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In Memoriam: Charles Patrick Wormald (July 9, 1947 – September 29, 2004)


A Remembrance by Nicholas Brooks, University of Birmingham

Anglo-Saxon studies have been weakened and his many scholarly friends bereft by the death at the age of 57 of Patrick Wormald, after a long struggle with alcoholism and with related depressive illness. Patrick was a supremely gifted interpreter of Anglo-Saxon culture, political life and law, and a wonderfully generous teacher and friend. His tutorials and seminars, his interventions in conferences, his lengthy letters full of insights ranging across a spectrum of continental, Celtic as well as Anglo-Saxon evidence inspired a generation of able pupils and have improved countless chapters and articles of grateful colleagues over the last 35 years.

Born into a Cambridge academic family and educated at Eton, it was always crucial to Patrick's sense of his own worth that he should succeed as an historian in Oxford. In 1969 at Balliol his outstanding first-class honours, immediately followed by his election as a prize fellow at All Souls College, were early signs of his intended trajectory. All Souls gave him a taste for good food and wine and a heady sense of being at the centre of intellectual life. Memorable lectures delivered there became in subsequent years seminal articles on aspects of Bede's Ecclesiastical History, on the aristocratic and 'monastic' society that gave rise to the poem Beowulf, on the function of Anglo-Saxon legislation and on the role of literacy in early medieval England. [1] He embarked upon research under the supervision of J.M. Wallace-Hadrill (to whose memory Patrick remained devoted) on the laws of King Alfred. He held as an article of faith that mastery of the continental 'Germanic' law-codes was fundamental to understanding those of the English. Sadly, however, the relaxed supervisory practices of that era meant that his doctoral thesis was neither completed, nor was it even close to submission. That failure—when less ambitious and less privileged contemporaries were achieving their doctorates—had a corrosive effect upon his self-confidence; it reinforced what became an obsessive concern for reassurance about the scholarly reception of every lecture or piece of written work.

After five years of his All Souls fellowship, Patrick was appointed in 1974 as a lecturer in the Department of Medieval History in Glasgow and found himself among some outstanding historian colleagues; he also developed a lasting interest in Scottish and Irish political and social history. During his Glasgow years many of the studies on which his renown was to be based were published. Pride of place must go to his three marvellous chapters on the eighth and ninth centuries in The Anglo-Saxons (1982), a volume, co-written with James Campbell and Eric John, that remains much the best introduction to early medieval English history. He also contributed an astonishing chapter to the 1983 Festschrift for Wallace-Hadrill (of which he was the principal editor) which both exploded received notions about the development of the concept of the overlord (or Bretwalda) in England and opened up a new field of study on the construction of English identity. [2] He took particular pleasure in being the Anglo-Saxonist in the 'Bucknell Group' of early medieval historians, who met annually at Wendy Davies' Shropshire house to brainstorm new themes. With their encouragement he signalled a new focus for his studies by contributing a fundamental reassessment of Anglo-Saxon law-disputes and settlements (1986) and a comprehensive corpus of the known lawsuits (1988). [3] These were conceived as foundations for a planned magnum opus reassessing the contribution of Anglo-Saxon law to the emergence of the 'common law' of Angevin and medieval England.

In Glasgow too he fell in love with, and in time married, Jenny Brown, a leading historian of early modern Scotland, and hitherto the wife of his head of department there. A move to Oxford was the agenda that he set for the Wormalds, but was difficult to achieve in the years of the 'Thatcher cuts' in higher education. Meanwhile their flat in Hillhead became a powerhouse of new thinking on many aspects of British history and they threw themselves into the development of the Social Democratic party and into the by-election that saw Roy Jenkins astonishingly elected as their local MP in 1982. Already in 1977 the Wormalds had purchased a house in Headington as an Oxford base, and in 1985 Jenny was appointed a fellow of St Hilda's College there. But for four years thereafter, during the week in termtime, Patrick had to return alone to his teaching in Glasgow. No one was worse equipped for the stress of long-distance commuting and for periods of living and working on his own. His drinking, usually successfully hidden from outsiders, had become problematic long before he achieved a fellowship ('Studentship') at Christchurch in 1989.

