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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

§ 13. The History of the Norman Conquest

In 1863, before he had completed the preparations for his Norman Conquest, he brought out the first and, as it proved, the only volume of a work which, had it been carried out on the lines he had laid down for himself, might have become, in his younger friend lord Bryce’s words, “a very great book,” and which, as it is, has been, by some, more highly prized than any other of his writings. The History of Federal Government, which Freeman had designed as a comparative history of federalism in ancient Greece, in the medieval foundation of the Swiss confederation, in the intermediate growth of the united provinces of the Netherlands and of the Hansa and in the modern creation of the United States of America, was, however, not carried beyond the earliest of these stages. He soon came back to his first love, if, with his power of duplicating his tasks, he had ever swerved from it. The appearance, in 1865, of his Old English History for Children—children of twenty-four, it was, with some point, remarked—showed in what direction he was again concentrating his labours and the travels which accompanied them; and, in 1867, the first volume of The History of the Norman Conquest was actually published. The last volume (the fifth) did not appear till 1876.

Freeman’s Norman Conquest accomplished what Palgrave had planned, but only partially carried out. Into the later work, mistakes may have found their way, even into salient passages of the narrative, and into the account of the tragic catastrophe of Senlac itself; and its general effect may suffer from a certain lengthiness of which few historians writing on such a scale have been able altogether to free themselves—least of all Freeman, who had accustomed himself to the privilege of having his say out. But any such objections are cast into the shade by the merits of the work. It is admirably arranged on a converging plan, which, in the second volume brings the reader to the reign of Edward the Confessor, so far as the banishment and death of earl Godwine, the real hero of the tale; while the affairs of Normandy are brought up to William’s first visit to England, and thence, to Edward’s death and the coronation of Harold, the second hero of the story. Volume III relates the conquest proper with epic breadth, and volume IV the reign of William in England. Finally, in volume V, the history of the Norman kings is summarised to the death of Stephen and the coronation of Henry II, and chapters follow on the political results of the Norman conquest, and its effects on language, literature and architecture. The narrative, which closes with a summary of the Angevin reigns, is enriched by a series of excursuses on particular points and episodes, on geographical sites and local remains. Lucid in arrangement, the work nowhere fails to manifest the spirit in which it was composed—that of a lofty patriotism inseparable from an ardent love of freedom. His Swiss studies reflected themselves in several passages of The Norman Conquest; and he became “more and more convinced of the absolute identity of all the old Teutonic constitutions.” Thus, he was fortified in his contention that the Norman conquest left the free national life of England, in its essentials, unchanged.

In 1882, Freeman published The Reign of William Rufus and the Accession of Henry I, thus carrying out the design which he had in his mind when summarising these passages of English history in the last volume of his Norman Conquest. Here, again, the narrative involved a twofold task; its main interest, however, lay in ecclesiastical affairs, a field with which he took pleasure in occupying himself, but which had also engaged the attention of other eminent historians. These volumes ended his labours on the Norman conquest of England; but, although he never composed his contemplated life of Henry I, he did not abandon the subject of the Norman conquests in Europe. “Palermo follows naturally on Winchester and Rouen.” But, of his sojourns in Sicily, and of his history of that island, which he was also to leave half-told, we have already spoken. In 1884, Freeman at last found himself in the chair of modern history at Oxford; but this acknowledgment of his eminence as a historian came too late—at least too late for him to fit his teaching into the system of historical instruction then flourishing in his university. This was a mortification to him; for no man of letters or learning ever bestowed more attention on the academical, as well as on the political, ecclesiastical and county administrative, life around him. Still, his actual work as a historian remained, to the last, the determining termining interest of his life; and, in the midst of the prosecution of it, death overtook him on the Spanish coast, at Alicante, in March, 1892.

In the death of Freeman, English historical literature suffered a most severe loss. He had many great qualities—with, perhaps, the defects of some of them; but these failings were most palpable in controversy, in the conduct of which he lacked a due sense of proportion, and was apt to become tiresome, and, at times, unjust. As to his general historical manner, he has been frequently charged with pedantry; but there is some element of misapprehension in the cavil. For, though his habit of reiteration (delibrately adopted) added to the positiveness of his manner, and thus imparted even to passages of his Histories too strongly dogmatic a flavour, he was always perfectly clear and to the point, and declared that “history has no technical terms”—adding that he had sometimes wished it had, “to frighten away fools.” He was apt to be lengthy, and lord Bryce once told him that he had caught too much of the manner of the cxixth Psalm; but he was not diffuse by nature. It was the cause—the cause of truth—which led him to spare no man or interest or opinion, and, least of all, to spare himself.

The close association of the names of Freeman and Stubbs, and, with theirs, of that of a third but younger Oxford historian, John Richard Green, was, at one time, a frequent theme of academical jest; but, indeed, nothing would have been stranger than that a bond of intimate intellectual sympathy should have failed to unite men who, in the same age, devoted themselves to the study and exposition of the national history, if not always from the same point of view, at all events on a common basis of historical principles and with the same purpose of proving the continuity of the national life. And, certainly, the recognition in English historical literature of that continuity was signally advanced by their fellowship.