Letter from Henry Mayr-Harting

Professor Chaney enjoyed frequent trips to England. In 1970 he met, and become fast friends with, Oxford Professor Henry Mayr-Harting. Upon learning of Professor Chaney’s passing, he sent Lawrence the following letter. It is but one of many such compelling letters the university received describing memories and personal feelings about Professor Chaney. These letters have been bound into a special book and entered into the Lawrence archives.


The first time I came across Bill Chaney's name was when I was preparing a bibliography raisonnee of medievalist publications for 1970. I wrote of his important book, The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England, that it was 'learned and stimulating, if a little inclined to see pagan survival round every comer.' A few years later there sat amongst the undergraduates in one of my Oxford lectures this tall, striking man of 50, listening sharply and from time to time nodding sagely. Afterwards we struck up an interesting conversation, mainly about Ernst Kantorowicz under whom he had studied in his youth at Berkeley, California, which ended with his saying, 'Oh by the way, my name is William or Bill Chaney, the one inclined to see pagan survivals round every comer!' From then on we would invite each other for dinners and coffees whenever he came to Oxford, which was very often. He was extremely generous with his hospitality, frequently inviting several of his friends to dinner at the Eastgate Hotel, where he always stayed and which he called his college. He always made a great impression when I invited him to my college, for he was an engaged and sparkling conversationalist, whose knowledge ranged over many areas, especially music. He was also very amusing about his Chaney ancestors, southeners who had consistently backed the wrong horse in the great conflicts of American history. He occasionally adopted striking rhetorical poses, such as that he hated all music composed after 1800! In fact he loved Schubert, and was known to have enjoyed Brahms, though he definitely switched off when it came to the atonality of the twentieth century. Another rhetorical pose was his always pretending to shudder and avert his gaze whenever he passed the statue of General Sherman in Appleton! I may add that he was equally a wonderful and generous host to me at
Lawrence University.

If I had to use only one word to describe Bill's conversation, it would be the word 'energizing'. What was his secret? Partly his breadth of knowledge, relevantly deployed. More important, however, was his generosity, not only materially, but also his generosity of spirit - generosity in his judgments of the work and the character of others. It was only human that a man of his gifts should seek to make an impact in conversation; equally observable, at the same time, was his willingness to allow others to make an impact on him. I believe also that there was something else which governed his dealings with his fellows, namely that he was a person of deep Christian commitment, albeit this was something that he never wore on his sleeve.


Bill was devoted to Lawrence University and had a strong sense of its history. In fact from the moment he arrived he fell in love with it and seems never to have wanted to leave, not least after he had established himself in his apartment with its fine outlook. One knew that one was in the abode of a person of great culture jn that apartment. As soon as he began his first lecture in Lawrence, the effect on his pupils was almost that of a revelation. It was an intoxicating effect that over the years never really diminished.

Just over two years before he died, I received a card from Bill, dated 6 December 2010 and (as was usual with him) by the saint of the day, St Nicholas of Myra, which showed up his characteristic wit and humour and his game spirit. Having expressed his admiration for President Beck and how she had coped with what he called 'the Bush Depression', he wrote: 'The University asked me to go on- so I go on! After all, two days before Christmas I'll become only 88, so why stop now. My classes keep getting larger, although my grades keep getting lower.

Thus Lawrence has lost in Bill a loyal servant, a superb teacher, a wonderful friend, a highly intelligent and cultured person, and a human being with a quality of greatness about him.

Henry Mayr-Harting

Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube