A Matter of History

The Governance of Mediaeval England from the Conquest to Magna Carta

by H.G. Richardson, by G.O. Sayles
Aldine, 550 pp., $12.50

It is not often that medieaval history is subject for polemics and it is fitting that when it is, the object should be a man who has been in his grave sixty years and more. This book is an account of the growth of English institutions from 1066 to 1215. It is also a sustained and violent attack on the ability and reputation of a man who has some claim to be the founder of English mediaeval studies, Williams Stubbs.

Stubbs was Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford from 1866 to 1884. He was a clergyman, who laid the foundations of his scholarship through sixteen years of successive academic disappointments in rural exile in Essex. In an age of obsessive industry, when Newman thought nothing of standing fifteen hours a day at his desk, Stubbs was remarkable for his memory and his application: two services a day, a hundred sermons a year, besides his historical work, and he could yet boast that he knew every toe on every baby in the parish. He set himself, as he announced in his inaugural lecture at Oxford, to found a historical school in England; if, when his academic career ended on his consecration as Bishop of Chester in 1884, this aim had been largely accomplished it was chiefly through the most important and influential of his books, The Constitutional History of England.

In life a Tory, Stubbs was a Whig in print: The history of the English people as he told it was a redemptive process, the English a chosen people dwelling in their Anglo-Saxon origins in a primitive democracy, electing their kings, shaping their own laws. With the Normans came sin and the destruction of democracy: Over the next two and a half centuries the English people, endowed with a dawning sense of their own nationhood, journey out of bondage into a profounder, richer consciousness of their democratic heritage. Up the “Via Crucis of English Constitutional history” they go to find salvation and representation in the shape of parliament.

Stubbs was wrong, though how wrong it is not always easy to tell since he hedged his opinions about with modifications to the point of self-contradiction. But, as the authors of this book point out, it was not so much that his facts were sometimes wrong or his opinions often mistaken, but that the balance and stress of his account is false to the facts. English history was not a simple tale of liberty broadening down from precedent to precedent, nor was parliament the goal towards which all things tended. Certainly not at the end of the thirteenth century anyway, and when Stubbs made parliament spring fully armed from the brow of Edward I, the birth was not only illegitimate: It was also premature.

Why this should be so is easy to understand. It was hard for Stubbs, Tory though he was, to live through three Reform bills and not see Parliament as the golden thread that linked the past. Then too …

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