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cried out for the good laws of King Edward, trying to revive
the past.

Freeman was apt to go beyond his own
dictum about history and politics, for he some-

Edward Freeman 275

times made history present politics as well as

By far the strongest political interest indeed
it rose to a passion of his later years was his
hatred of the Turk. In it his historical and
religious sentiment, for there was a good deal
of the Crusader about him, was blended with
his abhorrence of despotism and cruelty. Ever
since the beginning of the Crimean war he had
been opposed to the traditional English policy of
supporting the Sultan. Ever since he had thought
about foreign politics at all he had sympathised
with the Christians of the East. So when Lord
Beaconsfield seemed on the point of carrying the
country into a war with Russia in defence of the
Turks, no voice rose louder or bolder than his in
denouncing the policy then popular with the
upper classes in England. On this occasion he
gave substantial proof of his earnestness by
breaking off his connection with the Saturday
Review because it had espoused the Turkish
cause. This cost him ^600 a year, a sum
he could ill spare, and took from him what had
been the joy of his heart, opportunities of deliver-
ing himself upon all sorts of current questions.
But his sense of duty forbade him to write for a
journal which was supporting a misguided policy
and a minister whom he thought unscrupulous.

His habit of speaking out his whole mind
with little regard to the eftect his words might

276 Biographical Studies

produce, or to the way in which they might
be twisted, sometimes landed him in difficulties.
One utterance raised an outcry at the time, be-
cause it was made at a conference held in London
in December 1876 to oppose Lord Beaconsfield's
Eastern policy. The Duke of Westminster and
Lord Shaftesbury presided at the forenoon and
afternoon sessions, and the meeting, which told
powerfully on the country, was wound up by Mr.
Gladstone, Freeman's speech, only ten minutes
long, but an oratorical success at the moment, con-
tained the words, "Perish the interests of England,
perish our dominion in India, rather than that we
should strike one blow or speak one word on be-
half of the wrong against the right." This flight
of rhetoric was perverted by his opponents into
"Perish India"; and though he indignantly
repudiated the misrepresentation, it continued to
be repeated against him for years thereafter, and
to be cited as an instance of the irresponsible
violence of the friends of the Eastern Christians.

The most conspicuous and characteristic merits
of Freeman as an historian may be summed up
in six points : love of truth, love of justice, in-
dustry, common sense, breadth of view, and
power of vividly realising the political life of the

Every one knows the maxim, pectus facit
theologum^ a maxim accountable, by the way,

1 " The heart makes the theologian."

Edward Freeman 277

for a good deal of weak theology. More truly
may it be said that the merits of a great historian
are far from lying wholly in his intellectual
powers. Among the highest of such merits,
merits which the professional student has even
more reason to appreciate than the general reader,
because he more frequently discerns the disturbing
causes, are two moral qualities. One is the zeal
for truth, with the willingness to undertake, in a
search for it, a toil by which no credit will ever
be gained. The other is a clear view of, and
loyal adherence to, the permanent moral standards.
In both these points Freeman stood in the front
rank. He was kindly and fair in his judgments,
and ready to make all the allowances for any
man's conduct which the conditions of his time
suggested, but he hated cruelty, falsehood, oppres-
sion, whether in Syracuse twenty-four centuries
ago or in the Ottoman empire to-day. That
conscientious industry which spares no pains to
get as near as possible to the facts never failed
him. Though he talked less about facts and
verities than Carlyle did, Carlyle was not so
assiduous and so minutely careful in sifting every
statement before he admitted it into his pages.
That he was never betrayed by sentiment into
partisanship it would be too much to say.
Scottish critics have accused him, perhaps not
without justice, of being led by his English
patriotism to over-state the claims of the English

