Sir John Elliott, Oxford Regius Professor of Modern History who as a historian of imperial Spain boldly opened up new areas of research – obituary

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JH Elliott leaving his personal legacy at the security box number 1492 in the Caja de las Letras (Box of Letters) security chamber of the Cervantes Institute, Madrid, October 2017 - Oscar Gonzalez/NurPhoto via Getty Images
JH Elliott leaving his personal legacy at the security box number 1492 in the Caja de las Letras (Box of Letters) security chamber of the Cervantes Institute, Madrid, October 2017 - Oscar Gonzalez/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Sir John Elliott, the historian JH Elliott, who has died aged 91, was Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford from 1990 to 1997; his studies of the Iberian peninsula and the Spanish Empire transformed our understanding of the problems confronting Spain in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and of the attempts made by the country’s leaders to avert its decline.

British academic interest in Spain had a long tradition, but one which had been interrupted by the Spanish Civil War. Franco’s Spain remained taboo for most academics and the country’s history and culture were all but ignored in British universities, where historians tended to subscribe to the stereotypical image of “Black Spain” – a priest-ridden land almost cut off from outside influences.

Elliott himself knew little about the country until 1950 when, as an undergraduate at Cambridge, he visited Spain for the first time and was captivated by a society which “amidst all the sadness of the post-war period, gave the impression of possessing an extraordinary basic vitality amid its austerity”.

This feeling was intensified by a visit to the Prado museum in Madrid, where his attention was drawn to Velázquez’s striking portrait of the Count-Duke of Olivares, the chief minister of the Spanish monarchy and empire for 22 years, from the accession of Philip IV in 1621 to 1643.

Although he had only a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish, Elliott was fired by a desire to learn more. His interest was also stimulated by the thought that “the predicament of the last great imperial generation of Spaniards after the triumphs of the 16th century was not entirely dissimilar to the collective predicament of my own generation after the triumphs of the 19th and early 20th centuries.”

Elliott’s interest in making comparisons between then and now and between 17th-century Spain and its neighbours became a constant theme of his work. He showed that the nation’s decline in the 17th century was not, as some had suggested, a symptom of some sort of cultural defect peculiar to Spain, but a manifestation of a more general crisis affecting Europe in the 17th century.

Elliott’s masterpiece, The Count-Duke of Olivares: the statesman in an age of decline, appeared in 1986 and won instant acclaim, not only because of the contemporary relevance of his account of how a statesman of an earlier era had struggled to achieve the impossible with diminishing resources, but because of his elegant, lucid prose.

The book’s success made him the obvious candidate for the Regius chair of Modern History at Oxford, to which he was appointed in 1990.

Elliott disapproved of the tendency of many “national” historians to see their subject in isolation and he used his inaugural lecture to call on his colleagues to include an awareness of European and world history in their studies and teaching.

Empires of the Atlantic World explored the simultaneous development of Spanish and English colonies in the New World
Empires of the Atlantic World explored the simultaneous development of Spanish and English colonies in the New World

His interest in broader cultural influences and comparative history was the inspiration behind Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830 (2006), a fascinating account of how the simultaneous development of Spanish and English colonies in the New World was shaped by different cultural and religious traditions and how the British and Spanish themselves responded and were influenced by the peoples and environments they encountered.

John Huxtable Elliott was born at Reading, Berkshire, on June 23 1930. He won a scholarship to Eton, and after National Service went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated with a First in History.

He began his doctoral dissertation on Olivares under Herbert Butterfield, but his early researches were frustrated by the discovery that the personal archive of the Count-Duke had been destroyed in a fire in the palace of the Dukes of Alba. His desolation at the discovery, by his own account, brought him close to suicide.

Hoping it might be possible to salvage something from the wreckage, he took up the suggestion of the Spanish historian Jaume Vicens Vives that he should examine the archives of the crown of Aragon at Barcelona.

Though he had to learn Catalan for the purpose, the archive provided rich material for the Count-Duke’s career as a statesman, enabling Elliott to write the thesis that won him a fellowship at Trinity College, followed in 1957 by an assistant lectureship in the university history faculty.

A further year spent in Barcelona in 1955-56 yielded The Revolt of the Catalans: a study in the decline of Spain 1598-1640 (1963). While writing it, Elliott was invited to write a more general textbook on early modern Spain, and Imperial Spain 1469-1716 (1963) established his commitment to looking at the history of Spain within the major historiographical currents flowing elsewhere in Europe and opened up huge new areas for research.

Imperial Spain 1469-1716 (1963) opened up huge new areas for research
Imperial Spain 1469-1716 (1963) opened up huge new areas for research

These interconnections were also highlighted in his next two books Europe Divided 1559-1598 (1969) and The Old World and the New (1970).

He remained at Cambridge until 1967 when he became Professor of Modern History at King’s College London. Then, in 1973, he moved to America to take up a post as Professor at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton, where he remained for the next 17 years. Here, lighter teaching duties gave him the space to return to the subject of his doctoral thesis.

With José Francisco de la Peña, he published two volumes of Memorials and Letters of the Count-Duke of Olivares (1978-81). They were followed in 1984 by Richelieu and Olivares, which won the American Historical Association’s Gershoy Prize, and two years later by his magisterial biography of the Count-Duke which won Elliott the Wolfson Prize and the Spanish Antonio de Nebrija Prize.

He also found time to work with Jonathan Brown on A Palace for a King: The Buen Retiro and the court of Philip IV, published in 1980 and to publish an erudite collection of essays, Spain and its World 1500-1700.

In his last book, Scots and Catalans: Union and Disunion, (2018), Elliott provided a detailed dual history of two countries, from the late 1400s to the present day, which had had independence referendums in the previous five years, and examined the social, political and historical factors of both pro-independence movements.

“The failure of dialogue is the result of a failure of imagination – of the ability to put oneself into another’s shoes and grasp the power of sentiment,” he wrote. “This failure of imagination has all too often bedevilled relations between Edinburgh and London on the one hand and Madrid and Barcelona on the other, creating an impasse where bridges might otherwise have been built.”

Elliott was a brilliant and committed teacher who combined relaxed direction and an insistence on scholarly rigour. While he expected hard work and had little sympathy for those who claimed to be suffering from writer’s block, he was always ready to counsel restraint when youthful enthusiasm threatened to get the better of discretion.

“My doubts about 250 pages on Alba’s march,” he wrote to one graduate student eager to write a monograph on the odyssey of the Duke and his 10,000 Spaniards in the Netherlands in 1567, “relate particularly to (a) who will publish it? And (b) who will read it?”

Elliott received honorary doctorates from many universities and was the recipient of the Spanish Order of Isabella la Católica, the Grand Cross of Alfonso the Wise, the Gold Medal of Fine Arts and the Prince of Asturias Award. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1972. In 1999 he won the Balzan Prize. He was knighted in 1994.

John Elliott married, in 1958, Oonah Butler, who was a huge support to her husband, accompanying him on his tours abroad, indexing his early books and providing a warm and generous welcome to his legions of friends and students.

Sir John Elliott, born June 23 1930, died March 10 2022

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