The Rev V. H. H. Green

Former Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford, and one of the originals of George Smiley

Tuesday 25 January 2005 01:00

V. H. H. Green was a Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, for over 30 years and its Rector from 1983 to 1987. For half a century he was something of an Oxford institution - easily recognisable by his taste for multi-patterned shirts, and green or burgundy leather trousers and buckles on his shoes - while he achieved wider celebrity as one of the acknowledged originals of John le Carré's spy George Smiley.

Vivian Hubert Howard Green, historian, schoolmaster, priest and university administrator: born Wembley, Middlesex 18 November 1915; Fellow, St Augustine's College, Canterbury 1939-48; ordained deacon 1939, priest 1940; Chaplain, Exeter School and St Luke's Training College, Exeter 1940-42; Chaplain and Assistant Master, Sherborne School 1942-51; Chaplain, Lincoln College, Oxford 1951-69, Fellow and Tutor in History 1951-83, Senior Tutor 1953-62, 1974-77, Sub-Rector 1970-83, acting Rector 1972-73, Rector 1983-87, Honorary Fellow 1987-2005; died Shipton- under-Wychwood, Oxfordshire 18 January 2005.

V. H. H. Green was a Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, for over 30 years and its Rector from 1983 to 1987. For half a century he was something of an Oxford institution - easily recognisable by his taste for multi-patterned shirts, and green or burgundy leather trousers and buckles on his shoes - while he achieved wider celebrity as one of the acknowledged originals of John le Carré's spy George Smiley.

As a historian he will notably be remembered by generations of A-level students, who learnt about the Early Modern period from his best-selling book Renaissance and Reformation, first published in 1952.

Vivian Hubert Howard Green was born in 1915, the only child of Hubert and Edith Green. His father owned confectionery shops first in Wembley, north-west London, and then on the Isle of Wight. Later his mother took on a home for the elderly at Minehead in Somerset. Green was not easily drawn on his childhood experiences, some of which were clearly unhappy for him. He was not close to his father, whose personal conduct put strain on the marriage. His mother strongly encouraged him in his studies and ensured, by her financial prudence, that he was able to go to Bradfield College in Berkshire.

There, Green excelled at history and won a scholarship to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, in 1933, where he was a Goldsmiths' Exhibitioner and secured a First in both parts of the Tripos. He specialised in ecclesiastical history and became the Lightfoot Scholar. Postgraduate studies followed with a Gladstone Research Studentship at St Deiniol's College, Hawarden, in North Wales. By 1939 he was lecturing and teaching ecclesiastical history at St Augustine's College, Canterbury, to Anglican ordinands. He was himself ordained in the same year by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang.

In 1945 he published his first book, Bishop Reginald Pecock, a scholarly work on the heretical 15th-century Bishop of Chichester, building on an essay for which he had won the Thirlwall Prize in 1941.

However, by then Green's talents were being used to teach younger pupils. He became Chaplain of Exeter School and then Chaplain and Assistant Master at Sherborne. It was there that he met and taught David Cornwell (John le Carré), whose home circumstances were extremely difficult. Green's civility, sensitivity to others, insight into the vagaries of the human condition, sympathy for those with problems and quiet humour made him outstanding both in teaching and pastoral care.

It was for these qualities that he was made Chaplain of Lincoln College in 1952, the college at which Cornwell was himself an undergraduate. Green had no connection with the Secret Intelligence Service but many aspects of George Smiley's personality could be identified in him. "[Smiley] grew out of two people," John le Carré told James Naughtie in 1999: Green, "my old friend, tutor and don who was chaplain at my public school and my university", and John Bingham (Lord Clanmorris). "I stole a few of Vivian's many attributes and awarded them to Smiley," le Carré wrote in the college magazine in 1995:

Which ones? His myopia, certainly. And his ability to disappear into the crowd like a shrimp in the sand, and his powers of observing and remembering which any spy would envy. But most of all it was the strength of his intellect and spirit . . .

