Blair Worden

Blair Worden’s many books include God’s Instruments: Political Conduct in the England of Oliver Cromwell.

Novel and Naughty: Parliament and the People

Blair Worden, 26 September 2019

Where did the ‘radical’ political ideas recounted by the author come from? Were they developments of previously held beliefs? Did they have long roots, or were they generated by the exceptional events of the 1640s and by the rise of mass publication, which was largely a consequence of those events? It is hard to say, because we know so much less about public opinion before the expansion of printed source material in the civil wars. Whatever the answers, it is the short-term incitements to ‘radicalism’ that he brings to life. One essential component of its appeal was the hold on public affection of the institution of Parliament.

Does Peter Lake​ ever sleep? Even at 666 pages this is not the longest of his books, which descend on the study of the decades around 1600 like a great waterfall. There are no signs of fatigue, no inanimate sentences. Behind the loosely conversational manner of his prose lies a precision of thought and structure. How Shakespeare Put Politics on the Stage, an amiably but inherently...

As Bad as Poisoned: James I

Blair Worden, 3 March 2016

In the politics​ of Shakespeare’s time and its sequel, life not so much imitated art as competed with it. The ostentatious theatricality of royal rituals and masques was complemented by the visceral excitements of public events. Which of the stage’s countless trial scenes can have equalled in dramatic effect the moment during the arraignment of the Earl of Essex for treason in...

John Donne​ is a modern rediscovery. His reputation, high among his contemporaries, fell after their time, along with those of other 17th-century metaphysical poets who would wait equally long for rehabilitation. The late 17th century and the 18th, committed to orderliness of metre and feeling, disliked the ‘forced’ and ‘unnatural’ rhythms of his verse, his...

The Tribe of Ben: Ben Jonson

Blair Worden, 11 October 2012

Seventeenth-century critics thought Ben Jonson England’s finest writer. Even until the mid-18th century he was conventionally regarded as at least Shakespeare’s equal. It was he more than anyone who won a new status for authorship, to befit the moral and educative role he claimed for it. Under James I the former bricklayer and soldier and brawler and convict, the one-time mediocre...

In Myrtle Bowers: Cavaliers

Blair Worden, 30 June 2011

This is a remarkable and tantalising book, luminously evocative, acutely observed, joyously written, intellectually evasive, wilfully unfocused, suicidally diffuse. Who could say, after its 500 or so pages, what it is about? Its unexplained title is presumably a market pitch. The subtitle, perhaps another pitch, lays bare a problem which John Stubbs never grips. We are two-thirds of the way...

Double Tongued: Worshipping Marvell

Blair Worden, 18 November 2010

To the modern world Andrew Marvell is a poet. Earlier times knew him differently. From his death in 1678 until the late Victorian era he was mainly admired not for his poetry but for his politics. The 18th and 19th centuries commemorated him as the MP and prose-writer who had challenged tyranny and corruption and religious persecution in the reign of Charles II. Though his verse found...

Fifty years, almost to the month, before the publication of John Adamson’s book, Hugh Trevor-Roper stated his intention to write what he knew would be ‘a very long book’, the most ambitious of his career, on the Puritan revolution of 17th-century England. The project went through many mutations over the next four years, but by 1961 it was virtually complete. He was...

The first of these books is the product of an interdisciplinary conference at which literary critics and historians exchanged perspectives on a year conspicuous both for political conflict and for politically charged literature. Alas, it would take more than conferences for the two disciplines to understand each other. A number of the literary critics dwelled on the fear of tyranny that was...

In the spring or summer of 1599, the Chorus of Henry V, in Shakespeare’s only explicit reference to a contemporary politician, looked forward to the return of the 33-year-old Earl of Essex from his campaign in Ireland, ‘bringing rebellion broached on his sword’ – a light touch from which some heavy inferences have been drawn. Instead, the Earl returned in disgrace in...

Among the objects of hatred and ridicule in English memory the regime of Oliver Cromwell’s Major-Generals has a towering place. The division of the country, in 1655, into 12 districts administered by killjoy Puritan commanders was a brief episode, in effect lasting less than a year, but it has been reviled and derided from that time to this. In the 18th and 19th centuries, as...

