To send content items to your account,
please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies.
If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account.
Find out more about sending content to .
To send content items to your Kindle, first ensure email@example.com
is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings
on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part
of your Kindle email address below.
Find out more about sending to your Kindle.
Note you can select to send to either the @free.kindle.com or @kindle.com variations.
‘@free.kindle.com’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi.
‘@kindle.com’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.
A generation ago historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, in a review essay of John Burrow's A Liberal Descent, posed the question: ‘Who Now Reads Macaulay?’ Himmelfarb answered her question in the negative and at present that judgement still stands. An icon of English historiography for numerous reasons, it is nonetheless true that Macaulay's five volumes on The History of England from the Accession of James II (1848–61), impossibly popular in the nineteenth century, has lost its readership except for a small band of scholars. Often mentioned alongside Edward Gibbon and Frederic William Maitland among the greatest English historians, Macaulay has retained his reputation but not his readers. Paradoxical as this situation seems, it does not diminish the contribution that Macaulay made to the establishment of a national story, even if his narrative covered a relatively short time span.
One issue that touches all our historians is audience. Did they attract a broad spectrum of readers? A book, after all, may be purchased, put on a shelf and never read at all. Or a title might be read, loaned out and receive multiple readings. With respect to libraries, over the course of a decade or even a century, a volume may attract hundreds or even thousands of readers: ‘Since books can be read and reread by many people over long periods, statistics of titles printed or sold cannot be adequate surrogates for numbers of acts of reading’.
Can historians shape national identity and how does this change over time? Two eminent scholars of historiography examine the concept of national identity through the medium of the key multi-volume histories of the last two hundred years. Starting with Hume’s History of England from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in 1688 (1754–62), Brundage and Cosgrove devote separate chapters to the work of Catharine Macaulay, John Lingard, Henry Hallam, Thomas Babington Macaulay, James Anthony Froude, Edward Freeman, William Stubbs, John Richard Green, Samuel Rawson Gardiner, George Macaulay Trevelyan and Winston Churchill. The work of these writers had a wide readership and an even greater influence by becoming the authorities on which other authors based the textbooks used by succeeding generations of British children. By contemporary standards many of these historians’ conclusions have not endured but their impact on how the British view themselves still remains.
Patriotism and a country's national narrative go together, for no state and few citizens relish a comprehensive recitation of the nation's mistakes, atrocities and/or failures. The tenor of the story is inevitably a positive retelling of the historical record. People in general and historians in particular understand that historical circumstances do not last forever and change in every era confronts the individual. Our historians, particularly the Victorians, provided an idealized past because, in part, they pondered whether the glories of the English past would prove permanent. Familiar with the rise and fall of classical and medieval empires, for example, they recognized that the British Empire might decline and meet a similar fate. To contemplate the future caused a sense of ‘uncertainty and anxiety’ about what tomorrow might hold. As scholars grounded in the past, they understood that laws of human development, no matter how formulated, could not predict subsequent events in the same sense as the physical or life sciences. The free will of human beings meant that the lessons of history required careful definition and articulation.
Our thesis is that the national history passed from generation to generation, even as the story changes, constitutes an integral part of how the English people view themselves. This identification does not mandate any sort of fundamental agreement, for the past offers a variety of values with which to connect. History (and historians) provide the collective memory for the nation: ‘the archives of human experiences and of the thoughts of past generations’.
George Macaulay Trevelyan (1876–1962) came by both his profession and his early Whiggish inclinations naturally. As the great-nephew of T. B. Macaulay and son of the historian, Liberal MP and sometimes government minister George Otto Trevelyan (1838–1928), he grew up in an atmosphere of devotion to learning and a commitment to reform. He was acutely aware from an early age of belonging to two kinds of aristocracy, birth and talent. Proud of his descent from Cornish gentry, he was prone to see in the landed leaders of English counties the vital governing as well as civilizing force of English society. He also never lost his deep reverence for rural life and pursuits, infusing his books with loving descriptions of the beauty of the countryside and the admirable traits of those who dwelt there. The family's Wallington estate in Northumberland, where George grew up, was a recent family acquisition. His grandfather, Charles Trevelyan, a noted official in British India and a civil service reformer as well as an infamous figure in the Treasury during the Irish potato famine for withholding needed funds from starving peasants, inherited the 22,000 acre estate from a cousin in 1879. Sir Charles, who had married Macaulay's sister Hannah in 1834, died in 1886, and was succeeded by his son the second baronet, George Otto Trevelyan.
