Thompson, Alexander Hamilton (18731952), historian, the eldest child and elder son of John Thompson, then vicar of St Gabriel's, Bristol, and his wife, Annie Hastings, daughter of Canon David Cooper, was born on 7 November 1873 at Clifton, Gloucestershire. He entered Clifton College as a scholar in 1883, leaving in 1890. He entered St John's College, Cambridge, in 1892, as a minor scholar. He read classics, and graduated BA in 1895 and MA in 1903. Weak health at this time led him to take up tutoring on the Riviera for two years. In 1897 he was appointed extramural teacher by Cambridge University. In that year his first published work appeared, a popular guide, Cambridge and its Colleges.
Thompson's professional life can be roughly divided into two parts: the first as an extension lecturer for Cambridge University, 18971919, and the second after entering full academic life in 1919. In the first the extensive travelling allowed him to familiarize himself with a wide range of medieval buildings while the teaching caused him to reduce complicated matters to a simple treatment. His slim books The Ground Plan of the English Parish Church (1911) and The Historical Growth of the English Church (1911) admirably illustrate how he compressed profound knowledge into a small compass, and the books have hardly lost value since they were written. In the field of castles major advances in knowledge required a drawing-together in one coherent work in this field which he did in Military Architecture in England during the Middle Ages (1912), which became the standard work on the subject. In the second part of his life transcription of medieval works became his main interest. There is a considerable overlap, of course, between the two. His great skill was to combine in one person an equal facility with medieval written sources and the architectural remains, a very rare gift.
During his extramural years Thompson's interests were partly in literature. His second publication had been a History of English Literature (1901) founded on that of T. B. Shaw, and this was quickly followed by school editions of various literary texts, chiefly of the English Romantics. He lived at this time partly at Henbury and partly at Chichester and St Albans. In 1903 he married Amy (d. 1945), daughter of Alfred Gosling of Colchester, and soon after moved to Lincoln. They had two daughters.
By this time Thompson had made the acquaintance of two of the leading medieval archaeologists of the day, William St John Hope and John Bilson, both of whom were to be his closest friends for the rest of their days. The latter was among his sponsors for election to the Society of Antiquaries in 1910. After the First World War he continued to write monographs on particular buildings or localities, including studies of Bolton Priory (1928) and Welbeck Abbey (1938).
In 1919 Thompson was appointed lecturer in English at Armstrong College, Newcastle upon Tyne, where two years later a readership in medieval history and archaeology was instituted for him in recognition of his scholarship. Like his contemporary G. G. Coulton, he thus entered full academic teaching after and not before acquiring a reputation for scholarship. Almost immediately he moved to Leeds, where he became reader in medieval history in 1922, professor in 1924, and head of the department in 1927, a post which he held until his retirement in 1939.
As time went on, Thompson's main interest lay increasingly in the publication of original records of English medieval church history. His first major venture was based on the registers of the medieval bishops of Lincoln and in 1914 appeared the first volume of his Visitations of Religious Houses in the Diocese of Lincoln. In 1928 he completed for the Surtees Society part 2 of the Register of Archbishop Thomas Corbridge, and followed this up by the publication of the Register of Archbishop William Greenfield in five volumes (19318). Meanwhile steadily he produced other texts, which included Northumberland Pleas from the Curia Regis and Assize Rolls (1922), Registers of the Archdeaconry of Richmond (3 vols., 191935), Liber vitae ecclesiae Dunelmensis (1923), and A calendar of charters and other documents belonging to the hospital of William Wyggeston at Leicester (1933). In the year before the latter appeared, he was made Ford's lecturer at Oxford and in 1933 Birkbeck lecturer at Trinity College, Cambridge. For the former he took as his theme the English church at the end of the middle ages, and the fruits of this study finally appeared in 1947 in The English Clergy and their Organization in the Later Middle Ages, a comprehensive and masterly consideration of ecclesiastical institutions in fifteenth century England.
As a professor at Leeds Thompson had a unique reputation. He had little interest in the generality of committees, although as chairman of the library committee he put the university not a little in his debt. His innate friendliness led him to entertain great and small in large numbers at his little house at Adel in Yorkshire and this, with his immense memory for detail, gave him a remarkable knowledge of his pupils. He answered indefatigably and thoroughly the host of historical and antiquarian queries which beset him unceasingly, and equally unstintingly gave his services as a lecturer and guide to no small fraction of the local archaeological societies. By his death his output of published works totalled about 420 items of one kind or another, but this did not prevent a considerable social activity or painstaking membership of the various official bodies to which he belonged; he was a member of the cathedrals commission (19258), a cathedral commissioner for England (193242), a member of the archbishops' commission on canon law (19437), of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (193352), and of the Ancient Monuments Board for England (193552). Brought up in a vicarage, he remained steadfastly faithful to the Church of England. So full a life was only made feasible by his remarkable powers of work. Until shortly before his retirement it was usual enough for him to work nightly into the small hours. In later life, although he never took exercise, his health was unbroken until his final illness. He died in St Trinian's Nursing Home, Littleham, Exmouth, Devon, on 4 September 1952. He was buried in the churchyard of St Thomas the Martyr, Oxford, on 8 September and a requiem mass was celebrated on 19 September in London.
Thompson was elected FBA in 1928, honorary ARIBA, an honorary fellow of St John's College, Cambridge (1938), and president of the Royal Archaeological Institute (193945). He was a lifelong member of the institute, whose activities closely suited his architectural interests. He was made CBE in 1938 and given honorary doctorates by Durham, Leeds, and Oxford.
J. C. Dickinson, rev. Michael Welman Thompson
An address presented to Alexander Hamilton Thompson with a bibliography of his writings (privately printed, 1948) · private information (1971) · personal knowledge (1971) · Archaeological Journal, 109 (1952), 1668 · C. T. Clay, Alexander Hamilton Thompson, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 38 (19525), 2669 · E. M. Oakley, ed., Clifton College annals and register, 18601897 (1897) · Clifton College register, 18621962 (1962) · Venn, Alum. Cant. · The Times (5 Sept 1952) · The Times (9 Sept 1952) · The Times (19 Sept 1952) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1952)
Borth. Inst., working notebooks relating to medieval ecclesiastical history
Lincs. Arch., corresp. and notes; extracts and copies of documents from medieval episcopal registers of Lincoln; notes relating to VCH section on religious houses
W. Yorks. AS, Leeds, Yorkshire Archaeological Society, corresp. and papers
W. Yorks. AS, Leeds | S. Antiquaries, Lond., letters to Sir Charles Clay
W. Stoneman, photograph, 1945, NPG · photograph, repro. in Clay, Alexander Hamilton Thompson · photograph, repro. in Archaeological Journal · photograph, repro. in An address presented to Alexander Hamilton Thompson
Wealth at death
£7573 7s. 4d.: probate, 4 Dec 1952, CGPLA Eng. & Wales