A tribute to Gerald L. Harriss, FBA

Dr Simon Payling, Senior Fellow of the Commons 1422-1504 section, pays tribute to the influential medieval historian and his own supervisor Gerald L. Harriss FBA, who unfortunately passed away recently…

With the death on All Souls’ day of Gerald Harriss (b.1925), medieval and parliamentary history has lost one of its greatest names. As an undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford, in the late 1940s, he came under the powerful influence of K.B. McFarlane, but, initially at least, he moved away from McFarlane’s principal historical interests. He chose as the subject of his thesis not some noble family or aspect of relations between Crown, nobility and gentry, as might have been expected of a pupil of McFarlane, but opted instead to grapple with the complex financial records of central government. His thesis, ‘The Finances of the Royal Household, 1437-1460’, was completed under the supervision of C.A.J. Armstrong in 1953. This interest in, and mastery of, financial history was to inform much of his later published work, not as a narrow study pursued for the sake of its own complexities but as a means of illuminating wider political and constitutional issues. This is strikingly apparent in his King, Parliament and Public Finance in Medieval England to 1369 (Oxford, 1975). There he describes the emergence, under the financial pressures of the first stage of the Hundred Years’ War, of a system of national taxation based on parliamentary consent and underpinned by the notion of a mutual dependence and obligation between Crown and subjects. Financial considerations of a different sort informed the second of Gerald’s substantial monographs, Cardinal Beaufort: A Study of Lancastrian Ascendancy and Decline (Oxford, 1988). The dependence of the Crown on loans had been a theme of some of Gerald’s early articles; and, as Beaufort’s loans had been an important source of finance for the Lancastrian Kings, his long career had a natural interest for him. That interest was intensified by McFarlane’s earlier engagement with the cardinal. The result is a study that is more than a biography. Not only does it describe Beaufort’s great career with insight and sympathy, but it provides a narrative of English politics and government finance from 1403, when Beaufort first became chancellor, to the cardinal’s death in 1447, that is unsurpassed in its compelling intricacy. Gerald’s third major volume, largely the work of his retirement, was of a different character. In 2005 he published Shaping the Nation: England, 1360-1461 in the New Oxford History of England series. This is a model of clear synthesis which impresses not only in its masterly accounts of the political, financial and parliamentary themes that had long engaged him, but also on its command of the secondary literature on agrarian society, trade and other subjects on which he had never previously written. It will remain the standard text for its period for long years to come.

These three major works are, however, only a part of Gerald’s legacy. He produced a steady stream of articles from 1955 to 2009, when, fittingly, his last piece ‘Richard, duke of York, and the Royal Household’, appeared in a volume in honour of his friend and colleague, the late Maurice Keen. With Maurice he had long taught a special subject at Oxford on Henry V and this resulted in Henry V: The Practice of Kingship (Oxford, 1985), a series of essays, several by Gerald himself, re-evaluating the reign. He also edited ‘John Benet’s Chronicle’ (published by the Royal Historical Society in 1972), a major new source for the mid-fifteenth century, and contributed 16 articles to the New Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. One of these articles was not on a medieval figure but on McFarlane, whom he succeeded at Magdalen in 1967, and this highlights another aspect of Gerald’s historical legacy. Much of the high scholarly reputation enjoyed by his predecessor derives from Gerald’s devotion to his memory. McFarlane published relatively little before his death in 1966, and Gerald did much both to remedy this omission and bring his work before a larger audience. He edited McFarlane’s lectures on Henry IV and V, which appeared in Lancastrian Kings and Lollard Knights (Oxford, 1972), and wrote an influential introduction to his mentor’s published papers in England in the Fifteenth Century (London, 1981). Equally significantly, he collected and edited McFarlane’s letters, published, as Letters to Friends, 1940-1966, by Magdalen in 1997, providing a unique and fascinating insight into McFarlane as scholar and man.

Gerald’s influence was felt not only through this massive body of published work, but also through his doctoral pupils, several of whom made distinguished historical careers of their own (none more so than the late Simon Walker, whose premature death so saddened Gerald). It was no mere happenstance that his doctoral pupils should have flourished so. Gerald was a painstaking supervisor. Rigorous in his own historical method and impatient with any sloppiness of thought or expression, he inculcated these virtues in his pupils. Yet, while insisting on rigour, he also allowed his pupils free rein both in their choice of subject and in their approach. He encouraged but never led. He also recognised that the completion of a thesis was only the first stage in a longer process, and he maintained a close interest in the work of his pupils long after the formal association of supervisor and supervised had ended. His death leaves an irreplaceable gap in the lives of those whose historical careers he made.



One thought on “A tribute to Gerald L. Harriss, FBA

  1. Indeed a sad loss, not only to those whose careers he helped to form but to all with an interest in British History as a whole.

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