Edward Augustus Freeman, once so prominent a figure in Victorian historiography, no longer holds such a lofty position. The combination of personal eccentricities plus revisions to the conclusions he advanced in his epic five volumes on the Norman Conquest have rendered him a scholar of lesser attainment among his Victorian contemporaries. On subjects such as vivisection and fox-hunting, his views differed from those of society at large to the point where Lytton Strachey counted Freeman among the select group of eminent Victorians whose inclusion did not signify admiration. Despite the doubts of posterity, Freeman retains an importance because he represented best the transition from a romantic view of the national narrative to one secured on a scientific basis. This change occurred through ‘epistemological orientations and methods of research that drew history away from its literary origins into a new field of social science’. Freeman possessed unique ideas about the nature of history that attracted attention to the discipline even if they did not endure.
In his personal life Freeman was raised by his paternal grandmother under the guardianship of an uncle after being orphaned at an early age. One blessing he did enjoy was an income of £600 per annum from his family's coal mine interests that supported him well until his income increased through his writings. Freeman took a BA degree at Trinity College, Oxford in 1845 and shortly thereafter resolved to pursue a career as historian.
When the volumes of David Hume's The History of England from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in 1688 appeared in print between 1754 and 1762, they were oft en read and appraised through the lens of contemporary political and religious divisions. While this was true to some extent about all historical works written in the period, it was especially true for Hume, who chose to write his history backwards, beginning with the most recent era, that of the Stuart dynasty. When the first volume was published in 1754, it bore the title The History of Great Britain. Only with the appearance of later volumes dealing with earlier historical periods was the title of the collected volumes changed to The History of England. Hume decided to start in 1603 rather than 1485 because, as he explained to Adam Smith:
Twas under James that the House of Commons began first to raise their Head, and then the Quarrel betwixt Privilege and Prerogative commenca'd … and the Factions, which then arose, having an influence on our present Affairs, form the most curious, interesting, and instructive Part of our History.
His sympathetic treatment of Charles I, criticism of rebel leaders during the Civil War, and disparaging of ‘fanatical’ Puritans, brought down the wrath of radical Whigs upon his head. Conversely, Tories were pleased, though it did not escape their notice that Hume was far from endorsing their most cherished doctrines.
Overlapping T. B. Macaulay's History in dates of publication was one almost as popular, dealing with the heart of the Tudor era, from the middle of Henry VIII's reign to the latter stages of Elizabeth's. Its author, James Anthony Froude (1818–94), was born in Devon and educated at Westminster and Oriel College, Oxford. At Oxford, in part due to his elder brother Hurrell's influence, Froude fell within the orbit of the Oxford Movement, that Catholicizing trend within the Church of England that stressed the Church's antiquity, independence and ritual. John Henry Newman, the leading light of the movement, got Froude to undertake research for a planned book on the lives of the saints. The almost total lack of reliable evidence for the early centuries of Christianity fueled Froude's growing skepticism, precipitating his disengagement from the Oxford Movement and, for a while, from the Church of England itself. Developments in science, especially Robert Chambers's Vestiges of Creation (1844), caused Froude to question all dogmatic authority, and in 1848 he published his Nemesis of Faith. This ringing affirmation of the primacy of reason led to the loss of his Oriel College fellowship and the necessity of earning his livelihood. Froude turned his hand to writing historical sketches for various publications. His success with these pieces, together with an enduring interest in the exploits of the Elizabethan ‘sea dogs’ of his native county, led him to fasten upon history as the most suitable career.