Green was now writing books for school students and the general reader. The Hanoverians: 1714-1815 came out in 1948 along with From St Augustine to William Temple: eight studies in Christian leadership, to be followed by Renaissance and Reformation: a survey of European history between 1450 and 1660 (1952), The Later Plantagenets: a survey of English history between 1307 and 1485 (1955), Luther and the Reformation (1964) and Medieval Civilization in Western Europe (1971). These were not new scholarship but were well written and sold, particularly Renaissance and Reformation which ran into several editions and many reprints. It remained in demand across the world for several decades and Green had eventually to insist to his publishers that it could not be revised further.

The extra income enabled him to purchase a medieval wool merchant's house in Burford and a Mercedes-Benz open-top sports car. Typically, neither was thereafter improved or replaced. The car aged with him, the house was left without central heating in the condition derived from a sensitive restoration in the 1920s. To it came a procession of friends, undergraduates and godchildren for rest and recreation, helped by his home-cooked food, good wine, conversation, country walks and visits to historic houses and churches. He made himself available to help the local clergy.

In the summer Green would travel with a friend to Switzerland to walk, the journeys punctuated by stops to sample French gastronomy and church and domestic architecture. He was not a mountaineer but the Swiss Alps and its people enchanted him and he explored them thoroughly and had a particular affection for the Bernese Oberland and the Val Bregaglia. He wrote a book, The Swiss Alps, for Batsford in 1961. Prints and photographs of alpine scenes and carved bears and small wooden chalets were dotted amongst the antiques and books in his house and reflected the pleasure he derived from his visits.

Green's work at Lincoln changed over time. He held the chaplaincy until 1969, during which period he had two spells as Senior Tutor and became a Doctor of Divinity of both Cambridge and Oxford in 1958. He then became Sub-Rector from 1970 to 1983. The demands on him as a teacher and, increasingly, an administrator did not lessen his output as an academic historian but he focused on subjects that had seized his interest.

Oxford Common Room, a study of Lincoln College under its 19th-century Rector Mark Pattison, and the conflicting stresses and influences at work in turning Oxford into a modern university, was published in 1957. He returned to Pattison in 1985 with Love in a Cool Climate: the letters of Mark Pattison and Meta Bradley, 1879-1884 and again in 1988 with Memoirs of an Oxford Don. Green explored the private life of Pattison, whose intellectual renown was only one facet of a complex and emotionally unfulfilled man, providing an insight into Victorian middle-class mores and values.

Green wrote two books on John Wesley, who had been at the college: The Young Mr Wesley (1961) and John Wesley (1964). There were also works relating to the history of universities: Religion at Oxford and Cambridge (1964), The Universities (1969), A History of Oxford University (1974) and The Commonwealth of Lincoln College, 1427-1977 (1979).

In 1983, after a short period as a visiting professor at the University of North Carolina, Green succeeded Lord Trend as Rector at Lincoln, a tribute to his outstanding service and popularity with both senior and junior members.

His retirement in 1987 did not, however, mark the end of his career. In 1978 he had met William Scoular, a Canadian graduate member of the college, student of English literature and aspiring playwright and director. Scoular persuaded Green to take the part of Canon Chasuble in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest at the Oxford Playhouse in 1979, to critical acclaim.

Their ensuing friendship lightened Green's later years and Scoular's influence took him into new areas of interest. He travelled to Canada and they published jointly A Question of Guilt (1988), an investigation into the background to a sensational and macabre murder in Toronto in 1985 of a teenage girl by her boyfriend, which was subsequently turned by Scoular into a film ( The Life and Death of Mary Eaton, 2003). The book attracted criticism for its subject matter but the intention was serious. This interest in human psychology was pursued in The Madness of Kings (1993) considering the impact of health and mental health in particular upon personal and political history.

Green's last work was a return to his roots, A New History of Christianity (1996). This was a great overview, praised by Lord Runcie for its honesty. The epilogue to the book encapsulated Green's own faith, an enquiring Anglican agnosis as to Christianity's supernatural aspects coupled with deep adherence to the ethic of Christian love.

In his last years Vivian Green was beset with increasing infirmity, including a loss of sight that made reading almost impossible. His mind was still sharp but planned works remained unexecuted. He maintained his independence, living on his own until constrained to enter a care home in his final 18 months. His inactivity depressed him but he maintained a great stoicism.

Dominic Grieve

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