Friday, May 26, 2006


I was discussing the virtues of British Obituaries with a friend. These are the ones for the great Byzantinist Steven Runciman in 2000. Enjoy


Date: Nov 1 2000

Sir Steven Runciman

Scholar, linguist and gossip, whose revisionist History of the Crusades and
studies of Byzantium were massively researched and widely read

Steven Runciman was famous for throwing light on some very dark ages, and
attempting, as he said the historian must, "to record in one great sweeping
sequence the greater events and movements that have swayed the destiny of
man". But as well as being the leading historian of the Crusades, he was a
world traveller, the companion of royalty - at least four queens were said
to have turned out for his 80th birthday - and an aficionado of the foibles
of the powerful, whether past or present. Details of forgotten personalities
glint in all his writings, and he could discourse about ancient genealogies,
scandals and feuds until the crusaders came home.

His most important work, the three- volume History of the Crusades, took a more sceptical line
than any previous Western historian, and was freshly informed by a reading
of Islamic sources. Two hundred years earlier Gibbon had portrayed the
crusades as doomed romantic escapades, and wrote of "the triumph of
barbarism and superstition". But in Runciman's eyes the crusaders were not a
chivalrous host who captured but failed to keep the Holy Land: they were the
final wave of the barbarian invaders who had destroyed the Roman Empire.
They completed this work by destroying the real centre of medieval
civilisation and the last bastion of antiquity, Constantinople and the
Byzantine Empire. In charting the medieval phase of the endless struggle
between East and West in the Middle East, Runciman's sympathies were
unambiguously with Byzantium against the bigots and wreckers of the West.

His final judgment of the whole enterprise set a standard of
self-laceration which British historians have since struggled to surpass:
"High ideals were besmirched by cruelty and greed, enterprise and endurance
by a blind and narrow self-righteousness; and the Holy War itself was
nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is a
sin against the Holy Ghost."

James Cochran Stevenson Runciman was the
second son of Walter Runciman, the first Viscount. His paternal grandfather
was a Geordie of Scots descent who ran away to sea at 11, was a master
mariner by 21 and founded a shipping line. His maternal grandfather ran a
chemical works in Jarrow. His parents were both Liberal MPs - the first
married couple to sit together in the Com- mons - so he knew Winston
Churchill from before the First World War. His best friend at Summer Fields
prep school was the son of Herbert Asquith, and in 1991 he claimed to have
known every Prime Minister of the century except Campbell Bannerman, who
died when he was three, and Bonar Law, "whom nobody knew".

He was a
linguist from the age of three, when his governess began to teach him
French. Latin followed at six, Greek at seven, and Russian at 11. With these
accomplishments and a budding interest in history, he was a King's Scholar
at Eton, and from there he won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge.

His mother had taken a first in history at Girton, and he followed her
example with a first in 1925. He soon became a fellow of Trinity and a
university lecturer. His rooms in Nevile's Court were famous for their
French 1820s grisaille wallpaper, depicting Cupid and Psyche, and his
exquisite bric-a-brac. He kept a green parakeet called Benedict, which he
use to spank with a pencil for misdemeanours.

He was already immensely
grand, and loved socialising. As well as books and pictures - including
Edward Lear watercolours - he collected anecdotes and people, and the names
in his gossip did not so much drop as float diaphanously. He was a
broad-gauge gossip, ranging across the academic, literary, social and royal
spheres with tales and tittle-tattle about many generations in many
countries. A typical example was his story of the Queen of the Belgians who
had one of the first facelifts, and was left with a permanent smile, so that
when the King died she had to return to the clinic to have it let down

Through his Eton friend Dadie Rylands, now a young don at
King's, Runciman met John Maynard Keynes, and through Keynes's wife, Lydia
Lopakova, he met Diaghilev. Rylands also introduced him to the Bloomsbury
circle around Virginia Woolf (whom Runciman never much cared for). Lytton
Strachey's attacks on the then accepted greatness of the British Empire
formed a precedent for Runciman's growing scepticism about much earlier
attempts at conquest; and the enthusiasm of Roger Fry and Clive Bell helped
to foster his interest in Byzantine art.

