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Namier, Sir Lewis Bernsteinlocked

  • John Cannon

Sir Lewis Bernstein Namier (1888–1960)

by Bassano

Namier, Sir Lewis Bernstein (1888–1960), historian, was born on 27 June 1888 at Wola Okrzejska in Russian Poland. According to family testimony the baby was presumed dead and revived only at the last minute. His antecedents and life were complex. His parents had just moved from Warsaw to a family estate at Wola Okrzejska; when he was two they moved again, to Kobylowloki in Austrian Poland, and when he was six to Nowosiolka Skalacka. Of gentry stock, his family were Polonized Jews, who had embraced Catholicism. His father, Joseph Bernsztajn vel Niemirowski (d. 1922), was a lawyer, descended from distinguished Talmudic scholars; his mother was Anne, daughter of Maurice Theodor Sommersztajn, owner of several Galician estates. The peasantry in Galicia, for whom Namier developed great respect, were Ruthenian or Ukrainian, and adhered to the Orthodox church. As Jews, his family had been forced to change their name, and Namier subsequently changed his twice more. Many commentators have seen in Namier 'a search for identity' (Winkler, 2). The biography by his second wife gives a vivid account of his childhood, much of it dictated to her in his last months. Namier grew up with two powerful antipathies—towards the Austrian (German) authorities, and towards Jews who tried to hide their origins by assimilating with the countries in which they found themselves.


It took Namier time to find a congenial habitat. He was soon on bad terms with his father, yet Namier could expect to inherit the country estate purchased at Koszylowce, south of Lwów (Lemberg), in 1906. In that year he began to study law at Lwów University, but was driven away by antisemitic jeers. He transferred to Lausanne, where he could get help for the medical problems which plagued him all his life, but he soon pined for wider horizons. With Paris vetoed by his father, Namier arrived in London in 1907, enlisted at the London School of Economics to study economics, joined the Fabian Society, and was soon persuaded that Oxford was his natural home and history his proper study. In October 1908 he arrived at Balliol, an exotic young man, unmistakably Jewish, with a heavy accent, but with a reputation for brilliance.

At Balliol Namier, known as Bernstein, did well and decided that England would be his country. In 1910 he changed his name by deed poll to Naymier, and in 1913, to Anglicize it more, to Namier. He gained a first in modern history in 1911, but in November 1911 failed to obtain a fellowship at All Souls. A. F. Pollard, an examiner, wrote that Namier had been 'the best man by far in sheer intellect', but that 'the Warden and majority of Fellows shied at his race' (Namier, 101). To augment the allowance from his father he began writing for newspapers, drawing on his knowledge of eastern Europe. Fearing lest his son should become a perpetual student, Namier's father urged him to move to America and join Louis Hammerling, a fellow Galician Jew, president of the Foreign Language Press. Namier sailed for New York in May 1913 and used the opportunity to read and consult manuscripts in the United States. According to Berlin, Hammerling found Namier's increasingly outspoken dislike of Germany unacceptable, and the arrangement was terminated (Berlin, 224). Namier thought once more of taking up law, but returned to England in just under a year.

The First World War and after: European nationalities and Zionism

Soon after his return, war broke out; Namier volunteered at once for the Royal Flying Corps but was rejected for poor eyesight. He then managed to join the Royal Fusiliers but within five months was transferred to help the war effort more profitably as an expert adviser in the Foreign Office. He began a small book, Germany and Eastern Europe, published in 1915, with a friendly preface by H. A. L. Fisher. Namier's influence in the political intelligence department was exerted in favour of the subject nations of the Austro-Hungarian empire. In 1917 he published two short pamphlets, The Case of Bohemia and The Czecho-Slovaks: an Oppressed Nationality. He felt great sympathy for the Ukrainian nationalists. His support for the Poles was more guarded, since he suspected that, finding themselves for once on the winning side, they were likely to embrace wild expansionism. To Isaiah Berlin Namier subsequently, with characteristic extravagance, claimed to have been personally responsible for the breakup of the Habsburg empire in 1918: 'I may say', he confided, 'that I pulled it to pieces with my own hands' (Berlin, 224).

The year 1919 found Namier, like many other young men, trying to rebuild his life. The estate at Koszylowce had been looted and though restored to his family was now part of Poland: worse, when his father died in 1922 Namier discovered that he had been disinherited in favour of his sister: he never saw his mother or sister again. To add to his problems, he had embarked in January 1917 on marriage with Clara Edeleff-Poniatowska (d. 1945), a widow who seemed curiously vague about her former life, and proved highly strung and depressive. Balliol found Namier a temporary lectureship in April 1920. He contributed a chapter on the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian empire to Harold Temperley's official Peace Conference in Paris (1921), subsequently reprinted in Vanished Supremacies (1958). But though he flung himself into tutorial work, there was little time for his book on the origins of the American War of Independence and the lectureship was not renewed in 1921. Instead, Namier took up an offer of a well-paid job in Vienna and Prague representing a Lancashire cotton firm, with the advantage that he could send articles to the Manchester Guardian and other papers. He hoped to save enough to support his own historical research. The first outcome was that Clara left him, ostensibly to go off with another man. A. J. P. Taylor, a young colleague of Namier's at Manchester in the 1930s, met her towards the end of her life, and thought her 'a bewitching character', but was not surprised that she had found Namier heavy and that he had found her exasperating (Taylor, 167–8). Namier supplied Clara's place by forming an attachment to another difficult woman, Marie Beer, whom he had first met when he was sixteen.

