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David Underdown (August 19, 1925 - September 26, 2009)

Published: August 23, 2012

Dear Colleagues,

As many of you already know, David Underdown passed away on 26 September.  The following is a remembrance from Mark Kishlansky.

Best wishes,
Jason M. Kelly

David Underdown, the eminent historian of early modern England died peacefully at his home in Merced California on September 26th.  He was 84 years of age.

Educated at Wells Grammar School and Exeter College, Oxford, Underdown served in the RAF during World War II after which he completed his B.A. and B. Litt.  He began a doctoral thesis under the direction of Christopher Hill but left Oxford before completing it to enroll in the Graduate School of Yale University where he received an M.A. in American history.

Underdown taught at the University of the South (1953-62) where an endowed history chair in his name commemorates his service; at the University of Virginia (1962-68); at Brown University (1968-8 6) where he was the Monro-Goodwin Wilkinson Professor of European History; and at Yale University (1986-94) from which he retired as the George Burton Adams Professor Emeritus in 1996. Among his many honors he was chosen to receive the AHA's award for scholarly distinction in 1995, was a corresponding fellow of the British Academy, delivered the Prothero Lecture to the Royal Historical Society in 1980 and gave the Ford Lectures at the University of Oxford in 1992. He was twice a Guggenheim Fellow.

Underdown's lifelong scholarly interests centered upon early modern Britain and were especially focused on the English Revolution, its causes and consequences.  He worked on this from a variety of perspectives from the politics of royalism (Royalist Conspiracies in England (1960) to those of the parliamentarians (Pride's Purge, 1971; A Freeborn People (1996)); from localism (Somerset in the Civil War and Interregnum (1973) and Fire from Heaven (1992); to cultural beliefs and practices (Revel, Riot, and Rebellion (1985).  His work displayed two abiding qualities: a mastery of archival sources faithfully reported, and a compelling prose style that carried both story and argument.  He was a craftsman's craftsman, a master of sources, of historiography, and of method who had few equals even among a flashy generation of generalists whose big theses dominated discussion but faded over time while his solid conclusions persevered.

He was a dedicated and attentive teacher who inspired numerous students to follow in his professional footsteps. In lecture hall and tutorial he communicated his passion for the past with quiet certitude and a wry sense of humor.  He was generous with his time and his advice and he wrote more than one doctoral dissertation in a supervisory capacity.

Though personally shy and reticent, he could be transformed by any mention of cricket, one of his life-long passions. He was a member of the Somerset cricket club and rarely missed a match when in England.  His students were instructed never to interrupt him when the BBC world service was reporting scores.  His final book, Start of Play (2000) was a scholarly account of the origins of the modern game.  Though based on solid archival study it most clearly enunciated his own passions and preferences for the amateur, the independent backbencher "agin the government", and the free rural small holder who loved the land he lived on.

He is survived by his wife, Susan Amussen, and three sons from a previous marriage.


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