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  George Macaulay Trevelyan (1876–1962), by Edmund H. Nelson, 1946 George Macaulay Trevelyan (1876–1962), by Edmund H. Nelson, 1946
Trevelyan, George Macaulay (1876–1962), historian, public educator, and conservationist, was born on 16 February 1876, at Welcombe, near Stratford upon Avon, Warwickshire, the youngest of the three sons of , who was a historian, landowner, Liberal MP, and cabinet minister, and his wife, Caroline (d. 1928), the daughter of Robert Needham Philips of Manchester.

Ancestry and youth, 1876–1903

Trevelyan's forebears were Cornish gentry, but during the nineteenth century a cadet branch of the family established itself at Wallington in Northumberland, where his father inherited a great estate and the baronetcy in 1886. This place was a formative influence: it was a whig house, which had been remodelled in 1688, the year of the ‘glorious revolution’; it imbued Trevelyan with a lifelong love of nature and the countryside; and it helps explain his pride in his ancestors. His grandfather was an Indian pro-consul and reforming civil servant. His great-uncle was Thomas Babington Macaulay, by turns a poet, historian, colonial administrator, and British politician. His father, Sir George Otto Trevelyan, was chief secretary for Ireland in Gladstone's second administration and secretary of state for Scotland in his last. And his elder brother , was secretary of education in the Labour governments of 1924 and 1929.

This was a privileged background, in which the aristocracies of birth and talent converged, and it gave Trevelyan the social confidence and financial security to form his opinions and express his views with fearless independence. From an early age, and as befitted someone bearing his middle name, Trevelyan resolved to write history in the grand manner of his great-uncle. Wherever possible, he would base his work on primary archival research, but his chief concern was to produce big books on large subjects which would be widely read by the educated public that had devoured Macaulay's volumes in an earlier era. History, Trevelyan believed, was an essential element in the public culture of any civilized nation, and he determined to uphold his family tradition by writing that history for his own day. In this endeavour he was astonishingly successful, as the prodigious sales of his books gave him a cultural authority unrivalled among his generation of historians.

In conformity with family precedent, Trevelyan was educated at Harrow School, where Winston Churchill was a near contemporary. In 1893, and again following in the family footsteps, he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read history. He was soon elected to the Apostles, the university's most exclusive and influential undergraduate society, and his high-toned contemporaries included John Maynard Keynes, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Leonard Wolff, Edward Hilton Young, Bertrand Russell, and E. M. Forster. He never indulged in the homosexual relations that became widespread for a time among some Apostles, but he did absorb their culture of radical agnosticism. Nevertheless, he remained all his life loyal to a secular version of Christian ethics: ‘a love of things good, and a hatred of things evil’ (Trevelyan, 82). He was much influenced in his historical studies by Maitland and Acton (though he never forgave Sir John Seeley for denouncing Macaulay as a ‘charlatan’), and he spent his vacations at Wallington or joining reading parties in the manner of the time. In 1896 he obtained a first in the historical tripos, and soon after (1898) he was elected a fellow of Trinity.

Within a year Trevelyan completed his first book, England in the Age of Wycliffe (1899), which was based on his fellowship dissertation, and which was published by Longmans, the imprint under which his father's and his great-uncle's histories had previously appeared. It was a zestful work of confident youth, and the jauntiness of the prose sometimes reads like a parody of Macaulay. But the subject was well suited to Trevelyan's interests and opinions, dealing as it did with the peasants' revolt of 1381; this he interpreted as the first flowering of those impulses towards secular liberty and religious freedom which he regarded as the defining characteristics of English history and the English nation. At this time he was seen as the coming man among young Cambridge historians, and his vigorous, iconoclastic lectures attracted a large undergraduate following. But he found the hypercritical atmosphere of the university inimical to his own more spacious and creative impulses, and he was outraged when in 1903 J. B. Bury denounced literary history in his inaugural lecture as regius professor. Trevelyan promptly resigned his Trinity fellowship, and set off for London.

