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The Whig Tradition

Macaulay: The History of England

This important strand in British historiography derives its name from one of the two main political parties in parliament in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the other party were known as Tories. Whigs tended to stress the importance of parliament, as a counterbalance to the Crown and of the Church of England; Tories were much more deeply attached to the power and authority of Crown and Church.

History of England

The Whig view of history grew out of the unprecedented strength and prosperity of mid-nineteenth century Britain, which led the world in scientific and technological development and ruled an empire which stretched from Canada to South Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand and the Caribbean. It is little wonder that the Victorians saw themselves as the heirs to the Romans, but with one important difference: instead of an autocratic emperor, the British had a limited, parliamentary monarchy which, they believed, placed Britain on a higher moral plane; as a result the Victorians tended to revere institutions such as parliament, the Church of England, the legal system, the universities and the monarchy, as components of a perfectly balanced constitution, a model for other countries to follow. When the Victorians asked themselves how they had come to live in such an apparently perfect society, they looked for an explanation to the history of England.

In the Whig view, English history was the story of a struggle for the recovery of political and religious liberty which, they held, had been lost at the time of the Norman Conquest. It should be noted, incidentally, that this version of Anglo-Saxon history was entirely fanciful but still strongly believed in. They saw heroic figures, like Hereward the Wake, who led a resistance movement against the Normans from the fens of East Anglia, or the medieval barons who forced King John to accept Magna Carta, trying to propel England forward towards that state of liberty the Victorians enjoyed; their opponents, by definition, were trying to pull England back. These 'villains' included despotic kings, like King John, and the Catholicism, which the Victorians regarded as superstitious and autocratic.

Central to the Whig interpretation of history was the long conflict between Crown and Parliament that dominated the seventeenth century. While they regretted the bloodshed of the Civil War and the execution of King Charles I, the Whigs saw the defeat of the Crown and its subjugation to Parliament as essential to the establishment of a free society. However, in 1660 the Stuart monarchy returned. King Charles II, and especially his Catholic brother, James II, seemed to pose a formidable threat to the supremacy of parliament and appeared to be trying to establish Catholic autocratic rule in England. How, in the crucial year 1688, parliament was able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and lay the foundations for the prosperity of Victorian Britain was the story that the Whig writer and administrator Thomas Babington Macaulay set out to tell in his History of England.

Macaulay was a firm believer in the superiority and moral integrity of Britain's institutions. As a member of the government of British India he had dismantled the previous education system by which British administrators learned about the history, languages and culture of India, in favour of an entirely western curriculum, declaring scornfully that there was more value in a shelf of western authors than in the whole literary culture of the east. He applied much the same bumptious self-confidence to his reading of English history, which he sought to relate in an engaging style that, he hoped, would make his book as popular a read as the latest novel. In that aim he certainly succeeded.

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