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In Memoriam: Dorothy Whitelock (1901-82)


A Remembrance by Dorothy Bethurum Loomis

In the death of Dorothy Whitelock on August 14 Anglo-Saxon scholarship lost its most distinguished contributor. Her death, however, was not an untimely one, for she had completed what will probably be her finest work, the biography of Alfred the Great. At 81 she ended a long life devoted undeviatingly to Anglo-Saxon studies, to the great enrichment of the field.

She was born in Leeds on November 11, 1901, and was educated at the Leeds' Girls High School, from which she went in 1921 to Newnham College, Cambridge, where she came under the influence of H.M. Chadwick, an influence that continued long in her work and gave it its broad background and deep reliance on a thorough study of the documents themselves. It was fitting that the commemorative volume presented to her on her 70th birthday should have as its sub-title Studies in Primary Sources Presented to Dorothy Whitelock. Her first work on primary sources was an edition of Anglo-Saxon wills begun under a scholarship at the University of Uppsala. The most comprehensive was her fine volume, English Historical Documents c. 500-1042 in which she collected, translated, and commented on the principal source material for these five and a half centuries, a volume unrivaled for sound scholarship and illuminating interpretation.

In 1930 Dorothy Whitelock was appointed lecturer in English Language at St. Hilda's College, Oxford, where she later became Fellow, Tutor, and Vice-Principal. Her interests were closer, she felt, to history than to the English school, and here began her long and fruitful friendship with Sir Frank and Lady Stenton. She followed the writing of Stenton's Anglo-Saxon England with absorbed interest. For the next twenty years she acquired her own incomparable knowledge of Anglo-Saxon diplomata, life, and literature. The Beginnings of English Society, Volume 2 of the Penguin History of England, exhibited her rare combination of detailed learning, her characteristic good sense and insights, and her vigorous and felicitous prose. During these years she was studying the career of Wulfstan, Archbishop of York, and with the help of Karl Jost, destroying the idea of the elusive "Wulfstan imitator." In a closely reasoned article she proved that Wulfstan had written the first and second edicts of Cnut. She was also editing the "Sermo ad Anglos" and continued her work on Wulfstan's career with an article that summed up the archbishop's commanding role in the early eleventh century.

In 1957 she was elected to the Elrington and Bosworth Chair in Anglo-Saxon at Cambridge, which she held to her retirement in 1969, and she renewed her connection with Newnham College. She was at that time a Fellow of the British Academy and was made companion of the British Empire in 1964. In 1971 the University of Leeds awarded her an honorary Litt. D. degree. Her direction of Anglo-Saxon studies in the chair Chadwick had held led little by little to the transference of Anglo-Saxon Studies from the faculty of Archaeology where Chadwick had left it to the Faculty of English, a move that followed her own development from purely historical interests to the comprehensive treatment of history and literature.

Dorothy Whitelock was totally devoted to learning without any competing interests, and she had little patience with work which did not meet her high demands, either from shoddy performance or from what she considered ill-conceived theories. Though she never came to suffer fools gladly, as she grew older her strictures became less severe and always she was completely generous in making her own vast learning available to her students and to other scholars. Her firm common sense she applied to practical situations as well as to learning and remained all her life a sturdy Yorkshire woman. Her friendships were warm and lasting. She could at one time exhibit that warmth and criticize unfavorably what she disagreed with in one's work.

She spent, as she complained, far too much time acting as president of various learned societies. But her human interests were not confined to academia. She once said that when she retired she would like to live opposite a pub in a small town and watch the people come and go. She did not do this but lived with her sister Mrs. Phyllis Priestly, on the outskirts of Cambridge, where her friends from England, the Continent, and America visited her and enjoyed both Dorothy and Phyllis.


A Memorial Address by Peter Clemoes given October 30 in Cambridge

We have met today to pay tribute to, and thank God for, the life of an outstandingly distinguished scholar. The composition of this gathering is itself testimony to the range of Dorothy's eminence; more personal to her is the quality of her achievement. Most of us, no doubt, treasure our own impressions of that. Mine began when I heard her, a small, slight figure, deliver her Audience of 'Beowulf' lectures in London in 1950. To a raw, post-war undergraduate, as I was, it was a precious insight into how scholarly methods could serve the purposes of imaginative enquiry. And the formative experience deepened when, as a research student here in Cambridge, I heard her deliver a lecture to the Medieval Group in which she put forward the new argument that the northern recension of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was compiled almost certainly at York and that the D manuscript of the Chronicle was written more probably at York than at Worcester. I remember she began her masterly analysis by hoping that it would not seem as boring to us as it had to her when she reread it on the train coming over from Oxford. In reality it was enthralling.

