Sir Herbert Butterfield: Papers

Scope and Content

The papers form 530 numbered files, and date chiefly from the end of the Second World War to the 1970s. The collection documents almost all aspects of Butterfield's academic life and writings, and provides a record of the wider development of historical studies in the course of his career.

Many of the files relate to Butterfield's historical work, especially his study of eighteenth and nineteenth century British political history, historiography and his interest in history and religion, including Christianity and history. There are drafts of Butterfield's articles, lectures, reviews and papers, and related material on these and other subjects, such as politics and science, including Butterworth's The origins of modern science. A significant part of collection is devoted to Lord Acton and the Cambridge modern history. There are correspondence and reports concerning Lord Acton, and transcripts, abstracts and notes made by Butterfield from the Acton papers in Cambridge University Library. The collection also contains correspondence and papers concerning research students and individuals, such G.P. Gooch, H.W.V. Temperley, A.J. Toynbee and Gerhard Ritter. Other subjects covered include the history of Peterhouse, Cambridge; foreign trips; invitations and visits to overseas universities; election to overseas academic positions; the British Committee on the Theory of International Politics; the receipt of honorary degrees; correspondence with historians, academics, translators and publishers; and the Dictionary of the history of ideas.

The final three files in the collection are devoted to miscellaneous correspondence. No. 529 contains letters concerning mostly academic and professional matters. No. 530 concerns mostly personal matters. No. 531 contains 497 general letters, arranged roughly in alphabetical order, the most common correspondents being G.N. Clark, G. Kitson Clark, Klaus Dockhorn, George P. Gooch, Hugh Kearney, David Knowles, Richard Koebner, Helmut Koenigsberger, T.W. Moody, Michael Oakeshott, Francis O'Gorman, George Potter, Gerhard Ritter, Karl Schweizer, Neville Temperley, Kenneth W. Thompson, G.M. Trevelyan, Adam Watson, Philip P. Wiener, Desmond Williams, G.M. Willis and Brian Wormald.

Administrative / Biographical History

Sir Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979) was born on 7 October 1900 in Oxenhope, near Keighley, Yorkshire. He entered Peterhouse, Cambridge, in 1919 as a scholar in history, and was elected a fellow in 1923. In 1944 he took up the university chair of modern history, and in 1963 was appointed regius professor of modern history. He had been elected master of Peterhouse in 1955, and served as vice-chancellor of the University from 1959 to 1961. Butterfield was editor of the Cambridge historical journal from 1938 to 1952, and was president of the Historical Association from 1955 to 1958. He retired from the mastership and his chair in 1968, and in that year he was knighted. He died on 20 July 1979 at Sawston, Cambridge.

Butterfield published widely throughout his working life. His most influential books were The Whig interpretation of history (1931), The Englishman and his history (1944), Christianity and history (1949), The origins of modern science (1949) and Man on his past (1955). He maintained an interest in orthodox diplomatic and political history of the eighteenth century alongside investigations into historiography and the nature of Christianity. Typical of his concern for historiographical questions was his long interest in the work of Lord Acton. He produced a number of publications on this subject, but his support for propositions to initiate a comprehensive publication of Acton's correspondence and working papers proved fruitless. In his later years Butterfield was involved with the British Committee on the Theory of International Politics, which met under his aegis in Peterhouse.


Butterfield apparently maintained his papers in rough order during his life. At the commencement of the compilation of the University Library's catalogue of the collection the papers were found to be grouped in a succession of folders and box files, most of which had been allotted brief titles by Butterfield. During the process of arrangement and listing, the papers were sorted into files based on Butterfield's own system. The integrity of the contents of each of Butterfield's files was on the whole respected; only in a few cases were papers transferred from one file to another, in order that related correspondence or other material might be located together. In most cases Butterfield's own titles for files were retained. Titles were altered if they were potentially misleading to researchers or bore no relation at all to the contents of the file, and in a few cases, e.g. 217, Butterfield's shorter files were amalgamated. There was no order apparent in the sequence of files as they were found; the present arrangement adopted a series of broadly thematic sequences. Within each file there was frequently some re-ordering of papers: in particular, runs of correspondence were generally arranged in chronological order.

Access Information

Open for consultation by holders of a Reader's Ticket valid for the Manuscripts Reading Room. Approximately 20% of the numbered files contain confidential information, consisting for the most part of reports on, and references for, research students and junior members of the historical profession. These files are indicated in the Library's handlist to the collection, and access to them will not be permitted until 2030. File no. 531 also contains some confidential material.

Acquisition Information

Presented by Edith Butterfield, widow of Sir Herbert Butterfield, 1980.


Description compiled by Robert Steiner, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives.

Other Finding Aids

A detailed handlist, including a personal name index, is available for consultation in the Manuscripts Reading Room.

Related Material

Cambridge University Library also holds the papers of Lord Acton, MSS.Add.4607-5021, 5347-5348, 5381-5710, 5751-5776, 7726-7732, 7892, 8119-8123 and 9616, and letters to him regarding the Cambridge modern history, MS.Add.6443.