John Roberts (historian)

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John Roberts (historian) : biography

14 April 1928 – 30 May 2003

John Morris Roberts CBE (14 April 1928 – 30 May 2003) was a British historian, with significant published works, well known also as the author and presenter of the BBC TV series The Triumph of the West (1985).


The John Roberts Memorial Fund was established in his honour at Merton College in 2003, with the aim of increasing the financial support available to undergraduate and graduate students. The college hopes that in the first instance the Memorial Fund will support a history graduate.

When John Roberts’ The Mythology of the Secret Societies was republished in 2008, the back cover contained the following message: "We are living at a time when conspiracy theories are rife and the notion of secret plans for world domination under the guise of religious cults or secret societies is perhaps considered more seriously than ever."


Roberts was born in Bath, and educated at Taunton School. He won a scholarship to Keble College, Oxford, and took a First in Modern History in 1948. After National Service, he was elected a Prize Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, where he completed a doctoral thesis on the Italian republic set up during the time of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Times Literary Supplement described him as "master of the broad brush-stroke". In 1953 he was elected a Fellow and Tutor in Modern History at Merton College, Oxford, and in the same year went as a Commonwealth Fund Fellow to Princeton and Yale, where his interests broadened beyond European history. He returned to America three times as a visiting professor in the 1960s. From 1979 to 1985 he was vice-Chancellor of the University of Southampton where he felt obliged to make unpopular cuts (Classics and Theology). In 1985 he wrote and presented the thirteen-part BBC series The Triumph of the West, and was later historical advisor to the series People’s Century. From 1984 to 1994 he was Warden of Merton College, Oxford until his retirement, whereupon he returned to his native Somerset.

In 1996, Roberts was appointed CBE for his ‘services to education and history’. He died in 2003, at Roadwater, Somerset, shortly after completing the fourth revised edition of his The New History of the World.