Lord Macaulay and the History of England

GREAT as was the popularity of Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome and of his collected Essays, it was eclipsed by that of his History of England, from the Accession of James II to the death of William III. The first two volumes appeared in 1848, the next two in 1855, and the unfinished fifth volume in 1861 after his death. Macaulay has been accused of allowing his Whig bias to distort his views. But, in the words of Sir Leslie Stephen, it does not seem that he was ever consciously unfair, and an historian without prejudices has hitherto meant a writer without imagination. As a lucid and picturesque narrator Macaulay is almost unsurpassed, and his History will always be read for its brilliant style.


I PURPOSE to write the history of England from the accession of King James II down to a time within the memory of men still living. I shall recount the errors which, in a few months, alienated a loyal gentry and priesthood from the House of Stewart. I shall trace the course of that revolution which terminated the long struggle between our sovereigns and their parliaments, and bound up together the rights of the people and the title of the reigning dynasty.

Unless I greatly deceive myself, the general effect of this chequered narrative, faithfully recording disasters mingled with triumphs, will be to excite thankfulness in all religious minds and hope in the breasts of all patriots. For the history of our country during the period concerned is eminently the history of physical, of moral and of intellectual improvement.

Nothing in the early existence of Britain indicated the greatness she was destined to attain. Of the western provinces which obeyed the Caesars, she was the last couquered and the first flung away. Though she had been subjugated by the Roman arms, she received only a faint tincture of Roman arts and letters. No magnificent remains of Roman porches and aqueducts are to be found in Britain, and the scanty and superficial civilization which the islanders acquired from their southern masters was effaced by the calamities of the fifth century.

From the darkness that followed the ruin of the Western Empire Britain emerges as England. The conversion of the Saxon colonists to Christianity was the first of a long series of salutary revolutions. The Church has many times been compared to the ark of which we read in the Book of Genesis; but never was the resemblance more perfect than during that evil time when she rode alone, amidst darkness and tempest, on the deluge beneath which all the great works of ancient power and wisdom lay entombed, bearing within her that feeble germ from which a second and more glorious civilization was to spring.

EVEN the spiritual supremacy of the Pope was, in the Dark Ages, productive of far more good than evil. Its effect was to unite the nations of Western Europe in one great commonwealth. Into this federation our Saxon ancestors were now admitted. Learning followed in the train of Christianity. The poetry and eloquence of the Augustan age was assiduously studied in the Mercian and Northumbrian monasteries. The names of Bede and Alcuin were justly celebrated throughout Europe. Such was the state of our country when, in the ninth century, began the last great migration of the northern barbarians.

Large colonies of Danish adventures established themselves in our island, and for many years the struggle continued between the two fierce Teutonic breeds, each being alternately paramount. At length the north ceased to send forth fresh streams of piratical emigrants, and from that time the mutual aversion of Danes and Saxons began to subside. Inter--marriage became frequent. The Danes learnt the religion of the Saxons, and the two dialects of one widespread language were blended. But the distinction between the two nations was by no means effaced when an event took place which prostrated both at the feet of a third people.

The Normans were then the foremost race of Christendom. Originally rovers from Scandinavia, conspicuous for their valour and ferocity, they had, after long being the terror of the Channel, founded a mighty state, which gradually extended its influence from its own Norman territory over the neighbouring districts of Brittany and Maine They embraced Christianity and adopted the French tongue. They renounced the brutal intemperance of northern races, and became refined, polite and chivalrous, their nobles being distinguished by their graceful bearing and insinuating address.

THE Battle of Hastings and the events which followed it not only placed a Duke of Normandy on the English throne, but gave up the whole population of England to the tyranny of the Norman race. The subjugation of a nation has seldom, even in Asia, been more complete. During the century and a half which followed the Conquest, there is, to speak strictly, no English history. Had the Plantagenets, as at one time seemed likely, succeeded in uniting all France under their government, it is probable that England would never have had an independent existence. England owes her escape from dependence on French thought and customs to separation from Normandy, an event which her historians have generally represented as disastrous. The talents, and even the virtues of her first six French kings, were a curse to her. The follies and vices of the seventh, King John, were her salvation. He was driven from Normandy, and in England the two races were drawn together, both being alike aggrieved by the tyranny of a bad king. From that moment the prospects brightened, and here commences the history of the English nation.

In no country has the enmity of race been carried further than in England. In no country has that enmity been more completely effaced. Early in the fourteenth century the amalgamation of the races was all but complete, and a people inferior to none existing in the world had been formed by the mixture of three branches of the Teutonic family with each other, and with the aboriginal Britons.

A period of more than a hundred years followed, during which the chief object of the English was, by force of arms, to establish a great empire on the Continent. The effect of the successes of Edward III and Henry V was to make France for a time a province of England. A French king was brought prisoner to London; an English king was crowned at Paris.

The arts of peace were not neglected by our fathers during that period. English thinkers aspired to know, or dared to doubt, where bigots had been content to wonder and to believe. The same age which produced the Black Prince and Derby, Chandos and Hawkwood, produced also Geoffrey Chaucer and John Wycliffe. In so splendid and imperial a manner did the English people, properly so called, first take place among the nations of the world. But the spirit of the French people was at last aroused and, after many desperate struggles and with many bitter regrets, our ancestors gave up the contest.

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