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Sir Lewis Namier, Sir John Neale and the Shaping of the History of Parliament


  • D.W. Hayton

  • For permission to consult and to quote from documents in their possession or custody, I am grateful to: Mrs Mary Clapinson; Mr W.A. Noblett; Professor Blair Worden; the clerk of the records of parliament; the comptroller of Her Majesty's Stationery Office; the director, Churchill Archives Centre; the director, Institute of Historical Research, London University; the director, History of Parliament; the keeper of manuscripts, Cambridge University Library; the keeper of the National Records of Scotland; the keeper of western manuscripts; the Bodleian Library; the Lewis Walpole Library; Yale University; Magdalen College, Oxford; manuscripts and archives, Yale University Library; the mistress and fellows, Girton College, Cambridge; the National Library of Wales; the trustees of the History of Parliament Trust; the trustees of the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, King's College, London; the university archivist, University of Reading; and the university librarian and director, the John Rylands University Library, University of Manchester. I also wish to thank Professor Colin Kidd and Mr John Milner for their advice.


When the project for a collaborative, publicly-funded History of Parliament was relaunched in 1951, with the support of a substantial grant-in-aid from the treasury, academic direction was entrusted to an ‘editorial board’ of professional historians, the most influential of whom were Sir John Neale and Sir Lewis Namier. Both were committed to the technique of collective biography, but had radically-different views of the structure and scope of the History. For Neale, the research would provide quantitative answers to specific historical questions, arising from his essentially whiggish view of constitutional development. Namier held to a ‘sociological’ method, studying the lives of MPs as a means of recreating the world of the governing classes. In practice, Namier set no limits to his inquiry: historical questions would be determined by the evidence. Faced with these conflicting approaches the ‘editorial board’ failed to define the purpose of the History. In practice, because Namier's section made more progress, his view of the History triumphed over Neale's. But as deadlines drew near the treasury began to exert pressure. Conservative ministers (especially Harold Macmillan) and civil servants, were sharply critical of the apparently open-ended nature of the History, and the trustees, who bore ultimate responsibility for the project, were anxious to bring volumes to publication. In consequence, Namier's original ambition was curtailed and, after his death in 1960, his own section was completed by his assistant, John Brooke, in a more restricted format.