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  Lawrence Stone (1919–1999), by unknown photographer Lawrence Stone (1919–1999), by unknown photographer
Stone, Lawrence (1919–1999), historian, was born on 4 December 1919 at Epsom, Surrey, the only child of Lawrence Frederick Stone (1888–c.1963), commercial artist, and his wife, Mabel Julie Annie, née Read (1891–1978). His father left home while Stone was a schoolboy. Stone apparently never saw him again or even heard about him until a hitherto unsuspected half-sister told him of his father's death about 1963. Stone attended Downsend preparatory school in Leatherhead from 1928, then Charterhouse School (1933–8), where he studied classics unwillingly. He was rescued by the newly appointed headmaster, Robert Birley, who coached him for a history scholarship at Oxford, duly awarded at Christ Church. Stone then spent some six months in Paris, attending lectures at the Sorbonne. He went up to Christ Church in October 1938. He was ‘sent out’ to be taught his ‘special subject’ (the crusades) to John Prestwich of Queen's College. Prestwich, a man with a passion for accuracy who published little, in many respects Stone's antithesis as a historian, became a great influence; ‘the experience taught me the importance of sheer factual information … in the cut-throat struggle for survival in the life of learning. I discovered that knowledge is power’ (‘Lawrence Stone’, 578). He served as lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve from 1940 to 1945 in destroyers in both the Atlantic and Pacific theatres. On 24 July 1943 he married Jeanne Cecilia Fawtier (1920–2001), formerly exhibitioner of Somerville College, daughter of the French medievalist Robert Fawtier and his wife, Ethel (née Jones), one-time lecturer in French at Manchester University. In 1944 Stone published in the journal History an article on the shabby treatment of English sailors after the Armada campaign. This was written at sea from printed sources supplied by the London Library, and reflects the author's sense of the inadequate support by home-based bureaucrats and politicians.

In 1945 Stone resumed his studies at Christ Church. He had already established high-level academic contacts unusual in a young man who was still an undergraduate. A schoolboy hobby had led to employment in the summers of 1938 and 1939 on the photographic team for Thomas Kendrick's survey of Anglo-Saxon sculpture. During the war he introduced himself to R. H. Tawney, the leading social historian of Tudor and Stuart England, and discussed future research projects. His impatience to get on with ‘real’ history earned him a reputation for arrogance during his post-war undergraduate year; on one occasion he stormed out of a revision class conducted by a newly appointed Christ Church tutor, Hugh Trevor-Roper. He took a first in history schools in 1946 and was immediately elected by the university to the Bryce research studentship, beginning his studies of politics, finance, and corruption in the Elizabethan state without, however, registering for a graduate degree. In 1947 he became a lecturer at University College, Oxford, moving on to a tenured position as fellow and tutor at Wadham College in 1950. His first book, produced in 1955, was Sculpture in Britain: the Middle Ages, in the Pelican History of Art series—an extraordinary diversion from his main field, the more so in that it had been commissioned in 1946 by a sceptical Nikolaus Pevsner on Kendrick's recommendation while Stone was still an undergraduate. There followed in 1956 An Elizabethan: Sir Horatio Palavicino, a study of an Italian profitably involved in English finance and diplomacy. Stone also contributed a series of articles to the Economic History Review, one of which argued that the Elizabethan aristocracy were on the verge of financial ruin (Economic History Review, 18, 1948, 1–53). This provoked an attack by Trevor-Roper, who demonstrated that Stone had failed to understand the technicalities of the documents involved (to which Trevor-Roper had initially drawn his attention) and had thereby massively exaggerated the degree of indebtedness. Stone's general argument for an aristocracy in financial difficulties complemented Tawney's for an economic and political rise of the landed gentry in the century before the civil war. The ensuing ‘gentry controversy’ in which Trevor-Roper attacked both Tawney and Stone attracted a good deal of attention among the general reading public as a prime example of academic vituperation. Tawney remarked that ‘an erring colleague is not an Amalakite to be smitten hip and thigh’ (Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 7, 1954–5, 97). Trevor-Roper, it was thought, had fatally damaged Stone's scholarly credentials.

