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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

VIII. Historical and Political Writings

§ 1. Rushworth’s Collections

IN the period of English history covered by this volume, the system of government under which the nation still has its being was, in a great measure, determined, while the religious movement which dominated the great conflict of the age deeply influenced, for centuries to come, the principles followed by Englishmen in their social relations and in the conduct of their lives. In such times, when the minds of men are constantly strung up to action, and when history, as the phrase runs, is being made every day, there cannot but be a great storage, accompained by an inevitable waste, of historical materials. Now, materials of history, as such, cannot claim to form part of historical literature, although some of them—many speeches and letters, for instance—may often possess artistic qualities entitling them to be included in it. Again, much that is ostensibly meant to find a place among historical works is often designed by the writer with a political intent; while, in some exceptional instances, political writings, by virtue of their dignity and fulness, come to rank as historical classics. In an age when the two branches of composition were not only inextricably interwoven, but, more or less consciously, confounded, with each other; in which biographies and personal memoirs were frequently written for public or party ends; while private letters were habitually written for wide circles of readers; while speeches were, at times, drawn up as summaries of long and complicated public transactions—an exact classification of historical and political writings under accepted heads becomes extremely difficult. Yet, obvious distinctions being kept generally in view, it may prove possible both to illustrate the remarkable accumulation in this period of materials for historical and political research and study, and to show to what degree the national literature was directly enriched by contemporary efforts in the corresponding fields of literary production. It is not, however, purposed in any part of this or the following chapter to attempt more than a selection, for mention or for comment, of writings marked out as possessed of typical or individual interest.

The first great collection of English state papers is that of John Rushworth, who was appointed clerk-assistant to the House of Commons in April, 1640, and secretary to the council of war in 1645. Whatever may have been their political bias, his labours, if only because of their priority to all others in the same field in England, would deserve the lasting gratitude of all students of English history. But his Collections of Private Passages of State, Weighty Matters in Law, and Remarkable Proceedings in Five Parliaments, of which the first volume, extending from 1618 to 1629, was published in the year before the restoration, were no mere tentative beginning. The author’s design was both comprehensive and deeply thought out. Being desirous of furnishing a faithful account of the contention between the advocates of prerogative and those of liberty which “gave the Alarm to a Civil War,” and for which he was in possession of an unusual abundance of materials, he resolved to devote his attention mainly, though not exclusively, to the domestic struggle, and, since, with regard to this, he found forgery and fiction rampant in the unbridled pamphlet literature of the age, to make the documents on which his narrative was based the substantial part of his work. Thus, in this and the following seven volumes of this edition (of which the last, not published till 1680, ends with the trial of Strafford), he set the first example of pragmatic history to be found in our literature, and reviewed, under the searchlight of first-hand evidence, a period whose records ran the risk of being permanently distorted by a partisanship that cleft the very depths of the national life.