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Sir  James Ramsay Montagu Butler (1889–1975), by Walter Bird, 1962Sir James Ramsay Montagu Butler (1889–1975), by Walter Bird, 1962
Butler, Sir James Ramsay Montagu (1889–1975), historian, was born in the master's lodge, Trinity College, Cambridge, on 20 July 1889. Both his grandfather and his father, , had been headmaster of Harrow School, and in 1886 the latter was appointed master of Trinity College. His first wife had died three years earlier, and in 1888 he married second a 21-year-old former Girton student who had recently graduated in top place in classics, Agnata Ramsay, daughter of , of Bamff, Perthshire [see ]. Jim Butler, as he was always known to his friends and in his family, was the eldest of the three sons born of the second marriage. Of the first marriage there were two sons and three daughters.

At the age of thirteen Butler moved from St Faith's preparatory school, Cambridge, to Harrow School with an entrance scholarship and quickly showed great ability and brilliant promise. Four years later he became head of the school. In 1905 Butler took the Trinity College examination and was awarded a scholarship; but he did not matriculate until October 1907. As an undergraduate his great ability was further confirmed by the award of a long succession of university scholarships and prizes for Latin and Greek verse and prose, culminating in the chancellor's classical medal (1911). In 1910 he was elected president of the union, and he crowned his successes by gaining first class honours in part one of the classical tripos (1909) and in part two of the history tripos (1910). In 1913 his college elected him to a prize fellowship, and the thesis which he submitted for the competition was published as The Passing of the Great Reform Bill (1914, reprinted 1964).

On the outbreak of war in 1914 Butler joined the Scottish Horse, a yeomanry regiment with which he served in the Gallipoli campaign of 1915 and in Egypt. In 1916 he joined the directorate of military operations in the War Office, and then served on the general staff in France. He was twice mentioned in dispatches and in 1919 was appointed OBE (military division) ‘for services in connection with operations in France’.

On demobilization Butler returned to Trinity College. He was one of the tutors to Prince Albert (later George VI) and Prince Henry (later duke of Gloucester) when they went to Cambridge for a year, for which he was appointed MVO (4th class) in 1920.

In 1922 Butler was nominated for one of the two parliamentary seats then allocated to the ancient universities and was elected as an independent. He played a prominent part in the debates leading to the passing of the Oxford and Cambridge Universities Act in July 1922, whereby commissions were set up with powers, for a limited period, to amend the universities' and colleges' statutes and ordinances. This ultimately led to the admission of women to full membership of Cambridge University. In the general election of December 1923, fought on the issue of tariff reform, Butler stood again as an independent Liberal; but he was narrowly defeated by his cousin, , on the second ballot under the transferable vote system then in force.

Soon after his father's death in 1918 Butler moved from the lodge of Trinity College to the set of rooms at the top of the spiral staircase at the north-west corner of the Great Court, with lovely views over the Backs. There almost for the rest of his life he delighted to entertain his friends, especially to small lunch and dinner parties. Though a teetotaller himself, he was always a generous and delightful host. In 1925 he published a memoir of his father's thirty-one years as master of Trinity College, which remained a valuable social history of the politics and mores of Cambridge in that period. He was appointed a tutor by his college in 1928, and in the following year a university lecturer in history. In 1931 Trinity appointed him senior tutor, a responsible post which he held with success for seven years.

In the Second World War Butler served in the army intelligence corps, and from 1942 at the civil affairs and military government central organization. His work for France was recognized by his appointment as chevalier of the Légion d'honneur. In 1947 he was appointed regius professor of modern history in succession to G. N. Clark, and he held that chair until 1954. In his inaugural lecture, delivered on 26 January 1949, he argued that ‘History has a strong claim to rank as one staple of a liberal education’ and outlined the plans for the military histories of the war (The Present Need for History, 1949). Meanwhile in 1946 C. R. Attlee as prime minister had announced the government's intentions on the latter subject, and that Butler had been appointed chief military historian and editor of the whole series. It finally comprised forty-one volumes on grand strategy, the principal campaigns, and civil affairs and military government after the end of hostilities. Butler himself wrote the two grand strategy volumes covering September 1939 to August 1942 (vol. 2, 1957, and vol. 3, part 2, 1964). For his work on this project he was knighted in 1958.

In February 1955 Butler was elected vice-master of his college, an arduous and responsible post which he held with distinction for five years. When he resigned the regius chair in 1954, the university promptly elected him an emeritus professor of modern history. Having thus shed some of his responsibilities, he accepted a request that he should write the authorized biography of Philip Kerr, eleventh marquess of Lothian, a wartime ambassador in Washington (Lord Lothian, 1960).

In his very full life Butler's chief recreations were rock climbing and long walks in wild country—on the continent as well as in the British Isles. He never married, and his college and university always stood first in his interests and affections. He made a generous benefaction to Trinity College in his lifetime and another under his will. As a young man he left the Anglican church of his father and adopted the doctrines of Christian Science, to which he adhered strictly to the end of his life. When in 1975 he apparently suffered an accident and was obviously in great pain, it was only with difficulty that he was persuaded to enter a nursing home in Cambridge—for a rest and not for treatment. He died there on 1 March, and on 10 May 1975 a large congregation in the college chapel was bidden to recall ‘the rare beauty of his character’ and ‘the gentle humorous charm of his manner’. No one who knew him would challenge that encomium.

Stephen W. Roskill, rev.


WWW · Trinity Cam., Butler MSS · personal knowledge (1986) · private information (1986)


Trinity Cam. |  CAC Cam., A. V. Hill MSS · CAC Cam., Roskill MSS · CUL, Butterfield MSS · HL, Beaverbrook MSS


W. Stoneman, photograph, 1948, NPG · H. Lamb, pencil drawing, 1949, Trinity Cam. · W. Bird, photograph, 1962, NPG [see illus.]

Wealth at death  

£95,217: probate, 9 April 1975, CGPLA Eng. & Wales