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Honorary Graduates

Orations and responses

Professor Patrick Collinson

Oration given on 13 April 2000

Chanceor, the Senate of the University has resolved that the degree of Doctor of the University be conferred upon Patrick Collinson.

Consult any compendium of quotations -  be it  The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations or the less august 5000 Gems of Wit and Wisdom, Memorable Quotations for All Occasions - and you will find that amongst the longest entries is the one that appears under History.  Many are somewhat cynical, almost slick, aphorisms, such as Napoleon Bonaparte’s dictum that:  “History is a set of lies agreed upon”: or, as the Earl of Chesterfield put it: “History is only a confused set of facts”; or there is James Joyce’s anguished cry: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”  Or what about Henry Ford’s universally known, but usually misquoted, remark that appeared first in the Chicago Tribune of 25 May 1916: “History is more or less bunk.”  Indeed, if one were to judge by the many definitions of history that are listed, one would be forced to the conclusion that a good few of those that profess history, not to mention many who have made it, are quite unsure about their chosen discipline. 

That is the last charge that could be laid against Professor Patrick Collinson, eminent historian, brilliant scholar, and someone who has made an enormous contribution to the development of not just his own segment of history, but also the discipline as a whole - never mind the generous encouragement that he has given to those who practice it, especially young academics.  There are many in this university who have found him to be a source of inspiration and support, for which we are very grateful.

Amongst Professor Collinson’s most notable distinctions (there are too many to list all of them here) are his Fellowship of the Royal Historical Society, his Fellowship of the British Academy and his receipt of the award of a CBE in 1993.  And he was, of course, Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge from 1988 to 1996. Yet his earlier career could easily serve as a template for aspiring historians graduating today.

Educated at the King’s School, Ely, and then Pembroke College, Cambridge (he graduated with first-class honours in 1952), Patrick Collinson then embarked upon a doctorate at the University of London and was awarded his PhD in 1957. This was still several years before the massive expansion of higher education that began in the 1960s.  Jobs were not easy to come by; so, following brief spells as a research assistant, he took himself off to Sudan, where he was lecturer in history at the University of Khartoum from 1956 to 1961.  One can only guess, but these years probably gave him opportunity and time to reflect upon his own country and society from a distance, and also to view his chosen discipline in a wide and, as we might say today, multi-cultural context.

Following his return to Britain from Africa in 1961, Professor Collinson’s career, although ever upwards in its trajectory, was also geographically serpentine: assistant lecturer, then lecturer at King’s College, London; a chair at the University of Sydney from 1965 to 1975, then back to the United Kingdom to the University of Kent at Canterbury.  His next venture was to Sheffield University, where he was professor of modern history (some of his admirers believe that his foray north to what was then commonly termed the “Socialist Republic of Sheffield” was as much a statement of personal commitment as it was a step up the career ladder of success).

It was while at Sheffield that his and his wife’s love of the Derbyshire peaks and dales was implanted (they still have a cottage there); but in 1988 he was tempted south again to All Souls College, Oxford, and then to the even sunnier clime of California, where he was Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at the Huntington Library.

However, a recitation (particularly an incomplete one such as this) of the stages in the seemingly inexorable rise of Patrick Collinson leaves out an indispensable dimension.  That is, the focus of his scholarship.

Nowadays there is much discussion about the decline of religion (or at any rate, of Christianity), as expressed in such quantifiable data as the numbers taking Communion at Easter-time.  Certainly, few would deny that as we enter the third millennium, Britain is a much more secular society than it was even fifty years ago.  Yet for much of its history, the lives of everyone in this country were affected, if not directly, then at least tangentially, by religion.  Moreover, the struggles between different confessions were far from being a purely doctrinal matter: one way or another they impacted upon politics and society, so that, aware of it or not, much of what we today call “our national character”, is the product of those conflicts.

Patrick Collinson is above all an ecclesiastical historian.  One of his earliest works concerned the Elizabethan puritan movement (in which our own region - Essex and Suffolk - figures prominently, as in so much of his research); another dealt with the struggle for a Reformed Church.  These were followed by the Ford Lectures, The Religion of Protestants: the Church in English Society 1559-1625.  Then came The Godly People: essays on English Protestantism and Puritanism; The Birthpangs of Protestant England: religious and cultural change in the 16th and 17th centuries, which in turn were followed by Elizabethan Essays.  The list is far from complete, but it does mark some of the mile-posts on the highway of scholarly enquiry.  What a simple listing cannot do, however, is reproduce the tingling excitement that good scholarship such as this can induce.

Professor Collinson is not someone who has, as it were, inoculated himself from the contemporary world by resort to historical enquiry, as anyone who has read his inaugural lecture to the University of Cambridge will know.  Entitled De Republica Anglorum, its sub-title is Or, History with the Politics Put Back.  It would take an insider to appreciate the subtleties of some of the argument, much of which centres on disputations between historians.  But everyone would recognise his common sense when discussing what were then, in 1989, ill-formed criticisms about the teaching of history in British schools and universities (an issue that has lost none of its topicality - the debate in the House of Lords three weeks ago on this very issue revealed that, in certain quarters, at least, those prejudices persist still).  It was in that inaugural lecture that Professor Collinson described himself as “an early modernist with a prime interest in the history of England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries;” but it says a great deal about him when, in almost the same breath, he refers to the “lower echelons of government and public service” in those days as being the “medieval precursors of N.U.P.E.”  Indeed, his fascination with the Levellers, those radical republicans prominent in England during the Civil War and suppressed by Cromwell in 1649 is, in a way, his own green badge of radicalism.

It would be a mistake, of course, to view religion and ecclesiastical history as being synonymous.  It was Machiavelli who said: “There can be no surer sign of decay in a country than to see the rites of religion held in contempt.”  Whatever Professor Collinson’s subjective beliefs, it is ecclesiastical history that has been the main focus of his scholarship.  By his labours, he has enriched our understanding of ourselves and of our society (and, not least, our region, East Anglia).  For that we are deeply grateful.

Chancellor, I present to you Patrick Collinson.