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  (John Edward) Christopher Hill (1912–2003), by unknown photographer, 1965 (John Edward) Christopher Hill (1912–2003), by unknown photographer, 1965
Hill, (John Edward) Christopher (1912–2003), historian, was born on 6 February 1912 at Norfolk House, Bishopthorpe Road, York, the elder child and only son of Edward Harold Hill, a solicitor, and his wife, Janet Augusta, née Dickinson.

Methodism, Marxism, and marriages

Hill was educated at St Peter's School, York, and at Balliol College, Oxford, where he read modern history. His family were pillars of the Methodist church in York, and he was brought up in a tradition of strong piety and moral fastidiousness. Although he ceased to be a Christian during his undergraduate years, he never abandoned a more general commitment to good works and simple living, to which he adhered throughout his life. He was profoundly influenced by the egalitarian message of the unorthodox Methodist preacher T. S. Gregory, to whom he dedicated a book more than thirty years later; and he never wavered from his central belief in human freedom and equality, now conceived in secular and this-worldly terms.

By 1934 (the year he graduated with a first-class degree in modern history) Hill had joined the Communist Party, at a time when the situation in both national and international politics led many idealistic young people to make the same choice. That autumn he was elected a prize fellow of All Souls College, a further sign of the precocious academic talent that had already won him a Brackenbury scholarship to Balliol, then the Lothian prize and a Goldsmiths' senior studentship. In 1935–6, on the advice of his Balliol tutor Humphrey Sumner, he used a scholarship for foreign study to finance a ten-month stay in Moscow, a period during which he became fluent in Russian and established good relations with a group of lively Soviet historians. He was particularly interested in their work on English economic and social history, which had a major influence on his own historical thinking, while he also developed a great liking for Russia and had a love affair with a young Russian woman. On his return he took a post as assistant lecturer at Cardiff, where he remained for two years before returning to Balliol in 1938 as fellow and tutor in history. While at Cardiff he compensated for an unsuccessful attempt to enlist in the International Brigade for service in the Spanish Civil War by notable activism in helping Basque refugees.

Army service from June 1940 during the Second World War saw Hill rise to the rank of major in the intelligence corps; between 1943 and 1945 he was seconded to the Foreign Office, where he worked in the northern department. On 17 January 1944 he married Inez Waugh, the 23-year-old daughter of Gordon Bartlett, army officer, and the divorced wife of Ian Anthony Waugh. They had one daughter, Fanny. Inez was a lively and sociable woman to whom Hill was passionately attached; the breakdown of this difficult relationship after some ten years was a bitter blow for him. Towards the end of his life and after his death Hill's wartime service in the Foreign Office led to charges that he had concealed his political affiliations, while acting as a Soviet mole and giving prejudiced advice about Stalin's intentions in eastern Europe. These accusations, which had always seemed to rely more on innuendo than hard fact, looked even less plausible when the archival record of Hill's service was examined. The main issue concerned a Committee on Russian Studies, on which Hill sat and of one of whose sub-committees he was secretary, which made some rather tentative plans for the teaching of Russian in post-war Britain. The committee was concerned about the possible difficulties that could arise from the number of Russian exiles teaching the language, whose hostile views might endanger future Anglo-Soviet relations. Among the various proposals was one to employ Soviet citizens among other instructors, a perfectly familiar arrangement for other languages, although in this case it is easy to imagine that security problems would have arisen of a kind few would have foreseen in 1944–5. This suggestion was clearly one made by the committee as a whole, and there is nothing to indicate that Hill played a notably prominent role in such decisions.

After the war Hill returned to Oxford and his academic career; until 1957, however, he was also deeply involved in the activities of the Communist Party. He would always remember the meetings of the historians' group, with such friends and colleagues as Dona Torr, Rodney Hilton, Victor Kiernan, Eric Hobsbawm, and A. L. Morton, as the centre of his intellectual life over this period, but he also wrote a good deal of what he later described as ‘more or less hack party stuff’ for a wider audience. An important moment was the foundation of the historical journal Past and Present in 1952, in which Hill was one of the prime movers.