Liberal and literary London, 1903–1914

Trevelyan's departure from Cambridge virtually coincided with the completion of England under the Stuarts (1904), an outstandingly successful general survey, which unfolded the familiar story of the civil war and the revolution of 1688 in more disciplined prose and mature style. As he interpreted it, the seventeenth century witnessed fundamental advances in religious toleration and parliamentary freedom, the forces of Catholic despotism were vanquished, and Great Britain gradually evolved towards the status of a world power. In the same year Trevelyan married Janet Penrose Ward (d. 1956), whose forebears (including Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby) and whose cousins (including the Huxley clan) were almost as illustrious as his own. She was the daughter of the novelist and her husband, Thomas Humphry Ward, a journalist. The marriage was happy and fulfilling, not least because Janet Trevelyan was herself a clever and public-spirited woman. She was the author of several works of history and biography, and in 1936 she was made CH in recognition of her work for the preservation of play centres for children in London.

Trevelyan's strong sense of dynastic identity meant his children were very important to him, although he became better at dealing with them when they were adults. His first child, Mary Caroline (1905–1994), inherited her share of the family gifts, pride, and interests, and her many publications included William III and the Defence of Holland, 1672–73 (1930), a biography of Wordsworth (2 vols., 1957–65), and a memoir of her father (1980). In 1930 Mary Trevelyan married John Richard Humpidge Moorman, a Church of England clergyman with interests in ecclesiastical history, who eventually became bishop of Ripon. By then her father's earlier, militant agnosticism had mellowed into broader tolerance, and his relations with his son-in-law were easier than might have been predicted. The second child of the marriage, Theodore Macaulay (1906–1911), was the apple of his parents' eyes and, as his middle name suggests, he was expected to carry the family name to new heights of distinction in the next generation. But his early death from appendicitis left his father devastated, and the youngest offspring, Charles Humphry (1909–1964), was brought up in Theodore's glowing yet dark shadow. Humphry wrote on Goethe and the Greeks, and became a fellow of King's College, Cambridge, in 1947.

Apart from this one great family tragedy, the years from 1903 to 1914 were probably the most fulfilling of Trevelyan's life. He settled down in Cheyne Gardens in Chelsea, and threw himself into the literary and political life of the metropolis. He taught at the working men's college in Great Ormond Street, and in the company of such like-minded liberals as H. A. L. Fisher and C. R. Buxton he edited a progressive journal entitled the Independent Review. But his great work was his Garibaldi trilogy (1907–11), which established his reputation as the outstanding literary historian of his generation. It depicted Garibaldi as a Carlylean hero—poet, patriot, and man of action—whose inspired leadership created the Italian nation. For Trevelyan, Garibaldi was the champion of freedom, progress, and tolerance, who vanquished the despotism, reaction, and obscurantism of the Austrian empire and the Neapolitan monarchy. The books were also notable for their vivid evocation of landscape (Trevelyan had himself followed the course of Garibaldi's marches), for their innovative use of documentary and oral sources, and for their spirited accounts of battles and military campaigns.

In the timing of this trilogy Trevelyan was exceptionally lucky, for the publication of the Garibaldi books almost exactly coincided with the high noon of Edwardian Liberalism. The trilogy also marked a high peak of imaginative intensity and creative endeavour which their author was never quite to scale again. He had now established himself as the master of the two forms of writing about the past which held the field when he was growing up, and to which he devoted the remainder of his working life: narrative national histories and biographies of great men. His next book was a life of John Bright (1913), another Liberal hero who was a high-minded internationalist and campaigner for peace, and a central figure in the making of Victorian England. He was then invited to write (and believed he had been born to write) the biography of the second Earl Grey—whig hero, architect of the Great Reform Act, and another Northumberland patrician. But he had completed only three chapters when the pattern of his own life was changed abruptly.

