Sir Rees Davies

Ralph Griffiths commemorates the recently deceased historian of medieval Wales and Britishness.

Robert Rees Davies died on May 16th, 2005, after a lengthy illness, aged sixty-six. He was an extraordinarily gifted man and a historian of international repute. His writings are of marked originality, and each of his books and essays, constructed like pieces of fine architecture, is an exemplar of the historian’s craft. He was unremitting in asserting the vital importance of a historical awareness for a mature, civilized society. He is without rival as an interpreter of relationships between the peoples of medieval Britain, especially between Welsh and English, and the significance of these relationships for subsequent generations.

If his intellectual horizons were of the broadest, his heart lay in Wales. Rees grew up on a modest hill-farm near Cynwyd (Merioneth) overlooking the River Dee, not many miles from Glyndyfrdwy, the home of Owain Glyn Dwr, stories of whose exploits were familiar fare in his Welsh-speaking home. He was educated in Welsh at Cynwyd’s primary school, where his historical imagination was awakened by an inspired lesson on William Caxton. In 1959 he graduated with distinction from University College London, with which he maintained a close connection, readily acknowledging the influence  of teachers like Geoffrey Barrow and May McKisack, and also Alfred Cobban, the social historian of France. At Oxford, his research was supervised by Bruce McFarlane, whose capacity for nurturing talent to exacting standards received an eager response from Rees. His apprenticeship was rounded off at the University of Wales in Swansea in 1961-63, where Glanmor Williams  recognized Rees’s promise and became a life-long friend. He had his first experience of lecturing at Swansea, developing a crisp, shapely style that appealed to the attentive student.

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