It is not clear whether the cotton firm benefited much from Namier's services in Prague, nor, indeed, what those services were. He made many acquaintances, including Beneš, sent dispatches home and, through playing the stock exchange, amassed a modest competence. His stay on the continent revived an interest in Zionism, first kindled by meeting Chaim Weizmann, president of the World Zionist Organization from 1920. Namier's attitude towards the Jewish question was almost purely political, and derived from his understanding of nationhood. If Czechs and Poles could have their own nation state, why could not Jews? They would then not have to submit to the servility of assimilation. He had little interest in any religion, and scant respect for priests or rabbis. The task of Zionists was to hold successive British governments to the pledge given in the Balfour declaration of 1917 for a national home in Palestine. Namier greatly valued his friendship with Blanche Dugdale (Baffy), a niece of Balfour, which not only gave him entrée to country houses, but offered a link, however tenuous, with Balfour himself, still with some influence as president of the council.

Eighteenth-century politics

After three years Namier returned to London, engaged a secretary, and resumed work on his American book. He existed partly on capital, partly on loans from friends, and partly on grants from the Rhodes trustees. Baffy arranged for him to meet Harold Macmillan, another Balliol man, Conservative MP, and partner in the publishing house which agreed to take his book. The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III came out in January 1929 and was followed in 1930 by England in the Age of the American Revolution.

The reception of these books was not unanimous. Sir Richard Lodge in History was dismissive. The Newcastle papers had long been known as a 'dust-heap', from which Namier had rescued some interesting details, but the title of the first book was misleading and over-ambitious (History, 14, 1930, 269); of the second, Lodge noted that much time had been employed 'clearing the site' and that the story had only reached December 1762: 'it is not easy to forecast—probably Mr Namier himself cannot do so—what will be the ultimate proportions of this model' (History, 16, 1930, 173). But D. H. Winstanley wrote that 'no previous writer has ever made so thorough and gallant an attempt to discover the actual workings of the political system of the eighteenth century' (EngHR, 44, 1929, 657). The review which had the most dramatic consequences was by G. M. Trevelyan, doyen of those whig historians for whom Namier had so little respect. Trevelyan wrote of the 'Namier way': 'Mr. Namier is a new factor in the historical world' (Trevelyan, 238). Reading the review at tea, Professor Jacob at Manchester telegraphed at once to offer Namier the vacant chair of modern history. He was always grateful to Trevelyan and, characteristically, claimed to have repaid his debt by refusing ever to review Trevelyan's books.

Manchester professor

Manchester rescued Namier from several predicaments. In spring 1929 he had written that he expected to devote the rest of his life to the Zionist cause, and Weizmann had persuaded him to take on the political secretaryship of the Zionist Organization. But the movement was convulsed by political and financial problems, Namier was disliked by Orthodox Jews, and the salary proposed was inadequate. Manchester, when he took up post in October 1931, treated him with great consideration. Though he took teaching and examining seriously, he did little administration. He retained his house in London, returning there most weekends, and during the week stayed outside Manchester. Nevertheless, the promised continuation of his investigation into the origins of the American War of Independence did not appear. Different explanations have been offered. Taylor thought that Namier became easily bored. John Brooke, a disciple after the war, believed that his work was inhibited by nihilistic gloom. Structural analysis, as Lodge had hinted, made extremely heavy demands on the practitioner. Namier was far from inactive, continuing his work for Zionism, reviewing widely (and selling the copies), and submitting articles. His way of life, including so much travelling and personal secretarial assistance, was expensive, and he continued to give financial help to both Marie and Clara. Scholarly work, as he frequently complained, did not pay well. The Ford lectures, delivered at Oxford on the cabinet in 1933–4, were not published. The only scholarly publication before the Second World War was a very slim volume in 1937 correcting the errors in Sir John Fortescue's first volume of the correspondence of George III. Even that was based on a review in the Nation and Athenaeum in 1927 (Namier, 199). Yet it was, in some ways, his most important service to historical scholarship, helping to raise the standard of editing throughout the profession, even if many people thought Namier's strictures severe.

