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Southern, Sir Richard William (1912–2001), historian, was born on 8 February 1912 at 39 Bishop's Road, Newcastle upon Tyne, the second of the four children of Matthew Henry Southern, timber merchant, of Newcastle upon Tyne, and his wife, Elizabeth Eleanor (née Sharp). In 1921 Southern followed his elder brother Harry to the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle. There his interest in history was fired by the inspiring teaching of R. F. I. Bunn (who subsequently became a lifelong friend, and to whose memory Southern dedicated his penultimate book, published in 1995, seventy years after the two first met). From the Royal Grammar School Southern went in 1929 to Balliol College, Oxford, with a domus exhibition to read modern history.

Early years at Oxford

At Balliol the influence of another inspiring teacher, Vivian Galbraith (‘the most energising historian I have ever known’; Murray, 418), fastened Southern's historical interest in the medieval period. It was Galbraith who, in 1930, suggested to him that he might in the vacation attempt a study of the charters of Ranulf Flambard, bishop of Durham in 1099–1128. Just after Southern had graduated with a first in 1932, the essay that grew out of this study, written up to article length, won him (at the astonishingly early age of twenty) the Royal Historical Society's Alexander prize (published in the society's Transactions, 4th ser., 16, 1933).

In 1932 Southern was not yet set on a career as a historian. The depression, and the visible problems of unemployment and poverty that he saw at home on Tyneside, had brought home to him sharply the relevance of politics and economics to contemporary social problems, and his first plan, after history finals, was to read for a second BA, in philosophy, politics, and economics. He had, however, already decided to abandon that course, which he was not finding satisfying, when in February 1933 he was offered and accepted a junior research fellowship at Exeter College, Oxford, which brought him back to medieval history.

The four years at Exeter that followed were significant for Southern. The fellowship provided him with the opportunity and the means to spend time studying abroad, in Paris, where he attended the seminars of the two great French medievalists, F. Lot and L. Halphen, and more briefly in Munich. At Oxford he became prominent in the scholarly ‘medieval group’ that the regius professor, F. M. Powicke, had gathered in his efforts to promote a more professional attitude to historical research. It was in this time, moreover, and under these various influences, that Southern's lifelong interest in St Anselm and his writings was first kindled.

In 1937 Southern was elected to succeed Galbraith at Balliol as fellow and tutor in medieval history. Another significant event of the same year was more personal. In his teens Southern had consciously rejected the religious beliefs in which he had been brought up (his parents were staunch Anglicans); now he returned to Christianity with a fresh and profound conviction. The erosion of his scepticism was no doubt a gradual process, but he himself pinpointed a particular turning point, a vivid experience in March 1937 in St Benet's Church in Cambridge, which he had entered (he thought) from aesthetic, not from religious motives. ‘In that instant I was a Christian’, he wrote later (Murray, 426). From this time forward his religious faith became integral to his living and his outlook, and to his historical vision.

Southern had been a tutor at Balliol for a bare two years when war broke out in 1939. In mid-1940 he enlisted as a private soldier in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire light infantry, and in 1941 he was commissioned in the Durham light infantry. In 1942 the infantry battalion that he joined was reorganized as an armoured regiment, and he trained as a tank commander. In 1943 he was transferred to the political intelligence department of the Foreign Office and in 1944 he was promoted major. In this posting he met Sheila Constance Margaret Crichton-Miller (née Cobley; b. 1916/17), widow of an RAF hero, Squadron Leader C. Crichton-Miller, and on 31 May 1944 they married. This was the beginning of a supremely happy partnership, which brought them two sons (in 1945 and 1947), Andrew and Peter.

The Making of the Middle Ages

The war over, Southern in 1945 returned to Oxford and to Balliol. He rapidly became known as an illuminating lecturer with a highly individual style of presentation, and as an inspirational college tutor. In 1948–9 he served as the university's junior proctor. This busy round was then interrupted by ill health: he was diagnosed as suffering from tuberculosis, and in October 1949 he had to take leave of absence from Balliol. Most of 1950 was spent in hospital, first in Oxford and then at the King Edward VII Sanatorium, Midhurst. It was the enforced leisure of his long convalescence that gave him the time and opportunity to draft his first book, The Making of the Middle Ages. Published in 1953, its reception immediately established Southern's place in the foremost rank among medieval scholars.

The book focuses on the period 972–1204, the crucial age as Southern saw it in the formation of high medieval civilization. Its theme is the interrelation between movements of thought in Christian Europe, as it emerged from the confusions of the age of invasions, and their developing social and economic context; a distinguishing feature is the sure and original insight with which its author succeeds in relating intellectual and artistic developments to their context in the life of society at large. A particular stress is laid upon logical study as the key instrument of orderly thinking in the world of the schools, and also, for the men who mastered it, as a means of social advancement. The examples that illustrate Southern's highly individual and original perceptions draw on an astonishing breadth of reading in the primary sources, and reveal a penetrating and sensitive insight in the interpretation of human experiences and emotions. The Making of the Middle Ages became overnight a best-seller, and has remained the best-known and most widely read of Southern's books (it has been translated into twenty-seven languages).

