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Isobel and me: medieval sanctuary and Whig history

For the last fifteen years I have been having an intense dialogue in my head with a long-dead historian, Isobel D. Thornley (1893-1941). Isobel is my best frenemy. Two pieces she wrote in 1924 and 1932 remain standard citations for one of my favourite subjects, medieval sanctuary; this is a feat of scholarly longevity that few of her contemporaries can boast. Having dug through the same documents—and benefitted enormously from following in her footsteps—I admire Isobel’s archival diligence and the boldness of her arguments. I also disagree with almost everything she says.

Isobel’s place in the interwar historical community in London is mostly forgotten: she does not appear in any directories of important historians of the past—neither the Institute of Historical Research’s London’s Women Historians, for instance, nor another of the IHR’s pantheons, Making History. Her name does live on in the form of the Thornley Bequest Fund, established when she left her estate to the University of London. Over the decades Isobel’s legacy has benefited hundreds of historians, both students and academic researchers, many of whom probably have no idea who she was.

Here, then, is something about her. Isobel was born in 1893, a child of the provincial middle class, raised in the East Midlands by a bank manager and his Scottish wife. She received a BA from University College, Nottingham, in 1915, and then an MA from University College, London, in 1917, under noted Tudor historian and founder of the IHR, AF Pollard. Her MA work garnered her the Alexander Prize from the Royal Historical Society and by 1919 she was settling into a teaching position at UCL. Over the next decade, her career as a historian prospered under Pollard’s patronage, as she published a book of translated sources and several studies relating to treason and sanctuary. She spent a year in the US at Vassar College in 1925-26 and had reached the rank of Lecturer at UCL by 1928.

Then, in 1930, aged about 37, Isobel resigned her position at UCL. I don’t know why. There may have been some malign reason, or perhaps she simply found teaching a bore. Her father’s estate gave her an independent income, so she could afford to do without a university salary. Isobel was active through the 1930s at the IHR and in scholarly associations. In that decade she completed several important pieces of scholarship, including a 1938 luxury production of the Great Chronicle of London, co-edited with City of London archivist, AH Thomas.

Image credit: Sanctuary knocker replica at Durham Cathedral. Photo by Nicholas Mutton. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Isobel’s peaceful scholarly life was, of course, disrupted by the outbreak of the war in 1939. She took up war work with a government department and stoically suffered the anxieties of the Blitz. After her house in Highgate was damaged by a bomb in September 1940, she wrote in a letter to a friend at Vassar, “Though the water still drips through the roof in one place, I really have nothing to grumble at. However, we are looking for anything and everything to happen between now and Easter.” Tragically, “everything” did happen: Isobel’s house was hit directly on 5 February 1941 and she was killed, at the age of 48.

We have no way of knowing how Isobel felt about her place in the interwar academic world. She was by no means alone as a woman historian in London in these years, but she was not amongst those of her generation who tackled “the woman question” in her research. For explicit testaments to Isobel’s personality, we have only a faintly damning encomium in her Times obituary—“she will be remembered for her keen enthusiasm, generous helpfulness, and warm sympathies.”

If her obituary makes her seem mild, implicit in her publications is a quite a different scholarly persona: uncompromising, audacious, and somewhat prickly. The continuing influence of her work on sanctuary is not due to a precocious modernity; her sententious writing style probably seemed old-fashioned in the 1920s. It is, I think, the clarity and the no-nonsense tone that continues to convince many readers, even though her interpretations are unquestionably Whiggish, congruent with the views of her mentor Pollard. Sanctuary was a “great evil,” for it allowed criminals to escape punishment. In her account, “bold” and forward-thinking civic leaders allied with the judiciary to destroy the “hoary” popish institution of sanctuary and bring England into Protestant modernity.

I disagree with Thornley’s interpretation of English sanctuary on many fronts, too many to rehearse here (quick version: it was much more complicated). The difference in our views goes beyond our interpretations of the records, but instead relates to our fundamental assumptions about the nature of political power. Unlike some earlier writers on sanctuary (such as Charles C. Cox), Isobel had no sympathy for sanctuary seekers. For her, the moral lines were stark: secular governing authorities were on God’s side and criminals (assumedly from the underclass) deserved hanging. Isobel’s optimism about the fundamental probity of judicial and political systems has allowed me to recognize my own much more distrustful and cynical approach to political and legal regimes. I am not sure how much of our difference of perspective is due to our personal inclinations and how much to our respective environments. I don’t know what Isobel would make of politics in 2018; I suspect my frenemy and I would also not have agreed about that.

Featured image credit: Sanctuary ring on a door of the portal of the Virgin, on the western facade of Notre-Dame de Paris (France). Photo by Myrabella. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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