It is very sad to hear the death of Barry Coward this week. I first met him in 1999 at Birkbeck University. I was attending an open evening because I was thinking of undertaking a part time degree and Birkbeck had been recommended to me by a friend. At the open meeting was Barry Coward.
Part of the attraction of the degree was the study of the English revolution. I had a vague likening for the subject but when I asked Barry about the course he immediately fired my enthusiasm and signed up a week later. This was probably one of best decisions I have made in my life.
The first thing that struck me about Barry Coward was his incredible and infectious enthusiasm for his chosen topic. He was also a rare breed amongst most historians in that he was always warm and friendly towards his students. This quote sums up his attitude ‘I never ceased to be amazed by their ability to combine full-time employment with part-time study and gain degrees as good as, and often better than, those who studied full time.
This was regularly shown by the awards to Birkbeck students of the Derby Prize for the best BA in history in the whole University of London. It was enormously rewarding to watch Birkbeck students – especially those who had not done formal study for some time – develop academically, and then use Birkbeck as a launch pad for life-changing experiences. I’d like to thank them for their enthusiasm and the freshness of their ideas that I drew on in my writings.’
He always had time and patience for me no matter how small my question. The other thing that struck me was his modesty. This may of stemmed from the fact that he had a formidable knowledge of his subject so much so that a number of his books such as the The Stuart Age, England 1603–1714 (latest edition 2003)The Cromwellian Protectorate (2002)Oliver Cromwell (1991) have become standard textbooks on the period.
Barry was also a good public speaker although not the best he was not the worse. He also had one of the best traits of a historian in that during his lectures you could almost sense that when he was speaking on subject he was already rethinking his remarks.
It would be remiss of me to say that I did not always see eye to eye on his political and historical conclusions on the Civil War. We came from different political family trees. He was old school labour and I was certainly to the left of him but I must say that during his seminars were the best part of my degree we had a frank exchange and that was it. Having said this he was always the gentlemen and these debates never became bitter or rancorous. I will miss him and so will future students of 17th century England.