For the next few years Stone worked on his vindication, the massive Crisis of the Aristocracy (1965). This restated Stone's economic thesis in much more qualified form, buttressed by massive statistics. More important, Crisis was a pioneering attempt to import into England the French concept of histoire totale, as Stone considered in turn the aristocracy's political power and its attitudes to violence, education, religion, marriage, and family, concluding in a generalized ‘crisis of confidence’. During the same period Stone was part of a group of young historians who prised the infant journal Past and Present loose from its Marxist origins to become the flagship in Britain of the new social history. Meanwhile Stone was becoming increasingly restive at what he saw as the stultifying inflexibility of the Oxford history syllabus, a discontent further fuelled by a period at the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton in 1960–61. Shortly afterwards he was offered the chance to create his own history school at the new University of York by Lord James of Rusholme, the vice-chancellor-designate, only to have the offer overruled by a committee which objected to Lord James's failure to consult. The offer of the Dodge professorship at Princeton in 1963 was therefore irresistible.

Stone became a major figure in the American historical world. He used a munificent donation to the Princeton history department to establish the Shelby Cullom Davis Center, of which he became the first director in 1968. A ‘theme’ was chosen to be studied over a period of years: ‘history of the family’, ‘war and society’, ‘charity and welfare’. Specialists across a range of periods and geographical areas were offered visiting fellowships. Papers were discussed at weekly sessions lasting a whole morning. Stone normally chaired, summing up incisively, sometimes in the process subverting the paper. His directness in debate, a legacy of Oxford critical techniques, left many scars. The Davis Center was, however, a major influence in promoting comparative and inter-disciplinary historical studies, and the Princeton history department acquired a reputation as the most innovative in North America.

In 1972 Stone published the brief The Causes of the English Revolution, 1529–1642, a book which incurred a good deal of mockery for its use of sociological jargon but which presents a praiseworthy attempt to differentiate the layers of causation in complex events. In 1977 he published The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500–1800. Although there had been a number of specialist monographs, Stone's was the first academic work to tackle a whole range of issues (sexuality, marriage, child-rearing) over a long period. It originated in a period of hospitalization in 1973. According to his own account, Stone ‘instructed’ his wife ‘to remove from the university library shelves all English collections of family letters [etc.] … and to bring them to my bedside, along with a substantial supply of paper’ (‘Lawrence Stone’, 590). There was a grand-sweep argument: the evolution from the ‘Open Lineage Family’ (capitalization Stone's), inherited from the middle ages, through the ‘Restricted Patriarchal Nuclear Family’ (fl. c.1580–1630), to the ‘Closed Domesticated Nuclear Family’, the result of replacing ‘Distance, Deference, and Patriarchy’ with ‘Affective Individualism’. In spite of these daunting categorizations and some nods towards social science methodology, the book is, thanks to its copious use of anecdotal case studies from aristocratic society, highly readable. It was criticized for hasty generalization, trying too hard to fit human reality into predetermined categories, and, above all, for assuming that the mores of the aristocracy tended to trickle down to the middle and lower classes. If Crisis was Stone's best book, Family was his most influential, especially in stimulating productive if furious disagreement.

In contrast, An Open Élite? England, 1540–1800 (1984), with Jeanne Fawtier Stone, was a revisionist work which applied statistics to demonstrate that the English governing class was not as open to penetration by the socially mobile as was commonly thought. Open Élite had in fact been under way before Stone's hospitalization in 1973, and represents the last gasp of the old Stone, convinced, against his nature, that statistics were the key to mapping social change. In 1979 he astonished readers of Past and Present with an article, ‘The revival of narrative’ (reprinted in The Past and the Present Revisited, 1987), which sharply attacked the dehumanization implicit in much quantitative or ‘theoretical’ history, advocating instead the accumulation of masses of small-scale anecdotal material. This method bore fruit in a trilogy on divorce among the upper classes, copiously and sensationally illustrated from the evidence given in church courts (Road to Divorce: England, 1530–1987, 1990; Uncertain Unions, 1660–1753, 1992; Broken Lives, 1660–1857, 1993). Interspersed with this work was a steady stream of serious journalism, analysing and frequently finding wanting current historical scholarship (much of it reprinted in The Past and the Present Revisited).

