The Anglo-Saxons retain a powerful grip on English imaginations. The discovery in 2009, just south of Watling Street, the ancient trackway paved by the Romans, of gold and silver artefacts that became known as the Staffordshire hoard attracted much attention but raised many questions. One of the few people equipped to propose solutions was Nicholas Brooks, emeritus professor of medieval history at Birmingham University, who was soon appointed to the panel co-ordinating research into the finds.
His was the kind of scholarship that reaches out to the public. Among his special interests were Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and warfare, and the payments, in the form of weapons and armour, owed by the elite as death duties to the king and recycled in the form of gifts to warriors. Nicholas convincingly explained the hoard's apparently odd composition – only the hilts and pommels of swords, for instance, not the blades – in terms of its being the working capital of one department of a royal armoury near Lichfield, the bishopric of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. The hoard was found south-west of Lichfield, and nearby is Tamworth, site of the chief Mercian royal residence.
Nicholas, who has died aged 73 of pancreatic cancer, was not only a historian. As a young archaeologist, he identified one of King Alfred's forts, and discovered the structure of another's ramparts. An early paper, co-authored with his former school history master Harold Walker and published in Anglo-Norman Studies Vol 1 in 1978, found unsuspected evidential value in the arms and armour depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. But his greatest achievements lay in the study of documents.
Born in Virginia Water, Surrey, Nicholas was the son of WDW Brooks, a consultant physician at St Mary's hospital, Paddington, London, and Phyllis (nee Juler), a physician's daughter and talented pianist and figure-skater. The third of their four children, he was educated at Winchester college, and graduated in history from Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1961.
His interests and imagination had been fired originally by stays at the family's holiday cottage in Kent, which lay on the continuation of Watling Street south of Canterbury. He became fascinated by Kent's historic landscape. As a mature scholar, he showed, in a brilliant foray into the 14th century, the effectiveness of the communication strategies used by Kentishmen in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.
A series of path-breaking earlier medieval studies proved that works ordained by medieval kings to maintain the bridge over the river Medway at Rochester, and persisting in various administrative incarnations until the Bridge Trust of the present day, originated in late Roman arrangements. Nicholas's view was long, and never insular.
Anglo-Saxon Canterbury was central to Nicholas's life's work. His Oxford DPhil on the Canterbury charters, supervised by Professor Dorothy Whitelock at Cambridge, was finished in 1969 and published as The Early History of the Church of Canterbury (1984). The charters record donations of property to the church, nearly all by lay benefactors, giving details of where estates lay and how valuable they were, when they were received, on what terms leases were granted, and disputes arising later. What makes Canterbury's charters special is their large number, the fact that they mostly survive as originals, and that through them can be traced the workings of lay piety, and the buildup of Canterbury's lands through the Anglo-Saxon period, which explains its importance as a great institutional landowner with huge political clout.
The full edition of the 185 charters, completed through 30 years' further editorial labours, shared between Nicholas and his colleague Susan Kelly, with unstinting support from the British Academy, was published in the two bulky volumes of Charters of Christ Church Canterbury (2013). Canterbury's archival hoard brings to light earlier medieval English history in all its guises: religion, language (many are in Old English), law and politics, landscape and economy, and connections with continental Europe.
While still working on his DPhil, Nicholas was appointed in 1964 to his first academic post, at the University of St Andrews. There he met Chlöe Willis, whom he married in 1967, and there they stayed until 1985.
In 1978, when Nicholas became general editor of the series Studies in the Early History of Britain (later, Studies in Early Medieval Britain), he gave a memorable paper to the Royal Historical Society on King Alfred mobilising his people against Viking attacks. Thirty volumes of studies were published under his guidance, and four under his personal editorship or co-editorship: Latin and the Vernacular Languages in Early Medieval Britain (1982), St Oswald of Worcester (1996), St Wulfstan and his World (2005) and Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald (2009). These publications were important in establishing an approach to Anglo-Saxon England that understood it in the context of the whole of the British Isles and contacts with continental Europe.
In 1985, Nicholas was appointed to the chair of medieval history at Birmingham University. There, history prospered under his wise and supportive headship, as did the faculty of arts during his stint as dean. He was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1989. After his retirement in 2004, a group including several of his former students, now academics themselves, produced a festschrift, Myth, Rulership, Church and Charters (2008), testimony to Nicholas's personal warmth and kindness as well as to his academic distinction.
There are two stories of Nicholas's retirement, both true. One is that he spent more time with Chlöe and the family, that he continued to enjoy gardening and walking, that he and Chlöe found new enjoyment in choral singing, and that he spent more time on bridge playing than bridge archaeology. The other is that the Canterbury charters were published, as were several substantial papers, including two of his most original on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, that he continued to supervise research students, that he presided as he had since 1991 over the British Academy's Anglo-Saxon charters project, and that he continued to sit on the fabric advisory committees of two great cathedrals, Canterbury and Worcester. King Alfred left his memory in good works; Nicholas followed suit.
He is survived by Chlöe, a daughter, Ebba, and a son, Crispin, and three grandchildren.
• Nicholas Peter Brooks, medieval historian, born 14 January 1941; died 2 February 2014