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Memoirs as a source of English history; the Stanhope essay, 1914 online

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'*We are born to inquire after truth."











Memoirs as a Source of
English History


In the introduction to his Historia Novorum, the
chronicler Eadmer tells us that he was led to write
of the events of his own times because of the diffi-
culty which he knew his contemporaries experienced
in finding out about the past, and because he held
that an account of contemporary affairs would be to
the glory of God, and deserving the gratitude of
posterity. " Hoc igitur considerato," he says " penes
me, statui ea quae sub oculis vidi vel audivi, brevi-
tati studendo, stilo officio commemorare." Some
five hundred years later another ecclesiastic, another
historian of his own times — Bishop Burnet — says in
the preface to his work, " I look on the perfecting of
this work ... as the greatest service I can do both
to God and to the world." From the days of
Eadmer, and before, to the days of Burnet, and
beyond, it has been the aim of many persons to win
the approval of Heaven by narrating the truth, and
the gratitude of man by telling of events within the
sphere of their own experience. In such narrations



the truth is not always so absolute as Heaven would
doubtless desire, nor is the matter often such as
gains the unqualified gratitude of man. Often
writers of contemporary events make many protesta-
tions of veracity ; we may believe that they have
always written with a determination to tell the
truth. But imperfections in character and intellect
make imperfections in all endeavours ; sometimes
personal feelings inevitably lend a bias, sometimes
memory is defective, sometimes experience is so
confined that a one-sided view is taken ; time will
have exaggerated one event, and belittled another ;
egotism will creep in and enlarge the importance of
the part which the author has played in events — in
short, it is just because man is human, because each of
the species has a difference, that he cannot tell " the
truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."
However grateful we may be to our forefathers for
their legacy of testimony, our gratitude must be
tempered with a knowledge of their fallibility, of
, the incompleteness of their experience, of the neces-
sarily limited range of their outlook. It is the
function of this essay to discuss the measure of
gratitude which the writer of English history should
feel for the memoirs which have come down to us.


Eadmer has been mentioned as a historian of his
own times; in this respect he is not extraordinary
among mediaeval chroniclers, for many writers in
those times dealt with affairs of their days in some


way or another, and often they were peculiarly
qualified to do so. To us in modern times a monas-
tery implies seclusion and aloofness from the world
at large, but in past times, though religious houses
were, of course, intended to be apart from the world,
their culture forced them into prominence in prac-
tical affairs. Monastic historians, seated in a remote
scriptorium, would tend to be inaccurate about facts
and figures, but those who dwelt in the larger and
more frequented houses would have excellent oppor-
tunities of acquiring material from the great person-
ages who would call at monasteries in the course of
their business and journeyings. Moreover, monks
were recognized as the literary class, and it would
often happen that one would be appointed from them
to act as a reporter at an important council, or as an
historiographer of a momentous event. Nevertheless,
it can hardly be said that there existed in mediaeval
times a class of writings which we would call memoirs
as distinct from any other form of historical works.

The tendency of human affairs is towards increas-
ing complexity, and with the growth of knowledge
and of curiosity the narration of fact and of thought
becomes also more complicated. History is now
written in many forms, whereas in the Middle Ages
it was an art or pastime, narrow in form, lacking in
intensity and variety. In the earlier Middle Ages the
chronicle was the medium of history writing, and it
contained in it the germ of compiled history, of
biography, and of memoirs. There were some
definite biographies, such as the Life of Anselm, by


Eadmer, and some personal reminiscences such as
Giraldus Cambrensis' De Rebus a se Gestis, and many
chroniclers referred to events of their own day.
But it cannot be said that any memoirs proper were
written in England in mediaeval times ; if any such
be found they are rarities and curiosities not expected
— the work of some precocious intellect. It was not
customary to write personal reminiscences for a
personal object — that is to say, for a man's own
pleasure or for the interest of a small circle of friends
or relations. The writing of history was undertaken
to glorify a saint or a religious house, to extol a patron,
or support a party ; a monk would not waste good
sheep-skin for the sake of amusing himself with his
own thoughts and affairs. Had a monk, with ideas
and feelings unknown to his time, attempted such a
thing, we may be sure he would have had to do
penance for waste of time and parchment.

