The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

II. Historians, Biographers and Political Orators

§ 10. Sir Francis Palgrave

We saw above how the study of our national history in its foundations, or, in other words, of medieval English history in its documents, including, in these, the institutions and the language of the people, had begun with Sharon Turner, but that he proved unable to present the results of his labours adequately in an organic historical narrative. Sir Francis Palgrave, who, besides first strongly impressing upon Englishmen the value of this study, by his own example pointed the way to a free original use of the national records by historians of imaginative and constructive power, was a writer to whom the attribute of genius can hardly be denied. Of Jewish extraction (he changed his patronymic Cohen in middle life), he had, while carrying on the work of a solicitor, long been interested in literary and antiquarian studies, and, besides occasionally contributing to the great quarterly reviews, had, in 1818, edited an Anglo-Norman political chanson. In 1822, he came forward with a plan for the publication of the records, which met with the approval of the Record commission; and, from 1827 (in which year he was called to the bar, where he was chiefly occupied with pedigree cases) to 1837, he edited for it a series of volumes. In 1831, he brought out a History of the Anglo-Saxons (the first volume of a History of England) in “The Family Library,” and, in the following year, The Rise and Progress of the English Commonwealth, covering the same period, of which it furnishes a fascinating as well as lucid review. The book, deservedly, had a great success; nor was anything else so good of the kind produced before John Richard Green. In 1834, he published An Essay on the Original Authority of the King’s Council. In 1837, he proceeded still further in the line of popular treatment in Truth and Fictions of the Middle Ages: the Merchant and the Friar. In the next year, he was appointed deputykeeper of the reconstituted and reorganised Record office. The duties of this post, held by him during the remainder of his long life, he discharged with great zeal and energy, issuing a series of twenty-two annual reports. Of his chief work, The History of Normandy and of England, the earlier volumes did not appear till 1851 and 1857 respectively, and the last two not till after his death, which occurred in 1861. He had thus, without either haste or pause, laboured so as to earn for himself a meed of recognition from the historian who was to take up his work in the same field, though from very different points of view. Freeman pronounced Palgrave the first English writer of great original powers who had devoted himself to the early history of his own country, and judged his faults to spring from the exuberance of a mind of great natural gifts.

Palgrave’s treatment of early English history was not only the earliest on a scale commensurate with the importance of the subject; but it, also, was the first attempt, on such a scale, to deduce ruling conclusions from a study of the development of legal principles based on those which controlled the life and conditions of the Roman empire. The monarchical power founded on these conceptions was, as he held, what dominated the growth of the Germanic kingdoms—so that “Clovis” and Offa were representations of imperial ideas; but, in England, it was the free judicial institutions of the Germanic communities which, in their turn, interfered to prevent these traditions from leading to absolutism, and called forth the beginnings of our constitutional life. Palgrave regarded the series of conquests, usually supposed to have successively changed the essential conditions as well as the forms of our national life, as anything but subversive in their effects; and, even with regard to the English conquest, was confirmed in this view by his paradoxical belief that, for the most part, the Britons were Germanic, not Celtic, in origin—Belgic Kymrys, whose neighbours and kin are to be found on the continent as Saxons and Frisians. This tenet illustrates the occasional audacity of Palgrave’s speculations; and the general notion of the dominating influence of the Roman imperial idea reached its height in him, before it was overthrown by the endeavours of the Germanist school, which was in the ascendant before the close of his historical labours. But the inspiriting and stimulating effect of those labours has, of late, been undervalued rather than overrated; and an enduring memorial of their value has long been a desideratum, which is now in process of being supplied.