Thomas Babington Macaulay knew little about English history before the seventeenth century. He knew almost nothing about foreign history. He was not interested in art, science, philosophy, or religion. As a Whig, he had no sympathy with the Tories and little understanding of James II. He overlooked many of the authoritative books covering the period about which he was writing. Therefore, in The History of England he is sometimes unfair to certain figures or mistaken in facts and interpretations. Overall, however, he has created an eminently readable history with vivid pictures of the actors and the social and cultural background against which they performed.
Macaulay was a child prodigy who started writing at an early age. Before he was eight years of age, this future historian, poet, and essayist had completed an outline of history and a poem in three cantos modeled after the poetry of Sir Walter Scott. He went to Trinity College, Cambridge, intending to enter law. Before he passed his bar examinations in 1826, he had attracted attention with a critical essay on John Milton, the first of many he contributed to the influential Edinburgh Review. His essays about the Indian question earned him an appointment on a commission to India.
While in India, he wrote in his diary his intention to compile a five-volume history, the first part to cover the thirty years from the revolution of 1688 to the beginning of Horace Walpole’s administration. It would end with the death of George IV and achieve unity by covering “the Revolution that brought the crown into harmony with the Parliament and the Revolution which brought the Parliament into harmony with the nation.” Further planning convinced him of the need to precede his account of the revolution by the story of the reign of James II.
When he returned to England, he had barely begun his project before he was named secretary of war. This post gave him no time for literary work, until the elections of 1841 turned him out of office and into his study. He progressed slowly on his history until the return of his party to power in 1846, when he was appointed paymaster general. In spite of public demands on his time, the first two volumes of The History of England appeared within three years of this appointment.
The ten chapters begin with an account of Roman times and bring the story of England down to the crowning of William and Mary on February 13, 1689. Diary entries reveal Macaulay’s worry about how to begin. He had to start somewhere, and so, in the first paragraph, he bravely announces his purpose to “offer a slight sketch of my country from the earliest times.” Romans, Saxons, and Danes move through the first chapter, bringing the reader up to the general elections of 1660 and the return of Charles II to England. In the next chapter, Macaulay follows the career of Charles II until his death in 1685. At this point, the historian is ready to begin his task in earnest. His announced purpose in the third chapter is to “give a description of the state in which England was at the time when the crown passed from Charles II to his brother, James.”
First, Macaulay stresses the small population of the British Isles in 1685, perhaps five million, with half living in England. Then he discusses the revenue available. Excise taxes, taxes on chimneys, and the rest brought in hardly a fifth as much to the crown as France was collecting. Then follows a study of the army and the navy, on which the money was largely spent. A discussion of agriculture and mineral wealth introduces the country gentlemen and the yeomanry, with a glance at the clergy. Next, the historian’s attention fixes on the towns and their growth, following the expansion of trade and manufacturing, with special attention to London. Discussion of communication with London leads to a section on the postal system, inns, and highwaymen. A study of England’s cultural status, both literary and scientific, precedes the final section on the terrible condition of the very poor.
The description of the death of Charles II, in chapter 4, is a sample of Macaulay’s style. The ten pages read like a historical novel, except that the historian has footnotes available for the details of the palace room, the visitors at the bedside, and such bits as the king’s dying comment about winding the clock at his bedside. The surreptitious visit of the priest, John Huddleston, and the reaction...
(The entire section is 1827 words.)