Vale Christopher Hill

A master historian.


Martin Kettl


Christopher Hill, who has died aged 91, was the commanding interpreter of 17th-century England, and of much else besides. As a public figure, he achieved his greatest fame as master of Balliol College, Oxford, a post he held from 1965 until 1978. Yet it was as the defining Marxist historian of the century of revolution, the title of one of the most widely studied of his many books, that he became known to generations of students around the world. For all these, too, he will always be the master.


It would be a pardonable exaggeration to say that Hill created the way in which the people of late 20th century Britain - and the left in particular - looked at the history of 17th-century England. As he never tired of pointing out, some of the themes he illuminated so richly had already been explored by left-wing scholars in the 1930s. But from 1940, when he published his tercentenary essay, The English Revolution 1640, his own voluminously expanding and unfailingly literate work became the starting point of most subsequent interpretation, even for those who rejected his method and conclusions.


No historian of recent times was so synonymous with his period of study; he is the reason why most of us know anything about the 17th century at all. He was, EP Thompson once said, the dean and paragon of English historians.

Hill was born in York, where his father was a solicitor. His parents were Methodists, a fact to which he attributed his lifelong political and intellectual apostasy. Though his life was to be the embodiment of a secularised form of dissent, his high moral seriousness and egalitarianism surely had roots in this radical Protestant background.


At St Peter's school in York, his academic prowess was immediately evident. It is said that, when Hill was 16, the two Balliol dons - Vivien Galbraith and Kenneth Bell - who marked his entrance papers agreed to award him 100 per cent, before travelling to York to capture him for the college and prevent him going any further with a Cambridge application. Galbraith, in particular, was to remain an immense influence.


Hill's association with Balliol was to continue, with only brief interruptions, from his arrival as an undergraduate in 19