Skip to main content

13 April 2022

Professor Sir John Elliott FBA (1930-2022)

The Department of History at King’s College London is very sad to learn of the death at the age of 91 of Sir John Elliot, former Head of Department.

Professor Sir John Elliot FBA

Words by Professor Peter James Marshall

John Elliott, who died on 10 March 2022, aged 91, was Professor of History and Head of Department at King's from 1968 to 1973. He was second in a line of three distinguished historians of the early modern period who held those posts from the 1960s to the 1980s; Geoffrey Dickens preceded him and Helli Koenigsberger was his successor. Important as were the scholarly achievements of Dickens and Koenigsberger, there can be little doubt that Elliott was the pre-eminent historian of the three and no doubt at all to one who had the privilege of being a member of staff in the History Department under all of them that he was the one most deeply engaged in the day-to-day business of the Department, above all in undergraduate teaching.

The background noise to Elliott's early years at King's was outbreaks of periodical turmoil in British universities. Even in our neighbour the LSE, parts of which were from time to time occupied by disaffected students, the troubles were pallid compared to what was happening in French and American universities. The stimuli to student discontent, such as the example of the American civil rights movement or revulsion of the Vietnam War, were much the same throughout western Europe and north America, but there were also protest about how universities managed their affairs, apparently supporting the political status quo and paying little attention to the views of students on such matters as how and what they should be taught.

King's seems to have been very little affected, although many History students probably participated in anti-war marches and other demonstrations. The then Principal, General Sir John Hackett, a very striking figure by no means averse to self-publicity, believed that he had been responsible for heading off trouble at King's by participating in marches himself, wearing a bowler hat and carrying a furled umbrella, and by keeping close contact with student opinion within the College. Whatever the truth of such claims, he did take unusual care in cultivating people, especially students. Within the Department, the only episode of mild protest that I can recall was the disinclination that a number of students to sit what were then called sessional examinations at the beginning of the term. These they regarded, not without reason, as a pointless exercise. My memory is that everyone's honour was saved by their agreeing to sit the exams later on.

John Elliott came to King's in 1968 from Cambridge with a very high reputation as an historian of early modern Spain. His major work had been on the Catalan Revolution of 1640. This was followed by a very authoritative general study Imperial Spain, 1469-1714. He had just contributed Europe Divided 1559-1598 to the Fontana History of Europe series. He later told an interviewer that he was finding his teaching load as a lecturer at Cambridge 'pretty heavy going' and that he was looking for 'a new intellectual environment' elsewhere. He clearly hoped that he might be able to create such an environment at King's.

Throughout his whole career, Elliott professed his total commitment to what might be regarded as the traditional virtues of historical scholarship: a preference for narrative wherever possible, a recognition of the 'importance of personality and contingency' in explanation, and a concern for the highest attainable quality of writing – he certainly wrote with a wonderful clarity as well as elegance.

He shunned anything that remotely approached jargon and wrote towards the end of his career in his memoir History in the Making that he had never been 'particularly interested... in theoretical approaches to the past.' Yet by the time he came to King's he had become keenly interested in new approaches to widening the scope of historical study that were largely emanating from France. He saw in the work of Fernand Braudel and those who wrote in the journal Annales, he later explained, 'a vision of total history... and the need to combine political, social, economic, cultural history if possible in one whole'. This became the objective of the British journal Past and Present, on the editorial board of which Elliott served for many years. He evidently hoped that we might incorporate such approaches into our teaching at King's. To that end he drafted a paper which was discussed by the staff of the Department at a special meeting. It cannot be said that his suggestions were enthusiastically received by most of my colleagues. They seem to have felt that it was their right to continue to teach in the way they thought appropriate. Apart from an ambitious programme of buying for the library, not much changed.

John Elliott presided over our affairs at King's with grace and wit for five years. With the late June Walker at the height of her powers, he ran an efficient as well as a friendly department. He took his teaching duties very seriously as he did contacts with students through social occasions organised by the student body. I have memories of him at student parties, sipping orange juice, as befitted a teetotaller, while students swirled around him trying to hold appropriately serious conversations with the Professor, but at the same time struggling to control the effects on them of the Algerian wine or a nasty cheap Italian wine, known colloquially to us as Valpolistripper, deemed affordable for student occasions.

To his colleagues, especially the younger ones, Elliott was both a good friend and a fount of kindness, taking a keen interest in our work and seeking to promote our careers. Although he would never have said so, it seems doubtful that John Elliot found his five years at King's a particularly formative phase in his life but those years were very important ones for some of us.

Elliott left King's for a research post at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in the United States. To be able to concentrate on research without teaching responsibilities was, he said later, 'an offer too good to be missed'. He remained at Princeton until 1990, when he returned to Britain to become the Regius Professor of History at Oxford. He was knighted in 1994, retiring in 1997. While retaining a very strong interest in Spain and in the Count-Duke of Olivares in particular, the scope of Elliott's work widened over the years from Spain and Europe to studies of European involvement with the Americas. He was particularly interested in comparing the trajectories of British and Spanish history. His major work Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492-1830 came out in 2006. His last book, appearing in 2018, was called Scots and Catalans: Union and Disunion.

His wife, Oonah (nee Butler), whom he married in 1958, survives him.


Picture credit: under Public Interest, CC license.