Obituary: Maurice Ashley
Tuesday 04 October 1994
MAURICE ASHLEY had two distinguished careers. As the author of more than 30 books, most of them on the 17th century, he showed a rare gift for presenting historical topics to the general reader with a combination of liveliness, clarity and sound judgement. He was also an innovative journalist who edited the Listener during much of that journal's prime. The two careers fructified each other: his historical scholarship contributed depth and integrity to his editorial work, while the professional preoccupation with current affairs and intellectual trends sharpened his sense of what was likely to interest intelligent non-specialists who read history for pleasure.
The son of Sir Percy Ashley, a successful civil servant, he was educated at St Paul's School and New College, Oxford, where he took First Class honours in modern history. He stayed there to study for his DPhil degree under that fine scholar and teacher David Ogg, and it was a disappointment to him at the time that the college had no vacancy as a tutor and fellow. Certainly, the book that he made from his doctoral thesis, Financial and Commercial Policy under the Cromwellian Protectorate (1934), could well have laid the foundation of a successful academic career, for no subsequent work of his broke so much new ground, and thanks to its close and accurate scholarship it still holds its value 60 years after publication.
As it was, another opportunity beckoned, for in 1929 Winston Churchill was looking for a research assistant to devil in the archives for him when he was writing his huge work on Marlborough. This task occupied Ashley for the next four years and, though Churchill acknowledged his contribution generously, only fellow- historians can estimate the degree to which Ashley kept the great man on the historical rails. Those of us who drew him on the subject listened in fascination to his reminiscences of Chruchill's working methods and personality, much of which he fortunately set down in Churchill as Historian (1968).
Ashley joined the editorial staff of the Manchester Guardian in 1933, and moved from there to the Times four years later. He still found time for historical writing, and in 1937 published Oliver Cromwell, the Conservative Dictator. For once, his judgement of the past was over- coloured by the preoccupations of the present, but in portraying the Protector as a political ancestor of Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin he was in the company of Sir Ernest Barker, John Buchan and Churchill himself, to name only three. In 1939 he brought out his own short book on Marlborough. He was briefly the editor of Britain Today in 1939-40, but left it to enlist as a Guardsman. He was transferred to the Intelligence Corps, in which he rose to the rank of major.
Shortly after his release Ashley began his long and fruitful association with the Listener, as Deputy Editor from 1946 to 1958, and as Editor from then until he retired in 1967. He made that journal into something much broader than a vehicle for the text of selected broadcasts and for the criticism of radio and (later) television programmes. Its book reviews in particular commanded great respect and attention, and young contributors felt flattered to be invited to appear in the company of such as TS Eliot, William Plomer and Roy Harrod. Thanks very largely to Ashley, the Listener played a leading role in killing off the 19th- century tradition of anonymous reviewing. The Times Literary Supplement was appalled, but in due course went over to signed reviews itself.
Through these busy years the flow of historical works continued. Some were textbooks, such as Louis XIV and the Greatness of France (1946), Great Britain to 1688 (1961), and a very widely read volume, England in the 17th Century (1952), in the 'Pelican History of England'. Some others involved considerable research. He wrote nothing better than John Wildman: plotter and postmaster (1947), a sympathetic but not uncritical study of the opportunist Leveller who finally achieved respectability as William III's Postmaster-
General. Cromwell's Generals, another substantial and valuable work, followed in 1954.
The next important book, The Greatness of Oliver Cromwell, came three years later. By this time he had radically revised his earlier view of Cromwell as a prototype of modern dictators, and with the same courage and integrity that moved his friend Dame Veronica Wedgwood to replace her earlier study of the Earl of Strafford with a completley new and altogether better book on the man, he too produced a totally fresh appraisal. The result remains arguably the most recommendable medium- length biography of Cromwell since Sir Charles Firth's classic of 1900. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 (1966) also enjoyed great and deserved success. Ashley's other books of this period, including The Stuarts in Love (1963) and Life in Stuart England (1964), were slighter but highly readable.
With his retirement, and with the help of a two-year research fellowship at Loughborough University, Ashley's rate of publication notably increased. Space forbids even a mention of all his books, and some indeed are reworkings, for a different readership or with a different emphasis, of topics that he had treated earlier. But the tally includes expert life-and-times studies of Charles II, James II, Prince Rupert, General Monk (1977; one of his best books), and most unexpectedly King John and William I. Ashley's deep interest in character is displayed at its ripest in Charles I and Oliver Cromwell (1987), and there is no falling-off in his last book, The Battle of Naseby and the Fall of King Charles I (1992), though he was 85 when it appeared. Meanwhile, his work had been receiving the recognition that it deserved: the CBE in 1978, and in the following year a DLitt from his old university, which particularly pleased him.
Maurice Ashley was generous with his time, despite his many commitments. He was a devoted President of the Cromwell Association from 1961 to 1977, and he readily accepted invitations to talk to undergraduate and other historical societies. His warm and kindly nature made him many friends, whom he loved to entertain at the Reform Club, in London. He was blessed with two happy marriages, the first (which lasted over 50 years) to Phyllis Griffiths, the second to Patricia Entract. She survives him, together with a son and a daughter from his first marriage.
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