Universiteit Leiden

nl en

How Sir Winston Churchill became a Leiden Honorary Doctor

Seventy years ago, on 10 May 1946, Leiden University awarded Winston Churchill an Honorary Doctorate in Law. Churchill's speech of thanks showed typical British humour: 'I feel like the most learned man in the world.'

Role in Second World War

The Right Honourable Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was awarded the title of Honorary Doctor as a tribute to his role in World War II. As Prime Minister during the War years, Churchill had demonstrated enormous courage and determination. Given the large number of people who were expected to attend the ceremony, the University sought a suitable venue. The Dutch Reformed Church in Leiden offered the Pieterskerk. This was an unusual offer as the church was still in use as a place of worship.

Supervisor Professor Cleveringa

The grand old man - Churchill was 72 at the time - arrived at the Academy Building together with his wife and daughter Mary, through a guard of honour, formed by forty members of the Student Resistance Association Pro Patria and the 'amazones' of the Leiden Women’s Student Society. Churchill was greeted in the Senate Hall by the Rector Magnificus Berend George Escher and was introduced to his supervisor, Professor Rudolph Cleveringa; he then donned his gown which was given to him by Oxford University that had also awarded him an Honorary Doctorate.

Contrary to protocol

Contrary to university protocol - there are times when practical issues are more important - Churchill was allowed to write his signature on the wall in the 'Sweat Room' (het Zweetkamertje) in advance of the degree ceremony. In the meantime visitors filed into the Pieterskerk, including eminent guests such as Princess Juliana and Prince Bernhard, and Prime Minister Willem Schermerhorn. There were two hundred professors present in total.  And of course the press had turned up: fifty journalists, including thirty from abroad.

'We will win, we shall win'

Rector Escher first summed up the grounds on which an honorary doctorate can be awarded. The third - and most exceptional - reason applied to Churchill: the doctorate may be awarded to a person who, through character and high morals, has favourably influenced the course of history. In his speech Cleveringa spoke of the hope that he and countless other Dutch people had gained from Churchill's words, which were heard on the radio in mid-June 1940: 'We shall go on to the end; we will win; we shall win.'

'Most learned man in the world'

After the presentation of the certificate, Churchill himself spoke. He recalled in his speech the day that the Netherlands was invaded – 10 May 1940. This was also the very day he became Prime Minister of Great Britain.  He added that this, his third Honorary Doctorate, made him feel like 'the most learned man in the world'.  Churchill had previously been awarded Honorary Doctorates by the universities of Oxford and Leuven.

A visit to Minerva

After the ceremony Churchill visited the student society Minerva, which, in 1946, was only open to men. There Churchill held a short speech, standing on the large reading table. The rather shabby state of the club, its interior and its noisy students, made him utter the following words: 'I feel tremendous forces in this room.' These words were later inscribed on the wall of the society.

Seated on the steps

When Churchill left Minerva, the car that was due to collect him was nowhere to be seen. The statesman calmly sat himself down on the steps in front of Minerva to wait. But according to Mixtamorfose, the anniversary book for 1974, Churchill sat down on the steps before going inside.  Churchill spent a week in the Netherlands, from 8 to 13 May 1946. The Dutch regarded him as one of the country's liberators and he was given a hero's welcome wherever he went. He was taken aback by this unexpected show of emotion: he had always thought that the Dutch were 'down to earth and unexcitable'.

View the series of photos on Churchill's Honorary Doctorate.