Stubbs Society
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Stubbs Society

The Stubbs Society
The motif of the Stubbs Society, designed by William Powers
Named afterWilliam Stubbs
FounderSamuel A Brearley Jr
TypeStudent paper-reading and debating society
General Sir Richard Shirreff
Joe Davies, Wadham College

The Stubbs Society is the University of Oxford's oldest and most illustrious forum for scholarship in international history, grand strategy and foreign affairs.

Named in honour of the Victorian historian, William Stubbs, in 1884, the Society has throughout its history welcomed many prominent speakers across the arts and sciences. It counts distinguished statesmen, military personnel, diplomats, journalists, academics and businesspeople, including Nobel laureates and Victoria Cross holders, among its alumni. Notable ex-members include former Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, Lord Lang (Archbishop of Canterbury), Sir Charles Oman (military historian), Sir Isaiah Berlin (political theorist) and former Home Secretary and Lord High Chancellor, the Earl of Kilmuir.[1]


When an American, Samuel Brearley, introduced the idea of the 'seminar' to Oxford in 1882, his initiative became, first, the Oxford Historical Seminar, and then, in 1884, the Stubbs Society.[2] Functioning as a 'proving ground for future leaders and the founders of new fields of enquiry', the Society fostered critical thinking and intellectual curiosity under the aegis of dons such as Sir Charles Oman, E. A. Freeman, and with members including such future doyens of the historical profession as James Tait, Sir Charles Harding Firth, and Frederick York Powell.[2]

"Dr Stubbs and his adherents of the 'Historical Society', winter of 1882-83"

The society's 'Transactions', largely extant from 1894 in the Bodleian Library, reveal much about its early character; but the society resists easy characterisation. The early model has overtones of the gentleman's club, with one blackball in six enough to prevent election as a member and the Society colours being "claret, cider and coffee - the only drinks that were permitted at its meetings."[3] The constitution, too, declared the Society would "honour its toast to Clio in mulled claret."[4] Yet when the idea of a club tie was mooted, only one member voted in its favour, and women were invited to join with alacrity.

Equally, if some of the talks and debates are replete with naivety and sui generis moral judgement, discussion has often been insightful, sophisticated, and culturally inflected: for instance, a paper on Lollardy, delivered in the 1910s, provoked suggestions that Lollardy was a rhetorically-constructed vehicle for the condemnation of the enemies of the Lancastrian regime--a thesis broadly similar to that advanced by recent historians of the Lollards such as Paul Strohm.[5] The Stubbs Society, then, seems to have always been a vigorous intellectual space, necessarily coloured by its setting, but nonetheless (indeed, in some respects, all the more) worthy of attention.

Much rivalry existed for the presidency of the "chief historical discussion club"[6], particularly between the central colleges of the University. Paul Johnson, writing in the Spectator, recalled an episode involving Lord Dacre (Hugh Trevor-Roper):

Hugh Trevor-Roper (Lord Dacre)

That term, in 1948, I was due to be elected secretary at the final meeting. As treasurer, I had noted that a suspicious number of extra subscriptions had been taken out in the previous fortnight but, not being a conspiracy theorist, had thought no more of it. However, when I and Karl Leyser arrived for the meeting, we found it packed with strangers, chiefly red-faced Christ Church louts, who looked as though they would have been more at home at a bump-supper or a Bullingdon Club grind. Roper, who was now Censor of Christ Church, had hustled them all together to vote us out of office, as indeed they did.

It was the kind of plot the CP had perfected in the British trades-union movement, and Roper had clearly studied the party's methods. His delight at the success of his scheme was so transparent and schoolboyish that I had to laugh. though the rest of the Monks [colloquial term for students at Magdalen College] were very annoyed.[7]

Through much of its history, the Stubbs Society was highly selective, with membership conditional on the support of tutors. It was designed to be "an elite from which future historians are supposed to be drawn"[8], though future greats such as A J P Taylor were not invited to join. Such strict regulation, however, ensured "meetings bought dons and undergraduates together in companionable complicity." [9]

Trevor-Roper later became Senior Member of the Society, but others of such diverse political persuasions as Christopher Hill have also fulfilled this role over the years.


Enoch Powell

In over a century of continual activity, the Society has been addressed by a series of eminent speakers in meetings famous, sometimes notorious, for the combative discussion that ensues after a paper has been read. Conrad Russell recalled an occasion when Geoffrey Elton was the speaker:

The first time I met Geoffrey Elton was when I was a postgraduate in 1960. After addressing the Stubbs Society in Oxford, he faced a concerted assault, begun "while Lawrence is getting his anti-tank gun into position". I rashly wandered into the cross-fire and defended him.[10]

The speaker lineups have been appropriately diverse, ranging from Joseph Needham on the history of Chinese science, to Christopher Andrew on MI5, to Lord Sumption on the Royal Navy during the Hundred Years' War. In one instance, the author Fernández-Armesto described how "Fatally pertinent questions reduced the excellent but academically underqualified historical writer Veronica Wedgwood to tears." [11]. He continued:

I recall an occasion when a visiting professor from Lancaster, who gave a talk on an early-18th-century Tory, wilted on being asked, "What have you added to what Macaulay has to say on the subject?" Self-destructively, he burbled, "I didn't know anyone still read Macaulay." "We do in this university," rejoined his interrogator.

Other events have been contentious in their own right. On one occasion, the controversial British politician Enoch Powell was invited to address the Society on the topic of constitutional history.

Past Members and Officers

Canadian Prime Minister, Lester B Pearson
Archbishop Lang
National Security Advisor Rostow and President Lyndon B. Johnson
Lt Gen Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart



Politics and Government

Broadcasting and Journalism

In popular culture

In the Village Tales series by GMW Wemyss, the Duchess of Taunton is described as a former member of the Stubbs Society.

See also

External links


  1. ^ Transactions of the Stubbs Society, Bodleian Library, Oxford
  2. ^ a b Brock & Curthoys (eds.), The History of the University of Oxford, Oxford University Press (2000), vol. vii, p. 380.
  3. ^ Saravanamuttu, M., (1970), The Sara Saga, p. 28
  4. ^ Fernández-Armesto, F. (2009), History, tragedy, farce, Times Higher Education, London
  5. ^ See Strohm, England's Empty Throne: Usurpation and the Language of Legitimation, 1399-1422, Yale University Press (1998).
  6. ^ Rowse, A. L., (1989), Friends and Contemporaries
  7. ^ Johnson P., (2003), Hugh Trevor-Roper and the Monks of Magdalen, The Spectator, 8 February 2003, p. 21
  8. ^ Sisman, A., (1994), AJP Taylor - A Biography, Sinclair-Stevenson
  9. ^ See Felipe Fernández-Armesto in the Times Literary Supplement, 26 February 2009, for a distinctive perspective.
  10. ^ The Independent, Monday, 19 December 1994, further to the obituary by Patrick Collinson and Tam Dalyell, 9 December.
  11. ^ Fernández-Armesto 2009


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