The Letters Of Hugh Trevor-Roper

I first met Hugh Trevor-Roper on a train. It was towards the end of 1985, and I was returning from London to Cambridge, where I was then a graduate student. I noticed a vaguely familiar face of someone who seemed to me to be very old in the seat opposite me, but couldn’t place it. So I thought no more about it and got on with reading my book.

About half-way to Cambridge the old man opposite asked me about the book I was buried in. A conversation started, and we chatted merrily away for the rest of the journey. As we pulled in at our destination, he wondered if I was doing anything for dinner. As it happened, I wasn’t. He asked me if I’d care to dine with him: he could fix something simple for us at Peterhouse Master’s Lodge. At that point, I realised that the person sitting opposite me was Hugh Trevor-Roper, Lord Dacre, then Master of Peterhouse. The penny should have dropped earlier, because his picture had been all over the papers after he had been identified as the expert who had declared the bogus Hitler Diaries to be genuine.

Surprised and intrigued both by him and his invitation, I agreed. He travelled back by taxi to the Lodge; I went on my bike. He had told me to knock on the Lodge’s side door when I arrived. It’s a very grand Queen Anne house, and I remember hesitating before knocking, wondering whether having dinner with a total stranger, even one as celebrated as Hugh Trevor-Roper, was a sensible thing to do. As I hesitated, the door opened and the figure standing behind it warmly welcomed me. So I followed him into the Lodge’s ample kitchen. He uncorked a bottle of very delicious white wine and proceeded to make a pretty good cheese omelette. 

He talked a great deal about Albert Speer as he did so. He knew Speer well, since he interviewed him many times in prison. He said that he had always found Speer an enigma: how had such a cultivated and intelligent man come to serve the Nazis? He said that after many long conversations, he had eventually asked Speer whether, if he could have his life again, he would choose to be like his father, a respectable bourgeois architect in a provincial German town; or whether he would choose to be what he in fact became, the armaments minister of undoubtedly the most evil and destructive man in the history of Europe, if not the world. He said that Speer, who never answered any question in a hurry, had paused for a long time, looked away and frowned. Then suddenly he turned his eyes directly on his interrogator, and said simply: “You have to understand the irresistible fascination of power.” 

Hugh opened a second bottle of wine, even tastier than the first. He talked about Rupert Murdoch, whom he said he still liked, in spite of the outrageous way Murdoch had treated him over the Hitler Diaries. (Trevor-Roper had had doubts about the Diaries’ authenticity almost as soon as he had expressed the view that they were genuine, but by then it was too late. Murdoch responded to his doubts with the now immortal words: “Fuck Dacre. Publish.”) He added that he also liked Kim Philby. “I like cards, you see…” At first, I thought he said “cads”. But he repeated the word “cards”, perhaps noticing my puzzlement.

I asked him about how he ended up at Peterhouse. He told me he had accepted the invitation to become Master of the college because “I’m a conservative, and I thought Peterhouse was a conservative college. However, when I arrived at Peterhouse, I quickly realised that there aren’t any conservatives on the fellowship. There are Jacobites and clerical fascists.”  

At the end of the evening, I tottered home on my bicycle, considerably the worse for wear, but inspired by the evening’s conversation, which had been full of unexpected revelations. I wrote a note to thank him, received a letter from him, and our correspondence began. We met relatively infrequently. He invited me to a few formal Peterhouse dinners. I found those occasions fairly ghastly: the Jacobites and clerical fascists were as uncongenial to me as they were to him. He came to supper a couple of times at my house. On one occasion, among a couple of other guests, I had also invited a man named Anthony Appiah, who had taught me briefly as an undergraduate: he is now a very grand professor of philosophy at Princeton. Hugh was in mischievous mood. He shocked everyone, me included, when Appiah, who is African, wondered what later ages would think the most absurd of our current prejudices, and Hugh immediately answered: “Oh, that’s obvious: the absolute prohibition on slavery.”

His letters were delightful: elegant, witty, playful, sometimes acerbic, sometimes elegiac, but always thought-provoking. They covered a vast range of topics: he wrote about free will, Christianity, the existence of God, the corruptions of college life, the nature of history, the difficulties of keeping intellectually agile, the problems of age. His letters also contained his unguarded views of his Cambridge colleagues. There are passages which the laws of libel probably render unpublishable even today. The targets of his attacks could console themselves with the fact that they have been libelled in an unusually elegant fashion. Unfortunately, the law does not recognise an exceptionally elegant prose style as a defence.

We exchanged letters on and off for about eight years. His letters came to an abrupt end in the mid-1990s. I was saddened, but reflected that he had better things to do than write to me. I later learned that he had been seriously ill, with symptoms, including blindness, that made writing letters impossible. I last saw him in 2002 at a dinner party given by a mutual friend. He seemed in fine form, and it was a great pleasure to me to find we could pick up where we had left off, almost as if there had been no interruption.

I wrote to him after that. I didn’t receive a reply: not long afterwards, I received the news of his death. He remains in my memory as he was in his letters: generous, curious, full of intellectual vitality and not a little mischief. I still miss receiving his thoughts. But I count myself very lucky to have been one of his correspondents.

