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

§ 2. Lingard

Some time before the new movement in English historical studies, which had derived a strong impulse from what had, of recent years, been done in France and Germany, can be said to have been fairly at work, two writers had produced historical works of national significance. John Lingard’s History of England, indeed, had been in preparation for about thirteen years, before, in 1819, the first three volumes of the work appeared, bringing it to the end of the reign of Henry VII, a point very near the critical part of the narrative, if its avowed more special purpose be considered. Lingard’s earliest book, The Antiquities of the Anglo-Saxon Church, had been published so early as 1806. Here is observable, together with a determination to base statements of historical facts upon original authorities, the desire, which became the mainspring of his History and, it is not too much to say, the object of his life, to convince his countrymen of their misconceptions as to the Roman catholic faith and its influence upon the action of its adherents. He was himself born and bred as a catholic (although his father was a protestant by descent), and owed practically the whole of his training to Douay, where, it is stated, no instruction was given in history. On the dispersion of the college at Douay, Lingard spent some time in the centre of English catholic affairs. He became acquainted with Charles Butler, author of The Book of the Roman Catholic Church and long active in promoting the abolition of penal laws against catholics. These efforts, as implying long participation in church affairs, were vehemently opposed by John Milner, afterwards titular bishop of Castabala and a ruthless adversary of Lingard and the moderate catholic party. Lingard was all but deterred from carrying out his design of writing a history of England, which he had cherished during the latter part of a collegiate life of nearly thirty years. Declining the presidency of Ushaw college where he had held the arduous post of vice-president—as he afterwards refused a mitre—he, in 1811, took up the humble duties of the mission at Hornby near Lancaster; and here he remained, almost continuously, during the rest of his life, which ended there, forty years later, in his eighty-first year. The remote northern presbytery became a sort of literary centre, in which he was periodically visited by Brougham and other leaders of the northern circuit, and whence he exercised an influence over the conduct of catholic affairs, which neither Milner’s intrigues nor the frank differences of opinion between Wiseman and himself could extinguish. This influence was due to his History of England, which appeared in the critical period of catholic affairs preceding the Emancipation act and, at Rome, was held to have largely contributed to the change in public feeling which had made that act possible. Whether or not pope Leo XII, as Lingard believed, not long before the completion of his History, intended to acknowledge his services by raising him, sooner or later, to the cardinalate, such a recognition of endeavours equally free from blind partisanship and from adulation would have done honour to the church which he loved and served.

Lingard’s first three volumes at once achieved what, in the circumstances, must be reckoned a remarkable success. It is not too much to say that this was mainly due to the use made by the writer of his study of original MSS., both at home and in Rome, and to the straightforward and lucid style of his narrative. Few historians have written so little ad captandum as Lingard, whether in this or in later, and more contentious, portions of his work; if there is in him little warmth of sympathy, neither is there any vituperative vehemence. No historian has ever better trained himself in the art of avoiding the giving of offence; and none was less likely to be “run away with” by ardent admiration for those fascinating historical characters in which fanaticism is often intermingled with devotion to a great and noble cause. On the other hand, there never was a more vigilant recorder of facts than Lingard, or one whom criticism was less successful in convicting of unfounded statements; it was not his way to take anything in his predecessors for granted, and he wished his work to fulfil the purpose of a complete refutation of Hume, without the appearance of such a purpose.

In the subsequent volumes of his History, Lingard’s skill and judgment were put to the severest of tests, and it is not unjust to him to say that the history of the reformation, or that of a particularly complicated section of it, was never written with more discretion than it was by him. On the one hand, he refused to shut his eyes, like some other judges of conservative tendencies, to certain aspects of the conflict—the dark side of monasticism, for instance. On the other, he declined to launch forth into discussions of the general consequences of the English reformation, and allowed the course of events—of which, in his account of the reigns of Mary and Elizabeth, he was able to add many new elucidations—to tell its own story. Even in relating the critical struggle between Elizabeth and her Scottish rival, he hardly becomes a partisan; while his narrative of the reign of James I plainly marks the end of Roman catholicism as an organic part of the national life. The later volumes of the History followed in fairly regular succession, the last (vol. VIII) appearing in 1830, with a notable account of the antecedents of the revolution of 1688, including the character of James II. Lingard moved more easily as his work progressed, as well as in the careful revisions to which he subjected it and in which he freely entered into an examination of views opposed to his own, Macaulay’s among them. While his protestant assailants found no palpable holes in his armour, he maintained his own position in the catholic world, consistently holding aloof from ultramontane views and shaping his course as seemed right to him. Yet, his conviction that he had signally contributed to the change in educated public opinion in England as to his church and her history, though the intention implied is compatible with perfect veracity of statement as well as perspicacity of judgment, cannot be said to imply that search after truth for its own sake which is the highest motive of the historian. Lingard’s tone is not apologetic, but his purpose avowedly is; and, while his work retains its place among histories of England based on scholarly research, conceived in a spirit of fairness and composed with lucidity and skill, it lacks alike the intensity of spirit which animates a great national history and the breadth of sympathy which is inseparable from intellectual independence. Lingard’s book, it should be added, is a political history only, and sheds no light on either the literary or the social progress of the nation.