Book 1, Chapter 1, Authors Notes

English history is one of which all, English men may be greatly proud, and for which they should be grateful. Civil and religious rights now enjoyed, were won by their forefathers after centuries of wrong and suffering, and have been transmitted, as a priceless heritage, to them. The firmly rooted tree of the British Constitution, beneath whose wide spreading branches we now safely repose, was planted, and watched and nurtured by bold, true Englishmen of former times, nurtured sometimes with tears and even with blood. To those bold true men is it owing that English soil is free, so that now no slave can exist upon it, and any persecuted, injured man, from any clime, and of any colour, can find upon it an inviolable asylum. Commercial wealth, mercantile greatness, social prosperity, cultivated intelligence, far reaching philanthropy, vast moral influence, are the products of seeds planted long ago, and whose growth a benign Providence has fostered. With all these matters it behoves Englishmen to become acquainted, in order that with growing intelligence they may rightly discharge the duties, and enjoy the privileges, of good citizens of this glorious commonwealth and in order that the page of history which they are now helping to write, may be worthy of comparison with any page written by the men and women before them.

Much of what is called English Historical writing, in the strict and dignified sense of that phrase as used by some, is a mere record of kings and courts, with their intrigues, follies, and crimes; of Statesmen and Parliaments, with their scheming and ambition, and of Battles and Sieges, with their attendant horrors. The history of the People has been too often disregarded as if the old Stuart claim, in all its bold impudence, were true, that the people exist for one man or for one family, and not the king for the people. A noteworthy exception, and one deserving of all praise is found in “the Pictorial History of England,” projected and issued by the veteran Charles Knight. But since that most valuable work was written, much additional information concerning the domestic and social usages of former periods has been made available from a variety of sources. While the manner of execution and the nature of the illustrations are alike open to improvement, the former as a matter of opinion, taste, and convenience, and the latter owing to improved mechanical appliances.

This distinction between a History of the State and one of the Commonwealths, between a History of Monarchs and one of the People, needs to be borne in mind, for it is of the utmost importance. Graphic descriptions of wars, both civil and foreign of court cabals and of back stairs intrigues of stately ceremonials and diplomatic receptions, are useful in their place, and to omit all reference to them would involve a deficient history. But such matters ought not always to occupy the chief place, still less should they form the great mass of the work. After perusing these, no clear and satisfactory conception is gained of the England of former times, for names, dates, and places may be compared together and no vivid idea, be formed of the real things which they represent. On the other hand, it is possible to describe the onward march of great national events, to assign due place to the leaders and guides of public opinion, to deal faithfully with affairs of state, to pay proper regard to relations with other countries. To ascertain the results of dynastic changes and of political movements, and yet, consentaneously, to show how those national events were, in truth, the outgrowth of the national mind and will.  To show those leaders and guides of public opinion were, often, its followers and exponents how those affairs of state affected the body politic and how foreign relations bore most intimately upon the people at large. Showing how those changes of dynasty and those fluctuations in politics were not without their influence upon the community also.

In fact, it is impossible to regard the interests of any one class of Englishmen, at any time, as distinct from the interests of other classes. For the social condition, the measure of civil freedom, the degree of intelligence, the standard of morals, of the nation at large are all materially influenced by the way in which its different grades act and react upon one another. It is idle to consider any reigning family, or any military or political leader, however great and powerful, as absolutely controlling great national developments and yet, as Mr. Froude remarks (Oxford Essays, 1855, p. 64), “In all our books of English History, the policy of the country, down at least to the close of the Tudor dynasty, is, with very few exceptions, invariably represented as the policy of the sovereign, whose personal inclinations are the only motive power recognised as of real influence in the state as if the will of a despotic tyrant was the absolute and only law. Foreign wars and home legislation, changes of administration, changes of religious faith, are all the king’s, and the consent of Parliament is treated but as the compelled sanction of apparent legality to the iniquities of despotism. Such a view of things may be a true one, but it is exceedingly strange.

The English nation was at no time a nation of complacent slaves. They were distinguished as the bravest and fiercest people in Europe; and the noblemen and gentlemen who are accused of such criminal compliance, were themselves the bravest of England’s knights and soldiers. Courage and daring are not usually consistent with a readiness to be made instruments of tyranny. Men who do not themselves fear death, would not now, under any threat or compulsion, sign death warrants against queens and princes of the blood, against noble lords or statesmen or prelates, or against the poorest man, because their lives were inconvenient to the reigning powers. Far less would they disgrace themselves with pretence of believing the accusations with which such iniquity might attempt to justify itself. And it is no easy thing to believe our ancestors were so readily capable of doing things, the very thought of which is inconceivable among ourselves.

It has been a fashion with some historians to regard the great ruling minds of England as having been exceedingly mean minds and one effect has been to convey such a notion of paltriness that our great England, once “called ‘The land of lordliest souls, the dear, dear land, Dear for her reputation through the earth. This happy breed of men, this little world, this precious stone set in the silver sea, is made to appear the nursery of everything most pitiful, base, and contemptible. The fortunes of royal personages, their private lives, and wars, and quarrels, have assumed a proportion utterly undue to their real dimensions and the idea has been fostered that the history of the English nation was merely the history of its kings, its few leading nobles, and its armies, and that the people themselves had no existence worth recording.

