Waugh and Trevor-Roper: The Annual Dacre Lecture

Waugh Society member and frequent contributor Milena Borden sends this report of her recent attendance at the annual Dacre Lecture in Oxford:

Milena Borden was invited to the recent Dacre lecture and dinner at Oxford, where Waugh was among the topics discussed. On 10th January, friends and relatives of the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914-2003) gathered in Oxford around the date of his birthday. The Dacre Lecture is an annual event, which this year was hosted by St Hugh’s College and organised by the historian Blair Worden, a former student of Trevor-Roper and  editor of a collection of essays about T-R and his work.  Brian Young of Christ Church gave a talk on the unfinished work by Hugh T-R on the nineteenth-century Roman Catholic revival in England to which he was unsympathetic. This was followed by a short discussion and a black tie dinner in the Wordsworth Room. There were 25 participants including Oxford academics, journalists, biographers, students and members of Trevor-Roper family.

Waugh’s presence was noted as a part of the bigger narrative at the event. Young mentioned his name at the opening of his lecture, with a humorous remark about Waugh’s infamous spat with Trevor-Roper. This started in the 1940s and carried on until Waugh died in 1966. Waugh was a Catholic convert whereas Trevor-Roper described himself as ‘irreligious’ and quite anti-Catholic. Although they never met in person, the two of them exchanged their opposing opinions, at times publicly, in an antagonistic manner. Young discussed at considerable length the unfinished essay by Trevor-Roper on the Catholic revival in England during the nineteenth century from historical and philosophical points of view. He concluded that although it did demonstrate once again Trevor-Roper’s excellence in the genre, the argument in this case was less than coherent and lacked systematic conclusions.

Young did, however, give quite a satisfactory answer to the question, which others, myself included, asked themselves: ‘why was Hugh Trevor-Roper so anti-Catholic?’  First, on a general level, it became clear that Trevor-Roper believed religion to be an enemy of intellectual freedom, to which Waugh would have objected fundamentally on a theological level. As Noel Malcolm noted at the discussion, Trevor-Roper’s claim was rather theoretical and probably had little to do with Waugh’s or any other practicing Catholic’s understanding of freedom. Secondly, Trevor-Roper thought that the Catholic Church specifically was totalitarian in character because it interfered in people’s private lives, similarly to other totalitarian ideologies including fascism and communism. According to him, this was incompatible with democracy. Waugh, who was a staunch anti-communist, certainly thought that such claims were based on prejudice to, and envy of the Church. Last but not least, Trevor-Roper loved controversy and indulged his appetite for creating his own enemies. This happened also to be a passion of Waugh and might have contributed a great deal to the intensity of the row between the two of them, which continues to illuminate with new perspectives their rich legacy.

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