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

VII. Historical and Political Writers

§ 5. The History of the Reformation of the Church of England

By far the most important of his productions in these London years (in which, it should be remembered, fell the so-called discovery of the popish plot and the ensuing agitation) was The History of the Reformation of the Church of England. The first volume of this work, on which he had been busy during a large part of the years 1677 and 1678, was published in the summer of 1679. No historical work was ever more fortunate in the time of its appearance; a protestant terror was sweeping the country; and the opposition, with which his relations had become very friendly, at last seemed to have the game in its own hands. So late as December, 1680, he preached before the Commons on the occasion of a public fast for the prevention of all popish plots, and was thanked by the House for his sermon and for his History, the Lords joining in the latter acknowledgment. And so much importance was attached to his ability and address, that, a year or two earlier (1678–9), he was repeatedly summoned to a secret audience with the king, when, however (as was not unfrequently the case with him), his indiscretions completely ruined the situation.

Quite apart, however, from the circumstances which made The History of the Reformation a book of the moment, there are considerations which go far to justify the opinion of Burnet’s most recent biographer that this work “forms an epoch in our historical literature.” This tribute is its due, not so much because of the style of the book, which, besides being far more readable than any historical work proper which had preceded it, has the great merit of sincerity and clearly reflects the reasoned convictions of its author, a protestant and an erastian to the core. But the distinctive excellence of The History lies in its combination of these qualities with a sustained endeavour on the part of the author to base his narrative upon a personal investigation of the original documents at his command. In other words, he seeks, however imperfectly, to apply to the exposition of his subject the principles underlying a scientific treatment of history; in yet other words, he desires to reproduce so much of the truth concerning that subject as has become visible to his eye. These ideas, as has been seen, had been present to his mind when he set out to write The Hamilton Memoirs; and now he undertook to carry them out on a much larger scale and in reference to a body of events and transactions of the highest historical significance. Indeed, he seems to have contemplated the execution of the still more comprehensive design of a history of England, suggested to him by Sir William Jones, when he was diverted from this by the appearance, in 1676, of a new French translation, by F. de Mancroix, of Nicholas Sanders’s De Origine ac Progressu Schismatis Anglicani, first printed in 1585, and first translated into French in the following year. The collection of materials, which Burnet was resolved upon obtaining, so far as possible, at first hand, proved a matter of great difficulty; for, though he had the encouragement and the advice of Stillingfleet and Lloyd (to whom, with Tillotson, the first draft of the work was submitted), as well as that of Sir John Marsham and William Petyt, he confesses to have had little experience in the very first requisite of the modern historian’s task, the search for materials; and, to the chief storehouse of them, in the present case, Sir John Cotton’s library, he and his amanuensis had only surreptitious access for a few days during the absence of the owner. In addition to Burnet’s inexperience in the work of transcription, and the haste in which much of it had to be performed, the natural impatience of his disposition, and an inborn readiness to overleap difficulties in the way of conclusions, could not but affect the actual result of his labours. A great deal of fault has been found—and, no doubt, justly—with the inaccuracy and general imperfection of the transcripts on which his work was largely founded and which gave rise to endless blunders, although, of the myriad which his conscientious editor declares himself to have corrected, a large proportion must have been excusable, and many, of course, are trivial. Some, however, were prompted by the strong opinions which Burnet never made any pretence of concealing. But, as he spared no pains—he is said to have read over Paolo Sarpi’s History of the Council of Trent four or five times in order to master the historian’s method—so he was certainly not intentionally incorrect. Notwithstanding the mistakes which he continued to commit, even after the success of his first volume had opened to him the Paper office, with Cotton’s library and other invaluable collections of documents, his work, which was not published in its complete form till 1715, remains an achievement worthy of the love of research which inspired it. Nor is the book without other merits. The story, as here given, of the renunciation of the Roman obedience by the church of England, and the conjunct story of Henry VIII’s divorce from Catharine and of the imposition by him of the Acts of Succession and Supremacy, are told with force as well as with clearness, and without obvious suppression of any element in the tale. The author does not make any attempt to disguise his thoroughly protestant convictions; indeed, as against the Jesuits, he lets himself lapse into invective. But, in general, the dispassionateness of his narrative is almost as striking as its straightforwardness—the catastrophe of More and Fisher, for instance, seems related without partiality.