A Memoir of Professor Sir Geoffrey Elton


For those undergraduates – particularly those at Clare - who read history for a generation from the 1950s, Geoffrey Elton was a towering figure with a fearsome reputation. Not physically, because he was short, rotund, balding with a dark moustache and penetrating eyes from behind rather thick lenses. Fearsome because he was certain of his own historical beliefs, disliked by some of his professional colleagues for his arrogance and abrasiveness and not afraid to cross swords with them, in diatribes both at lectures and in print. To his undergraduates, particularly to those whose studies he supervised, he presented a different picture.

I first met Dr Geoffrey Elton, as he then was, when I went to Clare in December 1958 to take the scholarship exam in history. I had been given a room in Thirkill Court and had been kept awake at night by an undergraduate, who had stayed up after the end of term and played his guitar until about 3 am. I was summoned to Elton’s rooms in Memorial Court feeling a bit the worse for wear on the final day, for an interview. He had my papers in front of him and made a few comments about the essays I had written on early mediaeval history. Then we came to the General Paper. He said, “I attach considerable importance to this paper. You have two good answers here and two very poor ones, on one of which you appear to have written only a page. Why is that?”

I replied, “Because I was interested in the first two questions, not in the other two and I ran out of time.” “A good answer,” Elton replied, and I remember thinking that perhaps he was not as fearsome as I had been led to believe.

A year later I was at Clare and Elton was my supervisor. It is difficult, after nearly forty years, to describe the authority he displayed in everything he said, and to do justice to his qualities as a teacher and as a mentor. At supervisions in his rooms, there would be two of us undergraduates. Each in turn read his essay out loud (it was before women undergraduates were admitted to Clare). Elton would listen intently until you had finished and would then dissect anatomically what you had written, concentrating on where you were weakest but never failing to say which parts he thought were good. He always expected the best of you and, if you failed to put in the hours, he would bluntly tell you so. Strangely perhaps, I - and I’m sure many others whom he supervised - looked forward to these encounters, usually once a week. He was a very fair man, always interesting, frequently encouraging but not afraid to ‘put the boot in’ if he felt it was necessary.

In lectures, he was magisterial. Despite his shortness, he had a powerful presence. He would enter, in black gown, and stride rapidly to the lectern and begin straight away. He carried no books or any written material. I heard him lecture on the Tudors for a whole academic year and he never once used notes. This was evidence of the extent of his mastery of his subject. Compared with some other lecturers, the attention he received from his audience was remarkable.

There were often moments of humour, not least when he launched into his favourite target, A.L.Rowse, the Oxford historian who had had the temerity to write about Geoffrey’s period of Tudor history. Elton dismissed much of Rowse’s version of the Tudor period as romantic nonsense. In his criticism of Rowse, he was so certain of the rectitude of his own interpretation of the Tudors – particularly on the role of Thomas Cromwell in the English Reformation – and almost libellous in his attacks. There is a typical reference to Rowse in the bibliography of Elton’s England under the Tudors where he deigns to cite one of Rowse’s books - ‘The author’s obtrusive prejudices must be discounted.’ To Elton it was as though Rowse was trespassing on his territory. This is what gave him the fearsome reputation and made some professional historians dislike him for his apparent aggression and arrogance. To us undergraduates it enlivened the lectures.

The books England under the Tudors, followed by The Tudor Constitution and Reformation Europe, all written by Elton were like the Bible to us. I still have my copies. They still make absorbing reading, both for the clarity with which they were written and the research and analytical thought that they represented.

Elton had come to Cambridge in 1954 when he was made a Fellow of Clare. As undergraduates, we knew little of his background and I never heard him talk about it. We knew his family were Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, that his name had originally been Ehrenberg and that Elton was his adopted Anglicised name. Later, from his brother Professor Lewis Elton’s address at Geoffrey Elton’s memorial service at Great St Mary’s in 1995, I learned much more.

