Professor J H Plumb, whose gravestone stands on its own at the end of the church with the simple inscription: J H Plum Historian, lived in the Old Rectory adjacent to the Church. His 'O' Level textbook was standard in English schools for many years. He was a literary historian gifted with a rare ability to present the product of massive research elegantly and compactly.
A bachelor don renowned for his waspish tongue and taste for high living, he was as popular with his students as he was unpopular with many of his fellow historians, whose dislike was often tinged with envy. As Master of Christ's from 1978 until 1982, he was noted for his pursuit of the socially prominent, and for the opulence of his lifestyle.
It was a lifestyle that suited an historian of the 18th century. Few have conveyed the rumbustious confidence of the period as well as Plumb and perhaps it helped that he personified those qualities himself. To Plumb the 18th century was a period in which the future for England seemed cloudless and in which real progress was made both in terms of quality of life and political stability. In Georgian Delights (1980) he set out to demonstrate how Georgian England saw an immense increase in the enjoyment and pleasures of life.
As befits a former pupil of the historian G M Trevelyan, he took a generally optimistic view of man's achievements in history. Once, asked to choose the greatest blunder of the 20th century, he suggested Oswald Spengler's portentous The Decline of the West for its malign influence on the intelligentsia. Pessimists such as Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, he argued, "warped history with their verbosities".
Not that he shared the Whiggish faith in the inevitable march of progress. He believed that it was wrong to superimpose a pattern or derive moral lessons from the past. In Death of the Past (1969) he suggested that the role of the historian was to "dissolve those simple structural generalisations by which our forefathers interpreted the purpose of life in historical terms" and to challenge the use of the past as an instrument of political or social repression.
To many, Plumb's greatest work was Sir Robert Walpole: Making of a Statesman (Vol 1, 1956; Vol 2, 1960), his portrait of England's magnificent if unscrupulous first prime minister. Plumb's study ranks with the greatest examples of political biography, brilliantly conveying the essence of a politician who formed his character among the horsemen and huntsmen of his estates in Norfolk and always had more than a whiff of the great stables at Houghton about him.
As an accomplished author of essays and reviews, Plumb was known for his astute (if often uncharitable) judgments on his fellow historians. Toynbee he described as "lurching from campus to campus lecturing for succulent fees". Maurice Cowling was "an endearing comic figure, but intellectually disastrous". A L Rowse's "contempt for the world, for people, for critics, welled out of him like lava, scorching everything and everyone, making a desert around him". Some of Owen Chadwick's books were "surprisingly good". As for Geoffrey Elton, the Cambridge Tudor historian with whom Plumb conducted something of a running battle, though able in many ways he was remarkable for "implacability of vision and total rigidity".
During occasional bouts of in-fighting that broke out between England's two great universities, Plumb could always be relied on for a quote. On one occasion, stung by criticism by some Oxonians of Cambridge's record in the 1930s as a breeding ground for Soviet spies, he observed: "Oxford may be Brideshead Revisited but at about the same period, Cambridge was changing the world. It's just a matter of depth." Nevertheless he did not treat the matter lightly. In 1980 he was among a number of prominent academics who threatened to quit the British Academy over its failure to expel the self-confessed traitor Anthony Blunt.
John Harold Plumb was born on August 20 1911 at Leicester and educated at Alderman Newton School there and at University College Leicester. From Leicester he made his way to Cambridge where he managed to persuade Trevelyan to supervise his research. "I was quite clear-eyed about what my position in Cambridge would be," he recalled. "No one was likely to take much notice of a postgraduate student from an almost unknown and certainly despised university college. If I could prove myself to Trevelyan, I thought I might have a chance of a fellowship."
Trevelyan taught him much about writing elegant prose; Plumb described how Trevelyan "loved to take a paragraph of mine and polish it - breaking up a sentence, modulating the rhythm or deleting an adjective".
During the war, Plumb was recruited to work at Bletchley Park and was prominent among those codebreakers who worked on Reservehandverfahren (RHV), the code used by the German navy when Enigma broke down, and by some ships instead of the Enigma machine. In 1946 he returned to Cambridge, becoming a fellow of Christ's College, where he remained for the next 32 years. They were years in which he devoted his life to the study and teaching of history and in which he nurtured a generation of brilliant historians, including Simon Schama, John Vincent, Geoffrey Parker and J P Kenyon.
In 1966, he was appointed Professor of Modern English History. A year later he was named (along with Elton) as a possible successor to Herbert Butterfield as Regius Professor of Modern History. In the event neither man got the job, which went to the more emollient Chadwick.
In 1977 Plumb became well known to television viewers through the Royal Heritage series, jointly written and presented with Huw Weldon. A glossy survey of royal patronage over the centuries, the series was repeated many times. A book accompanying the programme sold 250,000 copies.
In 1978, towards the end of his academic life, Plumb was elected Master of Christ's, succeeding Lord Todd. It was a position he greatly enjoyed. Already reputed to be one of the best judges of claret at the university (he was a member of its wine standards board between 1973 and 1975), he made good use of his knowledge and entertained on a lavish scale. The Master's lodgings became known as "Jack's Palace".
One feature of his mastership was a series of large weekend parties held four times a term at which students mingled with a wide variety of distinguished people. Plumb was never reluctant to admit to his acquaintance among the social elite or to weekends spent at Sandringham. "I have no guilt," he said. "Having jumped on to the coat tails of the bourgeoisie, I have no intention of being shaken off again." Yet he maintained, less convincingly, that he could be "just as happy with a tin of soup and a piece of toast as having 20 people round my table".
Though Plumb was often described as an arch bachelor, he was far from being a misogynist. When women were admitted to the college in 1979, he boasted: "We've some very bright girls coming. So there will be more pulchritude about the college." Among poorer colleagues there was some envious speculation about the source of his wealth and irreverent rumours that it derived from an interest in a ladies' underwear factory in Leicester. But Plumb maintained that the larger part came from royalties, prudent investment and the fact that "I have no wife to clothe and bejewel".
Throughout his academic career, Plumb made frequent research and lecture tours of America and held a number of visiting and honorary professorships there. When, in 1991, he reached the age of 80 (an event celebrated in characteristic style at a Kensington Palace champagne party thrown in his honour by Princess Margaret), his birthday was also noted in the American Senate.
Plumb retired as Master of Christ's in 1982, but continued living in the college and remained active as a historian and reviewer. During the 1980s he became a fervent admirer of Margaret Thatcher. In 1987 a new auditorium at the college was named in his honour. In 1993 he protested about proposals to remove the voting rights of Cambridge dons over 70. "I do always vote when something irritates me," he said.
In 1977, during the making of Royal Heritage, Plumb wanted to present a vignette of George IV on his deathbed. In April 1830, he recalled, the King called for his breakfast and consumed two pigeons, three beefsteaks, three parts of a bottle of Moselle, a glass of champagne, two of port and one of brandy. To Plumb's regret he was overruled, but noted, wistfully, "what a marvellous appetite for life that man had".
Plumb was knighted in 1982.