— Alasdair Palmer

In 1967 the “Spectator” had published, under the pseudonym of Mercurius Oxoniensis, the first of the letters Trevor-Roper wrote in the manner of the 17th-century scholar and author of “Brief Lives”, John Aubrey: a “brief life” of the Christ Church eccentric R.H. Dundas. Trevor-Roper disclaimed authorship, speculating that, if not a genuine Aubrey, it might have been written by his Christ Church colleague, the novelist J.I.M. Stewart. The editor of the “Spectator”, Nigel Lawson, who had become friendly with Trevor-Roper in his undergraduate days at Christ Church in the 1950s, protected his anonymity. Now Trevor-Roper began to circulate to a few confidants his “transcript” of a document which he claimed to have found in the Bodleian. This purported to be another unpublished Aubrey manuscript, a “brief life” of “Dr A.L.R. of Old-soules’ college”.

To Wallace Notestein, June 19, 1968 

The Savile Club, 69 Brook Street 

Dear Wallace

Our greetings to you both, and I hope that you are both well, and that Student Power has not come to Yale. We have a few rumblings here, but I tell my timid friends about the fate of those transient radicals of the 17th century, like the Levellers and Harrington’s rota: as Aubrey wrote, “upon the unexpected turn upon Gen. Monk’s coming in, all those airy models vanished”. 

Talking of Aubrey, whom I know you enjoy, I think I should communicate to you a little discovery that I recently made in Bodley. It is a hitherto unknown, or at least unpublished, “Brief Life” of Aubrey, which has long nestled unobserved among his MSS there. It was evidently designed for a second edition of Wood’s Athenae, but must have been overlooked. I have made a transcript of it, which I enclose. Don’t return it; I have a copy; but if you think that scholars would welcome its publication, perhaps you would send it to the American Historical Review or some such learned journal. 

Keep well. Xandra joins me in sending our love to you both.

yours ever

Hugh Trevor-Roper

Copia Vera

Bodl MS. Aubrey (unnumbered)

Dr. A.L.R. of Old-soules’ college (Mem: forget not the Dr) is a very egregious person. He was born anno 1903, in Cornwall, of poore but honest parents, as himself would often boast, at least before the late warre, when ’twas seldom that such came to the university. But that being now common, he haz sophisticated his pedigree, and putts it about that re vera he is a bye-blow of a Cornish nobleman; hinting darkly at the Lord St. Levan, at whose castle, St. Michael’s Mount (a romancy seat), his mother was once a serving wench. So now, it seems that only one of his parents was poor, and she not honest. 

Coming as a poor scholler to Ch: Ch: Oxon, he was at first abashed by the aristocraticall splendour of that place. But the Lord David Cecil, a fellow collegian, taking him by the hand and teaching him the rudiments of gentility, he soon became vastly pleased both with it and with him, at least for a time. For afterwards, his Lordship being advanced to the Companionship of Honour, our Les (who is jealous of publick titles) was mightily miffed and forbore his company; and Ch: Ch: not electing him to a Studentship (but preferring one Myres, the same that was afterwards Bodley’s librarian), he has huffed and sulked and took his name off the college books; nor could he be prevailed upon to enter that college, or converse with any in it, for forty years.

In Old-soules’ college, of which he was elected fellow, he was at first in deliciis. At that time many great men (as His Grace archbishop Lang, my lord marquis of Lothian, my lord viscount Halifax, my Lord Brand, Sir J. Simon, Mr Geoffrey Dawson et al.) would come thither often to dine and to machinate over their port. Our Les, having now tasted grandeur, must needs barge in among them and tell them their business (which indeed they needed telling, though not by him); and they, though not heeding him, yet being old men and pleased with academicall freedom, would humour him; which he, not having learned their nice language, mistook for docility, and so thought himself an oracle, fit to be a legislator of the nation. Anno 1936 he stood as a parliament-man, for a Cornish borough. He was then a hot Labour Party man and preached root and branch doctrines. But the lower sort not relishing these airy notions from gaffer Rowse’s queer boy (as they called him), voted rather for the squire; which our doctor has never forgiven them, writing of them opprobriously ever after as ‘the idiot people’, ‘apes’ and what not? ‘Tis said that during this election the enemy party caused to be printed and dispersed among the electors a rash pamphlet he had writt (but for another auditory) recommending free use of Venus between, if not within, the sexes. This lost him the votes of the godly or Methodist party, which swarm in that county, without gaining the orthodox or prelaticall.

During the great warre of ’39 to ’45 our doctor did not exert himself but stayed snugly in Old-soules’ college, writing and telling all men how rich he was becoming and how familiarly he was used by great persons; which was very taedious and hath emptied many a common-room, then and since. 

He is vastly pleased with his own genius, which ’tis dangerous to question, even in jest: experto crede [believe one who speaks from experience]. No flattery too crude or gross for unrefined appetites. ‘Tis pity to see such folly in a learned man, for he had formerly a little talent, tho’ long since evanished. His Tudor Cornwall admired by antiquaries. His last solid work The England of Elizabeth, 8vo, 1950. Since then a sad decline: slipslop, plagiarisme, etc. His poems…but ’tis best to bury them in silence. Those who have never been admitted to converse with the Muses should not trouble them with their solicitations.

After the warre he thought again of serving his country; but as he had now done with vulgar elections, being inward with duchesses and other great ladies, he fancied himself rather in the upper house, with peers and bishops, than in the commons’ chamber with mere knights and burgesses. So he writt several long letters to Major Attlee, then Prime Minister, angling for a viscounty or barony. ‘Twas in the publick interest, he said, that their lordships should be penetrated by some procreative spirits who could impregnate ’em with philosophy. The Major found these letters vastly diverting and would carry them in his pocket to dinner-parties, to make his friends merry. But he never took the hint, nor any of his successors neither, so the poor doctor is still without a title of honour, which much distresses him. 