War and peace, 1914–1927

After much debate with such Liberal pacifists as Bertrand Russell, Trevelyan supported Britain's declaration of war. He disliked continental despotisms, and was sure the Kaiser's Germany came in this category. Late in 1914 he visited Serbia, with the aim of strengthening the resistance to the central powers, and in March 1915 he went on a lecture tour to the United States, putting the British case. His defective eyesight meant he was unfit for military service, but he was determined to join up somehow, and in the autumn of 1915 he became commandant of the first British Red Cross ambulance unit to be sent to Italy. For three and a half years he served on the mountainous front north-east of Venice, between the rivers Isonzo and Piave, transporting wounded soldiers to hospitals behind the lines. He was conspicuously brave, and insisted on sharing with his drivers the most dangerous tasks under fire. He was decorated by the Italian government, was made CBE in 1920, and recorded his experiences in Scenes from Italy's War (1919).

Like many gifted members of the Liberal generation to which he belonged, Trevelyan found the First World War a devastating experience. The easy certainties and confident hopes of the pre-1914 era had turned to dust, the Liberal Party was collapsing, and the European prospect seemed bleak. What, under such changed circumstances, was the role of the public teacher and national historian, which were his self-appointed tasks? Initially, there was some unfinished business which he had to complete. Lord Grey of the Reform Bill (1920) was his last piece of partisan whiggery, and Manin and the Venetian Revolution of 1848 (1923) was his final engagement with Italian history. Meanwhile, Trevelyan and his family had left London for semi-rural Berkhamsted. But this did not imply a withdrawal from public life: rather, it was the prelude to new sorts of involvement. He served on Asquith's royal commission into Oxford and Cambridge universities, and he became active as a conservationist, successfully urging the preservation of the Ashridge estate by the National Trust in 1925.

Trevelyan's post-war histories also exhibited a changed and extended perspective, as his pre-war whiggery broadened into a more inclusive, more tolerant (and more conservative) sense of what he called ‘Englishry’, first signalled in his British History in the Nineteenth Century (1922). This took a less partisan view of politics than his earlier writings, and accepted that it was not only the whigs, but also the tories, who had contributed to the development of the nation. This more consensual approach to the national past reached a fuller flowering in his History of England (1926), the first single-volume survey since J. R. Green's account in 1876. Trevelyan had resolved to write such a book during the First World War as a celebration of, and thank-offering to, the English people. In it he set out the essential elements of the nation's evolution and identity: parliamentary government, the rule of law, religious toleration, freedom from continental interference or involvement, and a global horizon of maritime supremacy and imperial expansion.

The book sold exceptionally well, and provided the definitive account of the English past for the inter-war generation and beyond. It also established Trevelyan as the supreme historical commentator on Baldwin's England in the same way that he had earlier been on Asquith's England. Like Trevelyan, Stanley Baldwin was a Harrow School and Trinity College alumnus; like Trevelyan, he believed in the beauty and regenerative values of the countryside; and like Trevelyan, he thought that different classes of English men and women should learn again to live in peace and harmony with each other. By the mid-1920s Trevelyan had become a committed Baldwinite tory, and he was convinced that Macaulay would have taken the same view. He disliked the scornful mockery made fashionable by Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians (1918), he regretted the eclipse of the traditional territorial aristocracy, and he deplored the corrupt materialism of the Lloyd George coalition and the press lords Northcliffe and Beaverbrook.

