Sir Michael Howard

With the announcement of the death of Sir Michael Howard at the age of 97, a long tradition of soldier-scholars at Christ Church has come to an end; we are immensely the poorer for the disappearance of that memorable generation of old members who had fought in the Second World War, a solidarity that did much to enhance the humanism of the House, both as a lively and as a bracingly learned society.

Sir Michael came from a traditional and firmly Anglican background (the Howards were armigerous), although his family had branched out into founding a pharmaceutical firm. His mother came from a German Jewish family, and at a unique point in the recent history of academic History, the Regius Professors of Modern History at Oxford (Sir Michael) and at Cambridge (Sir Geoffrey Elton, a refugee from a German Jewish background in Prague), were cousins.

The tragedies of war and displaced persons formed every circumstance of Sir Michael’s long life. Educated at Wellington College – as both its name and foundation suggest, long a school favoured by soldiers, but also by the clergy (the ‘Iron Duke’ was a man of loyally Anglican piety) – Sir Michael matriculated at Christ Church in January 1941, having won a History Scholarship here in 1939. He gained a ‘First in the shortened Honours course before being called up, after deferral for his studies, in December 1942, joining the Coldstream Guards as a Second-Lieutenant. He saw immediate service in Italy and won the Military Cross for daring and near-suicidal bravery, an account of which provides a deeply moving moment in his memoirs, Captain Professor: a life in war and peace (2006), in which he finally recounted his decidedly mixed feelings at having to leave a comrade to his death. Anyone who wishes to understand the nature of military bravery ought to read that memoir; it took him the greater part of a long life to be able to put into words the circumstances of his winning the MC: it is an appropriately humbling narrative.

After the war, Sir Michael returned to complete his full degree in Modern History at Christ Church. As with many now mature undergraduates who had seen active service in appalling conditions, the return to academic study was not easy, and he frustratingly failed to gain a ‘First, but he did get to play Cardinal Wolsey in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII in Hall; he had natural but graceful authority, and such was his meticulous ability as a lecturer at London University, that students at RADA were recommended to attend them as lessons in delivery and timing (the lectures were said to end invariably and precisely as Big Ben tolled the hour.) He had begun research in early modern history before moving to King’s College London in 1947, turning to modern military history in the process.

With Sir John Sparrow, the Warden of All Souls College, he co-wrote an early study in contemporary history, The Coldstream Guards 1920-46, which appeared in 1951. His brilliant account of the Franco-Prussian war appeared to deservedly great acclaim in 1961; Sir Michael became heavily involved in strategic studies and the history of Intelligence (which had involved a lot of Christ Church men, including Hugh Trevor-Roper, Gilbert Ryle, Hugh Lloyd-Jones, and Charles Stuart.) Indeed, the first essay that Sir Michael offered for the Festschrift for Trevor-Roper - published in 1981 as History and Imagination - had been about the ‘secret war’, but a furious Harold Macmillan (a Balliol man), censoriously and rather pompously insisted that it not be published, and with typical elegance and sang-froid, Sir Michael substituted an outstanding essay on ‘Empire, Race and War in pre-1914 Britain’, a pioneering piece of research. Margaret Thatcher proved equally jumpy, and publication of his study of Strategic Deception in World War II was therefore delayed for ten years, finally appearing in 1990.

Sir Michael had devoted twenty-one years of service to King’s College London, where there is now fittingly a Michael Howard Centre in War Studies; he had also been instrumental in the foundation of the Institute of Strategic Studies and dutifully served on the Council on Christian Approaches to Defence and Disarmament, an instance of his commitment to ethics and diplomacy. He left King’s London as Professor of War Studies for a fellowship at All Souls College in 1968, where he was later elected Chichele Professor of the History of War, in 1977. In 1980, he succeeded Hugh Trevor-Roper as Regius Professor of Modern History, with a fellowship at Oriel College, and served subsequently as Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale University between 1989 and 1993. A recipient of numerous academic honours, including a Fellowship of the British Academy in 1970, he was knighted in 1986 and was made a Companion of Honour in 2002 and awarded the Order of Merit in 2005.

Sir Michael was elected an Honorary Student of Christ Church in 1990. He was an exemplary writer, producing a stream of important books, but if one were to recommend any in addition to Captain Professor, it would be his remarkable study of War and the Liberal Conscience, published in 1978, the hero of which was the Dutch humanist and pacifist, Desiderius Erasmus. It is a profoundly humane study. Any meeting with Sir Michael was an honour, and he was a familiar figure at tea at the Athenaeum. (He was also a member of the Garrick, the Reform, and Pratt’s; he was convivial company.) In the deeply conformist and anxious world of post-war Intelligence and academic life, Sir Michael made no secret of his homosexuality; as soon as it was possible, he entered into a civil partnership with Mark Anthony James, in 2006, his partner since 1961. Slightly and agreeably mischievous as well as naturally gracious, Sir Michael deeply enjoyed the cross-generational nature of academic life, and it was particularly touching to witness his close friendship with the late Rory Allan, who in common with Sir Michael, represented the very best of the House.

It is simply true to say of Sir Michael, the Captain-Professor, that we shall not look on his like again. In the company of soldier-scholars, Sir Michael Howard was always courteously, and bravely, his own man. 


Professor Brian Young, Charles Stuart Student and Tutor in History


Image: Michael Howard as Wolsey (centre) in the 1946 production of Shakespeare's Henry VIII which was part of Christ Church's quatercentenary celebrations