Charmed Circles

Clarendon and His Friends

by Richard Ollard
Atheneum, 367 pp., $22.50

Anti-Calvinists: The Rise of English Arminianism c. 1590–1640

by Nicholas Tyacke
Oxford University Press, 305 pp., $57.00

Hugh Trevor-Roper is one of the few persons to whom that most hackneyed of academic adjectives, distinguished, properly applies. The sweep of his learning is magisterial; his judgments are broadly based and forcefully argued; and he is, unlike many of his more narrowly specialized colleagues, invariably a pleasure to read. The Last Days of Hitler was undoubtedly his most widely read book, but he has written as well on the psychology of treason, on art plunder and patronage, about an eccentric English fantasist in China, on medieval history, and repeatedly on the political and religious history of the English seventeenth century. Picking up one of his books is like settling into a Rolls-Royce—one experiences the mighty motor purring up front, the smooth ride—the pleasurable sense of intellectual transportation deluxe. As the variety of his interests attests, he has written more often short, concentrated studies than long narrations; but he brings to even modest topics the wide perspective and common sense that he is fond of tracing back to Erasmus.

Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans is the third collection of his historical essays, and especially welcome because it returns Trevor-Roper to the seventeenth century, where he first made his reputation with a book on Archbishop Laud (1940). The five essays contained in the book under review have not previously seen print; they deal with English topics, though all seen within a continental setting. The subjects are: Nicholas Hill, the Atomist; Laudianism and political power; James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh; the Great Tew circle; and Milton in politics. They concentrate, that is, on the first half of the seventeenth century. Except for Nicholas Hill, who is admittedly a marginal figure, the subjects largely concern the period leading up to and culminating in the great Civil War of 1642.

The least familiar material, and the most interesting revaluation, is, I think, the study of Archbishop Ussher. His is a sad, and also funny, story, of a man immensely, almost universally, respected in his own time, and only a little less so with the passage of years, yet even after centuries still a memorable figure. The mighty folio Annals of the World—in which, as a mere by-blow, he determined the moment of creation as 6 PM on Sunday, October 23, in the year 4004 BC—carried great authority as late as the middle of the nineteenth century. Not so well known are the extraordinary religious prepossessions—regarding the coming of Antichrist, the essential Protestantism of the medieval Irish, and the soon-to-be-anticipated millennium—that guided the archbishop’s gigantic research projects.

The story of these projects, pursued unwaveringly across a long lifetime, despite difficulties and discouragements, until their culmination in a huge pile of unreadable, unpublishable rubbish, is the tragicomedy of Archbishop Ussher. As a figure in the practical affairs of his own time—despite the fact that everyone had good words for him—he was again ineffectual. For fourteen years, until early 1640, the hostility of the powerful William Laud, archbishop of Canterbury, kept him penned up in his Irish…

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.