As a bachelor don he was a guide, friend and teasing mentor to a number of undergraduates, including Guy Burgess and Noel Annan, whose affection he won for life. He gave
intimate lunches and dinners enlivened occasionally by telling the fortunes
of his guests, including the odd king, by Tarot card. But his heart was in
travel and research, and the historian George Trevelyan advised him to leave
Cambridge if he wanted to write. So in 1938, having come into a considerable
fortune on his grandfather's death, he resigned his fellowship at Trinity
(though the College made him an honorary fellow in 1965).

During the war he was a press attachŠ¹ to the British legation in Sofia and then in
Cairo, and from 1942 till 1945 was professor of Byzantine history and art at
the University of Istanbul. From 1945 until 1947 he was head of the British
Council in Athens - while Osbert Lancaster was at the Embassy and Paddy
Leigh Fermor was at the British Institute.

He then devoted himself to
writing books, dividing his time, when he was not on his travels, between
his house in St John's Wood and the Island of Eigg, where he entertained
friends by showing them the singing sands and the spot where the Queen of
Eigg beheaded numbers of Christian martyrs.

At Trinity Runciman had
produced three books, written with the lucidity and grace that were to be
his hallmark. The Times commended both The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus (1929)
and The First Bulgarian Empire (1930), saying that "many happy flashes, both
of inspiration and phrasing, show that he has studied his Gibbon to good
effect". These were followed by the book that first made his name, Byzantine
Civilization (1933), which in fewer than 300 pages conjured up a full
picture of Byzantine life and thought, and it gave a much-needed new
dimension to medieval history. In 1947 he published The Medieval Manichee,
which he had written in part before the war and in which he pursued the
famous dualist heresy from the Bogomils in Bulgaria to the Albigensians in

It was, however, his great History of the Crusades (1951, 1952
and 1954), that made Runciman known to a much wider public. No adequate
history in English existed when he began, and he broke with his French
predecessors by telling the story not just from the viewpoint of the West,
but also as Islam and Constantinople had seen it. To do this he drew on
Greek, Armenian and Muslim texts, as well as on more modern sources.
The book is a model of narrative history. The three volumes are each
divided into five parts, so that the reader primarily interested in one
facet of the story can find his way without difficulty. But Runciman was
uninterested in historiography. Not for him the sociological techniques, the
excursions into demography, geography and economics of the Braudel school of
history. He told the tale, he was readable, and his account was
authoritative - a standard work for years to come. He continued the story
with The Sicilian Vespers (1958).

In 1965 Runciman wrote his most
elegiac work, The Fall of Constantinople, once again making use of
multifarious sources, Muslim as well as Greek. He had already explored the
political and theological rift between the Catholic powers and the Orthodox
Greeks in The Eastern Schism (1955), and there was a poignant sympathy in
his account of a civilisation that knew itself to be doomed but would not
compromise its style of life.

He was to continue writing books on
Byzantine history for a further 15 years, following the fortunes of the
Orthodox Church in captivity, the theocracy, style and civilisation of the
medieval Greeks and the relations of Church and State. His researches took
him often to the Balkans and the Near East, where he had friends from many
walks of life.

Even so, he found time in 1960 in a splendid display of
versatility to publish The White Rajahs, a study of the Brooke family in
Sarawak. To do this he had to travel to the Far East, and soon after- wards
he travelled to South America. All the time he was writing papers for
historical journals, but these contributions to learning paled beside the
list of his lectures. As well as such named lectures as the Waynflete at
Oxford (1953-54), the Gifford at St Andrews (1960-62) and the Birkbeck at
Trinity, Cambridge (1966), he spoke at many American universities, and was
happy to journey to the most out-of-the-way places. He could be an
unforgetable lecturer, as for instance when he spoke with melancholy
resignation on the last days of Constantinople.

Runciman held public
appointments over many years. He was a trustee of the British Museum and a
member of the ad- visory council of the Victoria and Albert. From 1974 he
was a vice-president of the London Library, which two years ago gave a lunch
party to celebrate his 95th birthday and the 75th year of his life
membership. He later marked the anniversary in his own way, paying for a
long-overdue replacement of the library's alarming passenger lift. He warmly
approved the motto selected for it from the Vulgate Book of Daniel: Plurimi
pertransibunt et multiplex erit scientia ("Many shall run through it, and
knowledge shall be increased").

In Greece Runciman was welcomed as a
historian who did not talk as if Greek history stopped with Alexander, and
who recognised that the Greeks see Byzantium and the Orthodox Church as more
integral to their culture than Sparta. He was paid the signal honour of
having a street named after him in Mistra, the site which he celebrated in a
book published in 1980. He chaired the Anglo-Hellenic League, and sat on the
board of the National Trust for Greece.

