Anne Sutton, archivist and historian who fought to restore the reputation of Richard III – obituary

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Anne Sutton
Anne Sutton

Anne Sutton, who has died aged 79, was the most accomplished advocate of all that was laudable in Richard III; there can be little doubt that her work brought him to the forefront of scholarly debate.

Without her energetic promotion of his importance, King Richard’s remains, under that famous Leicester car park, would never have been found and identified. Her role in rehabilitating him as a serious focus for academic research and discourse – often against traditional scholarship – was exemplary.

She had great charm and an exceptional memory, and the ability to connect and understand complicated material. Above all, she approached her chosen subject with an admirable academic thoroughness.

Anne Frances Sutton was born on November 3 1942, the eldest child of Philip and Catherine Sutton (née Howard). Philip Sutton was born in China, son of a Kowloon merchant, while Anne’s mother was of Anglo-Irish descent. Anne inherited some of her grandfather’s Chinese silks, including a splendid blue and gold tunic, which she delighted in wearing at academic conferences.

The face of Richard III at the Society of Antiquaries in London - Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
The face of Richard III at the Society of Antiquaries in London - Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

Her early years were spent in Sidcup, Kent, while her father was away in South Africa, and later in Norwich, where she was educated at Norwich High School for Girls. There, she became hooked on the two most important subjects in her life, history and drama.

Both were to play an integral role when she went up to St Hugh’s College, Oxford, in 1961 to read History under the tutelage of Susan Wood. The stage provided a temptation, and Anne was soon to join the Oxford University Dramatic Society, performing in such plays such as Measure for Measure, Saint’s Day, The Crucible and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

After she graduated a career as a professional actress beckoned, and for a time she was in rep at Scarborough and York, and she could also be heard on the radio. But life as a professional actress in the 1960s was not easy, and by the end of the decade Anne Sutton had decided to give up the theatre and to focus on her second passion, training as an archivist in London. In 1972 she joined the former Corporation of London Records Office, and stayed there until 1981.

She always retained a touch of the dramatic in her manner, and users of the Records Office still recall her long chestnut hair, immense knowledge and (sometimes) daunting personality as she quizzed them on why, exactly, they wanted to consult a particular manuscript.

Anne Sutton's 2016 collection of essays
Anne Sutton's 2016 collection of essays

Her next position was archivist at the Mercers’ Company, holding that post until her retirement in 2002. Her depth of knowledge of the material in her care was soon such that she embarked on a PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London, under the supervision of Caroline Barron, on “The Mercery Trade and the Mercers Company of London from the 1130s to 1350” (1995).

The 15th century was Anne Sutton’s passion. She was a great fan of Olivier’s Richard III, and with the realisation that acting was not for her, she took up the torch for England’s last Plantagenet king. She joined the Richard III Society in 1967 and soon became a leading member, intent on rehabilitating Shakespeare’s villain in the eyes of the public and to improve his academic credibility among her peers.

She played a starring role as a witness for the defence The Trial of Richard III on Channel Four in 1984. Her delivery, knowledge of her subject, and scholarship lent weight to the defence, and the king was found not guilty.

The main aim of Anne Sutton’s research was to provide evidence of the ability and achievements of Richard III as king; at the same time his life served as a peg on which to hang a series of detailed works which might serve as models for the modern scholarly history of other medieval English kings.

Anne Sutton's 1990 book about Richard III
Anne Sutton's 1990 book about Richard III

Her 1984 book with Peter Hammond, The Coronation of Richard III: The Extant Documents, is the only such work about any English coronation, just as her study (with Livia Visser Fuchs), Richard III’s Books (1997) is the only book on any medieval English monarch’s library.

A growing stream of articles on Richard began in 1975, and came to exceed a hundred, in addition to 14 books of which she was sole or joint author or editor. Her last monograph, The King’s Work: The Defence of the North Under the Yorkist Kings, 1471–85 (2021), is a characteristic tour de force of primary research, detailed analysis and originality. It is also a monument to Anne Sutton’s ability to work for many hours every day, with intense focus which helped her to ignore physical discomfort – even when she was already ill.

One of her particular achievements in the promotion of Ricardian research was as editor of The Ricardian, the journal of the Richard III Society, for 43 years, from 1979 until her death. She was good at dealing with the beginners among her contributors, guiding them towards a proper attitude to the evidence and a balanced presentation, but her own growing reputation also attracted experienced authors in the field and ensured that the scholarly level of the journal rose steadily over the years.

She would not suffer fools gladly, but she also enjoyed collaboration, especially when she felt that her study of Richard III would benefit from the expertise of her collaborator.

Philip Sutton wrote a prophetic letter to his daughter to mark her first birthday in 1943: “If you have the common sense and tenacity of the English, and the culture and brilliance which the Irish can give you, we will be proud of you.” This she achieved.

Anne Sutton was unmarried.

Anne Sutton, born November 3 1942, died June 18 2022