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

§ 27. Samuel Rawson Gardiner

Proceeding from Froude to his Oxford successor, we pass not only from the study of the Tudor to that of the Stewart age. In the whole field of modern history—as well as in that of modern English history in particular—no higher praise is due to any writer of the century than should be accorded to Samuel Rawson Gardiner, if the supreme criterion be absolute devotion, not only in the letter but in the spirit, to historical truth, and if this be held to show itself in a fairness of judgment that takes into account, with the circumstances and conditions in which men of the past, great or ordinary, lived and acted, those in which they thought and felt. Gardiner was not, and, if his method of composition be taken into account, hardly could be, a brilliant writer; as with his lecturing, so his written narrative seemed to spin itself continuously out of a full store of maturely considered facts and necessary comments, reaching, without strain, the end of chapter or volume, as of lecture or course.

When he resolved to write the history of the great English revolution of the seventeenth century, he was not bound to the service of any political or religious party, or under any personal obligation beyond that of making his living. In 1856 and 1858, respectively, he became, as he continued through life, unless his necessary lecturing and teaching interfered, a regular reader at the British Museum and the Record office; and, from that time forward, the principal purpose of his strenuous labour was the writing of his History. But he knew that an account of the revolution must be based on an examination of its causes; and, thus, he began with preparing his History of England from the Accession of James I to the Disgrace of Chief Justice Coke, which appeared in 1863. In the previous year, he had brought out, for the Camden society, a documentary volume entitled Parliamentary Debates in 1610. Henceforth, his great work advanced by regular instalments of two volumes, till it had arrived at the threshold of the Civil War, when a completed section was republished, in ten volumes, as The History of England from 1603 to 1640. Its second part, the history of the revolution proper, made its appearance in two successive subsections, of which the second carried the history of the commonwealth and protectorate to the year 1656, an additional chapter dealing with the parliamentary elections of that year being published posthumously. Thus, by a hard fate, he was unable to finish his great task. But, up to the point actually reached, it had been accomplished, without faltering or failure, in accordance with the original plan and with the mastery over material which, throughout, had marked his work.

Gardiner’s History of England, though pursuing a chronological method, is in no sense annalistic in either conception or treatment. As Firth, who continued the work, says, Gardiner “did not confine himself to relating facts, but traced the growth of the religious and constitutional ideas which underlay” the greatest political conflict ever known to these islands. Firth is equally justified in dwelling on the completeness with which his predecessor treated the different parts of his theme, neglecting neither the military and naval, nor the economic and social, sides of the national development. Gardiner made no pretence of tracing literary or artistic growth, though his remarks on Milton and those on Massinger show that it was not only the political element in their writings which called forth his interest.

Throughout his occupation with his chief work, Gardiner found, or made, time for the production of much useful historical literature of an unpretentious sort, besides rendering services of high value to the Camden and other historical societies, and as contributor to collective historical undertakings of various kinds. His little volume entitled The Thirty Years’ War, together with his Camden society volumes, Letters and Documents illustrating the Relations between England and Germany, 1618–20, show how exceptionally he was qualified to become the historian of a struggle destined, as it would seem, to remain without a fully adequate historical treatment of all its component parts. Gardiner’s lectures delivered at Oxford in 1896 under the title Cromwell’s Place in History, admirably exemplify his manner as a teacher. With the great Protector, he claimed some family connection; but, of Cromwell, as of every other character of the past, he spoke as intent only on understanding both the man and his actions.