Hugh Trevor-Roper, who died in January 2003 shortly after his 89th birthday, had several of the qualities cherished in Britain’s so-called ‘national treasures’. His schoolboyish playfulness and relish of mischief never deserted him, nor did an unerring compass in matters of style, which assured an elegant, and seemingly effortless, command of language and bearing. Above all, the British public tends to salute resilience in adversity; and for a scholar could there be any greater trauma than the terrible humbling and hounding of the proud, stoical Trevor-Roper in the aftermath of the Hitler Diaries fiasco? Yet Trevor-Roper never quite attained the status of national treasure notwithstanding an appearance on Desert Island Discs. Too much blood had been spilled; he was too divisive a figure, and too firmly – and perhaps unfairly – bracketed with the political right. In his later years, to be sure, Trevor-Roper was a much mellower figure than the controversialist who once seemed to delight in giving offence when correcting the historical errors of – variously but far from exhaustively – Arnold Toynbee, A.J.P. Taylor, Maurice Cowling, Lawrence Stone and the Cerberus of Scottish historiography, William Ferguson. But if the softer, gentler Trevor-Roper outlived many – though by no means all – of his foremost adversaries, their pupils and heirs had not forgotten the scars borne by the previous generation. In his battle with Trevor-Roper over matters of recusant history, the ‘convert-novelist’ Evelyn Waugh had offered some barbed advice to the young Oxford historian, whom Waugh presumed to have disgraced: the only ‘honourable course’ open to him was to ‘change his name and seek a livelihood at Cambridge’. Decades later Auberon Waugh would exploit the Hitler Diaries affair to continue his father’s vendetta; on this occasion, the indisputably disgraced historian was advised to change his sex and go to Essex.
By then, Trevor-Roper had indeed changed his name and gone to Cambridge. Ennobled at the instigation of Mrs Thatcher for his defence of the Anglo-Scottish Union during the devolution campaign of the late 1970s, Trevor-Roper had taken the title of Lord Dacre of Glanton, and had left the Regius Professorship of Modern History at Oxford for the mastership of Peterhouse, the oldest and most conservative college in Cambridge. His years at Peterhouse (from 1980 to 1987) were far from happy. An ultra-reactionary caucus attempted to frustrate the master’s attempts – however cautiously liberal – to reform the college. Nevertheless, by the time he retired Trevor-Roper was able to boast that he had brought the fellows of Peterhouse ‘to order, if not to life’. As it happened, the doings of 17th-century Peterhouse featured in the splendid collection of essays he published in the year of his retirement, Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans. The index entry for ‘Cambridge Colleges, Peterhouse’ betrayed uncanny parallels, some believed, with Trevor-Roper’s perception of its members in the 1980s: ‘high-table conversation not very agreeable … four revolting fellows of; main source of perverts’. Just as admirers of his hero Gibbon often head straight for the footnotes, so the first port of call for connoisseurs of Trevor-Roper is the index.
At Peterhouse, as throughout his career, it was Trevor-Roper’s patrician anticlericalism which distinguished his more progressive – because freethinking – brand of conservatism from what he perceived as the type of right-wingery that might lapse all too easily into a fascistic authoritarianism. Trevor-Roper’s very individual and historically informed reading of politics is one of the running themes of his letters from the 1950s to the art critic Bernard Berenson, which have been edited with unobtrusive wit and erudition by Richard Davenport-Hines.During the Suez crisis of 1956 Trevor-Roper concluded that ‘there is in England, as in other countries, a fascist world: the world of lower-middle-class conservatives who have no intelligence but a deep belief in violence as a sign of self-importance,’ and who, moreover, ‘hate foreigners, especially if they come from “inferior” races’. The sociological precision of the snobbish anathema is unique neither to Trevor-Roper nor to the patrician soft right; but it is characteristic of his social and political outlook. Fanaticism of all sorts, religious as well as political, on the right as well as the left, was as likely as not to come, so he perceived, from places like Battersea and Biggleswade. Yet his snobberies, though real and enduring, were spectacularly inconsistent, and did nothing to limit his capacity for friendship or the generosity of his academic patronage, which was often unconventional and free of social or even ideological constraints. Similarly, although Trevor-Roper moved easily in establishment circles, he despised the tribal pieties of Tory mediocrities: ‘I find myself disapproved of by the right (to which I belong) for not respecting the taboos which, through timidity and lack of logic, they cravenly worship, and supported by the left (which I repudiate) for opposing not the right but the humbug of the right.’
