Herbert Butterfield

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Sir Herbert Butterfield (7 October 1900, Oxenhope, Yorkshire – 20 July 1979, Sawston, Cambridgeshire) was Regius Professor of History and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge.[1] As a British historian and philosopher of history he is remembered chiefly for two books, a short volume early in his career entitled The Whig Interpretation of History (1931) and his Origins of Modern Science (1949). Over the course of his career, Butterfield turned increasingly to historiography and man's developing view of the past. Butterfield was a devout Christian and reflected at length on Christian influences in historical perspectives. Butterfield thought individual personalities more important than great systems of government or economics in historical study. His Christian beliefs in personal sin, salvation, and providence heavily influenced his writings, a fact he freely admitted. At the same time, Butterfield's early works emphasized the limits of a historian's moral conclusions, "If history can do anything it is to remind us that all our judgments are merely relative to time and circumstance."


Butterfield was born in Oxenhope in Yorkshire, and was raised a devout Methodist, which he remained for life. Despite a low-class upbringing, receiving his education at the Trade and Grammar School in Keighley, in 1919 he won a scholarship to study at Peterhouse, Cambridge, graduating with a BA in 1922, followed by an MA four years later. Butterfield was a fellow at Cambridge in 1928-79, and in the 1950s he was a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. He was Master of Peterhouse (1955–1968), Vice-Chancellor of the University (1959–1961), and Regius Professor of Modern History (1963—1968). Butterfield served as editor of the Cambridge Historical Journal from 1938 to 1955. He was knighted in 1968.[2] He married Edith Joyce Crawshaw in 1929, and had three children.


Butterfield's main interests were historiography, the history of science, 18th century constitutional history, Christianity and history, and the theory of international politics.[3] He delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Glasgow in 1965. As a deeply religious Protestant, Butterfield was highly concerned with religious issues, but he did not believe that historians could uncover the hand of God in history. At the height of the Cold War he warned that conflicts between self-righteous value systems could be catastrophic:

The greatest menace to our civilization is the conflict between giant organized systems of self-righteousness - each only too delighted to find that the other is wicked - each only too glad that the sins of the other give it pretext for still deeper hatred.[4]

The Whig Interpretation of History[edit]

Butterfield's 1931 book The Whig Interpretation of History became a classic for history students, and is still read today.[5]

He had in mind especially the historians of his own country, but his criticism of the retroactive creation of a line of progression toward the glorious present can be, and has subsequently been, applied more generally. A given "Whig interpretation of history" is now a general label applied to various historical interpretations.

He found Whiggish history objectionable because it warps the past to see it in terms of the issues of the present, to squeeze the contending forces of, say, the mid-17th century into those which remind us of ourselves most and least, or to imagine them as struggling to produce our wonderful selves. They were of course struggling, but not for that. Butterfield argued that the historian must seek the ability to see events as they were perceived by those who lived through them.

Butterfield wrote that "Whiggishness" is too handy a "rule of thumb ... by which the historian can select and reject, and can make his points of emphasis".[6]

He also wrote about how simple pick-and-choose history totally misses the boat: "Very strange bridges are used to make the passage from one state of things to another; we may lose sight of them in our surveys of general history, but their discovery is the glory of historical research. History is not the study of origins; rather it is the analysis of all the mediations by which the past was turned into our present."[7]

In 1944 Butterfield wrote The Englishman and His History in which he stated:

We are all of us exultant and unrepentant whigs. Those who, perhaps in the misguided austerity of youth, wish to drive out that whig interpretation, (that particular thesis which controls our abridgment of English history,) are sweeping a room which humanly speaking cannot long remain empty. They are opening the door for seven devils which, precisely because they are newcomers, are bound to be worse than the first. We, on the other hand, will not dream of wishing it away, but will rejoice in an interpretation of the past which has grown up with us, has grown up with the history itself, and has helped to make the history...we must congratulate ourselves that our 17th-century forefathers...did not resurrect and fasten upon us the authentic middle ages...in England we made peace with our middle ages by misconstruing them; and, therefore, we may say that “wrong” history was one of our assets. The whig interpretation came at exactly the crucial moment and, whatever it may have done to our history, it had a wonderful effect on English politics...in every Englishman there is hidden something of a whig that seems to tug at the heart-strings.[8]

Christianity and History[edit]

Butterfield's 1949 book Christianity and History asks if history provides answers to the meaning of life, answering in the negative: [9]

  • "So the purpose of life is not in the far future, nor, as we so often imagine, around the next corner, but the whole of it is here and now, as fully as ever it will be on this planet."
  • "If there is a meaning in history, therefore, it lies not in the systems and organizations that are built over long periods, but in something more essentially human, something in each personality considered for mundane purposes as an end in himself."
  • "I have nothing to say at the finish except that if one wants a permanent rock in life and goes deep enough for it, it is difficult for historical events to shake it. There are times when we can never meet the future with sufficient elasticity of mind, especially if we are locked in the contemporary systems of thought. We can do worse than remember a principle which both gives us a firm Rock and leaves us the maximum elasticity for our minds: the principle: Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted."

Prizes and accolades[edit]

In 1922 Butterfield was awarded the University Member's Prize for English Essay, writing on the subject of English novelist Charles Dickens and the way in which the author straddled the fields of history and literature.

