Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 14. Historical and Political Writers contemporary with Bolingbroke: White Kennett; Echard; Rapin; Lediard; Tindal; Boyer; Oldmixon

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

VIII. Historical and Political Writers

§ 14. Historical and Political Writers contemporary with Bolingbroke: White Kennett; Echard; Rapin; Lediard; Tindal; Boyer; Oldmixon

Down to the earlier half of the eighteenth century, The Compleat History of England (1706)—of which the first two volumes contained a series of histories of successive periods and reigns from Milton’s History of Britain down to Arthur Wilson’s History of King James I, supplemented by a third volume containing the reigns of Charles I and II, James II, William and Mary (and William), “all new writ by a learned and impartial hand”—had been the only attempt to present a collective view of the national history. That it was accepted as more or less of an authority is shown by the fact that a new edition was published in 1719, and that, so late as 1740, Roger North, of whose contributions to English biographical literature something will be said below, put forth an elaborate criticism of its concluding volume, under the title Examen, or an Inquiry into the Credit and Veracity of a pretended Complete History, viz. the supplementary volume aforesaid, of which White Kennett was the author. Kennett, who died as bishop of Peterborough in 1728, after an active literary career (which had begun, or almost begun, by his breaking a lance with Atterbury in the well-known convocation controversy (1701), and of which his Register and Chronicle, Ecclesiastical and Civil forms the concluding item), was author of the concluding volume. The character of Charles II which it contains is, no doubt, extremely acrid (it ends with a note on the resemblance of Charles in his outward features, and, to some extent, in other points, to Tiberius); in general, however, the author is temperate in statement, although, in the usual fashion, he inveighs against Cromwell, whose “policy” is margined as “his only piety.” For the rest, Kennett was a sound whig, who ventured to answer Sacheverell in a sermon preached before the lord mayor, and who, before he was consecrated bishop, was portrayed as Judas Iscariot in a London church, being a safer object of insult than Burnet.

A rival “complete history” to Kennett’s, for a considerable period, was that of Laurence Echard, the “excellency” of which, in the amiable phrase of Roger North, “is coming after a worse.” It was conceived on a smaller scale than Kennett’s; but, on the other hand, it was the work of a single man. Of his History of England from the First Entrance of Julius Cœsar, the first volume, carrying the narrative down to the death of James I, appeared in 1707; the second and third, which continued it to “the establishment of King William and Mary,” in 1718. Echard (who, in 1712, was named archdeacon of Stow) was a strong protestant, as favourable to Cranmer as he was bitter against Mary I, but he was no friend of dissent, and rather cynically attributed “the Beginnings of Presbitery” in England to Cartwright’s personal jealousy of a Cambridge rival. When he comes to the Stewart times, he professes to take great care to observe “Deference to the Stations and Characters” of those whose conduct he reviews; but, as he seems to think that James II might have been forgiven much of his religious policy had he only kept his word and prefers to let him “fall gently” because of his two daughters, there must be allowed to be method in his defence. The dedication of his second volume to George I sufficiently attests his political “standpoint” and helps to explain the attacks made on him by Bolingbroke.

It can, however, hardly be denied that the best, and certainly, by far, the most useful, collective history of England in the earlier half of the century was not an English book at all, but the French Histoire d’Angleterre of Paul de Rapin, sieur de Thomas, composed in exile at Wesel and published at the Hague, in eight volumes, in 1724. A criticism of this work, which reaches to the death of Charles I, or of its French continuation, to the revolution of 1688, by David Durand (1734), would be out of place here; but it should be noted that the whole French History was translated by Nicholas Tindal “with additional notes” in 15 volumes (1723–31). Thomas Lediard, author of The Naval History of England (2 vols., 1735), and The Life of John Duke of Marlborough (3-vols., 1736), largely from original documents, wrote The History of the Reigns of William III and Mary, and Anne, in continuation of Rapin; and, in 1744–5, his translator, Tindal, published, in folio, The Continuation of Mr. Rapin de Thoyras’s History of England from the Revolution to the Accession of King George II, which was immediately followed by an octavo edition in 13 volumes, making the whole series amount to 28. Rapin, in a letter to his fellow Huguenot Robethon, had humourously described his completed work as “no inconsiderable undertaking for a Gascon”; the indefatigable Tindal survived his historical labours for many years (till 1774). English historical writing owes him a great debt; for, like Rapin himself, whom he introduced to English readers, he provided a solid substructure of well-authenticated and well-arranged facts, together with a narrative free from party bias and written with a single-minded desire to record ascertained truth. It should be added that master and follower alike cite their authorities without ostentation but with perfect clearness, and that the English folios are supplied with an admirable collection of portraits, maps and plans.