He held honorary degrees from
many universities and lectured in more than a score of countries. He was
knighted in 1958 and appointed CH in 1984. His last book, published in 1991,
was A Traveller's Alphabet of places that excited his interest.
[PARA]Brought up in Northumberland, he loved the Border countryside and was
deeply attached to Scotland. When his family sold Eigg he removed to
Dumfriesshire where he lived in a peel tower near Lochmaben. He sat on the
councils of the National Trust for Scotland and the Museum of Antiquities,
and took a lively interest in the Scottish Ballet. When guests sang Scottish
songs, he liked to accompany them with plenty of legato.

Tall and
large-boned, with auburn hair glinting, he would glide into a party and soon
be surrounded. His quizzical, expressive face would register alarm,
amusement and incredulity as he told stories or listened to others. Not much
given to ponderous discussion and sceptical about schemes to improve the
world, he stood by his division of people into two groups, first made at
Eton: the agreeable and the "sillies" (among whom, of course, were numbered
many clever fools). His capacity for friendship was remarkable, and not only
in this country but wherever he went on his travels there are many who will
miss his wit and knack of giving pleasure.
He did not marry.

Hon Sir Steven Runciman, CH, FBA, historian, was born on July 7, 1903. He
died yesterday aged 97.


The Independent, Nov 2, 2000

BYLINE: Philip Mansel

STEVEN RUNCIMAN was the leading British specialist in the history of the
Byzantine Empire and the Crusades.

He had a romantic love of the Middle Ages since early childhood. For
Runciman, history was above all a story, "the only form of learning that is
entirely about human beings" (animals, vegetables and minerals were firmly
excluded). He wrote in the preface to his celebrated three-volume A History
of the Crusades (1951-54): "I believe that the supreme duty of the historian
is to write history, that is to say, to attempt to record in one sweeping
sequence the greater events that have swayed the destinies of men."

Although he had followed Crusader routes across Turkey and Syria, he
admitted that he had never found new archival material of value, indeed that
he was "not very good at reading manuscripts": he concentrated on style
instead, modelling himself, for simplicity and picturesqueness, on Beatrix
Potter. He typed surrounded by his sources, "muttering because I want to get
the sound right. I think a book isn't well written unless it can be read

He succeeded in interesting members of the general reading public, as well
as other historians, in such distant realms as the Despotate of the Morea
and the Principality of Antioch, in the genealogies of the feudal families
of Outremer and the intrigues which led to the massacres of Frenchmen in the
Sicilian Vespers. Gore Vidal wrote: "To read an historian like Sir Steven
Runciman is to be reminded that history is a literary art quite equal to
that of the novel."

Runciman claimed to have made more money for his publishers, Cambridge
University Press (which also publishes the Bible), than any author except

James Cochran Stevenson Runciman came from a world of power and wealth. His
father, Walter Runciman (later first Viscount Runciman of Doxford), was
President of the Board of Trade in the Asquith cabinet; his parents were the
first married couple to be MPs at the same time. He went to Eton and Trinity
College, Cambridge, where he was photographed by Cecil Beaton. Beaton later
wrote: "When I photographed Steven Runciman wearing his thick black hair in
a fringe, with a budgerigar (in fact a parakeet called Benedict) poised on
his ringed finger, looking obliquely into the camera in the manner of the
Italian primitives, I knew I had not lived in vain."

At Cambridge, Runciman was the first and only pupil of the celebrated
Byzantine historian J.B. Bury, whom he described as "not at all welcoming".
G.M. Trevelyan advised him that, if he wanted to write, he should leave
Cambridge. In 1929-30 he covered most of Greece on foot.

A bachelor and a younger son with a private income ("There's a lot to be
said for being a younger son"), by the age of 30 Runciman had published
three learned and original books: The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus and his
Reign (1929), The First Bulgarian Empire (1930) and Byzantine Civilisation

His work was helped by his love of languages: he knew Bulgarian, Russian and
Turkish as well as Greek, Latin and French. He preferred Greek to Latin
since he considered it "a much more flexible language", and the Byzantines
to be more civilised than the Western Europeans.