At one level the 1990s were years of achievement in Oxford. A stream of articles continued his reassessment of the role of the Anglo-Saxon lawcodes in the development of English society and of the working of that law in practice, and also initiated detailed studies of the manuscript transmission of the codes. This programme culminated in 1999 with the publication by Hambledon of his collected legal studies and with the long-awaited first volume of The Making of English Law, most handsomely published by Blackwell. [4] This volume of nearly 600 pages cannot be said to be an easy read for students, or indeed for scholars at any level, but it did establish Patrick as a magisterial authority, to be placed alongside Liebermann and the giants of European Rechtsgeschichte. It also promised to be the necessary foundation for a briefer and more accessible second volume, wherein the social, religious and political issues that he saw transformed by legal changes would be clearly set out. Through the 1990s Patrick also continued to attract and stimulate some of the best postgraduates in the Oxford History Faculty, several of whom went on to successful academic careers.

But at home he found it difficult to handle the competition of Jenny's academic ventures, while he made excuses for the slow progress of his own gargantuan book. A wretched downward spiral led to domestic and professional problems; periods of remorse, therapy and a succession of temporarily effective treatments followed in rapid succession. But eventually those nearest to him could no longer cover for him nor continue to tolerate his behaviour. Separation and divorce marked the end of his marriage, and early retirement on medical grounds the loss of his college fellowship. That curtailed the teaching that he so loved but could not sustain. Even then, the Oxford History Faculty, appreciating his towering talents, sought to retain him as a lecturer, and Veronica Ortenberg gave him a precious year of supportive companionship. She helped him keep sober and hopeful while he delivered in Brixworth, Durham and Manchester stunningly effective plenary lectures that proved that his powers to revise current orthodoxies radically were undiminished.

That time of renewed hope made his final reversion to the old pattern and his rapid decline to death all the more tragic. Patrick had, indeed, always been much loved. Jenny had for many years been tireless in his support; so too latterly were their teenage sons, Tom and Luke, in whose progress he took such pride to the end. A host of colleagues and friends stepped in when they could. Now they will ensure that some of his work, still in draft, achieves the publication that he could not manage and that something of the inspiration that he provided to so many is remembered. That will form a continuing monument to his pursuit of the uniqueness of the English state and of the role of law in creating social identities.

OEN 38.1 (Fall 2004): 4-6.



[1] "Bede and Benedict Biscop" in Famulus Christi: Essays for the 13th Centenary of the Birth of Bede, ed. G Bonner (London 1976), 141–70; "Bede, Beowulf and the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy" in R.T. Farrell, ed., Bede and Anglo-Saxon England (Brit. Archaeol. Reports, Brit. ser. 46, Oxford, 1978), 32–95; "Lex scripta and verbum regis: legislation and Germanic kingship from Euric to Cnut" in P. H. Sawyer and I. N. Wood, eds., Early Medieval Kingship (Leeds, 1977), 105–38; "The uses of literacy in Anglo-Saxon England and its neighbours," Trans. of the Royal Hist. Soc., 5th ser. 27 (1977), 95–114.

[2] "Bede, the Bretwaldas and the origins of the gens Anglorum," in P. Wormald et al., Ideal and Reality in Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Society: studies presented to J. M. Wallace-Hadrill (Oxford, 1983), 99–129.

[3] "Charters, law and the settlement of disputes in Anglo-Saxon England," in W. Davies and P. Fouracre, eds., The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge, 1986), 149–68; "A Handlist of Anglo-Saxon lawsuits," Anglo-Saxon England 17 (1988), 247–81.

[4] Legal Culture in the Early Medieval West: law as text, image and experience (Hambledon Press, London, 1999); The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the Twelfth Century, vol. I: Legislation and its Limits (Oxford, 1999).