On her Majesty's scholarly service

For centuries Regius chairs were the gift of kings, tools of statecraft and the preserve of ancient universities. But that has changed, most recently with the addition of 12 new professorships, as Richard J. Evans relates

February 7, 2013

Source: Bridgeman Art Library

Last week, the Cabinet Office announced that Her Majesty the Queen will bestow 12 new Regius professorships to mark her Diamond Jubilee. Universities had applied to have the title granted in areas where they enjoy a world-leading reputation. In these straitened times, there is no new money attached to the chairs, but there is certainly a good deal of prestige. Until now, the Regius professorships had existed only at the medieval universities: Oxford and Cambridge have eight each, but they are both outstripped by Glasgow and Aberdeen, which have 13 each. Edinburgh has five, St Andrews one, and there are even four at the University of Dublin. The announcement has allowed other universities in the UK to get in on the act for the first time.

What are the Regius professorships? As the Latin name suggests, they are royal appointments. Every new Regius professor receives a letter from the prime minister asking his or her permission to approach the Queen, followed in due course by a Royal Warrant signed by the monarch confirming the appointment. Traditionally, the Regius professors were appointed in a confidential procedure wrapped in secrecy. The patronage secretary at 10 Downing Street descended on the university when a vacancy occurred and “took soundings” before placing one or sometimes two names on the prime minister’s desk with details of their career and publications. Famously, in 1988 Margaret Thatcher’s finger pointed unerringly to the CV of the candidate favoured by the Cambridge history faculty, Patrick Collinson, whose list of publications included numerous volumes with the word “puritanism” in their titles, expressing, she thought, his commitment to Victorian values, or something very much like them. Too late it emerged that he was a staunch Labour Party man and a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; the leader of the opposition, Neil Kinnock, immediately offered to confirm his appointment should he win and Thatcher lose the impending general election.

These days, since Gordon Brown’s decision to devolve all Regius appointments to the universities themselves, the appointment is made in the usual way, with a public advertisement, a shortlist and interviews, after which the university is required to forward to the Cabinet Office the name of the successful applicant (who, Brown wisely added, must already have accepted the job offer in writing). In recent times, “taking soundings” could be a surprisingly thorough and democratic process of consultation, with the patronage secretary talking to a wide variety of interested academics at all levels of the department or faculty in which the Regius chair happened to be located. But it was not always so.

For a long time, the Regius professorships were primarily instruments of government policy, in a way that undermines any assumption that state interference in the academic world is a product of the 21st century. The very first Regius professorship was in the field of medicine, established at Aberdeen in 1497 by the Scottish King James IV, who would meet a sticky end at the Battle of Flodden Field in 1513. In his day, James was a famous patron of the arts and sciences, taking an interest in the establishment of Scotland’s first printing press, hanging tapestries in his palaces, patronising poets such as William Dunbar, and giving a Royal Charter to the Edinburgh College of Surgeons in 1506. The Regius professorship was clearly part of his mission to bring Renaissance civilisation to the northern kingdom.

When the first English Regius chairs were founded, by Henry VIII, they were instruments of his drive to anchor the newly independent Church of England in a national academic culture, wresting major appointments away from the Church and putting them in the hands of the state. In 1540, he founded the Regius chair of civil law at Oxford to replace the teaching of Roman canon law with the teaching of, among other things, English law. Initially this policy was not entirely successful. The first Regius professor of civil law at Oxford, John Story, was imprisoned by Edward VI for opposing his Protestant reforms, then reinstated by the Catholic Mary I. Alarmed for his own safety, Story fled to Louvain after the accession of Elizabeth I, but her agents kidnapped him and brought him to London, where he was imprisoned in the Tower, tortured, condemned to death and hanged, drawn and quartered. The interference of the state in academic life could be dangerous indeed. Fortunately, being a Regius professor has become a good deal less risky since the 16th century, and the incumbents of the other early Regius professorships at Oxford and Cambridge founded by Henry VIII in more technical subjects such as Hebrew, Greek and physic (ie, medicine) led somewhat less adventurous lives.

An even more direct example of the creation of Regius professorships as an instrument of government policy can be found in the Regius professorships of modern history, as they then were, at Oxford and Cambridge. In 1724, prompted by his ministers, George I wrote to the vice-chancellors of Oxford and Cambridge complaining of “the prejudice that has accrued to the…University from this Defect, Persons of Foreign Nations being often employed in the Education and Tuition of Youth”. To remedy this situation, he intended to appoint “a Person of Sober Conversation and Prudent Conduct, skilled in Modern History and in the knowledge of Modern Languages, to be Our Professor of Modern History”. The stipend was to be £400 a year, a sum “so ample”, as a grateful University of Cambridge declared in its acceptance letter, “as wellnigh to equal the Stipends of all our other Professors put together”.