Pride in the antiquity and virtues of the English constitution have a long tradition in English identity. Phrases such as the ancient constitution and the Norman Yoke point to the way in which political discourse and attachment to the constitution have enjoyed an extensive history. In 1777, for example, the Earl of Chatham invoked the genius of the constitution to resolve political disputes. The Duke of Wellington, in the debate prior to the introduction to the Reform Bill of 1830, insisted that the constitution had achieved a level of perfection that precluded any further alteration. Charles Dickens's Mr Podsnap in Our Mutual Friend stated: ‘We Englishmen are Very Proud of our Constitution, Sir. It Was Bestowed Upon Us By Providence.’ Patriotic sentiments focused on: ‘trial by jury, habeas corpus, Magna Carta, the Petition of Right and Bill of Rights, taxation by means of elected representatives, the restriction of monarchical powers within a tightly controlled executive, the parliamentary franchise and frequent parliamentary elections’. Contemplation of the constitution had frequently served to impart private wisdom as well as to suggest correct public policy; such a constitution was indeed a ‘pearl of great price’. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, therefore, the emphasis on constitutional glory as part of national identity lacked only a chronicler.
To unite constitutional enthusiasm and national identity became the mission of Henry Hallam (1771–1859).
In the past two decades the nature of English national identity has attracted a significant amount of both public and scholarly attention. Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair made plain in public speeches their opinions on the topic, parroting a patriotic version of English exceptionalism that few historians would now accept. They celebrated uncritically English achievements such as parliamentary government, the slow evolution towards democracy and the rule of law. Current public policy debates on the nature and purpose of history in the National Curriculum abound, focused on how and what should be taught about the national past. Peter Mandler, president of the Royal Historical Society, noted in 2013 that ‘all of the main professional bodies of historians have united in criticism of this draft’. This creates a dilemma because the legally enforced curriculum ‘is also used to explore concepts of nationhood, which operate in tension with people's history’. Meanwhile scholars have sought to locate identity in a wide variety of activities: from music to gardening, from patterns of foreign travel to constitutional achievements, from the cinema to imperial governance and a host of other categories. Even Prince Charles has weighed in on the subject in 2013, calling the English countryside the unacknowledged backbone of the nation's national identity.
In each of these areas, as well as all others, the definition of national identity possesses a historical aspect.
John Richard Green (1837–83), the author of the highly successful Short History of the English People (1874), was born in Oxford. The son of a maker of silk gowns for Fellows, he grew up in straitened circumstances in a strongly Tory and Anglican household. His small size and delicate health deprived him of normal boyhood activities, but he displayed an early passion for books and history. In 1852 he suffered the loss of both his father and his beloved elder sister, Adelaide. Placed under the domination of an ultra-conservative uncle who demanded constant gratitude and deference, Green rebelled by adopting outspokenly liberal viewpoints, evidenced in a school history essay sharply criticizing Charles I. Such defiance of the cult of the ‘royal martyr’ led to his expulsion in 1854 from Magdalen College School. His preparation for university was completed under the tutelage of James Ridgway and, more successfully, Charles Duke Yonge, later a professor of English at the University of Belfast.
Green managed to secure a scholarship to Jesus College, Oxford, then perhaps the least distinguished college in a university barely stirring from its pre-reform torpor. After beginning his studies there in 1856, he quickly became disillusioned, read widely on his own, wrote scathing satires of dons and fellow students and took a pass degree in 1859. Immediately afterward, he was commissioned by the editors of the Oxford Chronicle to write a series of articles on eighteenth-century Oxford life.
A national narrative expresses a country's exceptionalism, recounts its history in salutary fashion and both appeals to and generates patriotism in its citizenry. In the current curricular debate in the United Kingdom, the Royal Historical Society posed the challenge that all history teachers face: ‘Should the History curriculum provide students with a greater sense of a national narrative or should the teaching of history focus on gaining skills and understanding concepts?’ These objectives are not mutually exclusive, but the query pertains to the crux of what history instruction should envision and how this relates to the way the past is remembered. The English national narrative, in part due to the efforts of historians discussed in this work, blended patriotism and social stability by 1950: ‘During the first half of the twentieth century, English history was widely regarded as an exemplary narrative of achievement, heroism and sacrifice’. As appealing as this depiction became, discourse about the English past was never this simple and always contested. Just as the English past defined national greatness for some, it also caused anxiety for others who worried about decline from an idealized history.