The outbreak of war found Namier preparing for a sabbatical year. Instead he was released by the university to act as liaison officer between the Jewish Agency and the government and spent the rest of the war in London. Much of his energy was devoted to attempting to persuade the government to authorize an independent Jewish fighting force: many ministers were afraid that it would be used to seize power in Palestine after the war, and demurred. Zionists quarrelled among themselves, and Isaiah Berlin's bleak judgement was that politically Namier was 'as great a liability as an asset' (Berlin, 223).

Peak of career: honours, second marriage, and History of Parliament

The eight years between the end of the war and Namier's retirement from Manchester in 1953 saw his reputation at its height. His two eighteenth-century books were being taken on board by his fellow historians, rather than walked round as in pre-war days, and a stream of books of essays made his name known to a far wider public, as both sage and historian—Conflicts (1942), Facing East (1947), Diplomatic Prelude (1948), Europe in Decay (1950), In the Nazi Era (1952), and Avenues of History (1952). The post-war world, recovering from fascism yet still afflicted by communism, was peculiarly receptive to his distaste for ideology: 'what shams and disasters political ideologies are apt to be' (Human nature in politics, Personalities and Powers, 1955, 7). Recognition came at last and in abundance. The British Academy elected him a fellow in 1944. His Raleigh lecture, '1848: the revolution of the intellectuals' (1944), was followed by the Waynflete lectures on the German problem (1946–7); the Creighton lecture, 'Basic factors in nineteenth-century European history' (1952); the Romanes lecture, 'Monarchy and the party system' (1952); the Royal Academy of Arts lecture, 'George III: a study in personality' (1953); and the Enid Muir lecture at Newcastle, 'Country gentlemen in politics' (1954). Balliol elected him an honorary fellow in 1948 and he was knighted in 1952. Durham's honorary DLitt in 1952 was followed by honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge.

Namier brooded that he had been passed over for chairs at Oxford, Cambridge, or London but even his private life took a turn for the better. Clara had died in 1945, and in 1947 he married a Russian émigrée, Julia de Beausobre, née Kazarina (1893–1977), a widow, who devoted herself to his welfare and offered unstinted admiration. His conversion to Anglicanism, undertaken for his marriage, caused a painful breach with Weizmann who regarded it as an act of flagrant apostasy.

As soon as he retired, Namier plunged into editing the modern volumes of the History of Parliament, taking particular responsibility for the period 1754–90. The project had got off to a false start in the 1930s when Josiah Wedgwood's volumes on the fifteenth century had been badly received (EngHR, 53, 1938, 503–6). It was revived in 1951 and Namier settled down at the Institute of Historical Research with a small band of assistants to prepare the 1964 biographies and 314 accounts of the constituencies, grinding work cheered by tea-time reminiscing with his friend and fellow editor Romney Sedgwick. His zeal exposed him to further rebuffs when visits to Oxford and Cambridge revealed among fellow historians a marked lack of enthusiasm to join his great collective endeavour. He remained at his desk, conscious that his energy was ebbing fast, until the night before his death at St Mary's Hospital, London, on 19 August 1960. He was cremated at Golders Green on 24 August.

Reputation and assessment

Namier's achievements were greatly praised during his lifetime and unduly disparaged subsequently. On his chosen ground, the accession of George III, he made important and probably irreversible corrections to the traditional whiggish account. The king was cleared of the charge that he was a tyrant presiding over an orgy of corruption, though at the cost of portraying him as a naïve and immature youth. Later on Namier was not so much repudiated as outflanked, by critics who pointed to the narrowness of his concerns, and his lack of interest in anything but political history. The technique of structural analysis, with which his name was inextricably linked as ‘Namierism’, offered, in his view, an escape from voluminous narrative. Though the attacks upon it, particularly by Herbert Butterfield in George III and the Historians (1957), may seem hysterical, its limitations are very evident. There are great swathes of history where, for lack of evidence, structural analysis can hardly be applied. Even where it can, there is no guarantee that it will, in itself, generate interesting and important questions. It is by no means apparent how much the 135 pages devoted by Namier in England to the relationship between Newcastle and Bute illuminate the problem of the American War of Independence.

As Brooke pointed out, Namier's output was but 'a mere fragment' of what he had planned. His investigation of America was abandoned. The essays on modern European diplomacy, though historical journalism of a high order, were no substitute for the volume of European history he hoped to write. Both the History of Parliament (1964) and the biography Charles Townshend (1968) were left to Brooke to finish. Even in his best work, such as the Revolution of the Intellectuals, one is conscious of a lack of control. Explanations are not hard to find. Namier suffered from chronic ill health, including bad eyesight, increasing deafness, a damaged right hand, breathing difficulties, debilitating insomnia, and, at times, fear of insanity. In the face of these afflictions, his resilience was heroic.

