Tuesday 25 August 2020


 This is a tale and a half, make no mistake.

The professor, as you will discover, is Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914-2003), Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford and later elevated to the title of Baron Dacre. He was of the old school and insisted on undergraduates wearing their gowns when attending his lectures. We on the radical left decided to challenge and arrived, en masse, gownless in 1968. He ordered us out. We went, although some slipped their gowns on and stayed. The professor got himself into hot water in the early 1980s when he declared the recently discovered diaries of Hitler as authentic. They were not. 

Hugh Trevor-Roper lived to the ripe old age of 89. The parson in this tale also enjoyed longevity, clocking up 87 years. He was Robert Peters (1918-2005). For over a quarter-century, the professor kept a file on the parson so fascinated had he become by this remarkable cleric. 

The parson - Robert Peters

The professor - Hugh Trevor-Roper

After Trevor-Roper's death, the task of writing his life-story was earned by an eminent biographer, Adam Sisman. It was his discovery of the file on parson Peters that has led to the publication of 'The

Professor and the Parson - A Story of Desire, Deceit and Defrocking' (2019) by Alan Sisman.

The book and the author, Alan Sisman

I have no intention of spoiling your own journey to find out more about this extraordinary parson - sufficient to say he was in his lifetime exposed as a plagiarist, bigamist, and fraudulent priest. More than once. Robert Peters had unquenchable energies. I sensed that vitality when we met in the back room of a tiny semi-detached house in Cambridge in the early 1990s. But back then I had no idea with whom I was conversing. I did not discover that story until last week. 

A younger Robert Peters in search of new pastures - America, Canada, South Africa, Switzerland, Australia, India: they all came within his orbit. 

Here is that tale of discovery, told by me through email correspondence, starting with a contact I have with a cool Canadian professor, John Reid. We read history at Catz, both matriculating in 1967. I also shared the story with another Catz history matriculand of 1967, not a parson but a genuine bishop, Bill Musk.

I have been inspired to write today by an extraordinary tale that has come my way. A couple of weeks ago, a new friend of ours, Stephen Vranch, posted a parcel through my door. It contained a gift - a book he had just finished reading. He thought of me, he said, because of the connection with Oxford historians. Stephen is a humble man and wears his learning and status lightly.

I warmly recommend the book to you:

Sisman, Alan (2019), 'The Professor and the Parson - A Story of Desire, Deceit and Defrocking', Profile Books.

So worth the read! 

You may know of it already since the 'villain' of the piece, Robert Peters, spent time in Canada, one of several countries to deport him. Hugh Trevor-Roper kept a file on him for twenty-five years. I wrote to Stephen this morning and thanked him for the opportunity to read this extraordinary tale. This is what I said; my small contribution to the saga:

Hi Stephen,

I read this extraordinary tale with my mouth open at times. How unbelievable! What an extraordinary charlatan! And how kind of you to think of me when noting those references to Oxford historians in the book. By the time I reached chapter 10 - In which the parson appoints himself principal (reprise) - I was beyond being shocked.

Then I noted the name of his institution: the Cambridge Religious Studies centre. I read on. A thought began to take shape in my mind. The family memory cell began to buzz. This morning my search that began yesterday (I finished the book on Tuesday) came up trumps, thanks to my archivist instinct to preserve the evidence of my life. Robert Peters had been one of my tutors when I was studying part-time for the Cambridge Certificate/Diploma in Religious Studies whilst serving as head of Religious Studies at Deben High school in Felixstowe. The school paid my fees for two years before I decided to opt out and teach myself for the final year of study. When the principal of the Cambridge Religious Studies Centre - Robert Peters - discovered he was about to lose the income I had generated, he threatened legal action. The Head and deputy Head were keen that I should continue as an enrolled student. I declined. I have no idea what happened. Did they pay anyway to avoid litigation?

I can't remember what prompted my decision to abandon the third year of tuition. It was certainly not the quality of tuition that I had been receiving from Peters and Dr Frye, my other tutor, by correspondence based on essay marking with learned and valuable comments over these two years. I was I think probably just exhausted trying to keep up with my school duties and my academic endeavors.

I do remember visiting Robert Peters at the beginning of my studies in what he claimed was his Cambridge home - the official address of Cambridge Seminars for Religious Studies: 4 Hawthorn Way, CB4 1AX. It was a course requirement - and a long way from Walpole in Suffolk where we were living. I expected something a little grander than a pokey semi-detached rather like the house I grew up in. He was pleasant enough in a pompous kind of way. As for his theological expertise, he was then and in his comments on my essays utterly convincing. He was a man of learning. Adam Sisman in his book fails to do him justice in this respect.

Glancing over my collection of New Testament essays (1990-91), I picked up these gems from the hand of RP:

'Sorry about the 'bittiness' of the comments. They were interrupted by two important, but lengthy, telephone calls about prospective tutors.'

And this:

"Women should participate in the services" [My words quoted by RP] Don't use this comment for examination purposes [underlined], but I'd want to say "God forbid"! You sent me to all the commentaries on 1 Cor. on which I could lay hands ....."

A postscript:

I was on the borderline for a Diploma with end of year grades of 2 and 3 in both Year 1 and Year 2. In my final year, self-taught, I rather flunked with a 3 for Reformation Studies and a 4 for Doctrines of the Christian Faith. I was awarded a Certificate with credit. The following year, I happened to be in the Ipswich college library on school-related business one evening and noticed a shelf of examiner's reports. I found myself looking up the report on the exam I had sat the previous year in 1993. My failure still niggled. The chief examiner had some particularly waspish comments about one candidate's efforts and misunderstandings. I came to realize that candidate was me. It crossed my mind that the chief examiner's report might have been compiled by Robert Peters.

Not a man to cross lightly!

A morning story for you, Stephen. Thanks for listening.'

It is extraordinary when you find the story of your own life has intersected with another
whose profile is so different to the one you assumed. 



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