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Dr Mark Whittow (1957-2017)

It is with great sadness that I must pass on the shocking news of the death of Dr Mark Whittow, our former Official Fellow in History, a huge figure at St Peter’s for many years, and subsequently Fellow of Corpus.

Mark died in a car crash in Oxfordshire on Saturday night. He was 60.

Mark had only a few weeks ago been elected Provost of Oriel where he was due to start at the beginning of the 2018/19 academic year. The History Faculty have established a page where friends, colleagues and former students can leave their thoughts.

He was a Fellow here from 1998 to 2009 and held the post of University Lecturer in Byzantine Studies. He worked above all at St Peter’s alongside Prof Lawrence Goldman, who knew him as a close friend and colleague. The tribute that follows comes from Lawrence:

“The death of Mark Whittow, fellow and tutor in History at St Peter’s from 1998-2009, in a road accident on the M40 on 23 December, deprives Oxford of one of its most admired teachers and colleagues. It only adds to the sadness that Mark had just been elected Provost of Oriel College, a position he was to take up in October 2018. He would have made a brilliant head of house, bringing to Oriel the same passion for Oxford, the tutorial system, college traditions and collegiality that he brought to St Peter’s during his time here. 

Mark was thoroughly Oxford. He read History at Trinity College, stayed on for a D.Phil, and was elected to a Junior Research Fellowship at Oriel. He chose to work on Byzantine History, a subject he studied through texts and also through its material cultures: he was a keen archaeologist who went on many expeditions to the near east, and he used this second academic identity in all his research and teaching. When Mark began his career, Byzantine History had a small place in the History Faculty. One of his many achievements was to build the subject into a major component of the undergraduate curriculum and develop the Masters in Byzantine Studies, which he ran, into one of the most notable courses of its type in any university in the world. On the strength of his reputation as an inspiring teacher and as the author of The Making of Byzantium 600-1025 (1996) Mark was elected to a tutorial fellowship in History at St Peter’s in 1998 in succession to Henry Mayr-Harting. 

He was in every way a perfect undergraduate tutor. Mark enjoyed working with young minds; he believed in a broad, liberal education; he was a legendary host of the best student parties in Oxford. A tutor of the old school, he knew the role that alcohol, good food and good fellowship can play in the education of a historian. He was hard working but always relentlessly cheerful with the capacity to uplift everyone with whom he came in contact. He loved his subject and he could communicate that commitment whether teaching the fall of the Roman Empire, Anglo-Saxon England, Carolingian Europe or the Crusades, the subject of a famous Further Subject which he led. Indeed, he had an enormous range of interests and expertise and relished the challenge of teaching across two millennia of history. He read widely alongside all the other work of a tutor and was conversant with all the latest ideas and arguments in modern history as well. Teaching alongside him was an education. Mark could grab a regular college seminar by the scruff of its neck and turn it into a master class in the most sophisticated historical ideas. 

Many reading this will have vivid memories of Mark on History Reading Parties when third year historians went off for a week in the Easter vacation before their finals. Whether teaching us how to read an ancient landscape, how to understand a church, how to follow the line of a medieval city wall, or to assess the defensibility of an iron age fort, Mark showed us that History was more than the books we read and the lectures we attend. In the evenings he cooked. He was an accomplished chef who loved good food and drink and knew its value in bringing people together. After dinner we would talk History long into the night. 

When the lectureship in Byzantine Studies, located in Corpus, became vacant Mark left St Peter’s with a heavy heart. He could teach anything to anyone – the last of the Oxford tutors who would end a tutorial with the simple question ‘Well, what would you like to study next week?’ – but he loved being an undergraduate tutor best of all. Though his primary responsibilities now became the supervision of postgraduates and he had to narrow his horizons somewhat – no more impromptu lectures on Napoleonic campaigns or admissions interviews on the gentry controversy – he continued to teach undergraduates, especially from St Peter’s, in his own time. 

The opportunity to be Senior Proctor then came his way at Corpus and he relished a year, 2016-17, at the very heart of the university, privy to all its policies and issues. He was made for the pomp and ceremony of this ancient role, though he conducted the business of the Proctors’ Office with his usual efficiency. Widely admired across the university, he was a natural candidate for the Provostship at Oriel, another college with which Mark kept his relations warm. His election in early December 2017 was greeted with genuine joy. Many of us welcomed the election of a head of house who had so much experience at the sharp end of Oxford, who knew so much about the university, and who was utterly loyal to its traditions and methods of learning. 

Our thoughts are with Helen, his wife, and their three children George, Mary and Flossie, the last of whom who was born while Mark was at St Peter’s and was another addition to the college family. They have lost a devoted husband and father, and we have lost a mentor, colleague and friend."

Lawrence Goldman, Senior Research Fellow (Fellow and Tutor in History, 1990-2014)

Mark’s funeral will take place at 2:30pm on Monday 12 February at Christ Church Cathedral.  Our heartfelt condolences go to Mark’s wife, Helen, and all his family. An obituary by Lawrence Goldman and Henrietta Leyser has been published in the Guardian here. Tributes have also been published in the Times (paywall), the Independent, the Daily Telegraph (paywall) and on the BBC website

Mark Damazer CBE

Dr Mark Whittow (1957-2017)