Even when knowledge became somewhat secular-
ized the layman was not in an atmosphere productive
of memoirs.

In particular, in the days of authority there was
but little discrimination made between what a man
learnt from some external source, and what he ob-
served for himself ; indeed, the former kind of know-
ledge would be considered the more reliable. In
general, the interests of the Genius of History were
spread over a vast space of time ; entirely incompre-
hensible to It would be one man's desire to write of
his own doings in the infinitesimal moment of time
called the Present. Upon the men of the Middle
Ages was cast a backward spell so that they regarded


the past rather than the present or the future.
They were so conservative that to them history
was truly continuous and unchanged : for them
there were no hedges in the vast plain of time, their
thought wandered wide and browsed in distant ages,
not realizing that it had strayed far and was among
strange things.. To write an account of the world
from its creation onwards was a task which did not
daunt minds which failed to understand conditions
of time and space, and to whom anachronisms and
anomalies were unknown critical conceptions.

Memoirs concern the individual, and so could not
appear until the individual was emancipated from
the community ; they could not appear until the
individual had leisure and culture, until man had be-
come introspective, interested in the things that are,
and critical of his own doings; they could not be
written until the individual had his own thoughts and
ideas, the capability of expressing them, and the
means of recording them. Memoirs did not become
a distinct means of expression until after the Renais-
sance had enabled the individual to '* find himself."^

1 In this respect the effects of the Renaissance were somewhat
anticipated in France by reason of the superior culture and intelli-
gence possessed by men of action in that country. Perhaps that
*• amour pour le moi," which has helped to produce in France a
long series of memoirs, was a characteristic of the French genius
even in the Middle Ages. England has no Joinville or Commines,
and in France the memoir seems to have been in a state of evolu-
tion earlier than in this country. M. Molinier says (Manuels de
Bihliographie Historique, vol. iv., p. i) : " Vers le temps ou commence
la Guerre de Cent Ans, I'historiographie frangaise subit de profondes
modifications. Les annales monastiques ont disparu longtemps,
I'histoire se fait de plus en plus laique et les grandes chroniques
prennent un caractere personnel. Beau coup sont de vrais memoires,
en depit de leur apparence d'histories generales."



In dealing with a subject which, if fully discussed,
would cover several centuries of history and necessi-
tate a knowledge of a vast number of volumes, it
would seem advisable to concentrate on a compara-
tively short period — to examine a part of the subject
with a view to finding in it examples and illustrations
which may apply to the whole. By the seventeenth
century memoirs had evolved in completeness, but it
is not until then that they furnish a distinct source of
historical knowledge. Even the keeping of a diary
or the reviewing of past events implies an amount of
culture and of interest in affairs which had not yet
permeated society until the age of the Stuarts.
Journals and personal histories of the Tudor period
are in existence ; as early as the reign of Henry VII.
Polydore Vergil seems to have based his Historia
Anglica upon a diary which he had kept of con-
temporary events, but not until seventeenth-century
history is reached do bibliographies contain any
considerable references to memoirs and to diaries,
which are only memoirs written down from day to
day instead of at the end of a longer period of

The seventeenth century is in many respects the
golden age of memoir-writers, and it will be fair to
gauge the value of such writings as a source of
history from the contribution which they afford to

