Sir Geoffrey Elton

I’ve mentioned previously that the study of history can be very frustrating because available information, which is often incomplete, is subject to interpretation. Therefore it is helpful to have some insight into the views of the historians delivering these interpretations. I thought it would be interesting to showcase two historians, one this week and another next week, both working in the same era, but with differing approaches to history.

Sir Geoffrey Rudolph Elton (1921-1994) is the most universally known historian of the English Reformation period and the Tudors. This is due mostly to his scholarship in the field, but he was also known and usually respected for his willingness to speak his mind regarding the work of other scholars. A conservative historian who believed in the validity of the theory of political history, he was often scathing in his comments about the trend of social scientists as historians. Whether in fairness or retribution, some of his fellow scholars returned the favor when reviewing his work.

Although his name is synonymous with English history, Elton was actually born Gottfried Rudolph Ehrenberg in Germany in 1921. He studied at the University of Prague before his Jewish family fled to England in 1939, six months before Germany invaded Poland and the beginning of World War II.

Elton’s father was a classical historian, which is undoubtedly where Elton originally formed his interest in history. In fact, his first published article was about Julius Caesar. His father’s influence in his early life might also explain his devotion specifically to political history. The records available to historians from the classical period are almost all concerned with political and military history, rather than the social history that Elton came to revile.

Elton attended school in Wales and London, earning a degree in Ancient History from the University of London in 1943. He enlisted in the army after graduation and served in the British Army Intelligence Corps during World War II, stationed in Italy from 1944 to 1946. This experience seems to have had no effect on his ideas about the validity of writing history about the struggles of the common man, but rather cemented his belief in political history.

After the war, Elton became a British citizen in 1947. He returned to the world of education and studied Early Modern History at University College London, earning his PhD in 1949. That year he also settled in Cambridge, where he spent the rest of his career. In 1952 he married another historian, Sheila Lambert. As his career advanced, he became a fellow of the British Academy, fellow and then president of the Royal Historical Society, a foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and president of the Selden Society. In acknowledgement of his work in the field of history, he was knighted in 1986.

From the beginning of his career, Elton’s approach to the use of sources was simple; he believed that documents are the basis for all historical study. It was the use of contemporary written records that led to his first major success. Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540) was the Lord Privy Seal to the Tudor king Henry VIII and before he was beheaded in 1540, all of his papers and correspondence were seized and have survived. Studying the Cromwell papers led Elton to conclude that Cromwell was more powerful than had previously been believed. These conclusions formed the basis of his dissertation in 1949, which became his first book in 1953, The Tudor Revolution in Government.

Sir Thomas Cromwell by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677), unknown date.

Sir Thomas Cromwell by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677), unknown date.

During the 1950s and 1960s Elton continued to take Tudor studies in an entirely new direction. Although the idea of Cromwell as a power behind the throne of Henry VIII was a revisionist idea, Elton was still a conventional historian. He still believed that the political realm of history was the area that should be studied and that only original documents should be used. His conservative ideas would come under fire in the 1970s.

Henry VIII of England by Hans Holbein the Younger (1498-1543) circa 1537.

Henry VIII of England by Hans Holbein the Younger (1498-1543) circa 1537.

In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, Elton’s focus shifted. While he still researched and wrote about the Tudor government, he was increasingly appalled by the changes in historical study, especially the new emphasis on social history. He wrote a series of books about the principles and practice of historical study and methodology detailing his views regarding the way he believed history should be written, but often was not.

Throughout his career, Elton stood firm in his belief in the value of political history, that “Insofar as men are social, they are; as political beings, they do.” All events transpire due to political decisions. That one statement exemplified his attitude toward all other historical theories. This attitude is unmistakable any time he wrote on the subject of social history.

In Political History: Principles and Practice, published in 1984, Elton wrote that “If the charge against conventional political history is that it manages without all those graphs and tables, without the abstract vocabulary of the logician or the proliferating jargon of the sociologist, there would be little enough to denounce in it – certainly not the fact that it renders itself open to all.”

Having made his position clear regarding the relative uselessness of all historical theories other than his own, he also had a theory about those who would in turn see his historical theory as useless. He states “They are, not to mince works, childish and pretentious. Not to be interested in power and politics, past and present, is not a mature state of mind. Politics and political history rightly occupy so large a part of the historical bookshelf because they are fascinating.”

Elton was aware of his status in the field of history and as such, felt that it was his right and obligation to share his opinions about historiography, especially in light of the vast and swift changes taking place in historical scholarship during the 1970s. Despite his harsh criticisms, Robert H. Landrum wrote in “A Eulogy for Sir Geoffrey Elton (1920-1994)”, published in The Historian. that “behind the rhetorical fireworks, though, lay a genuine concern for a discipline increasingly subject to the whims of ideologues.”

There is no doubt that Elton was highly respected in his field, as reflected in reviews of his books. Even when reviewers did not entirely agree with Elton’s interpretations, they generally agreed that his research was sound. They also realized that his status would guarantee any of his works a more than fair hearing with most reviewers, as well as with audiences.

Elton’s productive career lasted forty years. Originally a Tudor history revisionist, he was always a conservative, and he was always about the sources. Although he made his opinions known in the proper forums, I found no evidence that he had a personal agenda shaping his scholarship. In the end, the conservative historian was concerned with the changing face of historical study. As Landrum stated in his eulogy, Elton simply wanted a return to the “old values: hard work in the archives, unbiased research, and the return of individual responsibility for the process of making history.”

Makes you wonder what he would think about The Tudors on Showtime.

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About Cathy Hanson

I’m a military brat and grew up on Air Force bases around the world. I discovered my love for history when I was 14 years old and the U.S. Air Force transferred my family to a base in England. Traveling from castles to cathedrals to ruins to cities, I felt the stories of these places and understood that history is not solely about events whose dates we are required to memorize. History is stories. My passion for those stories led me to a master’s degree in history. Please feel free to comment, ask questions, supply answers, or tell me your favorite history resource or artifact.

2 thoughts on “Sir Geoffrey Elton

  1. Cathy Hanson,
    I have just discovered your admirable “blog” while surfing for “G R Elton”, my Cambridge mentor and now the subject of a biography that I am writing. Allow me to ask: what was your source for all of this information? I will want to cite you as an example of his continuing importance among historians. I too am an admirer from my youth of Barbara Tuchman’s books.
    My wife is a weaver and very much appreciated your blog on Mexican textiles!
    Gratefully,
    DeLloyd J. Guth, Ph.D., FRHS

    • Thanks so much for your kind words! I reworked this post from a paper I had written for a historiography course. I have the bibliography from that paper and will send to you via email.

      Good luck with your book, and thanks for reading!

      Cathy

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