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Nicholl, Donald (1923–1997), historian and theologian, was born in Claremount, Halifax, Yorkshire, on 23 July 1923, the son of William Nicholl (1898–1979), a brass finisher, and his wife, Mary Ann Scott (1904–1981). They had been married in the Anglican church of Claremount the previous Christmas day and it was a continuing source of joy to know that he had already been present on that occasion, two months old in his mother's womb. The family was extremely poor: Nicholl's childhood experience was one of a warm, close-knit, working-class community on the one hand, and of a burgeoning sense of personal ability on the other. In school he proved outstanding, excelling in every academic subject as well as in sport. In due course he rose, too, to be 6 feet 6 inches tall. When his teachers decided that he should specialize in history, he won a Brackenbury scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, as well as a state scholarship. By then the war was on, but he went up to Oxford for a year before joining the army.

Nicholl's experience of personal tuition as a freshman for two terms in political philosophy by the master of Balliol, A. D. Lindsay, was breathtaking; no less formative was a term of tutorials in medieval history with Maurice Powicke, regius professor of history, a remarkable privilege. In the army Nicholl served in the ranks, first in the infantry and then in intelligence, mostly in Asia. His time in India deeply affected him, strengthening an already existing resolve to become a Catholic. In India, as later on visits to Germany and France, he discovered in Catholicism a satisfyingly international spiritual community. After returning to Oxford in 1946 he was received into the Catholic church at Blackfriars. Numerous Dominicans were ever after among his closest friends. At the same time his medieval tutor, Richard Southern, had a profound influence upon him and became another lifelong friend. On 26 July 1947 Nicholl married Dorothy Tordoff (b. 1923), whom he had known from schooldays. She provided the domestic stability and affectionate companionship he greatly needed to set against the life of a somewhat impractical and ascetic teacher. They had five children.

In January 1948 Nicholl began teaching at Edinburgh University as assistant to Professor Richard Pares. In 1953 he moved to Keele, where he was promoted to a professorship in 1972. Two years later, however, he became professor of both religious studies and history at the Santa Cruz campus of the University of California. For three years he was also chairman of the religious studies department. In 1980 he and his wife returned to Britain.

Nicholl's intellectual odyssey was more complex than this suggests. While he began academic life as a medieval historian, he was at the time more preoccupied with modern philosophy, to which he produced a highly stimulating guide, Recent Thought in Focus (1952). Only at Keele did his heart really return to medieval history. After publishing an English translation of Dante's Monarchy for student use, he became immersed in his one major historical study, a life of Archbishop Thurstan of York, something which grew almost naturally out of his love for Yorkshire and its greatest saint, Ailred of Rievaulx, Thurstan's contemporary. At the same time Nicholl taught himself medieval Welsh and medieval Irish, believing it essential for a historian of medieval Britain. Yet while he greatly loved Celtic literature, he wrote almost nothing in this area.

After the publication of Thurstan (1964), Nicholl turned overnight to modern history, having decided that he could not spend his life becoming an ever more learned medievalist. Instead he learned Russian and specialized in the field of Russian religious and intellectual history, delighting particularly in Seraphim of Sarov, Nikolay Fyodorov, and Dostoyevsky. At Santa Cruz his concerns turned increasingly to the great eastern religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, but nothing pleased him more than his course on Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, open to anyone in the ‘penny university’ at the Café Pergolesi. Nicholl was a magnetic lecturer, at heart more teacher than scholar. He published remarkably little but towards the end of his Californian years, urged by John Todd, he wrote his best-selling Holiness (1981).

Soon after returning to Europe, Nicholl was appointed rector of the Ecumenical Institute for Advanced Theological Studies at Tantur, near Jerusalem, and his four years there proved intensely demanding, a life he later described in The Testing of Hearts (1989 and 1998), reflecting on the round of events both inside the institute and in the relations between Jews and Palestinians. Subsequently, in nominal retirement at Betley, near Keele, he became a senior research fellow in the multi-faith centre at Selly Oak and a leader of spiritual retreats. At the same time he worked on a study entitled Triumphs of the Spirit in Russia (1997), a culmination of years of reflective scholarship. He died at his home, Rostherne, Common Lane, Betley, Staffordshire, on 3 May 1997, just as it was published, after struggling serenely against the advance of cancer. He was buried in Keele churchyard on 9 May 1997. The Beatitude of Truth (1997), a collection of papers selected by him, appeared posthumously. These two, with Holiness and The Testing of Hearts, he called his quartet, containing the spiritual legacy that he hoped would endure.

Nicholl always remained at heart a Yorkshireman, but his numerous intense friendships were worldwide. Broadly of the left but never a party man, he contributed about a hundred articles to The Tablet, commenting on current affairs in a way that was at once personal, sharply perceptive, and profoundly compassionate. As he matured intellectually and spiritually, his loyalty to the Catholicism he had fervently embraced in youth grew more critical but did not diminish, yet as he developed from academic historian to spiritual teacher his sense of affinity with all the world's great religions grew ever deeper.

Adrian Hastings

Sources  

D. Nicholl, The testing of hearts, 2nd edn (1998) · D. Nicholl, The beatitude of truth, ed. A. Hastings (1997) · D. Nicholl, ‘Gratitude’, unfinished autobiography, MS, priv. coll. [Dorothy Nicholl, widow] · personal knowledge (2004) · private information (2004) [Dorothy Nicholl, widow]

Archives  

priv. coll., MSS