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Oriel and the Regius Chair in History

The Regius Chair of Modern History was first established by royal appointment in 1724, but was not attached to any one college in the University. In 1866, this professorship became attached to Oriel College for the first time, which meant that the Regius Professor of Modern History from that time on was ex officio a member of Oriel.

You can find out more about each of Oriel’s Regius Professors of Modern History by clicking on the links below.

William Stubbs 1866-1884

William Stubbs took up the Regius chair in 1866, at a time when Modern History was joined to Jurisprudence in a combined degree, which aimed to prepare men for government and public service. This fact was reflected in Stubbs’ publications, notably Select Charters and Other Illustrations of English Constitutional History from the Earliest Times to the Reign of Edward I (1870), and The Constitutional History of England in its Origins and Development (1873). The Select Charters became the standard teaching text for Modern History upon its separation from Jurisprudence in 1872, and remained so into the mid-twentieth century. Stubbs was also a clergyman, becoming Bishop of Oxford and then of Chester.

He saw the study of English constitutional history as ‘the examination of a distinct growth from a well-defined germ to full maturity’, finding the national character in each stage of a ‘perfect chain’ that linked the Anglo-Saxons to the Victorian age.

Edward Augustus Freeman 1884-1892

When William Stubbs became bishop of Chester in 1884, his friend Edward Augustus Freeman was offered the chair at Gladstone’s instigation. Freeman devoted his academic life to the study of Anglo-Saxon history. Though he mourned ‘the last hopeless struggles of conquered England’ in 1066, he believed that the English spirit did not succumb to the Normans, but persisted right down to his own day.

Freeman was a sound classical scholar, but his scholarly interests were entwined with his political ideas, which were chauvinistic at best (he tried to purge his vocabulary of ‘foreign’ words in an effort to recover Anglo-Saxon or Germanic purity) and ultimately deeply racist (a lecture tour of the USA in 1881-2 was accompanied by crude and violent remarks about Jewish, Irish and African Americans). Known as a vehement and rude man in Oxford, he pursued enmities doggedly, and despite playing a minor part in public life, never achieved his ambition to enter Parliament.

James Anthony Froude 1892-1894

James Anthony Froude, who occupied the Regius chair between 1892 and his death two years later, had been his predecessor’s great rival. Upon returning to Oriel, his undergraduate college, he expressed a hope not to be ‘haunted by Freeman’s ghost.’

Froude’s major work, the History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Death of Elizabeth had been published in twelve volumes between 1856 and 1870. He worked from original manuscripts, and read widely in several European languages, but he had his critics, and some were offended by the mildly anti-clerical tone of his history. He also wrote on the English in Ireland, and produced a biography of his friend Thomas Carlyle.

Froude was an apologist for ‘an enormous and coherent’ British Empire, proposing harsh measures for the African populations of the West Indies, and working towards the confederation of white colonies in southern Africa. He believed that an education in British history was essential to maintaining imperial unity and preventing cultural fragmentation.

Frederick York Powell 1894-1904

Frederick York Powell was Regius professor from 1894 to 1904, during which time he disappointed colleagues and students alike with his lectures. Neither do his two publications in that time – translations of the Færeyinga Saga and selections from Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat – point to a distinguished historical career, but this would be misleading.

Before acceding to the chair Powell had lectured in law, as well as teaching several medieval languages and publishing a history of England from the Earliest Times to the Death of Henry VIII for schoolchildren. He brought the poet Mallarmé and the sculptor Rodin to lecture in Oxford, supported the formation of a School of English, and studied numerous languages, including Romany and Maori.

His political ideals are indicated by his involvement in the founding of Ruskin College for the education of trades unionists, and by the project to publish A Penny Garland of Songs of Labour with the Oxford chimneysweep William Hines.

Charles Harding Firth 1904-1925

Charles Harding Firth, who held the chair from 1904 to 1925, is remembered for propounding the view that the School of Modern History should do more to train professional historians.  College tutors, upon whose qualifications this was a thinly-veiled attack, objected that training statesmen, administrators, prelates, and diplomats was of at least equal value.

Before acceding to the chair Firth had made his name with editions of sources for the history of seventeenth-century England, such as The Journal of Joachim Hare and The Memoirs of Edmund Ludlow. He also published monographs on Scotland and the Commonwealth (1895), Scotland and the Protectorate (1899), and The House of Lords during the Civil War (1911).  Firth believed that the historian should use ‘scientific’ methods to arrive at a ‘faithful representation of the life of the time.’ He was a voracious devourer of archival sources, but acutely conscious of the limitations on what one scholar alone could achieve: ‘he moves in a little circle of light, seeing as far as his little candle throws its beams.’

Henry William Carless Davis 1925-1928

Charles Harding Firth’s dissatisfaction with historical education in Oxford is to some extent borne out by the fact that several Regius professors, including his successor Henry William Carless Davis, took degrees in Literae Humaniores rather than Modern History. In Davis’s case the influence of this early training can be seen in his publications in medieval history and the history of political thought, with England under the Normans and Angevins (1905) being his best-known work. But his interests were incredibly wide-ranging; he also wrote on England in the 1830s and ‘40s and the so-called ‘great game’ between Britain and Russia for dominance in Asia. In all this Davis eschewed the Whiggish belief in progress that had dominated earlier thinking, though he was equally disparaging about social historians’ newfound interest in the ‘common man’.

In addition to his writing and teaching Davis accepted responsibility in the university (as a curator of the Bodleian during the planning of the New Bodleian) and in public life (on parliamentary committees dealing with unemployment insurance and factory legislation).

