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Richard Vaughan, 1927 - 2014

Melanie Colón

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Richard Vaughan was born at Maidenhead on July 9 1927, the son of a Colonial Service lawyer who eventually became Chief Justice of Fiji. As a 15-year-old pupil at Eastbourne College during its wartime evacuation to Radley, his skill at catching in his hand food regurgitated by nesting swifts provided such valuable new evidence on their diet that he was acknowledged (as “a schoolboy near Oxford”) in David Lack’s classic Swifts in a Tower.

His precocious expertise soon led him to be invited on field trips by many other leading ornithologists of the day, including James Fisher, WB Alexander, HN Southern and BW Tucker. While still in his teens he contributed to Country Life the first of what would eventually be nearly 100 articles on birds, illustrated with his own photographs.

On National Service after the war, stationed on Salisbury Plain as an Education Corps librarian, his reading of all 400 books which were standard issue to Army libraries led him to aspire to become a professional historian. At Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, he was awarded a double First, and in 1953 became a college Fellow. Fluent in Italian (he would eventually become conversant with 13 languages), he spent one summer wandering around parts of the Abruzzi so remote that each valley still had its own distinct dialect.

In 1955, according to legend, he proposed to his future wife Margaret Morris only on condition that she could identify each species of duck in St James’s Park. In 1958 he published what became the standard work on the 13th-century chronicler Matthew Paris, who was also an artist (a talented painter himself, Vaughan created Christmas cards meticulously illuminated in medieval style).

Richard Vaughan observing bird life
Between 1962 and 1976 he completed his major work, a four-volume account of the pivotal part played in late-medieval Europe by the Duchy of Burgundy, having in 1965 become professor of history at Hull. As his family grew to include six children, he took them on camping holidays across Europe, where they could swim while he photographed birds — notably for his pioneering study of the rare Eleanora’s falcon, which nests in colonies on unoccupied Mediterranean islands, feeding its young on migrating birds.

Unaware of his reputation as an ornithologist, the Hull history department was bemused when three star-struck young birdwatchers turned up to ask whether its professor was “the Eleanora’s falcon Vaughan”.
So immersed was he in the Middle Ages that he was known to observe that “history stopped in 1492”. But in the late 1970s he leapt forward to the modern age, producing in 1978 a revealingly original account, based on key documents, of the origins of the European Community. In 1981 he became professor of medieval history at the Dutch university of Groningen, where he also became chairman of its Arctic Centre.

Vaughan’s interest in the Arctic had been sparked by a spell in Hull hospital, where a fellow-patient had been a retired whaler. The whaler’s stories led Vaughan to take an expert interest in both the history and birds of the Arctic. His many subsequent visits to the northern parts of Norway, Greenland, Russia and Canada inspired more books in addition to several he had already published on British seabirds. They included his monumental In Search of Arctic Birds (1992) and The Arctic: A History (1994)

After a year at the University of Central Michigan, he retired to a cottage on the North York Moors and then, in 1996, to Porlock in Somerset. Although this saw an end, after 50 years, to his inimitable contributions to Country Life, under such titles as “The Choughs of Grindelwald”, “Tragedy of the Ebro Delta” and “Amorous Lapwings”, his knowledge of bird life across Europe was so comprehensive that, when a friend asked him whether it was possible that birds of prey he had seen circling high above the Gorge du Tarn in southern France could have been Egyptian vultures, he immediately replied: “There were 21 of them, weren’t there? They were introduced there a few years ago.”

In 2005, with his daughter Nancy, an academic naturalist, he published the definitive monograph on the rare stone curlew, a bird he had loved since first observing it on Salisbury Plain 60 years earlier. In 2010 his last book, Rings and Wings, gave a delightful account of the four 19th-century pioneers of bird-ringing, at which Vaughan himself had become expert in his early teens, setting traps round the Devon garden where he spent his wartime holidays.

Richard Vaughan is survived by Margaret, who acted as his field assistant for five decades, and by their two sons and four daughters.
Richard Vaughan, born July 9 1927, died March 4 2014

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