In 1923 Butterfield won the Le Bas Prize for his first publication The Historical Novel; the work was then published in 1924.[10]

In 1924 Butterfield won the Prince Consort Prize for a work on the problem of peace in Europe between 1806 and 1808. At the same time he was given the Seeley Medal.[11]


Primary sources[edit]

  • The Historical Novel, 1924.
  • The Peace Tactics of Napoleon, 1806-1808, 1929.[12]
  • The Whig Interpretation of History, London: G. Bell, 1931.[13]
  • Napoleon, 1939.[14]
  • The Statecraft of Machiavelli, 1940.[15]
  • The Englishman and His History, 1944.[16]
  • Lord Acton, 1948.[17]
  • Christianity and History, 1949.
  • George III, Lord North and the People, 1779-80, 1949.
  • The Origins of Modern Science, 1300-1800, 1949.[18]
  • History and Human Relations, 1951.[19] Contains the essay ""Moral Judgments in History".[20]
  • The Reconstruction of an Historical Episode: The History of the Enquiry into the Origins of the Seven Years' War, 1951.[21]
  • Liberty in the Modern World, 1951.[22]
  • Christianity in European History, 1952.[23]
  • Christianity, Diplomacy and War, 1953.[24]
  • Man on His Past: The Study of the History of Historical Scholarship, 1955.[25]
  • George III and the Historians, 1957, revised edition, 1959.[26]
  • Diplomatic Investigations: Essays in the Theory of International Politics (co-edited with Martin Wight), 1966.
  • The Origins of History (edited by A. Watson) (1981). His final thoughts on history, emphasizing the role of religion.[27]

Works on Herbert Butterfield[edit]

  • Bentley, Michael, The Life and Thought of Herbert Butterfield, History, Science and God, Cambridge University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-1-107-00397-2.
  • Coll, Alberto R., The Wisdom of Statecraft: Sir Herbert Butterfield and the Philosophy of International Politics, Duke University Press, 1985.
  • McClay, Wilfred M., Whig History at Eighty: The Enduring Relevance of Herbert Butterfield and His Most Famous Book, 2011.[28]
  • McIntire, C. T., Herbert Butterfield: Historian as Dissenter, Yale University Press, 2004
  • McIntyre, Kenneth B., Herbert Butterfield: History, Providence, and Skeptical Politics, ISI Books, 2011
  • Sewell, Keith C., Herbert Butterfield and the Interpretation of History, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Haslam, Jonathan (2011-07-15). "The Life and Thought of Herbert Butterfield by Michael Bentley – review". Guardian. Retrieved 29 July 2014. 
  2. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 44600. p. 6299. 31 May 1968. Retrieved 2009-07-04.
  3. ^ Gifford Lectures – Biography of Butterfield by Dr Brannon Hancock
  4. ^ Christianity, Diplomacy and War (1952)
  5. ^ William Cronon, “Two Cheers for the Whig Interpretation of History” (American Historical Association, September 2012) online at https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/september-2012/two-cheers-for-the-whig-interpretation-of-history.
  6. ^ Butterfield 1931, p. 10.
  7. ^ http://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/03/whig-history-at-eighty
  8. ^ Herbert Butterfield, The Englishman and His History (Cambridge University Press, 1944), pp. 1-4, p. 73.
  9. ^ Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History (London: Bell, 1949) 88-89, 130. There have been reprints and revisions in 1950, 1954, 1957, 1960, 1964, 1967, 2009.
  10. ^ The historical novel: an essay. Google Books. Retrieved 26 July 2014. 
  11. ^ McIntire, C.T. (2008). Herbert Butterfield: Historian as Dissenter. Yale University Press. pp. 29–36. ISBN 0300130082. Retrieved 26 July 2014. 
  12. ^ books.google.com
  13. ^ books.google.com
  14. ^ books.google.com
  15. ^ books.google.com
  16. ^ books.google.com
  17. ^ books.google.com
  18. ^ http://rootx.com/i/the-origins-of-modern-science-1300-1800/
  19. ^ books.google.com
  20. ^ books.google.com
  21. ^ books.google.com
  22. ^ books.google.com
  23. ^ books.google.com
  24. ^ books.google.com
  25. ^ books.google.com
  26. ^ books.google.com
  27. ^ amazon.com
  28. ^ http://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/03/whig-history-at-eighty


  • Bentley, Michael The Life and Thought of Herbert Butterfield: History, Science and God, Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Chadwick, Owen "Acton and Butterfield" pages 386-405 from Journal of Ecclesiastical History, volume 38, 1987.
  • Coll, Alberto R. The Wisdom of Statecraft: Sir Herbert Butterfield and the Philosophy of International Politics, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1985.
  • Elliott, J.H. & H.G. Koenigsberger (editors) The Diversity of History: Essays in Honour of Sir Herbert Butterfield, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1970.
  • Elton, G.R. "Herbert Butterfield and the Study of History" pages 729-743 from Historical Journal, Volume 27, 1984.
  • Reba N. Soffer. History, Historians, and Conservatism in Britain and America: From the Great War to Thatcher and Reagan (2009), chapter on Butterfield
  • Thompson, Kenneth W. (editor) Herbert Butterfield: The Ethics of History and Politics, Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1980.
  • Schweizer, Karl The International Thought of Herbert Butterfield, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007

External links[edit]

Academic offices
Preceded by
Paul Cairn Vellacott
Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge
Succeeded by
John Charles Burkill
Preceded by
Edgar Adrian, 1st Baron Adrian
Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge
Succeeded by
Ivor Jennings