Runciman was also a historian of religion. Himself fascinated by Greek
Orthodox doctrine and mysticism, which he considered humbler and wiser than
Western theology, he wrote books on medieval manicheism, the schism between
the Latin and Greek churches and the Greek church under the Ottoman sultans
(in which he pointed out "if absolute power corrupts, so too does absolute
impotence"). Although he was a specialist in the Greek and Latin East, he
was no bigot. He called the Crusades "a vast fiasco . . . one of the last
and most disastrous of the Barbarian invasions", and lamented the fall of
the Ottoman Empire.

Few historians have enjoyed such an international life - as he revealed in
his partial memoirs A Traveller's Alphabet (1991). They proceed from Mount
Athos, via memories of Cambodia and Yucatan, to end in Zion. During the
Second World War Runciman was Press Attache in Sofia (on the recommendation
of Guy Burgess) and Film Censor in Palestine. Later he taught at the
universities of Istanbul, Baghdad, Oxford and Cambridge. Two of his best
books were The Fall of Constantinople, 1453 (1965) and an account of the
Orthodox Church under the Ottoman Empire, The Great Church in Captivity
(1968). Partly in gratitude for these works, the Patriarch of Constantinople
appointed him Grand Orator of the Great Church. In Syria he became an
honorary whirling dervish; in Mistra a street was named after him.

Steven Runciman was tall, slim and mild-looking. At the age of 14 he had
been informed by Mrs Asquith: "My dear boy, it isn't that you've got bad
manners, it's that you've got no manners at all."

Since he believed, as he told David Plante, in the duty to "talk and listen,
to be engaged and engaging", he soon acquired manners, and friends. His
acquaintances included Lady Ottoline Morrell, Lawrence of Arabia - who
inspired feelings of mistrust and physical repulsion - Sophia Loren, the
Regent of Iraq ("rather a silly man"), the Ruler of Bahrain and Prince Louis
of Hesse, a cousin by marriage: "He was, I think, the most civilised man
that I have ever known."

Runciman himself had the sense of understatement, and the sceptical
intonation, occasionally slightly plaintive, of his class and generation: he
could make a monosyllable such as "there" sound as if it contained three
vowels. Shy but gregarious, self-assured and formidable, he frequently
entertained friends at Elsieshields, a large white Scottish house complete
with arrow- slits and turrets, which was decorated with water-colours of
Greece by Edward Lear and views of Istanbul by the younger van de Velde.
Most of his cooking and cleaning, like his travelling, was done alone.

The fascination of his conversation, revealed to a wider public in an
excellent 1987 television programme, Bridge to the East, came from his
ability to ignore conventional limits of time and space. He would switch
from Thailand before the war, where "life was rather lively" and he felt
like Gulliver in Lilliput, to the rows between Winston and Clementine
Churchill. Dinner with Queen Marie of Roumania in her castle in Transylvania
was described with as much zest as a debauched Halloween party in Alaska 40
years later.

He was delighted to be called a snob - "Clio, the muse of history, was an
awful snob" - and had few rivals as a source of royal anecdotes. One
described Queen Elizabeth of the Belgians, the first queen to have her face
lifted, who was given a smile so ecstatic that, when her husband died in a
climbing accident, it had to be "let down" before the funeral. He remembered
playing the piano with the last Emperor of China, and had met families from
the Caucasus who referred to the Virgin Mary as Aunt Mary.

Among his many honours he was Chairman of the Anglo-Hellenic League from
1951 to 1967, President of the British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara
from 1960 to 1975, and a Companion of Honour. Peter Maxwell Davies dedicated
Eight Songs for a Mad King to him, and he was knighted in 1958.

By the end of his life, hailed as "our greatest living narrative historian",
he could say: "I suppose one has become a sort of celebrity up to a certain

When my wife and I last visited Steven Runciman in the spring at his beloved
home at Elsieshields, the restored tower house near Lockerbie, he was
tearful about the parlous condition of the Serb people and the destruction
and damage inflicted on so many of their churches, writes Tam Dalyell.

In particular, he was concerned about the Patriarchate of Pec, the monastery
at Decani, the cathedral at Prizren, and the nunnery of Gracanica. My last
telephone call to him was to report on my visit to Gracanica in June,
escorted by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. Runciman sighed: "If Gracanica
is, as you tell me, reduced to a Serb enclave, it is certain that some time
this century the Serbs will inaugurate military action to retake Kosovo." He
was always concerned about the future, however many anecdotes he would tell
about his experience of life in the British elite, in the early years of the
20th century.

