Written by University of Exeter alumnus David Bates (BA History 1966; PhD 1970)
2015 marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of The Feudal Kingdom of England, Exeter Historian Frank Barlow’s influential account of the Anglo-Norman world, a text which has been instrumental in the study of the subject ever since. Frank Barlow (1911-2009) is among the most distinguished of the academics who have worked for the University of Exeter and its previous incarnation, the University College of the South West of England. The recipient of many honours, his recent inclusion in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography elevates him to the status of being one of the men and women identified as having made an outstanding contribution to British national life over the last two millennia.
Professor Frank Barlow at his desk. Photograph courtesy of Marjorie Bowen and Bob Higham.
First appointed at Exeter as Lecturer in History in 1946, while holding the rank of Major after war service, he became Professor of History and Head of the Department of History in 1953, holding both positions until his retirement in 1976. For those who studied History at Exeter in those days, the predominant memory will probably be of Frank striding into the Queen’s Building Lecture Theatre to lecture to the Medieval British History class, often held at 9 o’clock on a Tuesday morning. A tall man, he would arrive in the Lecture Theatre standing bolt upright, exuding seriousness of purpose, and always wearing a gown. Spell-bindingly brilliant and on those Tuesdays a magnificent antidote to residual sleepiness, the lectures would be laced with anecdotes that illuminated the distant past through the use of modern analogies and jokes at the expensive of the academic stars of his day. Each one of these would be accompanied by an infectious high-pitched laugh.
Probably less apparent to those who studied History as undergraduates was that Frank was an extremely productive and highly original historian. That his text-book, The Feudal Kingdom of England, first published in 1955, is still in print may well constitute some kind of record. Its incisiveness and its clear exposition of complex themes have inspired many towards the study of the Middle Ages. His three biographies of Edward the Confessor (1970), William Rufus (1983), and Archbishop Thomas Becket (1986), also all still in print, have dominated interpretation of their subjects ever since. There is surely a remarkable irony in the fact that Frank was writing royal biographies during the supposedly revolutionary 1960s and 1970s. A first impression might be that this was old-fashioned, but in fact he was doing it in a way that now seems very modern and far ahead of its time. His capacity to explore personality and contextualise a life places his books in the forefront of the genre. Also a magnificent editor of difficult Latin texts, he continued to publish outstandingly important work into his nineties. He was a dedicated servant of the University of Exeter, serving as Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Public Orator. He also continued to be active nationally as a Fellow of the British Academy and regionally in the Devonshire Association in his nineties. The continued and present high standing nationally and internationally of Exeter’s History Department owes a huge amount to his skilful use of the opportunities for expansion presented by the post-Robbins expansion of universities in the 1960s and early 1970s.
The recent deposit of Frank Barlow’s papers in the University Archives makes accessible to the wider world not only the record of the career of an outstanding scholar and academic, but also a remarkable witness to the life of the University during a very important period.
Those who wish to know more about Frank Barlow should consult, David Bates, ‘Frank Barlow (1911-2009)’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 172 (2011), 3-24.