Sir Richard William Southern was born 8 February 1912 in Newcastle upon Tyne, the second of timber merchant Matthew Henry and Elizabeth Eleanor Southern’s four children. In 1921 Richard was enrolled in the Royal Grammar School of Newcastle and in 1929 began reading modern history at Balliol College, Oxford. While at Balliol, he fostered a love for medieval history, assisted in no small part by the influence of his tutor, Vivian Galbraith. Following the completion of his first degree, he was offered and accepted a junior research fellowship at Exeter College, Oxford. Having held the fellowship for four years, in 1937 Southern succeeded Galbraith at Balliol as fellow and tutor in medieval history.
Southern put aside his post in mid-1940 and responded to the war effort by enlisting as a private soldier in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire light infantry. In 1941 he was commissioned in the Durham light infantry where he trained as a tank commander. In 1943 he was transferred to the political intelligence department of the Foreign Office and in 1944 he was promoted to major. On 31 May 1944 he married Sheila Constance Margaret Crichton-Miller. The couple had two sons, Andrew (1945) and Peter (1947).
When the war ended in 1945, Southern resumed his position at Balliol, taking on the additional responsibility of serving as the university’s junior proctor. Sadly, his academic career was to be interrupted yet again, as in 1950 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was forced into convalescence for two years. Ever the dedicated historian, while on leave he was able to compose his first book, The Making of the Middle Ages, published in 1953.
In 1960 Southern became a fellow of the British Academy and in 1961 he left his post at Balliol to become the Chichele Professor of Modern History at All Souls College, Oxford. In 1969, he left All Souls to succeed J. D. Mabbott as president of St. John’s College, Oxford. He served in this capacity for twelve years.
Southern’s scholarship earned him a wide variety of professional acclaim. He was the recipient of many honorary degrees from universities in Britain and the United States. He became an honorary fellow of Balliol, Exeter, and St. John’s Colleges in Oxford and of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. In 1987 he was awarded the Fondazione Internazionale Balzan’s prize for medieval history. In honour of his tutor Vivian Galbraith, he handed over his prize money to the university, in order to establish a research fellowship in medieval studies at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford.
Having retired from St. John’s, Southern continued to pursue academic research and writing. During this time he published several books and continued to give public lectures, even into his eighties. His last project was planned as a trilogy entitled Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe. Reflecting his 1970–1972 Glasgow Gifford Lectures and his lifelong preoccupation with the learning of the twelfth century, the work was supposed to explore how Scholastic writers applied classical rhetoric to the problems of the Christian faith. The first volume of the trilogy, The Foundations, was published in 1995, with assistance from Benedicta Ward and Lesley Smith. The second volume, The Heroic Age, was released in 2001, only weeks before Southern’s death on 6 February 2001.
Southern’s most significant works include: The Making of the Middle Ages (1953); Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages (1962); Saint Anselm and His Biographer: A Study of Monastic Life and Thought 1059–c.1130 (1963); Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (1970); Medieval Humanism, and Other Studies (1970); Platonism, Scholastic Method, and the School of Chartres (1979); The Monks of Canterbury and the Murder of Archbishop Becket (1985); Robert Grosseteste: The Growth of an English Mind in Medieval Europe (1986); Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape (1990); and Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe, 2 vols. (1995, 2001).