Obituaries : Professor Sir Geoffrey Elton

Conrad Russell
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:42

The first time I met Geoffrey Elton was when I was a postgraduate in 1960, writes Conrad Russell [further to the obituary by Professor Patrick Collinson and Tam Dalyell, 9 December]. After addressing the Stubbs Society in Oxford, he faced a concer ted assault, begun "while Lawrence is getting his anti-tank gun into position". I rashly wandered into the cross-fire and defended him.

The next encounter was when he reviewed my first book, which I remember as my first experience of Test match bowling.

One senior colleague told me: "Geoffrey is very attached to his Tudor Revolution", and another told me: "whatever anyone says about Geoffrey, he does want to get at the truth."

Both those judgements were accurate. Geoffrey Elton, though he fought the good fight with considerable vigour, enjoyed being answered back, and was bitterly disappointed if the batsman played no stroke. One could enjoy with him the same camaraderie of swapping jerseys after the match that one can with a government minister one has just been denouncing. This sporting instinct was one of the things about him which creeated real warmth. I remember him once at Atlanta in 1982, speaking at what would have been 3am by the time at which he got up (and he hated late nights as I do early mornings), trailing his coat at Jack Hexter like the matador he was.

When Jack Hexter did not rise to the challenge, Geoffrey Elton came running over to him as soon as the meeting ended, in real and genuine anxiety about his health. It was like watching a five-year-old finding his best friend is not fit to come out and fight.

Geoffrey's other great glory was his devotion to accurate and critical use of sources. Whatever he said, however open to conceptual challenge it might be, was securely anchored in sources, usually in the Public Record Office. He was a stickler for assessing the value and the provenance of a source. Many a time, when wondering what a source would do for me, I have heard the voice of Geoffrey over my shoulder. I have not always agreed with it, but, when I have not, the sandbags and the pill-boxes have been built with peculiar care.

I will still ask what he would have said, but when I think I will not have to defend myself against him any more, I think that some of the fun will have gone out of research.

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