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Geoffrey Elton Collection

The collection

The Elton Collection constitutes an impressive library of working source material and secondary literature which may be of interest to students of early modern and British political history. Many of the books still include Elton's notes in the margins.

The collector

Professor Sir Geoffrey Elton (1921-1994) was born in Tübingen, Germany, as Gottfried Rudolf Ehrenberg. His parents were the Jewish scholars Victor Ehrenberg and Eva Dorothea Sommer. In 1929, the Ehrenbergs moved to Prague, Czechoslovakia, later fleeing to Britain in 1939. Following his arrival onto British soil, Ehrenberg continued his education at the Rydal School in Wales, and after only two years, began teaching as an assistant master in mathematics, history and German.

Whilst at Rydal, he took courses via correspondence at the University of London and graduated with a degree in Ancient History in 1943. Ehrenberg enlisted in the army in 1943 and served until 1946 - during this time he changed his name to Geoffrey Rudolph Elton. After his discharge from the army, Elton took British citizenship in 1947 and studied early modern history at University College London under JE Neale, graduating with a PhD in 1949. His thesis on Thomas Cromwell's administrative work first developed the ideas he would pursue for the rest of his academic career.

Elton taught at the University of Glasgow and from 1949 onwards at Clare College, Cambridge and was the Regius Professor of Modern History there from 1983 to 1988. His pupils included John Guy, Diarmaid MacCulloch, Susan Brigden, David Starkey, and York's Emeritus Professor Claire Cross. Elton was knighted in 1986. He 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. Elton was a strong defender of 'traditionalist' methods of history and made significant contributions to debates concerning the philosophy of historical practice.


The collection was acquired from the Royal Historical Society in 1995 by the Borthwick Institute for Archives. In accordance with Elton's wishes, the collection is kept essentially distinct and open to all users of the University Library.


A selection of materials including 120 books, off-prints and pamphlets on British constitutional history are held in Rare Books and may be consulted at the Borthwick Institute. The rest of the collection is kept on the open shelves in the Raymond Burton Reading Room.

Further information

Significant publications

  • GR Elton, England under the Tudors (London, 1955)
  • GR Elton, The Practice of History (London, 1967)

Other reading

  • Quentin Skinner, 'Sir Geoffrey Elton and the practice of history', Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series, 7 (1997), 301–16.
  • The Eltonian Legacy (Special issue: Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Ser., vol. 7 (1997), pp. 177–336)