278 Biographical Studies

Crown to suzerainty over Scotland. J. R. Green,
as well as the late Mr. C. H. Pearson, thought
that the same cause disposed him to overlook
the weak points in the character of Harold son
of Godwin, one of his favourite heroes. But
there have been few writers who have so seldom
erred in this way ; few who have striven so
earnestly to do full justice to every cause and
every person. Even the race prejudices which
he allowed himself to indulge, in letters and talk,
against Irishmen, Frenchmen, and Jews, scarcely
ever appear in his books. The characters he
has drawn of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, William
the Conqueror and William the Red, St. Thomas
of Canterbury (none of whom he liked), and, in
his History of Sicily, of Nicias, are models of the
fairness which historical portraiture requires. It
is especially interesting to compare his picture
of the unfortunate Athenian with the equally
vigorous but harsher view of Grote. Freeman,
whom many people thought fierce, was one of
the most soft-hearted of men, and tolerant of
everything but perfidy and cruelty. Though
disposed to be positive in his opinions, he was
always willing to reconsider a point when any
new evidence was discovered or any new argu-
ment brought to his notice, and not unfrequently
modified his view in the light of such evidence
or arguments. It was this passion for accuracy
and for that lucidity of statement which is the

Edward Freeman 279

necessary adjunct of real accuracy, that made him
deal so sternly with confused thinkers and careless
writers. Carelessness seemed to him a moral
fault, because a fault which true conscientiousness
excludes. So also clearness of conception and
exact precision in the use of words were so
natural to him, and appeared so essential to good
work, that he would set down the want of them
rather to indolence than to incapacity, and apply
to them a proportionately severe censure. Mere
ignorance he could pardon, but when it was, as
often happens, even in persons of considerable
pretensions, joined to presumption, his wrath was
the hotter because he deemed it a wholly righteous
wrath. Never touching any subject which he had
not mastered, he thought it his duty as a critic to
expose impostors, and rendered in this way, during
the years when he wrote for the Saturday Review,
services to English scholarship second only to
those which were embodied in his own treatises.
It must be confessed that he enjoyed the work,
and, like Samuel Johnson, was not displeased
to be told that he had "tossed and gored several

His determination to get to the bottom of a
question was the cause of the censure he so freely
bestowed both on lawyers, who were wont to
rest content with their technicalities, and not go
back to the historical basis on which those techni-
calities rested, and on politicians who fell into

2 So Biographical Studies

the habit of using stock phrases which muddled
or misrepresented the principles involved. The
expression "national property," as applied to
tithes, incensed him, and gave occasion for some
of his most vigorous writing. So the common-
place grumblings against the presence of bishops
in the House of Lords, which may be heard from
people who acquiesce in the presence of hereditary
peers, led him to give the most clear and forcible
statement of the origin and character of that House
which our time has produced. Here he was on
ground he knew thoroughly. But his habits of
accuracy were not less fully illustrated by his atti-
tude towards branches of history he had not ex-
plored. With a profound and minute knowledge
of English history down to the fourteenth century,
so far as his aversion to the employment of
manuscript authorities would allow, and a scarcely
inferior knowledge of foreign European history
during the same period, with a less full but very
sound knowledge down to the middle of the
sixteenth century, and with a thorough mastery
of pretty nearly all ancient history, his familiarity
with later European history, and with the history
of such outlying regions as India or America,
was not much beyond that of the average educated
man. He used to say when questioned on these
matters that "he had not come down to that
yet." But when he had occasion to refer to those
periods or countries, he hardly ever made a

Edward Freeman 281

mistake. If he did not know, he did not refer;
if he referred, he had seized, as if by instinct,
something which was really important and service-
able for his purpose. The same remark applies
(speaking generally) to Gibbon and to Macaula)',
and I have heard Freeman make it of the writings
of Mr. Goldwin Smith, for whom he had a warm

Freeman's abstention from the use of manu-
script sources was virtually prescribed by his
persistence in refusing to work out of his own
library, or, as he used to say, out of a room
which he could consider to be his library for the
time being. As, however, the original authori-
ties for the times with which he chiefly dealt
are, with few or unimportant exceptions, all in
print, this habit can hardly be considered a
defect in his historical qualifications. In hand-
ling the sources he was a judicious critic and a
sound scholar, thoroughly at home in Greek and
Latin, and sufficiently equipped in Anglo-Saxon,
or, as he called it, Old English. Of his breadth
of view, of the command he had of the whole
sweep of his knowledge, of his delight in bringing
together things the most remote in place or time,
it is superfluous to speak. These merits are
perhaps most conspicuously seen in the plan of
his treatise on Federal Government, as well as
in the execution of that one volume which un-
fortunately was all he produced of what might