Regius professor, 1927–1940

In 1927–8 Trevelyan's life again changed abruptly, when Baldwin appointed him regius professor of modern history at Cambridge, a position that Macaulay had rejected, but which his great-nephew was ‘proud as a peacock’ to accept. Trevelyan returned in triumph to his Trinity fellowship, and took up residence at Garden Corner, 23 West Road, where he lived for the rest of his life. He was a conscientious lecturer, supervised a clutch of research students, including J. H. Plumb and W. R. Brock, and was chairman of the history faculty board from 1930 to 1934. At about the same time that he returned to Cambridge, Trevelyan inherited from a distant relative a house and small estate at Hallington in Northumberland, where he spent his university vacations and did much of his writing. The death of both his parents in 1928 prompted him to write Sir George Otto Trevelyan: a Memoir (1932), and in 1930 he was appointed a member of the Order of Merit, an honour previously enjoyed by his father. He had already, in 1925, been elected a fellow of the British Academy, but he subsequently declined to be president because he had more important and creative things to do.

The major scholarly work of Trevelyan's professorial years was another trilogy, England under Queen Anne (1930–34), which took up the national story where Macaulay's history had ended incomplete. It was an appropriate work for a man at the head of his profession, and it was another story with a ‘happy ending’: the defeat of continental despotism, the consolidation of national liberties, and the union with Scotland. The battle scenes of Marlborough's wars were brilliantly described, and Trevelyan paid even-handed tribute to the achievements of the whigs and the tories, an eirenic view of politics which had been foreshadowed not only in his History of England, but also in his Romanes lecture, published as The Two Party System in English Political History (1926). His final work in this mode was The English Revolution, 1688–89 (1938), published to mark the 250th anniversary of the events it described, and a sort of retrospective prelude to England under Queen Anne. For him the true glory of 1688 lay in its tolerant moderation, and in its long-lasting and beneficent effects.

Outside academe, Trevelyan's time was increasingly devoted in these years to public service and conservation work. He was a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery and of the British Museum, he became first president of the Youth Hostels' Association in 1930, and from 1928 to 1949 he was chairman of the estates committee of the National Trust. He became a tireless campaigner for the preservation of the countryside, and it was in support of this cause that he produced Must England's Beauty Perish? (1929) and The Calls and Claims of Natural Beauty (1931). For Trevelyan, as for many members of his generation, it was the countryside which was the repository of national identity, ‘spiritual values’, and liberty and freedom, and it must be preserved at all costs from bungalows, the motor car, and ribbon development. These feelings also informed his last biography, Grey of Fallodon (1937), an elegiac evocation of the British foreign secretary (1905–16), who was another Northumberland landowner and nature-lover, and a firm upholder of decent standards in public life.

Trevelyan had successfully adjusted to the changed and less propitious circumstances of the inter-war years, but he did not find the 1930s an easy decade. He was distressed by Italy's lapse into fascism, and by the rise of Nazi Germany. The first of these developments undermined his belief that Italy was a land of liberty, while the second vindicated his view that the treaty of Versailles had been unduly harsh. Internationally, as well as domestically, he supported the national governments of Baldwin and Chamberlain, believing in the virtues of appeasement, accompanied by rearmament—the very policies adopted by Sir Edward Grey before the First World War. Although he admired Winston Churchill as a writer and historian, he had no time for Churchill's views on India, Germany, or Edward VIII, and he was a firm supporter of the Munich settlement. But he had little doubt that another war with Germany would come, and that whatever the result, a second such conflict in his lifetime would spell the end of the world as he had known it.

Master of Trinity, 1940–1951

But Trevelyan recognized that Nazi Germany had to be defeated, and he soon became reconciled to, and guardedly admiring of, Churchill's more vigorous leadership. In the autumn of 1940 he accepted the prime minister's offer of the mastership of Trinity, which made his life ‘as happy as anyone's can be during the fall of European civilisation’ (Trevelyan, 49–50). Despite the straitened circumstances of wartime, he presided with dignity over the fellowship, helped secure the acquisition of Newton's library for the college, was tireless in extending hospitality to visiting American dignitaries, and wrote Trinity College: an Historical Sketch (1943). In 1945 he withdrew his name from the final short list for the governor-generalship of Canada. A year later he became high steward of Cambridge, as Macaulay had been before him; in 1947 he was elected president of the Historical Association; in 1950 he was elected FRS; and in 1951 he was president of the English Association. When he reached the age of seventy, the fellows of Trinity unanimously extended his term of office for a further five years.

