Extended Commentary: Samuel Rawson Gardiner, a Victorian Historian whose Father Was an Angel.

Date01 September 2023

Samuel Rawson Gardiner (1829-1902) was one of the greatest Victorian historians. (2) His father, a retired East India civil servant, was an angel, a kind of bishop in the Catholic Apostolic Church, an exotic denomination in which S.R. Gardiner was raised. His younger brother also became an angel. Combining priestly vestments and hierarchical leadership with charismatic premillennialism and prophecy, it fit with neither Nonconformity nor the Established Church. (3) Gardiner's first book, Christian Family Life, published in 1856, was a translation of a book by H.W.J. Thiersch, a German convert to the new sect. (4)

Gardiner's reputation is based on a massive history of England from 1603 to 1656. A paralytic stroke, the year before his death, prevented Gardiner from extending his history to the Stuart Restoration in 1660 or even to the death of Oliver Cromwell. As an epigraph to his recent book on Gardiner, Mark Nixon quoted Guernsey Jones (1901), "life is short and Gardiner is long." (5) Gardiner began his research at the British Museum in 1856, followed by work at the Public Record Office two years later. His detailed history's "grinding factuality" had been "constructed... within the walls of the archive." (6) Apparently, he was the first scholar to read all the Thomason Tracts, over 22,000 printed items, bound in two thousand volumes. He built his history on strictly contemporary sources. For that reason, he distrusted memoirs. Writing to a publisher whom he thought might have Prince Rupert's diary, Gardiner explained: "I dislike extremely taking second-hand authority unless the original is absolutely out of reach." (7) Despite his busy schedule, he managed to serve as a director of the Camden Society, 1869-97, editing twelve volumes of documents and parts of other volumes.

Gardiner was interested in the borderline between ideas and politics. In a book review he argued "facts are only of importance as they help us to understand the changes of thought, of feeling, or of knowledge that mark the growth of that complex social unity which we call a nation." (8) Like most of the historians of his generation, Gardiner neglected social and economic history. In discussing the genesis of the revolution, he made only limited mention of the rise of the middle classes whose effect Hume and Guizot had emphasized. Gardiner expressed his satisfaction that "if war there was to be [in 1642], it was well that it should not... degenerate, like the troubles of the French Revolution, into a war of classes." (9)

It took time for Gardiner to build his reputation. In 1863 he published the first two of his eventual eighteen volumes. They were greeted "with some hostility and more indifference." (10) Only 146 copies of initial two volumes were sold. The rest of the edition "went to waste-paper." (11) In contrast, 32,000 copies of John Richard Green's Short History of the English People (1874) were sold within twelve months. Unfortunately for Gardiner, unlike Green, he was a pedestrian writer. F.W. Maitland lamented: "If only Gardiner had a little skill in story telling how good he would be." (12)

Gardiner was a not a literary artist such as his predecessor Macaulay, but in his later volumes his prose improved. At least he avoided the bombast of some of his contemporaries. The modern historians Brundage and Cosgrove are generous toward Gardiner the writer. "The individual who actually reads Gardiner will discover a mode of expression that moves the story forward in interesting fashion" as "the writing was clear and straightforward." (13) Lytton Strachey, not a friend of Victorians, exaggerated when he described Gardiner's history as "nothing so much as a very large heap of sawdust." (14) As a respectable Victorian, Gardiner's description of feminine beauty was confined to a compliment for sparkling eyes, but he could write a striking sentence, as when he described the lawyer Bulstrode Whitelocke as "a fair representative of the well-meaning but somewhat stolid portion of the prosperous classes, whose inertia every statesman in his heart despises." Gardiner wrote decent set pieces such as for the execution of Charles I and the battle of Marston Moor. He was at his best as a kind of stage manager who chose vivid quotations, for instance, in recounting the confrontation between the Levellers and the Council of State. The Marxist historian Christopher Hill praised Gardiner's "knack of hitting on the telling quotation." (15)

The historian Edward Freeman sometimes grumbled that Gardiner had whitewashed Freeman's favorite villains. "Give me a history with some one to hate in it." But he mostly championed Gardiner as a writer as well as a scholar. "Those who call him dull, I suppose want him to rave like Carlyle, or talk namby-pamby like Froude. That he won't, or I either." (16)