The events of 1956, with Khrushchov's secret speech to the twentieth party congress, then the Soviet invasion of Hungary, threw the British Communist Party into disarray. For Hill and most of his friends the intellectual dishonesty practised by the leadership became intolerable, with its denial of obvious facts that needed to be confronted. Many left the party immediately. Hill remained for some months longer, serving as a member of the commission on inner party democracy, with which the leadership tried to appease its critics; he finally resigned after presenting a minority report that was voted down overwhelmingly at the party congress in the spring of 1957. Much later he would express his feeling that those who resigned too precipitately had ensured the ultimate demise of the party, but this was surely one of those rare occasions when he allowed sentiment to cloud his judgement, since his principled stand was doomed to fail even had they stayed on to support him. After this he would never engage in active politics again, although he remained instinctively a man of the left, and maintained many of the personal relationships that dated back to these years.

1956 was a crucial turning point for Hill in other and happier ways; on 2 January that year he married Bridget Irene Mason [see ], a fellow communist and a historian who had been a favourite pupil of R. H. Tawney. She was the daughter of Harry Herbert Sutton, Baptist minister, and the former wife of the Marxist historian of science Stephen Mason, with whom the Hills remained on good terms in later years. For more than forty years Bridget and Christopher Hill formed a rare partnership, such that their many friends could hardly conceive of them apart, while they sustained one another in every possible way, in both their personal and their professional lives. There were serious adversities to overcome, for the break with the party, a wrenching experience for both, was followed in 1957 by the death of their first daughter, Kate, in an otherwise minor car accident. In 1986 Hill's daughter from his first marriage, Fanny, drowned when on holiday in Spain. There was compensation in a happy home life with two other children, Andrew (b. 1958) and Dinah (b. 1960), and in the next generation from two grandchildren, William and Polly Stein, from Fanny's marriage to John Stein.

Fellow and master of Balliol

Academic life was not always easy for professed communists in the cold war era, and Hill may have found the atmosphere even in Balliol less agreeable after A. D. Lindsay, Baron Lindsay, was succeeded as master by the dour and conservative Sir David Lindsay Keir in 1949. Hill applied for the chair of history at Lord Lindsay's new university of Keele, only to be turned down on the grounds of his political affiliations, which Lindsay apparently feared might damage that fledgeling institution. For twenty years, therefore, he taught a succession of Balliol undergraduates and a growing number of graduate students. As a tutor his style was unusual, even disconcerting, yet he inspired both personal devotion and academic success from a long line of pupils. He projected a remarkable personality, a quality of ferocious determination behind a quiet exterior. Short, wiry, with small neat features beneath an impressive forehead, and curly dark hair receding slightly from a widow's peak, he somehow combined a distinctly curt manner with personal warmth. Underlying shyness was emphasized by a slight stutter, and a curious mannerism of a loud sniff which often preceded some cutting remark. Anyone who supposed that he inculcated Marxist dogma into his credulous pupils was hopelessly wide of the mark, since in his tutorials he relied almost wholly on abrupt questions, then displayed steely resolve in sitting through the longest silences until someone had to offer at least a feeble guess in response. He sat curled up in a curious hammock-like chair, beneath a picture of Oliver Cromwell, and made the pupils do all the work. Most of them must have been startled by the preface to Hill's enormously influential textbook of 1961, The Century of Revolution, where he asserted that ‘I am conscious that my ideas are at least less half-baked than they would have been if I had not had to defend them in tutorial discussions with pupils, extending now over twenty-five years’.

