I was interested to read or rather to re-read Ann Talbot’s reflections from March, 2003 on Christopher Hill’s life and career. This assessment had two aspects, one political dealing with his trajectory as a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and admirer of the former Soviet Union until his departure after the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and a second considering his historiographical legacy and its influence on and importance for later historical work.
As one of his former postgraduate pupils, I ought to begin by saying that I always got on perfectly well with him in personal terms in the late-1960s and again when I last saw him and his wife, Bridget, at the Huntington Library in California in January, 1997. By then, of course, his corpus of work had been overtaken by the so-called ‘revisionist’ revolt of the 1970s and by the assault on his methods by figures like J.H.Hexter and Mark Kishlansky. It is with the second of Ann Talbot’s arguments that I most concerned here.
Hill’s academic career was centred on the University of Oxford apart from a very brief spell in University College, Cardiff and military and diplomatic service during the Second World War. In Oxford, he was one of a cohort of distinguished historians – people like Hugh Trevor-Roper at Christ Church College and then as Regius Professor; John Cooper at Trinity College; Lawrence Stone until 1963 at Wadham College; John Habbakuk at All Souls and later Jesus Colleges; Menna Prestwich at St Hilda’s College; the young Keith Thomas at St John’s College; Valerie Pearl at Somerville College; and rising doctoral researchers like Nicholas Tyacke, Michael Mahony, John Morrill, Blair Worden and many others – which meant that his voice was one amongst many. He was less of a dominant figure in Oxford than many have supposed.
Nor was he the first to raise a revolt against the Whig interpretation elaborated by T.B.Macaulay and G.M.Trevleyan. R.G.Usher had disputed in the mid-1920s the claims of rising Parliamentary power advanced by S.R.Gardiner and C.H.Firth while R.H.Tawney had, by 1940, elaborated an economic and social interpretation of the causes of the English Revolution or Civil War that precipitated the famous ‘storm over the gentry’ once it had been enthusiastically embraced by Lawrence Stone. Christopher Hill was thus not the only begetter of a Marxist or materialist approach to the events of the 1640s and 1650s.
It was actually outside Oxford where Hill’s influence was chiefly felt in classes run by the Workers’ Education Association, in summer schools run by the Communist Party and, later, by the Socialist Workers’ Party (as Ann Talbot noted). On the European continent, especially in the countries controlled by the former Soviet Union, his articles, books and collections of essays were repeatedly translated and published. A casual trawl through eastern European and Russian websites reveals the lasting impact of his writings there. They are still cited in many of these countries as if they represented the latest scholarship on the English Revolution.
But it was not true to claim after Hill’s death that academic historians still defined their positions in relation to his works. Like Lawrence Stone, he had been superseded by later generations of historians. His interpretation of seventeenth-century events and figures had become much too predictable long before 1980. Since, moreover, the bulk of the surviving evidence from that period was and remains in manuscript form, his analysis lacked the fructifying nutriment of contact with original sources. That is not to belittle his achievements in his prime. He put arguments that needed to be challenged. He made claims that required refutation. He was an interesting observer of the past but not, in my view, a conclusively defining figure in twentieth-century historiography.