J. P. Kenyon (1927-1996)


Professor John Kenyon was Lecturer in History at Cambridge (1956-62), and Professor of Modern History at the Universities of Hull (1962-1981), St Andrews (1981-7) and Kansas (1987-94). He authored nine books, a number of essays and twice edited titles, his work focussing on the early and late seventeenth century and the first half of the eighteenth century.  An elegant and witty prose stylist he contributed essays and reviews to titles such as The Observer and The Spectator. At the early age of thirty-five he was granted the G.F. Grant Chair at Hull and a Fellowship of the British Academy in 1981.

John Kenyon was born in Sheffield on 18 June 1927 and maintained the manner of a blunt, sceptical Yorkshireman throughout his life, but he could also be a lively conversationalist and drinking companion. He attended King Edward VII Grammar School in Sheffield and progressed to Sheffield University receiving a First Class Degree in 1949. He habitually attended Anglican worship, often reading the lessons and was a member of the Prayer Book Society.  He once successfully defended the 1701 Act of Settlement on the Radio 4 Programme You the Jury.

After graduating he began research on seventeenth-century history at Sheffield under Professor George Potter.  His research focussed on the political career of the Second Earl of Sunderland.  After interest from Dante Campailla and Professor Jack Plumb, Kenyon received the Lloyd studentship and took his place at Christ’s College in October 1950. Plumb quickly promoted him to a Research Fellowship at Christ’s and shortly he was granted a University Assistant Lectureship. He later became Director of Studies in History and in 1961-62 was Christ's nominee as Junior Proctor.

During his seven years in the Cambridge History Faculty Kenyon lectured mainly on 'English Constitutional History 1603-1760', material from which was disseminated to several generations of students in his volume 'The Stuart Constitution: Documents and Commentary' (1966). He also taught a final-year special subject on'James II and the Revolution of 1688-9'

According to John Morrill, Fellow of the British Academy, in his biography of John Philipps Kenyon in the Proceedings of the British Academy (1999):

‘John Kenyon had the best historical intelligence of his generation. He understood men and women in the past and he wrote about them with a rare precision, clarity and conviction. He was a productive scholar and all his works except one wore their learning with a deceptive lightness. He fitted into no school, reacted against fashion, came to look old-fashioned in his interests. He was a magnificent historian who could not quite build on the brilliance of his early promise, but who greatly underestimated the magnitude of his own achievement and the continuing appeal of his writing’ (p.460)

Kenyon was best known to the wider public through 'The Stuarts' (1958), in its day an influential general history, and 'The History Men: The Historical Profession in England since the Renaissance' (1983), whose vivid pen-pictures grew out of earlier writings for The Observer.