But the court is the true fountain of honour and there he still had hopes. ‘Tis said he had given private lessons to our present Queen, as princess, in Buckingham Palace (quaere, how procured?), which must have borne hard on the poor child. Certainly, her Majesty the now Queen Mother took him up, as others of his kind (but this inter nos), and her name dropt often from his lips. But when her Majesty that is now came to the throne, she pluckt up her courage and, like her ancestor King James, repudiated her old pedagogue, just as he was glorying immoderately in the new Elizabethan age, and himself its harbinger. Vide her Majesty’s nipping rebuke on that subject, which she thought it prudent to utter at a safe distance, in Tasmania, among the Antipodes.

Bruised by this fall, the poor doctor now turned to a rustic life. Having by now made a pretty penny by exhibiting himself in the Ladies’ Journals, he bought a delicate fair house by the sea in Cornwall and there set up as a squire. It pleased him to insult thus over the peasantry who would not have him as their burgess. And yet methinks he loves that country too, if only the idiot people were purged out of it: for them he cannot abide. In term-time he stayed still at Old-soules’ college, scribbling and courting the Fellows: for he had designs on the Wardenship. He also had designs of another kind on the Junior Fellows, and courted them; but they, so farre as ’tis knowne, resisted him seu venerem seu vota petenti [whether he sought their love or their votes] So he missed the Wardenship too, the Fellows preferring one Sparrow; whereat the doctor once again took huff, printed no more encomia of the college and its cozy home life (see his epistle to the reader in The England of Elizabeth), and thereafter deigned not to speak to any Fellow who, on that occasion, had voted against him.

He has a thin, exile voice, but harsh like a corncrake: no witt nor warmth to soften it; and very shrill when at boasting or abuse (its usual office). But he can purr if stroked and wheedled. In his young days he had a lean hatchet face and a wild black forelock, very ferocious: when he screamed revolution, ‘twould make a good subject’s backbone curdle. But now that he is plump and pawky and does but cockadoodle about his genius, his ducats and his duchesses, and despise the rest of us as not worthy of him, none minds him. 

[Endorsed] To my good friend Mr Antony Wood, of Merton coll., for his Athenae Oxonienses , ed. Altera , these.

On the morning of Saturday April 23, 1983, the very morning that Trevor-Roper’s article announcing the discovery of the Hitler Diaries was published in “The Times”, he spoke to the editor, Charles Douglas-Home, on the telephone and told him that he could no longer stand by the judgment he had made. Though the “Sunday Times” was due to start serialising the diaries the next day and planned a banner headline headed “World Exclusive”, Trevor-Roper’s volte-face was not transmitted to its editor Frank Giles, who had been Trevor-Roper’s friend for more than 30 years, or to anyone else on the newspaper, until Giles telephoned him at 7pm on Saturday. Trevor-Roper’s admission that he had changed his mind caused consternation at the “Sunday Times” offices, where the presses had already started to roll. Two days later, Trevor-Roper attended a press conference in Hamburg at which “Stern” announced its discovery to the world’s press. The event, which became chaotic, was excruciating for him. When, after the press conference, the documents were swiftly proven to be forgeries he was humiliated and his reputation damaged.  

To Frank Giles, July 10, 1983

The Master’s Lodge, Peterhouse

My dear Frank

At Steven Runciman’s birthday party I got a formidable drubbing from Kitty [Lady Katharine Sackville, Frank Giles’s wife] for not having apologised to you personally over the unfortunate affair of the “Hitler diaries”. I was in rather a weak state at that party. I have had a prolonged and disagreeable crisis in this college which reached its climax at a long college meeting on Monday. Immediately after that I had to fly to Hamburg to give evidence to the tribunal investigating the part played by Stern in that same affair of the diaries. I returned from Hamburg on Wednesday afternoon so exhausted by events, and so enervated by the heat, that I tried to get out of that party; but Xandra was determined to go. So I felt in no state to argue or resist, or, after that, to discuss so inappropriate a matter with you: I decided to reserve it for a letter.

I have genuinely forgotten some of the details and order of events in the hectic period 22-25 April; but let me begin, without ambages  or qualifications of any kind, by expressing to you (since my public apology was evidently insufficient) my great regret that, through an initial error of mine, which I have admitted, you were, most improperly (as I believe), put in an embarrassing and indeed impossible position. I think you were treated very badly, and you certainly deserve an apology from those who put you in that position. I thought that I had sufficiently apologised to you, but if not, let me do so now. I apologise very sincerely, ex animo. That said, let me explain the reasons which have governed my action or inaction hitherto. I was asked to look at those diaries by The Times, not the Sunday Times; I reported to The Times; and on the basis of my first report (which I had never expected to have to give by telephone within a few hours of seeing the stuff) the management of The Times took over and thereafter forced the pace. At the request of The Times I wrote (under great pressure) my first article. In none of the history was the Sunday Times involved. What I understood is that Rupert Murdoch, having acquired the rights from Stern on — I think — 21 April, imposed (if that is not too strong a word) the stuff suddenly on the Sunday Times, which had no opportunity of examining, considering or criticising it. If this is true (for I speak from hearsay), then it is my opinion that you were badly treated, though not by me, and were owed an apology, though not directly by me. 

