Persian scholar who produced classic works on Iran and was invaluable in protecting Britain's interests there.
Professor AKS Lambton, who died on July 19 aged 96, held the Chair of Persian at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University, from 1953 to 1979; she was a towering figure in her field, unrivalled in the breadth of her knowledge concerning Iran.
She was the author of two classic works – Landlord and Peasant in Persia (1953), about land tenure in Iran, and The Persian Land Reform, 1962-66 (1969) – and her wealth of experience of Iran, which she began to accumulate on her travels there in the mid-1930s, contributed vastly to an understanding of the complex relations within those societies. Her mastery of the history of government in Iran, and in the wider Islamic world, bore fruit in four important works – Theory and Practice in Medieval Persian Government (1980): State and Government in Medieval Islam (1981); Qajar Persia (1987), and Continuity and Change in Medieval Persia (1988) – and she was an editor of The Cambridge History of Islam, volumes 1-11 (1971). Not surprisingly, her expertise, especially her knowledge of the Persian people, was in demand beyond academe, for instance in the aftermath of Iran's nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) in 1951, brought about by Iranians' grievances at the risible revenues received by their country. Lambton's insights into the strengths and weaknesses of Iran's then prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, proved a valuable aid to Britain's eventual success, in concert with America, in precipitating an end to Mossadegh's premiership and in ensuring a continued, though reduced, British share in Iran's oil production. AIOC became British Petroleum. Her knowledge of the Persian language – to which her Persian Grammar (1953) and Persian Vocabulary (1964) testify – was put at the disposal of the Foreign Office. As press attaché at the British Embassy in Teheran during the war, she impressed the ambassador with her command of the language; and later she taught Farsi to diplomats and armed services personnel destined for Iran and Afghanistan, insisting on a polished form of the language known as ketabi. She was one of a few foreigners with whom Iranians preferred to converse in Persian, and she would invariably deliver her learned papers to Iranian audiences in their own language. Her steely dignity and her knowledge of their country also helped to earn her a special place, and Iranians who knew her held her in high regard. To some, though, she was something of an irritant. She did not hold a high opinion of the last Shah, and drew his attention to what she saw as the shortcomings of his reforms. Bruised by her criticism, and having banned her from Iran for a time, the Shah did not speak to her when he welcomed the British delegation to Iran in 1971 for the celebrations to mark the 2,500th anniversary of Persian monarchy. When her kinsman Lord Lambton, then parliamentary under-secretary at the Ministry of Defence, visited Iran in the 1970s, the Shah told him: "Your cousin has given me more trouble than any of my own subjects." Taken to its conclusion, Professor Lambton considered that Twelver Shi'ism – entailing belief, widespread in Iran, in 12 divinely ordained leaders, or imams – could lead to violent revolution. This view she reached in the 1960s. After the outbreak of revolution in Iran and Khomeini's assumption of power in 1979 she did not return to the country she knew so well. Ann Katharine Swynford Lambton, known as Nancy to family and friends, was born at Newmarket on February 8 1912, the second child of George Lambton, fifth son of the 2nd Earl of Durham, and his wife Cicely, the elder daughter of Sir John Horner, of Mells Park in Somerset. George Lambton had a brilliant career on the Turf. As an amateur jockey he rode Parasang (a parasang is a Persian unit of length) to victory in the Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris in 1888. As trainer to Lord Derby at the Bedford Lodge stables at Newmarket, he was British flat racing champion trainer in 1906, 1911 and 1912. He trained two Derby winners, and Swynford, for whom Nancy was named, won the St Leger in 1910. Nancy's mother Cicely was one of the last generation of the Horners to live at Mells, which the family had acquired at the dissolution of Glastonbury Abbey. Mostly given to rural pursuits, the Horner family had none the less produced a Coptic scholar, and was strongly inclined to Evangelical piety. This echoed in Nancy Lambton, a country woman as well as a scholar, and later a deaconess in the Church of England. Nancy grew up at the Newmarket stables, and it was as a result of being laid up after a riding accident there that she was introduced to Persian studies by the Orientalist Sir Denison Ross. She had no formal schooling, but in 1930 enrolled as a non-degree student at London University's School of Oriental Studies (later SOAS), of which Ross was the first director. Subsequently, she registered to read for a degree in Persian, which she obtained in 1935. She also studied Arabic under Professor HAR Gibb, who became perhaps her chief academic mentor. In 1934 she won the Ouseley Memorial Scholarship in Persian and, having visited Iran during the long vacation that year, was awarded an Aga Khan travelling scholarship in 1936-37. She completed the research for her doctoral thesis, concerned with Seljuq institutions in pre-Ottoman Turkey, and staying at Esfahan she also worked at the British Hospital, run by Anglican missionaries. She made friends among the Persians, too, and gained sufficient knowledge of the language to publish her first book, Three Persian Dialects, in 1938. She was awarded her PhD in 1939, and later that year was back in Iran again when the Second World War broke out. Thus it was that she came to be appointed press attaché at the British Legation (Embassy from 1943) in Teheran, to which Sir Reader Bullard was appointed as Minister (later Ambassador) in December 1939. On her return to Britain, Nancy Lambton was appointed senior lecturer in Persian at SOAS, gaining promotion to reader in 1948, and to the Chair in Persian in 1953. On her retirement in 1979 she became Professor Emeritus and an honorary fellow, and continued to take an interest in academic institutions connected to Iran. In particular, she was a staunch friend to the British Institute of Persian Studies (BIPS), being instrumental in the retention of the threatened BIPS library and meeting rooms in Teheran. She received many honours, beginning with an OBE in 1942. She was a Fellow of the British Academy, and an honorary Fellow of New Hall, Cambridge. Nancy Lambton's fearless integrity and general austerity made an impression on all who met her. She could be formidable in her treatment of time-wasters, but was patient with those who were seriously trying to find their way in her field and encouraging to all enthusiasts. She never married, but was always intensely loyal to her family. No one who met her could fail to notice that she possessed striking good looks. Family legend had it that, when she was a young girl in Paris, her beauty caused men in cafés to stand on their chairs and applaud as she passed by. Later, her well-cut tweed coats and skirts made no concessions to changing fashions. Nothing could have been more sensible than her shoes.After horses had ceased to play a leading part in her life, Nancy Lambton became a determined bicyclist, both in London and in the desert wastes of Iran. She also played a strong game of squash and, rather like Gladstone, found working with an axe a good relaxation from intellectual exercise. She felled trees and split logs with skill and gusto. Living in retirement at Kirk Newton, in a small house near her family's estate in north Northumberland, she enjoyed lambing. She was an devout Christian and gave unstinting support to Jerusalem and the Middle East Church Association which sustained a link with the Anglican communities of the Middle East. She served for many years on the JMEC Advisory Council. In the dioceses of Durham and Newcastle she made her mark through a series of Lenten lectures, in addition to playing a part in her home parish church of St Gregory, where she remained faithful to the Book of Common Prayer. The Lambeth Cross of St Augustine was presented to her in 2004 in recognition of her long and distinguished service and commitment to Christianity and the Church of England.