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Sir Geoffrey Rudolph Elton (17 August 19213 December 1994) was a British historian of the Tudor period.


Elton was born in Tübingenmarker, Germanymarker as Gottfried Rudolf Ehrenberg. His parents were the scholars Victor Ehrenberg and Eva Dorothea Sommer. In 1929, the Ehrenbergs moved to Praguemarker, Czech Republicmarker. In February 1939, the Jewish Ehrenbergs fled to Britainmarker. Ehrenberg continued his education at Rydal Schoolmarker, a Methodist school in Walesmarker, starting in 1939. After only two years, Ehrenberg was working as a teacher at Rydal and achieved the position of assistant master in Mathematics, History and German. While there, he took courses via correspondence at the University of London and graduated with a degree in Ancient History in 1943. Ehrenberg enlisted in the British Army in 1943. He spent his time in the Army in the Intelligence Corps and the East Surrey Regiment, serving with the Eighth Army in Italymarker from 1944 to 1946. During this period, Ehrenberg anglicised his name to Geoffrey Elton. After his discharge from the military, Elton studied early modern history at the University of London, graduating with a PhD in 1949. He took British citizenship in 1947.

The Tudor Revolution in Government

He focused primarily on the life of Henry VIII but made significant contributions to the study of Queen Elizabeth I.

Elton was most famous for arguing in his 1953 book The Tudor Revolution in Government that Thomas Cromwell was the author of modern, bureaucratic government which replaced medieval, household government. This change took place in the 1530s and must be regarded as part of a planned revolution. In essence, Elton was arguing that before Cromwell the realm could be viewed as the King's private estate writ large and that most administration was done by the King's household servants rather than separate state offices. Cromwell, who was Henry VIII's chief minister from 1532 to 1540, introduced reforms into the administration that delineated the King's household from the state and created a modern bureaucratic government. He shone Tudor light into the darker corners of the Realm and radically altered the role of Parliament and the competence of Statute.

By master-minding these reforms, Cromwell was said to have laid the foundations of England's future stability and success. Elton elaborated on these ideas in his 1955 work, the best-selling England under the Tudors, which went through three editions after its first appearance, and his Wiles Lectures, which he published in 1973 as Reform and Renewal: Thomas Cromwell and the Comojn Weal (Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521098092).

His thesis has been widely challenged by Tudor historians and can no longer be regarded as an orthodoxy, but Elton's contribution to the debate has profoundly influenced subsequent discussion of Tudor government, in particular concerning the role of Cromwell.

His Historical Perspective

Elton was a staunch admirer of Thatcher and Churchill. He was also a fierce critic of Marxist historians, who he argued were presenting seriously flawed interpretations of the past. In particular, Elton was opposed to the idea that the English Civil War was caused by socio-economic changes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, arguing instead that it was due largely to the incompetence of the Stuart kings. Elton was also famous for his role in the Carr-Elton debate when he defended the nineteenth century interpretation of empirical, 'scientific' history most famously associated with Leopold von Ranke against Carr's views. Elton wrote his 1967 book The Practice of History largely in response to E. H. Carr's 1961 book What is History?.

Elton was a strong defender of the traditional methods of history and was appalled by postmodernism, which he termed the "intellectual equivalent of crack". Although ex-pupils of his such as John Guy claim he did embody a "revisionist streak", Elton saw the duty of historians as empirically gathering evidence and objectively analyzing what the evidence has to say. As a traditionalist, he placed great emphasis on the role of individuals in history instead of abstract, impersonal forces. For instance, his 1963 book Reformation Europe is in large part concerned with the duel between Martin Luther and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Elton objected to cross-disciplinary efforts such as efforts to combine history with anthropology or sociology. He saw political history as the best and most important kind of history. Elton had no use for those who seek history to make myths, to create laws to explain the past, or to produce theories such as Marxism.

His career

Elton taught at the University of Glasgowmarker and from 1949 onwards at Clare College, Cambridge Universitymarker and was the Regius Professor of Modern History there from 1983 to 1988. He was knighted in 1986. Elton worked as publication secretary of the British Academy from 1981 to 1990 and served as the president of the Royal Historical Society from 1972 to 1976. He married a fellow historian, Sheila Lambert, in 1952. Elton was a superb literary craftsman, whose command and skill at English is all the more remarkable for someone who did not learn English until he almost was in his twenties. Elton intensely identified himself with his adopted country, and this very much influenced his writings. As a scholar, he was popular with the students at Cambridge, but many of his colleagues disliked him. Elton was a very professional scholar and a formidable man with little time for those who failed to meet his exacting standards.

