Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 17. Dugdale’s Other Labours

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

XIII. Scholars and Antiquaries

§ 17. Dugdale’s Other Labours

By a happy chance, there came into Dugdale’s hands, about the year 1656, a large collection of manuscripts and documents relating to St. Paul’s cathedral, amounting “to no lesse than ten porters burthens”; and, setting to work upon these, he produced two years later his History of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and thus preserved a valuable record of the building and monuments that were, within a few years, to be destroyed in the great fire.

The History of Imbanking and Drayning of divers Fenns and Marshes (1662), which was undertaken at the request of Lord Gorges, surveyor-general of the Bedford level, suggests a subject somewhat outside the scope of Dugdale’s activities; but his wide acquaintance with manuscript sources and the contents of state archives, aided by a journey through the district in 1657, enabled him to compose a treatise abounding in historical and antiquarian interest. He takes leave to interpret the limits of his subject very widely, and is quite aware of the irrelevancy of his digressions. The isle of Ely gives an opening for narrating at large the life of Saint Audrey (translated from a Cottonian manuscript), and then follows the whole story of the feats of Hereward in defence of the isle against William the conqueror and his knights. It is in this unexpected quarter that the accomplished antiquary reveals himself as an entertaining story-teller.

Dugdale’s genius for painstaking research found a thoroughly suitable theme in his Origines juridiciales (1666), a historical account of English laws, courts of justice, inns of court, and other cognate matters, in which is embodied much curious information respecting ancient forms and customs observed therein; while The Baronage of England, which he began during his stay in Oxford and published in 1675–6, is a monument to his industry. His “church and king” principles found expression in A short view of the late troubles in England, which appeared anonymously in 1681, though he had not at first intended to make it public during his lifetime.

In several respects Dugdale was particularly fortunate, though it must be allowed that this good fortune was worthily bestowed. Early in his career, he received help and encouragement from influential friends, notably Sir Henry Spelman and Lord Hatton; and an official position in the College of Arms secured for him ready access to important collections of manuscripts and records which he used to good purpose. His books are always methodically arranged, and his text, devoid of superfluous verbiage, is carefully and fully documented by references to his authorities. In works involving a multitude of details and covering fields previously little explored, it is not surprising to find that charges of inaccuracy were levelled at the author; but, in truth, the wonder is, not that errors may be discovered, but at the admirable work in which they are embedded. Certain lapses from a critical discernment of the evidences as to the genuineness of documents were gently pointed out to Dugdale in a courteous letter from his friend Sir Roger Twysden, student of constitutional law and upholder of ancient rights and liberties. Wood, also, says that he sent Dugdale at least sixteen sheets of corrections to The Baronage, and he does not hesitate to repeat other aspersions on Dugdale’s accuracy; but he concludes with this tribute:

  • Yet however what he hath done, is prodigious … and therefore his memory ought to be venerated and had in everlasting remembrance for those things which he hath already published, which otherwise might have perished and been eternally buried in oblivion.