‘Tall, thin, rangy, he loped about Wadham like a long-legged lurcher’ (Julian Mitchell, in ‘Lawrence Stone’, 4). At Princeton, Stone was dubbed Lorenzo il Magnifico by his graduate students. Something of a dandy in his younger days, often described as Byronic in appearance, he was impatient, audacious, indeed hyperactive; he played a ferocious game of tennis, and drove a high-powered sports car. It is no surprise that he suffered heart attacks in 1973 and 1995. Not all his work was designed to attract attention; he contributed articles on individual church monuments to county journals and patiently catalogued the archives at Wadham. He was accused, absurdly, in American right-wing circles of being responsible for a resurgence of Marxism in the historical profession in the 1980s. In truth Stone's attitude to any methodology was brutally pragmatic: ‘I do not think that there is anything wicked in just going into a different field with a pickaxe and digging out the gold and getting out fast’ (quoted by Sir John Elliott in his memorial address, 4 Dec 1999). Discourse, academic or otherwise, tended towards combat. But he was kind to the scholars he took under his wing, notably to female graduate students, who were scarcely tolerated at Princeton at the time of his arrival. His writing was vivid, inclined to hyperbole and to factual error. Except for reviews Stone stuck to British, indeed English, history; but managed to write seriously on every century from the fifth to the twentieth. His prime legacy was his capacity to provoke colleagues and students by challenging received opinion, not least the latest fashionable opinion. Jeanne Stone, as well as bringing up their two children, devoted her life to supporting him—from ‘carrying heavy ladders and hot lamps’ for the photographs in Sculpture in Britain (preface) to, in the American years, becoming his indispensable collaborator. Their capacity for serious, indeed at times raucous, public disagreement belied what seems to have been a rock-solid marriage, ironic perhaps in the light of their work on marital breakdown, but perhaps explicable in part as a reaction to Stone's boyhood experience. They kept their house in Oxford, but both took American citizenship, and their children, Elizabeth and Robert, made their careers in America. The story circulated that Stone initially failed his citizenship examination having neglected to do his homework on the constitution. He retired from the Dodge chair and the Shelby Davis directorship in 1990, but remained active about the history department. Among a string of academic honours he especially appreciated his honorary fellowship at Wadham (1983) and his DLitt at Oxford (1994) and at Princeton (1995). From 1998 he complained of failing powers, but died suddenly, from cardiac arrest, on 16 June 1999 in Princeton, where his remains were cremated. Jeanne Stone died in 2001.

C. S. L. Davies


‘Lawrence Stone—as seen by himself’, The first modern society: essays in English history in honour of Lawrence Stone, ed. A. L. Beier, D. Cannadine, and J. M. Rosenheim (1989), epilogue · The Guardian (5 July 1999) · Daily Telegraph (22 June 1999) · The Independent (26 June 1999) · The Times (21 June 1999) · TLS (6 Aug 1999) · TLS (13 Aug 1999) · J. Elliott, memorial address (1999) · A. F. Thompson, Wadham Gazette, new ser., 4/3 (2000), 82–4 · L. Stone, ‘A life of learning’, American Council of Learned Societies Newsletter, 36 (1985), 3–32 · D. Cannadine, ‘Historians in the “liberal hour”: Lawrence Stone and J. H. Plumb re-visited’, Historical Research, 75 (2002), 316–54 · d. cert. [mother] · private information (2004) [Jeanne Stone, widow; R. Darnton; J. Elliott] · b. cert.


Princeton University, New Jersey |  King's AC Cam., corresp. with John Saltmarsh  



videotape interview by Keith Wrightson for London Univ. Institute of Historical Research, 1988


photograph, repro. in ‘Lawrence Stone—as seen by himself’ · photograph, repro. in The Guardian · photograph, repro. in Daily Telegraph · photograph, repro. in The Independent · photograph, News International Syndication, London [see illus.]