When Keir retired in 1965 Balliol chose Hill as the new master, provoking some predictable outrage in the conservative press. What his colleagues had recognized was his intense loyalty to the college and his capacity for pragmatic and consensual action; if there was a revolution in Balliol over the next thirteen years it was one in style, with Hill (ably assisted by Bridget) cultivating a refreshing informality and friendliness at all levels. There were significant if hardly dramatic changes in running the college, including a voice for student representatives, and the way was prepared for the admission of women, which began the year after Hill's retirement. Perhaps the most difficult issues arose from the years of student radicalism after 1968, towards which Hill had very mixed feelings; his instinctive sympathy for libertarian revolt was tempered by a dislike for gesture politics and self-indulgence. In practice he handled the issue with notable skill, avoiding confrontations wherever possible, imposing discipline when really necessary, and offering private help to some of those who got themselves into difficulties. He and Bridget had always shown an exceptional willingness to defend those in personal trouble, most often where sexual behaviour and official morality clashed; a startling number of people had reason to be grateful to them for unobtrusive and tactful help in such matters.

Historian of the seventeenth century

The unlikely combination of communist activism and headship of an Oxford college (admittedly with a significant time gap) was possible only because of Hill's standing as a historian, and it was as a scholar that he made his major contribution to the intellectual scene of his times. His reputation as a historian can be dated from 1956 and the publication of his first serious academic book, Economic Problems of the Church from Archbishop Whitgift to the Long Parliament. Up to this point, apart from his avowedly political output, he had published only a few articles and two exercises in a rather doctrinaire Marxist style. The first of these, The English Revolution, 1640 (1940), was by his own later account the work of an angry young man who expected to die in the war. Although its picture of a bourgeois revolution was hardly convincing, this was still a compelling seventy-page declaration of intent, within which there were prophetic signs of independence from the strict party line. In 1949 he and the future Labour minister Edmund Dell edited a collection of documents, The Good Old Cause, whose introductory sections later struck a rather quaint note. If he had been a slow starter, however, Hill made up for this by moving into a period of sustained productivity that would continue into his eighties. His new standing as one of the leading early modern historians in Britain was reflected in the invitation to give the Ford lectures at Oxford in 1962, and in his election as a fellow of the British Academy in 1965.

In the years of his maturity, the 1960s and 1970s, Hill was the dominant figure in the study of seventeenth-century England. His textbooks led the field, while he was simultaneously pouring out a stream of monographs and articles replete with learning and bursting with ideas. He succeeded, as his predecessors S. R. Gardiner and Sir Charles Firth had not done, in establishing in the public mind that this was the ‘century of revolution’, the decisive age when England was transformed into a great economic and imperial power, amid the collapse of an old order. It is hard, in retrospect, to recognize just how far the more dramatic and disruptive aspects of the period had previously been written out of the standard account, with its preference for evolutionary change within an essentially benign picture of English constitutionalism and English social development. No historian could have overthrown this orthodoxy on his own, so clearly Hill had caught the mood of the times, and he was followed by a large group of younger scholars, including many of his own pupils. Nor could any form of doctrinaire Marxism have had such an effect, a point underlined by the fact that very few of those who admired his work had ever toyed with Marxist theory.

By his own account it was an enthusiasm for the metaphysical poets that had first drawn Hill to the seventeenth century, while his Marxism followed from his political commitments rather than inspiring them. In his mature years he adopted the style of a very English empiricist, who rarely offered explicit theoretical statements in his academic work, and he never wrote at any length about the social and economic processes that were at the heart of his original explanatory system, nor attempted grandiose international comparisons. A rare clue to his thinking can be found in a fascinating essay entitled ‘A bourgeois revolution?’ (in J. G. A. Pocock, ed., Three British Revolutions, 1980), in which he claimed that he had no more preconceptions than the next historian, and that his ideas were constantly modified by fresh information. He cited Isaac Deutscher and Lenin, with footnote references to Marx and Engels, to prove his perfect orthodoxy when defining the bourgeois revolution in terms of its outcomes, not its origins. This ingenious piece of dialectic came close to equating Marxism with the identification of any and every process of change and modernization. In practice, therefore, he negotiated himself an enormous loophole, so that he could operate as a radical historian of an undogmatic kind. His ultimate picture of the English revolution was one of multi-faceted change, full of unintended consequences and disappointed hopes, a process which benefited the few at the expense of the many, and ushered in a harsher, more exploitative world.

