Obituary: Professor John Kenyon

Neil McKendrick
Wednesday 10 January 1996 01:02

John Kenyon was one of Britain's leading scholars of 17th-century English history. He had held chairs at the universities of Hull, St Andrews, Kansas and Columbia, he published eight substantial scholarly books, and was for many years one of the most respected reviewers of history for the books pages of the Observer.

That bare outline of facts gives little sense of a man whose increasingly Falstaffian figure, trenchant judgements and sardonic sense of humour were known throughout the scholarly world.

I first encountered John Kenyon when he was one of a glittering quintet of historians teaching at Christ's College, Cambridge, in the mid-1950s. The others were Jack Plumb, Rupert Hall, Frank Spooner and Barry Supple. At that time these five dons had received little recognition, but they went on to produce one knighthood, two masterships of Cambridge colleges, two Ford lecturers, four Fellows of the British Academy, five Doctors of Letters and, of course, five professors. But, Jack Plumb apart, it was John Kenyon's teaching which most people remember best. I, for one, was so impressed by being supervised by him in his vast three-sided red supervision chair that when he left for a professorship at Hull I bought it from him and have taught another 33 generations of Cambridge students in it.

Kenyon was a product of King Edward VII Grammar School in Sheffield and then Sheffield University. When he appeared at Christ's in 1954 he cast himself in the role of mocking outsider, offering caustic criticisms from the fringes of college power in the confident and correct expectation that they would largely be ignored. They were. College meetings would be punctuated by Kenyon's heavy sighs and even heavier disapproving sniffs and brief dismissive comments, but the college men of affairs went about their efficient business untroubled by these background mutterings.

Undistracted by a desire for college preferment or college influence, Kenyon proceeded to lay the solid research foundations for his scholarly career. He was quickly elected into a university lectureship and he published two substantial books in quick succession: first a major study of Robert Spencer, Earl of Sunderland and then his influential general history of the 17th-century monarchy, The Stuarts. Both appeared in 1958.

Elected to the G.F. Grant Professorship at Hull University in 1962, he spent the next 19 years there. As head of department, suddenly he was in a position of power and influence. I recall his sense of surprise that his characteristically severe criticisms of the world around him were suddenly not only listened to with respect, but promptly acted upon. At first he felt uncomfortable with his new powers, but he soon grew into them and used them well. His appointments and promotions at Hull, and later at St Andrews between 1981 and 1987, showed a shrewd and effective judgement. At St Andrews in particular he built up an impressive department of able young historians. He spent the last seven years before retirement as Distinguished Professor of Early Modern British History at the University of Kansas.

During these years away from Cambridge his scholarly reputation steadily expanded. The publication of The Stuart Constitution in 1966, The Popish Plot in 1972, Revolution Principles in 1977, Stuart England in 1978 and The Civil Wars of England in 1988 consolidated his position as a leader in 17th-century studies; and the publication of The History Men in 1983 reached a wider audience, appealing to a readership he had won as a regular reviewer for many years in the Observer. Those initially put off by his Yorkshire bluntness were often surprised to find him a generous as well as an elegant and authoritative reviewer.

Kenyon was not a man who found it easy to enjoy life. He cast himself early in a rather curmudgeonly role, and he took his pleasures savagely rather than urbanely, but he was a very considerable scholar. For thosewho were willing to persist beyond the rough exterior he was a rewarding teacher, a loyal friend and a generous colleague. For those able to keep up with his capacities, he was a memorable drinking companion and a robust conversationalist.

In 1994 he retired from his chair in Kansas and returned to this country. He settled in Norfolk. There he found a congenial place to continue his research at the University of East Anglia. They offered him an honorary research fellowship, and at his death he was close to completing a splendid edition of The Oxford Illustrated History of the English Civil Wars.

John Philipps Kenyon, historian: born Sheffield 18 June 1927; Fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge 1954-62; Lecturer in History, Cambridge University 1955-62; G.F. Grant Professor of History, Hull University 1962-81; Ford's Lecturer in English History, Oxford University 1975-76; FBA 1981; Professor of Modern History, St Andrews University 1981-87; Joyce and Elizabeth Hall Distinguished Professor in Early Modern British History, University of Kansas 1987-94 (Emeritus); married 1962 Angela Ewert (nee Venables; one son, two daughters, one stepdaughter); died Norwich 6 January 1996.

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