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Sir  (Frederick) Maurice Powicke (1879–1963), by Walter Stoneman, 1945Sir (Frederick) Maurice Powicke (1879–1963), by Walter Stoneman, 1945
Powicke, Sir (Frederick) Maurice (1879–1963), historian, was born at Alnwick, Northumberland, on 16 June 1879, the eldest child of Frederick James Powicke (1854–1935), a Congregational minister and historian of seventeenth-century puritanism, and his wife, Martha, youngest daughter of William Collyer of Brigstock, Northamptonshire. He was named Maurice after F. D. Maurice. In 1886 the family moved to Hatherlow, near Stockport, and Powicke was educated at Stockport grammar school until, in 1896, he went to the University of Manchester. There he came under the influence of T. F. Tout, who turned him into a historian. It was in these years also that Powicke first experienced the pleasure of working in a scholar's library among the books of E. A. Freeman, whose library formed one of the earliest departmental libraries in an English university.

In 1899 Powicke went to Balliol College, Oxford, Tout's old college. He became a Brackenbury scholar of the college and read classics with only moderate success, obtaining a second class in literae humaniores in 1902. He then returned to history and achieved a first class in that subject in 1903. Meanwhile he had become a Langton research fellow at Manchester University, a fellowship which he held from 1902 to 1905. This allowed him to do his first serious piece of historical research on Furness Abbey for the Victoria county history of Lancashire.

With the exception of Tout, who supported him throughout, Powicke at this time was undervalued by those who made academic appointments. From 1905 to 1906 he was assistant lecturer at the University of Liverpool, but he failed to get his position renewed, and Tout brought him back to Manchester as assistant lecturer from 1906 to 1908. His election to a prize fellowship at Merton College, Oxford, in 1908 was the turning point in his career and Powicke never ceased to feel a warm attachment to the college which had rescued him from obscurity. A series of important articles in the English Historical Review from 1906 to 1909 laid the foundations of his academic reputation and from this date his troubles in getting employment were over. From 1909 to 1919 he was professor of modern history at Queen's University, Belfast; from 1919 to 1928 professor of medieval history at Manchester; and from 1928 until his retirement in 1947 regius professor of modern history at Oxford. After his retirement he received Studies in Medieval History Presented to Frederick Maurice Powicke, edited by R. W. Hunt, W. A. Pantin, and R. W. Southern (1948), which contains a full bibliography of his publications to that date. He was given a room in Balliol where he continued to work until shortly before his death. He left his books to Balliol College.

In his inaugural lecture at Oxford, Powicke described his ideal of a degree in history as combining the ‘two kinds of experience which historical study can provide, namely the lessons suggested by the historical treatment of political science and of general historical developments, and the discipline implied in the careful intensive study of a special historical subject’ (‘Historical study in Oxford’, reprinted in F. M. Powicke, Modern Historians and the Study of History, 1955, 173), but his persistent failure to get the undergraduate course divided into two parts on the Manchester model clouded his Oxford years. His individual genius as a teacher ensured that he made a greater contribution to the study of history at the university than any professor since Stubbs, and that Oxford replaced Manchester as the leading centre for medieval studies. Illuminating and suggesting rather than explaining, and encouraging graduate students to follow their own way while remaining the most important single influence in their work, he produced a generation of distinguished medievalists often very different in style from himself.

In his writing Powicke showed himself the first influential British historian to be aware of the range of continental scholarship. He seems to have reacted against the record-based English administrative history of Tout, and of his own successor in the regius chair, V. H. Galbraith, whom he had taught at Manchester. His interest he declared to be ‘the interplay of experience and ideas in the formation of medieval political societies’ (F. M. Powicke, Ways of Medieval Life and Thought, 1949, 5), and his method can be described as a narrative of events, explained in terms of the personalities and values of the people who shaped them. His first book, The Loss of Normandy (1913), attributed Philip Augustus's ability to seize Normandy from King John in 1204—an event which he saw as crucial to the formation of both the French state and the English nation—to the chivalry, art, and intellect of France.

