The Last Whig

The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century: Religion, the Reformation and Social Change

by H.R. Trevor-Roper
Harper & Row, 486 pp., $8.95

H. R. Trevor-Roper
H. R. Trevor-Roper; drawing by David Levine

Trevor-Roper’s work is always a challenge to the reviewer; it is brilliant, bitty, and bitchy, and what it all adds up to is difficult to say. His brilliance is never seriously questioned, except by his personal enemies, but is he a brilliant historian? Our sons and grandsons may think not, and though as Regius Professor of History at the University of Oxford he is now at the top of the academic tree he has never produced that solid, distinguished corpus of work expected of a man in his position.

In 1940, at the age of twenty-six, he published a life of Archbishop William Laud which displayed the gifts of his late maturity to the full; it is not distinguishable in style, manner, or approach from the essays in this book, written more than twenty years later—which means it is very good indeed. It is an entirely up-to-date book, which could have been written in the last few years. So he served no apprenticeship, and apparently needed none, nor was his work recognizably modeled on any of the great Oxford seventeenth-century historians of the previous generation, like Firth, Clark, Feiling, or Ogg. But his career was interrupted by war service, and he has never settled down again in the seventeenth century. The Last Days of Hitler, a by-product of his work for British Intelligence, was a deserved best-seller, and his editions of Hitler’s Table Talk, Hitler’s War Directives, Hitler’s Political Testament, and Martin Bormann’s Letters show his continuing interest in Nazism and the Second World War. In the 1950s he made occasional excursions into seventeenth-century history, and some of these excursions are reprinted here, but the great Trevor-Roper opus on Cromwell (or the Independents, or the Interregnum as a whole), which was to be the book to end all books on the English Revolution, has not yet reached the printers, though rumors of its progress—even its completion—are constant, and many of us even know people who know other people who have read parts of it in typescript.

Will this remain one of the great unwritten books, like Lord Acton’s History of Liberty? Apart from the difficulty he apparently has in writing anything longer than an essay—even his recent research on George Buchanan was published in novella form—Trevor-Roper has been showing other Actonic symptoms. His recent enthusiasm for historiography is alarming, and so is his collection of Gibbonian lectures on The Rise of Christian Europe. Nothing doomed Acton to sterility so much as the notion that no one could write any history unless he knew all of it. Trevor-Roper is now in the equivocal position for a professional historian of having edited more books than he has written, even counting collections of essays.

OF COURSE, Trevor-Roper is not a professional historian in the sense that Geoffrey Elton (or for that matter Wallace Notestein or Lawrence Stone) would use the term. Though…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.