When a traveller wanders into some of our cathedrals, or strays into some secluded parish church nestling among the hills, and observes stately effigies, in stone or brass over the dust of men whose story is all unknown, or concerning whom only faint whispers of tradition seem to float around their tattered, mouldering banners which hang faded and drooping above him. When he asks what these men were, in the round of their daily life, what to them appeared this earth and the blue arch above it, what their thoughts of the great silent infinite out of which they had come, and into which they were to return.

The Muse of History is, often dumb, as if the mighty past were really dead, buried, and forgotten. Yet, the outward history of a nation, its foreign wars, its internal revolutions, its political factions, its dynastic changes, its court intrigues, its diplomatic jargon, are but an unknown language, without importance, sense, or meaning, except when viewed from the inner side, with some clear understanding of the people who did the things recorded.

Between various generations of the old English, and the one which exists now, between their thoughts, feelings, desires, and acts, and those of the present generation, there is a great gulf fixed, which can only be bridged over by an accurate, minute, and distinct knowledge of the common, domestic, social, business, and political life of former times. Names of persons, places, and things, are meaningless, and illusory, excepting so far as they can be identified. With acts, dress, habits of the time, or excepting so far as they had a visible influence upon after times. Hence, History, to be rightly written or usefully read, should not be the old al-manse to which it has been compared, or anything like it. But, as far as possible, it should be a moving picture of the times, reflecting the general manners, habits, principles, as well as the actions of the men who flourished in them. It should be, not a dry catalogue of events, but a delineation of the causes out of which they sprang and their effects on the future condition of the people.

Image of Windsor Castle, National and Domestic History of England, Magna Charta, writen by W.H.S. Aubrey in 1869
Image of Windsor Castle

 In the general preface to his History of Great Britain, Dr. Henry stated the chief design of his work to be to give the reader a concise account of the most important events which have happened in Great Britain, from the first invasion of it by the Romans, under Julius Omar, to the present times. Together with a distinct view of the religion, laws, learning, arts, commerce, and manners of its inhabitants to draw a faithful picture of the character and circumstances of our ancestors from age to age. Both in public and private life, to describe in their genuine colours, the great actions which they performed, and the disgraces, which they sustained, the liberties which they enjoyed, and the thraldom to which they were subjected, the knowledge, natural, moral, and religious, with which they were illuminated, and the darkness in which they were involved, the arts which they practised, and the commerce which they carried on, the virtues with which they were adorned, and the vices with which they were infected, the pleasures and amusements in which they delighted, and the distresses and miseries to which they were exposed, not omitting their fleeting fashions, and ever changing customs and modes of life, when these can be discovered.

Thus, it will be perceived, that the historian, rightly to discharge his task, must address himself to manifold inquiries, and must gather knowledge from a variety of sources. The labours of former writers will both add to and lighten his labours; adding to them, inasmuch as he must become conversant with their works, and must study the manner and spirit in which they wrote, and lightening his labours, inasmuch as he can legitimately avail himself of their help. Moreover, as fresh discoveries are made, by the finding of documents long lost, or by the information given in others, whose existence was previously unknown, many old events will be placed in new lights, and means will be afforded of pronouncing a greater estimate upon the characters and actions of great men; and of these important helps, every succeeding historian must avail himself, if he intends his work to survive, and if he resolves on faithfully discharging his mission.

It has been wisely remarked in the Ed. Review (xlvii. 364); the perfect historian is he in whose work the characters and spirit of an age are exhibited in miniature. He relates no fact, he attributes no expression to his characters, which is not authenticated by sufficient testimony; but by judicious selection and arrangement he gives to truth those attractions which have been usurped by fiction. A due subordination is observed, some transactions are prominent, and others retire. But the scale on which he represents them is increased or diminished, not according to the dignity of the persons concerned, but according to that in which the transactions elucidate the condition of society and the nature of man. He shows the court, the camp, the senate; but he also shows the nation. He considers no anecdote, no peculiarity of manner, no familiar saying, as too insignificant for notice, which illustrate the operation of laws, of religion, and of education, and which mark the progress of the human mind. Men are not merely described, but are made intimately known. The changes of manners are indicated, not merely by a few general phrases, or a few extracts from statistical documents, but by appropriate images presented in every line as the history of states is generally written. The greatest and most momentous revolutions seem to come upon them like supernatural infliction’s without warning or cause, but the fact is that such are almost always the consequence of moral changes, which have gradually passed over the community, and which, ordinarily, proceed far before their progress is indicated by any public measure. An intimate knowledge of the domestic history of nations is therefore absolutely necessary to the prognosis of political events. A narrative, defective in this respect, is as useless as a medical treatise which should pass by all the symptoms attendant upon the early stage of a disease, and mention only what occurs when the patient is beyond the reach of remedies.