In fact I believe that I too was badly treated, both by Stern, which misled me with false evidence of fact (which I could not doubt unless I was to accuse them of bad faith) and, to some extent, by The Times, which did not allow me the conditions which I had at first been promised to check the material (i.e. a typed transcript of the German text on which I was to make a written report). However, I have refused to make any complaint or excuse on these grounds, for I recognise that I should have been firm and have refused to commit myself in the circumstances which actually obtained. So, when I first doubted the authenticity of the material, I decided to take the whole blame on myself-and I must admit that The Times and the Sunday Times were very happy to place it there. I apologised in writing to Rupert Murdoch (who wrote very civilly in reply, accepting part of the responsibility), and in print to the editors of The Times and the Sunday Times

Kitty suggested that I owed you an apology for not having made it possible for you to stop publication of the articles on 24 April. I was quite unaware of this situation. Perhaps my memory is at fault. My recollection is that, after my return from Hamburg on 20 April, the pace was suddenly quickened by Stern‘s action in bringing the publication date forward. This obliged me to write my long article for The Times under great pressure. My doubts then began and by the morning of 23 April I had to face the fact that the documents might be forged. But this entailed such large consequences — grossly unprofessional standards, even bad faith, by Stern — that I could not, at that stage, call them more than doubts. I telephoned Charlie Douglas-Home early on Saturday morning and told him the position. I understood that my doubts would be passed on to you. Charlie’s attitude was that so long as there was any chance that the diaries were genuine, we should keep to our course: I should go to Hamburg next day (Sunday) for the Press Conference on Monday, and handle the matter as best I could. In fact, by the time of the conference in Hamburg, I had grilled Heidemann [the Stern journalist who claimed to have found the diaries] (on Sunday night) and my doubts had been confirmed; so I spoke more explicitly than I would have done in London. If I had thought that I could have stopped — or postponed — the publication in the Sunday Times on the Saturday, I would certainly have done so; but matters were out of my hands.

All this is vieux jeu now. It was a horrible experience for me: I was savaged by almost the whole press — the Observer went on for five weeks — and was powerless to answer because I did not wish to say anything that might make the position worse for The Times or the Sunday Times. It was a horrible experience for you too — and less deservedly, for I at least must admit to an error, which you need not. If my understanding of events is correct, the Sunday Times alone comes out of the affair quite blameless. There are still many problems to be solved, and Stern is going through an agonising reappraisal which I have seen at close quarters. There are also some general conclusions which I dare not express even in this letter which I prudently send to your private address. 

yours ever 


In March 1985 Trevor-Roper attended a dinner party at 10 Downing Street, organised by the historian Hugh Thomas and his wife Vanessa, for the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, to meet writers and scholars. In January Oxford academics had voted against her receiving an honorary degree. Afterwards Trevor-Roper wrote to tell Blake that he had been “shaken” by some of the things Mrs Thatcher had said. “She has no friends, listens to no one, and never relaxes.” The following letter was written afterwards to another of the guests, Noël Annan. 

To Noël Annan, April 10, 1985 

The Master’s Lodge, Peterhouse

My dear Noël,

How delightful to wake up every morning and feel glad to be alive! And to regard your period as head of a Cambridge college as the happiest time of your life! How I envy you your happy temperament! I suppose it comes from being a man of the Left: a dangerous Marxist radical in the eyes of our colleague Lord Beloff; at least heir to the Enlightenment, optimist, forward-looking, a believer in the doctrine of Progress and the National Goodness and Perfectibility of Man, attainable by Nationalisation, Trades Union power, and abolition of the House of Lords. Perhaps I should change my party and come and sit on your Benches, if not for the greater good of the country, at least for my own mental comfort. As your fellow radical Stuart Hampshire once said, “to be a socialist is a small price to pay for a good conscience”.

But seriously, do you think that our dear PM has gone bananas? I was rather shaken by some of the things she said at that curious dinner party — her impatience of obstruction by the organs of society: committees of enquiry, parliamentary procedure, courts of law, and, no doubt now, the House of Lords. Her Toryism seems to be rather that of Charles I than of Edmund Burke. And I was horrified to hear and see her on television, telling her hosts in Malaysia that she had “seen off” the miners, and that Trades Unions were children which needed to be spanked by Nanny for their own good. I should have thought that the nursery-governess image was one which she ought particularly to avoid! But I suppose it comes naturally, irresistibly, to her. What do you think lay behind that party? Did someone say, we must improve your public image, especially in universities and places where they brain-wash the young! Get some dons and writers to dinner? But what an odd collection! Who, for instance, can have recommended Theodore Zeldin? And the idea that Tony Powell and V. S. Naipaul and Iris Murdoch would be her literary paladins is very comic. As for the Lord Quinton [philosopher, President of Trinity College, Oxford], no one could have done more harm to her cause than he did by his ridiculous flippant speech in Congregation at Oxford on the day of the vote…

My dear Noel, you Stoics (I am sure) hang together. Could you not persuade that noble lord to go into a retreat in Buckinghamshire for a time: to hide his light (and his voice, and his face) under a bushel (whatever that is in this context)? No doubt it is a very comforting thing to be a peer and a head of a house, etc., but I confess that, when I look at Mrs T’s other academic peers (Quinton, Beloff and now the Lord Butterworth), I do not feel the same complacency. 

I hope you are enjoying the knockabout turn of the Right Reverend Prelates on the matter of the Resurrection. Why can’t they behave like the sensible 18th century bishops “whose sound understanding”, as Gibbon wrote, “is perhaps seldom engaged with that abstruse mystery”? 