Pens and Heads: printing and reading

Blair Worden, 24 August 2000

‘We Should Note,’ Francis Bacon enjoined in his Novum Organum, ‘the force, effect, and consequence’ of three inventions which were unknown to the ancients, ‘namely, printing, gunpowder and the compass. For these three have changed the appearance and state of the whole world.’ Since Bacon’s time almost everyone has agreed that the social and cultural impact of printing must have been huge. Only in the past half century, however, has it begun to be studied and measured. The movement of enquiry began in France in the 1950s, when the Annales school counted print runs and estimated the breadth and social composition of readerships. More recently, the ‘history of the book’, as it has come to be called, has assumed less statistical, more subtle and more intensive forms.‘

Quentin Skinner’s short book is an extended version of his Inaugural Lecture as Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge. There cannot have been a less contentious succession to that chair. In his field, the history of political thought, Skinner has earned an authority and distinction unrivalled anywhere in the world among scholars now below retirement age. His writings, above all his studies of the Italian and Humanist political ideas of the Renaissance, his work on Hobbes, and his two-volume Foundations of Modern Political Thought, are landmarks of modern historical interpretation and, in their lucidity and elegance, of historical prose. He has begun his reign by doing what the deliverer of an Inaugural Lecture has a special opportunity to do: raise fundamental questions about the character and purpose of his subject.

Conviction on the High Seas

Blair Worden, 6 February 1997

To contemporaries, the three Anglo-Dutch naval wars that were fought in the third quarter of the 17th century were epic encounters on which the fate of Europe depended: modern equivalents of Rome’s wars with Carthage or of the Battle of Actium. The size and prowess of the fleets drew astonishment across the continent. So did the thunderous battles, whose scale and drama can still be sensed in the paintings of the Van de Veldes.

Pocock’s Positions

Blair Worden, 4 November 1993

The front cover and title-page conceal the central fact of Political Discourse in Early Modern Britain, that it is a Festschrift for the historian of political thought J.G.A. Pocock. Publishers are generally wary of Festschrifts, which are liable to interest the recipient’s friends and colleagues more than a wider audience; but this is not an ordinary Festschrift. There are no hushed tributes, no rehearsals for obituary notices. By the time he gets a Festschrift, a historian’s ideas are often seen as the product of a generation that has had its day. No one could say that of Pocock’s work, which remains as productive and controversial as ever. The agenda he has set out is far from completion: indeed we may only just be appreciating its measure. The volume concludes with a lengthy commentary by Pocock himself which, in reviewing each of the essays, primarily asks, not how far his earlier positions are vindicated by them, but where we should go next.

Despairing Radicals

Blair Worden, 25 June 1992

In the gentle countryside to the west of Maidstone in Kent lies Penshurst House, the home of the Sidney family since the middle of the 16th century. The most famous of the Sidneys, Sir Philip, included an affectionate account of Penshurst in his Arcadia, where it is thinly disguised as the house of Kalendar. A generation later Ben Jonson’s poem ‘To Penshurst’ celebrated the house as a landmark of antique virtue and antique hospitality, and contrasted it with the new and vulgar ‘prodigy houses’, such as Hatfield and Audley End, that were ‘built to envious show’ amidst the riot of competitive expenditure in the reign of James I. The Sidneys never had the money to spoil their inheritance, which survives as a glorious muddle of a house, centred on an enchanting Medieval hall and sprawling out into its Renaissance and later additions.

Conrad Russell’s Civil War

Blair Worden, 29 August 1991

For fifteen years Conrad Russell has dominated that most embattled and most heavily populated area of historical study, the origins of the civil wars of mid-17th-century England. In doing so, he has banished controversy to the margins. This is a highly unusual accomplishment. Advances in contentious historiographical territory are generally achieved through baronial feuds, not through submission to a monarchy. Even Geoffrey Elton, who admittedly has dominated a much larger period for a much longer time, from the outset created controversy rather than orthodoxy. Russell has achieved his hegemony by not seeking it. The instinct of historians for confrontation has been disarmed by his intellectual ecumenicalism, by his distaste for entrenched positions, his readiness to modify his findings in the light of fresh evidence or reflection, his generosity to his younger critics: in other words, by his transparent determination to get things right. Those who have heard him lecture – who have witnessed his intensity of intellectual concentration, his unsurpassed mastery of archival evidence, and a memory that reproduces it with the alacrity and accuracy of a photocopying machine – will understand the magnetic authority of his findings. In the last five years or so, it is true, ‘revisionism’, the term popularly given to his position, has begun to go out of fashion –though it is also true, as these books show, that Russell’s own revisionism has been substantially qualified. Yet his critics remain under his spell. If their answers are different from his, their questions and their techniques are the same.’