From these writers of collective histories we go back slightly in order of time, so as to mention, in conclusion, one or two historical authors of the unmistakable partisan type. Abel Boyer, like Rapin, was a French Huguenot, who settled in England in 1689 and, after several years of strenuous endeavour, gained a long-lived reputation by an Anglo-French and Franco-English dictionary, professing to have been composed for the use of the duke of Gloucester, to whom, in 1692, Boyer had been appointed French tutor. In 1702, when this dictionary was published at the Hague, Boyer also brought out, in English, his History of William III (which included that of James II); and, in the following year, he began the yearly publication of The History of the Reign of Queen Anne digested into annals, which was preceded by a similar register of political events, notable for the reports of parliamentary debates contained in it, and extending over the years 1713–29. In 1722 appeared his History of Queen Anne, of which a second edition, with numerous appendixes, followed in 1735. Boyer was a voluminous producer of books, pamphlets and contributions to journalism, all in the whig interest. Among the pamphlets, one had nearly cost him dear, as it attacked Swift, who, in an often quoted passage of his Journal to Stella, vowed vengeance on the “French dog” (a term of abuse to be found already in Froissart). Boyer’s History of Queen Anne has been found extremely useful, not to say indispensable, by modern historians (by no means only in the “Annual List of the Deaths of Eminent Persons” appended to it with short obituary notices—“whoever pretends to write Characters ought,” he ventures to think, “to be well acquainted with those he describes”) and shows him capable of applying the principles of historical writing, as to both matter and manner, effectively abstracted by him “for his own Instruction, and laid down in his preface.” A continuation of the work to the death of George I was published in 1747. English historical composition was greatly indebted to the infusion of French lucidity in arrangement and treatment; and, for this quality, Boyer, too, deserves praise.

Little purpose would be served by entering at length into the qualities of John Oldmixon as a historical writer. In The Dunciad, Pope abuses him without, perhaps, very much point; but, in a note to the passage, he describes him with undeniable truth as having been “all his life a virulent Party-writer for hire,” who “received his reward in a small place”—the collectorship of the port of Bridgwater. It was not till 1717, or thereabouts, that Oldmixon obtained this ill and irregularly paid post—about nine years after he had first exchanged his efforts as a poet and dramatist for a long series of labours as a party historian and journalist. These need not here be examined in detail. His earliest historical work, The British Empire in America (2 vols., 1708), was at least designed to meet a real need; The Secret History of Europe (4 parts, 1712–5) was a frank and fierce attack upon the tory government and its subservience to France. But the special enmity of the opposition wits he incurred by his Essay on Criticism, prefixed to the third edition (1727) of The Critical History of England, Ecclesiastical and Civil (2 vols., 1724–6). The Essay, an avowedly and, perhaps, intentionally rambling discourse, supposed to be in the manner of Montaigne, contains some fair hits at Dryden, Addison, Pope and others, and keeps up a steady fire of minute criticism against Echard as a historian. Of The Critical History itself, the first volume carries on this attack in a sort of running commentary upon previous historians, especially Echard and Clarendon, in a vein frequently flippant, but by no means without occasional sensible remarks. Each section ends with a list of authorities to be studied, so that the book is a curious combination of party pamphlet and school manual. The second volume covers much the same ground, although more particularly devoting itself to ecclesiastical history, and intended to show that the protestant dissenters “have a Claim to our Indulgence and Good-will, as they are Brethren of the Reformation,” and that Echard’s charges against them of “sedition and enthusiasm” are “groundless and scandalous.” From a different point of view, as showing that no literary fashion endures for ever, Oldmixon’s remark upon the “affectation of continually drawing characters,” especially “when they are arbitrary and are not of the subject,” is worth noting. Of The History of England during the Reigns of the Royal House of Stuart, the first volume, published in 1729, states at length the charge, already noticed and adverted to in The Critical History of England, against the Oxford editors of Clarendon, of having altered his text for party ends. The second volume of the later work (1735) carried on the narrative to the reign of George I, and the third (1739) took it back to the last four Tudor reigns, the whole being written in the spirit of whig constitutionalism. “In the midst of all the infirmities of old age sickness, lameness, and almost blindness,” Oldmixon wrote Memoirs of the Press, Historical and Political, for Thirty Years Past, from 1710 to 1740; but he did not live to see the book, which has much biographical interest, published. He died in 1742; the hardships of his laborious career seem to belie the commonplace that, in a free country, there is nothing like sticking to one’s party.