Sir Patrick Cormack MP, chairman of the parliamentary All Party Arts and
Heritage Group, regularly had lunch with Runciman at the Athenaeum: "Only
three months ago he was still at the table in the club dining room,
composing mischievous limericks about current personalities."

David Winfield, who delivered the Rhind Lectures at Edinburgh in 1972 on
Cypriot mosaics and wall-paintings, and the day before yesterday delivered
one of the Frank Davies Memorial Lectures at the Courtauld Institute in
London on the conservation of Byzantine paintings, recalls: "Steven Runciman
was extremely generous with advice - and often personal money - to young
postgraduates and scholars endeavouring to start an academic career in the
art history of the Orthodox world."

One of his abiding interests was the life of the monks of Mount Athos, which
he hoped would continue unchanged until Eternity. Runciman expressed not the
remotest sympathy when he heard that the All Party Heritage Group's visit to
Athos in 1996 had resulted in the males' being welcomed and lunched by the
monks while the formidable ladies of the group, such as Baroness Lockwood,
former Chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, Baroness David,
Baroness Hilton of Eggardon, former Commander of the Metropolitan Police,
and Dame Jill Knight MP were confined to a boat which was to come no nearer
the monasteries than 500 metres offshore.

Runciman was always sad that so many professional scholars tended to dismiss
his work as that of a moneyed amateur. However, anyone who came in contact
with him as President of the British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara over
many years must know that he remained the deeply serious scholar who wrote
the epic history of the Crusades.

It was a tradition that at each Feast held by Trinity College, Cambridge, he
could invite a guest, who would stay in the room adjoining his on the top
floor of the Master's Lodge. As one of his guests in the early 1990s I could
see at first hand his astonishing zest for contemporary affairs. Also, his
astonishing physical resilience. In his middle nineties he would still come
to the Edinburgh Festival, and climb the 80 steps to the top- floor flat of
his friend the art historian Nicholas Phillipson.

Runciman was a daily reader of Independent obituaries, "a connoisseur", as
he put it. He took unashamed delight in outliving not only his own
contemporaries, but his friends and acquaintances of the following
generation. He actually asked me when he was 90 if I would promise to
contribute to his own obituary in The Independent, with the remark, "It will
be this year because a palmist in Bulgaria told me of my fate." Runciman's
unquenchable spirit defeated the palmist. He would chuckle with delight that
he had won.

James Cochran Stevenson Runciman, historian: born 7 July 1903; Fellow,
Trinity College, Cambridge 1927-38 (Honorary Fellow 1965); Lecturer,
Cambridge University 1932-38; Professor of Byzantine Art and History,
University of Istanbul 1942-45; British Council Representative, Greece
1945-47; Chairman, Anglo-Hellenic League 1951 -67; FRSL 1952; Kt 1958;
President, British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara 1960-75; Chairman,
National Trust for Greece 1977-84; CH 1984; CLit 1987; died Radway,
Warwickshire 1 November 2000.


Sir Steven Runciman

SIR STEVEN RUNCIMAN, who has died aged 97, was the pre-eminent historian of
the Byzantine Empire and of the Crusades; he was also a celebrated aesthete,
gentleman scholar and repository of the civilised values of Edwardian times.

His magnum opus was the three-volume A History of the Crusades, published
between 1951 and 1954. In its preface Runciman set out his credo, one that
derived from Gibbon, and stressed the claims of grand narrative over narrow
analysis: "I believe that the supreme duty of the historian is to write
history, that is to say, to attempt to record in one sweeping sequence the
greater events and movements that have swayed the destinies of man."

For Runciman, the Crusades were not romantic adventures but the last of the
barbarian invasions, albeit ones that brought about the dominance of Western
civilisation. His opinion was partly determined by his sympathy for the
Byzantine Empire, often at odds with the Crusaders and an oasis of culture
surrounded by unappreciative savages.

It was a condition with which he identified. His prodigious work on a
culture previously damned as effete was largely responsible for the
blossoming of Byzantine studies in Britain.

His view of the historian's task - and his belief that one writes to be
read - demanded that he aim as much at a non-specialist audience as at
fellow academics. His lucid style was admirably suited to this, with a
simplicity and dispassion that had been the ideal of Byzantine
iconographers. The popular success that his books enjoyed showed that others
too came to enjoy the labyrinthine complexities of Levantine history.

