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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 1931 until his retirement as master 47 years later. Academic honours regularly fell his way, starting with the prestigious Lothian prize in 1932, and continuing with a first-class degree in 1934 and an All Souls fellowship that winter. But he was a successful rugby player too, the scorer of a famous cup-winning try for Balliol. Even more lastingly, he had become a Marxist. Exactly when and why this happened is uncertain, since Hill was always notoriously inscrutable about discussing his personal life. He once claimed it came about through trying to make sense of the 17th-century metaphysical poets, but although he read Marx as an undergraduate, the moment of his conversion to communism is elusive.

His contemporary, RW Southern, once teasingly remembered "a time when Christopher was not in the least bit leftish", but Hill was an undergraduate during the period of the great depression, the hunger marches, the New Deal, Hitler's rise (he visited the Weimar Republic before going up to Oxford), and the first (favourable) impact of Stalin in the west. He was a regular attender at GDH Cole's Thursday Lunch Club, where, as he once put it, "I was forced to ask questions about my own society which had previously not occurred to me."

Certainly by the time he graduated, Hill had joined the Communist party. In 1935, he spent a year in the Soviet Union, during which he was very ill, but also formed a lasting affection for Russian life - and a somewhat less lasting one for Soviet politics.

After Moscow, he had two years as an assistant lecturer at University College, Cardiff, before returning to Balliol as a fellow and tutor in modern history. In 1940, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry, before becoming a major in the intelligence corps and being seconded to the Foreign Office from 1943 until the end of the war. This was, to put it mildly, an intriguing period, about which he rarely let fall much detail.

By this time, he had begun to publish, at first pseudonymously, articles and reviews which, among other things, did much to draw attention to the burgeoning Soviet school of English 17th-century studies. Then, in 1940, arising out of intensive debate among a group of Marxist historians, who included Leslie Morton, Robin Page Arnot and - particularly influential on Hill - Dona Torr, came the decisive The English Revolution 1640. The essay was originally published as one of a collection of three reflections (the others were by Margaret James and Edgell Rickword). Hill's contribution, which was subsequently published alone, was a no-holds-barred assertion of the revolutionary nature of England between 1640 and 1660, and an assault on the traditional presentation of these years as an aberration in the stately continuity of English history.

"I wrote as a very angry young man, believing he was going to be killed in a world war," Hill later told an interviewer. The book, he said, "was written very fast and in a good deal of anger, [and] was intended to be my last will and testament." It has rarely, if ever, been out of print since.

The discussions surround-ing Hill's essay also produced, in 1946, the Communist Party Historians Group, an association he regarded as "the greatest single influence" on his subsequent work. This formidable academy, which included Edmund Dell, Maurice Dobb, Rodney Hilton, Eric Hobsbawm, James Jeffreys, Victor Kiernan, George Rudé, Raphael Samuel, John Saville and Dorothy Thompson, has a good claim to have redefined the study of history in Britain, especially after the launch, in 1952, of the journal Past And Present, of which Hill rapidly became the moving spirit and, later, the doyen. It also generated the path-breaking collection of documents, The Good Old Cause, that he edited with Dell in 1949.

The active, 20-year involvement with communism, which also led to his short biography, Lenin And The Russian Revolution (1947), came to a crisis after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Along with many in the CP, Hill had become disenchanted with the party's lack of democracy and its reluctance to criticise the Soviet Union. Both issues came to a head in the late weeks of 1956, though his own break did not come until the following year. He was appointed to a CP review of inner-party democracy, but the rejection of the critical minority report, written by Hill (with Peter Cadogan and Malcolm MacEwen), precipitated his final departure.

These were watershed years in Hill's personal life too. A wartime marriage to Inez Waugh, the former wife of a colleague, produced a home life which combined the high seriousness of Balliol Marxism with an extravagant bohemianism. It also produced their daughter Fanny Hill, later a dashing figure on the Oxford scene, who drowned off the Spanish coast in her 40s. The marriage collapsed early and, in 1956, he married again, this time to Bridget Sutton, then a history tutor with the Workers' Educational Association in Staffordshire. Turbulence was replaced by the single greatest happiness of Hill's life. With Bridget (obituary, August 13 2002), he had a son and two daughters, one of whom died in a car accident.

After 1957, Hill's career ascended to new heights as he began the remarkable output of books on which his reputation will rest, and which continued undiminished until he was well into his 80s. Hill always argued that the connection between leaving the CP and his wider fame was post-hoc rather than propter-hoc, and it is certainly true that 1956-57 caused no revolution (let alone a counter-revolution) in his analysis of the English revolution. On the other hand, the Bridget effect can hardly be underestimated.

If the steady flow of books which began with Economic Problems Of The Church (1955) can, to some extent, be seen as a succession of more scholarly explorations of the themes sketched out in the early didactic essays, they also reflect the extraordinary sweep of Hill's interests and mind. Central to the whole project was a patient fascination with religion, represented, in particular, in his attempt to understand the revolutionary power of puritanism.