Hill's literary interests were reflected in the high quality of his own writing; he cultivated a spare and direct style that always carried the argument forward. At the same time he was exceptionally learned, so that some of his severest critics acknowledged that he probably knew more about the English seventeenth century than any other scholar had ever done. His footnotes were famous, with some essays of otherwise ordinary length boasting as many as 350, referring to hundreds of sources. Prodigious reading in the contemporary printed material and published sources went along with total coverage of modern scholarship. Whatever obscure monograph emerged from an American university press, he bought it, filleted it, then sold it again unless it was really worth keeping. The process was visible in many of his book reviews, with their palimpsest of direct quotations and pithy comments. His methods of work could lead to some intellectual problems, for on occasion he was vulnerable to charges that he took quotations out of context, and that he disregarded evidence that worked against his case. Although he defended himself vigorously on essentials, he was disarmingly ready to admit lapses of this kind, and to emphasize the provisional nature of all historical arguments. This followed from his passionate conviction that the historian should seek to connect up as many aspects of the past as possible, and must be free to speculate about links even when they could not be proved. In the end he probably did exaggerate the extent and speed of change in seventeenth-century England, more through the selective use of evidence than from any theoretical rigidity, but the creative richness of his work was the positive side of this tendency.

Across his enormous published output Hill often took intellectual risks; it seems unlikely that he ever chose the prudent course in preference to the bold one. When he frequently said that it was more important to stir up debate than to be right, he simply preached what he practised. If Economic Problems of the Church was hard to criticize, its companion volume, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England (1964), ventured onto treacherous ground as Hill sought to explain the worldly reasons why individuals might find puritanism attractive, and laying out some of the possible consequences. This book was as much Weberian as Marxist in its approach, and although Hill's answers did not wholly convince (especially his identification of a ‘middling sort’ with puritan sympathies), the issues remained live. The Ford lectures appeared as a substantial monograph, The Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution (1965), with key chapters on the ideas of Sir Francis Bacon, Sir Walter Ralegh, and Sir Edward Coke. This was at once a brilliantly original piece of path-finding work and an invitation to destructive criticism, because the attempt to align virtually all critical thinking before 1640 with opposition to the crown could be sustained only through some highly dubious categorization. In 1967 there was another textbook, Reformation to Industrial Revolution: a Social and Economic History of Britain, 1530–1780, with a wider chronological range than usual. God's Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (1970), which was designed more as a set of reflections than a full biography, offered a very insightful view of Cromwell's contradictory impulses and sympathies, from someone who could understand the lord protector's position with unusual empathy.

Hill's most notable work of the early 1970s came in the small masterpiece Antichrist in Seventeenth-Century England (1971), then in the celebrated book The World Turned Upside Down (1972), which brought an astonishing range of radical thinkers from the revolutionary decades vividly back to life. It was an appropriate tribute that part of this work should later be staged at the National Theatre. In 1977 Hill followed up some brilliant earlier essays on literature with an iconoclastic major work, Milton and the English Revolution. He insisted that Milton's major works were fully comprehensible only in the light of the poet's deep involvement with both the politics and the radical ideas of the interregnum; the case was put forward persuasively and with many qualifications, but attracted a good deal of predictable hostility. A later work that followed a similar pattern was A Turbulent and Seditious People: John Bunyan and his Church (1988), which unexpectedly won the W. H. Smith award. Another book that could be seen as a continuation was The Experience of Defeat (1984), which recounted the poignant story of how different groups of radicals had responded to their failure or suffered for it. There were two other books when Hill was in his eighties, The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution (1993) and Liberty against the Law: some Seventeenth-Century Controversies (1996). Although neither would count among his finest work, they were striking evidence of his continued vitality and his capacity to move into new territory. To all these books must be added the major collections of essays, Puritanism and Revolution (1958) and Change and Continuity in Seventeenth-Century England (1974), then the three volumes of Collected Essays (1985–6), actually a selection from about 150 articles that he had published. Two final collections of essays were A Nation of Change and Novelty: Radical Politics, Religion and Literature in Seventeenth-Century England (1990) and England's Turning Point: Essays in 17th-Century English History (1998).