He was the brother of the education researcher Lewis Elton and therefore the uncle of Lewis's comedian and writer son Ben Elton.


Geoffrey Elton edited the second edition of the influential collection, The Tudor Constitution. In it, he supported John Aylmer's basic conclusion that the Tudor constitution mirrored that of the mixed constitution of Spartamarker.

  • The Tudor Revolution in Government: Administrative Changes in the Reign of Henry VIII, Cambridge University Press, 1953.
  • England Under The Tudors London: Methuen, 1955, revised edition 1974, third edition 1991.
  • The Reformation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958.
  • Star Chamber Stories London: Methuen, 1958.
  • The Tudor Constitution: Documents and Commentary, Cambridge University Press, 1960; second edition, 1982.
  • Henry VIII; An essay In Revision London: Historical Association by Routledge & K. Paul, 1962.
  • Reformation Europe, 1517-1559 New York: Harper & Row, 1963.
  • The Practice of History London: Fontana Press, 1967.
  • Renaissance and Reformation, 1300-1640, edited by G.R. Elton New York: Macmillan 1968.
  • The Body of the Whole Realm; Parliament and Representation in Medieval and Tudor England Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1969.
  • England, 1200-1640 Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969.
  • Modern Historians on British History, 1485-1945 A Critical Bibliography London, Methuen, 1970.
  • Political History: Principles and Practice, London: Penguin Press, 1970.
  • Reform and Renewal: Thomas Cromwell and the Common Weal Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.
  • Policy and Police: the Enforcement of the Reformation in the Age of Thomas Cromwell, Cambridge University Press, 1973.
  • Studies in Tudor and Stuart Politics and Government: Papers and Reviews, 1945-1972, 4 volumes, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974-1992.
  • Annual bibliography of British and Irish history, Brighton, Sussex [England]:Harvester Press ; Atlantic Highlands, N.J. : Humanities Press for the Royal Historical Society, 1976.
  • Reform and Reformation: England 1509-1558, London: Arnold, 1977.
  • English Law In The Sixteenth Century : Reform In An Age of Change London: Seldon Society, 1979.
  • (co-written with Robert Fogel) Which Road to the Past? Two Views of History New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983
  • F.W. Maitland London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1985.
  • The Parliament of England, 1559-1581 Cambridge University Press, 1986.
  • Return to Essentials: Some Reflections on the Present State of Historical Study, Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  • The English Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.



  • Black, Jeremy "Elton, G.R." pages 356-357 from The Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing, Volume 1, Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999
  • Bradshaw, Brenden "The Tudor Commonwealth: Reform and Revision" pages 455-476 from Historical Journal, Volume 22, Issue 2, 1979.
  • Coleman, Christopher & Starkey, David (editors) Revolution Reassessed: Revisions in the History of Tudor Government & Administration, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.
  • Cross, Claire, Loades, David & Scarisbrick, J.J (editors) Law and Government under the Tudors: Essays Presented to Sir Geoffrey Elton, Regius Professor of Modern History in the University of Cambridge on the Occasion of his Retirement Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
  • Guth, DeLloyd and McKenna, John (editors) Tudor Rule and Revolution: Essays for G.R Elton from his American Friends, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
  • Guy, John "The Tudor Commonwealth: Revising Thomas Cromwell" pages 681-685 from Historical Journal Volume 23, Issue 3, 1980.
  • Horowitz, M.R. "Which Road to the Past?" pages 5-10 from History Today, Volume 34, January 1984.
  • Jenkins, Keith `What is History?` From Carr to Elton to Rorty and White London: Routledge, 1995.
  • Kenyon, John The History Men, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1983.
  • Kouri, E.I and Scott, Tom (editors) Politics and Society in Reformation Europe: Essays for Sir Geoffrey Elton on his Sixty-fifth Birthday, London: Macmillan Press, 1986.
  • Schlatter, R. Recent Views on British History: Essays on Historical Writing since 1966, New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1984.
  • Slavin, Arthur "Telling the Story: G.R Elton and the Tudor Age" pages 151-169 from Sixteenth Century Journal, Volume 21, Issue 2, 1990.
  • Slavin "G.R. Elton: On Reformation and Revolution" pages 405-431 from History Teacher, Volume 23, 1990.
  • Transactions of the Royal Historical Society pages 177-336, Volume 7, 1997.
  • Williams, Percy and Harriss, Gavin "A Revolution in Tudor History?" pages 3-58 from Past and Present, Volume 25, 1963.

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