Out of the East

Blair Worden, 11 October 1990

Can historical biography still be written? Joel Hurstfield, who had planned a life of Robert Cecil, the chief minister inherited by James I from Queen Elizabeth, abandoned it in the 1960s in the belief that the genre had had its day. Geoffrey Elton, so much of whose career has been occupied with the achievements of Thomas Cromwell, has never thought biography to be the fitting means of approaching him. Biography now belongs to the margins of historical writing. The economic and sociological determinism of the 20th century has questioned the influence of great men, while its psychological determinism has undermined their dignity. To study the past through the lives of its most conspicuous individuals can seem as superficial or as frivolous an exercise as the interpretation of current affairs in terms of the clashes of political personalities. Even if we respect the study of personality we find it hard to practise it when we turn to the Early Modern period, when the evidence more often protects than exposes the private man.

Tolerant Repression

Blair Worden, 10 May 1990

One characteristic of the historical writing of the Eighties was an expanding readiness to relate the politics of the past to its literature: to the literature of ideas and imagination. The social and economic explanations of political behaviour which had been dominant in the previous decades had left too much unexplained. A growing number of historians turned to literature, as to art and religion, to understand the structures of thought and emotion which distinguish one age from another, and without a grasp of which the political language of the past can be unintelligible. More interest is now taken in the culture of a period than in its economics, while the study of high politics seems jejune when it lacks a cultural dimension.

Lawful Resistance

Blair Worden, 24 November 1988

How should a decisive historical event be commemorated? In the history of the British Isles no event has been more decisive than the Revolution of 1688. It defeated a vigorous attempt to impose royal absolutism, and secured the principle of Parliamentary consent. It made possible the emergence of free speech and of an independent judiciary. It was the critical episode in the transformation of Britain from a minor power with a dynastic foreign policy to a major one with an imperial destiny. It laid the foundations of the constitutional practices which would be exported round the world. In Scotland it overthrew the Episcopalian state church and led to the Act of Union. In Ireland it crushed the Catholic bid for emancipation and entrenched the Protestant ascendancy.

Intellectual Liberation

Blair Worden, 21 January 1988

Among Hugh Trevor-Roper’s historical interests it is the Early Modern period, from the late Renaissance to the Baroque, that has claimed his most distinctive literary form, the long essay. He is our finest practitioner of the genre since Macaulay – who wrote when the economics of publishing were friendlier to it. Twenty years ago the essays collected in Trevor-Roper’s Religion, the Reformation and Social Change examined the ideological crisis of the Thirty Years War and of the political revolutions which followed it. Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans, which contains five essays of an average length of about 25,000 words, is in effect a sequel to that volume. It differs from it in containing essays only on Britain, but British history – particularly British intellectual history – is placed no less insistently than before in its European context.’

Strange Talk at Putney

Blair Worden, 23 July 1987

In the archives of Worcester College, Oxford there lies one of the most remarkable and affecting documentary legacies of the English past. The papers of William Clarke, a secretary in the Cromwellian Army, contain his transcript of the meetings at Army headquarters in late October and early November 1647 which posterity knows as the Putney Debates. The officers, soldiers and Levellers who debated the Parliamentary franchise and the post-war settlement of the kingdom bequeathed an unrivalled glimpse of 17th-century political articulacy below the level of political privilege. It was at Putney that Thomas Rainborough spoke for ‘the poorest he that lives in England’, and that he heard, in the pleas of Cromwell’s son-in-law Henry Ireton for the rights of property, ‘nothing at all that can convince me, why any man that is born in England ought not to have his voice in election of burgesses.’ It was there that Ireton quarrelled with the Levellers, in terms close to those of Hobbes’s Leviathan four years later, about the obligation of men to perform their political covenants. And it was there that the Levellers John Wildman and Maximilian Petty mounted the fundamental challenge to the constitution that would be rewarded by the abolition of monarchy and the House of Lords two years later. Even the sophisticated qualifications of modern scholarship, which have dwelled on the distance that separates the language and presuppositions of the soldiers from our own, have not dimmed the wonder both of the survival and of the content of Clarke’s record.

