In the first half of the 19th century, Europe was convulsed by revolution: in France, Spain, Germany, Hungary and Italy, kings were deposed, governments rose and fell, blood was spilt. Britain, it seemed, was uniquely fortunate in having avoided such tumult. It took the brilliant politician and man of letters Thomas Babington Macaulay to ask: How was it that Britain remained peaceful, while, as he put it, ‘the proudest capitals of Western Europe have streamed with civil blood’? For Macaulay, the answer was to be found more than 150 years before, in the short period of British history following the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, when the British Parliament ousted one king and chose another, without the country descending into civil war. Macaulay made his case in one of the most successful and brilliant histories ever written.
Macaulay’s History of England covers the period from 1685 to 1702 – a period about which little had been written before. In Macaulay’s view, this brief interval was the crucible of British democracy and gave us the free press, individual liberty and religious tolerance. Beginning with James II’s troubled reign, Macaulay unravelled the complex web of 17th-century politics and shifting public opinion, to show how tension mounted through the Monmouth rebellion and its aftermath, until, at last, a united Lords and Commons proclaimed William and Mary sovereign. War on the Continent and in Ireland followed, but William III, the hero of Macaulay’s history, steered the nation through turbulent times, maintaining a balance between opposing religious and political groups until his death in 1702.
Macaulay’s gripping account did not confine itself to Parliament and battlefields, but roved through coffeehouses, corn exchanges and prison cells. There are unforgettable images: the infamous Bloody Judge Jeffreys disguised as a sailor with eyebrows shaved off in a fruitless attempt to evade the mob; the desperate survivors of Glencoe mourning their dead around the charred remains of their homes; the plain squire who stood up in Parliament to criticise lawyers who ‘for a guinea … prove that black was white’; Queen Mary fleeing Whitehall in an open skiff on a stormy night. As a Whig politician, Macaulay was deeply committed to the cause of liberty and reform, and his passionate conviction gives his history an extraordinary drama and depth.
Macaulay was one of the greatest parliamentary orators of his day. Even his political opponents admired his handling of language, and his great speech on the 1st Reform Bill still resonates: ‘There is a change in society. There must be a corresponding change in government.’ His powers of oratory are matched by his written eloquence. Lively, clear, energetic, vivid, elegant – Macaulay’s prose is a joy to read. Winston Churchill famously emulated Macaulay’s ‘crisp and forcible’ voice, while passages of Macaulay were the standard inclusion in style guides for generations.
First published in 1848‒55, Macaulay’s History was an instant bestseller, with printers unable to keep up with the demand for copies. As a historian he was in total command of his material – his ‘near perfect recall’ and capacity to analyse and deploy vast quantities of information ensured that his life’s work, even though unfinished at his death, was hailed as a masterpiece, and set a new standard for future historians, both in terms of scholarship and style.
Macaulay was one of the first writers to draw on contemporary news-sheets, tracts and ballads as source material for his history. He greatly admired the novels of Sir Walter Scott, and believed that historians should learn from the dramatic techniques of novelists. This outlook gave him the ability to enter into the spirit of the times and convey what it was actually like to live through them – a revolutionary approach which would captivate readers, while his shrewd grasp of politics gave added power to his account. For its scope, its drama and its conviction, Macaulay’s history remains as exhilarating to read as it was when it was first published.
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The son of an abolitionist, Thomas Babington Macaulay had an early interest in politics. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and won several prizes, including the Chancellor’s Gold Medal. He was called to the bar, but preferred politics and in 1830 became an MP.
In 1834 he travelled to India to serve on the Supreme Council. He promoted the use of English in education and created a penal code which was enacted in the aftermath of the Indian ‘Mutiny’ of 1857. Later he became MP for Edinburgh, serving as Secretary of War, Paymaster General and working on copyright law. In 1857 he was raised to the peerage but he retired from politics to devote himself fully to writing. He is buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.