On which orthodox note I end and sign myself,

Yours ever


To Alasdair Palmer, October 23, 1986

The Master’s Lodge, Peterhouse

Dear Alasdair

Yes, I am better, though it took a long time, and I must still be careful. [He was recovering from prostate cancer.] It mortified me to see those beautiful autumn days and not to be able to go out and enjoy them. But your handwriting on an envelope always cheers me.

I sense that you need to be cheered too, so I am glad that Bernard Williams [Provost of King’s College, Cambridge] is so encouraging. I sympathise with people in your state, especially when, as now, I have just read 133 applications for two, or at most three, research fellowships. With my mind’s eye I see them all, 133 slaves in a Roman quarry, or mine, or treadmill, of whom only half-a-dozen, in the end, will be emancipated — if it is emancipation and not a more comfortable but more deadly slavery that they are seeking…Let us not ask too many questions about that. Dons, and supervisors, are very critical — it is their occupational disease — and sometimes very negative and do not, in the poverty of their spirit, appreciate the agony of those who are still going through the process which has given them their petty doctorates.

How can I boost your morale? Only, I fear, in a somewhat egotistical way — since I cannot comment on your work, only on your letters — by saying, truthfully, that I find in you, and in them, qualities which I admire: a warmth, a vitality, an intelligence, a love of literature; and that I value your friendship and hope to keep it; and that if your philosophy does not exclude or suppress these amiable qualities I shall willingly be converted to it.

You write about Evelyn Waugh. My relations with him were curious. I contrived never to meet him, which required some ingenuity, for we had many common friends and fashionable hostesses sometimes sought to trap me into a confrontation. But I was determined to avoid him because I genuinely admired his writing but knew that he would be offensive and did not want to be involved in disagreeable scenes. He picked a quarrel with me in 1947 — wrote me, out of the blue, a very nasty letter, attacked me in the Tablet, and then in other papers. I hit back occasionally, and he then became, as it seemed to me, somewhat paranoid. I heard many stories of his wild, and often intoxicated denunciations, and since his death his published (and unpublished) letters have given further evidence of his hatred of me. He evidently regarded me as a particularly poisonous serpent who had slid into the garden of Brideshead and was corrupting its innocent Catholic inhabitants; which perhaps, to a certain extent, I was-or, as I would prefer to say, was provoked into being. In the end I tried to make peace with him, but my civil letter received only a curt formal acknowledgement.

Now that the dust has settled, what do I think of him? I think he was a writer of genius, and I forgive him a great deal because of his genuine love of our language. His wild fantasy and black humour are aspects of his genius as well as of his warped character. He was, I believe, utterly cold-hearted: all his emotions were concentrated (apart from his writing) upon his social snobisme and his Catholicism, which was a variant of it, or rather, perhaps, the ideological force behind it. He was a true reactionary — not just a troglodyte like the Peterhouse mafia but a committed, believing, uncompromising, intellectually consistent reactionary like (say) de Maistre. I wonder if he had any friends. He kept up a regular correspondence with Nancy Mitford, much of which has been published, but she (whom I knew well) was equally, behind a witty, entertaining persona, a cold-hearted selfish person, chiefly interested in malicious private gossip. After his death a volume of essays about him was published-I can’t remember the editor, some “Mayfair Jezebel”, I think (to use Logan Pearsall Smith’s phrase). Most of the essays were thin and worthless, but there was one which was splendid. It was by the late Lord Birkenhead who had found himself living, during the war, in German-occupied Yugoslavia, with Tito’s partisans, in the company of Waugh and Randolph Churchill. The essay was wonderfully funny and wonderfully good-tempered. I wrote to Birkenhead about it and received a letter which I treasure. I enclose a copy of it; but please destroy it when read: I don’t want even a whiff of it to reach the one person mentioned in it who is still alive (and dangerous)! 

Evelyn Waugh’s original offensive letter was provoked by an admittedly injudicious remark by me about Jesuits in The Last Days of Hitler, and I assumed at the time that this was my initial offence. However, since his death, I have seen letters from him which attacked me well before that publication, so I no longer know the original cause of his hostility. The general background to it was certainly ideological. During the war, and throughout the 1950s, a group of very articulate, socially reactionary Roman Catholics — all, or nearly all, converts — pushed themselves forward and evidently thought that they could be the ideologues of the post-war generation. They established themselves, by patronage and infiltration, in certain institutions (the British Council, the Foreign Office) and they wanted to establish themselves in the universities. They behaved in a very aggressive, boastful manner: their public line was that there was no alternative to them: there is no culture except Catholic culture, there are no English novelists except Catholic novelists, there is no political thought or system, in the discredit of Nazism, fascism, communism, except that of the neo-Catholic. Frank Pakenham, now Lord Longford, used to “teach” his pupils that modern thought is dominated by “the three Ms: Marx, Mannheim and Maritain; and the greatest of these is Maritain”. Frank, of course, was not one of them, having become a socialist; but as a fellow-convert of Father D’Arcy he was an ally in religious zeal, and his mind was sufficiently muddled, not to say chaotic, to entertain any jumble of inconsistent ideas. Graham Greene was similarly one of them ideologically, though different in political orientation. Their spiritual centre was the Jesuit Church of Farm Street in Mayfair. In his controversies with me, Waugh used to write to the Jesuits there for ammunition (I have seen one of his letters seeking such ammunition and have a copy of it). 