Trevelyan's most sustained piece of writing during these years was English Social History (1944), which was intended to complement his earlier (and mainly political) History of England. It surveyed the broad sweep of national social life from the age of Chaucer to the close of the nineteenth century, and although wartime restrictions on paper supply initially held up its production, it soon proved to be the most successful of all his books, confirming his unrivalled position as the nation's historian laureate. Once again, the timing was just right. During the closing months of the Second World War, and in the longer years of Attlee's austerity, Trevelyan presented his readers with a beguiling picture of the past life of the nation, by turns inspiring and nostalgic. Written in the darkest years he had known, he poured out his patriotic feelings for what seemed to him the mortally endangered fabric of English life: landscape and locality, flora and fauna, places and people. Out of his wartime sense of despair and foreboding, he created his final historical masterpiece of public enlightenment, the (substantial) royalties from which he donated to the golden jubilee appeal of the National Trust.

Towards the end of his time as master of Trinity, Trevelyan published An Autobiography and other Essays (1949), in which he wrote very guardedly about his inner life, and rather inadequately about his work, his art, and his craft. He admitted that, as befitted the bearer of his name, he was a ‘traditional’ historian, who had pioneered no new way of seeing or understanding the past. He also conceded his preference for stories with happy endings, and accepted that some of his books (for instance ‘the Garibaldis’) were ‘reeking with bias’ (Trevelyan, 69). These venerable admissions seemed to bear out the earlier attacks that had been obliquely mounted on Trevelyan by Herbert Butterfield in The Whig Interpretation of History (1931) and by Lewis Namier in his revisionist (that is, anti-whig) work on the reign of George III. And they encouraged a later generation of militant conservative empiricists, led by G. R. Elton and J. P. Kenyon, who were unsympathetic to Trevelyan's politics and envious of his public success, to disparage him as a superficial amateur, with no interest in research, whose books were conspicuously lacking in intellectual bite.

Such attacks merely displayed the lack of scholarly rigour they had mistakenly claimed to find in Trevelyan's own work. For he believed passionately in the importance of primary research, and the Garibaldi books had been much praised for their innovative use of archival material in a work of recent history. He was a great supporter of the Institute of Historical Research in London, and exceptionally generous in his encouragement of younger scholars. For all his early whig and liberal biases, there is no evidence that Trevelyan knowingly distorted historical evidence to support the case he wanted to make. He constantly insisted on the unlikeness of past worlds to the present, and he was much more sympathetic to the power and importance of religion than he is sometimes given credit for. In his imaginative insight and eloquent reconstruction of past people and events he was unrivalled among historians of his generation, and his sense of the transience and tragedy of life gives his best writing a poetic power and a haunting resonance that have never been equalled since.

Last years, 1951–1962

During the closing decade of his life Trevelyan's scholarly reputation went into a prolonged decline among professional academics from which it has only recently begun to recover. His last book, A Layman's Love of Letters (1954), was his most personal, and conveyed something of his lifelong delight in English literature. In the public mind he was still regarded as ‘the most eminent historian of his time’, most of his books remained in print, and further honours were heaped upon him. He was chancellor of Durham University from 1950 to 1958, and he was presented with a Festschrift, Studies in Social History (1955), edited by J. H. Plumb. On his eightieth birthday an appeal was launched in The Times to found lectures in his honour at Cambridge University. The signatories included Sir John Neale and Sir Winston Churchill, and in their letter they described Trevelyan as ‘one of our foremost national figures’, who was, like Macaulay before him, ‘the accredited interpreter to his age of the English past’ (The Times, 16 Feb 1956). The first Trevelyan lectures were given in 1958, at which Trevelyan himself made one of his last public appearances. Three years later, in the company of Churchill, he was made a companion of literature.