Retirement, and assessment

After his retirement from Balliol in 1978 Hill worked for the Open University for two years as a professor, while continuing to give many lectures, in both formal and informal contexts, as he had done throughout his working life. He and Bridget moved to a rambling old house at Sibford Ferris, near Banbury, Oxfordshire, while continuing to spend much time at their house near Verteillac in the Dordogne. Tragically his last years were blighted by Alzheimer's disease, although this may at least have prevented him from knowing that Bridget had died in July 2002. He died at Southerndown nursing home, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, on 23 February 2003, of cerebral atrophy. He was survived by his son, Andrew, and daughter, Dinah.

Hill was a great historian, who brought about dramatic changes in the general perception of the seventeenth century, and inspired many others to share his enthusiasms. Above all he enriched knowledge of the period by peopling it with the dazzling array of original and unlikely characters who fill the pages of his finest works, for when he wrote about them he infused his history with the deep humanity and generosity of his own personality, in a truly moving fashion.

Robin Briggs

Sources  

‘Christopher Hill: some reminiscences’, Puritans and revolutionaries: essays in seventeenth-century history presented to Christopher Hill, ed. D. Pennington and K. Thomas (1978), 1–21 · E. Hobsbawm, ‘The historians' group of the Communist Party’, Rebels and their causes, ed. M. Cornforth (1978), 21–48 · A. Glees, The secrets of the service: British intelligence and communist subversion, 1939–51 (1987), 279–88 · G. Eley and W. Hunt, eds., Reviving the English revolution: reflections and elaborations on the work of Christopher Hill (1988) · J. Saville, The politics of continuity: British foreign policy and the Labour government, 1945–46 (1993), 212–17 · H. J. Kaye, The British Marxist historians: an introductory analysis (1995) · A. MacLachlan, The rise and fall of revolutionary England: an essay on the fabrication of seventeenth-century history (1996) · ‘Christopher Hill: a first-class performer’, History Workshop Journal, 42 (1996), 207–9 · E. Hobsbawm, Interesting times: a twentieth-century life (2002) · The Times (26 Feb 2003) · The Guardian (26 Feb 2003) · Daily Telegraph (27 Feb 2003) · The Independent (1 March 2003) · P. J. Corfield, ‘“We are all one in the eyes of the Lord”: Christopher Hill and the historical meanings of radical religion’, History Workshop Journal, 58 (2004), 110–27 · D. Pennington, PBA, 130 (2005), 23–49 · WW (2003) · personal knowledge (2007) · private information (2007) · b. cert. · m. certs. · d. cert.

Archives  

 

FILM

 

BFINA, documentary footage

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, interview with Hermione Lee, B5026/06 · BL NSA, documentary recordings · BL NSA, recorded letters


Likenesses  

photograph, 1965, Getty Images, London [see illus.] · S. F. G. Farthing, group portrait, oils, 1999 (Historians of Past and Present), NPG · J. Bown, photograph, repro. in The Times (5 March 2003) · D. Hill, oils, Balliol Oxf. · obituary photographs · photograph, Camera Press, London · photograph, repro. in Pennington and Thomas, eds., Puritans and revolutionaries

Wealth at death  

£671,073: probate, 21 Jan 2004, CGPLA Eng. & Wales