But Hill's explorations were in no way bound by traditional or preconceived theories. The single, most striking and controversial aspect of his method was the way in which he subtly identified intellectual connections, currents and continuities between the most unlikely pieces of evidence - from scraps of court records to Paradise Lost and Pilgrim's Progress. His use of literary sources was one of his most fascinating characteristics.

Many of the tasks he set himself were laid out in his next book, Puritanism And Revolution (1958). They were further explored in Society And Puritanism In Pre-Revolutionary England (1964) and the remarkable Intellectual Origins Of The English Revolution (1965, and extensively revised 31 years later), this last based on his 1962 Ford lectures. Alongside came more popular works of exegesis - a Historical Association pamphlet on Cromwell (1958), the bestselling (but not adulatory) biography God's Englishman (1970), the textbook The Century Of Revolution (1961) and the hugely successful Penguin economic history, Reformation To Industrial Revolution (1967).

Those who heard Hill deliver the lectures on which it is based - lectures delivered in a nervous, slightly stuttering voice - will always reserve a special place for his 1972 study of radical and millenarian ideas, The World Turned Upside Down. Not only was this one of the very few history books to be turned into a play (at the National theatre), it was also a work made more exciting by the time in which it was written, an era of counter-cultural energy which Hill observed (and quietly celebrated) from the Balliol master's lodgings.

This was a period of immense academic daring (and, thought some, of over-reaching) as Hill scythed through received tradition in his study of AntiChrist In 17th-century England (1971) and his controversial study of Milton And The English Revolution (1977), which, like many of his later works, was written at the plain but lovely house in Périgord which Bridget badgered him into buying in 1969.

Meanwhile, in 1965, Hill had defeated Ronald Bell in the election for master of Balliol, a success which caused raised eyebrows (it was only 10 years or so since academics with Hill's politics had been, to all intents and purposes, blacklisted from many posts) and much press attention. His tenure was deft and collegiate, and he tried to maintain his teaching and research amid the administrative and ceremonial duties. He never seriously hid his enthusiasm for the two main innovations of his mastership - the opening of male-only Balliol to women, and the representation of students on the college governing body. "Common sense varies among the young," he admitted, "as among the old."

Retirement found his productivity undiminished. He moved to Sibford Ferris, on the Cotswold hills, and, for two years, worked as a visiting professor at the Open University, an entirely characteristic effort to bring his learning to a wider audience. Then he settled down to further books: Some Intellectual Consequences Of The English Revolution (1980); The World Of The Muggletonians (1983); and The Experience Of Defeat (1984), an account of the Restoration made poignant by the reverses 20th-century leftwing politics were suffering at the time.

A marvellously vivid study of Bunyan followed in 1988, before The English Bible In 17th-century England (1993) and Liberty Against The Law (1996). Three volumes of essays were published in the 1980s - throughout his life, Hill wrote some of his most challenging and original work in articles and reviews.

Hill was honoured by an OUP festschrift, Puritans And Revolutionaries, when he retired from Balliol in 1978, and Verso published a series of tributes and criticisms, Reviving The English Revolution, 10 years later. Yet, for the last 20 years of his life, he became once again a more controversial figure.

His methodology was famously assaulted by JH Hexter in a Times Literary Supplement review in 1975, and his assessment of Milton was powerfully denounced by Blair Worden. A reaction against his big reading of 17th-century history took root in the work of Conrad Russell, John Morrill and others. Yet Morrill's tribute in 1989 - "If we can be sure that the 17th century changed England and Englishmen more than any other century bar the present one, we owe that recognition to him more than to any other scholar" - shows how, even in relative eclipse, Hill remained the central point of reference in 17th-century studies.

People always felt there was something enigmatic about Hill. Whether as a friend walking through Oxfordshire or the Dordogne, as a tutor hunched in his armchair discussing an essay - and still more on formal occasions - he kept his cards close to his chest, forcing you to do the talking, making you listen to what you were saying in the way that he was listening too. But then he would make a joke, often just a pointed ironic observation, that made you love him. As someone once said, although he affected to be severe, he could not help being benign.

But tough too. Always. Hill once gave a radio talk marking the centenary of the publication of Das Kapital. He ended it by telling how, in old age, Marx had bumped into a fellow revolutionary from the 1848 barricades, now prosperous and complacent. The acquaintance reflected that, as one got older, one became less radical and less political. "Do you?" Marx replied. "Do you? Well, I do not!" And nor, he clearly intended us to understand, did Christopher Hill.


John Edward Christopher Hill, historian, was born on 6 February 1912 and died on 23 February 2003. This obituary was originally published in The Guardian on Wednesday 26 February 2003 and is republished with kind permission (© The Guardian). Martin Kettle is a columnist for The Guardian. Image courtesy Centre for the Understanding of Politics and Society (CUSP), Kingston University.


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