When I was appointed to the chair I naturally drew this interesting fact to the attention of the vice-chancellor, but unaccountably she quickly changed the subject. She could have replied by pointing out that from this sum the monarch required the professor “to maintain, with sufficient salaries, two Persons…well qualified to teach and instruct in writing and speaking the said languages”. And indeed the instructors were to teach 20 scholars appointed each year by the Crown, each of whom “shall be obliged to learn two at least of the said languages”. Thus the idea above all was to educate young Englishmen in the skills they needed to join the Foreign Office. Instead of going on the grand tour and getting a foreign tutor’s idea of European politics and diplomatic relations, they were to learn these things from Englishmen instead. The political purpose of the chairs was obvious. Modern history really did mean modern history, indeed it meant what we would call today contemporary history, the history of the past half-century or so. And it meant European history, the history of the countries with which Britain, under its recently crowned Hanoverian king, had the closest relations of any, whether hostile or not.

The 18th century being the century par excellence of corruption and patronage, however, these arrangements did not last long. George II, who acceded to the throne in 17, did not share his father’s interest in the Regius chairs of modern history. The last language scholars to be nominated by the Crown took up their studies in 1728. The annual reports on their progress were submitted on only two occasions. After this, the Regius professors of modern history kept the stipend for themselves rather than wasting any part of it on the appointment of language instructors. Indeed, with such a large stipend, the post quickly became a sinecure, dished out by governments as an act of political patronage. The monarch, wise in the ways of the world, had stipulated in the original contract that the professor would be fined if he did not deliver at least one lecture a term. Cambridge’s first Regius professor of modern history, Samuel Harris, did deliver an inaugural lecture (it was in Latin), but it was also his valedictory, since he gave no more during his 11-year tenure of office, nor did he publish any history books. His successor, Shallet Turner, not only gave no lectures at all in his years in the post but never lived in Cambridge either. The third Regius, Lawrence Brockett, died before he could make any notable contribution to scholarship, breaking his head when he fell off his horse on his way to Cambridge after having dined rather too amply at his parish in the nearby village of Over. His successor, Thomas Gray, was a well-known author, but he achieved fame as a poet with his Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, not as a historian.

It was not until the appointment of William Smyth, offered the post because he was tutor to the son of the politician and playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, that a Regius professor who took his duties seriously arrived on the scene. Smyth not only lectured regularly at Cambridge but also published a multi-volume history of the French Revolution, a calamity that he ascribed to the slavish French obeisance to the dictates of fashion. Smyth’s predecessor, the otherwise unremarkable John Symonds, had occupied the chair for 36 years, but Smyth broke even this record, remaining Regius professor for 42 years, dying in office at the age of 84. His lectures were said to have been remarkably boring, and were even the subject of a biting caricature by James Gillray not long after he took up the post. In his later years he attracted a good deal of mockery. “Poor old Smyth,” one student was reported as saying, “too old to be corrected.”

Smyth’s successor, Sir James Stephen, was if possible even less popular as a lecturer. He was described by one contemporary as “shy beyond all the shyness you could imagine in anyone who had not been pre-existent as a wild duck”. He was driven out of Cambridge after being attacked by clerical dons because he had expressed a view that the wicked might not be damned for all eternity. Asked to report on modern history by a Royal Commission in 1852, he replied, in a letter posted in Paris: “Of the actual state of historical studies in the university I know and can report nothing.”

Other Regius professors in the 18th and early 19th centuries were similarly neglectful of their duties. Robert Vansittart, Regius professor of civil law at Oxford from 1767 to 1789, spent much of his time at Sir Francis Dashwood’s infamous Hellfire Club, whose pagan rituals, sexual orgies and drinking bouts became notorious. In 1846 the Regius professor of civil law at Oxford, Joseph Phillimore, who held the chair from 1809 to 1855, confessed to a parliamentary select committee that civil law had not in fact been taught at Oxford for the better part of a century.

Eventually, Victorian seriousness prevailed, and the Regius professorships became proper academic posts. The subjects in which they were appointed were put on a sound footing and at last properly taught. In the case of the modern history positions, mid-19th-century university reforms led to the abolition of the long-disregarded requirement to appoint language instructors, and the stipend (regrettably) was reduced to the normal level for professors; by 2010 both chairs had dropped the word “modern” to reflect the fact that their remit since the Victorian era has included both early modern and medieval history. Nowadays the Regius professorships give their holders prestige, which lends weight to their views, but they carry few ex officio duties and no special powers, so that there would be little point in a government using them as an instrument of policy.

The new Regius chairs, indeed, are in subjects in which the universities where they are located are already prominent in teaching and research. As David Willetts, the universities minister, has said, they “recognise the outstanding quality of teaching and research that UK higher education institutions can offer”. It’s good to hear a minister saying something positive about British universities for a change.

The distinguished dozen

Before the government’s announcement last week, only two new Regius professorships, both at Cambridge, had been created in the past hundred years - one in 2009 to mark the university’s 800th anniversary and one in 2011 to mark the completion of Prince Philip’s term of office as chancellor.

But now 12 universities will assign the title of “Regius professor” to an existing professor or appoint a new professor to take the chair and hold the title. The new posts will go to the following departments:

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