Edward Gibbon

(1737 – 1794)

'[He was] at the very head of Europe’s literary tribe'

Adam Smith

Early Years

Edward Gibbon was born in 1737 in Putney, in what was then rural Surrey. His parents, Edward and Judith Gibbon were part of the affluent untitled rural elite of the age. Gibbon was one of seven children, however he was the only one to survive infancy, as a result he was destined to have a lonely childhood. He described himself as 'a puny child, neglected by my Mother, starved by my nurse'. He was often sick and he would remain in ill health for the entirety of his life. At nine he was sent away to school in Kingston-upon-Thames and then Westminster School, following the death of his mother. Whilst at Westminster he stayed with his ‘Aunt Kitty’, Catherine Porten who would have a strong influence on him and whom he adored. It was she who showed the first real affection for the sickly boy (his parents having been distant and disdainful) and introduced him to reading.

At the age of 15 Gibbon was sent to Magdalene College, Oxford a period he later referred to as the one in which he was most idle. While he was unsuited to the academic lifestyle, the college had a great effect on him, introducing him to radical free thinkers and new philosophies. Under his aunt’s tutelage he had always had an interest in religion and the power it exerts on life. At university, having discussed religion with many of the great thinkers and theologians of the day, he converted to Roman Catholicism. At a time when Catholics were still denied the right to own property, inherit land and join the army, this was a radical act. His father immediately recalled him from university and his free thinking associates and sent him to Lausanne, Switzerland into the care of a Protestant pastor.

Romance and reading in Switzerland

Staying in Lausanne for five years, it would turn out to be one of the most enlightening periods of Gibbon’s life. After his father threatened to stop financially supporting him if he remained a Catholic, Gibbon returned to Protestantism. While in Lausanne he also had the one (known) romance of his life – becoming engaged to Suzanne Churchod, the daughter of a Swiss pastor. Though they were in love and planned to marry, Gibbon’s father refused to consent and Churchod refused to leave Switzerland. The affair came to an end in 1758 when Gibbon submitted to his father’s will, as he would later put it 'I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son'. Churchod would later go on to marry a minister at the French court, becoming a writer and hosting one of the most celebrated salons of the age.

He returned to England after ending his relationship and began working on his first book, Essai sur l'Étude de la Littérature, published in 1761. The book was a success and established Gibbon as a respected man of letters, well known in the salons of Europe. After publication he served in the South Hampshire Militia, in reserve during the Seven Years War. When the militia was disbanded at the end of the war he vowed to embark on a grand tour of Europe. In 1763 he set off, visiting France and then on to Rome. In Rome he was deeply moved by the ruins of the Forum and the beauty of the Roman civilisation. He became obsessed by the idea of writing a history of how Rome came to fall into the ruins he saw before him which led to the writing of the most famous of all Edward Gibbon books which he claimed to have thought of while seated on Capitoline Hill – his ‘Capitoline vision’.

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

In 1770 Gibbon's father died and having returned to England, he now found himself to be a wealthy man. He settled in London and joined a number of sophisticated social clubs. He became a Freemason and even an MP for Liskerd, Cornwall. These pursuits however did not distract him from his writing. After seven years of research Gibbon published the first volume of his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1776. The book was another success, making Gibbon one of the most famous historians of the age. This fresh take on the fall of the Roman Empire relied heavily on primary sources and was extremely controversial in its argument that the decline was largely the result of the increasing influence of Christianity in draining the traditional martial spirit of the Romans. The rest of the volumes were published in 1781, 1787 and 1788 creating a collection of six.

Gibbon's lifelong friend Lord Sheffield assisted him in the publication and promotion of the work. As Gibbon was often in Lausanne with the many friends he had in the city, Sheffield took on the role of overseeing the publication of the works - a lengthy process in Georgian England. In the later part of his life, Gibbon continued to suffer from ill health, it is believed that he suffered from an extreme case of hydrocele testis (scrotal swelling), which, given the fashion for tight fitting breeches at the time, was very uncomfortable for him. It was after an operation designed to treat this ailment when he contracted peritonitis and died on 16 January 1794. He was buried in the Sheffield family graveyard in Fletching, Sussex.

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