Chichele professor and president of St John's

In 1960 Southern was elected a fellow of the British Academy, and in the following year he left Balliol for All Souls on his election to the Chichele professorship of modern history (which had become in effect, though not formally, Oxford's chair of medieval history). As professor he was tirelessly energetic in building up the strength and profile of research in medieval studies, and in attending to the cares of graduate students. On the faculty board he became the guiding force behind a change of far-reaching significance in the undergraduate history syllabus. Both as student and as tutor Southern had always been uncomfortable with the traditionally obligatory study of British constitutional history and with the institutional bias that this gave to the course. Now an option alternative to it was introduced, defined as ‘a theme in general history (to be studied in depth)’. The medieval ‘thematic’ option that Southern was instrumental in designing, on the crusades, took on immediately with students. The long-term effect of the reform, as options multiplied, was enormous, dramatically broadening the scope of the syllabus, and generating the flexibility essential to taking account of new historiographical perspectives.

Southern's years in the Chichele chair were distinguished by high scholarly achievement. 1962 saw the publication of his edition of Eadmer's Life of St Anselm, and in 1963 there appeared his major study, St Anselm and his Biographer. The fruit of more than twenty-five years' work, it approaches the life and intellectual achievement of one of the greatest of medieval theologians and philosophers, with an originality typical of the author, through a perspective defined (inter alia) by the monastic community at Canterbury, and by the household whose members—most notably Eadmer—recorded his sayings and remembered him as a ‘father of monks’. Other writings of this same period bear testimony to Southern's extraordinary range and versatility as a historian. His 1962 Raleigh lecture on Henry I (Proceedings of the British Academy, 48) has proved seminal as a study of the workings of patronage as a technique in Anglo-Norman royal government. That same year saw the appearance of his Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages (based on lectures given at Harvard). His BBC lectures Medieval Humanism (1965) were published in 1970 in his Medieval Humanism and Other Studies, which also includes his two remarkable essays on England, Englishmen, and Europe in the twelfth century. In the same year appeared Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages, the second volume in the Pelican History of the Church series; a book with a wider chronological range than any of Southern's other works, it covers with a characteristically sure touch the fortunes of churchmen and ecclesiastical institutions over the whole period from c.600 to c.1500.

Western Society and the Church was already in the publisher's hands when Southern left All Souls in September 1969, to succeed J. D. Mabbott as president of St John's College, Oxford. The twelve years of Southern's presidency were important for St John's. They witnessed a major advance in the college's academic standing, which from the start he had made his first priority. They saw the completion of the new Sir Thomas White building, planned under his predecessor, which enabled the college to house all its undergraduates over three years. He prepared the way for and oversaw the admission of women (1979) to St John's. Southern took a vivid interest in all college activities, in particular in the chapel and its services, and was an eloquent speaker on college occasions. In his relations with fellows, undergraduates, and staff he displayed notably that gift for friendship that he shared with his hero, St Anselm. The style of his leadership and of his management of college business has been nicely summed up as ‘a blend of saintliness and steel’ (The Times, 8 Feb 2001).

During his last years at St John's Southern suffered from progressive deafness; after his retirement in 1981 it gradually became total. He faced this affliction with dauntless will and courage. He and his wife welcomed the friends, and the scholars seeking advice, who came to their house in St John Street with the same warmth that they had always shown. Vigorous exchange was maintained; visitors wrote their part on slips of paper and Southern replied by word of mouth. The wit and charm of his conversation remained undimmed, though the flow was inevitably somewhat checked. Until well into his eighties he continued fearlessly to accept invitations to deliver public lectures.

Last writings

The calls of college business during the St John's years had not checked the flow of Southern's scholarly work. They saw the publication of important papers on ‘Dante and Islam’ (Relations between East and West in the Middle Ages, ed. D. Baker, Edinburgh, 1973) and on ‘Platonism, scholastic method and the school of Chartres’ (Stenton lecture, University of Reading, 1978). As president of the Royal Historical Society, 1968–72, he delivered four important addresses on ‘Aspects of the European tradition of historical writing’ (Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th ser., 20–23). These last were republished in 2004, in a volume of selected papers edited by R. J. Bartlett.