Friend to Sir Philip Sidney

Blair Worden, 3 July 1986

Four hundred years ago, on 17 October 1586, Sir Philip Sidney died at the age of 31 of a wound sustained in a skirmish at Zutphen, where his forces had fought for the Dutch cause against Spanish domination of the Netherlands. It was one of the great deaths of English history. His early biographers – or hagiographers – wrought a tale of battlefield heroism and deathbed stoicism that helped the myth of Sidney to become more powerful than the man had ever been. The funeral procession in London, arranged at the crippling expense of his father-in-law Sir Francis Walsingham, Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth, and preserved in the public imagination by Thomas Lant’s pictorial roll, was the grandest accorded to an English subject before Nelson: a determined show of strength by the forward Protestant party to which Sidney had belonged and in whose cause he became a martyr. Poets wrote elegies which answered to a widespread sense of waste and desolation. They were to be echoed a quarter of a century later upon a no less memorable early death, that of Henry Prince of Wales, the heir not only to the throne but to Sidney’s role of lost Protestant leader.’


Blair Worden, 23 January 1986

1985 saw the tercentenary of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the event which banished Protestantism from France after nearly a century of precarious legal protection. The anniversary, capably bruited by the Huguenot Society, was also seized upon for an enterprising non-denominational purpose. By extracting from a distinguished team, drawn from both sides of the Channel, the essays assembled in International Calvinism 1541-1715, Menna Prestwich has brought the findings of recent European scholarship – some of them reported at first, others at second hand – to an English audience hitherto under-acquainted with them. That was a clever move, for most of the book has little to do with 1685, a date by which the decisive contribution of Calvinism to the political and intellectual history of Europe (and, if it made one, to its social history) was past. The centre of the book’s gravity is the later 16th and earlier 17th centuries. Deciding that ‘it would not have been sensible or tactful to issue detailed directives’ to leading scholars in the field, Prestwich gives them a loose rein. The result is a collection of essays which are without exception helpful but which vary disconcertingly in scope, in time-span and in polish. Some are patiently introductory, others densely sophisticated. The editor’s introduction, although efficiently panoramic, scarcely draws together such threads as the book possesses.’


Blair Worden, 7 March 1985

In 1892 A.C. Benson published an essay which introduced the modern appreciation of Andrew Marvell. For more than two hundred years Marvell’s verse had shared with Metaphysical poetry a lowness of esteem which now seems puzzling. As the Cyclopaedia of English Literature explained in 1844, Marvel ‘is better known as a prose writer than a poet, and is still more celebrated as a patriotic member of parliament’. Benson rejected those priorities. He saw Marvell’s political involvement as a cause not for pride but for shame. ‘Few poets,’ he warned, ‘are of sufficiently rough and impenetrable fibre as to be able with impunity to mix with public affairs,’ for the ‘stream’ of ‘their inspiration’ is ‘apt to become sullied at the very source by the envious contact of the world’. To Marvell’s career as a Cromwellian civil servant and Whig pamphleteer ‘we owe the loss of a great English poet’. A reading of Marvell’s ‘peculiarly distasteful’ tract The Rehearsal Transpros’d brought home a grim lesson: ‘the singer of an April mood, who might have bloomed year after year in young and ardent hearts, is buried in the dust of politics, in the valley of dead bones.’

Sexual Whiggery

Blair Worden, 7 June 1984

The history of women has become a lucrative subject. No historical topic offers a better hope of publishers’ contracts, or even, in the United States at least, of academic appointments. Yet if the market is wide, the pitfalls are deep. Some of them have been created by the very forces which have made women’s history fashionable. Just when other forms of Whig history have become discredited, sexual Whiggism has become almost compulsory. Women’s history easily becomes sectarian history: an enterprise in which the past is studied with the purpose less of enlarging present horizons than of fortifying present prejudices.

