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Obituary: Ivan Roots (1921-2015)

The distinguished historian of Britain in its turbulent 17th century will be fondly remembered.

Stephen K Roberts | Published 19 May 2015

Breakfasting with Oliver Cromwell: Ivan Roots.
Breakfasting with Oliver Cromwell: Ivan Roots.

Ivan Roots, who has died aged 93, was a regular contributor to History Today over a number of decades, especially as a book reviewer. Few historians of the mid-17th century have done more to widen the appeal of their subject to a general audience. He was much in demand as a lecturer to Historical Association branches and to history societies of all kinds. He was lecturing until ill-health overtook him in the last year of his life and rarely declined an invitation to speak to any groups of people with a genuine interest in history.

He was born in Maidstone, Kent and won an exhibition from Maidstone Grammar School to Balliol College, Oxford, where he was a pupil of Christopher Hill and fellow-student with another stalwart contributor to History Today, Donald Pennington. After graduating in 1941, Ivan was called up into the Royal Corps of Signals and spent the remainder of the war in India and Burma, attaining the rank of captain. After demobilisation he returned to Oxford, but soon found a lecturing post at the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire, Cardiff, now Cardiff University, where he stayed until 1967. He moved to become professor of history at the University of Exeter, eventually becoming head of the newly-merged department of history and archaeology. He retired in 1986. 

His best-known work is The Great Rebellion, 1642-1660, which first appeared in 1966 and is still in print today. He was proud of the book’s longevity, which owes much to its readability, clear organisation and humane and sympathetic judgments. It remains arguably the best single-volume, introductory academic history of the English Civil Wars and Interregnum, balancing compactness with a broad scope. Among scholars he will be remembered, too, for his first published academic work, The Committee at Stafford 1643-5, an edition of the order book of the Staffordshire county committee, a collaborative project with Pennington. Later studies of the local administration of 1640-60 inevitably reference this pioneer text. He also wrote a number of influential articles on aspects of Cromwellian governance and was responsible for fresh imprints of two major texts of the 1640s and 50s. In 1974 he reissued The Diary of Thomas Burton, first published in 1828 and an immensely valuable source; in the same year he was behind a new edition of A.S.P. Woodhouse’s Puritanism and Liberty, which contains the most accessible text of the Putney Debates of 1647. 

Ivan Roots reviewed for a wide range of publications. As well as his work for History Today and History, the journal of the Historical Association, he was a regular contributor especially in the 1960s and 70s to the Observer, the Daily Telegraph and the Listener. Through this last publication, when Maurice Ashley was editor, he became involved in the Cromwell Association. Someone of his approachable, informal and always friendly manner, as well as impeccable academic credentials and enthusiasm for Oliver Cromwell, was invaluable in a membership society and by 1977 Ivan had become its president. His interest in Cromwell lay in what he saw as the complex character of the Lord Protector. Although Ivan’s politics were broadly of the left, he was not a republican himself, still less one who admired Cromwell for his brisk way with parliaments or his resort to armed force. It was the multi-faceted aspects of the period, the challenges and dramas facing the writers and thinkers as much as the politicians, that captured his attention and which he was so successful at conveying to others, whether in print or in a lecture. As one of his students put it, he gave you the impression that he had just breakfasted with Oliver Cromwell.

His lecturing style was informal, conversational, homely. His critics, if he had any, might have wished for more by way of factual delivery, but like all successful teachers he knew the limitations of lecturing as a medium for imparting information. His forte was the memorable image, the effective comparison and the telling quotation. Although he willingly travelled the country to deliver talks and lectures, in later years he became more at home in the history scene of south-west England, serving in one capacity or another on the governance of all the significant historical societies of Devon. His later publications, too, reflected his growing interest in the region where he lived for over 40 years and included The Monmouth Rising (1986) and Cromwellian and Restoration Devon (2003). In history circles, he will be remembered above all else for his enthusiasm and for his support and encouragement of others who shared his interest in the 17th century.

Stephen K. Roberts is editor of the 1640-60 section of the History of Parliament.

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