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Dame  (Cicely) Veronica Wedgwood (1910–1997), by Sir Lawrence Gowing, 1944Dame (Cicely) Veronica Wedgwood (1910–1997), by Sir Lawrence Gowing, 1944
Wedgwood, Dame (Cicely) Veronica (1910–1997), historian, was born on 20 July 1910 at Hindley House, Broomley, Stocksfield, Northumberland, the only daughter of , chief general manager of the London and North Eastern Railway (1923–39) and chairman of the railway executive committee (1939–42), and his wife, Iris Veronica, née Pawson (1887–1982), novelist and travel writer. The Wedgwoods were direct descendants of the potter, and cousins to Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) the composer. Veronica Wedgwood was educated from the age of five at Norland Place preparatory school, Holland Park Avenue, London, to which she later attributed almost all her formal education, for at thirteen she was brought home to be taught by governesses. Her father and maternal grandfather, Albert Henry Pawson, of whom she was especially fond, took her on visits to the continent. She developed an exceptional visual memory for art and became fluent in French and German; she could also read Dutch, Italian, Spanish, and Swedish. Additionally, she educated herself by reading some of the many history books in her father's library. She was later to translate from the German Elias Canetti's novel Die Blendung (as Auto da Fé, 1946) and Karl Brandi's The Emperor Charles V (1939). She went up to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, as senior scholar in 1928, graduating in the first class in classical moderations and in modern history finals.

A. L. Rowse declared Veronica Wedgwood his first outstanding pupil, but she decided against an academic career. By the time she was twelve she had written a play, three novels, and a history of England, all of which were thrown away, and after graduation she began to write professionally. She was to command an exceptionally wide readership, rejecting what she called ‘the theory that in the interest of scholarship it is wrong to write history comprehensible to the ordinary reader’ (History and Hope, 1987, 16). She worked for a time as literary adviser at Jonathan Cape (1940–44), acted as literary editor and deputy editor to Lady Rhondda on the feminist weekly paper Time and Tide (1944–52), reviewed for the Daily Telegraph, and tutored occasionally for Somerville College, Oxford. Her first book, Strafford, 1593–1641, was published by Cape in 1935 after being read and criticized constructively by Professor John Neale. The book gained immediate recognition; when the Strafford family papers were opened to research twenty-five years later, Veronica Wedgwood revised it substantially and expanded it as Thomas Wentworth, First Earl of Strafford, 1593–1641: a Revaluation (1961), judging her subject not to be a benevolent authoritarian as she had originally thought, but unscrupulous and self-seeking. She consolidated her reputation as a historian with her study The Thirty Years' War (1938), which she called ‘the outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict’ (p. 526). She was very conscious of the background of depression at home and tension abroad against which she wrote. As she commented in 1956 when the book was reprinted, ‘Preoccupation with contemporary distress made the plight of the hungry and homeless, the discouraged and desolate in the Thirty Years' War exceptionally vivid to me’ (preface).

Wedgwood's William the Silent (1944) was awarded the James Tait Black prize. But undoubtedly her most important work was the planned trilogy on the English civil war. The King's Peace, 1637–41 (1955) was followed by The King's War, 1641–49 (1959), but the third volume, The English Republic, never appeared. Instead, The Trial of Charles I (published in America as A Coffin for King Charles I) came in 1964 and was revised in 1980. Always a hard worker, Veronica Wedgwood researched for the trilogy for twelve years, making a special study of the Thomason tracts, the collection of 20,000 contemporary newssheets and pamphlets in the British Library, and also personally inspecting the battlefields of the civil war. None the less she offered no startling insight into the events of the period, recording history rather than illuminating it, and writing in the manner of G. M. Trevelyan, to whom she dedicated The King's Peace. Narrative was her special gift and, as she wrote in The King's War, ‘A narrative history, a description of what happened and how it happened often answers the question of why it happened’ (p. 11). She also published Charles I, 1649–1949 (1949), The Common Man in the Great Civil War (1957), and Civil War Battlefields, 1642–6 (1966). She was the author of many other studies of the seventeenth century: Oliver Cromwell (1939), Richelieu and the French Monarchy (1948), A Life of Montrose (1952), The World of Rubens (1967), Milton and his World (1969), and The Political Career of Peter Paul Rubens (1975). She wrote a biography of her uncle , who was MP for Newcastle under Lyme (1906–42), entitled with his approval The Last of the Radicals and published in 1951. In 1955 she produced a biography of Edward Gibbon. There were two short books, Seventeenth Century English Literature (1950) and Poetry and Politics under the Stuarts (1960). Her collected essays appeared as Velvet Studies (1946), as Truth and Opinion (1960), and as History and Hope (1987). Her projected world history was rather unsatisfactory: only the first volume, The Spoils of Time: a Short History of the World (1984), which covered from earliest times to the death of Charles V in 1550, appeared. J. M. Roberts anticipated her book and market with his Hutchinson History of the World and she never completed her own.

As a lecturer, Veronica Wedgwood appealed to her audiences by the warmth of her manner as well as by the depth of her knowledge. She lectured widely in Britain and America and gave as careful a preparation to her voluntary lectures to student societies and to branches of the Historical Association as to her 1957 Leslie Stephen lecture, ‘The sense of the past’, at Cambridge (a first for a woman); or her Neale lecture at University College, London, ‘Oliver Cromwell and the Elizabethan inheritance’ (1970); or her Trevelyan Centenary lecture, ‘History as a branch of literature’ (1976).

Wedgwood was also a dedicated public servant. She made major contributions as a member of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts (1953–78), as the first woman trustee of the National Gallery (1962–76), as a member of the advisory committee of the Victoria and Albert Museum (1960–69), as president of the English Association (1955–6), and as president of the Society of Authors (1972–7). She was involved in judging many literary prizes and she identified herself with the campaign to establish public lending right. Honours were showered upon her. She was the third woman (after Florence Nightingale and Dorothy Hodgkin) to be made a member of the Order of Merit, in 1969. Appointed CBE in 1956, DBE in 1968, she was given the Dutch order of Orange Nassau in 1946 and the German Goethe medal for her translation of Brandi's huge work on Charles V (1939). She was a fellow of the British Academy from 1975, honorary fellow of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and University College, London, a member of the Academy of Arts and Science in America, and held many honorary degrees. None of this affected Veronica Wedgwood's modest and generous personality, her deep concern for people, and her delight in simple pleasures, whether intellectual as in poetry, painting, and opera or practical as in cooking and gardening at the house in Sussex which she shared with her great and lifelong friend, Jacqueline Hope-Wallace. She aroused much affection as a person and admiration as a historical writer.

Dame Veronica Wedgwood died in St Thomas's Hospital, London, on 9 March 1997 from bronchopneumonia, after suffering from Alzheimer's disease for some years.

G. R. Batho

Sources  

The Times (11 March 1997) · Daily Telegraph (15 March 1997) · The author's and writer's who's who (1963) · PBA, 97 (1998), 521–34 · b. cert. · d. cert. · personal knowledge (2004) · Burke, Peerage (1963) · Burke, Peerage (1999)

Archives  

Bodl. Oxf., working papers · University of Bristol Library, corresp. and statements relating to trial of Lady Chatterley's lover |  Georgetown University, Washington, DC, letters to E. Jennings · King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., corresp. with Sir B. H. Liddell Hart


Likenesses  

L. Gowing, oils, 1944, NPG [see illus.] · photograph, repro. in The Times · photograph, repro. in Daily Telegraph · photograph, repro. in PBA (1998), 520

Wealth at death  

£1,037,545: probate, 8 May 1997, CGPLA Eng. & Wales