John Roskell was a historian of the medieval English parliaments, and one of the last representatives of the “Manchester School of History”, founded by T F Tout and James Tait in the 1890s.
Roskell was born in Norton, near Rochdale in 1913 and attended local schools, before entering the University of Manchester in 1930. He graduated with a first class degree in history in 1933, and proceeded to take a MA in 1934. Roskell had already decided to focus on medieval constitutional history, and wrote his masters dissertation on “The Knights of the Shire for the County Palatine of Lancashire”; this was published by the Chetham Society in 1937.
Between 1935-8, Roskell was a research student at Balliol College, Oxford, supported by a Langton fellowship. At Oxford, he was much influenced by V H Galbraith and J G Edwards, and wrote his doctoral thesis on “The Commons in the Parliament of 1422” (awarded 1940). In 1938 he was appointed assistant lecturer in history at Manchester, and he remained there until he joined the Royal Navy in 1940. After seeing service in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic, Roskell returned to Manchester in 1945. He was appointed professor of medieval history at Nottingham in 1952, where he remained for a decade until returning to Manchester as professor of medieval history in 1962. He retired in 1979.
Roskell’s area of expertise was the workings and personnel of the English parliaments in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The history of parliament, rather than the central departments of government, was an emerging area of research in the middle decades of the twentieth century, exemplified by the History of Parliament project (to which, Roskell later became a distinguished contributor). An aspect of this research programme was detailed micro-studies of individual MPs, and Roskell became the acknowledged expert for pre-16th century parliaments. In doing, he developed an unparalleled knowledge of the functioning of medieval parliaments and he argued that parliament was a vital political institution, and within it, the House of Commons played an important representative role, a view which ran contrary to the influential arguments of Richardson and Sayles that the Commons was essentially an adjunct of the House of Lords.
Roskell put forward these views in the published version of his thesis "The commons in the parliament of 1422”, The Commons and their Speakers in English Parliaments 1376-1523(1965) and a series of other articles, which were collected in three volumes as Parliaments and Politics in late medieval England (1981-3). Roskell's views were summarised in an important article of 1964, "Perspectives in English parliamentary history". He also undertook an important study of the Gesta Henrici Quinti with Frank Taylor which was published as an fully annotated edition in 1975. Roskell argued that this document was produced as propaganda for the English party at the Council of Constance in 1417. After retirement, Roskell wrote a detailed account of the impeachment of the Chancellor Michael de la Pole by the parliament of 1386, which was published in 1984. Roskell's final work, the History of Parliament’s volumes for 1386-1421, built on his unrivalled knowledge of medieval parliaments, which was displayed in his detailed introductory essay; this was published in four volumes in 1992.
Roskell was elected FBA in 1968; he was an active figure in learned societies of the North West, being president of the Lancashire Parish Register Society and the Chetham Society; he was also a feoffee of Chetham's Library. Roskell married Evelyn Liddle in 1942 and they had a son and a daughter. He died on 1 May 1998.