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Sir  Herbert Butterfield (1900–1979), by Ruskin Spear, 1960Sir Herbert Butterfield (1900–1979), by Ruskin Spear, 1960
Butterfield, Sir Herbert (1900–1979), historian, was born at Oxenhope, Yorkshire, on 7 October 1900, the eldest of three children of Albert Butterfield, chief clerk at a Keighley woollen mill, and his wife, Ada Mary Buckland. He was educated at Keighley trade and grammar school, and went up to Peterhouse, Cambridge, as a history scholar in 1919 and graduated first class in both parts of the historical tripos (1921 and 1923). In 1923 he was elected to a fellowship at that college, which he retained continuously, except during his tenure of the mastership, until his death. He married Edith Joyce (Pamela), daughter of the Revd James E. Crawshaw, a Methodist minister, in 1929; they had three children.

As a young man Butterfield was a voracious reader of plays, novels, and poetry. His first book, The Historical Novel (1924), based on a prize-winning undergraduate essay, was a defence of the historical imagination. This literary tendency was still visible in the often rather florid prose of his second and much more substantial book, The Peace Tactics of Napoleon (1929). This attempted to restore the sense of contingency and the unexpected to the making of the treaty of Tilsit (1807), the terms of which Butterfield attributed more to incompetent Prussian intrigues than to limitless Napoleonic imperialism. But the breakthrough to national and international recognition came with his iconoclastic The Whig Interpretation of History (1931), which purported to show how the traditional teleology of British constitutional development was in fact an invention of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century lawyers. It was a plea not to privilege certain parts of history simply because these appeared to point to the present day, and to understand ideas in their historical rather than their contemporary contexts.

The book established Butterfield in the public mind as the ‘hammer of the whigs’, not altogether justly. In fact, he entertained a sympathetic preoccupation with the development of liberty, particularly ‘English’ liberty. This was evident from his engagement with Acton, sometimes described as a Catholic whig. It was disconcertingly apparent in his next sensation, The Englishman and his History (1944). Here he argued that: ‘“wrong” history was one of our assets. The whig interpretation came at exactly the crucial moment, and, whatever it may have done to our history, it had a wonderful effect on English politics’ (pp. 6–7). This was much more than a ‘piece of wartime spirits-raising’ (Elton, 733). It was certainly in no sense a retraction; Butterfield was merely asserting that while the identification of English history with the development of liberty might have been accidental and even misleading, it was also fortuitous. His subsequent attack on the Namierite preoccupation with ‘structures’ of faction and familial interest, George III, Lord North, and the People (1949), was also profoundly whiggish in conception: the people, as represented by the Yorkshire Association, are brought into the political process, thus enabling the avoidance of a French-style revolutionary upheaval in the long run. Eight years later, he returned to the fray with an unusually bitter attack on the Namier school in George III and the Historians (1957).

In the meantime Butterfield's interests had expanded dramatically. He had been asked to give a series of lectures on the history of science, which was published as The Origins of Modern Science, 1300–1800 (1949). It was another sensation, especially when Butterfield argued that the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries outshone ‘everything since the rise of Christianity and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes, mere internal displacements, within the system of medieval Christendom’ (p. vii). The charge that Butterfield had ignored the experimental side of science was not entirely fair. But it is certainly true that the book, despite his own best intentions, was essentially a whig outline of the growth of scientific progress.

That same year a series of lectures which the Cambridge faculty of divinity had asked him to give was published as Christianity and History; much to Butterfield's own surprise this was perhaps his most successful book. With the exception of a brief chapter at the end of The Englishman and his History, his work before 1949 had contained very few references to religion. Now Butterfield became something of a sage among many Christian intellectuals, a prophet even. The book was translated into French, German, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, and four Scandinavian languages. The Christianity Butterfield espoused was not so much theological as philosophical, almost anthropological; it was biblical but not exegetical. He eschewed the study of doctrine and of the institutional church(es). His emphasis on human cupidity and sinfulness, but also his underlying humanity and tolerance, struck a deep chord among those who, in the aftermath of the Second World War, were seeking new (or old) faiths after so many other gods had failed.