All these people regarded me as a dreadful enemy — I sometimes think (but this is vanity) as public enemy no. 1. The reason was that I was thought to be influential in Oxford, and particularly in Christ Church — precisely the places which they were most eager to conquer. “You are not going to send your son to be taught by that dreadful man?” Evelyn Waugh exclaimed to a Belgian friend of mine; and then, turning to the company, “Does this poor foreigner know what he is doing?” And on another occasion he would say, rather unrealistically, that the prime objective of himself and his friends was to have me removed from Oxford. Graham Greene once walked out of a restaurant in Abingdon simply because he saw me there. In my old age I regret having aroused such feelings in such distinguished literary men.

Time and events have made that phase of history, or biography, seem very remote, and the internal contradictions of what then seemed a solid party have disintegrated it. Waugh sank into abject, total, eccentric reaction. Greene found himself supporting Castro (I remember a letter from him, published in The Times, protesting that Castro was not a communist but a romantic radical Catholic, like himself) and Philby (whom he praised — after his defection and exposure — as the modern equivalent of the Elizabethan Jesuit martyrs like Edmund Campion, the hero of Evelyn Waugh ). The Papacy of John XXIII was a body-blow to them — although I suppose that Greene has found some ingenious way of compromise with Latin American “liberation theology”. Frank Longford, of course, has long been insulated from reality by unlimited vanity and unqualified love of publicity. But Waugh remains a cult-hero to a little band who live in an imaginary mini-Brideshead. […]

Yours ever


To Edward Chaney, May 5-11, 1988

House of Lords

Dear Edward

Many thanks for M. Strachan on Sir T. Roe: I see that I have some solid reading ahead of me; and for your letter, with all that delicious flattery glistening through the transparent pretence of censorship. Do I identify with Burckhardt? I never ask myself such questions. But I don’t identify with Macaulay, whom I admire for his robust political sense but find ultimately unattractive: he is so insensitive, so complacent in his upstart, patrician whiggism: how his rhetoric glows when he thinks of Chatsworth, Woburn or Bowood! Do you know that passage about the Highlands of Scotland in the 17th century — their primitive, anarchic social system, so different from today when a gentleman can travel speedily and comfortably in a first-class railway carriage from his London club to his Highland grouse-moor? There is something insufferable (to me) about his identification with that imaginary gentleman, whom all Creation, it seems, aided by whig midwives, has been groaning and travailing to produce. Macaulay seems to me, for all his brilliance, to date far more than (say) Gibbon. Reading Gibbon, one feels that one is listening to a contemporary; with Macaulay, one is listening to a very successful, self-satisfied Victorian.

Burckhardt does refer to Gibbon, whose work of course he knew, but distantly: they were very different and I suspect that B wished to show his independence. Gibbon was a straightforward deist, Burckhardt a deeply religious spirit who had discarded Christianity. Gibbon set out to answer a great philosophical question — why do Empires rise and fall? — by the method of Montesquieu. Burckhardt sought to analyse a great cultural crisis-one world-culture replacing another-in the spirit of Goethe. I think their difference is shown most clearly in their treatment of the early Christian ascetics. Gibbon despised them for contracting out, for their lack of virtù in the crisis of civilisation. Burckhardt respected them for disengaging themselves from a corrupted world and beginning again. I don’t think Burckhardt ever expressed his opinion of Gibbon’s work; but I think it can be deduced.

If I am Burckhardt and you are Nietzsche, I would warn you that Burckhardt was a somewhat timorous elderly gentleman who was rather frightened of the formidable young Nietzsche (though he learned a lot from him). 

You should have gone to Magdalen: an invitation to it is a very rare experience. [Chaney had been invited to dine there by the historian John Stoye.] I dined there only twice in 50 years. The first time was before the war, when I was a candidate for the fellowship to which they (rightly) elected A J P Taylor: not a very relaxed occasion. The second time was on the occasion of some Gibbon anniversary, when “the monks of Magdalen” [as Gibbon called the fellows] tried to reclaim him. I regard that college as the Oxford Tibet: an inaccessible group of lamaseries, closed to the outer world. Oriel is rather a dull place, but quite hospitable: they don’t deliberately insult guests. 

You ask if you can pass on the Ten Commandments [a set of rules for prose writing which T-R composed for graduate students]. Of course! It has suddenly occurred to me that I am probably the only surviving member of the Society for Pure English. This was a society which was founded in 1913 by Robert Bridges and expired, with the birth of the (then) much trumpeted “age of the Common Man”, in 1946. It published numerous tracts with such titles as, “on Hyphens and Shall and Will”, “The Split Infinitive”, “The Fate of French É in English”, “The Plural of Nouns ending in-th”, etc., on all which subjects I am now prepared to hold forth to a firmly captive audience in any saloon-bar. So I am naturally very glad to have found a missionary who will spread my much simplified evangel…

11 May 1988

I began this letter six days ago, but never then finished it: there was a division bell, and then, seeing the Earl Russell (who sits on the Liberal benches) rising to speak (yet again) in the Committee on the Reform of Education Bill, I decided that it was time to leave for Paddington. Then, next day, I went to Cambridge, for a Feast at Peterhouse; after which I collapsed with gastric ‘flu, from which I am just emerging to resume the pen.

