Remembering Professor Barry Coward

John Croxon (Birkbeck Early Modern Society) writes:

Professor Barry Coward

The Early Modern Society is sad to announce the death of Professor Barry Coward who died on the 17th March 2011 aged seventy after a long illness.

It only seems like a few months ago that I wrote a piece in the Birkbeck Early Modern Society’s Bulletin upon Barry’s retirement and indeed, a retirement of five short years is far too brief a time for a man who loved life as Barry did. Despite retirement from teaching, his academic life was far from over.

He was called to Downing Street to discuss the teaching of history with Gordon Brown, his publisher had asked him to write a full-length biography of Oliver Cromwell, he had articles and other books to write and indeed, he had just completed a book with Peter Gaunt English Historical Documents, 1603-1660 and the final editing of the fourth edition of his seminal work The Stuart Age.

Barry was educated at Rochdale Grammar School and completed a first class degree at Sheffield University. His PhD on the Stanley dynasty swiftly followed and in 1966 he was appointed as a lecturer at Birkbeck College, University of London. When Barry joined the academic staff at Birkbeck he intended to stay just a few years before returning to the north; he stayed for forty. Barry loved Birkbeck, it was a perfect setting for him. He loved the ethos of evening study, forever professing amazement at how the mature students of Birkbeck could combine careers, family life and degree study.

Barry published a number of important books including Social Change and Continuity in Early Modern England, Companion to the history of Stuart Britain,Oliver Cromwell and The Cromwellian Protectorate. However, it was The Stuart Age that made his name and became the standard work for the period.

Barry was president of the Central London Branch of the Historical Association and encouraged many history graduates of Birkbeck to join. He also became president of theHistorical Association as a whole from 2005 to 2008 and travelled up and down themotorways of the country promoting the Association at a time of personal difficulty with his mother’s illness and the death of his brother. I recall surprising him with my appearance in a Bristol car park just before a lecture after spotting in the HA newsletter that he was due to speak, and finding out that he had just driven all the way down from the north determined that he would give the lecture and not let anyone down. He gave huge amounts of his time to the HA and to supporting the teaching of history.

Barry was also for many years president of the Cromwell Association from 1999 to 2009 and each year would attend the ceremony when a wreath was laid on the statue of the Lord Protector. Cromwell was the historical figure that fascinated Barry more than any other and it was to Cromwell that he would return to time and again in his writings and lectures.

However, despite all the other achievements of his professional life it was his years as a lecturer at Birkbeck that Barry preferred. He was always warm, friendly and considerate towards his students and always sought to encourage everyone that attended his lectures and seminars. He was forever revising and reconsidering his opinions and during his lectures one could sense that he was rethinking his remarks as he spoke. His lectures were a delight to attend as his incredible and infectious enthusiasm for his chosen topic was so evident. But it was in his seminars that Barry excelled. He would get the conversation started and then allow everyone the chance to contribute, encouraging debate and coaxing opinions from even the most reserved of students. For anyone who was taught by Barry it was an unforgettable experience. Barry was old school and he was a tough marker and marked essays and dissertations as he saw them. If one’s efforts deserved a good mark then fine but if not then don’t expect any leniency.

Although history, particularly seventeenth-century history, was central to Barry’s life, he was far from being a one subject person. Barry had many interests; he loved sport and would wax lyrical about Rochdale Football Club, Lancashire Cricket Club and Bath Rugby Club (I’ll forgive him the latter). He also held strong political opinions and to the end remained firmly ‘Old Labour’. He enjoyed walking and gardening and was a convivial and amiable companion, and he loved to go to the pub and chat about all aspects of life over a pint of bitter. What is important to stress is that time spent with Barry was informative, interesting and fun.

He was a kind, decent and generous man. He achieved a huge amount in his life yet always remained modest, always prepared to discuss the merits of others rather than his own. He always went to the bar after a seminar and he said that his epitaph should be ‘He always stood his round’. He fought his illness with great dignity and courage. We last spoke about two weeks before he died and he remained indefatigable to the end. We continued to correspond by e-mail and he retained a sense of humour and great personal strength.

When I remember Barry I shall recall a great tutor and a wonderful historian but more than anything I shall remember him as a truly kind and thoughtful person. Without doubt, Barry was one of the nicest people I have ever met. In one of our conversations earlier this year he referred to me as a friend and I shall cherish that memory for ever.

Barry was a great family man and our thoughts are with his wife Shirley, his children Nick, Anthony and Lynne and his six grandchildren.

John Croxon

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