Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Critical and Biographical Introduction

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Thomas Fuller (1608–1661)

THE FRAGRANCE which surrounds the writings of Thomas Fuller seems blended of his wit, his quaint worldliness, his sweet and happy spirit. The after-glow of the dazzling day of Shakespeare and his brotherhood rests upon the pages of this divine. In Fuller the world-spirit of the Elizabethan dramatists becomes urbanity, the mellow humor of the dweller in the town. Too well satisfied with the kindly comforts of life to agonize over humanity and the eternal problems of existence, Fuller, although a Church of England clergyman, was no less a cavalier at heart than the most jaunty follower of King Charles. He had not the intensity of nature which characterizes the theologian by the grace of God. His ‘Holy and Profane State,’ his ‘Good Thoughts in Bad Times,’ and ‘Good Thoughts in Worse Times,’ evidence a comfortable and reasonable reliance on the Unseen; but they will not be read for their spiritual insight so much as for their well-seasoned and delightful English. That quaint and fragrant style of his lends charm even to those passages in which his thought is commonplace.

It is in Thomas Fuller the historian and biographer, that posterity recognizes a man of marked intellectual power. His scholarship is exhibited in such a work as the ‘Church History of Britain’; his peculiar faculty for happy description in the ‘Worthies of England.’ Fuller was fitted by temperament and training to be a recorder of his own country and countrymen. His life was spent upon his island; his love was fastened upon its places and its people. Born the same year as Milton, 1608, the son of a clergyman of the same name as his own, he was from boyhood both a scholar and an observer of men and things. His education at Cambridge fostered his love of books.

His subsequent incumbency of various comfortable livings afforded him opportunities for close acquaintance with the English world of his day, and especially with its “gentry.” By birth, education, and inclination, Fuller was an aristocrat. During the civil war he took the side of King Charles, to whose stately life and mournful death he has devoted the last volume of his great work, the ‘History of the Church of Britain.’ Under the Protectorate, the genial priest and man of the world found himself in an alien atmosphere. Like many others in Anglican orders, he was “silenced” by the sour Puritan authorities, but was permitted to preach again in London by the grace of Cromwell. He was subsequently appointed chaplain to Charles II., but did not live long after the Restoration, dying of a fever in 1661.

An early instance of modern scholarship is found in the histories written by Thomas Fuller. Being by nature an antiquarian, he was not inclined to find his material at second hand. He went back always to the earliest sources for his historical data. It is this fact which gives their permanent value to the ‘History of the Church of Britain’ and to the ‘History of the Holy War.’ These works bear witness to wide and patient research, to a thorough sifting of material. The antiquarian spirit displayed in them loses some of its scholarly dignity, and takes on the social humor of the gossip, in the ‘Worthies of England.’ Fuller’s other writings may be of more intrinsic value, but it is through the ‘Worthies’ that he is remembered and loved. The book is rich in charm. It is as quaint as an ancient flower garden, where blooms of every sort grow in lavish tangle. He considers the counties of England, one by one, telling of their physical characteristics, of their legends, of their proverbs, of the princely children born in them, of the other “Worthies”—scholars, soldiers, and saints—who have shed lustre upon them. Fuller gathered his material for this variegated record from every quarter of his beloved little island. As a chaplain in the Cavalier army, he had many opportunities of visiting places and studying their people. As an incumbent of country parishes, he would listen to the ramblings of the old women of the hamlets, for the sake of discovering in their talk some tradition of the country-side, or some quaint bit of folk-lore. He writes of the strange, gay, sad lives of princely families as familiarly as he writes of the villagers and townsfolk. Sometimes an exquisite tenderness lies like light upon his record, as in this, of the little Princess Anne, daughter to Charles I.:—

  • SHE was a very pregnant lady above her years, and died in her infancy, when not fully four years old. Being minded by those about her to call upon God even when the pangs of death were upon her, “I am not able,” saith she, “to say my long prayer” (meaning the Lord’s Prayer), “but I will say my short one, ‘Lighten mine eyes, O Lord, lest I sleep the sleep of death.’” This done, the little lamb gave up the ghost.
  • Because of passages like these, Thomas Fuller will always be numbered among those writers who, irrespective of their rank in the world of letters, awaken a deep and lasting affection in the hearts of their readers.