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James Burns

Historian;

Born: November 10, 1921; Died: November 4, 2012.

Jimmy Burns, who has died aged 90, was a distinguished scholar, teacher and historian of political thought.

In addition to an encyclopaedic knowledge of his specialist field he also had an unsurpassed insight into the works of Jeremy Bentham, the English philosopher, social reformer and utilitarian whose collection he edited for almost 20 years.

Born and brought up in Linlithgow, the son of a paper mill manager, Professor Burns attended George Watson's Boys' College in Edinburgh from 1932 to 1940. It was as a schoolboy during the 1930s that his interest in politics was sparked, initially by Communism, though towards the end of his life he had become a member of the Scottish National Party.

During the Second World War he studied history at Edinburgh University, where he gained a first and met his future wife, Yvonne. But after graduating as an MA he was then unable to serve his country due to his impaired eyesight. However, he did undertake war-directed employment as a sub-editor in the BBC newsroom between 1944 and 1945.

After that he returned to his studies, this time at Balliol College, Oxford, reading philosophy, politics and economics. There he made some lifelong friends and achieved his second first-class degree.

Coming back to Scotland in 1947, by which time he and Yvonne had married and he had converted to Catholicism, which became an integral part of his life, he took up a post as lecturer in political theory at Aberdeen University. He went on to complete his PhD there and become head of department from 1952 until 1960.

During their time in the north-east he and his wife had two boys and a daughter, Christine, whose death in 1960 was a heavy blow to the family.

The following year they moved south to London where he was reader in the history of political thought at University College London (UCL), becoming professor in 1966 and latterly head of its history department.

From his arrival at UCL until 1979, he was general editor of the Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham. Fascinated by the Enlightenment, he was intrigued by Bentham and one of his most recent publications, which appeared last month, focused on Bentham and the French Revolutionary leader Brissot.

Prof Burns, who was also president of the International Bentham Society and honorary vice-president of the Royal Historical Society, officially retired in 1986 but went on to produce some of his most significant books post-retirement and continued working almost until he died.

He edited The Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought, 350-1450, published in 1988; followed by The Cambridge History of Political Thought, 1450-1900, in 1991. His important volume Lordship, Kingship and Empire: The Idea of Monarchy, 1400-1525, was published the following year, the same year he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy.

He was a man of wide-ranging historical interests: from an early interest in archaeology to his PhD thesis on Theories of Limited Monarchy in 16th Century Scotland and Medieval Scots ecclesiastical history.

Always articulate and an excellent speaker, he delivered lectures and seminars without notes – unable to read them due to his poor eyesight – which gave his talks a certain immediacy.

Regarded as an outstanding teacher and intellectual, he was a modest man whose dedication to his students elicited affection and gratitude.

Predeceased by his daughter and widowed in 2010, he is survived by his sons Michael and Anthony and granddaughters Emma and Anna.

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