A year later Butterfield extended his interests yet further into the theory of international history. His earlier studies on Napoleonic diplomacy had already stressed the importance of contingency over inevitability. In ‘The tragic element in modern international conflict’ (1950) Butterfield began to develop a pessimistically ‘Christian’ view of international politics. He was particularly critical of national self-righteousness and utopianism in foreign policy: conflict could only be managed, not abolished; and there was no such thing as total security, which could only be bought at the cost of the total insecurity of others. Butterfield could see no pattern in international history, no working towards a preordained goal, only the mysterious workings of ‘Providence’: all the statesman could do was ‘work with Providence’. Once again, Butterfield's work was widely acclaimed not just in Britain—where he soon co-founded and chaired the British Committee on the Theory of International Politics (1958)—but in the United States, where it resonated among ‘realist’ historically minded political scientists, Christian and unchristian, such as Hans Morgenthau, Kenneth Thompson, and Louis J. Halle. They were taken aback, however, by his temporary advocacy of unilateral western nuclear disarmament.

By 1950, therefore, 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 established. He continued to elaborate them over the next twenty-five years in invited lectures and in essays, such as those published in History and Human Relations, Christianity in European History, The Reconstruction of an Historical Episode: the History of the Enquiry into the Origins of the Seven Years War (all 1951), Christianity, Diplomacy and War (1953), Man on his Past: the Study of the History of Historical Scholarship (1955), International Conflict in the Twentieth Century (1960), Charles James Fox and Napoleon: the Peace Negotiations of 1806 (1962), and ‘Sir Edward Grey in July 1914’ (1965), in which he pointedly refused to join the stampede to acclaim Fritz Fischer's one-sided indictment of imperial Germany's responsibility for the outbreak of the First World War.

Underlying these and other diverse projects was a series of interlocking themes. The first was Butterfield's essentially whiggish preoccupation with harmony and balance. Thus he saw the travails of George III ‘not as a conflict but as a tide—one which throughout the century is bringing wider classes of Englishmen to intellectual awareness and a realization of the part they might play in politics’ (George III, Lord North, and the People, 9). He believed that the same virtues might be extended to the sphere of international relations: ‘It is the function of foreign policy to create situations in which virtue does not depend on a great power's good intentions, but is ensured on the whole by the general disposition of forces’ (History and Human Relations, 220). This quest for harmony extended into the historiographical sphere, particularly in his early attempts to reconcile Bury's scientific history with the literary approach of Trevelyan.

At the same time Butterfield was an invincible sceptic. Despite his professional eminence he remained very much the outsider, critical of official collections of documents, which he believed to be designed to mislead as much as to enlighten. Indeed Butterfield was sceptical about the value of all documents, thanks perhaps to his ‘distrust of the witnesses by his awareness of original sin’ (O. Chadwick, Acton and his History, 1998, 213); unlike his teacher Harold Temperley, he produced only one collection of edited documents, volume 3 of Select Documents of European History, which covered the years 1715–1920 (1931). Even more radically, in his first book he had criticized the Rankean documentary method and spoken of the ‘impossibility of history’ (Writings, ed. McIntire, xlvii). Later he doubted whether ‘the mere study of antecedents … can ever provide a complete accounting for any decision made by a human being’ (introduction to H. Temperley, Frederic the Great and Kaiser Joseph, 2nd edn, 1968, xix). To this extent ‘all histories’ were ‘only interim reports’.

Butterfield's scepticism was also reflected in his rejection of all grand designs, both historiographical and contemporary. ‘Liberty’, he argued, ‘comes to the world from English traditions, not from French theories’ (Napoleon, 18), while the ‘real history of freedom is the profounder story of the slow growth of reasonableness among men’ (ibid., 44). In particular, he denied that history ‘provides us with patterns which we can immediately transpose into the context of contemporary politics’ (History and Human Relations, 173). Instead, the study of history should promote wisdom, not mechanically but osmotically: Butterfield wanted:
knowledge not to lie heavily on the mind, not to be used in a narrow or literal spirit, but to sink into the walls of [the historian's] brain so that it was turned into wisdom and experience—then such a person would be able to acquire the right feeling for the texture of events, and would undoubtedly avoid becoming a mere slave of the past. (ibid., 181)
Only by showing the requisite mental ‘elasticity of mind’ could the historian achieve this.

Butterfield was an unorthodox and original historian, but his intellectual debts were manifold. He took from Acton his distrust of power, from Ranke his celebration of the cultural diversity of the European state system, from Harold Temperley his love of humour and paradox, from Hegel, perhaps, his feel for unintended consequences, and from Max Weber, conceivably, his recognition of the ethics of limitation over the ethics of aspiration.

