Papers of Plantagenet Somerset Fry

Reference and contact details: GB 0006 RUL MS 5121
Title: Papers of Plantagenet Somerset Fry
Dates of creation: 1946-1996
Held at: Reading University Library
Extent: 97 cu ft
Name of Creator: Plantagenet Somerset Fry
Level of Description: fonds
Language of Material: eng


Administrative/Biographical History

Plantagenet Somerset Fry was born Peter Fry in January 1931, the third child and only son of a distinguished naval engineer and a pianist. In his youth he added Somerset to his surname by deed poll, and Plantagenet was a nickname, relating to his advocacy of Richard III, which he adopted at university. As a sickly and accident-prone loner, interested in collecting historical facts and autographs, Peter did not fit in at school at either Christ Church Cathedral School or Lancing College, nor did he shine academically. In 1948 he entered St Thomas's Hospital Medical School, but although he enjoyed himself and met the girl who later became his first wife, he failed his exams and had to leave after a year.

From this time on his father refused to support him further financially and Peter took a variety of jobs in order to survive. In 1950 he joined the staff of the National Film Board of Canada as a librarian and projectionist and at the same time began to read for a London University external degree, supplementing his income by writing articles for Picture Post and other magazines. In 1952 at the age of 21 Peter came into some money left to him by his grandmother ten years earlier. On the strength of this he gave up his job, married Audrey Russell against the wishes of his parents, and went on a spending spree for six months, indulging his love of motor cycles and crashing at Brands Hatch. He failed his London degree, and was penniless again, so he became a schoolmaster in Weybridge while living in Kensington, acquired a taste for bizarre clothing and a vintage Rolls Royce which he could not afford and aimed to go to Oxford.

In 1954 Peter went up to Oxford to read history at St Catherine's Society, later College, a modern foundation for less well-off, non-residential students. He and Audrey had only a small London County Council grant to live on and times were hard, but Plantagenet was in his element and found that the eccentricities which had set him apart elsewhere helped him to fit in to Oxford. In 1955, in search of extra income, he became a contestant on the TV show Double Your Money and won the jackpot of £512. The strangely dressed red-bearded young man with an unusual name and an encyclopaedic knowledge of historical facts became a celebrity, and he received several offers from publishers. His first book, Mysteries of History, was published before he went down and his second, a biography of Elizabeth I called The Cankered Rose commissioned. This began a successful career as a writer of popular histories for adults and children and guides to antiques and collecting. Until 1980 Plantagenet combined this with various editing and public relations jobs, culminating in five years as editor of books for HMSO, and then became a full-time writer. From 1980 until 1984 he was a Visiting Scholar at Wolfson College, Cambridge and from 1984 onwards a Senior Member of that institution, a privilege that he greatly enjoyed.

Although successful professionally Plantagenet was less happy personally. In 1956 his wife Audrey joined a year's horse-riding expedition from Spain to Belgrade and the marriage did not survive the separation. In 1958, soon after winning another jackpot on Double Your Money, Plantagenet married Daphne Yorke, a 22 year old debutante, and Hughie Green was a guest at the wedding. Unfortunately, soon afterwards she was diagnosed with an incurable kidney disease, a fact which Plantagenet concealed from her for two years until her death in February 1961. He set up a medical research trust in her memory which still exists. In the summer of the same year Plantagenet met Leri Butler, a divorcee 24 years his senior, and married her in November 1961. This marriage ended in divorce in 1973 and in 1974 Plantagenet married a writer, Fiona Whitcombe, with whom he collaborated on histories of Scotland and of Ireland and who survived him.

Plantagenet's health was never robust and he also suffered injury in a succession of car crashes, after one of which he was confined to a wheelchair for some years. He could be over sensitive, especially where his academic credentials or the correct spelling of his name were concerned, and took offence easily. Although he did make a living from writing non-fiction, a notoriously difficult task, he was perpetually worried about money and, as he did not use an agent, had to do all his own negotiations with publishers.

In 1996 Plantagenet Somerset Fry was told that he was dying of bowel cancer. He refused treatment and died by suffocating himself with a plastic bag at the age of 65.

Scope and Content

The collection consists of manuscripts, typescripts and proofs of many of Somerset Fry's works including Mysteries of History, The Cankered Rose, Castles, Roman Britain, Great Commanders, Constantinople, The Wonderful History of the Jews, 3000 Questions and answers, The Children's History of the World, The Tower of London, Antique Furniture and Collecting Junk; poetry; biographical notes; business correspondence; newscuttings; photographs of Somerset Fry

Administrative Information

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of Fiona Somerset Fry, 1997

Access Conditions

Access conditions: Open to all researchers. No reader's ticket is required but an appointment is necessary. Check www.library.rdg.ac.uk/colls/special/archivesaccess.html for contact details and opening hours.

Further Information

Finding Aids

There is a rough list of the contents of this collection in the archives reading room