Indeed, the young Trevor-Roper had recognised more than a germ of truth in Marxism’s materialist interpretation of history; only the most troglodyte of conservatives could be blind to such a basic insight. The anticlericalism of his first book, Archbishop Laud (1940), was underpinned by an economic approach to church history. During his wartime service in Intelligence, when he welcomed the fact that the prejudices of his superiors did not preclude using the outstanding talents of that known Communist Kim Philby, and then as a maverick participant in the Congress for Cultural Freedom at the height of the Cold War, Trevor-Roper decried ‘lunatic’ anti-Communism. In time he distanced himself – though never totally – from the marxisant outlook of his earlier years. In the field of historical interpretation, Marxist perspectives remained useful on the grand scale, but they missed the part played by contingency and sudden unexpected turning points – by comedy even – in the unravelling of events: ‘I used to think that historical events always had deep economic causes: I now believe that pure farce covers a greater field of history, and that Gibbon is a more reliable guide to that subject than Marx.’
But what primarily repelled Trevor-Roper about Marxism was its quasi-religious dimension, in particular its apocalyptic prophesying. His study of the Jesuits, he felt, ought to have forewarned him about the closet fanatical subversion of Philby and his Communist coreligionists. For he never missed a chance to slight what he perceived as antisocial religiosity. Even The Last Days of Hitler (1947), a bestselling investigation of court life in the bunker, which he carried out as an extension of his wartime duties, created a furore in unexpected quarters because of its suggestive comments about Goebbels’s training at the hands of the Jesuits. Little surprise then, that when Trevor-Roper was Harold Macmillan’s eventual choice as Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford in 1957, Evelyn Waugh should complain that the appointment ‘showed malice to the Church’.
For someone who disdained the study of theology as such, and indeed doubted not only Christ’s divinity but even whether Jesus had any existence at all as a historical person, Trevor-Roper made a massive contribution to the study of early modern religious history. In particular, he nailed the myth, associated in the first instance with Max Weber but later generally accepted by early modern historians, that Calvinist Puritans were of a more progressive cast of mind than their ecclesiastical opponents. Rather, Trevor-Roper detected the glimmerings of the Enlightenment in an Arminian tradition of open-minded, quietist high churchmanship, which he traced back, ultimately, to Erasmus. His study of the Huguenot doctor Sir Theodore de Mayerne (1573-1655), put together after his death by one of his most brilliant pupils, Blair Worden, is itself a powerful corrective to the balder version of his own argument. As he recognised, before its decline into localised scholastic sterility – not least in the Scotland of the Covenanters – the early 17th-century Calvinist International had been a vital and pluralistic phenomenon, and far from singlemindedly Calvinist.
Trevor-Roper’s real task in his purported biography of Mayerne is the recovery – through the lens of one particular case-study – of a ‘lost moment’ in intellectual history, the diaspora of independent-minded and creative so-called Calvinists from some of the most advanced parts of Europe in the wake of the Counter-Reformation: from Italy in the 1550s, from France after the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacres of 1572, from Flanders after the fall of Antwerp in 1585. Calvinism, it transpires, was a flag of convenience for this undoctrinaire and cosmopolitan elite, many of whose members displayed scant interest in predestinarian ideas or in theocratic blueprints for a godly society. Indeed, as Trevor-Roper points out, many of them were ‘intellectual reformers, “liberals”, even “libertines”, in the tradition of Erasmus, who were driven to protect themselves by assuming a “Calvinist” armour’. The Calvinist label tells us little or nothing about the ‘hidden life’ of these émigrés. Mayerne himself, it turns out, had a wide range of intellectual preoccupations, from public health to the chemistry that underpinned the visual arts, but his Calvinism, such as it was, was inherited and discreet.
Mayerne’s family origins were Piedmontese and French, though he was born in the Protestant oasis of Geneva in the aftermath of the anti-Huguenot pogroms of 1572. He was educated at universities in Germany and France, and his first and second wives were both Dutch. His long career as a court doctor was spent in France and then in England, though he also acquired a castle and estate in Bernese territory, to which he longed – in vain – to retire. Telling the story of Mayerne’s cosmopolitan life would be beyond most historians. Trevor-Roper used archives in six countries, deciphered sources in eight classical and modern languages, and ranged across a number of historical sub-disciplines with virtuosity and assurance: political and diplomatic history, art history, ecclesiastical history, and the histories of science and medicine.
As Worden reminds us, Trevor-Roper was drawn to the history of medicine in part by family ties. His father had been a country doctor in Northumberland, and his brother Patrick was an eminent ophthalmologist, who, like Mayerne, extended his medical interests, quite naturally, into the study of art. However, Worden also makes clear that Trevor-Roper’s work on life in Hitler’s bunker had revealed to the young historian the unsung but highly significant part played by doctors in court societies; and this remained one of his career-long hobby-horses.
