George Macaulay Trevelyan, (16 February 1876 – 21 July 1962), was a British historian and academic. He was a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge from 1898 to 1903. He then spent more than twenty years as a full-time author. He returned to the University of Cambridge and was Regius Professor of History from 1927 to 1943. He served as Master of Trinity College from 1940 to 1951. In retirement, he was Chancellor of Durham University.
Trevelyan was the third son of Sir George Otto Trevelyan, 2nd Baronet, and great-nephew of Thomas Babington Macaulay, whose staunch liberal Whig principles he espoused in accessible works of literate narrative avoiding a consciously dispassionate analysis, that became old-fashioned during his long and productive career. The noted historian E. H. Carr considered Trevelyan to be one of the last historians of the Whig tradition.
Many of his writings promoted the Whig Party, an important aspect of British politics from the 17th century to the mid-19th century, and its successor, the Liberal Party. Whigs and Liberals believed the common people had a more positive effect on history than did royalty and that democratic government would bring about steady social progress.
Trevelyan's history is engaged and partisan. Of his Garibaldi trilogy, "reeking with bias", he remarked in his essay "Bias in History", "Without bias, I should never have written them at all. For I was moved to write them by a poetical sympathy with the passions of the Italian patriots of the period, which I retrospectively shared."
Once called "probably the most widely read historian in the world; perhaps in the history of the world." Trevelyan saw how two world wars shook the belief in progress. Historiography has changed and the belief in progress has declined. Historian Roy Jenkins argues:
Trevelyan's reputation as an historian barely survived his death in 1962. He is now amongst the great unread, widely regarded by the professionals of a later generation as a pontificating old windbag, as short on cutting edge as on reliable facts.
On the other hand, historian J. H. Plumb argues:
What is perhaps most frequently forgotten, or ignored, is the skill of his literary craftsmanship. Trevelyan was a born writer and a natural storyteller; and this, among historians, is a rare gift … If one quality is to be singled out, is should be this, for all historians he is the poet of English history... His work has one other great and enduring merit: the tradition within which it was written. The Victorian liberals and their Edwardian successors have made one of the greatest contributions to science and to culture ever made by a ruling class. To these by birth and by instinct Trevelyan belonged.
Trevelyan was born into late Victorian Britain in Welcombe House, Stratford-on-Avon, the large house and estate owned by his maternal grandfather, Robert Needham Philips, a wealthy Lancashire merchant and the Liberal Member of Parliament (MP) for Bury. Today Welcombe is a hotel and spa for tourists visiting Shakespeare's birthplace.
Trevelyan's parents used Welcombe as a winter resort after they inherited it in 1890. They looked upon Wallington Hall, the Trevelyan family estate in Northumberland, as their real home. When his paternal grandfather, Sir Charles Edward Trevelyan, died, George traced his father's steps to Harrow School and then Trinity College, Cambridge. After attending Wixenford and Harrow, where he specialised in history, Trevelyan studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was a member of the secret society, the Cambridge Apostles and founder of the still existing Lake Hunt, a hare and hounds chase where both hounds and hares are human. In 1898 he won a fellowship at Trinity with a dissertation that was published the following year as England in the Age of Wycliffe. One professor at the university, Lord Acton, enchanted the young Trevelyan with his great wisdom and his belief in moral judgement and individual liberty.
Trevelyan lectured at Cambridge until 1903 at which point he left academic life to become a full-time writer. In 1927 he returned to the University to take up a position as Regius Professor of Modern History, where the single student whose doctorate he agreed to supervise was J. H. Plumb (1936). During his Professorship he was also familiar with Guy Burgess - he gave a positive reference for Burgess when he applied for a post at the BBC in 1935, describing him as a "first rate man", but also stating that "He has passed through the communist measles that so many of our clever young men go through, and is well out of it". In 1940 he was appointed as Master of Trinity College and served in the post until 1951 when he retired.
