trade. By the following summer the trade clearing house had expanded into the war trade intelligence department, forming a constituent part of the ministry of blockade under the ultimate control of the Foreign Office. Of this department Davis was the vice-chairman for three and a half years. Davis himself wrote subsequently an official, but unfinished, History of the Blockade (1920), which describes in detail the elaborate departmental machinery which was devised to put the blockade of the enemy powers into execution. In his own department his organizing ability, power of rapid decision, and almost limitless capacity for work, backed by his fine personal qualities, were a source of inspiration to his colleagues, and attracted the notice of the cabinet. After the armistice he served on the large British delegation to the peace conference in Paris from December 1918 until March 1919, and then for a few weeks, at the invitation of Sir Arthur Steel-Maitland, undertook the duties of acting director of the department of overseas trade in London. He was made CBE in the new year honours of that year.

An opportunity of high appointment in the public service was now presented to Davis, had his ambition lain in that direction; but he decided otherwise, and in April 1919 returned to Oxford, where for two years he resumed the routine of college and university work. It was at this time that he undertook the editorial direction of the Dictionary of National Biography, which had been conveyed in 1917 to the University of Oxford to be continued by the Clarendon Press [see ]. Arrangements had to be made for the continuation of the dictionary from 1911, to which year it had been brought down by the previous editor, Sir Sidney Lee. The names to be included in the dictionary, and contributors of the biographical notices, were selected by Davis and his co-editor, J. R. H. Weaver, in consultation with an Oxford committee and a number of external advisers. Alike in his dealings with contributors and in his conscientious treatment of the material Davis was an exemplary editor. He had a deft and skilful touch, and although he worked with great rapidity he never spared himself the more laborious part of the routine. The volume for which he was responsible appeared in 1927, bringing the dictionary down to the end of the year 1921. He wrote a short preface and contributed several articles. The volume reduced by almost a half the number of entries for a decade, as compared with Lee's volume on the 1900s, and reflected the view of the delegates of Oxford University Press that Lee's plans for the twentieth-century coverage of the dictionary were too expensive.

In 1921, shortly after he had embarked on the editorship of the dictionary, and in the midst of the heavy routine of Oxford teaching after the war, Davis accepted an invitation to occupy the chair of modern history at Manchester University. His health had suffered from the strain of his war work, and the new post promised him more leisure for his own studies. He settled at Bowdon, and spent there three and a half busy but quiet years. His studies now took a modern turn—owing partly to the requirements of his professorship and partly to his interest in post-war political questions. When, therefore, he was elected Ford's lecturer at Oxford for 1924–5, he took as his subject The Age of Grey and Peel (posthumously published in 1930). He gave the lectures in Hilary term 1925, and in the course of that term he was appointed to succeed Sir Charles Firth as regius professor of modern history at Oxford. He thereby became a fellow of Oriel College. In the same year he was elected an honorary fellow of Balliol College and a fellow of the British Academy.

Davis returned to Oxford as regius professor in the summer of 1925. In addition to the duties of his chair he undertook much committee work, both for his new college and for the university. As a curator of the Bodleian Library he was called upon to take a prominent part in the discussions on the question of the extension of the library and to move in congregation, in May 1928, the official proposals for Bodleian extension in their earliest form (subsequently modified by the report of the Bodleian commission, and finally adopted by the university in 1931). Outside his university activities he was appointed in 1925 to serve on the unemployment insurance committee under the chairmanship of Lord Blanesburgh, and in 1927 he went to Geneva as British representative on a committee of experts charged by the International Labour Organization to investigate and report upon factory legislation in several European countries. These public services—the aftermath of his wartime reputation—made heavy demands on his time and energies during 1926 and 1927.

Davis succeeded to the regius chair of modern history at Oxford at a time when changes in the syllabus were deemed desirable, but as it turned out he had not time to initiate reforms. His ideas on the needs of the school would probably have taken shape in accordance with the views expressed in his inaugural lecture, The Study of History, delivered in November 1925. For the moment his commitments were heavy enough. He was getting ready for press his Ford lectures, the Dictionary of National Biography, 1912–1921, and the Report of the Blanesburgh committee, editing Essays in History Presented to Reginald Lane Poole (1926), and preparing his Raleigh lecture for the British Academy, The Great Game in Asia (delivered in November 1926)—one of the liveliest of his writings. In the midst of such activities, while engaged in examining at Edinburgh University, he died of pneumonia, at 19 Great King Street, Edinburgh, after a few days' illness, on 28 June 1928. He was buried at Wolvercote cemetery, Oxford.

Davis was a young-looking man, whose features and reddish hair changed little during middle age. His expression was rather grave, his manner reserved but modest, his gaze singularly penetrating, in spite of short sight, and his words ever to the point. His learning, never paraded, was very great in range and depth. But, as his career shows, he was not in the least the don or scholar of convention. People of the most diverse types found his qualities of mind and heart peculiarly attractive, and his circle of friends in Oxford and outside was very large. Few who met him failed to feel the impress of his high intelligence and unsullied character. His influence upon the Oxford of his time was very great; yet his comparatively early death seemed to many to have left his fullest powers unrevealed and his greatest work unaccomplished.

J. R. H. Weaver, rev. H. C. G. Matthew


The Times (29 June 1928) · F. M. Powicke, ‘H. W. C. Davis’, EngHR, 43 (1928), 578–84 · J. R. H. Weaver and A. L. Poole, Henry William Carless Davis: a memoir, and a selection of his historical papers (1933) [with portrait and bibliography] · H. C. G. Matthew, Leslie Stephen and the ‘New Dictionary of National Biography’ (1997) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1928)


Bodl. Oxf., corresp., notebooks, and papers |  All Souls Oxf., letters to Sir William Anson


Lafayette, photograph, NPG [see illus.] · portrait, repro. in Weaver and Poole, Henry William Carless Davis

Wealth at death  

£10,579 2s. 4d.: probate, 15 Sept 1928, CGPLA Eng. & Wales