Puritan Neuroses

Blair Worden, 19 April 1984

If the directions taken by historical research are indicative of a nation’s broader preoccupations, then we may have to prepare ourselves for a religious revival of some magnitude. Religious explanations in history are all the rage – nowhere more so than in the study of the English Civil Wars. John Morrill, that panjandrum of Civil War revisionism, is reported to have advised a recent meeting of the Royal Historical Society to think of 1640-60 not as the first of Europe’s modern revolutions but as the last of its wars of religion. J.T. Cliffe’s useful and unpretentious book on the pre-Civil War rulers of England’s shires is entitled, not (as one would have expected a decade or two ago) The Rising Gentry or The Provincial Gentry, but The Puritan Gentry. His theme is not estate management, or local government, but the strenuous spiritual self-examination which, together with the belief in providence and the fear of Catholics, is now guaranteed a central place in any reputable account of the origins of the ‘Puritan Revolution’; and high time too. William Hunt, whose book is ostensibly about pre-Civil War Essex but really about many things besides, calls it The Puritan Moment.–

Rescuing the bishops

Blair Worden, 21 April 1983

The publication of Patrick Collinson’s The Religion of Protestants is a stirring event in the rediscovery of Early Modern England. Unmistakably the work of a historian who has reflected on his subject for the better part of a working lifetime, the book consists of six wide-ranging essays which were originally delivered as the Ford Lectures when Professor Collinson visited Oxford in 1979, and which have now been revised, expanded and tightened – although the speculative tone of the lecture-hall has been appropriately retained. Many other scholars have recently explored the development of the Church of England over the two long reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, and one of Collinson’s achievements, executed with singular modesty and generosity, has been to draw their conclusions together and to set them in perspective. But the findings which count for most are the author’s own. To the non-specialist reader, two warnings should be offered. The opening chapter, about Church and State, may seem the hardest: begin with Chapter Two. Secondly, do not expect tidy answers. Collinson’s thesis, although lucidly and vigorously presented, is honourably complex and tentative. This is the modern manner, history with its head down: patient, unpretentious, suspicious of the swift and brash generalisations that stole the headlines a decade and more ago.–


Blair Worden, 10 January 1983

Neostoicism is neither as difficult nor as remote a subject as it may sound, although to grasp its full importance we would need a keener sense than most of us have of the pressing relevance of Classical Antiquity to the thought and values of Renaissance Europe. The term is given by historians to the cult of Stoic ethics – especially of Senecan ethics – at the courts and universities of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Against the grim background of protracted civil war in the Netherlands, in France and in Germany, Neostoicism offered a philosophy of fortitude and consolation not merely to intellectuals but to princes and statesmen. It was a philosophy for laymen, who found in pagan literature a restorative retreat from the conflicting ideologies of Calvinist Geneva and Tridentine Rome.

Hebrew without tears

Blair Worden, 20 May 1982

On 4 December 1655, Oliver Cromwell opened a conference summoned ‘to consider of proposals in behalf of the JEWS, by Menasseh ben Israel, an agent come to London in behalf of many of them, to live and trade here, and desiring to have free use of their synagogues’. This gathering of politicians, clergymen, lawyers and merchants, which is known to history as the Whitehall Conference, was invited to rescind the expulsion of the Jews by Edward I in 1290. During the next fortnight five meetings were held, the last of them open to the public, before the convention was adjourned. It did not meet again. Menasseh ben Israel, who from his base in Amsterdam had for eight years been mobilising support for the readmission of the Jews to England, was broken by the apparent failure of his mission. Cromwell, too, must have been disappointed. He included the Jews among the ‘godly people’ for whose ‘union and right understanding’ he had long prayed, and he told the Whitehall Conference that since the Bible contained ‘a promise of their conversion, means must be used to that end, which was the preaching of the Gospel, and that could not be had unless they were permitted to reside where the Gospel was preached.’

War without an Enemy

Blair Worden, 21 January 1982

The political troubles of mid-17th-century England will not go away. Every generation of professional historians – the Victorians Gardiner and Firth, who laid the chronological foundation; the Marxists and the participants in the gentry controversy, who supplied the sociological dimension; the provincialists and the revisionists of the present day – has devoted some of its best research and most lively debate to the Civil War. The justification of that heavy investment cannot be a tangibly utilitarian one, for if the Puritan Revolution had lasting consequences they were either, like the growth of national political consciousness in the shires which were drawn into the war, inadvertent, or, like the anti-Puritan and anti-reforming reaction after 1660, negative; and these are not, on the whole, the themes which have drawn scholars to the period. If the English Civil War is important, it is because it is interesting.

