Professor Patrick Collinson
Professor Patrick Collinson, the former Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, who died on September 28 aged 82, was one of the most eminent scholars of English religious history in the post-Reformation period.
His first major monograph, published as The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (1967), transformed the way historians conceived the nature and role of puritanism; meanwhile, his essay The Monarchical Republic of Queen Elizabeth I (1987) instigated a proliferation of research into, and lively debate about, quasi-republican aspects of Tudor and Stuart England.
In a field of history overpopulated with warring prima donnas, Collinson managed the rare achievement of having a profound impact on the debate while managing not to fall out with others working in the same area. This is because he always combined rigorous scholastic methods with academic integrity and intellectual generosity.
For centuries, the history of the English Reformation was written for a Protestant audience. The notion that Protestantism was a friend to progress against reaction, and to civil and parliamentary liberty against tyranny, did not make for impartial history. It was Collinson, more than anyone, who moved away from this approach and analysed Protestantism like any other religion. He moved away, too, from the Nonconformist tradition which, by confusing Tudor and early-Stuart Protestantism with the Dissenting tradition that replaced it, missed the dynamism of the earlier movement.
Collinson argued that the Elizabethan Puritan movement arose from discontent with the Religious Settlement of 1559 and the desire among many of the clergy and laity for a further reformation. The more radical wished to change the structure of the Church, substituting a presbyterian order for episcopacy. They became, in effect, a revolutionary movement whose clandestine organisation and agitation through Parliament constituted a serious threat to the state. Puritanism, in other words, amounted to much more than a peripheral deviance from the church of the Elizabethan Settlement. It was, in effect, the most dynamic force within the Church of England.
In The Monarchical Republic of Queen Elizabeth I, Collinson set out his paradoxical thesis that "Elizabethan England was a republic that happened to be a monarchy: or vice versa". Elizabethans, he maintained, thought of England as a "species of republic – [a] state which enjoyed a measure of self-direction but with a constitution which also provided for the rule of a single person by hereditary right".
This dichotomy, he found, was not just a matter of thought, but also of practice, from the quasi-independent institutions of local government up to Elizabeth's own councillors, who occasionally acted independently of the queen and sometimes contrary to her wishes. The essay opened up a whole new field of inquiry and inspired a collection called The Monarchical Republic of Early Modern England: Essays in Response to Patrick Collinson, edited by John McDiarmid and published in 2007.
Patrick Collinson was born in Ipswich on August 10 1929. His mother, Belle, had qualified as the first woman lawyer in Scotland, but instead of practising law she became a missionary in Algeria, which soon led to marriage to his father, Cecil Collinson, an evangelical Quaker and a middle-aged widower with four children, who had given up his gents' outfitters business in Bury St Edmunds to do missionary work. Collinson described his home as an "evangelical hothouse where the second coming was expected daily" and where he seemed destined from birth to be a missionary in the Muslim world.
A series of accidents brought his father new responsibilities in London, and Patrick's childhood was spent on the move – from Ipswich to Islington then, when his parents were overseas, to a Suffolk farm, to boarding school in Kent and back to London in time for the Blitz. After being evacuated to Huntingdon, he ended up at King's School, Ely.
By this time the missionary idea had faded somewhat, and Patrick conceived the ambition of becoming a marine biologist. But his performance in Mathematics at School Certificate was so lamentable that he was advised to concentrate on the arts.
He won an exhibition to read History at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he arrived after two years of National Service with the RAF. For the first two years his academic studies came a poor fourth to other interests. First was religion – he was a deeply committed member of the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (Ciccu) – rowed stroke in Pembroke's first eight and became a keen member of the university mountaineering club.
In his third year he began to take the subject more seriously, sharing a small special subject class in 17th- and 18th-century ecclesiastical history, taught by Norman Sykes, Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History, with, among others, the cricketer and future Bishop of Liverpool David Shepherd and John Elliott, who would, like Collinson, go on to serve as a regius professor.
