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Herbert Butterfield

Regius Professor of Modern History, Cambridge
1900 to 1979

Sir Herbert Butterfield, historian, was born in Oxenhope, Yorkshire, on 7 October 1900. His father, Albert Butterfield, was forced to leave school at the age of ten because of his own father’s premature death and had been unable to fulfil his desire to train for the Methodist ministry. Instead, he was employed as a clerk (later chief clerk) in a Keighley wool firm whose chairman gave both Albert and young Herbert a good deal of literary and intellectual encouragement. Albert’s wife, Ada Mary Buckland, was a member of the Plymouth Brethren who came from Leominster.

Butterfield was educated first at the Keighley trade and grammar school. In 1919 he proceeded to Peterhouse, Cambridge, to study history. He won several university prizes and graduated first class in 1922. Immediately after completing his degree, he was elected to a Peterhouse fellowship, which he held virtually for the rest of his life (interrupted only by his mastership at Peterhouse, 1955–1968). A prize-winning undergraduate essay became his first book, The Historical Novel (1924), in which he wrote of the ‘impossibility of history’ and defended the historical imagination, followed by a lengthy monograph on The Peace Tactics of Napoleon (1929). His identity as an historian took on a political character with The Whig Interpretation of History (1931) and The Englishman and His History (1944).

In 1929 Butterfield married Edith Joyce (‘Pamela’) Crawshaw, the daughter of Reverend James E. Crawshaw, a Methodist minister. They had three sons; one died young, one became a schoolmaster, and one became a lecturer at University College, Dublin. Butterfield inherited his father’s concerns for the ministry of the church and served as a Methodist lay preacher in Cambridge and the surrounding villages until 1936. He continued to attend Wesley Methodist Chapel until his middle fifties when he began worshipping as an unconfirmed Anglican at the college chapel.

After twenty years as a fellow of Peterhouse, serving faithfully as a lecturer and examiner, Butterfield was elected to the chair of Modern History in 1944. He served as editor of the Cambridge Historical Journal from 1938 to 1952. He was recruited by the divinity faculty, lecturing for a time in the area of Christianity and history. By 1950 Butterfield's five main intellectual preoccupations—historiography, the history of science, eighteenth-century constitutional history, Christianity and history, and the theory of international politics—were well established. From this time onward, he was much in demand as a lecturer and travelled widely in America and throughout the English-speaking world.

Butterfield’s career at Peterhouse concluded with a stint as master from 1955 to 1968. After a term as president of the Historical Association (1955–1958), he also served as vice-chancellor, somewhat reluctantly it is said, of the University of Cambridge from 1959 to 1961. He was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge in 1963 and was elected to a fellowship of the British Academy in 1965. In 1965–1967 he delivered an acclaimed course of Gifford Lectures at Glasgow University. He was knighted in 1968. In all, he was in receipt of thirteen honorary degrees, including a Litt.D. from Cambridge in 1974.

Perhaps Butterfield’s most lasting institutional influence was in the Republic of Ireland, where he acted as external examiner to the National University of Ireland and served on the Eire government’s O’Dalaigh commission on higher education. He was also the founder and chairman of the British Committee for International Politics during the last twenty years of his life.

Biographers often note that Butterfield was an enthusiastic pianist, finding the discipline therapeutic; he was also a teetotaller and a nearly lifelong smoker. In 1968 he resigned his mastership and retired to 26 High Street, Sawston, where he died on 20 July 1979. His Anglican funeral was followed by a Methodist cremation; his ashes were buried beneath a tile in the aisle of Peterhouse Chapel. He was survived by his wife, and his papers are held in the Cambridge University library.

Sir Herbert Butterfield’s list of publications is extensive and diverse. Among his most significant books are The Historical Novel (1924), The Peace Tactics of Napoleon, 1806–8 (1929), The Whig Interpretation of History (1931), The Englishman and His History (1944), Christianity and History (1949) and The Origins of Modern Science, 1300–1800 (1949). His 1951 Riddell Lectures at Durham University were published as Christianity in European History (1951), followed by Liberty in the Modern World (1952), Christianity, Diplomacy and War (1952), his Wiles Lectures in Belfast was published as Man on His Past (1955), International Conflict in the Twentieth Century: A Christian View (1960). A festschrift in his honour was edited by J. H. Elliott and H. G. Koenigsberger and entitled The Diversity of History: Essays in Honour of Sir Herbert Butterfield (1970). C. T. McIntire edited a collection of occasional and unpublished essays, Herbert Butterfield: Writings on Christianity and History (1979) and wrote the intellectual biography Herbert Butterfield: Historian and Dissenter (2004). Keith C. Sewell’s Herbert Butterfield and the Interpretation of History (2005) is the most recently published study of Butterfield’s life and work.

  • Brannon Hancock, University of Glasgow