The Lord Dacre of Glanton, better known as Hugh Trevor-Roper, who died yesterday aged 89, was a historian remarkable for the range of his interests, the imagination of his insights and the elegance of his style.
Successively a classical scholar, wartime Intelligence officer, Christ Church don, Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford (1957-80), and Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge (1980-87), he brought a fresh mind to whatever he tackled. Though never restricting himself to any speciality, Trevor-Roper was particularly well versed in the intellectual, as well as in the political and social, history of the 16th and 17th centuries. He might - perhaps he should - have written a great work on the English Civil War.
A J P Taylor once mischievously remarked that Trevor-Roper had written only one full-length book "of real excellence", and that was a work of immediate reportage, The Last Days of Hitler (1947). But Trevor-Roper's preferred form was the historical essay, into which he would concentrate more pith than many writers bring to a book. Like Taylor, he believed that history should be widely accessible. Taking Gibbon as his ideal, he breathed life into a discipline overpopulated in his youth by Soviet-inspired ideologues and by pedants of the German school. Trevor-Roper was a stormy petrel who enjoyed routing his enemies, even if his love of excitement occasionally brought him low.
Never afraid to "touch lightly upon" inconvenient facts, he provoked fruitful debates with Arnold Toynbee, R H Tawney, A J P Taylor and others. His own cast of mind was sceptical, with a noticeable strand of anti-clericalism; though never a dogmatic atheist, he acknowledged some affinity with Milton's Rimmon, who "against the house of God was bold". But Trevor-Roper was no butterfly. As Regius Professor at Oxford and as Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, he showed himself a determined administrator, well versed in academic intrigue. It was said that the dons of Peterhouse imagined that they had elected a Tory, and discovered to their horror that their Master was a reforming Whig.
The son of a country doctor, Hugh Redwald Trevor-Roper was born at Glanton, Northumberland, on January 15 1914. He would never quite relinquish the image of himself as a countryman, and followed hounds well into middle age. He had a younger brother, Patrick, who became a celebrated ophthalmic surgeon. Hugh was educated at Charterhouse and Christ Church, Oxford, where he read classical Moderations and won the Craven, Hertford and Ireland prizes. Discouraged by the tedium of the Greek epic poet Nonnus, he turned to Modern History.
After Schools, sustained by a research fellowship at Merton, he worked on Archbishop Laud, then a neglected figure. His biography of Laud, published in 1940, did not so much seek to justify Charles I's doomed primate as to explain the rationale behind his social policy. By the time that the book appeared, Trevor-Roper was in uniform. Commissioned as a Territorial he "by chance made a huge discovery" about the German secret service. Although he claimed to have been "severely rebuked" for making this breakthrough, he spent the rest of the war in Military Intelligence. Trevor-Roper later described himself as an "indigestible particle" among his fellow officers, though he could count on the support of Dick White. His work in Intelligence left him with a keen and enduring fascination for conspiracies and the world of secrets. After all, Kim Philby had been one of his colleagues in Military Intelligence.
At the end of the war Trevor-Roper was required to investigate the disappearance of Hitler. Through the interrogation of Hitler's surviving associates he showed in his report of November 1945 that the Fuhrer had died by his own hand on April 30. Trevor-Roper developed this report into The Last Days of Hitler, an unforgettable portrait of Hitler and his court of toadies and madmen.
In 1946 Trevor-Roper returned to Oxford as a Student (fellow) of Christ Church, where he was a history tutor until 1957, and Censor (dean) from 1947 to 1952. His historical interests, always eclectic, were further enlarged by friends such as Logan Pearsall Smith and Bernhard Berenson, while from Braudel he discovered the possibilities of the broad synthesis. He delved into intellectual history and historiography, from Erasmus to Sarpi, Arminius to Grotius, Clarendon to Gibbon. Trevor-Roper interested himself in contemporary, as well as historical, Europe. He enjoyed playing a subversive role at cultural conferences, whether joining A J P Taylor to undermine a gathering convened under Communist auspices at Breslau in 1948, or uniting with A J Ayer to mock an anti-Communist meeting in West Berlin in 1950.