After graduating with a First, Collinson decided to do doctoral research in London, supervised by the Tudor historian Sir John Neale. Neale suggested the subject of Elizabethan Puritanism because he thought it would be useful as background for the second volume of his Elizabeth I and Her Parliaments, on which he was at the time engaged. But Neale, Collinson recalled, turned out to be a "dreadful supervisor" who allowed him to submit a thesis of more than half a million words, prompting the university to introduce an upper limit of 80,000.
Collinson found that his status as Neale's "blue-eyed boy" did not help when it came to applying for academic jobs, as Neale was roundly hated by much of the academic establishment. So, following brief spells as a research assistant, he took himself off to Sudan, where he had been offered a lectureship at the University of Khartoum. Arriving just in time for Suez, he soon met, and in 1960 married, Elizabeth Selwyn. Their honeymoon in Ethiopia coincided with an abortive uprising against Emperor Haile Selassie.
By this time Collinson had become more ecumenical in his religious outlook, and in 1960 he decided to offer himself for ordination. He was due to start at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, but when told that his fate would probably be to teach Church history at a seminary, he thought better of the idea and accepted the offer of a lectureship at King's College, London.
His years at King's were happy ones. His students included the future Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and in 1967 he published his first book, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement. It attracted a typically waspish review from AL Rowse, who observed: "It is well known that Mr Collinson has been working for some time on this thoroughly rebarbative topic, and we must all be grateful that he has finally got it off his chest." Fortunately, Hugh Trevor Roper and Christopher Hill were more enthusiastic.
In 1969 Collinson moved abroad again, as Professor of History (and soon head of department) at the University of Sydney, New South Wales. The Sydney history department was one of the largest in the world and to begin with Collinson enjoyed his time there. But in the early 1970s post-modernism began spreading "like a fungus" (his words), and in 1976 he returned to England as Professor of History at the University of Kent at Canterbury. In 1978 he was invited to deliver the Ford Lectures at Oxford, an honour that led to his election to a fellowship at the British Academy in 1982.
In 1984, faced with cuts to his department, Collinson applied for the chair in Modern History at Sheffield. Three years later a letter arrived from No 10 Downing Street inviting him to take over as Regius Professor of Modern History after Sir Geoffrey Elton's retirement in 1988. He arrived after spending a year as a visiting fellow at All Souls, Oxford, and then as Andrew W Mellon Fellow at the Huntington Library, California, taking a fellowship at Trinity College.
Collinson's other works include Archbishop Grindal, 1519-1583: The Struggle for a Reformed Church (1979); and his Ford lectures, published as The Religion of Protestants: the Church in English Society 1559-1625 (1979). Then came The Godly People: essays on English Protestantism and Puritanism (1983); The Birthpangs of Protestant England: religious and cultural change in the 16th and 17th centuries (1988); and Elizabethan Essays (1994).
After retiring from the Regius Professorship in 1996 he went on to publish Lady Margaret Beaufort and Her Professors of Divinity at Cambridge: 1502–1649 (2003); Elizabethans (2003); and a study of Elizabeth I in the Very Interesting People Series (2007). He was editor or joint editor of several other books. His memoirs, History of a History Man, were published this year.
In his last major work, The Reformation (2003), the fruit of a lifetime's reflection which demonstrated his gifts as a storyteller, Collinson extended his perspective to aspects of the European Reformation to which English events belonged.
For him the central European figure was Luther, rather than Calvin ("that quintessential control-freak"). Luther, he argued, changed the course of history not by building political or theological systems but by projecting on to the world around him his impassioned discovery that only absolute faith – not the good works and outward worship hallowed by the Church – can bring salvation.
But Collinson emphasised that "the Reformation was not, in its own eyes, a novelty". The irony of the Reformation was that in the name of shoring up the old order, its dogmatism unintentionally gave birth to the living traditions of civil and political liberty.
Collinson remained a communicant member of the Church of England, but was much pained by the bitter disagreements that threatened to pull the Church apart in recent years. The Church of England, he had come to believe, was a broad church or it was nothing.
Patrick Collinson was appointed CBE in 1996.
He and his wife had two sons and two daughters.