I find that, in the House of Lords, we have some jolly moments. On Tuesday last there was a very agreeable episode. The Bishop of London [Graham Leonard] — one of the few sensible bishops (I think of Gibbon’s description of Adhemar bishop of Puy: “a respectable prelate, alike qualified for this world and the next”) — was moving an amendment requiring religious teaching in schools, when up stood the Lord Sefton. This is not the 7th Earl of Sefton, High Constable of Lancaster Castle: he, alas, is now dead, to the impoverishment of White’s, Bucks’ and the Jockey Club, and a new peerage of that title-Sefton of Garston-has been created for the former Labour leader of Liverpool City Council. This new Lord Sefton is a roaring atheist, and he now made a long speech, denouncing all religion and quoting Tom Paine’s Age of Reason. Undeterred by various traditional signs of dissent, he then turned on the Bishop and demanded peremptorily whether the Rt. Revd. Prelate believed in the Virgin Birth (cries of “Oh!”). But the Bishop, at this critical juncture, did not lose his sang froid: he replied that this question was hardly appropriate to the Committee stage of the Bill (thus implying that it would, of course, be perfectly in order at Report Stage or at Third Reading). Further prosecution of the interesting subject was then promptly stopped by the Baroness Seear, who launched what the ex-Lord Chancellor called “the ultimum decretum”: i.e. she moved “that the noble Lord be no longer heard”-an extreme device, very seldom used, and then only, in my experience, against Lord Hatch of Lusby,  the Bore of Bores, who also has the misfortune to be equally unpopular on all sides of the Chamber. The motion was immediately carried without a division (unprecedented even in the case of Lord Hatch); and so the House returned to the quiet drone of Christian conformity. Do you have jolly episodes like this in the Lincoln College Governing Body meetings? 

I did not enjoy the Peterhouse Feast. I do not really enjoy these institutional beanos anyway, and at Cambridge they are rather gross. But at Peterhouse I have to show the flag, for a time at least. I do it to show appreciation of my supporters, who made me an Honorary Fellow, and also, I must admit, to hear, with my inner ear, that delicious music, the gnashing of the teeth of those who tried to block the election. My (limited) pleasure was not enhanced when I met, on arriving for preprandial champagne, an unexpected guest, the Earl Russell. It seems that I cannot avoid him.

yours ever



1. Thou shalt know thine own argument and cleave fast to it, and shall not digress nor deviate from it without the knowledge and consent of the reader, whom at all times thou shalt lead at a pace which he can follow and by a route which is made clear to him as he goeth. 

2. Thou shalt respect the autonomy of the paragraph, as commended by the authority and example of the prophet Edward Gibbon; for it is the essential unit in the chain of argument. Therefore thou shall keep it pure and self-contained, each paragraph having within it a single central point to which all other observations in it shall be exactly subordinated by the proper use of the particles and inflexions given to us for this purpose.

3. Thou shalt aim always at clarity of exposition, to which all other literary aims shall be subordinated, remembering the words of the prophet commandant Black, “clarté prime, longueur secondaire.” To this end thou shalt strive that no sentence be syntactically capable of any unintended meaning, and that no reader be obliged to read any sentence twice to be sure of its true meaning. To this end also thou shalt not fear to repeat thyself, if clarity require it, nor to state facts which thou thinkest as well known to others as to thyself; for it is better to remind the learned than to leave the unlearned in perplexity.

4. Thou shalt keep the structure of thy sentences clear, preferring short sentences to long and simple structures to complex, lest the reader lose his way in a labyrinth of subordinate clauses; and, in particular, thou shalt not enclose one relative clause in another, for this both betrays crudity of expression and is a fertile source of ambiguity.

5. Thou shalt preserve the unities of time and place, as commended by the High Priest Nicolas Boileau, placing thyself, in imagination, in one time and one place, and distinguishing all others to which thou mayest refer by a proper use of tenses and other forms of speech devised for this purpose; for unless we exploit the distinction between past and pluperfect tenses, and between imperfect and future conditional, we cannot attain perfect limpidity of style and argument. 

6. Thou shalt not despise the subjunctive mood, a useful, subtle and graceful mood, blessed by Erasmus and venerated by George Moore, though cursed and anathematized by the Holy Inquisition, Pravda, and the late Lord Beaverbrook. 

7. Thou shalt always proceed in an orderly fashion, according to the rules of right reason: as, from the general to the particular when a generality is to be illustrated, but from the particular to the general when a generality is to be proved.

8. Thou shalt see what thou writest; and therefore thou shalt not mix thy metaphors. For a mixed metaphor is proof that the image therein contained has not been seen with the inner eye, and therefore such a metaphor is not a true metaphor, created by the active eye of imagination, but stale jargon idly drawn up from the stagnant sump of commonplace.

9. Thou shalt also hear what thy writest, with thine inner ear, so that no outer ear may be offended by jarring syllables or unmelodious rhythm; remembering herein with piety, though not striving to imitate, the rotundities of Sir Thomas Browne and the clausulae of Cicero. 

10. Thou shalt carefully expunge from thy writing all consciously written purple passages, lest they rise up to shame ye in thine old age. 

The fall of the Soviet empire produced an impetus towards the reunification of Germany after 40 years of division between East and West. In the letter that follows Trevor-Roper recounted his experiences as one of a group of academics invited to Chequers on March 24, 1990 to discuss with the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, problems that might be posed by a reunited Germany. 

To Max Perutz , 15 August 1990

The Old Rectory, Didcot

Dear Max

Many thanks for your article on Peter Medawar. I only met him once, but I had a great admiration for him, as a very distinguished scientist who (like you) could write for laymen (like me), and had wide humane interests and a clear English style! I thought he was splendid on that old humbug Teilhard de Chardin.

