Sunday, 4 April 2010

Recollections of Christopher Hill by Chris Thompson

I first became aware of Christopher Hill in the Hilary term of 1963. Once a week for eight weeks, I and my fellow undergraduates crossed the snow-covered space between Balliol College’s lodge to its hall to hear Christopher Hill deliver a series of lectures that later formed part of his book, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England. Little of their content remains in my memory although I was struck by his habit of apparently sniffing every two or three sentences. I found this disconcerting.

 I was more impressed by his 1956 work, The Economic Problems of the Church, which I read whilst preparing an essay on the origins of the English Civil War for Roger Howell of St John’s College with whom I was studying the second half of the paper in English History up to 1714. Of the great figures in the University’s History Faculty – Hugh Trevor-Roper, J.P.Cooper, and others – Christopher Hill made the least impression on me.

It was a great surprise to me when, on the point of starting my postgraduate study of the career of Robert Rich, 2nd Earl of Warwick, in the autumn of 1965, I received a letter from the History Faculty informing me that Christopher Hill had been appointed my supervisor. I viewed this choice with considerable trepidation: Christopher Hill was a Marxist, I was not: he was a specialist in Church history and the literature of the early modern period, I did not expect to be either the one or the other, at least, not much of one since my concern in ecclesiastical matters was likely to be more in the realms of patronage than in those of theology or of Church politics. He, I suspect, had concerns about me since I had been a pupil of Felix Markham and John Armstrong at Hertford College.

Our meetings passed amicably enough. He had just been appointed Master of Balliol which meant he had one hundred and one things to do apart from seeing me. He did, however, use what I subsequently learnt was an old Oxford teaching technique, that of remaining completely silent in his chair in one corner of his office whilst I sat nervously in a chair facing him. This was intended to encourage me (and other pupils) to fill the silence by talking more exhaustively about my research and discoveries.

 I did find this a draining exercise. My unease over this procedure remained throughout my time as a postgraduate. He also invited me to a meeting of his other pupils held, to the best of my recollection, on Monday evenings in his rooms where a barrel of beer was available to those who came along with a large number of female undergraduates and postgraduates mainly from St Hilda’s college invited by his wife, Bridget. These proved to be very noisy events. Since I knew no one there, I stopped going after two or three weeks.

I am afraid that both our apprehensions as postgraduate pupil and supervisor were realised. I was definitely not his kind of historian nor he mine. In the areas in which I was working, in colonial and political history, on estate management and county government, he was not equipped to help me and almost completely unfamiliar with the sources. I gravitated towards Hugh Trevor-Roper, John Cooper and Valerie Pearl. Gradually, we grew apart as I became much more critical of his approach to early modern history. The first pre-monitory tremors of revisionism were already being felt in Oxford and in the Institute of Historical Research. The intellectual parting of the ways was inevitable.

After I left Oxford, I only saw him once before 1997. That was in Malet Street in London in the late-1970s. I did teach a course for the Open University in the late-1980s which he had had a large hand in designing but it was hardly recognisable as a reflection of the state of historiography by that time. 

I did, however, meet him and his wife again in January, 1997 when I and he had the privilege of holding Research Fellowships at The Huntington Library in San Marino, California. Our discussions were much more relaxed than they had been thirty years before. He still maintained the position that the English Revolution was a decisive turning point in the seventeenth century and the essential precondition for the emergence of capitalism on the world stage. He was just as resourceful as ever in finding literary evidence and material from the secondary sources to support his claims.

But he was no less puzzled by the change in intellectual fashion that had drawn the historical audience he had once hoped to command away from him since the early-1970s and slightly annoyed by the criticism of figures like Mark Kishlansky. He was still the old Christopher Hill. His wife, however, was already concerned about how much his recent work in composing an introduction to the Calendar of State Papers Venetian had apparently taken out of him. Sadly, this was the first sign of the serious illness that was to take his life within a few years. We corresponded for a short while thereafter but, soon, neither Christopher nor Bridget could sustain such exchanges. She passed away shortly before he died in February 2003.

I am glad to have known him. He was for a period of twenty or twenty-five years one of the major figures in the historiography of early modern England. Now he is to a considerable extent forgotten as John Morrill has pointed out. Postgraduates do not, by and large, read his works any more than established historians look to him for positive guidance. That there will be a revival of interest in him and his output seems highly likely to me. Perhaps his biographer is already at work. He was, as we all are, a product of his time. That is of interest in itself. His intellectual influence may have waned but it will not be forgotten.