Tribute to Trevor-Roper

A.J.P. Taylor

The festschrift, a collection of essays in honour of a senior professor, used to be dismissed as a rather tiresome German habit. Now, I think, it has become embedded in English academic procedure. A festschrift is a gratifying compilation to receive and sets an interesting task for the contributor. But it is the most difficult type of book to review. Where is the underlying theme, the spirit that holds together, in this case, 24 historical essays ranging from the question of who, if anyone, wrote the poems attributed to Homer to the imperialism and bellicosity of Great Britain before the First World War? I contemplated this problem gloomily for a long time and then stumbled on the answer.

It was provided, as has so often happened in my life, by Hugh Trevor-Roper himself. For the volume has more than the 24 essays. It also includes, at the beginning, the inaugural lecture as Regius Professor which Hugh gave in 1957, and, at the end, the valedictory lecture from the same post which he gave in 1980. The inaugural gave a brilliant survey, at once profound and very funny, of the war that raged for so long between the advocates of rigid scholarship in the presentation of history and those more elegant writers who regarded the writing of history as a form of literary art. Very wisely Trevor-Roper came down on both sides. The valedictory was more polemical: a demolition of those historians who seek in history for immutable laws and inevitable outcomes. With irresistible case Trevor-Roper demonstrates that though there are tendencies in history, there is also the working of accidents which change the course of history and could not have been foreseen. What would have happened, Trevor-Roper asks, if Franco had said ‘Yes’ instead of ‘No’ when he met Hitler at Hendaye in the autumn of 1940? Should we now be hailing the victory of National Socialism as determined by the logic of events? To this view I add my meed of applause as one who has always rated accident as a more potent force in history than any laws, Divine or Marxist.

Something more stands out in these two lectures: an elegance of style and a simplicity of utterance. Trevor-Roper has written few long books – and, in my opinion, only one, The Last Days of Hitler, of the first excellence. As an historical essayist, however, he has no rival, at any rate since the death of Lewis Namier. When I read one of Trevor-Roper’s essays tears of envy stand in my eyes. It is not only that his essays are models of English prose. Each has a clear theme which is gradually brought into shape. At the end, we feel there is at least one inevitable characteristic in history: the conclusion of the argument to which Hugh Trevor-Roper has been leading us from the beginning. The quality that binds together the essays in this festschrift is not a shared outlook in history, still less an interest in a single period. It is devotion to the writing of history as clear forceful exposition which delights the reader, while also instructing him.

After this introduction, there is no escaping the fact that the only way of presenting the contents of the festschrift is as a catalogue, somewhat selective, picking out those I most enjoyed or are most within my range. We start with Homer and who wrote his poems. This essay by Professor Lloyd-Jones demonstrates anew the difference between ancient and modern scholarship which we often forget. We modernists have our views constantly disturbed by the discovery of new evidence. Classical scholarship consists of looking at the same evidence from different angles. Lloyd-Jones and the great Bentley had much the same body of texts before them, but the conclusions they and others have arrived at are very different. Moral for the modern historian: we should look at the same things in different ways a good deal more, and clamour for new evidence a good deal less. As Namier used to say, nearly everything is already known if you know where to look for it.

I pass lightly over the Dark or Middle Ages, which are more or less an era of mystery for me except for their buildings. I make an exception for an essay on religion and the English nobility in the later 14th century, if only because in the 15th century religion led Sir John Fastolf to beaueath most of his war booty to Magdalen College. With Braudel on ‘The Rejection of the Reformation in France’ we are getting on. As a parting thought, Braudel throws in the suggestion that the Reformation halted wherever it ran into the bounds of the ancient Roman Empire: ‘The frontiers of Catholicism were the Rhine and the Danube.’ Surely Britain was part of the Roman Empire? Perhaps this is why the reformed Church of England managed to call itself a Catholic Church as well.

Nothing about Cromwell, I am sorry to say, though Trevor-Roper has written much about him. Instead, the only essay in social history – a fascinating piece by Valerie Pearl on ‘Social Policy in Early Modern London’. Kevin Sharpe on Archbishop Laud and the University of Oxford is much in Trevor-Roper’s spirit. I greatly enjoyed David S. Katz on the problem, much debated in 17th century England, of what language Adam spoke. After some false starts with Egyptian and ‘the language of Canaan’, Hebrew won the contest: hence the increase in Hebrew studies during the century. Republicans seem much concerned with this search for forebears. Blair Worden shows how the republicans of the Long Parliament ransacked the classics for their examples. Richard Cobb catalogues the fantasy figures which adorned the Jacobin imagination. Biographical essays predominate in more recent times – mostly Whig, I am glad to say. I cannot decide which was the more influential and which was the more neglected – Lord Shelburne or Lord Holland. They make an appropriate pair, both having been educated at Christ’s College.

The last two essays make a surprising appearance in a volume which I had mistakenly supposed to be in honour of a thoroughgoing Tory figure. The first is by Robert Blake, himself an almost official Tory historian. Once more, ‘the missing telegrams’ concerning Chamberlain’s pre-knowledge of the Jameson Raid are displayed and the answer is decisive: Chamberlain knew and persistently deceived the House of Commons.

Finally Michael Howard on ‘Empire, Race and War in Pre-War Britain’. This shows alarmingly, but convincingly, that the Edwardians took much the same view of the British Empire as the Germans took of the Reich; that they had much the same views on Race, thinking themselves superior to everyone else; and that they spoke with the same enthusiasm about war and the warlike virtues. I am glad to read these subversive views.

Such are the essays in tribute to Trevor-Roper or most of them. They are all worthy of the occasion in their different ways. I take this opportunity to make a personal remark. I often read that Trevor-Roper and I are rivals or even antagonists. On my side, and I can confidently say on Hugh’s, this is totally untrue. We have always been good friends and no cross word has ever passed between us. Trevor-Roper once criticised a book of mine, The Origins of the Second World War, in somewhat polemical terms. Of course he was wrong on every substantial point, but I should not have minded even if he had been right. As it was, his denunciation helped to sell the book. It gives me great personal pleasure that Hugh has received this volume of essays in his honour.