On all these important and interesting particulars, much information can he gathered from the stores of knowledge accumulated by recent research, both in State papers and in private collections so that it is not too much to say that a tolerably perfect picture may be drawn of the domestic usages, the social life, and the business transactions, as well as of the more public events of the England of former days. In the Statutes at large, much of the true, public history of the nation lies buried. These Statutes began to be printed in the fourth year of Henry VII, and they contain a series of all measures passed in every successive Parliament. Everything of greatest consequence is to be found there, all great movements, political and religious. A panorama of the old English nation, its life, its habits, its character, its occupations, its amusements; political economy, education, the relations between land lord and tenant, between employer and the employed, all are to be seen there, laid out in unconscious simplicity.

The early part of English History, properly so called, can be enriched with colouring from romance, ballad, and chronicle. Contact may be had with knights such as those of Froissart and with pilgrims, such as those who rode with Chaucer from the Tabard Inn, Southwark. Society can be shown from the highest to the lowest, from the royal cloth of state, to the den of the outlaw, from the throne of the Papal Legate, to the chimney corner where the begging friar regaled himself. Palmers, minstrels, crusaders, the stately monastery, with the good cheer in its refectory, and with the high mass in its chapel, the manor house with its hunting, hawking, and feasting, the tournament, with the heralds and ladies, the trumpets and the cloth of gold, the battle field, with belted knights, men at arms, and camp retainers. The country market, the rural fairs, the village sports and festivals with their motley assemblages in quaint dresses all help to give life and truth to the representation.

 Passing from the matter to the manner, it may be remarked that there are two chief methods, either of which may be pursued in historical writings. The first of them gives a continuous chronological narration, in which, besides the leading public events, interesting and important information is furnished on domestic and social matters, either by weaving it, as it were, incidentally, into the texture of the work, like Herodotus, Froissart, and other contemporary writers have done, or by placing it in preliminary books, or in appendices, as was the case with Hume and with Robertson. This may be termed the simple and natural method. The other divides history into periods, and arranges their events and subjects under specific heads, a plan first adopted by Dr. Henry, and more recently by the able writers of the Pictorial History. Notwithstanding some advantages which accrue from the latter method, they appear to be more than counterbalanced by serious disadvantages, such as the necessarily arbitrary and artificial division into epochs, the excessive length of time which must sometimes ensue ere comparisons can be instituted between domestic usages at various periods. The extreme difficulty of assigning certain events to distinctive chapters and the inevitable reference to some circumstances in more than one chapter. The danger of such a systematic and forced division becoming a mere anatomy or a dry index. The temptation of dwelling with undue minuteness, upon many matters of comparatively small importance. In the present work, it has been deemed wisest to pursue a chronological arrangement, as affording, varied aspects, needful to be presented in such a History as is contemplated. This plan admits of the adequate treatment of many matters which arise incidentally, and a notice of which is essential to the correct understanding and the full appreciation of the general subject, just as a number of small rills and streamlets are of value when absorbed into the great river as it flows on in majestic volume.

The spirit and temper in which history is written are all important. Facts may be so grouped and coloured, as to convey a most in accurate and unjust impression to the reader. A foregone conclusion may so occupy the mind of a writer as to warp and bias his judgment, even to the extent of rejecting evidence which would tend to alter or modify that conclusion. Political or theological predilections may give a partial and unfair tone to the work, especially in the opinions pronounced upon chief actors in great scenes. If this be done consciously and deliberately, it amounts to a crime, which cannot he branded with condemnation too strong, but it may be done unintentionally or carelessly, or from failing to estimate aright the dignity and duties of a historian, or from not seeking to rid the mind of bias, so far as this can be done. To a certain extent it is impossible but that events historically described should take their tinge from the narrator, and yet this may be counteracted by other things, so that his description and judicial fairness may remain unimpugned. The historian sits in the judgment seat of an august tribunal, and in assuming that post of high dignity and solemn obligation he enters into a tacit engagement, to purify his mind as far as possible, from all prejudice, favouritism and rancour. To bring to bear in his investigation all possible enlightenment from whatever quarter to warp no figures, to resist no evidence, to suppress no facts, to reject no honest testimony, to put aside his antecedent and extra judicial opinion. If he degrades history into a mere party pamphlet, or misuses it to embody and perpetuate his own crude speculations and theories, he is guilty of a high misdemeanour and breach of trust.

Thus history, when faithfully written and intelligently read, serves to cultivate the understanding and to influence the moral nature, by the vividness with which the deeds and the actors of the past are delineated, by wise contrasts drawn between the national conditions at various epochs, by revealing the causes from which great events have sprung. By tracing the early assertion and development of principles by reverently observing how growing civilization, material prosperity, culture, freedom, philanthropy, religion, all tend, as instruments of a wise and gracious Providence towards the accomplishment of the ultimate purposes of the race, in the manifestation of a true brotherhood, and in the ascription of all glory to the Great Father of mankind.

Chapter 2, The Early Britons

Pre-Historic Ages

Categories: Book 1


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