282 Biographical Studies

have been, if completed, a book of the utmost
value. But one or two trifling illustrations
of this habit of living in an atmosphere in
which the past was no less real to him than
the present may be forgiven. When careless
friends directed letters to him at " Somerleaze,
Wookey, Somerset," Wookey being a village a
quarter of a mile from his house, but on the other
side of the river Axe, he would write back com-
plaining that they were "confusing the England
and Wales of the seventh century." When his
attention had been called to a discussion in the
weekly journals about Shelley's first wife he wrote
to me, "Why will they worry us with this
Harrietfrage ? You and I have quite enough
to do with Helen, and Theodora, and Mary
Stuart." So in addressing Somersetshire rustics
during his election campaign in 1868, he could
not help on one occasion referring to Ptolemy
Euergetes, and on another launching out into an
eloquent description of the Landesgemeinde of

Industry came naturally to Freeman, because
he was fond of his own studies and did not
think of his work as task work. The joy in
reading and writing about bygone times sprang
from the intensity with which he realised them.
He had no geographical imagination, finding
no more pleasure in books of travel than in
dramatic poetry. But he loved to dwell in the

Edward Freeman 283

past, and seemed to see and feel and make him-
self a part of the events he described. Next
to their worth as statements of carefully investi-
gated facts, the chief merit of his books lies in
the sense of reality which fills them. The politics
of Corinth or Sicyon, the contest of William the
Red with St. Anselm, interested him as keenly
as a general election in which he was himself
a candidate. Looking upon current events with
an historian's eye, he was fond, on the other
hand, of illustrating features of Roman history
from incidents he had witnessed when taking part
in local government as a magistrate ; and in
describing the relations of Hermocrates and
Athenagoras at Syracuse he drew upon observa-
tions which he had made in watching the dis-
cussions of the Hebdomadal Council at Oxford.
This power of realising the politics of ancient
or mediaeval times was especially useful to him
as a writer, because without it his minuteness
might have verged on prolixity, seeing that he
cared exclusively for the political part of history.
It was one of the points in which he rose superior
to most of those German students with whom it
is natural to compare him. Many of them have
equalled him in industry and diligence ; some have
surpassed him in the ingenuity which they bring
to bear upon obscure problems ; but few of them
have shown the same gift for understanding
what the political life of remote times really was.

284 Biographical Studies

Like Gibbon, Freeman was not a mere student,
but also a man with opportunities of mixing in
affairs, accustomed to bear his share in the world's
work, and so better able than the mere student
can be to comprehend how that work goes forward.
Though he was too peculiar in his views and his
way of stating them to have been adapted either
to the House of Commons or to a local assembly,
and would indeed have been wasted upon nine-
teen-twentieths of the business there transacted,
he loved politics and watched them with a
shrewdly observant eye. Though he indulged
his foibles in some directions, he could turn upon
history a stream of clear common sense which
sometimes made short work of German conjec-
tures. And he was free from the craving to
have at all hazards something new to advance,
be it a trivial fact or an unsupported guess. He
was accustomed of late years to complain that
German scholarship seemed to be suffering from
the passion for etwas Neues, and the consequent
disposition to disparage work which did not
abound with novelties, however empty or tran-
sient such novelties might be.

