Sir Winston Churchill As A Historian


In slightly fuller form, this remarkable article was presented earlier this year as the Founder’s Day Address at the Huntington Library in California; it appeared in the Library’s Quarterly, but deserves, we believe, wider notice. A. L. Rowse, Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and authority on Elizabethan England, has written the history of Sir Winston’s family in two volumes— The Early Churchills and The Churchills (Harper, 1956 and 1958). Dr. Rowse is now working at the Huntington Library on a biography of Shakespeare and an edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

An English authority on American history, Professor H. C. Allen of London University, has suggested that when we consider the total bulk of the historical work, “judged as an historian alone, and setting aside all his other manifold and in some cases greater achievements, Sir Winston Churchill’s fame would be secure.” It is extraordinary to think that in a lifetime of activities as soldier, journalist, politician, painter, traveler, statesman—who has held nearly all the highest offices of state as president of the Board of Trade, Home Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty (twice), Minister of Munitions, Colonial Secretary, Secretary of State for War, and for Air, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Prime Minister—he should have found time to write two historical masterpieces, each in four volumes. Any reasonably eminent historian might well be content with one masterpiece. Sir Winston has written two: Marlborough, His Life and Times , and A History of the English-speaking Peoples .

I propose to devote myself mainly to these two, though he has made other, very important, contributions. There are two bulky works of memoirs: those of the First World War, in which he played his part, The World Crisis , in six volumes; and those called The Second World War , in which he played a far greater role, also in six volumes. I do not underrate these twelve volumes. In addition to what we learn from them, there is some very fine writing. But they are primarily historical memoirs, surveying the scene from the point of view of an individual participant in the action; that is their value: he is contributing his evidence for the historians later to consider with that of others and combine in a general synthesis.

Besides all these, there are other works of his that come into the category of history, and some that lie on the frontiers of it. His big two-volume life of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was hailed by Lord Rosebery—no mean judge—as “among the first dozen, perhaps the first half-dozen, biographies in our language.” If this seems putting it rather high, it may well be true if we restrict the term to what Lord Rosebery probably had in mind—political biographies.

Already, when only twenty-five, Churchill had written The River War , a two-volume account of the war in the Sudan, which showed a mastery unusual at such an age. Other books of his trench on history, too: notably his Great Contemporaries , incisive portraits, though generous and just, of the leading figures of his time. And what about My Early Life —his own selfportrait up to the first stage of his career in office? Autobiography can be a contribution to history—Clarendon’s is a classic example—especially when the story is that of someone who has played a significant part in his time.

But perhaps we may concentrate on his two masterpieces, and first on his Marlborough .

The motive for undertaking this work was to vindicate his ancestor—first of English soldiers and one of the most influential figures in our history—from the aspersions of Macaulay. Macaulay depicted this great soldier and servant of the state as a mean villain, not far removed from a traitor. Macaulay’s genius as a writer blackened Mar !borough’s reputation, and fixed this picture of him in the history books and in our tradition—such was the power of a brilliant pen. Now rectifying this was not only a question of family piety with his descendant, but a case of putting right a grave historical injustice.

That dedicated task turned out to be not without practical effect upon Churchill himself; a former colleague of his gave it to me as his opinion that it was in the course of writing that work that Churchill matured as a statesman. It turned out an incomparable apprenticeship for the task that would befall him in the war. For, during these years, he was studying in Marlborough, who was the military and diplomatic linchpin of the Grand Alliance against Louis XIV, all the problems of conducting such a war and how to keep the alliance together. By the time he had reached the third volume in the 1930’5, he had learned to put up with what he would find in action in the 1940’s: “the history of all coalitions is a tale of the reciprocal complaints of allies.”