Obituary: Alfred P Smyth

Medieval historian and staunch defender of Irish heritage sites

Alfred P Smyth:  July 1st, 1942-October 16th, 2016

Alfred P Smyth: July 1st, 1942-October 16th, 2016


Prof Alfred P Smyth, who has died aged 74, was a distinguished medieval historian and author of many works on Irish, British and Scandinavian history. He was a former professor of medieval history at the University of Kent at Canterbury and former Warden of St George’s House, Windsor Castle.

Colleagues have described him as “a prince among teachers” and praised him for “combining scholarship with humanity”.

He was born in Jordanstown House, Tara, Co Meath to Alfred P Smyth, an assistant county engineer and Mary O’Brien, a homemaker, and attended Skryne National School and St Finian’s secondary school in Mullingar. Having spent two years as a seminarian at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, where he also studied science, he left before completing his studies and moved to University College Dublin where he studied history and archaeology.

He met his future wife, Margaret O’Connell, at UCD, where they were both members of the Archaeological Society, and they married in 1969.

From UCD he won a scholarship to study for his doctorate at a university of his choosing. He chose Jesus College, Oxford but before starting there, he spent a year at the University of Reykjavik, where he studied Icelandic, as he wished to better understand the Norse sagas, which were an important part of his studies and later teaching.

After completing his DPhil, he lectured at the University of Birmingham, from where he moved in 1973 to the University of Kent at Canterbury. He spent the next 24 years there, progressing from lecturer to senior lecturer to reader and finally to professor of medieval history (and professor emeritus following his departure). He was also Master of Keynes College and the university’s public orator.

In 1997, he was appointed warden of St George’s House, Windsor Castle, where he worked with Prince Philip organising conferences and seminars for this public-policy debate forum. He returned to Canterbury in 1999, becoming director of research and subsequently dean of humanities at Canterbury Christ Church, from which he retired in 2007.

Among his many works are the two-volume Scandinavian York and Dublin (1975; republished 1987), Scandinavian Kings in the British Isles (1977), Celtic Leinster (1982), Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland AD 80-1000 (1984), A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain: England, Scotland and Wales c. 500-1050 (with Ann Williams, 1991) and Faith, Famine and Fatherland (1992).

His King Alfred the Great (1995) provoked much scholarly debate as it challenged traditional views of the Anglo-Saxon king who had fought the Viking invaders. Medieval Europeans: Studies in Ethnic Identity and National Perspectives in Medieval Europe followed in 1998.

A staunch defender of Irish heritage sites, especially in and around his native Co Meath, he spoke out strongly on their behalf, including via letters to this newspaper.

Other than his academic studies, he was interested in all things French, and bought a second home in Provence on his retirement. He and his wife Margaret were researching and writing a book on Jane Austen’s connections to east Kent at the time he fell ill; they lived in the village of Godmersham, which was part of the estate owned by Austen’s brother Edward Knight. Prof Smyth also established and helped manage the Godmersham Heritage Centre.

In addition to his prolific output as an historian, he wrote a number of works of fiction and many poems.

He had the courage of his convictions and was ready to fight his corner in debate, inspired by the words of his mentor, the great medieval historian JM Wallace-Hadrill: “You always say what you want, young man; otherwise you’ll be no good.”

He is survived by his wife Margaret, daughter Hilary, son Edmund, sister Angela and brother Desmond.