Butterfield, Sir Herbert

Historian, born on 7 October 1900 at Oxenhope, Yorks. He abandoned ideas of entering the Methodist ministry in favour of an academic career, but served as a local preacher until 1936. He was educated at Cambridge, where he became Fellow (1923-1955) and Master (1955-1968) of Peterhouse. He was Professor of Modern History (1944-1963) and Regius Professor (1963-1968), and from 1959 to 1961 was Vice-Chancellor of the University. He brought his Christian faith and his historical scholarship into fruitful interplay in his Christianity and History (1949), Christianity in European History (1951) and Christianity, Diplomacy and War (1953). His special period was the reign of George III, but he ranged widely from The Whig Interpretation of History (1931) to The Origins of Modern Science 1300-1800 (1949). He was knighted in 1965 and received an honorary DLitt from Cambridge in 1974, in addition to a number of other honorary degrees. He died at Sawston, Cambridge on 20 July 1979.

Most widely remembered is the conclusion to his Christianity and History, which originated as a series of lectures for the Cambridge Divinity Faculty: 'There are times when we can never meet the future with sufficient elasticity of mind, especially if we are locked in the contemporary systems of thought. We can do worse than remember a principle which both gives us a firm rock and leaves us the maximum elasticity for our minds, the principle, Hold to Christ and for the rest be totally uncommitted.'


'When he thought a historian to be pretentious whether by writing history before he had read the sources or by turning it into journalism or by thinking history warranted him in being a prophet or by allowing pride to block understanding of the past or by pretending to know more than he did or by pontificating or cheapening or just being unplesant, Butterfield could be devastating. It was partly an intellectual integrity so absolute that at moments it frightened.'

(Owen Chadwick, Memorial Address, quoted in PWHS46 (1988) p.184)

  • Telegraph, 23 July 1979
  • Methodist Recorder, 2 Aug 1979
  • J. Munsey Turner, 'The Christian and the Study of History: Sir Herbert Butterfield', in Proceedings, 46 pp.1-12
  • Robert Clouse, in Michael Bauman and Martin Innis Klauber (eds.), Historians of the Christian Tradition... (Nashville, 1995) pp.519-29
  • Regis Cabral, 'Herbert Butterfield as a Christian historian of science', in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, vol. 27 (1996) pp.547-64
  • Malcolm Ray Thorp, Herbert Butterfield and the Reinterpretation of the Christian historical perspective (Lewiston, 1997)
  • David R. Owen, 'Sir Herbert Butterfield on Christianity and History', in Richard Sykes (ed.), God's Own Story? Some trends in Methodist historiography (Oxford, 2003)
  • Carl Thomas McIntire, Herbert Butterfield: historian as dissenter (New Haven, 2004)
  • Keith C. Sewell, Herbert Butterfield and the Interpretation of History (Houndmills, 2005)
  • Gertrude Himmelfarb, 'Herbert Butterfield: the historian as non-moralist', in W.R. Louis (ed.), Yet More Adventures with Britannia: Personalities, politics and culture in Britain (2005) pp.219-33
  • Herbert Butterfield, The International Thought of Herbert Butterfield, edited by Karl W. Schweizer and Paul Sharp (Basingstoke, 2007)
  • Michael Bentley, The Life and Thought of Herbert Butterfield: history, science and God (Cambridge, 2011)
  • Oxford DNB


Entry written by: JAN
Category: Person
Comment on this entry