Throughout his long life Trevelyan drove himself exceptionally hard in pursuit of his chosen calling. His personality was unwarmed by self-indulgence, he cared little about his dress or appearance, and he was wholly devoid of small talk. He was tall, with a wiry frame and austere features, and he enjoyed a well-merited reputation as a tireless walker. He spoke his mind with forthright independence, and to all except his closest friends he could be an intimidating figure. But his youthful ferocity gradually mellowed into a kind of noble grandeur—a greatness of character that matched the greatness of his achievement. He was devoid of vanity, pretence, or pomposity, he was free of envy or small-mindedness, he was outstandingly public-spirited, and he was a generous benefactor to people and causes in which he believed. His wife predeceased him in 1956, and his last years were made harder to bear by failing eyesight. He died at his home in Cambridge on 20 July 1962, and his ashes were scattered in the Lake District.

David Cannadine


D. Cannadine, G. M. Trevelyan: a life in history (1992) · M. Moorman, George Macaulay Trevelyan: a memoir (1980) · G. M. Trevelyan, An autobiography and other essays (1949) · J. H. Plumb, G. M. Trevelyan (1951) · W. O. Chadwick, Freedom and the historian (1969) · G. Clark, ‘George Macaulay Trevelyan, 1876–1972’, PBA, 49 (1963), 375–86 · J. M. Hernon, ‘The last whig historian and consensus history: George Macaulay Trevelyan, 1876–1962’, American Historical Review, 81 (1976), 66–97 · G. K. Clark, ‘George Macaulay Trevelyan as an historian: charm'd magic casements’, Durham University Journal, 55 (1962–3), 1–4 · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1962)


BL, corresp. with Sir Sydney Cockerell, Add. MS 52756 · BL, letters to Albert Mansbridge, Add. MSS 65257B–65258 · BL, corresp. with Society of Authors, Add. MS 56835 · Bodl. Oxf., letters to H. A. L. Fisher · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Gilbert Murray · CAC Cam., corresp. with C. B. A. Behrens · CAC Cam., corresp. with A. V. Hill · CUL, corresp. with Sir Herbert Butterfield · CUL, letters to V. N. Datta · CUL, letters to Lord Kennet and Lady Kennet · CUL, letters to G. E. Moore · King's AC Cam., letters to Oscar Browning · King's AC Cam., letters to John Maynard Keynes · King's AC Cam., letters to Sir J. T. Sheppard · King's AC Cam., letters and postcards to G. H. W. Rylands · King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., corresp. with Arthur Bryant · LUL, letters to T. S. Moore · McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, letters to Bertrand Russell · Rice University, Houston, Texas, Woodson Research Center, letters to Sir Julian Huxley · Trinity Cam., R. C. Trevelyan MSS · U. Newcastle, G. O. Trevelyan MSS · U. Newcastle, Robinson L., corresp. with Walter Runciman · U. Newcastle, Robinson L., corresp. with G. O. Trevelyan and C. P. Trevelyan  



BFINA, documentary footage




BL NSA, ‘George Macaulay Trevelyan’, BBC Radio 3, 17 Feb 1976, NP2673R C1


W. Rothenstein, chalk drawing, c.1913, NPG · W. Rothenstein, pencil drawing, 1913, Trinity Cam. · C. Geoffrey, drawing, 1925, priv. coll. · W. Stoneman, photograph, 1930, NPG · F. Dodd, charcoal drawing, 1933, FM Cam. · F. Dodd, pencil drawing, 1933, NPG · E. H. Nelson, oils, 1946, Trinity Cam. [see illus.] · W. Stoneman, photograph, 1948, NPG · C. Beaton, photograph, NPG · J. Mansbridge, drawing · J. S. Murray, photograph, repro. in Clark, ‘George Macaulay Trevelyan’, facing p. 375

Wealth at death  

£157,765 9s.: probate, 19 Nov 1962, CGPLA Eng. & Wales