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Davis, Ralph Henry Carless (1918–1991), historian, was born at 11 Fyfield Road, Oxford, on 7 October 1918, the third and youngest son of and his wife, Jennie Rosa, daughter of Walter Lindup of Bampton Grange, Oxfordshire. His father was regius professor of history in the University of Oxford and a fellow of Balliol College. Ralph's older brothers, Patrick (1914–1996), later a city solicitor, and Godfrey Rupert Carless (1917–1997), secretary of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, both attended the Dragon School, Oxford, and Highgate School, but on his father's sudden death in 1928 Ralph was transferred from the Dragon to the Quaker school at Leighton Park, Reading. He matriculated from Balliol in 1937 to read history; his tutors were R. W. Southern and Denys Hay.

There was an unconformable quality in Ralph Davis which his education had at least done nothing to quell. Under the threat of the Second World War, and despite a visit to Germany in 1939, he refused to register for military service, and after appearing before a tribunal he chose to join a Friends' Ambulance Unit. He served in Finland and was briefly interned in Sweden before being posted to the Middle East, where he moved with the Hadfield-Spears mobile hospital from Lebanon through the western desert to Tunisia, Italy, and southern France. A stay in Cairo enabled him to add The Mosques of Cairo (1944) to his publications, which had begun with an undergraduate paper on masons' marks in the Oxfordshire Archaeological Society's Journal for 1938. He was demobilized in 1945 and returned to Balliol with the Croix de Guerre to set beside (though he never chose to do so) his brother Patrick's mention in dispatches. He graduated BA with first-class honours in modern history in 1947, and was appointed to an assistant mastership at Christ's Hospital, Horsham. In 1948 he was offered an assistant lectureship at University College, London (UCL), by Sir John Neale. At UCL he met and in 1949 married Eleanor Megaw, who had been tutor to women students since 1946, when she left the Women's Royal Naval Service. Their two sons were born in 1952 and 1955.

The essential elements of Davis's career were now in place. He stayed at UCL until 1956 when he was elected to a fellowship at Merton College, Oxford, and in those years he had revealed a wide range of talents. Neale's expectation that every member of his department would devote two and a half days each week to research, both in term and in vacation, was not burdensome to him. At the same time, however, he was delivering first-year lectures to a mixed and enthusiastic audience of students of both science and the humanities, which issued in a beguilingly popular text book, A History of Medieval Europe from Constantine to Saint Louis (1957). He also instituted and maintained an introductory week at Cumberland Lodge—a connection which he owed to a friend of Eleanor's—for history freshmen, who could then meet not only other members of a large and vigorous department, but speakers from elsewhere. From 1956 onwards he pursued similar policies at Merton. As tutor for admissions he established visiting fellowships for schoolteachers and had the satisfaction of seeing the college rise to the top of the Norrington Table, a prize for which he would not have striven but which it was gratifying to receive. In 1970, however, following the retirement of H. A. Cronne, the University of Birmingham appointed Davis to its chair of medieval history and he retired from Oxford, congenial to him in respect of his family's tradition, to the familiar challenge of a great civic university.

Since Davis's later years at UCL his interests had turned from the social structure of medieval Suffolk—studies in the rich archives of St Edmund's Abbey to which V. H. Galbraith had originally drawn his attention—to the broader issues examined in King Stephen, 1135–1154 (1967) and in the critical work on a variety of historical sources, notably charters and chronicles, which followed it. Most of those works rested on his collaboration with H. A. Cronne upon the third volume of the Regesta regum Anglo-Normannorum. The Regesta had been launched by H. W. C. Davis, Ralph's father, in 1914, when it fell foul of J. H. Round, a scholar of morbid sensitivity who consistently looked for faults in the work of others. The second volume, containing the writs and charters of Henry I, appeared in 1956, edited by Charles Johnson in collaboration with Cronne.

Cronne then proceeded to a third volume, joined by Ralph Davis, to whom an increasing proportion of the work fell as Cronne resisted and triumphed over a malignant disease. There was much of filial piety in Davis's approach to Stephen's reign, and his preliminary work led to an assault on J. H. Round's conclusions on the nature of Stephen's relations with the baronage, and in particular with Geoffrey de Mandeville. In the event, controversy over the dating of Stephen's and Matilda's charters to Geoffrey continued for the rest of Davis's life, ending with a long-drawn-out sequence of articles and notes in the English Historical Review initiated by John Prestwich. The exchanges were ultimately inconclusive, but Ralph's arguments were always cogent. The third volume of the Regesta was followed in 1969 by a fourth, with facsimiles. The completed work surpassed H. W. C. Davis's original intentions, with full texts, not only of Stephen's writs and charters, but also those of Matilda and the young Henry of Anjou, all edited to a high standard.

Ralph Davis's own talents lay less in the minutiae of charter dating than in the imaginative reconstruction of society and the lives of individuals which can now be reached only through such formal documents. His identification of Robert of Lewes as the author of the Gesta Stephani, perhaps the most significant by-product of his work on the Regesta, is a notable example of his skills in research and his serendipitous gift in noting connections. A different, wider-ranging example can be found in The Normans and their Myth (1976).

Davis's years in Birmingham from 1970 to his retirement in 1984 gave full play to his abilities in enthusing colleagues and defining common goals. As it happened, the interval between Cronne's retirement in 1968 and Ralph Davis's arrival eighteen months later was a time of disruption and general unease in all universities, but he was not given to finding or making difficulties, and he achieved as much in excitable as others might in more tranquil times. He reorganized undergraduate teaching on the lines with which he had first experimented in UCL, with fortnightly tutorials and seminars. As at UCL, and supported at all turns by his wife, he took every occasion to emphasize the identity and interests of his colleagues and their students. He made no attempt, beyond the adequately formidable business of defining such interests, to create common studies, but he promoted the west midlands as a field of research, and brought colleagues from other universities with an interest in medieval history into annual meetings to dine and discuss general or particular themes in a congenial atmosphere. He continued to edit History, which he had taken up in 1968, and was elected president of the Historical Association in 1981. He was elected fellow of the British Academy in 1975 and remained closely involved in the academy's work until his death.

Much as they had enjoyed their time in Birmingham, the Davises returned to Oxford on Ralph's retirement in 1984. There he spent seven productive years in studying the Normans, medieval warfare—discussed felicitously in The Medieval War-Horse (1989)—and the promotion of history as a field of study in schools and universities. He also sought ways of diminishing common strife in Northern Ireland, where Eleanor's family ties with both the Unionist and the home rule camps gave him an insight. He died in Oxford on 12 March 1991, after a sudden illness, and was buried on 17 March. The width of his interests and the warmth with which the whole community of his colleagues regarded him were attested at his funeral and at a memorial service at Merton College in July 1991. He had a rare ability to convey the intensity of his own vision of the past, by a combination of documentary evidence and the physical remains, on the one hand in Cairo and the Krak des Chevaliers, and on the other in the signs and marks of medieval masons in the Cotswolds, and his hearers were always enjoyably aware of and partakers in the zest with which he both pursued and presented his perceptions.

G. H. Martin

Sources  

G. W. S. Barrow, PBA, 82 (1993), 381–97 · WWW · E. Lemon, ed., The Balliol College register, 1916–1967, 4th edn (privately printed, Oxford, 1969) · N. P. Brooks and R. I. Moore, The Independent (25 March 1991)

Likenesses  

photograph, repro. in The Independent · photograph, repro. in Barrow, PBA

Wealth at death  

£174,732: probate, 1 July 1991, CGPLA Eng. & Wales