Obituary: Rohan Butler

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Rohan Butler, Fellow of All Souls, Oxford, from 1938 to 1984 and Historical Adviser to the Foreign Secretary from 1963 to 1982, made one of the most significant and, at a length of over 1,100 pages, monumental contributions to 18th-century studies.

Choiseul: father and son, 1719-1754, published in 1980, was much more than a study of the early years of Louis XV's Lorraine-born chief minister; it was a pioneering attempt to break loose from a Gallocentric view of continental history and to explore a cosmopolitan society for which the concept of the "nation-state" had very little meaning. The Choiseul volume was as much a portrait of overlapping European elites as it was the prelude to what should have been a multi- volume biography of one of the dominant figures of 18th- century political history.

Butler was uniquely suited to this demanding task. Born in London, he was raised in Geneva, where his father, Sir Harold Butler, a member of the Ormonde clan, was head of the International Labour Office. Although he was educated at Eton, the long periods of time spent with his family in Switzerland helped to produce a very subtle and nuanced view of European political culture and to perfect his expert command of languages, spoken French and German, read Italian and Castilian.

Following a first class degree at Balliol College, Oxford, he was elected, in 1938, to a fellowship at All Souls - as had been his father, one generation earlier - and All Souls remained one of the two centres of his life. The next year, 1939, he published his analysis of contemporary German history, The Roots of National Socialism, which attempted to place the Nazi movement within the broader structures of German culture.

During the Second World War Butler was on the staff of the Ministry of Information, transferring to the Foreign Office in 1944. His life would now remain a fugal exchange between public service and university scholarship. His commitment to the 18th century was undiminished, but following the war Butler, from his base at All Souls, participated, on the invitation of Sir Llewellyn Woodward, in the preparation of the Documents of British Foreign Policy, of which he was senior editor from 1955 to 1965. These volumes confirmed Butler's fundamental belief in the centrality for historical research of primary, archival documentation, the bedrock of his work on Choiseul.

Butler was thus an historian of the 20th century - one who felt a strong moral obligation, as a scholar, to speak out against the policy of appeasement - but also one of early-modern Europe, an outstanding, magisterial figure in the distinguished British tradition of commentators on the continental ancien regime. These two academic commitments co-existed happily with his more public role as Historical Adviser to the Secretary of State for Foreign (and later Foreign and Commonwealth) Affairs from 1963 to 1982, a post which had remained vacant since 1929 and which was revived specifically for him. His enthusiasm for his duties here stemmed from a deeply rooted belief in the beneficial contribution which historians, particularly historians of early-modern Europe, could make to the formulation of contemporary foreign policy. Events since 1989 proved him to be right.

Rohan Butler's life changed dramatically in 1956 with his marriage to Lucy Byron. The sister of Robert Byron, the travel writer and one of the founders of the Georgian Group - a man who by Butler's own admission had made a significant intellectual impression upon him long before his marriage - Lucy Butler helped to sharpen her husband's interest in cultural history, a theme which is strongly present in his work on Choiseul, a great 18th- century patron of painting, architecture and music.

As Lady of the Manor of White Notley in Essex, Lucy Butler had her own set of commitments and priorities, which enabled Rohan Butler to devote time and energy to All Souls, of which he was sub-warden from 1961 to 1963, without the resentment which so many partners of Oxford Fellows justifiably feel about the demands posed by the not always rational sets of collegial responsibilities and ceremonies.

As Lucy Butler helped to sustain her husband in his activities, he fully supported hers, on the local level in Essex but also in the preservation of Robert Byron's literary legacy. This especially united marriage, lasting 40 years, stands as a model of academic partnership, profound emotional commitment and lively interest in each other's work seamlessly entwined.

Butler's heart-felt commitment to White Notley Hall - which, with All Souls, made the twin magnets of his loyalty - to his wife and to his three step-daughters, helped to ease the pain he felt when leaving All Souls, after 46 years as a Fellow, on his retirement in 1984, at which point he became Fellow Emeritus.

His commanding position in 18th-century studies had been established in 1980 by the publication of Choiseul. The density and meticulous integrity of research, based upon a wide range of public and private archives, underscored Butler's determination to view historical writing from, as he often said, "the inside", from the perspective of the deployers of power, their priorities and their biases, not from "the outside", where others misguidedly attempt to tidy history into overarching causal themes in a linear, determinist and, ultimately, moralising structure. This approach was shared by two of his close friends, Hugh Murray Baillie and Ragnhild Hatton, and the work of all three scholars has made a profound impact on late-20th-century historiography.

Already honoured by his nomination in 1966 as CMG and in 1981 by the award of an Oxford DLitt, Butler received the special distinction, exceptionally rare for a foreigner, as a Laureate of the Academie des Sciences Morales et Politiques in Paris, in recognition of the enormous achievement of Choiseul. His friends and admirers were surprised that other British academic acknowledgements eluded him. Recognition in France should not obscure the fact that this volume was really a study of European, not exclusively French, history, and its sequel, tragically never finished, devoted to Choiseul's years as ambassador in Rome and Vienna would have expanded upon his cosmopolitan theme.

The last sentence, on page 1,078, of Choiseul: father and son reads: "The diplomatic and political career of the Duke of Choiseul had begun." This marked down Butler's view that his mammoth work was simply a prelude to a broader project, a second and even larger volume on Choiseul's ambassadorial years, a third on his tenure as Louis XV's chief minister and possibly, or so some friends urged, a fourth on Choiseul in retirement and on his activities as a patron of the arts. None of this will now be realised, nor will his dissection of the Choiseul system as the source of a distinct strand of 19th- century democratic liberalism.

A man of abundant generosity to his friends, two articles included in Festschriften to other scholars will support his academic reputation: his contribution on "paradiplomacy", a concept which he defined, in Studies in Diplomatic History in Honour of G.P. Gooch OM, and his startling revelation of the intricacies of personal diplomacy between monarchs in the 18th century which will be published early in 1997 in the memorial volume honouring Ragnhild Hatton, Royal and Republican Sovereignty in Early Modern Europe. A third article, on the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, in the New Cambridge Modern History, directs attention to the breadth of Butler's chronological canvas.

Rohan Butler was a towering figure, his imposing physical size and presence complementing his penetrating intellect and his exacting methodology. He combined many worlds in one life and one career and he will be deeply missed as both a formidable personality in the theatre of Oxford life and as a scholar who commanded the deepest respect in the world of international erudition.

Rohan D'Olier Butler, historian: born London 21 January 1917; Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford 1938-84 (Emeritus), Sub-Warden 1961-63; Historical Adviser to the Foreign Secretary 1963-82; CMG 1966; married 1956 Lucy Byron (three stepdaughters); died Chelmsford 30 October 1996.