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Hill was born into a prosperous middle class family â his father was a solicitor â of Methodists in York. He attended St Peter's School, York. When he sat his entrance examination at Balliol College, Oxford, the two history tutors from Balliol College, Oxford University recognised Hill's ability and offered him a place to forestall any chance he might go to Cambridge.
Before he went up to Oxford in 1931, Hill had a prolonged holiday in Freiburg, Germany, where he witnessed the rise of the Nazi Party; he later said it contributed significantly to the radicalisation of his politics. In 1932, Hill won a first-class honours degree and won an All Souls Fellowship two years later. Whilst at Balliol, Hill became a committed Marxist and joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. In 1935, he undertook a prolonged trip to the Soviet Union, where he learnt Russian and studied Soviet historical scholarship, particularly that relating to Britain. After returning, he accepted a teaching position at Cardiff University.
Hill attempted to join the International Brigade and fight in the Spanish Civil War, but was rejected. Following the outbreak of the Second World War, he joined the British Army, initially as a Private in the Field Security Police. He was soon afterwards commissioned as an officer in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, in 1940. That same year, he took part in a debate among many Marxist historians. At around this time, Hill started to publish his articles and reviews about 17th century English history. Later in the war he transferred to the Intelligence Corps.
In 1946, Hill and many other Marxist historians formed the Communist Party Historians Group. However, Hill soon became discontented with the lack of democracy in the Communist Party. He left the party in 1956, with many other intellectuals, after the Soviet invasion of Hungary when one of his reports was rejected.
After 1956, Hill's career ascended to new heights. His studies on 17th century English history were widely acknowledged and recognised. These were based on the study of printed sources accessible in the Bodleian Library and on the secondary works produced by other academic historians rather than on research in the surviving archives. In 1965, Hill was elected the master of Balliol. He held the post from 1965 to 1978, when he retired (he was replaced by Anthony Kenny). Among those of his students at Balliol who went on to develop our understanding of the English Revolution was Brian Manning.
Many of Hill's most notable studies focused on 17th century English history. His books include Economic Problems of the Church (1955), Puritanism And Revolution (1958), Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution (1965 and revised in 1996), The Century of Revolution (1961), AntiChrist In 17th-century England (1971), The World Turned Upside Down (1972) and many others.
However, the intellectual tide later turned in favour of the so-called revisionism, which rejected the analyses of Marxist and socialist historians of Hill's generation and advocated, as an alternative to them, more detailed study of the constitutional and political, cultural and intellectual history of the early to mid-17th centuries. Hill's later works showed that he continued to work within the parameters of his earlier preoccupations and consequently lost influence upon younger historians. Even so, he was prolific in his publications until the mid-1990s even if he no longer occupied the intellectual centre-stage.
Hill died in 2003, 18 days after his 91st birthday. He was married and had three children.
David Lindsay Keir
|Master of Balliol College, Oxford
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