In Powicke's next book, Stephen Langton—his Ford lectures at Oxford in 1926–7, begun as a study of Langton's part in the struggle for Magna Carta—he found himself seeking to bring his subject:
into relation with the common man in England and with the intellectual life of Europe, [and] to break down the barriers which prevent us from considering as a whole, in the light of the influences that played upon them, the men and affairs of politics and religion. (Langton, 161)
Langton's ‘clear, sensible, penetrating, but not original mind’ (ibid., 160) was seen as being sharpened in the schools of Paris, in disputations about the extent of papal power, the duty of the church to aid kings in a just and urgent cause, and the restraints which natural law and judicial custom placed on monarchy. In 1936 he produced in collaboration with A. B. Emden another work of lasting importance: a new edition of The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages (1895) by Hastings Rashdall, in which he described the ‘intense intellectual life of the schools’ as ‘a process of incessant wisdom and folly’ throwing up ‘ideas and ways of thought and speech’ still profoundly influencing the modern world (Universities of Europe, 1.xxxvii). By these books and his catalogue The Medieval Books of Merton College (1931) he opened up for British historians the whole subject of scholastic history, but he left it to others to acquire the expertise to pursue it in depth.

In the 1930s some of Powicke's energy was taken up in promoting co-operative historical scholarship through the Royal Historical Society, whose president he became in 1933 on a reforming programme in that rarest of events for such a body, a contested election. The society's series of guides and handbooks, notably The Handbook of British Chronology (1939), which he himself edited, are the result of his initiative. Of importance for church history was his project for a new edition of the Concilia (1737) of David Wilkins, which he announced in his Raleigh lecture of 1931 and which began to appear in 1964, the year after his death. He was also continuing to produce the type of essays written for a wider public at which he excelled: an early example was Christian Life in the Middle Ages (1926), the book which he thought had caused Stanley Baldwin to offer him the regius chair. His interest in evoking the personalities and purposes of individuals—Pope Boniface VIII, for instance, or Gerald of Wales—is evident in this book, as also in his edition of Walter Daniel's life of Abbot Ailred of Rievaulx (1922 and 1950), which glows with his liking for the man and love of the place. In his article ‘The murder of Henry Clement [in 1235] and the pirates of Lundy island’, published in History (vol. 25, 1941), he confessed:
sometimes, as I work at a series of patent and close rolls, I have a queer sensation; the dead entries begin to be alive. It is rather like the experience of sitting down in one's chair and finding that one has sat on the cat. These are real people. (Ways of Medieval Life, 67)
The rewards and dangers of this imaginative sympathy with figures of the past, even to talk of them as friends, and of the intuitive recreation of their ideas and motivation are exemplified in the two massive books which appeared at the end of Powicke's career and on which his reputation largely rests: King Henry III and the Lord Edward (1947), and The Thirteenth Century in the Oxford History of England (1953). The first is an episodic, ‘Proustian’ narrative of the century from Henry's accession to the early years of Edward's reign, hauntingly written, and most successful in its evocation of the culture of the western European governing class as manifested in the politics of the kingdom of England. The principal explanation of political change given here is generational change among the aristocracy. But Powicke's aspiration to make the book ‘a study in social history, not in the sense in which the term is generally used, but in the sense of social life, relations, and forces in political action’ (King Henry III, v), ran up against the difficulty of finding an unprejudiced vocabulary for insights into the attitudes of a remote age. He could have no impression of the motivation of the mass of the population, and there seems to be a touch of nostalgia for a lost England in the values he attributed, in the gloom of the Second World War, to medieval aristocrats. He was convinced that the thirteenth century was a harmonious and ‘happier time’ when ‘England coped with herself’ (‘England and Europe in the thirteenth century’, Ways of Medieval Life, 117) despite the extremism of Simon de Montfort and his ‘commissars’, and he was too impressed by the concept of the ‘community of the realm’ which he found in the records. Many have found inexplicable his belief, evinced in both his last books, in Edward's generosity and respect for right, even in his dealings with the Welsh and Scots. In 1965 K. B. McFarlane demolished Powicke's ‘feeble attempt to extenuate’ Edward's treatment of earldoms for his own and his family's material advantage, and showed how little community there was even in the group around the king (‘Had Edward I a “policy” towards the earls?’, History, 50, 1965, 149–50).