In retirement Southern threw himself into research and writing with striking energy. His Robert Grosseteste: the Growth of an English Mind in Medieval Europe was completed, and appeared in 1986 (a second edition, with an extended preface, was published in 1992). Like all Southern's finest works, the book is focused on the human qualities and human environment of its subject. Grosseteste's life provided him with a particularly congenial subject, the story of an Englishman of obscure origin who rose to be bishop of Lincoln, and whose intellectual development as a powerful and original thinker had been shaped in an environment quite unlike that of most thirteenth-century scholar-churchmen. In 1990 he followed this with a second, new, and newly illuminating study of St Anselm, St Anselm: a Portrait in a Landscape. His last and very ambitious project was planned as a trilogy under the title Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe. It was conceived as a summation of his lifelong preoccupation with the learning of the twelfth century, with its schools, its scholars, and the nascent universities, and of his vision of their significance. The story of how the schoolmen, using as tools for argument and communication what they were learning from antique writing, found in the disciplined exercise of reason the way to grapple with the problems posed for Christian faith by the inconsistencies of scripture, represented, in Southern's perception, a crucial passage in the development of the European mind. The first volume of the trilogy (The Foundations) was published in 1995; the devoted help of Benedicta Ward and Lesley Smith made sure that the second volume (The Heroic Age) got to press, and it appeared in the new year of 2001, just weeks before Southern's death. Over the previous year it had become clear that his strength was ebbing, and he died peacefully at home on 6 February 2001. He was survived by his wife and their two sons. Progress on the third volume in the trilogy was then still at too early a stage to turn into a book, and the planned summa in consequence remains tantalizingly incomplete.


As a tutor and as a supervisor of graduate students Southern trained many future scholars, and influenced many more, but he did not found an interpretive school, and never sought to. To do so would have been incompatible with the importance that he attached to artistry in historical writing, and to understanding the individual in context. ‘The first duty of the historian’ he wrote ‘is to produce works of art … works that are emotionally and intellectually satisfying … that portray people whose actions are intelligible within the framework of their circumstances and character’ (Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th ser., 20, 175). He was consistently more concerned with understanding people who lived in the past than with explanation in terms of causes and trends. As he himself put it, ‘the chief reason (as it seems to me) why we study the thoughts of the past is to understand the people who wrote, and those for whom they wrote’ (Robert Grosseteste, 2nd edn, 1992, lxv), and attention to personality and care in its portrayal were distinctive features of his studies of the medieval thinkers who engaged so much of his attention. Understanding the man was for him integral to understanding his speculations and their significance. As a professional historian he displayed a particular expertise in textual scholarship (witness his paper on the Canterbury forgeries, English Historical Review, 73; and his comments on the text of Glanvill and on John of Salisbury's letters, ibid., 65 and 72); even here, he was constantly striving to penetrate beyond the letter of the text, to the thoughts and emotions of author or scribe that it might reveal. The literary gifts and instinct that he displayed in his endeavour to live up to his own definition of the historian's duty make his academic writings impressively accessible and help to account for their powerful influence. His combination of deep learning and psychological sensitivity with high artistry as a writer underpinned his widespread reputation as the most original and distinguished British medieval scholar of his generation.

Southern was knighted in 1974. He was the recipient of numerous honorary degrees from universities in Britain and the USA, and was an honorary fellow of Balliol, Exeter, and St John's colleges in Oxford and of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. In 1987 he was awarded the Fondazione Internazionale Balzan's prize for medieval history (with typical generosity he devoted the prize money to establishing at St Hilda's College, Oxford, a research fellowship in medieval studies dedicated to the memory of his tutor, V. H. Galbraith).

Southern was a slender, handsome man, with very alert blue eyes. Among his family and friends and by his pupils he was always known as Dick. In his personality, grace of manner and a playful, almost wayward wit were foils to acute mental power and a relentless integrity.

M. H. Keen


The Times (8 Feb 2001) · The Guardian (8 Feb 2001) · Daily Telegraph (9 Feb 2001) · The Independent (9 Feb 2001) · C. Brooke, ‘Richard Southern’, Royal Historical Society Newsletter (spring 2001) · A. Murray, ‘Richard William Southern, 1912–2001’, PBA, 120 (2003), 413–42 · R. J. Bartlett, introduction, in History and historians: selected papers of R. W. Southern, ed. R. J. Bartlett (2004) · Balliol Oxf., archives, file on R. W. Southern · R. Southern and M. Foot, ‘Why I believe’, Rediffusion Television debate, 1967 [pubd as ‘Looking at history’, Dialogue with doubt, ed. G. Moir (1967), 9–28] · WW (2001) · personal knowledge (2005) · private information (2005) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.


priv. coll. |  Bodl. Oxf., letters to R. W. Hunt · DWL, letters to G. Nuttall


M. V. Foreman, oils, exh. RA 1979, St John's College, Oxford · N. Hepple, oils; Christie's, 3 July 2003, lot 403 · photograph, repro. in The Times · photograph, repro. in The Independent · photograph, Oxford Mail and Times; repro. in Murray, ‘Richard William Southern, 1912–2001’, facing p. 413 · photograph, repro. in Daily Telegraph

Wealth at death  

£221,188: probate, 13 March 2002, CGPLA Eng. & Wales