At home Trevor-Roper plunged into scholarly controversy. In his article "The Gentry, 1540 to 1640", he claimed - in opposition to the prevailing Marxist orthodoxy - that the gentry had been declining, rather than rising, economically in the century before the Civil War. This conclusion led to a ferocious dispute with Lawrence Stone. Trevor-Roper further sharpened his polemical gifts with a bitter attack upon Arnold Toynbee, and in intermittent sparring with Evelyn Waugh, who regarded him as an open and obnoxious anti-Catholic, and considered that his appointment in 1957 as Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford "showed malice to the Church". In fact the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, had chosen Trevor-Roper only after Lucy Sutherland had refused the Chair, and after A J P Taylor, sounded out by Lewis Namier, had refused to forswear popular journalism. In 1960 Trevor-Roper was able to repay his debt by successfully campaigning for Macmillan's installation as Chancellor of Oxford.
Trevor-Roper's advancement (which entailed a move to Oriel College) provided a piquant background to another sharp controversy, when he criticised Taylor's The Origins of the Second World War (1959). Taylor replied that the Regius Professor's techniques of selective quotation were such as would be likely to lose him his scholarly reputation, "if he had one".
In 1965 Trevor-Roper published The Rise of Christian Europe, from a series of rather flashy lectures he had given on television. He condemned the craving of undergraduates to be taught the history of other continents. "Perhaps in the future there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none, or very little: there is only the history of Europe in Africa. The rest is largely darkness, like the history of pre-Columbian America, and darkness is not a subject for history." This was meant to provoke, and it did. Trevor-Roper again showed his controversial streak when he plunged into the argument about President Kennedy's assassination, and appeared to give credence to some of the more crackpot theories. And though he was never a fellow-traveller, it stuck in some gullets that, as a luminary in an Anglo-Chinese society, he helped lend respectability to Chairman Mao's tyranny. Meanwhile he had continued to produce work of the greatest distinction across a wide field. Historical Essays (1957) was followed by The Reformation and Social Change (1967); The European Witch-Craze of the 17th Century (1970); The Plunder of the Arts in the 17th Century (1970); and Princes and Artists (1976). His penchant for the exotic and dangerous was reflected in The Philby Affair (1968) and Hermit of Peking: the Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse (1976), a riveting account of a strange, disreputable career.
Trevor-Roper was a brilliant correspondent, and the letters he wrote for the Spectator in the late 1960s and early 1970s under the pseudonym Mercurius Oxoniensis were frivolous masterpieces. His repeated denials of their authorship were to no effect: few men alive could have written such a scathingly witty commentary on the affairs of the university; and none could have done so in such a flawless pastiche of 17th-century English.
As Regius Professor, Trevor-Roper ensured that the undergraduate syllabus remained a humane subject geared to the active careers of the majority. At his behest most of those studying history made some acquaintance with Bede, Gibbon, Macaulay, de Tocqueville or Burckhardt. But undergraduates who attended his lectures without a gown were unceremoniously thrown out. His role in university affairs was informal but effective. He resisted feeble concessions to the "student revolution" of the 1960s, and set bounds to the pretensions of the new, faceless General Board. He also played an important part in the revival of Oriel.
In 1979 Mrs Thatcher created Trevor-Roper a life peer as Lord Dacre of Glanton, an elevation for which his sterling defence of the Union with Scotland may have been partly responsible. A sudden change of course ensued. Long before, in 1953, Evelyn Waugh, having chastised Trevor-Roper for "conspicuously ill-informed" remarks in a review of Godfrey Anstruther's recusant history Vaux of Harrowden, swept aside the historian's rebuttals with a further thrust: "One honourable course is open to Mr Trevor-Roper. He must change his name and seek a livelihood at Cambridge." In 1980 Dacre did just that, departing for Peterhouse as its new Master. He had been chosen by a small group in the college, whom he came to speak of as the "Peterhouse mafia". In many ways Dacre proved a successful Master. He raised large benefactions, built a new library and theatre, and attempted to reform the tutorial body. Towards the end of his time in Cambridge he ended a letter to an Oxford friend with the postscript: "The Fellows of Peterhouse have now been brought to order, if not to life." Though Dacre was called "the noble refrigerator" at Peterhouse, his stewardship won the approval of the majority of the fellows. The crustier element, however, resented his interference and kept up an intransigent opposition until Dacre retired from the Mastership in 1987.
