Christopher Durston

Historian of the English Revolution
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The Independent Online

Christopher Durston was an outstanding historian whose research interests, focused on the effects of the 17th-century revolution on the lives of English people, resulted in an impressively wide-ranging yet well-integrated body of work.

He published The Family in the English Revolution (1989), together with several essays on the failure of Puritan attempts to achieve a more thorough reformation of attitudes and behaviour, including a substantial and wide-ranging chapter in a volume of essays, The Culture of English Puritanism, that he co-edited with Jacqueline Eales (1996). Two dispassionate and readable accounts, James I (1993) and Charles I (1998), in the well-known series of "Lancaster pamphlets" are perhaps his most widely consulted publications.

His most notable monograph is, however, Cromwell's Major-Generals: godly government during the English Revolution (2001). The importance of the major- generals had long been appreciated, but the task of writing a proper account of them had defeated some eminent scholars. Durston rose to this challenge with confidence, and his study of the under-funded and ill-supported efforts of these earnest, conscientious soldiers was acknowledged as a masterpiece.

Born in 1951 in Bristol, he attended St Brendan's College there. While still at school he was awarded the P.C. Vellacott History Essay Prize offered by Peterhouse, Cambridge. Durston won an open scholarship to read Modern History at Hertford College, Oxford, where he was taught by Robin Briggs and influenced by some of the foremost historians of the English Revolution, including Christopher Hill and Donald Pennington.

After graduation, he spent a year teaching English in Stuttgart before moving to Reading University to begin doctoral research. His reasons for choosing Reading as a base were two-fold: first and foremost, to be with his wife Ros, who was in her final year as an undergraduate; and also to undertake a study of the town during the interregnum that followed the Civil Wars. His initial proposal broadened into an excellent local study, "Berkshire and its county gentry, 1625-1649" for which he was awarded a PhD in 1977. His research gave rise to articles about religious radicalism and the Levellers in Berkshire, and the influence of London on the Berkshire gentry.

In 1976 Durston was appointed to a lectureship in History at St Mary's College, Twickenham, based at Strawberry Hill, the estate centred on Horace Walpole's famous Gothick residence. St Mary's became his academic and spiritual home for almost 30 years, and he played a special part in its development. Originally a Catholic foundation, it had expanded rapidly during the 1960s and 1970s, and just before his arrival had begun to offer Bachelor's degrees in Arts, Humanities and Science. In 1994, it became a University College of Surrey University.

Against the background of these developments, Durston played a leading role in making the college an outstanding centre of research and teaching. An inspiring lecturer, he also served as Head of Department and Senior Tutor, and on the Board of Governors. His closest intellectual collaborator there was Sue Doran, a historian whose research interests complemented his own, and together they comprised the nucleus of a distinguished cluster of early modernists that was unique in a college of St Mary's size.

They jointly published a survey of religion in early modern England (Princes, pastors and people: the church and religion in England 1529-1689, 1991), founded the Centre of Religious History in 1996, set up an MA in Religious History, and began a series of outstandingly successful international conferences on aspects of early modern English history. Durston's service to St Mary's and distinction as a scholar were recognised by his appointment to a personal chair in 2002.

Chris Durston's scholarship was infused by a warm humanity, and underpinned by a deep spirituality which was all the more profound for being thoughtful and reflective. His own Roman Catholic faith never prevented his being fair to the Puritans about whom he wrote: rather the reverse, for he could empathise with their ambitions, which he took seriously. His work also reflected those personal qualities which made him such a staunch friend, and also informed his work for Relate, the counselling service.

He was honest, plain-speaking yet tactful, understanding and full of insight, kind and always fun to be with, for he had a wonderful, dry sense of humour. Learning how seriously ill he was only four weeks before his death, he typically quipped that even hypochondriacs get it right sometimes.

Chris did extensive work for the Quality Assurance Agency concerned with teaching in Higher Education. He also served as co-chairman of the History at the Universities Defence Group (HUDG). Seeking a new challenge, he moved to the University of Plymouth in 2004, little knowing that he had less than a year to live. It was characteristic of his energy and enterprise that at the time of his death he had four pieces in the publication pipeline, was planning a new MA, and had embarked on a book on the history of popular music.

Ralph Houlbrooke and Frank Tallett