They had in Runciman a surefooted guide who could render the past visible
and familiar, as in a memorable description of the messianic Peter the
Hermit - "his long, lean face horribly like that of the donkey he always

James Cochran Stevenson Runciman was born in Northumberland on July 7 1903.
He was the second son of Walter Runciman, a member of Asquith's cabinet, and
the grandson of a shipping magnate, Lord Runciman.

Steven's father was created Viscount Runciman of Doxford in 1937 and the
next year led the mission that persuaded the Czech government to make
concessions to Hitler.

Steven's mother was the first woman to take a First in History at Cambridge
and the first wife of an MP also to secure a seat in the Commons. Steven
breathed a rich mixture of political gossip (he would go on to meet all but
three of the 20th century's Prime Ministers).

One of his first memories was of waiting for suffragettes to carry out their
vow to break the windows of the houses of Cabinet Ministers. With their
afternoon walk imminent, Steven and his young sister inquired of the two
burly ladies waiting outside when their protest would begin, since they were
anxious not to miss the fun. The campaigners left in a huff, and the
Runcimans' was the only house left undamaged that afternoon.

Steven could read Latin and Greek by the time he was six. He was a frail
child, with a shyness that he learned to hide but never overcame. In 1916 he
went to Eton as a King's Scholar; the future George Orwell was in the same
election. In his first year, however, Runciman grew seven inches and his
worried parents kept him at home for much of the remainder of his
schooldays. He passed the time reading history books.

Consequently, when he did see his teachers he thought them ill-informed. "I
wish this boy was kinder to me," read one master's report.

In 1921, Runciman went up as a History scholar to Trinity College,
Cambridge. There he found in the fashionable pose of aesthete a mask for his
diffidence. Among those invited to take roseleaf jam in his rooms - home to
a large green parakeet named Benedict - were two other beautiful young men,
the aspiring arbiters of taste Stephen Tennant and Cecil Beaton.

Beaton hastened to copy Runciman's liking for Fair Isle sweaters and used
him as one of his first models, photographing him with a budgerigar on his

Runciman took every opportunity to travel, visiting Istanbul for the first
time in 1924. There he was told by a gypsy, correctly, that he would have
several illnesses but live to a ripe old age. Runciman had a lifelong
fascination with the supernatural (and the naturally superior); he later
read the tarot for King Fuad of Egypt and became court fortune teller to
King George II of the Hellenes.

On graduating in 1924, Runciman approached practically the only scholar then
interested in Byzantine studies, J B Bury, and asked to be his pupil. Bury
initially refused, relenting only when he learned that Runciman could read
Russian; he promptly thrust articles in Bulgarian at him and told him to
come back in two weeks.

Later lessons proved difficult to arrange, as Bury's overprotective wife
took the precaution of burning all letters addressed to him. Runciman was
reduced to waylaying Bury during his daily walk along the Backs.

Runciman's dissertation on a 10th-century Byzantine emperor secured him a
Fellowship at Trinity in 1927, and provided material for his first two
books, The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus (1929) and The First Bulgarian Empire

His researches had, however, been interrupted by pleurisy, and in 1925 he
recuperated by sailing to China. In Peking, he was summoned to play piano
duets with the ex-Emperor, Henry Pu Yi, who told him that he had chosen his
forename out of fondness for the Tudors; his chief concubine, whom he hated,
was named Bloody Mary.

When Runciman returned to Cambridge, he found that the college servant with
whom he had boarded his parakeet refused to relinquish the bird, telling him
sternly: "Polly likes it here."

Runciman taught at Cambridge until 1938 and was fondly regarded by his
students, among them Noel Annan and Guy Burgess. He also continued to travel
widely, collecting people and places. His charm brought him friends that
included George Seferis, Benjamin Britten and Edith Wharton, while his taste
for exalted company brought encounters with, among others, the royal houses
of Bulgaria, Romania, Siam and Spain.

He saw much of the world before it subscribed to a uniform culture. In 1934
he visited Bulgaria, encountering the Istanbul-bound Patrick Leigh Fermor,
and on the way back from Mount Athos, Greece, in 1937 helped to deliver a
baby. It was, he said, "a sight no innocent bachelor should see".

In Siam he saw a ghost, which dissolved before his eyes, but missed lunch
with Bao Dai when the young ruler of Vietnam broke his leg playing football;
"not," thought Runciman, "a suitable pastime for an Emperor."