The books continued to flow: Renaissance Essays in 1985; Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans in 1987; and From Counter-Reformation to Glorious Revolution in 1992. Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans contained a curious index entry under "Peterhouse": "high table conversation not very agreeable. . .four disagreeable fellows of. . .main source for perverts". Few believed that these entries referred exclusively to the 17th century. In 1982 Dacre made an egregious ass of himself when he wrote an article in the Times (of which he was a director from 1974 to 1988) attesting to the genuineness of the "Hitler Diaries", which had been bought by Rupert Murdoch. His error derived from a prior "expert" authentication of Hitler's handwriting, fraudulently obtained by the perpetrators of the hoax. After a fortnight Dacre retracted and gave a handsome apology.
On retiring from Peterhouse he sold his house on the Scottish borders and moved to Didcot, convenient both for Oxford and London, where he regularly attended the House of Lords. Though not an impressive public speaker, he could be highly diverting company in private.
Apart from his own books and essays he edited Hitler's Table Talk (1953); The Poems of Richard Corbett (with J A W Bennett, 1955); Hitler's War Directives 1939-45 (1964); Essays in British History Presented to Sir Keith Feiling (1964); The Age of Expansion (1968); and The Goebbels Diaries (1978).
Trevor-Roper married, in 1954, Lady Alexandra Howard-Johnston, eldest daughter of Field-Marshal Earl Haig, and formerly wife of Rear-Admiral C D Howard-Johnston. She died in 1997; they had no children.
Leading historian, he
made his name with The Last Days of Hitler but tarnished it with the Hitler
Born the son of a country doctor in Northumberland, during a solitary childhood he acquired the love of literature and the feeling for language that would inform everything he wrote and said. He was educated at Charterhouse and Christ Church, Oxford. Christ Church, with its social confidence and worldly connections, drew him out. He began his undergraduate career not as a historian, the subject to which he changed after Moderations, but as a classicist. From 1937 to 1939 he was a research fellow of Merton College, Oxford, where he wrote his first book, Archbishop Laud (1940).
Then came the war, the decisive event in the shaping of a historian who was always alert to parallels between past and present and to the historical dimension of present events. He served in the Radio Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service, working on the penetration and deception of the German secret service. Later he drew on that experience in The Philby Affair (1968).
More immediately, the war and its aftermath produced the classic that made his name, The Last Days Of Hitler (1947); a claustrophobic, Tacitean portrait of dissolving tyranny which is also a work of investigative genius. At the end of the war he had been commissioned by the intelligence services to discover what had happened to Hitler, whom Stalin was claiming was still alive. Trevor-Roper travelled through Germany, tracking down and interrogating survivors of Hitler's court and reconstructing not only the circumstances of the Fuhrer's death but the power structure of his regime.
In 1946 he returned to Christ Church, now as a student (or fellow). He quickly became a leading force in the college, where he was Censor from 1947 to 1952. Meanwhile his historical research had reverted to 17th-century England. An instinctive and sometimes merciless controversialist, he was soon engaged in the "storm over the gentry", in which he took on RH Tawney and Lawrence Stone over the economic causes of the English civil war. This was one of the most fertile historical debates of modern times, its interpretative influence long outlasting the original points of dispute.
But Trevor-Roper's interests could not be confined to a single period or country. His reviews and essays in the press, ranging widely in subject matter, both past and present, reached an audience well beyond the academic community. In 1957 he published a combative collection of short pieces for the general reader, Historical Essays. In the same year, at the age of 43, he was appointed to the Regius professorship of modern history at Oxford, a position he held, in conjunction with a fellowship at Oriel, until 1980. His inaugural lecture, a protest against the over-specialisation of his medievalist predecessors and a call for the engagement of historical studies with large issues of importance to the intellectual laity, established the guiding principles of his tenure of the chair.
Throughout his career he resisted, against the current of the time, the tendency of the academic community and of the historical profession towards introversion. Yet his objection was only to narrowness of vision, never to scholarship. The aspect of his tenure that he most enjoyed was his part in the scholarly training of Oxford's expanding postgraduate population. He was the most devoted and inspiring of teachers.
His tenure was colourful from the outset. He was quickly involved in a celebrated dispute with AJP Taylor, who had been a rival for the chair, over Taylor's The Origins Of The Second World War.
Then, in 1959, he challenged academic introversion on another front, taking on the powerful and, to his mind, stuffy heads of Oxford colleges, who had united behind Oliver Franks's candidacy for the chancellorship of the university. Trevor-Roper, always an unconventional Tory, drummed up the MA vote to carry another unconventional Tory, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, to victory.