You ask me about the Prime Minister’s now famous “seminar”. What happened was this.

I was invited to lunch at Chequers on 24 March in order to discuss with the PM and others the problems created by a re-united Germany. I was not told who else had been invited. Before the meeting, I was sent a document — a sort of “discussion paper” — which made certain generalisations about the German character, in the form of questions. I thought them rather naïve. I feel reasonably sure that they represented the PM’s views: they were not unlike those which re-surfaced later as those of Nicholas Ridley. 

When I arrived at Chequers I met the other participants. Apart from the PM, her private secretary Charles Powell, and Douglas Hurd, they were George Urban, Timothy Garton Ash, Norman Stone, Gordon Craig and Fritz Stern. After lunch we had a long discussion — it did not end till 6.30 — in the course of which it became clear that all the invited participants basically agreed that the presuppositions of the questionnaire-which was not explicitly mentioned-were wrong. The PM did not speak much: she acted as a chairman, and a very good chairman too. 

No document was shown to us afterwards, but it was noted that the PM, in her public utterances, was much less anti-German, and this — which culminated in her speech at Houston-was commonly seen as a result of our meeting (the fact-though not the content-of which had somehow got into the Press: it was published, with the names, in the Sunday Telegraph).

Then, on 15 July, the Independent on Sunday published, verbatim and in toto, the summary of our discussion which had been drawn up for the PM by Charles Powell. It took all of us by surprise. There was much telephoning that morning. Some wanted us to make a joint statement. Of course the Press and the television companies telephoned me, but I kept them at bay, and persuaded the English participants that we should neither appear on television nor write articles. My view was that our meeting had been confidential and remained confidential even if there had been an unauthorised leak. However, almost immediately after agreeing explicitly that he would not do so, Norman Stone appeared, that same day, both on BBC and on ITV television and wrote an article in The Times, which was published on the following day. I was rather annoyed about this, but not really surprised. 

Our objection to Charles Powell’s summary was not that it misrepresented our views but that it put the main emphasis on the views put forward in the preliminary questionnaire as if we had advanced these views, whereas in fact we had not even mentioned them. They had been set out in Powell’s questionnaire or discussion document but had in fact been tacitly ignored and implicitly rejected. But in his summary Powell brought them back and made them, retrospectively, the centre-piece of the discussion. So it looked as if we had taken them more seriously than we did, and had indeed ourselves advanced them. 

After it had blown over, I wrote an article in the Sunday Telegraph expressing the views which I had in fact expressed at the meeting — and indeed a little earlier in a speech in the House of Lords. (I didn’t intend to make a connexion with the seminar, but of course the Telegraph made it.) I enclose a copy of my article.

The question which remains is, who leaked the document? It seems that the Independent got it from Germany; and certainly the first details to be printed were published in the Rheinischer Merkur. Charles Powell says that the only copy of the document to be sent to Germany was sent to our ambassador there, Christopher Mallaby; so it looks as if there is a mole in his embassy.

As a final judgment, Tim Garton Ash wrote to me recently that “it seems to me that, in spite of all that we have said and written in different ways, it is now firmly established as historical fact that we participated, at Chequers, in March 1990, in an anti-German cabal”.

[…] On August 24 we are going to Mexico. It has been uncertain for some time, since Xandra had an operation and then had to go back to a second hospital — with a virus (I think) contracted in the first. She is still rather lame. But the doctor says that she can go, and she is eager to go, so we are going: for a conference on — Eastern Europe!

yours ever


This letter, written 13 months before Trevor-Roper’s death, was addressed to the retired ambassador “Nicko” Henderson. In his youth Trevor-Roper had shown little interest in politics until the Munich Agreement between Hitler and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in September 1938 jolted him.

To Sir Nicholas Henderson , 21 December 2001                                                                                               

The Old Rectory, Didcot

Dear Nicko

Many thanks for sending me that tape of Chamberlain’s Birmingham speech of March 17, 1939. I listened to it fascinated and appalled. I meant to come to the dinner of the Other Club on Wednesday and return it to you directly, but I have not been well and could not face the journey; so I will send it back when the Christmas mail no longer congests the Post. 

I was fascinated to hear again the voice of poor old Chamberlain: strong and resolute in his own conviction; but appalled by the implications.

Still in our ashes live our wonted fires. At the time, in my callow youth, I was deeply shocked by Chamberlain and Appeasement. Afterwards I came to agree that he had little alternative. The pass had been sold; if we had fought then, we would probably have been defeated; we had no Spitfires. But even so, Chamberlain’s pretence that Munich was a diplomatic victory, that it had secured “peace in our time” — when he should have said that it was a defeat, the inescapable result of wasted years whose damage must now be repaired-seemed to me shocking. And now I heard that self-assured, self-satisfied voice still insisting that the surrender at Munich was right and would have preserved peace if only Hitler had not-surprise, surprise — afterwards turned out to be such a cad. So here I am, back again in the mood of 1938. I have been reading — that is, James, my step-son, has been reading to me — Alexander Cadogan’s diaries.  How I relished Cadogan’s explosion on meeting Chamberlain and Halifax on their return from Munich: “Good God! The PM has been hypnotised by Hitler and Halifax has been hypnotised by the PM!”  Our generation will never escape from the 1930s. 

yours ever


Edited extracts from “One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper”, edited by Richard Davenport-Hines and Adam Sisman, to be published by Oxford University Press on January 23, £25.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

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"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"