Trevor-Roper shows how the histories of medicine and religion were interwoven in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Traditional Galenist physicians were offended by the new iatrochemistry propagated by the Paracelsians, and the intellectual warfare that ensued intersected with confessional divisions. Mayerne’s spell at the court of Henri IV – the one-time Protestant for whom Paris had been worth a mass – threw up confessional and professional challenges, with the hysterical Galenists of Paris proving more of a nuisance to the Huguenot Mayerne than the Catholic dévots of the court. Mayerne left France in 1611, fearing that Henri IV’s assassination would lead to a Romeward drift in court and society. Following in the footsteps of that other intellectual giant of the Protestant diaspora, the philological scholar Isaac Casaubon, Mayerne sought, and received, sanctuary at the court of the British philosopher-king James VI and I, where erudition was prized over orthodoxy – or indeed decorum.
England was to be Mayerne’s de facto home for the rest of his life. The wars of religion had injected a crucial element of paranoia into court life. Kings and leading courtiers not only feared assassination at the hands of their confessional enemies, but could not relax even at their own table. Could a prince ever be sure that his veal pie had not been poisoned? The role of court doctors assumed ever greater salience, but at the risk of their reputation, career and possibly life if things should go wrong. Fortunately, Mayerne was able to flourish at the court of King James, despite the mysterious death of James’s heir, the bluff and patriotically Protestant Prince Henry, and the scandalous poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury, a victim of the factional ambitions of the pro-Hispanic Howard faction. Tasty comestibles, stomach cramps, medical interventions and geopolitical strategy were, it transpires, all crucial parts of the same story.
Indeed, while it was one of Trevor-Roper’s claims to distinction as an intellectual historian that he had the novelist’s capacity to bring alive the character of his protagonists as well as their ideas, his focus here on medical history allows him to use Mayerne’s record of his consultations and prescriptions to touch on his characters’ pressing concerns with their bowels and bladders. The visit to England of the prominent Bernese diplomat Hans Rudolf von Erlach involved Mayerne in high diplomacy under the cover of medical consultation. One of Mayerne’s specialisms was the treatment of urological complaints, particularly the urinary obstruction known as a caruncula, which he had treated in the case of the young bishop of Luçon, the future Cardinal Richelieu. Erlach too suffered from a caruncula – in his case it had arisen from ‘a particularly energetic copulation’. Through Mayerne’s offices, Erlach was able to persuade James I to use his diplomatic service towards achieving a treaty of mutual defence between Berne, Geneva and Savoy in 1617.
Dark clouds were now gathering across Europe. The adroit diplomacy of the ecumenical and pacific James I could not prevent the descent into the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War. Moreover, James’s death in 1625, and the succession of the pale and unconvincingly Protestant Charles I would eventually lead to civil wars in Britain and Ireland. It was time for Mayerne to be on his travels again. But Charles I, perhaps aware of Mayerne’s nuisance value abroad, would not give him permission to leave for his Swiss estate. Mayerne stayed on in London, but for the last decade and a half of his life it was a city under the control first of Puritans and Parliamentarians, and then of the Cromwellian junta. The moment of the tolerantly cosmopolitan Calvinist International had passed.
Nowhere was the history of Calvinism more vivid than in Trevor-Roper’s own Scottish backyard. Brought up in Northumbria, he later spent vacations from his Oxford professorship in the Scottish Borders at his house, Chiefswood, near Melrose. What better vantage point from which to research the curious mutations of ‘Scotch’ Calvinism, not least how the descent into a dark and brutal theocracy in the mid-17th century was followed by the sudden emergence of a post-Calvinist Scottish Enlightenment in the 18th? Trevor-Roper detected a fellow-traveller of the Calvinist International in the 16th-century polymath George Buchanan, an Erasmian humanist who went on to adopt the cladding of Scots Calvinism at its most dour, but without, it appeared, possessing any of the inner belief. Buchanan – in later life the bloodthirsty but effective tutor of the young James VI – was clearly a far less congenial subject than Mayerne. Nonetheless, the most recent of Trevor-Roper’s posthumous publications, The Invention of Scotland, shows how the learned and cosmopolitan Buchanan imported Huguenot political theory into late 16th-century Scottish historiography, allowing him to construct a political myth of an ancient Scottish constitution in which the Gaelic monarchy was accountable to the political nation.