Butterfield's interests expanded additively rather than substitutively. He was also in constant demand as a speaker and essayist. This meant that he did not escape the accusation of superficiality, nor did his later preference for meditation over production go unremarked upon. He wrote only two longer historical monographs, both of them criticized for their documentary range. The first, The Peace Tactics of Napoleon, remains little known, impenetrable and—although it certainly informed his subsequent views on international relations—did not lead to a larger-scale study of Napoleon. It needed a new preface thirty years later (1967) to remind the reader of its central themes. Similarly, his second major work, George III, Lord North, and the People, was not followed by the planned biography of Charles James Fox; and with the exception of the work of J. C. D. Clark his writings on the eighteenth century have left no lasting legacy. In the last thirty years of his life Butterfield never wrote another monograph. Many enterprises were left unfinished, especially his projected history of diplomacy, the longer study on Acton, and the biography of Temperley. He was also criticized for ignoring social and economic factors.

In many ways Butterfield's career progressed through co-operation with ‘Providence’. He might well have read English literature had the Peterhouse scholarship competition not been for history. He suppressed his early desire to enter the Methodist ministry, when an academic career beckoned. Later he achieved lasting recognition primarily in fields in which he had not shown, and did not profess, any previous expertise. Both Christianity and History and The Origins of Modern Science were responses to providential invitations. He accepted the mantle of prophet thus thrust upon him neither eagerly nor opportunistically, but with outward humility.

For most of his life Butterfield combined his writing with the supervision and lecturing of undergraduates and research students at Peterhouse and Cambridge University. He was not a dominating supervisor in the conventional sense, but his corrosive questioning of historical presuppositions in discussion sometimes disorientated his pupils as much as stimulated them. From 1938 to 1952 he was editor of the Cambridge Historical Journal. He made no attempt to found a school, though his influence on the works of a later generation of Conservative historians, such as Maurice Cowling's Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England (1980), was palpable and acknowledged. Perhaps his 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 O Dalaigh's commission on higher education. His critique of national historical teleologies was enthusiastically embraced by the new ‘revisionist’ school of Irish historians, and was singled out for mention by the Revd Dr Brendan Bradshaw in his famous anti-revisionist polemic in Irish Historical Studies in 1989.

Although he showed some early ambiguity about charismatic authoritarian leaders, such as Napoleon, Butterfield's personal politics were firmly Liberal: he referred to himself as a ‘new whig’, of the non-utopian variety. Unlike Harold Temperley, he neither sought nor achieved contemporary political influence.

Butterfield was elected to the chair of modern history in 1944, and appointed to the regius professorship in 1963 and, somewhat belatedly, to a fellowship of the British Academy in 1965. From 1955 to 1968 he was by later standards an unusually uncontroversial master of Peterhouse; and from 1959 to 1961 he was, rather less happily, vice-chancellor of the university, during which period he was a jealous guardian of the independence of the university against the state, and the individual colleges against the university. A knighthood followed in 1968. He received thirteen honorary degrees including an honorary DLitt from Cambridge in 1974.

To those who knew him Butterfield was an engaging, though in many ways an enigmatic, figure. His personal irreverence belied the studied remoteness of much of his later prose and the homespun wisdom of his popular works. He was a teetotaller and a therapeutic pianist. The Christianity which permeates so much of his mature work had been a constant feature of his personal life from a very early age. He was a Methodist lay preacher in Cambridge and the surrounding villages until 1936, and continued to attend Wesley Methodist Chapel on Christ's Pieces every Sunday morning. He was an unconfirmed Anglican communicant in college chapel as master and remained so after his retirement to Sawston in 1968. He died at his home, 26 High Street, Sawston, on 20 July 1979. He was cremated and his ashes were buried beneath a tile in the aisle of Peterhouse Chapel. He was survived by his wife.

Brendan Simms


DNB · G. R. Elton, ‘Herbert Butterfield and the study of history’, HJ, 27 (1984), 729–43 · M. Cowling, Religion and public doctrine in modern England, 1 (1980) · H. T. Parker, ‘Herbert Butterfield’, Essays in modern European historiography, ed. S. W. Halperin (1970) · Herbert Butterfield: writings on Christianity and history, ed. C. T. McIntire (1979) · CUL, Butterfield MSS · A. R. Coll, The wisdom of statecraft: Sir Herbert Butterfield and the philosophy of international politics (1985) · K. W. Thompson, Herbert Butterfield: the ethics of history and politics (1980)


CUL, papers as vice-chancellor of University of Cambridge; corresp. and papers · priv. coll., diaries |  CAC Cam., corresp. with C. B. A. Behrens · CUL, letters to V. N. Datta · King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., corresp. with Sir B. H. Liddell Hart · U. Glas., corresp. with William Collins & Co.




BL NSA, performance recordings


R. Spear, oils, 1960, Peterhouse, Cambridge [see illus.]

Wealth at death  

£33,250: probate, 20 Dec 1979, CGPLA Eng. & Wales