In 2010, Adam Sisman published a masterly biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper, who was not merely one of the best historians of his generation but also a former intelligence officer, fascinated by tricks, lies and fraud. He himself wrote a mischievous series of anonymous articles for The Spectator, purporting to emanate from the 17th-century pen of ‘Mercurius Oxoniensis’,which gave a hilarious picture of his contemporary dons at Oxford and their crazy ways. One of his funniest books was an exposé of the sinologist Sir Edmund Backhouse, a benefactor of the Bodleian Library, whom Trevor-Roper proved to have been a forger and liar on a heroic scale.
But perhaps the supreme irony of Trevor-Roper’s life was that, on behalf of the Sunday Times, he authenticated the ‘Hitler Diaries’ forged by Konrad Kujau: fascinated as he was by hoaxes, he fell for the greatest literary hoax of the 20th century. It was a humiliation which delighted his enemies, and it will always haunt his memory.
On a more modest scale was his interest in a very minor fraudster who came his way in 1958. This was one Robert Michael Parkins, or Robert Parkin Peters, who claimed he was being persecuted by the Bishop of Oxford and the president of his old college, Magdalen. Peters was a habitual fantasist who, through a long life, repeated three types of deception. He claimed academic degrees and distinctions for himself; he illegally practised as a clergyman — eventually even professing to be a bishop of something called the Old Polish Catholic Church while having not one word of Polish; and he was a serial bigamist, clocking up at least seven marriages.
Young women seemed to have found this paunchy, balding fake parson quite irresistible. The last wife, who stayed with him for more than 30 years, helped him run a spurious sounding college, called variously the Cambridge Religious Studies Centre and Monkfield, which was, astonishingly, accredited by various reputable academic institutions such as the University of Hull and which, even more astonishingly, attracted (presumably fee-paying) students.
The doctorates and MA degrees which Peters gave himself nearly always, on investigation, turned out to be inventions. Yet he popped up again and again, at academic institutions on both sides of the Atlantic, often getting posts at universities. Also, in defiance of injunctions from the Archbishop of Canterbury and various bishops in Britain and South Africa (for a time he was rector of a church in the Orange Free State), he was often to be seen elaborately vested in clerical attire and conducting the liturgy. (He really had been ordained as a C of E clergyman but was defrocked for bigamy.)
One of his cleverest tricks was to work for a while as a proofreader at Oxford University Press, which gave him access to the unpublished theses of graduate students. He was then able to plunder their contents, which he passed off as his own work. When in prison for bigamy, he was visited by the Bishop of Birmingham, who offered him the post of secretary upon his release. Peters/Parkins would type out fulsome references for himself for academic postings and take them in with the rest of the bishop’s correspondence. The bishop always signed papers when pushed in front of him, without checking.
Trevor-Roper, for whom the subject of Peters was a pastime rather than an obsession, reckoned that he must have applied for almost every academic post advertised. Many of the heavyweights, such as Trevor-Roper himself and Geoffrey Elton, grew wise to ‘Peters’. But some very good scholars, including Patrick Collinson, were taken in by him and wrote him references — recommending him, for example, as vice principal of one of the colleges of the University of Durham.
Sisman’s deadpan tone heightens his comic effects. Often while reading his book in a public place I embarrassed myself by uncontrollable guffaws. Partly it is Peters’s pomposity and aggrieved self-importance which is funny, partly his lasciviousness, which lasted into an impressive old age — no woman, it seems, could be in his presence more than a few moments without him literally pressing his attentions upon her.
But I think the truly funny thing is that Peters was a conman on such a small scale. One admires the amount of effort involved to start ‘Monkfield’, pass it off as a place of learning and persuade Hull and Lampeter to give it accreditation. This is a truly wonderful story. I wonder how many more such frauds there are at large, in schools, colleges and churches. And how do we tell the frauds from the often equally spurious ‘real thing’?