Remembering Christopher Hill

I first came across Christopher Hill in the Hilary Term (January to March) of 1963 when I attended lectures he gave in the dining hall of Balliol College, Oxford. These were based on the material he later published in 1964 in his book, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England. I was very surprised by his delivery of these lectures given in a rather flat, even-paced voice punctuated by copious quotations from printed sources and accompanied by an interpretation of this period in a form of soft determinism. Rather disconcertingly, every two or three sentences he would sniff as if to punctuate his remarks.

It was more of a surprise to me in October, 1965 when he was assigned as my supervisor by the History Faculty Board for my prospective work on the 2nd Earl of Warwick. At our first meeting, he enquired after my social background and about my watch, which was one of the very first to provide the date as well as the time, and what it had cost. I was then sent off to the upper reading room of the old Bodleian Library to begin working through the Reports of the Historical Manuscripts Commission and the State Papers Domestic which were on the open shelves. But that was really all the advice he offered on where to find he sources for my research. Unfortunately, he was not acquainted with the manuscript sources available in the Bodleian, in the Public Record Office then in Chancery Lane, London or in the Manuscript Department of the British Museum: he had heard of county record offices but had not, to the best of my knowledge, ever visited one. In a supervisor of a thesis on early to middle seventeenth century history, this was a serious handicap. The old saying that undergraduates were taught while postgraduates taught themselves was never more true than in my case.

I usually saw Christopher Hill in his office in Balliol once a term. He sat in a chair that hung by a chain from the ceiling and gently swung from side to side as he listened to what I had to report. But he remained resolutely silent even when I had nothing more to say. I found this silence rather alarming and only learnt later that it was apparently an old Oxford teaching technique aimed at encouraging pupils to be more forthcoming about their findings. Unfortunately, Christopher Hill knew very little indeed about the Stuart peerage and landowners and, unlike Hugh Trevor-Roper, the Regius Professor of Modern History, had few positive suggestions to offer about the direction of my research or the contents of my draft chapters. From that point of view, it was an unproductive process. Once a week in term time, on Monday evenings to the best of my recollection, postgraduates assembled in his room together with female undergraduates from St Hilda’s College invited by his wife, Bridget, met to consume a barrel of beer the Hills provided. I went to a couple of these but was so deafened by the noise that I stopped going.

The last time I saw Christopher and Bridget Hill was at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California in January, 1997 when I had the good fortune to hold a fellowship there. We were all refugees from bitterly cold weather in England. He was characteristically robust in denouncing the Prime Minister John Major’s government as “bloody awful”. There was little doubt either in my conversations with both of them that he had been wounded by the attacks of Mark Kishlansky and, much earlier, by Jack Hexter on his methods and findings. Bridget Hill confided to me that she was worried about his health since he had recently completed a new introduction to the Calendar of State Papers Venetian which she thought had taken a lot out of him. (On her own health problems of which I later learnt she said nothing.) By then, of course, he was in his mid-eighties and was treated with considerable deference by other scholars then at the Huntington Library. After that, apart from one or two letters I sent to their home in Sibford Ferris in Oxfordshire, our contacts ceased.

Chris Thompson

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