1 Evelyn, in places, refers to his Diary as " these memoirs."


the knowledge of the latter half of that period.
Events, chiefly the struggle between King and
Parliament, which in a broader aspect was in itself
an indication of the awakening interests of the
people at large, had aroused mental activity in all
classes* Between 1640 and 1646, 25,000 pamphlets
on the topics of the day had appeared, in itself an
indication of a wide and strenuous interest taken in
contemporary occurrences. The interest which the
men of that time took in their own doings and in
their own situation appears in all their intellectual
activity ; it is shown in the rise of scientific specula-
tion and experiment in the latter half of the century ;
it appears, at the other extreme of thought, in
poetry. As Ranke said:^ "Can it not be said of
the poetical literature of this time that it represents
principally the impression produced by prevailing
circumstances ?" And the seventeenth century was
an age not only conscious of itself, but it was an age
of culture and intelligence, producing men of great
ability in all spheres of life, and men who were
highly literary and cultured, though also men of
action. As Ranke again has said:^ *' It marks the
literary character of the epoch that men occupied
themselves so much and so seriously with contem-
porary history." Then was an atmosphere in which
men of all ranks would be induced to record their
thoughts and doings. It would also seem that in
the times of which I am speaking it was considered
by pious people to be a piece of religious discipline
1 History of England, bk. xv., ch. xii. ^ Ihid,


to keep a journal for the recording of daily facts and
feelings.^ One of the diaries of this period, that of
Ralph Thoresby, F.R.S., is the result of this belief.
The author evidently acted upon the advice given to
him by his father, who wrote as follows : " I would
have you, in a little book . . . take a little journal
of anything remarkable every day, principally as to
yourself. ... I have thought this a good method
for one to keep a good, tolerable decorum in actions,
etc., because he is to be accountable to himself as
well as to God." It was an age, too, in which diaries
and memoirs were likely to be fuller and more com-
prehensive than in modern times, especially when
mentioning occurrences of general interest ; for the
newspaper has had much the same effect upon
memoirs as upon letter-writing — it has made them
slighter, and has restricted their sphere of comment.
In modern times every event of public interest is to
be found noticed and discussed in the newspapers ;
it can be safely assumed that news is the common
property of all, and any reflections which we make
for our personal interest we indulge in as we read
the daily paper, and do not make a note of in our
journal. It was otherwise in days when the news-
sheet had but recently made its appearance, and
was either a fierce organ of one of the parties
formed during the Civil Wars, or, later, a bare
record of such dull facts as the Court allowed to be
made public. News in the seventeenth century was
scanty and unreliable. Writes a country gentleman

1 Intro diiction to Diary of Ralph Thoresby. Edited by Rev. J.
Hunter, 1830.


to a friend ^ "If any newes of consequence fall in
your way that is not printed, it will bee very accept-
able here, for Mercurius doth abuse us too often."
When news, even of the greatest and most important
events, was a rare commodity, it would be treasured
up in diaries. Memoirs, too, which were written in
the retrospective mood which comes upon men
towards the close of their lives would tend to be
more comprehensive than now, for in past times
books were not published dealing with great prob-
lems or events immediately they occurred. Sir John
Reresby says that he wrote his memoirs ** to preserve
memorials of some things of use as well as of
curiosity, which age as well as want of care to
preserve hath near already consumed." His memoirs
cover the period 1660-1689, and are concerned with
most of the great events which took place during
that time. In our day there is certainly a greater
"care to preserve" than in the seventeenth century,
for the activity of the printing-press has made
preservation inevitable ; a man need no longer
describe important events for the benefit of his
family or descendants, for a thousand newspapers
and a hundred books will already have given them
full information upon topics worthy of memorial.

It has seemed proper, then, to choose the memoirs
of the latter half of the seventeenth century from
which to give some examples of the way in which
that form of writing illustrates history, because it
seems that memoirs of that period are more com-

1 Letter in Memoirs of the Verney Family, vol. ii., p. 151.


prehensive and more valuable than in later times,
when books and news increased in volume. The
value of a thing should be estimated when its worth
is most in evidence, rather than when circumstances
have lessened its importance.