Maurice Powicke 1928-1947

Maurice Powicke studied medieval history at Manchester University before taking degrees in Literae humaniores and then Modern History at Oxford. He held the Regius chair from 1928 to 1947.

Powicke wrote narrative political histories of thirteenth-century England. King Henry III and the Lord Edward (1947) and his thirteenth century volume in the Oxford History of England (1953) placed a huge number of characters on the stage, and introduced a new class of sources to the study of medieval history. With his student Christopher Cheney, Powicke produced the monumental Councils and Synods, 1205-1313, which made vast archival riches available to church and social historians for generations to come.

If his monographic prose was clear, it was not exactly thrilling, but any reputation for austerity is belied by the lively way he presented medieval history to general readers in two pithy introductions to the period. His was a fascination for that ‘which escapes us, and which we feel must always escape us.’

Vivian Hunter Galbraith 1947-1957

Powicke was succeeded in 1947 by his pupil Vivian Hunter Galbraith, whose career epitomised the professionalism that Firth had extolled. Taking exactly the same path from Manchester to Oxford for Lit. hum. followed by Modern History, Galbraith then spent seven years as an assistant keeper at the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane, immersing himself in the documents of English royal government, and beginning work on the scholarly edition of the Anonimalle Chronicle (1927) for which he is still best known.

He discovered a hitherto unknown portion of the Domesday survey in a Balliol manuscript, and produced the monograph The Making of Domesday Book (1961). Not well-known outside medieval history, Galbraith was nonetheless a much loved tutor, and a junior research fellowship at St Hilda’s was endowed in his name by his more famous student Sir Richard Southern.

Hugh Trevor-Roper 1957-1980

Hugh Trevor-Roper liked to say that he followed a succession of ‘grim specialists’ who had spent too long searching for too little in dusty archives. Preferring to make bold assessments of large topics – mainly in early modern history but with notable forays into later times – he favoured the essay rather than the monograph. During his long tenure from 1957 to 1980 his literary skill and insatiable mind made him one of the best known historians of the twentieth century.

He was, above all, an ideas man and a controversialist. Every new development in historiography interested him, though he was unimpressed by many of them. While some of his critical essays come close to personal attacks, he was clearly as fascinated by the hold that ideas could have on his opponents as he was in puncturing their claims. ‘Every age has its orthodoxy’, he wrote in 1969, ‘and no orthodoxy is ever right’. Quite how self-aware this bracing aphorism was, coming from a man who did not entirely escape the prejudices and perspectives of his own cultural milieu, is hard to say.

Michael Eliot Howard 1980-1989

Michael Howard, Regius professor from 1980 to 1987, was a very different kind of historian again. Rather modestly he has referred to himself as an ‘old-fashioned narrative historian’, but this does not do justice to the revolution he wrought in military history, making it academically respectable and not just a hobby for retired soldiers.

His approach has been to see the conduct of war as an emanation of deep cultural and social structures, as much as political history and military technology. This holistic perspective informs his works The Franco-Prussian War (1961), War in European History (1976) amongst others.

Although several of his predecessors in the chair had seen military service, Howard is the only one to have drawn directly on this experience in his academic work. He by no means glorified warfare, but as an ubiquitous facet of human culture, and a momentous one at that, he argues that it is something that demands the historian’s attention.

John Huxtable Elliott 1990-1997

John Elliott (1990-97) is a historian who sets the study of the early-modern Spanish Empire in a comparative trans-Atlantic and global perspective. He has had a particularly fruitful relationship with the history of art and values the ‘creative tension’ generated by the encounter with other academic disciplines.

Elliott’s many books include Imperial Spain (1963), The Count-Duke of Olivares (1986), Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830 (2006), and a collection of reflections upon the study of history in History in the Making (2012). He was notably a non-Marxist editor and board member of the journal Past and Present, in which guise he features in a group portrait in the National Portrait Gallery.

In his inaugural lecture as professor he made a plea for comparative history in European and global terms, warning against British historians ‘succumbing to a creeping provincialism.’ As the EEC became the EU Elliott urged a ‘broadening, not narrowing’ of the historian’s horizons.

Robert John Weston Evans 1997-2011

Robert Evans (1997-2011) is also an early-modern historian. His interests span the history of central Europe from the Reformation to the present day. Against stiff competition he may qualify as the most multi-lingual person to hold the Regius chair, and this is reflected in the importance he accords languages in historical development. Language, he has argued, is a much more concrete and vital thing than ethnicity in processes of social change.

His publications range from biography – Rudolf II and his World (1973), to grand survey – The Making of the Hapsburg Monarchy (1979) and Austria, Hungary, and the Hapsburgs (2006).

Among the small nations and seldom-learnt languages championed by Evans, a special place must go to Wales, for whose history and culture he is an indefatigable ambassador. He is also a great supporter of local history and education in and around Oxford.

Lyndal Roper 2011-present

Lyndal Roper is the first woman, and the first Australian, to hold the Regius chair. Her most recent publication is a biography of Martin Luther (2016), which was preceded by books on women, morality and religion – The Holy Household (1989), and a succession of hugely influential works on witchcraft in early-modern European history – Oedipus and the Devil (1994), Witch Craze (2004), and The Witch in the Western Imagination (2012).

As a historian of gender and dreams she continues to extend the subject-matter of history and to inspire students. Like John Elliott she has been an editor of Past and Present, and has had a long involvement with the radical History Workshop Journal. Commenting on ‘psychohistory’ as an approach she has said that ‘historical interpretation … nearly always depends at base on the assumption of a measure of resemblance’ between the historian and the people they study. It is a comment on the journey historical study has taken since 1866 that while Stubbs may well have agreed with that sentiment, its context is likely to have confounded him.

Further Information

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