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Sir Winston Churchill As A Historian
A famed British historian and poet looks at Churchill's two masterpieces.
December 1962 | Volume 14, Issue 1
The first volume, The Birth of Britain , goes from prehistoric times to the end of the Middle Ages. It is at its best on Roman Britain, perhaps too favorable to the imperial idea at the expense of the native Celts; though when he comes to a doughty fighter among them—Cassivellaunus, who delayed the Roman conquest—he is ready with a salute: “Little is known of Cassivellaunus, and we can only hope that later defenders of the Island will be equally successful and that their measures will be as well suited to the needs of the time.” This, with an eye on what was to come at the end of that decade.
We notice another trait: he always likes to be generous in his estimate of kings; it is a good fault, but he is sometimes too much so. Richard Coeur-de-Lion—of course, he would fall for him: “worthy, by the consent of all men, to sit with King Arthur and Roland and other heroes of martial romance at some Eternal Round Table, which we trust the Creator of the Universe in his comprehension will not have forgotten to provide.” Now the truth is that Richard I utterly neglected his country, and drained it of resources in order to go careering off on a crusade. He was a bad king of England. And there is little in this volume about social growth, literature, and the arts, and hardly anything about the economic development of the country.
Remote as our medieval history may seem, it comes alive in his robust imagination and breezy humorsometimes the two are combined. There is Richard III, the murderer of the two princes, his nephews, in the Tower. On Richard’s first coup against his nephew’s maternal relatives and defenders, “Edward V took the only positive action recorded of his reign. He wept. Well he might.” For what happened next?—the murder of the young king and his brother.
The next volume, on the Tudor and Stuart period, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, shows no falling off in quality. As a general criticism, I find he makes personal factors overimportant; as against this, everyone appreciated the splendid gallery of portraits of personages. Again he is too generous to some kings—there is an endearing loyalty in his makeup—in especial to Charles I, who was really no good as a ruler, and to James II, of whom he says, “his sacrifice for religion gained for him the lasting respect of the Catholic Church, and he carried with him into lifelong exile an air of royalty and honor.” That is much too handsome for a crowned nincompoop.
My own criticism of this volume and the next is that there should have been much more about the development of the colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, their characteristic idiosyncrasies, their culture, the remarkable growth of their trade and maritime interests which have left beautiful memorials in such unspoiled towns as Newcastle, Delaware, or Salem and Newburyport, Massachusetts, the settlements on Narragansett Bay with their prosperous eighteenthcentury houses, not to mention the grand houses of Tidewater Virginia and in and around Philadelphia. Nevertheless, our most austere professional, the lamented Richard Pares, paid tribute to “the splendour and variety of Sir Winston Churchill’s second volume…”
There is general agreement that Volume III, dealing with the eighteenth century—the Revolution of 1688, the quarrel with America, the struggle with Napoleon—is the weakest. The constitutional achievements of 1688 are not gone into; Pares says, “the fact is that Sir Winston, like William III himself, has scrambled over these matters as quickly as possible in order to get to the wars.” There is next to nothing about the industrial and agrarian revolutions which were the foundation of modern Britain. Hardly a thing about the Wesleyan and evangelical revivals. What is so curious for a painter is that the great age of English painting, from about 1760 to 1830, is not even mentioned; nor is the greatest age of English architecture, the Georgian—very odd for someone born in Blenheim Palace. Yet, after these criticisms, Pares concludes, “the work is a noble work.”
When we come to Volume IV, which attempts to cover Britain, the Empire, and the United States in the nineteenth century, we begin to wonder whether the enterprise is at all possible. And the truth is that this volume becomes a parallel history of Britain and the United States, rather than a history of the English-speaking peoples: that would require a fifth volume. Still, this volume is more varied and entertaining than any; the good humor is at a high level and is often politically perceptive.