It is at times difficult to decide what is, strictly
speaking, a memoir, and what is a history proper ;
at times the problem will arise of **When is a
memoir not a memoir?" and the riddle is a hard one
to solve. Are, for instance, Clarendon's History
of the Rebellion or Burnet's History of My Own
Times memoirs or not ? It has seemed better to
rule both these out of the category, since they do
not exactly fit in with the definition given above of
a memoir, as personal reminiscences written down
with a personal object — that is to say, for the interest
or instruction of a man's self or his relations, present
or to come. Clarendon's History was evidently
intended to be at once a public vindication and a
source of future history, and so is distinct in kind
from his Life which was written primarily for the
information of his children, and not designed for
eventual publicity.^ The former is history proper,
the latter memoirs. Burnet's History of My Own
Times, though not published till after his death,
has evidently a wider purpose than that of memoirs ;
it is addressed to the ** reader" in general, and was
written for the use of the world at large.^ In contra-

^ English Historical Review, vol. xix. 2 /j/^, ^ preface.


distinction may be quoted the motives of three
memoir-writers proper, as given by themselves in
their works. Sir John Bramston says the purpose
of his book is ** that posteritie, therefore, I meane
my owne descendents, may know somethinge of my
father and myself, beside our names in the pedigree
or line of descent."^ Sir John Reresby says his
memoirs were written for those "as are curious to
know what hath passed in their family, and that
please themselves with *olim meminisse.' "^ Lastly,
the Earl of Ailesbury says of his work: '* All this is
very irregular, and would not be pardonable in one
that would pass for an historian, but I disown that
character ; I write for my own satisfaction, and let
this pass for a sort of diary and nothing else ; and it
is written without favour or affection on the one
hand, and without malice on the other."

The memoir-writers of the latter half of the seven-
teenth century are a large and a mixed class, ranging
in status from the exalted memorialist Queen Mary II.,
whose confidences are a pathetic sermon on the text,
" Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown," to the
humble Rev. Ralph Josselin, who deals in such
detail as " the price of land, food, cows, and pigs, the
wages of servants, the salary of a schoolmaster, the
excise duty upon hops." The sum of their works
presents a picture of the time, with broad outlines
and with details; important events and trivialities
are confused together; each particular memoir is

1 Autobiography, p. 4. Published by Camden Society, 1845.

2 Memoir Sy p. 2. Edited by J. J. Cartwright, 1875.


like an old picture of a pre-perspective period, with
all its features out of proportion, and with detail all
the more arresting because it is given undue promi-
nence in the general scheme. Perhaps the best means
of determining what light this medley of memoirs
throws on the history of the time will be to con-
struct an outline sketch of the period 1660-1702,
composing it of characteristic extracts from typical
contemporary memoirs.


The Restoration period, with order suddenly
arising out of confusion, is fitly opened by the great
diarist Evelyn, ** a most excellent humoured man
. . . and mighty knowing "^ as Pepys describes him.
The doubt and turmoil which was rife between the
death of Cromwell and the accession of Charles is
described for us in the Diary with dramatic brevity :

^^ April 25, 1659. — ^ wonderful and sudden change
in the face of the public : the new protector Richard
slighted : several pretenders and parties strive for the
government : all anarchy and confusion : Lord have
mercy upon us !

*' October 11. — The army now turned out the parlia-
ment. We had now no government in the nation :
all in confusion : no magistrate either owned or pre-
tended, but the soldiers and they not agreed.

^* February 3, 1660. — General Monk came now to
London out of Scotland, but no man knew what he
would do or declare.

1 February 20, 1666, Diary.


^'February 11. — Monk . . . convenes the old
parliament, for joy whereof were . . . bonfires this
night with ringing of bells and universal jubilee."

Pepys, writing on the same day, testifies with
more detail to the general jubilation :

'* In Cheapside there was a great many bonfires,
and Bow bells and all the bells in all the churches
as we went home were a-ringing ... at Strand
bridge I could at one time count thirty-one fires.
In King Street seven or eight ; and all along, burn-
ing, and roasting, and drinking for rumps. . . .
The butchers at the May Pole in the Strand rang
a peal with their knives when they were going to
sacrifice their rump."