To think of the Germans is to think of
industry. Freeman was a true Teuton in the
mass of his production. Besides the seven thick
volumes devoted to the Norman Conquest and
William Rufus, the four thick volumes to Sicily,
four large volumes of collected essays, and nine or

Edward Freeman 285

ten smaller volumes on architectural subjects, on
the English constitution, on the United States,
on the Slavs and the Turks, he wrote an even
greater quantity of matter which appeared in the
Saturday Review during the twenty years from
1856 to 1876, and it was by these articles, not
less than by his books, that he succeeded in
dispelling many current errors and confusions,
and in establishing some of his own doctrines
so firmly that we now scarcely remember what
iteration and reiteration, in season and out of
season, and much to the impatience of those
who remembered that they had heard these
doctrines often before, were needed to make them
accepted by the public. Freeman's swift facility
was due to his power of concentration. He
always knew what he meant an article to contain
before he sat down to his desk ; and in his
historical researches he made each step so certain
that he seldom required to reinvestigate a point
or to change, in revising for the press, the sub-
stance of what he had written.

In his literary habits he was so methodical
and precise that he could carry on three under-
takings at the same time, keeping on different
tables in his working rooms the books he needed
for each, and passing at stated hours from one
to the other. It is often remarked that the
growth of journalism, forcing men to write
hastily and profusely, tends to injure literature

2 86 Biographical Studies

both in matter and in manner. In point of
matter, Freeman, though for the best part of
his Hfe a very prolific journalist, did not seem
to suffer. He was as exact, clear, and thorough
at the end as he had been at the beginning.
On his style, however, the results were un-
fortunate. It retained its force and its point,
but it became diffuse, not that each particular
sentence was weak, or vague, or wordy, but that
what was substantially the same idea was
apt to be reiterated, with slight differences of
phrase, in several successive sentences or para-
graphs. He was fond of the Psalter, great part
of which he knew by heart, and we told him
that he had caught too much of the manner of
Psalm cxix. This tendency to repetition caused
some of his books, and particularly the Normaii
Conquest and Willia7}i Rufus, to swell to a por-
tentous bulk. Those treatises, which constitute
a history of England from a.u. 1042 to iioo,
would be more widely read if they had been,
as they ought to have been, reduced to three or
four volumes ; and as he came to perceive this,
he resolved in the last year of his life to
republish the Norman Conquest in a condensed
form. To be obliged to compress was a whole-
some, though unwelcome, discipline, and the
result is seen in some of his smaller books, such
as the historical essays, and the sketches of
English towns, often wonderfully fresh and

Edward Freeman 287

vigorous bits of work. Anxiety to be scrupu-
lously accurate runs into prolixity, and Freeman
so loved his subjects that it pained him
to omit any characteristic detail a chronicler
had preserved ; as he once observed to a dis-
tinguished writer who was dealing with a much
later period, " You know so much about your
people that you have to leave out a great deal,
I know so little that I must tell all I know."
The tendency to repeat the same word too fre-
quently sprang from his preference for words of
Teutonic origin and his pride in what he
deemed the purity of his English. His pages
would have been livelier had he felt free to
indulge in the humour with which his private
letters sparkled ; for he was full of fun, though it
often turned on points too recondite for the public.
But it was only in the notes to his histories, and
seldom even there, that he gave play to one of
the merits that most commended him to his

So far of his books. He was, however, also
Regius Professor of History at Oxford during
the last eight years of his life, and thus the head
of the historical faculty in his own university
which he dearly loved. That he was less
effective as a teacher than as a writer may be
partly ascribed to his having come too late to
a new kind of work, and one which demands
the freshness of youth ; partly also to the

2 88 Biographical Studies

cramping conditions under which professors
have to teach at Oxford, where everything is
governed by a system of examinations which
Freeman was never tired of denouncing as
ruinous to study. His friends, however, doubted
whether the natural bent of his mind was
towards oral teaching. It was a peculiar
mind, which ran in a deep channel of its
own, and could not easily, if the metaphor
be permissible, be drawn off to irrigate the
adjoining fields. He was always better at
putting his own views in a clear and telling
way than at laying his intellect alongside of
yours, apprehending your point of view, and
setting himself to meet it. Or, to put the same
thing differently, you learned more by listening
to him than by conversing with him. He
had not the quick intellectual sympathy and
effusion which feels its way to the heart of an
audience, and indeed derives inspiration from the
sight of an audience. In his election meetings
I noticed that the temper and sentiment of the
listeners did not in the least affect him ; what
he said was what he himself cared to say, not
what he felt they would wish to hear. So
also in his lecturing he pleased himself, and
chose the topics he liked best rather than those
which the examination scheme prescribed to the
students. Perhaps he was right, for he was of those
whose excellence in performance depends upon

