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Medlicott, William Norton (1900–1987), historian, was born at 3 Quarry Road, Wandsworth, London, on 11 May 1900, the eldest son of William Norton Medlicott (d. 1923), a religious journalist and editor of the Church Family Newspaper (1905–11), and his wife, Margaret Louise McMillan. He was educated at Haberdashers' Aske's School, Hatcham, and at University College, London, where he took a first-class degree in history and graduated PhD working under Professor R. W. Seton-Watson, who was then among the leading historians of British nineteenth-century foreign policy. His first post was as lecturer at University College, Swansea (1926–45). On 18 July 1936 he married a Swansea colleague, Dr Dorothy Kathleen Coveney (1904/5–1979), a historian and palaeographer, daughter of James Richard Coveney, a printer's reader. During the Second World War he served for two years as a principal in the Board of Trade before being appointed official historian of the Ministry of Economic Warfare (1942–58). In 1946 he was appointed to the chair of history at the University College of the South-West.

In 1953 Medlicott succeeded Sir Charles Webster as the second occupant of the Sir Daniel Stevenson chair of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He held the chair until his retirement in 1967.

Medlicott's first published work was on Bismarck's foreign policy and British relations with Bismarckian Germany. The Congress of Berlin and after (1938), Bismarck, Gladstone and the Concert of Europe (1950), and his later pamphlet Bismarck and Modern Germany (1965) put him squarely in the mainstream of British historiography of foreign policy, in the tradition created by G. P. Gooch, Harold Temperley, Sir Charles Webster, and others. His books were well received in America, France, and, once Nazism had died, in Germany and Italy. His work was distinguished by what he said and the scholarship which underlay it, rather than by his manner. He revealed himself as concerned to understand rather than to condemn, reserving for private conversation among his colleagues and students his often sulphurous comments on those whose policies he studied. His defence of British foreign policy in the inter-war years, British Foreign Policy since Versailles (1940), against both the right-wing Churchillians such as Sir Lewis Namier and the para-popular frontists of the left for whom any attempt to reach an accommodation with Hitler was ideological treason, revealed that he was not afraid to apply his historical principles to contemporary controversy. But it was his two-volume history of British economic warfare (1952, 1959), completed as part of the Cabinet Office series of official histories presided over by Sir Keith Hancock, which was to prove his outstanding memorial; although his return to his pre-war argument in a series of pamphlets in the 1960s, The Coming of War in 1939 (1963), Britain and Germany: the Search for an Agreement, 1930–1937 (1969), and in the second edition of his 1940 work (1968), in which he depicted the dilemmas of Britain's cabinets faced with military threats from Germany in Europe, Italy in the Mediterranean and Middle East, and Japan in the Pacific, would now command widespread acceptance. If historians of British foreign policy passed from vilifying the characters of MacDonald, Baldwin, and Neville Chamberlain to analysing the disparity between their obligations, the unreal expectations both of their allies and of their enemies, and the obvious gap between their military and financial commitments and the resources available to meet them, it was Medlicott's quiet influence which had as much to do with this as anything. His final work, Contemporary England, 1914–1964 (1967), enshrined his views.

Medlicott became the leader in Britain of that transformation of the history of foreign policy and of diplomatic history into the discipline of international history (anglice the history of international relations), embodied in the title of his LSE chair. He was a pioneer in the widening of old-style diplomatic history to include issues of trade, strategy, and economic warfare. The first work on the Nazi economic organization of Europe was undertaken under his supervision. From 1965 until the completion of his task in 1977, he served in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as editor of the official publication of Foreign Office documents covering the inter-war years, Documents on British Foreign Policy, 1919–1939 (1969–84), with responsibility for completing Series II, covering the years 1932–8, revealing himself as both efficient and speedy in his task. He can be counted among the great editors of historical documents.

During his period at the LSE Medlicott both created and built up its department of international history until it became one of the leaders in the field internationally with a graduate school, more than 150 of whose students were to fill academic posts worldwide at the time of his retirement. He made sure that its staff included expertise in Japanese foreign policy. His attempt to build up similar expertise in the diplomacy of imperialism in Africa and India failed for lack of any interest among the products of the new universities in those two parts of the world in advancing their knowledge of the contribution made by European diplomacy to their frontiers and political development.

Medlicott suffered all his life (and was sensitive on the point) from not having been a product of the universities of Oxford or Cambridge and from having no links with them. Indeed there were a number of snide comments made in Oxford and Cambridge common rooms at his success in winning appointment to the Stevenson chair against the competition of A. J. P. Taylor and E. H. Carr. He was certainly aided in his appointment by the prejudice of the director of the LSE, Sir Alexander Carr-Saunders, against university figures who wrote regularly for the daily press. It was a prejudice based on the difficulties LSE graduates encountered in obtaining jobs as a result of the public role which its leading professors of politics and economics had played in the 1930s in creating that institution's reputation for being a hotbed of left-wing views. But the committee appointing Medlicott was also influenced by the strong support given him by Sir Llewellyn Woodward, Sir Keith Hancock, and other historians familiar with Medlicott's work as an official historian in the wartime Cabinet Office. In the event his appointment was thoroughly justified. By comparison with his rivals Medlicott was a consummate university politician; he was also an excellent judge of the new generation of post-war historians, and a first-class teacher of graduate and undergraduate students alike, providing they impressed him as serious in their scholarship. He was impeccable in his exercise of scholarship, leading as much by example as by exhortation.

Medlicott compensated for his lack of Oxford and Cambridge connections by tireless work in the Historical Association (which he served successively as secretary and president), on the council of the Royal Institute for International Affairs, the editorial board of the Annual Register, as chairman of the co-ordinating committee for international studies, and as historical adviser to the leading firm of academic publishers of history, Longmans, Green. It was his intervention which prevented the history department of King's College, London, from ridding itself of the lectureship in military history founded with War Office support in 1927, and in transforming it into a chair of war studies. Out of this was to develop the department of war studies now widely recognized as a leading international institution in the field.

Medlicott collaborated with his wife in two works published in 1971, Bismarck and Europe, and The Lion's Tale, the latter an often amusing collection of comments made over the past three centuries by distinguished foreign visitors to England. He died at Kings Ride Nursing Home, 289 Sheen Road, Richmond, Surrey, on 7 October 1987 and was buried in Richmond cemetery.

D. Cameron Watt


The Times (9 Oct 1987) · WWW · K. Bourne and D. C. Watt, Studies in international history in honour of Professor W. N. Medlicott (1967) · personal knowledge (2004) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.


University of Calgary Library, letters to Erich Eyck


photograph, in or before 1967, London School of Economics

Wealth at death  

£263,502: probate, 6 June 1988, CGPLA Eng. & Wales