The Invention of Scotland, originally delivered in 1980 as the Walter Turner Candler Lectures in Atlanta, and admirably refurbished in book form by Jeremy Cater, describes the vicissitudes of the myths Scots have told about themselves from the late medieval period to the present. The book is in three parts. The first relates the emergence in the 14th century of a pseudo-history of forty fabulous kings dating back to 330 BC. This provided the historical foundation for Buchanan’s political myth of an ancient Scottish constitution, which retained credibility in Scotland – if not elsewhere in these islands – until it was demolished by the Scots Jacobite priest Father Thomas Innes in 1729. It was succeeded, according to Trevor-Roper, by a literary myth. In the early 1760s, James Macpherson published what he claimed were translations of two ancient epic poems, Fingal and Temora, which he attributed to Ossian, a blind Celtic bard of the third century AD, who was soon noisily proclaimed the Scottish Homer. The works of Ossian caused a literary sensation across Europe, but soon sceptical voices were raised not only in England and Ireland, but even among Ossian’s former champions in Scotland. The part played by the philosopher David Hume eerily anticipates Trevor-Roper’s own encounter with a plausible forgery. Hume, who had strongly supported Macpherson at first, much to his later embarrassment, soon came to reject the claim that Fingal was an ancient poem, even ‘though fifty bare-arsed Highlanders’ should testify to its authenticity. With the literary myth now in tatters, Scots found solace in the sartorial myth of kilts and tartanry, whose surprising and far from ancient origins Trevor-Roper delights in exposing. The setts, or patterns, identified with particular clans had a pedigree which was certainly murky, but not at all ancient. Cluny Macpherson, it turns out, had not only been bought ‘off the peg’ in 1822, but the pattern had earlier been associated with the lowliest of family names: ‘previously having been sold in quantity to a Mr Kidd, the same tartan had been labelled “Kidd”.’ Elements of this story – particularly the sections on Buchanan and on tartanry – Trevor-Roper had told before, though in discrete portions, and it is welcome to see the history of Scottish self-mythologising brought together in a coherent whole. Although he had published an essay in the Spectator in 1985 on the subject, the Ossianic section of the current book is almost wholly new, and is an explosive contribution to that field of literary and historical study.
Trevor-Roper, it seems, had come to the conclusion that James Macpherson was merely the frontman in the Ossian affair. It was inexplicable that the unscholarly Macpherson, who was ‘helpless’ in the face of old Gaelic manuscripts, could have produced a translation of the extant historic materials, such as the 16th-century Book of the Dean of Lismore, out of which the supposed epic of Ossian might have been derived. Moreover, how could this ‘pushing philistine’ produce the sublimity and sensibility of Fingal, even as a hoax? For everybody who met him – Scots included, who might have been inclined to bias in his favour – agreed that, far from being a ‘man of feeling’, James Macpherson was something of a brute. Trevor-Roper suspected that behind the poetry of Ossian – as scholars once conjectured about Homer – lay a small committee; and its presiding genius was not the ‘raw Highland booby’ James Macpherson, but his learned cousin Lachlan Macpherson, the laird of Strathmashie. Another crucial intervention came from the Knoydart schoolmaster Ewan Macpherson, whose familiarity with the old Gaelic script had contributed to the success of James Macpherson’s tour of the west Highlands in 1760 in quest of manuscripts. In a stunning piece of detective work, Trevor-Roper shows how Macpherson, who knew contemporary Gaelic, probably translated the poems of Ossian from an ‘intermediate Gaelic text’, compiled largely by Strathmashie from the historic materials which James Macpherson, with some assistance, had trawled but could not himself read. And why, indeed, did Macpherson change direction in mid-career, turning aside from Ossian – a sure-fire money-spinner – to other literary and political projects? Was it because the death of Strathmashie in 1767 saw the passing of Ossian’s principal ghostwriter? In the last months of 1760, when the two cousins had worked together ‘in an exciting collusive work of imaginative reconstruction’, it was surely the accomplished Strathmashie who had taken the lead. Is there a whiff of Trevor-Roper’s own prejudices in the overly sharp contrast between the erudite laird and the ‘crude provincial, secretly aware of his own inner emptiness’? Perhaps so, but his daring scholarship will remind specialists in Scottish history – who have proved especially hostile in the past to his excursions into their territory – of several unexplained aspects of the Ossian affair.
Throughout his career Trevor-Roper prized historical versatility and the pursuit of interesting questions, wherever they might lead, above the maintenance of rigid academic boundaries. In this respect, he found Scottish historians were no worse than Oxford’s medievalists, who appeared thirled to a narrow strip cultivation that yielded very predictable harvests. On the other hand, as he knew all too well, scholarly trespassing carries serious risks. It is sad that the general public now remembers one of the finest early modern historians for an overhasty judgment made under pressure – and soon recanted – on the subject of the Nazis, one of many subsidiary interests. Nevertheless, even his fiercest critics would concede that this recent spate of posthumously published work – with at least one more collection of essays to come and several more projects known to exist in draft form in varying stages of completion – has at last put paid to the charge that Trevor-Roper was a young man in a hurry.