Mark Nixon included in his book a whole chapter on Gardiner as a writer. Nixon was intrigued with Gardiner's comparison of Wentworth (Lord Strafford) with Shakespeare's Coriolanus. Nixon began the conclusion to his book by quoting one of my most obscure publications. "Gardiner the antiquarian whose obsession for research crowds out the artistic sensibility exists principally in the imagination of those admirers too respectful of his eighteen-volume opus to read it." (17)

It was the late 1870s and the early 1880s before Gardiner began to make money from his great history. Then the demand for his books was such that in 1884 he issued a revised standard edition of the first ten volumes. (18) His magnum opus depicted in painstaking detail the struggle between the Stuart kings and Parliament, the Puritan revolution and civil wars, and the rise of Oliver Cromwell. He considered Parliament the greatest English achievement. He avoided the blatant partisanship of earlier Whig historians and saw honorable motives in adversaries. He honored Laud and Strafford as well as Pym and Lilburne. In a book review published in 1874, Gardiner declared "no history is ever properly written, unless the writer does his best to understand what people, of whose conduct or theories he disapproves, have to say for themselves." (19)

The historian Timothy Lang argues that Gardiner's "famed impartiality" was the result of "a Liberal historian's attempt to foster national unity by presenting a balanced interpretation of the Civil War." (20) Gardiner said: "England sprang from a union between the Puritanism and the Churchmanship of the seventeenth century." (21) Gardiner made his special theme the rise of religious toleration. (22) He said that "the secret of the future was with those who could guide England into the sure haven of religious liberty." (23) In an unpretentious volume in the Epochs of Modern History series, Gardiner explained why majority rule would eventually have established toleration on a safer basis than the favor of a benevolent monarch. For a time, the majority might be tyrannical, "but the mere success of the majority of the nation would eventually bring toleration in its train. The strong can afford to allow things to be done and words to be spoken which the weak will be eager to suppress at all hazards." (24)

In 1882 Reginald Palgrave, clerk of the House of Commons, called Gardiner's work revolutionary as it transcended the division between Tory and Whig. "This historical revolution is the more remarkable because Mr. Gardiner's bias--and who is not in some way biased?--is toward the Puritan aspect of life and so-called liberalism in politics." (25) Although Gardiner made use of many published sources, he is renowned for his manuscript research at the British Museum, the Public Record Office, and college and private libraries in England as well as archives at Simancas in Spain, Brussels, Paris, Venice, and Rome. (26) His research required him to read sources in Latin, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish, and even ciphers. He read Danish as he cited books written in it. According to Firth, Gardiner had chosen his period "largely as a reaction against the views what were in vogue when he began to write." (27)

In 1882, in the preface (p. vi) to The Fall of the Monarchy of Charles I, Gardiner remembered:

Many years ago, as a young and unknown writer I deliberately refrained from selecting a subject more attractive in its own nature than the reign of James I. could possibly be. It seemed to me then as it seems to me now that it was the duty of a serious inquirer to search into the original causes of great events rather than, for the sake of catching an audience, to rush unprepared upon the great events themselves. My reward has been that, whether the present work is well or ill done, it is at all far better done than it could have been if I had commenced with the tale of the Puritan Revolution itself. Gardiner is sometimes presented as a narrow specialist. Perhaps the best analysis of him as a historian appeared in the Quarterly Review (April 1902). The anonymous writer (who was C.H. Firth) pointed out that in his popular works Gardiner wrote about the entirety of English history and, knowing many languages, read widely in continental European history. (28)

Despite the common assumption that Gardiner simply summarized documents, he said in a private letter something quite different. (29)

It has always been my wish that I might so be able to write the story of that very interesting period on which I have been for so many years engaged as to convey something better than mere information. It seems to me that without any attempt at preaching, merely to explain how men acted towards one another, and the reasons for their misunderstandings, ought to teach us something for the conduct of our own lives. Discussing Bate's case (1606) and the legality of royal impositions on imported currants, Gardiner did not bother much with what the law was at the time. He said:

if... the judges had looked upon the history of "preceding" times as we are able to do, they would have...

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