Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 13. Lord Lyttelton’s Henry II; Archibald Bower’s History of the Popes

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XII. Historians

§ 13. Lord Lyttelton’s Henry II; Archibald Bower’s History of the Popes

George, first baron Lyttelton, a second rate whig statesman, whose active interest in other departments of literature is noticed elsewhere, worked intermittently for some thirty years at his History of the Life of Henry II, which he produced, in three volumes, in 1767. The whole work, Johnson records, was printed twice over and a great part of it three times, “his ambitious accuracy” costing him at least £1000. He used the best authorities he could find, and gives a minute and accurate account of the political events of Henry’s reign, together with remarks not always according to knowledge on its constitutional and legal aspects. His style is clear, but remarkably flat, his narrative inanimate, and his reflections, in which “Divine Providence” frequently appears, are often almost childish. His opinions on the constitution in the twelfth century flattered whig sentiment. Hume jeered at his whiggery and his piety; Johnson was offended by his whiggery; and Gibbon, referring to a review of the book which he had written in Mémoires Littéraires de la Grande Bretagne, declared that the public had ratified his judgment that the author’s “sense and learning were not illuminated by a single ray of genius.” Horace Walpole’s remark, “How dull one may be if one will but take pains for six or seven and twenty years together!”, is just, though, as work conscientiously and, to some extent, efficiently, done, the book deserves some kinder comment. Lyttelton was a patron of poorer authors, and among those he befriended was Archibald Bower, a Scot, who wrote for booksellers. Bower asserted that he had been a Jesuit and a counsellor of the inquisition in Italy, that he had escaped and had become a protestant. Between 1748 and 1753, he issued to numerous subscribers three volumes of a History of the Popes written with a great show of learning and ending at 757. Through Lyttelton’s influence, he was appointed librarian to the queen (1748), and clerk of the buck-warrants (1754). In 1756–8, however, John Douglas, afterwards bishop of Salisbury, published proofs that Bower’s account of himself was false, and that his volumes, text and references, were stolen from other authors, two-thirds of his first volume being practically translated from Tillemont. He defended himself vigorously so far as his own story was concerned, and gradually completed his History in seven volumes, the seventh going down to 1758, but disposing of the history from 1600 onwards in twenty-six pages. The book, which was avowedly written against the claims of the see of Rome, has no literary merit. Bower, though an impudent impostor, had some learning, but his last four volumes are not of historical importance, and the reputation of his History did not survive Douglas’s attack.