He was born on 22 April 19 and studied for an undergraduate history degree in his hometown of Aberystwyth before moving to St John's College, Cambridge, for a PhD on the neglected area of the "Estates of the Higher Nobility in Late Medieval England".
After working as a research fellow at St John's from 1951 to 1954, he became a tutor at what was then the St Catherine's Society at the University of Oxford, and a founding fellow when it was granted full college status in 1962. Professor Holmes remained there until 1989, serving for a time as vice-master, and ended his career as Chichele professor of medieval history, a post he held from 1989 to 1994.
Despite an initial focus on the English Middle Ages, his interests always ranged more widely. By 1960, he had produced a celebrated article on Florentine merchants in London, and this soon led to a far deeper engagement with the history and culture of the Renaissance.
Professor Holmes learnt Czech to study the controversies associated with the medieval reformer Jan Hus, but the difficulties of working in Prague during the Communist period made this something of a blind alley.
A year's sabbatical in Florence, on the other hand, resulted in an important book, The Florentine Enlightenment (1969), which fed into a short study of Dante (1980) and eventually Florence, Rome and the Origins of the Renaissance (1986).
Appointed a fellow of the British Academy in 1985, he delivered a series of academy lectures, which were published as Art and Politics in Renaissance Italy (1993), a body of work that was notable for incorporating the visual arts within broader historical trends.
A formidable scholar, Professor Holmes was very successful at reaching a wider readership in more popular books such as Hierarchy and Revolt (1975), an overview of European history from 1320 to 1450, The Oxford History of Medieval Europe (1988), Renaissance (1996) and The Oxford Illustrated History of Italy (1997).
Many recall him as a warm presence in the Bodleian Library. Josie Harris, emeritus professor of modern history at Oxford, remembers him as "very congenial, clever, witty and kind. And, though he hated it, he was a tremendously efficient administrator. He got through such tasks very quickly because he had a motto that no administrative paper should pass his desk more than once."
Professor Holmes died on 29 January. He is survived by his wife, Anne Klein, an academic expert on French literature, a son and two daughters.