During the Holy Fire ceremony in Jerusalem at Easter 1931, he and Princess
Alice, who were seated in a gallery, amused themselves by dropping molten
wax from their candles on to the bald patch below of the unpopular garrison
commander; the irate soldier was the future Field-Marshal Montgomery.

In 1937 Runciman inherited a substantial sum from his grandfather. This gave
him the freedom to surrender his Fellowship and concentrate on writing
books. When the Second World War broke out, he was recovering from severe
dysentery and his health meant that he was only offered the untaxing job of
censoring letters written by the Army's Cypriot muleteers. Burgess got him a
job instead with the Ministry of Information and he was soon back in
Bulgaria as press attache.

Runciman always denied that he had in fact been a spy there, but in the
records of the Italian Secret Service, which fell into British hands, he was
rated "molto intelligente e molto pericoloso".

In 1941 the Germans advanced on Sofia, and Runciman narrowly escaped death
when a bomb exploded in the Istanbul hotel to which he had been evacuated.
The device, concealed in the embassy luggage, had been set to explode aboard
the train from Sofia; but the train reached Istanbul an hour early, and the
bomb killed eight people in the lobby as Runciman was inspecting his room.

In 1942 Runciman was appointed, at the Turkish government's request,
Professor of Byzantine Art and History at Istanbul University. There he
researched his history of the Crusades. Having used his diplomatic contacts
to smooth the accession of the young leader of the order, he was also made
an honorary Whirling Dervish.

>From 1945 until 1947 Runciman headed the British Council in Greece, and from
1960 until 1975 he was President of the British Institute of Archaeology at
Ankara, but after the war he concentrated principally on his writing.

Among his later books was his only excursion into modern history, a
biography of the White Rajahs of Sarawak commissioned by the Colonial
Office, but more notable were The Fall of Constantinople, 1453 (1965) and a
compelling analysis of the massacre in 1282 that ended Charles of Anjou's
hopes of controlling the Mediterranean, The Sicilian Vespers (1958).

His study of dualist heresies, The Medieval Manichee (1947), remains a
standard work, while Byzantine Style and Civilisation (1975) is an exemplary
introduction to the subject.

Although he disliked public speaking, Runciman took up many requests to give
lectures so as to see new places, especially in America. In Alaska in 1970
he visited Eskimos who still followed the Russian Orthodox rite, and at Las
Vegas when he played the slot machines he twice hit the jackpot.

Runciman later became fond of the sunshine of Bahrain, but Greece remained
his first love. He was chairman of the Anglo-Hellenic League (1951-67), and
was instrumental in restoring the ill-maintained grave of Rupert Brooke on
the island of Skyros.

He was much honoured by the Greeks, who named a street after him in the
well-preserved Byzantine town of Mistras. He also became Grand Orator of the
Greek Church, historically the senior lay member of the Patriarch's synod.

For many years he kept a house in St John's Wood, London, where he gave
garden parties, but after he and his brother sold the island of Eigg, which
they owned, in 1966, he made his base a peel tower in Dumfriesshire.

There he kept hens and an excellent collection of drawings, including
sketches of Greece by Edward Lear. He was a Councillor Emeritus of the
National Trust of Scotland.

His partial memoirs, A Traveller's Alphabet (1991), recalled places he had
visited from Athos to Zion, but revealed little of himself. In person he
possessed courtesy, wit and culinary skill, and could, when treated as the
fusty academic that he was not, deploy an armoury of filthy stories. Four
hundred guests came to his 90th birthday party; his cake took the shape of
the greatest of all Byzantine churches, Hagia Sophia.

In 1999, he presented the London Library (of which he was the
longest-serving life member) with a much needed new lift. A plaque within in
it bears his name and the Latin inscription Plurimi pertransibunt et
multiplex erit scientia (the Vulgate version of Daniel xii 4: "Many shall
run to and fro and knowledge shall be increased").

Earlier this year, aged 97, he made a final visit to Mount Athos to witness
the blessing of the Protaton Tower at Karyes (the capital of the monastic
community), which had been refurbished thanks to a gift from him.

Steven Runciman was knighted in 1958 and appointed a Companion of Honour in
1984. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1957.

He remained a bachelor, but liked the idea of marrying an elderly Spanish
Duchess in order to become a Dowager Duke; the title, he felt, would have
rather suited him.


Steve Muhlberger said...

I was just thinking about these obituaries the other day and -- voila!

Anonymous said...

Thanks. It's nice to find these all in one spot!