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Ady, Cecilia Mary (1881–1958), historian, was born on 28 November 1881 at Edgcote, Northamptonshire, the only child of the Revd (William) Henry Ady (d. 1915), rector of Edgcote and later of Charing, Kent, and Ockham, Surrey, and his wife, , who was a brilliant amateur historian who enjoyed a reputation as an art critic and biographer of such historical figures as Beatrice d'Este and Castiglione. Ady was privately educated at home at the rectory of Charing, under the tutelage of her mother, before entering Oxford in 1900 as a scholar at what was then St Hugh's Hall. She obtained a first in the honours school of modern history in 1903. At Oxford she was a pupil of Edward Armstrong, who fostered her interests in Italian studies and included her first book, History of Milan under the Sforza (1907), in his series, The States of Italy.

After travel in Italy and an interval at home, Ady became tutor in modern history at St Hugh's in 1909. From the beginning she took an active role in the governance of her college, being elected to the council for the first time in 1913 and becoming vice-principal for a term of three years in 1915. Her rise to positions of authority in her college derived, in part, from her position as protégée and confidante of its principal, Eleanor Jourdain, who addressed her in private letters with such terms of endearment as ‘Baby Don’ and ‘mia cara Cecilia’. Ady's popularity with her pupils and leadership in the senior common room eventually led Miss Jourdain to perceive her as a rival. The clash of these two strong and ambitious personalities resulted in a ‘row’, that led to Ady's being dismissed from her tutorship in November 1923 with less than a week's notice. The prestige of St Hugh's was badly shaken by this dispute, which was the subject of an inquiry by Lord Curzon, the university chancellor. Ady was vindicated and subsequent constitutional changes brought self-government to the women's colleges at Oxford, placing women tutors in a position of independence comparable to that of their male counterparts. Refusing an offer from the University of Birmingham in 1924 Ady accepted the post of tutor to the Society of Home Students, returning to her college as research fellow in 1929. On her retirement in 1951 she was elected to an honorary fellowship. Her portrait, on the viewer's far right, in Henry Lamb's ‘Conversation Piece’, an oil of six St Hugh's fellows painted in 1936, captures at once Ady's commanding presence and her famous affability.

Throughout her long career at Oxford, Ady remained devoted to the study of the personalities and politics of the Italian Renaissance. The second book, Pius II (Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini): the Humanist Pope (1913), dedicated to ‘My Mother’, was a standard ‘life and times’ account which emulated her mother's method in its complete mastery of and copious quotation from literary sources. Ady's skill at broad synthesis was evidenced in ‘Italy, 1250–1527’, her chapter in the collection of essays, mainly by women history dons, Italy, Mediaeval and Modern (1917). In 1929 she published A History of Modern Italy, 1871–1915, a translation of the work by Benedetto Croce, and, ever loyal to her friend and mentor, edited a posthumous collection of Edward Armstrong's Italian Studies (1934). Her capacity for clear summary was shown in the chapter entitled ‘Florence and north Italy, 1414–1492’, in volume 8 of the Cambridge Medieval History (1936). During the early 1930s Ady spent much of her leisure time conducting archival and manuscript research in Italy, especially Bologna, which resulted in her only solid historical monograph, The Bentivoglio of Bologna: a Study in Despotism (1937). The publication of this distinguished work caused Oxford University to confer on her the degree of DLitt in 1938. Perhaps most revealing of her approach to the Italian Renaissance was her Annual Italian Lecture read before the British Academy, ‘Morals and manners of the Quattrocento’, which celebrated the great ‘opportunity for self-expression’ of the Italian ruling families as comparable to England's country gentry before the first Reform Bill (see PBA, 28, 1942, 179).

After leaving St Hugh's College in 1923, Ady established her home in Oxford at 40 St Margaret's Road, where she kept an open door for friends, fellow dons, and old pupils. The product of a devout home, she was a moderate Anglo-Catholic churchwoman, took an active role in the affairs of her diocese, and wrote on the role of women in the church as well as historical studies on church organization. In post-war Oxford she regularly offered ‘The Italian Renaissance’ as a special subject, while she continued her work of popularization with Lorenzo Dei Medici and Renaissance Italy (1955), published in the Teach Yourself History series. In her mature years she supervised the theses of a number of postgraduates, men and women, several of whom became leading historians of the Italian Renaissance in the second half of the twentieth century. These pupils, along with fellow dons, contributed a brilliant collection of essays, Italian Renaissance Studies (1960), which had been planned in her honour and was dedicated to her memory after her death at St Luke's Nursing Home, 20 Linton Road, Oxford, on 27 March 1958. Her most immediate legacy was a bequest of £10,000 for the salary of the chaplain at St Hugh's. But her larger influence was as one of the founders of the school of Italian Renaissance studies that flourished in the United Kingdom in the decades after her death.

Benjamin G. Kohl

Sources  

P. Griffin, ed., St Hugh's: one hundred years of women's education in Oxford (1986) · ‘Cecilia Ady’, Oxford Magazine (1 May 1958), 392, 394 · J. R. Hale, ‘Biographical note’, Italian Renaissance studies: a tribute to the late Cecilia M. Ady, ed. E. F. Jacob (1960), 484–7 · V. M. Brittain, The women at Oxford: a fragment of history (1960) · A. Emanuel, ‘Cecilia Mary Ady’, An encyclopedia of British women writers (1988), 1–2 · The Times (28 March 1958) · The Times (3 April 1958) · The Times (7 April 1958) · J. R. Hale, ‘In memoriam: Cecilia M. Ady’, Italian Studies, 14 (1959), 105 · J. M. C. Ady, A bright remembrance: the diaries of Julia Cartwright, ed. A. Emanuel (1989) · b. cert. · will, 17 Aug 1954 · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1958) · B. G. Kohl, ‘Cecilia M. Ady, the Edwardian education of an historian of Renaissance Italy’, The Victorian and Edwardian response to the Italian Renaissance, ed. J. E. Law and L. Ostermark-Johansen (2005)

Archives  

Northants. RO, Delapre Abbey, diaries · St Hugh's College, Oxford, archives |  Northants. RO, Cartwright of Edgcote papers


Likenesses  

H. Lamb, group portrait, oils, 1936 (Conversation piece), St Hugh's College, Oxford · H. A. Freeth, charcoal sketches, c.1940, St Hugh's College, Oxford · photographs, St Hugh's College, Oxford; repro. in Griffin, ed., St Hugh's

Wealth at death  

£68,210 1s. 0d.: probate, 21 May 1958, CGPLA Eng. & Wales