It was, indeed, suddenly that the Restoration
became a certainty. On January 18 Pepys writes :
*' All the world is at a loss to think what Monk will
do "; as late as March 6 he says : " Many think that
he [i,e., Monk] is honest, and some or more think
him to be a fool that would raise himself, but think
that he will undo himself by endeavouring it." But
of all the conflicting views and policies Monk's was
the most reasonable and remedial, and so found
favour. He contrived the election in the spring of
1660 of a free Parliament which decided for the
return of the King. Charles and his travel-worn
Court crossed gaily from the Hague and landed at
Dover on May 25. *' So great were the acclamations
and numbers of people, that it reached like one street
from Dover to Whitehall," says Lady Fanshawe.^

1 Memoirs 0/ Lady Fanshawe. Edited by Beatrice Marshall, 1905.


In London Evelyn tells us of " the ways strewed with
flowers, the bells ringing, the streets hung with
tapestry, fountains running with wine." Lady Fan-
shawe had accompanied Charles on his wanderings,
and she gives us some account of the condition of
the Royalist Court, of what it had endured in its
exile, which helps us to understand the reaction
to licence and pleasure which took place after
the Restoration; in particular, she describes the
state of the Court in the Scilly Isles and Jersey :
** I was set on shore almost dead in the island of
Scilly. When we had got to our quarters near the
Castle where the Prince lay, I went immediately to
bed, which was so vile that my footman ever lay in
a better, and we had but three in the whole house.
. . . When I waked in the morning I was so cold I
knew not what to do, but the daylight discovered
that my bed was near swimming with the sea. . . .
With this we were destitute of clothes — and meat,
and fuel for half the court to serve them a month
was not to be had in the whole island. The Council
sent for provisions to France which served us, but
they were bad, and a little of them ; and truly we
begged our daily bread of God, for we thought every
meal our last. Then after three weeks and odd days
we set sail for the isle of Jersey. . . . And now
there began great disputes about the Prince, for the
Queen would have him to Paris," whereas the Council
** were for the most part against his going to France." ^

1 Cf. Pepys, May i6, 1660 : " This afternoon Mr. Edward
Pickering told me in what a sad, poor condition for clothes and
money the King was, and all his attendants . . . their clothes not
being worth 40s. the best of them. And how over-joyed the King


The day after the King's return in the House
*' there arose a debate that now the King was come,
and we having been long humbled and tost upon
unlawful foundations, it were prudent to return to
our ancient Constitution of Government, and to
desire his Majesty that this Convention (which was
called the healing Parliament) might be dissolved,
and a legal Parliament called . . ."^ The Conven-
tion was allowed to turn itself into a Parliament by
its own act.


It has been said that there were two Restorations
in England: one in 1660 of the Parliament and
Monarchy, another in 1661 qf the Anglican Church.^
The latter Restoration agitated the country as much
as did the former, and the feelings ran high between
those who favoured Episcopacy and those who
advocated Presbyterianism. Pepys and Evelyn in-
dicate the situation. The former writes under the
date March 20, 1661 : ** The great talk of the town
is the strange election that the City made yesterday
for parliament men, viz., Fawke, Love, Jones, and
. , . men that, so far from being episcopals, are

was when Sir J, Greenville brought him some money ; so joyful
that he called the Princess Royal and Duke of York to look upon
it, as it lay in the portmanteau, before it was taken out." And
ibid.. May 23, 1660: "Upon the quarter-deck he [i.e., Charles]
fell into a discourse of his escape from Worcester, where it made
me ready to weep to hear the stories he told of his difficulties that
he had passed through. ..."

1 Memoirs of Sir George Courthop. The Camden Miscellany, vol. xi.,
p. 147.

2 England under the Stuarts, p. 332. G. M. Trevelyan.


thought to be Anabaptists ; and chosen with a great
deal of zeale . . . calling out in the hall, * No
Bishops ! no Lord Bishops !' It do make people to
fear it may come to worse, by being an example to
the country to do the same. And indeed the Bishops

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Online LibraryL. (Leonard) Rice-OxleyMemoirs as a source of English history; the Stanhope essay, 1914 → online text (page 1 of 4)