Edward Freeman 289

the enjoyment they find in the exercise of their
powers. But even on the topics he selected, he
did not take hold of and guide the mind of the
students, realising their particular difficulties and
needs, but simply delivered his own message in
his own way. Admitting this deficiency, the fact
remains that he was not only an ornament to the
University by the example he set of unflagging
zeal, conscientious industry, loyalty to truth, and
love of freedom, but also a stimulating influence
upon those who were occupied with history.
He delighted to surround himself with the most
studious of the younger workers, gave them
abundant encouragement and recognition, and
never grudged the time to help them by his
knowledge or his counsel.

Much the same might be said of his lifelong
friend and illustrious predecessor in the chair of
history (Dr. Stubbs), whom Freeman had been
generously extolling for many years before the
merits of that admirable scholar became known to
the public. Stubbs disliked lecturing; and though
once a year he delivered a "public lecture" full of
wisdom, and sometimes full of wit also, he was not
effective as a teacher, not so effective, for instance,
as Bishop Creighton, who won his reputation
at Merton College long before he became Pro-
fessor of Ecclesiastical History at Cambridge.
But Stubbs, by his mere presence in the Uni-
versity, and by the inexhaustible kindness with


290 Biographical Studies

which he answered questions and gave advice,
rendered great services to the studies of the place.
It may be doubted whether, when he was raised
to the episcopal bench, history did not lose more
than the Church of England gained. Other men
of far less ability could have discharged five-sixths
of a bishop's duties equally well, but there was no
one else in England, if indeed in Europe, capable
of carrying on his historical researches. So
Dr. Lightfoot was, as Professor at Cambridge,
doing work for Christian learning even more
precious than the work which is still affectionately
remembered in his diocese of Durham.

Few men have had a genius for friendship
equal to Freeman's. The names of those he
cared for were continually on his lips, and their
lives in his thoughts ; their misfortunes touched
him like his own ; he was always ready to
defend them, always ready to give any aid they
needed. No differences of opinion affected his
regard. Sensitive as he was to criticism, he
received their censure on any part of his work
without offence. The need he felt for knowing
how they fared and for sharing his thoughts with
them expressed itself in the enormous correspond-
ence, not of business, but of pure affection, which
he kept up with his many friends, and which
forms, for his letters were so racy that many of
them were preserved, the fullest record of his

Edward Freeman 291

This warmth of feeling deserves to be dwelt
on, because it explains the tendency to vehem-
ence in controversy which brought some enmities
upon him. There was an odd contrast between
his fondness for describing wars and battles and
that extreme aversion to militarism which made
him appear to dislike the very existence of a
British army and navy. So his combativeness,
and the zest with which he bestowed shrewd
blows on those who encountered him, though
due to his wholesome scorn for pretenders, and
his hatred of falsehood and injustice, seemed
inconsistent with the real kindliness of his nature.
The kindliness, however, no one who knew him
could doubt ; it showed itself not only in his
care for dumb creatures and for children, but in
the depth and tenderness of his affections. Of
religion he spoke little, and only to his most
intimate friends. In opinion he had drifted a
long way from the Anglo- Catholic position of
his early manhood ; but he remained a sincerely
pious Christian.

Though his health had been infirm for some
years before his death, his literary activity did
not slacken, nor did his powers show signs of
decline. There is nothing in his writings, nor
in any writings of our time, more broad, clear,
and forcible than many chapters of the History
of Sicily. Much of his work has effected its
purpose, and will, by degrees, lose its place in

292 Biographical Studies

the public eye. But much will live on into a
yet distant future, because it has been done so
thoroughly, and contains so much sound and
vigorous thinking, that coming generations of
historical students will need it and value it almost
as our own has done.


Online LibraryJames Bryce BryceStudies in contemporary biography → online text (page 17 of 29)