While Trevor-Roper occupied the public eye, his critics, sometimes even his friends, were urging him to write a long and weighty book. In reality his learning, though never paraded, indeed at times almost secretive, was formidable and exact. He has left behind an extraordinary range of scholarly writing, not all of it completed or published.
But the world, he felt, was not short of fat books on single subjects. His favoured form was the essay, sometimes the long essay - where insight must be concentrated, proportion maintained and the evidence of learning kept mostly beneath the surface. The genre allowed him to move across time and space and to draw on the breadth of his reading and reflection. He liked to notice resemblances here, or contrasts there, between societies or events or circumstances. Comparison was his essential intellectual instrument, as it was of the "philosophic historians" of the 18th century, Gibbon at their head, whom he admired. Everything that interested him seemed to remind him of something else.
In 1967 he brought together perhaps the most remarkable of his collections of essays, Religion, The Reformation And Social Change. Employing an almost dizzying range of material, the book centred on the revolutions that shook Europe in the middle of the 17th century and related them to the mental ferment that preceded and accompanied them. The essays reflected the influence of French historians, particularly Fernand Braudel and Marc Bataillon, who had deepened his interest in early-modern Europe. They also marked the movement of his thinking away from economics to ideas. They were the boldest exposition of lifelong persuasions: of his equation of historical progress with pluralism; of his impatience with closed intellectual systems (both past and present); and of his rejection of historical determinism.
He would return to the 16th and 17th centuries in 1976 in his study of European painting and politics, Princes And Artists. But by now his historical interests had become more evenly spread. He had already published a broad thematic study of the Middle Ages, The Rise Of Christian Europe (1965). His interest in modern Germany persisted, producing The Goebbels Diaries (1978), and a number of essays on nazism. He also wrote a series of essays on the historical writers of the 18th and 19th centuries, above all Gibbon, Macaulay, Carlyle and Burckhardt.
As the subject matter of his studies broadened, so Trevor-Roper, wearying of badly written articles in bloated specialist journals, strayed ever further from the beaten academic track. In A Hidden Life (1976, also published as The Hermit Of Peking), he discovered a wild orchid of a subject in the impostures and fantasies of the sinologist and political operator Sir Edmund Backhouse, who flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The wild farce and improbable triumphs of Backhouse's deceptions, in China and England alike, cheered Trevor-Roper amid the growing bureaucratic and conformist solemnities of academic life. His delight in la comédie humaine, which made him as enjoyable a letter writer as the 20th century can have produced, was accompanied by a strong satirical impulse and a no less strong sense of mischief. He was reputedly the author of The Letters Of Mercurius (1970), comical vignettes of the Oxford of the time of student revolt, modelled in part on John Aubrey, which ran in The Spectator.
In 1980, aged 66, he moved to Cambridge as Master of Peterhouse, where his conflict with what he saw as an enclosed and reactionary oligarchy among the fellows became another cause célèbre and another rich source of anecdote. He fell into controversy again in 1985, when he made much the gravest of those errors of over-confidence to which he was occasionally prone. As a director of Times Newspapers he examined the fake Hitler diaries and was taken in by them. His gift for detective work, which had produced such remarkable results in his books on Hitler and Backhouse, now deserted him. Perhaps that humiliation contributed to the mellowing, and to the growing tendency to self-deprecation, that grew conspicuous in his later years. His prose yielded something of its exuberance and assertiveness, though none of its elegance or suppleness or wit.
When he retired from Peterhouse in 1987 he had embarked on a series of collections of essays which had appeared in scattered places, and which in a number of cases he now substantially rewrote. Renaissance Essays appeared in 1985, Catholics, Anglicans And Puritans in 1987, From Counter-Reformation To Glorious Revolution in 1992. The volumes he planned on later periods were not completed.
Amid all his public controversies, Trevor-Roper remained an essentially private, even a shy man. In retirement he lived at Didcot, a town convenient for both Oxford and London. In his 80s, his mind as alert as ever, he bore a gradual and for a time almost complete loss of sight, and the advance of cancer, with stoical fortitude and good humour, sustaining, amid heaps of increasingly unmanageable paper, a scholarly correspondence around the globe. His wife Alexandra died in 1997. They had been devotedly married for 43 years. He is survived by three stepchildren.
· Hugh Redwald Trevor-Roper, Baron Dacre of Glanton, historian, born January 15 1914; died January 26 2003