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Aylmer, Gerald Edward (1926–2000), historian, was born on 30 April 1926 at Stoke Court, Greete, Shropshire, the only child of Captain Edward Arthur Aylmer (1892–1974), naval officer, and his wife, (Gwladys) Phoebe, née Evans (1891–1968). On his father's side he was descended from a distinguished Anglo-Irish family with strong naval connections, and there were two admirals on his mother's side. He was educated at Beaudesert Park, Gloucestershire, and at Winchester College. After going up briefly to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1944 he entered the Royal Navy for war service. He spent his time there on the lower deck, probably because the service found itself at the end of the war with an unexpected surplus of officers. His naval career was later described by the jazz singer and art critic George Melly, who detected in Aylmer ‘a kind of dogged nobility … an admirable probity’, but also ‘a love of gossip, a delight in alcoholic excess and a shared enthusiasm for many modern authors’ (Melly, 127). Aylmer's own reminiscences, recorded much later on tape, confirm this colourful account.

In 1947 Aylmer returned to Balliol to read modern history. He secured a first in 1950 and, after a year in the USA during which he held a visiting fellowship at Princeton, he was elected to a junior research fellowship at Balliol and started work on a thesis on royal office-holders under Charles I; he received his doctorate in 1955. He was appointed to an assistant lectureship at the University of Manchester in 1954, and a full lectureship in 1957. In this rather conservative university he was regarded by some of his seniors as a trouble-maker. Within the university he campaigned for a greater attention to the needs of students, who were then taught largely by means of lectures, and against the domination of the professorial hierarchy. Outside it, he and his wife, Ursula, née Nixon (b. 1928)—whom he married on 6 August 1955, and with whom he had a son and a daughter—took active parts in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The principal concentration of his formidable energy was, however, upon his thesis. It was later rumoured that this was so large that it had to be delivered in a wheelbarrow and that the faculty of modern history in Oxford changed its regulations as a result to impose a word limit. Certainly the thesis was long, at about 350,000 words, and certainly the faculty imposed a word limit at about this time, though it is not clear whether Aylmer's thesis was the only cause of this. The wheelbarrow story is, however, sadly false. However that may be, the thesis was published as The King's Servants: the Civil Service of Charles I in 1961. The work won immediate praise.

In 1962 Aylmer was appointed head of the department of history in the newly created University of York. Reacting against professorial dominance and giving free rein to his own democratic instincts, he created a department in which every member of the teaching staff had a voice and was involved. He had a talent for selecting young men and women of ability, which made the history department one of the most distinguished and lively in the country. At the same time his devotion to research and writing continued, and in 1973 he published the second volume of what became a trilogy: The State's Servants: the Civil Service of the English Republic, 1649–1660.

In 1978 Aylmer was invited to accept the mastership of St Peter's College, Oxford, and he left York revered and loved by his colleagues. However, his experience at St Peter's was less happy, partly at least because the essential work of fund-raising was not congenial to him. Nevertheless he undertook it, securing endowments for three fellowships and extending the college's buildings. He retired two years early, in 1991, to give himself more time for research and writing. Yet he carried on teaching and supervising students, and he undertook many of the administrative tasks demanded of elder statesmen: he was, for example, president of the Royal Historical Society. Fortunately these posts did not distract him too far from his main task, and the final volume of the trilogy, The Crown's Servants: Government and Civil Service under Charles II, 1660–1685, was handed to the printer three days before he died.

Aylmer's claim to historical eminence rests principally upon that trilogy. In it he described the institutional structure of government over more than half a century and the men (almost all were men) who ran it. Unlike many works of institutional history these volumes were saved from dryness by constant reference to the political and social circumstances of the day and by the presence of hundreds of individuals in their pages. They showed how offices were acquired and how their holders were rewarded; what was the social composition of the civil service in the different periods; what—so far as it can be estimated—was the impact of government upon the general population. Aylmer's work was not confined to the bureaucracy. He wrote two excellent surveys, The Struggle for the Constitution, 1603–1689 (1963) and Rebellion or Revolution? England, 1640–1660 (1986). He edited several books, notably The Levellers in the English Revolution (1975), a collection of texts that appealed to his own radical sympathies. Rather surprisingly for an agnostic he also edited two very substantial and handsome works on English cathedrals: A History of York Minster (1977), with Reginald Cant, and Hereford Cathedral: a History (2000), with John Tiller. He received honorary doctorates from the universities of Exeter and Manchester, both in 1991, and was honoured by a Festschrift edited by John Morrill, Paul Slack, and Daniel Woolf, Public Duty and Private Conscience in Seventeenth-Century England (1993).

Aylmer's height—he was well over 6 feet—and his deep voice reinforced the natural authority of his character. He spoke with his head curiously angled and his eyes almost closed, perhaps reflecting an inner diffidence. His laughter, often at himself, was engaging. He was, above all, a man of principle and integrity. He died at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, on 17 December 2000, and was buried at Llangrove, near Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, on 6 January 2001. He was survived by his wife, Ursula, and their two children.

Penry Williams

Sources  

Daily Telegraph (29 Dec 2000) · The Guardian (29 Dec 2000) · The Guardian (4 Jan 2001) · The Independent (30 Dec 2000) · The Independent (9 Jan 2001) · The Times (10 Jan 2001) · WWW · C. Hill, ‘Gerald Aylmer at Balliol’, 1–8; G. Leff, ‘Gerald Aylmer in Manchester and York’, 9–18; A. Woolrych, ‘Gerald Aylmer as a scholar’, Public duty and private conscience in seventeenth-century England: essays presented to G. E. Aylmer, ed. J. Morrill, P. Slack, and D. Woolf (1993), 19–28 · G. Melly, Rum, bum, and concertina (1977) · personal knowledge (2004) · private information (2004)

Archives  

Bodl. Oxf., historical papers · priv. coll., personal papers


Likenesses  

M. D. Krakschnikoff, pastel drawing, 1929, priv. coll. · H. Mee, acrylic, c.1989, St Peter's College, Oxford · H. Mee, acrylic, priv. coll. · photograph, repro. in Morrill, Slack, and Woolf, Public duty and private conscience, frontispiece · photograph, repro. in Daily Telegraph · photograph, repro. in The Guardian (29 Dec 2000) · photograph, repro. in The Independent (30 Dec 2000) · photograph, repro. in The Times

Wealth at death  

£541,219, gross; £534,728, net: probate, 7 June 2001, CGPLA Eng. & Wales