Friday, 30 September 2011

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography - seven years on

Last week saw the seventh anniversary of the publication of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and also the publication of a further online update featuring entries on 106 individuals new to the dictionary and three new reference groups which help readers navigate between subjects who were members of groups or involved in particular historical junctures. Lawrence Goldman, editor of the ODNB, has as usual added a new preface highlighting some of the new entries. Despite my credit as associate research editor I've not been involved with this release beyond a few minor corrections to older articles. Early favourites among the new entries (and currently available free online) include the architect Warren Chalk (1927-1987) whose proposals included a plan for an underwater city in 1964 and who with his colleagues published one issue of their magazine Archigram in comic strip form; James Maxwell (1838-1893) and Charles Tuke (1843-1893), whose firm designed the Blackpool Tower; actors Sabu (1924-1963) and Nina McKinney (1912-1967); Joseph Barnes (1549/50-1618), printer to the University of Oxford (and thus a leading subject of another research project with which I'm connected, The History of Oxford University Press); and two mediaeval women of high status and dynastic influence, though five centuries apart: Eadgyth (c.911-946), daughter of Edward the Elder and queen of the East Franks; and Jacquetta de Luxembourg (c.1416-1472), a French noblewoman who became aunt by marriage to Henry VI of England, and then mother-in-law to Edward IV.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has participated in and influenced the growing interest in using the personalities of individuals or groups to illuminate the history of locations or pivotal incidents and through those individual lives place them in wider social contexts. Friends who recently visited Belsay Hall and Castle in Northumberland spoke enthusiastically of the personality of Sir Charles Monck (1779-1867) [ODNB article available to subscribers only, including most public libraries in the UK and Ireland], who designed and built the present hall, which pleased me given that Monck was one of my own additions to the dictionary, and his profile has increased at Belsay in recent years. Likewise archaeological investigations at Wallington Hall, a National Trust property a short distance from Belsay, established the connection between the present house and the home of the Fenwick family, the last of whom to live there was the Restoration courtier Sir John Fenwick (c.1644-1697) [ODNB article available to subscribers only, as above], beheaded for his role in the Assassination plot against William III. Fenwick's career in the service of the House of Stuart and the ultimately overwhelming encroachments made on his inherited property by the mercantile Blackett dynasty illustrate the dynamics of national politics and regional economics in seventeenth-century north-east England.