The Thirteenth Century, which carries the narrative down to Edward I's death in 1307, has some of the previous book's weaknesses. The extensive work of economic historians on what was a largely peasant society still makes little impact. Indeed, Powicke argued in the Economic History Review (vol. 14, 1946) that the emphasis of economic history ‘on the particular interests of persons and groups tends to incoherence’; the strength of English parliamentary government, ‘the most stable form of government in the world’ so far, lay ‘in its capacity to deal with our economic life as part of the community’ (‘The economic motive in politics’, Modern Historians and the Study of History, 247). The Thirteenth Century is different from King Henry III and the Lord Edward, however, in weaving into the narrative discussions of the work being done in legal and administrative history, with which he was fully conversant. The result is a difficult book, but one that comes nearest to the ambition Powicke had expressed in his presidential address to the Royal Historical Society in 1936 to write the history of the English state as ‘more than a complex of institutions’: rather as ‘the relations between men with a capacity to be influenced in their normal daily life by abstractions’ and able ‘to discuss, plead and act together in councils, law courts, armies and business’ (‘Reflections on the medieval state’, TRHS, 4th ser., 19, 1936, 5). Despite the criticism, the two late books have together established the enduring image of thirteenth-century England, and also support a claim that Powicke added a new dimension to medieval historiography by his combination of wide scholarship with imaginative insight into the springs of action.

In personal appearance Powicke was noticeably small and deceptively fragile; his voice was soft and fluty; he read well, especially such favourite authors as Dickens, and he had a relish for the ridiculous which went with a somewhat macabre and elfish sense of humour. He liked walking and was deeply attached to the Lake District, where for many years he and his family spent most of the summer at their cottage in Eskdale. On 8 September 1909 he married Susan Irvine Martin Lindsay (d. 1965), daughter of the Revd Thomas M. Lindsay, principal of the United Free College of Glasgow, and the sister of his friend A. D. Lindsay. For many years the Powickes' house at 97 Holywell, Oxford, was a place of resort for large numbers of pupils and visiting historians. They had one son, who to Powicke's lasting grief was killed in a road accident in 1936. Of his two daughters one, Janet, married the historian Richard Pares.

Powicke was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1927 and knighted in 1946. He was an honorary fellow of his three Oxford colleges, Merton (1932), Balliol (1939), and Oriel (1947), an honorary doctor of many universities, and a corresponding member of foreign academies in France, Germany, and America. He died in the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, on 19 May 1963, after a brief illness.

R. W. Southern, rev. Alan Harding


R. W. Southern, ‘Sir Maurice Powicke’, PBA, 50 (1964), 275–304 · personal knowledge (1981) · private information (1981) · M. T. Clanchy, ‘Inventing thirteenth-century England: Stubbs, Tout, Powicke – now what?’, Thirteenth Century England [ed. P. R. Coss and S. D. Lloyd], 5 (1995)


JRL, papers |  JRL, letters to the Manchester Guardian · PRONI, letters to J. C. Beckett · U. Glas., letters to E. L. G. Stones · U. Reading L., letters to Sir Frank Stenton and Lady Stenton


R. Schwabe, drawing, 1944, Oriel College, Oxford · W. Stoneman, photograph, 1945, NPG [see illus.] · Ramsey & Muspratt, photograph, c.1947, NPG · W. Stoye, drawing, 1947, priv. coll. · J. Oppenheimer, drawing, 1955, U. Oxf., history faculty library · J. Oppenheimer, drawing, 1955, Balliol Oxf.

Wealth at death  

£9716 7s. 0d.: probate, 18 Oct 1963, CGPLA Eng. & Wales