One major topic within the tradition of specifying national identity drawn from the past concentrated on the English Reformation. Whether regarded as an event or a process, the transition from a Catholic to a Protestant nation helped to define national identity.
Unlike Hume, whose fame lasted throughout his life and up to the present, Catharine Macaulay had, as Bridget Hill observed, just fifteen years of positive public notice, followed by years of contentiousness as she entered directly and vigorously into the political debates of the age. She was celebrated as ‘Dame Thucydides’ and painted and sculpted as Clio and other classical figures upon the publication of the first five volumes of her eight-volume History of England from the Accession of James I to that of the Brunswick Line (1763–71). But a ten-year hiatus before the final three volumes of her history appeared between 1781 and 1783 was disastrous to both her personal and literary reputation. A series of unconventional actions and involvements, including taking as her second husband a man twenty-six years her junior, exacted a heavy toll on her public standing. In the salacious and scandal-obsessed atmosphere of the period, this led inevitably to mockery from Grub Street hacks and society wits alike. Her republican views and pro-American stance as the American Revolution unfolded also brought about widespread criticism, save by a relatively small number of radical supporters in Britain, though she continued to enjoy the support of many leading Americans. Major British Whigs, who had found in the pages of her early volumes a ringing justification of their policies and programmes, turned against her.
William Stubbs (1825–1901) enjoyed success in several careers, any one of which would have made him a model cleric or scholar. As an Anglican clergyman he eventually became Bishop of Chester and later Bishop of Oxford. Between 1864 and 1889, as an editor Stubbs contributed nearly twenty titles to the Rolls Series, an enterprise inaugurated in 1857 to publish manuscripts that illuminated the country's medieval history. Stubbs provided introductions to these volumes that were themselves significant essays. It was as historian that Stubbs gained his place among the luminaries of Victorian historiography, for his Constitutional History attained a fame and influence that even now has not entirely vanished. The great legal historian Frederic Maitland declared that he had read the three volumes at a club in London ‘because it was interesting’. Although Maitland travelled a different scholarly path, his opinion, considering the intellectual stature he attained, has remained perhaps the greatest compliment that Stubbs ever received. From its initial edition the Constitutional History acquired a prominence that spread well beyond the confines of academe.
John Burrow wrote of Stubbs's History that it was ‘one of the great books, in fact, of the nineteenth century’, a judgement with which we agree without reservation. His work rescued the study of medieval history from the blinkered conclusions of antiquarians and placed its study on a firm erudite basis:
Like Trevelyan, Winston Churchill (1874–1965) was born into a highly privileged family, indeed one at the pinnacle of the aristocracy. But unlike Trevelyan, who was financially secure throughout his life from family money, Churchill had to make his own way. Imitating his parents, the flamboyant and impecunious Lord Randolph Churchill and the free-spending American heiress Jenny Jerome, he was beset throughout his life by one financial crisis after another. Temperamentally, the two men were poles apart, with the cautious, introverted Trevelyan embracing the quiet and seclusion of a well-ordered life, while Churchill loved society and lively company. The former's pastoralism and longing for simpler, less hectic times made him uncomfortable in the frenetic twentieth century, while Churchill relished the challenges of modern times. Both men held conservative views about government and society, but Trevelyan's were more rooted in an imagined, benign early Georgian social order, while Churchill celebrated the ability of the aristocracy and the upper classes to maintain a measure of authority into his own day.
Trevelyan's immersion in the quiet rigour of a scholarly existence was natural to him, while Churchill was clearly marked out for a vivid public life, one that was both contentious and (to use a term that frequently occurs in his written works), thrusting.