A Tribute to Professor Robert Palmer

In today’s blog we pay tribute to Professor Robert C. Palmer who’s work has had a large impact on the History of Parliament. Dr Hannes Kleineke, editor of our Commons 1461-1504 project reflects on Professor Palmer’s incredible career.

A photograph of a white man with shoulder length light hair wearing glasses. He is wearing a blue/purple shirt and a patterned tie with the colours of white and purple. There is a pen in his shirt pocket and a bookcase in the background.
Professor Robert C. Palmer. (c) University of Houston.

News has reached us of the death at the age of 76 of Professor Robert C. Palmer of the university of Houston, Texas. A specialist in medieval English legal history, Palmer held the Cullen Chair of History and Law at Houston until his retirement. Born in California, Palmer studied at the universities of Oregon and Iowa, and held a number of posts at American and Canadian universities, before being appointed to his chair at Houston in 1987. Palmer’s published work was often ground-breaking, being based on his detailed work on the medieval English legal records, the extent of which particularly at the start of his career both astonished and impressed his contemporaries. His monographs The County Courts of Medieval England (1982) and English Law in the Age of the Black Death (1993) in particular remain essential reading for any student of later medieval England and its governance. 

While he never had any direct personal association with the History of Parliament, there can have been few scholars who made such an impact on the work of its medieval sections. In the last 25 years of his life, Palmer developed a project website, the Anglo-American Legal Tradition, which seeks to make the manuscript records of the English law courts accessible to scholars around the world in the form of high-quality digital images.

A screenshot of a webpage. The title is: Anglo-American Legal Tradition. Below the title it says: 'Documents from Early Modern England from the National Archives in London digitized and displayed through The O'Quinn Law Library of the University of Houston Law Center by license of the National Archives sponsored by the University of Houston Law Center and by the University of Houston Department of History August 2015: 9,250,000 frames of historical material. Enter Site.
There is an image running down the left handside of the webpage.
Anglo American Legal Tradition homepage. Available here.

This website quickly became an invaluable resource for the staff working on the History’s volumes for 1422-61, allowing them to trawl plea rolls and related documents in far greater numbers than would have been possible had this invariably entailed trips to the National Archives. But it is fair to say that without the site work on the current 1461-1504 volumes would have largely ground to a halt during the recent pandemic, when archival repositories around the world closed their doors to researchers. Even with the archives once again open, the site continues to be extensively used by the History’s staff, and greatly facilitates the medieval section’s work; it has, in fact, become hard to imagine life without it.

Dr Simon Payling, Senior Research Fellow on the 1461-1504 section recalls:

‘I remember, in the early 1990s, flicking through a CP40 [plea roll of the court of common pleas] in the upstairs room in Chancery Lane, overhearing a discussion between Robert and one of the PRO staff about the cost of photocopying a roll. How far we have come since then.’

At the present day, the period covered by the website extends far into the 17th century, and incorporates literally tens of millions of images, as well as indices and other finding aids. Scholars everywhere owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Professor Palmer for his vision, and the enormous amount of time and energy he continued to dedicate to it right up to the end of his life. He will be sorely missed.


5 thoughts on “A Tribute to Professor Robert Palmer

  1. Dr. Palmer was generous with his advice and direction in my search for various ancestors in the 1630-42 period. He sent me to Prof. Baker for further help, who also generously answered my question. This is very sad news; I so wish I had known. Please give his family my deepest regrets for their loss and appreciation for his life and work.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. Similar to you, The History of Parliament was deeply saddened by this news. Professor Palmer was generous with his time and had a huge amount of influence on the work of so many people.

  2. Thank you for this lovely tribute to my dad. I miss him terribly, and it means so very much to me to know what he meant to people. He would have been very touched by this, too.

    1. The History of Parliament was incredibly saddened by the news, and we are sorry for your loss. We are glad you liked our tribute to Professor Palmer. If you would like any further contact with one of the authors of the paper, Dr Hannes Kleineke, please do let us know at website@histparl.ac.uk and we will be happy to share his contact information wit you.

  3. I owe an enormous personal debt to Professor Palmer. While studying for my PhD nearly twenty years ago I was referred by my supervisor to the AALT website. It has become the major source for all the work that I have done since. Domestic circumstances tie me to home and make it very difficult for me to visit archives, so the AALT website has been a godsend. I had hoped one day to thank him in person, sadly now I never shall.

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