Elton had been born in Tubingen in 1921 and eight years later his family had moved to Prague, where his father, Victor Ehrenberg, held a chair in Classics. Here they were sheltered from the Nazis until the Munich agreement in 1938. The family escaped to England in February 1939, some two months before the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. Their escape had been made possible by the intervention of Esther Simpson, Secretary of the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning. She wrote to Elton’s father, who had been awarded a grant by the Society, to tell him that the Home Office would raise no objections to his bringing his family to Britain with him. Rydal School in North Wales offered free places to the two Elton boys. The school has since instituted the Ehrenberg-Elton scholarship for the free education of Czech boys and girls.

Lewis Elton recalled that one of his brother’s earliest literary works, written when he was not quite 13, was a historical play entitled Assassination Through the Ages, - apt you might think for someone who, later in life, was not afraid to assault the reputations of those historians with whom he disagreed. At Rydal School he learned English in just four months and around that time he wrote, ‘Within a few months it dawned upon me that I had arrived in the country in which I ought to have been born.’

After leaving Rydal, he took an external degree at London University, having narrowly failed to get an Oxford scholarship. Then in 1943 he enlisted in the British Army, serving in the Intelligence Corps and with the East Surrey Regiment in the 8th Army in Italy, and changed his name to Elton. After the war he returned to London and started historical research, leading to a PhD. In 1952 he met and married a fellow historian Sheila Lambert.

During his tenure of a Fellowship at Clare, literally hundreds of undergraduates must have sat in supervisions in his rooms in the 40 years that he spent teaching there, and thousands must have attended his lectures. As just one of very many, I received the kindnesses which led one critic to admit that while Elton was often heartily disliked by his professional colleagues, he nevertheless was very popular with his students. He used to invite us regularly to his home – often with our girlfriends – where he and Sheila would provide plenty of food and drink and lively conversation. Elton could be extremely funny at times in a dry sort of way. He was interested in his undergraduates and surprisingly sensitive to their feelings. Many of us, on going down, received Christmas cards from him every year.

On later visits to Cambridge there was always tea on offer at the Elton household in Millington Road and the usual bluntness. “You’ve put on weight. All this good living I suppose”. Another of Elton’s observations on the undergraduates of the 80s was equally direct. “All the current lot seem to do is work and more work. Your lot enjoyed yourselves, had plenty of other interests and you got just as good degrees.”

When I joined the BBC and made TV documentaries on historical subjects, I would often receive a postcard with Elton’s comments, direct and to the point, as though I were still one of undergraduates at supervision. I am sure there were many others, too, who saw this other side of Elton which was not on view to those of his professional colleagues, who felt the sting of his tongue or the criticism of his writings and, and as a result, found him arrogant and aggressive. It must have meant a great deal to Elton when he first became Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge and was then knighted, despite all the feathers he had undoubtedly ruffled during his remarkable career. It represented full acceptance and a considerable honour from the establishment of the country that he had adopted as his own.

Many years later I heard David Starkey talking about Elton on the Today programme. Starkey had once been Elton’s pupil and then went on, in his life as a professional historian, to part company with Elton over his interpretation of Tudor history, and in particular over the role of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s Chancellor. Starkey disagreed with Elton’s interpretation of the Tudor Revolution in Government and Cromwell’s transformation of England into a centralised, administered, sovereign state, which Elton claimed emerged from his ‘empirical or thesis-free’ study of contemporary documents. Starkey believed that powerful personalities and the play of court politics were much more powerful drivers of events. Once hailed in the press as ‘the rudest man in Britain’, Starkey effectively took on Elton and his life’s work. The exchanges were bitter and prolonged and they were two formidable opponents. Neither would give way.

Elton died on 4th December 1994, with a reputation as one of Britain’s greatest historians, exactly fifty-five years after he had first arrived in Britain as a young immigrant speaking no English. At the tea in Clare after the Memorial service, we spoke to Sheila Elton and expressed our sympathies. As we left she said, “By the way, no more Christmas cards, please. That was entirely Geoffrey’s thing.”

Jeremy Bennett (1959)