Trevelyan declined the presidency of the British Academy but served as chancellor of Durham University from 1950 to 1958. Trevelyan College at Durham University is named after him. He won the 1920 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for the biography Lord Grey of the Reform Bill, was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1925, made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1950, and was an honorary doctor of many universities including Cambridge.
As David Cannadine wrote in G.M. Trevelyan: A Life in History (1992):
"During the first half of the twentieth century Trevelyan was the most famous, the most honored, the most influential and the most widely read historian of his generation. He was a scion of the greatest historical dynasty that (Britain) has ever produced. He knew and corresponded with many of the greatest figures of his time... For fifty years, Trevelyan acted as a public moralist, public teacher and public benefactor, wielding unchallenged cultural authority among the governing and the educated classes of his day."
During World War I he commanded a British Red Cross ambulance unit on the Italian front; his defective eyesight meant he was unfit for military service.
Trevelyan was the first president of the Youth Hostels Association and the YHA headquarters are called Trevelyan House in his honour. He worked tirelessly through his career on behalf of the National Trust, in preserving not merely historic houses, but historic landscapes.
G.M. Trevelyan was a prolific author:England in the Age of Wycliffe, 1368-1520 (1899). His first book, based on his PhD thesis. The title of this work is somewhat misleading, since it concentrates on the political, social and religious conditions of England during the later years of Wiclef's life only. Six of the nine chapters are devoted to the years 1377–1385, while the last two treat the history of the Lollards from 1382 until the Reformation. The work is critical of Roman Catholicism in favor of Wycliffe.
England Under the Stuarts (1904). Covers 1603 to 1714.
The Poetry and Philosophy of George Meredith (1906).
Garibaldi's Defence of the Roman Republic (1907). This volume marks the entry of a new foreign historian in the field of Italian Risorgimento, a period much neglected, or, unworthily treated, outside of Italy.
Garibaldi and the Thousand (1909).
Garibaldi and the Making of Italy (1911). ISBN 978-1-84212-473-4
The Life of John Bright (1913).
Clio, A Muse and Other Essays (1913).
Scenes From Italy's War (1919).
The Recreations of an Historian (1919).
Lord Grey of the Reform Bill (1920).
British History in the Nineteenth Century, 1782-1901 (1922).
Manin and the Venetian Revolution of 1848 (1923).
History of England (1926; 3rd edition, 1945).
England Under Queen Anne (3 vols.) (1930-4) His magnum opus in 3 volumes: "Blenheim" (1930), "Ramillies and the Union with Scotland" (1932), "Peace and the Protestant Succession" (1934).
Sir George Otto Trevelyan: A Memoir (1932).
Grey of Fallodon (1937).
The English Revolution, 1688–1698 (1938). Portrays James II as a tyrant whose excesses led directly to the Glorious Revolution, becoming a standard work.
A Shortened History of England (1942).
English Social History: A Survey of Six Centuries: Chaucer to Queen Victoria (1942 US and Canada, 1944 UK). ISBN 978-0-582-48488-7. Published during the darkest days of World War Two, it painted a nostalgic picture of England's glorious past as the beacon of liberty and progress, stirring patriotic feelings and becoming his best selling book, also his last major history book.
Trinity College: An Historical Sketch (1943). ISBN 0-903258-01-3
An Autobiography and Other Essays (1949). ISBN 0-8369-2205-0
A Layman's Love of Letters (1954).
"A little man often cast a long shadow."
"I have two doctors: my left leg and my right leg."
"It is not man's evolution but his attainment that is the greatest lesson of the past and the highest theme of history."
"Let the science and research of the historian find the fact and let his imagination and art make clear its significance."
"Every true history must force us to remember that the past was once as real as the present and as uncertain as the future."
"Since history has no properly scientific value, its only purpose is educative. And if historians neglect to educate the public, if they fail to interest it intelligently in the past, then all their historical learning is valueless except in so far as it educates themselves."