Critical Bibliography

Blair Worden, 22 January 1981

This book, which seems to have been published somewhat furtively, deserves to be widely known and widely used. The second in a series of ‘Critical Bibliographies in Modern History’ (the first, by David Nicholls, covers the 19th century), it is a handbook for ‘school-teachers, lecturers and students’ who ‘clearly need guidance about what has been coming out, and about whether some beloved work has stood the test of time’. John Morrill has identified a hungry constituency to whom his book will be a godsend.

Unmatched Antiquary

Blair Worden, 21 February 1980

In the early 17th century, more perhaps than in any period of our history, political argument was argument about the past: about precedents and about pedigrees. Sir Robert Cotton, an antiquary in politics, is a perfect focus for a study of the connections between antiquarian research and political conflict. History, an anchor in the choppy seas of political and social change, became to monarchs and parliaments alike the arbiter of controversy: Cotton, as Mr Sharpe shows, became to monarchs and parliaments alike the arbiter of controversial historical evidence. A distinguished 18th-century antiquary recalled without exaggeration that Cotton had been ‘consulted as an oracle by the privy councillors and greatest men in the kingdom upon every difficult point relating to the constitution’. Cotton’s friend Sir Simonds D’Ewes called him ‘that unmatched antiquary’, ‘the famous antiquary of Europe’.

I am mystified by Frank Kermode’s letter (Letters, 25 September). The whole point is that the performance (as all the sources and critics agree) was ‘commissioned’ not by Shakespeare’s company but by followers of Essex. I discussed at length Augustine Phillips’s statement that the play was ‘long out of use’.

Sexual Whiggery

7 June 1984

Blair Worden writes: Although Ms Baldwin sometimes used the name Ann (or Anne) in her activities as a bookseller, her Christian name was Abigail (née Mulford). That fact, which is documented in the notes by Michael Treadwell in the John Johnson collection in the Bodleian, was unknown to Ms Rostenberg, whose Christian name I should have got right.

Puritan Neuroses

19 April 1984

Blair Worden writes: It is absurd of Mr Hunt to attribute to me a ‘claim that “Puritanism was not a social religion." ’ I hope he has not so shamelessly ignored the contexts of the passages from historical documents which he quotes in his book.

Unmatched Antiquary

21 February 1980

SIR: I suppose that, lest silence be taken for assent, I must reply to Mr Sharpe’s sorry letter (Letters, 20 March). In my review I emphasised the virtues of his able and valuable book. I also argued, civilly, that there are points of substance where his thesis is weak. On none of those points does Mr Sharpe offer an answer. Indeed, he now seems to have shifted his ground so far that it is hard...

Societies, it is sometimes said, get the politics they deserve. Can the same be said for their history? If contemporary Britain is anything to go by then the short answer is probably yes....

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Mighty Causes: the English Civil Wars

Mark Kishlansky, 11 June 2009

Thomas Hardy, it is said, believed the history of humanity could be written in six words: ‘They lived, they suffered, they died.’ As a historical account this was more than adequate....

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‘Politics’ is a strange word, and the particular nature of its strangeness may explain why so many people feel confused by or alienated from political processes. It can refer...

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Shortly after Oliver Cromwell’s death in September 1658, Dryden wrote some ‘Heroique Stanza’s, Consecrated to the Glorious Memory of his most Serene and Renowned Highnesse...

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Austere and Manly Attributes

Patrick Collinson, 3 April 1997

Unlike 1588, the Armada Year, 1578 has not endured in the national memory. But to those alive at the time, and especially those in charge of affairs – committed, ‘forward’...

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Types of Ambiguity

Conrad Russell, 22 January 1987

The Church shall not so expound one place of Scripture that it shall be repugnant to another. Of all the Thirty-Nine Articles, this is perhaps the most difficult, yet it lays down a scholarly...

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Tribute to Trevor-Roper

A.J.P. Taylor, 5 November 1981

The festschrift, a collection of essays in honour of a senior professor, used to be dismissed as a rather tiresome German habit. Now, I think, it has become embedded in English academic...

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