John Phillipps Kenyon
John Philipps Kenyon.
June 18 1927- January 6 1996
John Kenyon was one of the foremost historians of 17th-century England, a prolific writer and reviewer and a fellow of the British Academy.
After taking his first degree in his native Sheffield he went to Cambridge in 1954. There he was a pupil of J H Plumb and became a fellow of Christ's College, before going on to become Hull's history professor for 19 years, followed by six years at St Andrews. From 1987 to 1994 he was Distinguished Professor of early modern British history at the University of Kansas.
In 1983 his venture into historiography, The History Men, was published, which like his Observer reviews was aimed at a broad audience. But his work was focused on the Stuart age. His qualities as a historian were exemplified in his 1958 book, Robert Spencer, Earl of Sunderland, which showed his formidable capabilities as a scholar, combining careful attention to detail with an ability to pick up every nuance from his sources. Apart from its portrait of Sunderland, it offers sophisticated analyses of both the deluded and introverted court of James II and the world of political management and intrigue under William III. It is also written in a vigorous and entertaining prose, which served Kenyon well in his best sellers, The Stuarts and Stuart England. By contrast, Revolution Principles: The Politics Of Party 1689-1720 (1977), focussed on the realm of ideas, on the ferment of political debate as Whig and Tory polemicists sought to adapt to the changed political world after the revolution of 1688-99 - and then to the Hanovarian Succession. This is a far from easy topic - once one gets below the level of the "major" writers, much is trite and muddled - and it was a considerable achievement to produce, from the heat and confusion of debate, an analysis that is at once coherent and original. The book stemmed from the Ford Lectures he gave at Oxford in 1975-76 - the most prestigious set of lectures on British history.
Kenyon's greatest assets were a careful and perceptive use of his sources and a robust common sense. His works reflect a cynical of human nature - what else could have led him to choose the slippery and abrasive Sunderland as his doctoral thesis? - which was an essential part of his character. He distrusted theories which were not firmly rooted in historical evidence and thoroughly disliked pretentiousness and trendiness. Many of his numerous book reviews were abrasive and dismissive and made him enemies. He was delighted at one point to be described on television by AL Rowse as "a monster". He also wrote the Science Fiction reviews for the Observer during the 1970s and early 1970s under the pseudonym of "Kelvin Johnston" for which he received less flack from authors. He projected an image of gruff, pipe-chewing gloom but could also be convivial company and was capable of considerable kindness. His misanthropy, genuine though it no doubt was, coexisted with a thorough professionalism, apparent in the care he took in his writing and in his teaching: at Kansas - most unusually for a ditinguished professor - he taught a first-year undergraduate course. After his death, students from his last class and as far back as the late 1950s wrote letters of sympathy and appreciation for his teaching and the help and encouragement he had given them.
His rugged individualism and attachment to conservative, scholarly values meant that he was never really seen as an innovator, nor did he establish a "school" in the way other historians have, but those same scholarly qualities give his best work a durability that other more ephemerally fashionable works will not enjoy. The Stuarts continues to inform and give pleasure to a wide reading public. He was dismissive of the legacy of his work - believing he would no longer grace bookshop shelves within 10 years of his death - but in a world where Waterstones stocks 2 biographies of Victoria Beckham - but not a single biography of Robert F Kennedy he could hardly be considered as a pessimist in this regard.
He would have been delighted by the resurgance of interest in British History represented by the television work of Scharma and Starkey, jealous of their wealth rather than their fame, and would have no doubt corrected them on a number of points. He would also have marvelled at the internet and the ability to order all the out of print books he had been searching for in dusty book shops all around the UK for all his adult life.
The bulk of this article is from the obituary of John Kenyon written by John Miller. ©.Guardian Newspaper.
January 15 1996.
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