To the world Namier was a hard, combative man; yet he was vulnerable and saw himself ringed by enemies. There are innumerable testimonies, of which those by Berlin and Toynbee are the most charitable, to his awesome loquacity, which could empty any common room. He found life hard. His childhood, he told Lady Namier, had been 'a mental register of unforgettable rebuffs', and in old age an encounter at Manchester with a surly ticket-inspector was enough to set him brooding on the collapse of civilized values (Namier, 16, 300–01). Taylor found him 'a strange mixture of greatness and helplessness' (Taylor, 112), and Trevelyan, who had helped him to his chair, muttered, in his terse way, 'Great research worker, no historian' (Plumb, 18).


  • L. Colley, Namier (1989)
  • J. A. Cannon, ed., The historian at work (1980)
  • J. A. Cannon and others, eds., The Blackwell dictionary of historians (1988)
  • J. Namier, Lewis Namier: a biography (1971)
  • I. Berlin, A century of conflict: essays for A. J. P. Taylor, ed. M. Gilbert (1966)
  • A. J. P. Taylor, A personal history (1983)
  • P. B. M. Blaas, Continuity and anachronism: parliamentary and constitutional development in whig historiography and the anti-whig reaction between 1890 and 1930 (1978)
  • H. Butterfield, George III and the historians (1957)
  • A. J. Toynbee, Acquaintances (1967)
  • J. T. Talmon, The unique and the universal (1965), 296–311
  • J. H. Plumb, The making of an historian (1988)
  • J. R. Hale, The evolution of British historiography: from Bacon to Namier (1967)
  • W. Laqueur, A history of Zionism (1972)
  • J. Brooke, ‘Namier and Namierism’, Studies in the philosophy of history, ed. G. H. Nadel (1965)
  • N. Rose, Lewis Namier and Zionism (1980)
  • J. P. Kenyon, The history men (1983)
  • A. J. Toynbee, ‘Lewis Namier, historian’, Encounter, 16/1 (1961), 39–43
  • J. Brooke, ‘Namier and his critics’, Encounter, 24/2 (1965), 47–9
  • I. R. Christie, ‘George III and the historians: thirty years on’, History, new ser., 71 (1986), 205–21
  • J. M. Price, ‘Party, purpose and pattern: Sir Lewis Namier and his critics’, Journal of British Studies, 1/1 (1961–2), 71–93
  • H. C. Mansfield, ‘Sir Lewis Namier considered’, Journal of British Studies, 2/1 (1962–3), 28–55
  • R. Walcott, ‘“Sir Lewis Namier considered” considered’, Journal of British Studies, 3/2 (1963–4), 85–108
  • H. C. Mansfield, ‘Sir Lewis Namier again considered’, Journal of British Studies, 3/2 (1963–4), 109–19
  • L. S. Sutherland, ‘Sir Lewis Namier’, PBA, 48 (1962), 371–85
  • H. R. Winkler, ‘Sir Lewis Namier’, Journal of Modern History, 35 (1963), 1–19
  • W. R. Fryer, ‘King George III, his political character and conduct: a new whig interpretation’, Renaissance and Modern Studies, 6 (1962)
  • J. B. Owen, ‘Professor Butterfield and the Namier school’, Cambridge Review, 79/1932 (10 May 1958), 528–31
  • H. Butterfield, ‘George III and the Namier school’, Encounter, 8/4 (1957), 70–76
  • H. Butterfield, ‘George III and the constitution’, History, new ser., 43 (1958), 14–33
  • C. Babington-Smith, Julia de Beausobre: a Russian Christian in the West (1983)
  • G. M. Trevelyan, ‘Mr. Namier and the mid-eighteenth century’, Nation and the Athenaeum (15 Nov 1930), 238
  • D. Cannadine, G. M. Trevelyan: a life in history (1992)
  • The Times (22 Aug 1960)
  • The Times (21 Dec 1977)


  • Bodl. Oxf., papers
  • Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem, papers relating to Zionism
  • JRL, corresp. and papers, incl. material relating to the history of parliament and to his biography of Charles Townshend
  • Yale U., Farmington, Lewis Walpole Library, corresp. and papers
  • BL, corresp. with Society of Authors, Add. MS 63311
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Society for Protection of Science and Learning
  • Bodl. Oxf., Sutherland papers
  • Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem, political MSS, Babington–Smith papers
  • JRL, letters to the Manchester Guardian
  • King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., corresp. of him and his wife with Sir B. H. Liddell Hart


  • BL NSA, ‘Not a place for happiness at all’, T49299R TR2


  • photograph, 1947, repro. in Sutherland, ‘Sir Lewis Namier’
  • Bassano, photograph, NPG [see illus.]
  • photograph, repro. in Namier, Lewis Namier
  • photograph, repro. in The Times (22 Aug 1960)

Wealth at Death

£29,497 15s. 8d.: probate, 15 Dec 1960, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Proceedings of the British Academy