Gerald Aylmer

Foremost authority on the 17th century English state

Gerald Aylmer

Gerald Aylmer

The historian Gerald Aylmer (1926-2000) came from the seafaring branch of the family, the son of a naval officer. He became the most respected academic to bear the family name.

When I was a student at the University of York, Gerald was professor of history, a post he held with great distinction from 1963 to 1978. Our paths never crossed, which was a missed opportunity. He would have been most welcoming, if the obituarists are to be accepted, and we certainly had socialist beliefs in common.

As a young man he saw seafaring service on the perilous wartime Arctic convoys, refusing a commission. His shipmate and subsequent jazz legend George Melly recounted how Gerald helped him escape a sedition charge by showing that the alleged anarchist sentiments of a disputed pamphlet were mirrored by the writings of George Bernard Shaw in the ship library.

Cover of The Crown's Servants

Cover of The Crown’s Servants

Demobbed, he studied at Balliol College, Oxford, and in 1954 joined the history department at Manchester University. Here he published the first of his great trilogy of 17th century England, The King’s Servants (1961). Each examines the civil service in those tumultuous times; The King’s Servants under Charles I, The State’s Servants (1973) under the Republic, and The Crown’s Servants (2002, posthumous) under Charles II.

He was an inspired choice as the first professor of history at the University of York. He radicalised the curriculum and gathered staff around him which gave the department a reputation of the very highest quality. In his honour, the University has instituted a Gerald Aylmer lecture series. By contrast his later time back at Oxford, as Master of St Peter’s College from 1978 to 1991, is seen as less happy.

Throughout his career, he was in great demand for influential posts in public life, such as the editorial board for the History of Parliament, the Commission on Historical Manuscripts, the Royal Historical Society and the Historical Association. He became a Fellow of the British Academy in 1976. But never scorning the everyday world, he found time to moonlight as a lecturer for the Workers’ Educational Association and as an assessor and examiner for the Open University.

Many of his works on the 17th century remain standard texts in English universities. As well as the trilogy, they include:

  • The Struggle for the Constitution 1603-89 (1963)
  • The Interregnum: the Quest for Settlement 1646-60 (editor) (1972)
  • The Levellers in the English Revolution (1975); and
  • Rebellion or Revolution? England 1640-60 (1986).

He also published a record of the great liner Mauretania; edited, with others, histories of York Minster and Hereford Cathedral; otherwise wrote on colonial American and Irish history; and scripted several audio books.

The Daily Telegraph obituarist provided this charming sketch:

“[He] had a sense of fun and of the absurd, and while recognising the need for authority, was distrustful of those who exercised it. This made him a teacher whose pupils (especially graduate students) held him not only in respect but also in deep affection.”