Dorothy came into her own when, as a Cambridge undergraduate at Newnham College in the early 1920's reading for what was then Section B of the English Tripos, she was introduced to Professor H.M. Chadwick's conception of studying the languages, literatures, history and antiquities of pre-Conquest Britain in combination. Bruce Dickins, who examined for the Tripos in Dorothy's year, told me several times how remarkably mature her scripts were. Mistrusting half-knowledge and hostile to gratuitous assumption, from the outset she perceived the opportunity Anglo-Saxon materials give for a strict (though not easy) relationship between evidence and conclusions, and was eager to exploit it. Her first publication, in 1930, after research which included two years in Uppsala, the critical edition of Anglo-Saxon Wills which, reprinted, is still the classic on the subject, already exhibited her distinctive array of talents – mastery of specialized documents, linguistic and historical understanding working together, and a cast of mind at once thorough and economical, practical and logical, informed and independent, precise and free, cautious and imaginative. And she was to show herself as effective when dealing with texts more overtly expressing cultural values, for example in her original interpretation of the Old English poem The Seafarer in the volume published in memory of H.M. Chadwick in 1950. Here indeed was a richly endowed scholar, whose single-minded and acute study of an unrivalled range of texts from Anglo-Saxon England came to abundant fruition in English Historical Documents c. 500-1042 in 1955 and attained even further growth in the revised edition of that great work in 1979 and in the 871-1066 part of Vol. I of Councils and Synods published last year. Essentially a documentary scholar herself, she remained faithful to the interdisciplinary vision of her Chadwickian upbringing, as her Presidency of the Viking Society 1939-41, Presidency of the English Place-Name Society 1967-79 and Chairmanship of the British Academy Committee for the Sylloge of Coins of the all British Isles 1967-78 all testify. Among the major disciplines concerned with Anglo-Saxon England archaeology perhaps appealed to her least, but all the same she gave it loyal support and served as a Vice-President of the Society for Medieval Archaeology 1957-64. In 1952 she summed up her comprehension of the whole Anglo-Saxon scene, humanely, succinctly, lucidly and elegantly, in her volume in the Pelican History of England, The Beginnings of English Society. No wonder recognition came. In 1951 she received the degree of Litt. D. from Cambridge University and in 1956 was elected Fellow of the British Academy. In 1957 she followed Bruce Dickins as Elrington and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon here in Cambridge and was elected Professorial Fellow by her old college, Newnham , and Honorary Fellow by St. Hilda's College, Oxford, where she had taught first as Lecturer and then as Fellow and Tutor for the previous twenty-seven years. In 1964 she was appointed CBE. When she retired from her chair she was elected to an Honorary Fellowship by Newnham College and in 1971 the University of Leeds awarded her an Hon. Litt. D.

Personal relationships meant a great deal to Dorothy. Her admiration for such men as the Venerable Bede, St. Boniface, King Alfred and Archbishop Wulfstan was integral to her bond with Anglo-Saxon studies. Her devotion to Sir Frank Stenton and love of Kathleen Hughes personalized her dedication to scholarship. And she had her antipathies too, ranging from St. Augustine of Hippo to Lord Beeching, who was "nasty" enough to close the branch railway line to Robin Hood's Bay. Family ties were at the heart of it all, and, in particular, deep affection for her mother, who, during Dorothy's childhood in Leeds, had a difficult time bringing up the family on a small income after being widowed. But from that center Dorothy extended her affections widely, to colleagues in college and university, to fellow scholars she thought had integrity akin to her own, to students she taught during more than forty years, to friends, whatever their walk of life, in whom she recognized the counterparts of her own loyalty, honesty and warmth of feeling. In true Yorkshire style she took seriously her responsibilities to individuals and institutions alike, not sparing herself as a conscientious teacher, going to extraordinary trouble to place her immense knowledge of primary sources at the disposal of others (the festschrift on her seventieth birthday expressed gratitude for that), supporting friends when they were ill or in other need, serving as Vice-Principal of her Oxford college for six years and here in Cambridge, doing duty as an ex-officio member of the Faculty Board first of Archaeology and Anthropology and then of English and as a member of the Board of Graduate Studies and the Council of the Senate. In 1967, while Elrington and Bosworth Professor, with great determination and skill she steered the Department of Anglo-Saxon and Kindred Studies (as it then was) back from the Faculty of Archaeology and Anthropology, where Professor Chadwick had taken it forty years before, to the Faculty of English where she was convinced it properly belonged as a department responsible for a mainly documentary, language-based discipline. But all was not seriousness. She was stimulating and entertaining company. She had a delightful sense of humor. She could be great fun. I can see her now at the age of seventy or thereabouts linked in single file with her sister Phyllis Priestly and my children, playing trains round her garden in Thornton Close.

Her flow of substantial publications, advancing Anglo-Saxon studies in various ways, continued unabated during the tenure of her chair, but perhaps her greatest accomplishment of all came during her retirement, completion of her biography of King Alfred, commissioned as long ago as the late fifties and now being prepared by Professor Janet Bately and Dr. Simon Keynes for publication probably next year. This comprehensive tribute to the qualities of a great king in our past will rank among the major achievements of twentieth-century English scholarship in any field. It would never have been finished without the devoted support Dorothy received from her widowed sister Phyllis, living in happy companionship with her during these years in Thornton Close. Today we offer her our affectionate sympathy. The sadness of impaired communication with Dorothy during her last illness bore hardest on Phyllis but was felt by others too. In these trying circumstances the steadfastness of Dorothy Hahn and other friends was beyond praise. Dr. Harold Taylor, for his part, has given Phyllis unwavering support. The friendship of these and others has been exactly of the kind Dorothy valued. But let us not finally dwell on sadness. Here first and foremost was a life of great and lasting scholarly achievement. We thank God for it in this church in which Dorothy regularly worshipped. May others be so blessed as to crown a lifetime of fulfilment with their finest book in their eightieth year.

at St. Botolph's Church

OEN 16.1 (1982), 14-17.