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[image ALT: A photograph of an old man with a long whiskery beard. It is the English historian Edward Augustus Freeman.]

An article from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, now in the public domain.
Any color photos are mine, © William P. Thayer.

Vol. XI
Edward Augustus Freeman​a

Freeman, Edward Augustus (1823‑1892), English historian, was born at Harborne, Staffordshire,​b on the 2nd of August 1823. He lost both of his parents in infancy, was brought up by a grandmother, and was educated at private schools and by a private tutor. He was a studious and precocious boy, more interested in religious matters, history and foreign politics than in boyish things. He obtained a scholar­ship at Trinity College, Oxford, and a second class in the degree examination, and was elected fellow of his college (1845). While at Oxford he was much influenced by the High Church movement, and thought seriously of taking orders, but abandoned the idea. He married a daughter of his former tutor, the Rev. R. Gutch, in 1847, and entered on a life of study. Ecclesiastical architecture attracted him strongly. He visited many churches and began a practice, which he pursued throughout his life, of making drawings of buildings on the spot and afterwards tra­cing them over in ink. His first book, save for his share in a volume of English verse, was a History of Architecture (1849). Though he had not then seen any buildings outside England, it contains a good sketch of the development of the art. It is full of youthful enthusiasm and is written in florid language. After some changes of residence he bought a house called Somerleaze, near Wells, Somerset, and settled there in 1860.

Freeman's life was one of strenuous literary work. He wrote many books, and countless articles for reviews, newspapers and other publications, and was a constant contributor to the Saturday Review until 1878, when he ceased to write for it for political reasons. His Saturday Review articles corrected many errors and raised the level of historical knowledge among the educated classes, but as a reviewer he was apt to forget that a book may have blemishes and yet be praiseworthy. For some years he was an active county magistrate. He was deeply interested in politics, was a follower of Mr. Gladstone, and approved the Home Rule Bill of 1886, but objected to the later proposal to retain the Irish members at Westminster. To be returned to Parliament was one of his few ambitions, and in 1868 he unsuccessfully contested Mid-Somerset. Foreign rather than domestic politics had the first place with him. Historical and religious sentiment combined with his detestation of all that was tyrannical to inspire him with hatred of the Turk and sympathy with the smaller and subject nationalities of eastern Europe. He took a prominent part in the agitation which followed "the Bulgarian atrocities";​c his speeches were intemperate, and he was accused of uttering the words "Perish India!" at a public meeting in 1876. This, however, was a misrepresentation of his words. He was made a knight commander  p77 of the order of the Saviour by the king of Greece, and also received an order from the prince of Montenegro.

Freeman advanced the study of history in England in two special directions, by insistence on the unity of history, and by teaching the importance and right use of original authorities. History is not, he urges, to be divided "by a middle wall of partition" into ancient and modern, nor broken into fragments as though the history of each nation stood apart. It is more than a collection of narratives; it is a science, "the science of man in his political character." The historical student, then, cannot afford to be indifferent to any part of the record of man's political being; but as his abilities for study are limited, he will, while reckoning all history to be within his range, have his own special range within which he will master every detail (Rede Lecture). Freeman's range included Greek, Roman and the earlier part of English history, together with some portions of foreign medieval history, and he had a scholar­ly though general knowledge of the rest of the history of the European world. He regarded the abiding life of Rome as "the central truth of European history," the bond of its unity and he undertook his History of Sicily (1891‑1894) partly because it illustrated this unity. Further, he urges that all historical study is valueless which does not take in a knowledge of original authorities, and he teaches both by example and precept what authorities should be thus described, and how they are to be weighed and used. He did not use manuscript authorities, and for most of his work he had no need to do so. The authorities which he needed were already in print, and his books would not have been better if he had disinterred a few more facts from unprinted sources.

His reputation as a historian will chiefly rest on his History of the Norman Conquest (1867‑1876), his longest completed book. In common with his works generally, it is distinguished by exhaustiveness of treatment and research, critical ability, a remarkable degree of accuracy, and a certain insight into the past which he gained from his practical experience of men and institutions. He is almost exclusively a political historian. His saying that "history is past politics and politics are present history" is significant of this limitation of his work, which left on one side subjects of the deepest interest in a nation's life. In dealing with constitutional matters he sometimes attaches too much weight to words and formal aspects. This gives certain of his arguments an air of pedantry, and seems to lead him to find evidences of continuity in institutions which in reality and spirit were different from what they once had been. As a rule his estimates of character are remarkably able. It is true that he is sometimes swayed by prejudice, but this is the common lot of great historians; they cannot altogether avoid sharing in the feelings of the past, for they live in it, and Freeman did so to an extraordinary degree. Yet if he judges too favourably the leaders of the national party in England on the eve of the Norman Conquest, that is a small matter to set against the insight which he exhibits in writing of Aratus, Sulla, Nicias, William the Conqueror, Thomas of Canterbury, Frederick the Second and many more. In width of view, thoroughness of investigation and honesty of purpose he is unsurpassed by any historian. He never conceals nor wilfully misrepresents anything, and he reckoned no labour too great which might help him to draw a truthful picture of the past. When a place had any important connexion with his work he invariably visited it. He travelled much, always to gain knowledge, and generally to complete his historical equipment. His collected articles and essays on places of historical interest are perhaps the most pleasing of his writings, but they deal exclusively with historical associations and architectural features. The quantity of work which he turned out is enormous, for the fifteen large volumes which contain his Norman Conquest, his unfinished History of Sicily, his William Rufus (1882), and his Essays (1872‑1879), and the crowd of his smaller books, are matched in amount by his uncollected contributions to periodicals. In respect of matter his historical work is uniformly excellent. In respect of form and style the case is different. Though his sentences themselves are not wordy, he is extremely diffuse in treatment, habitually repeating an idea in successive sentences of much the same import. While this habit was doubtless aggravated by the amount of his journalistic work, it seems originally to have sprung from what may be called a professorial spirit, which occasionally appears in the tone of his remarks. He was anxious to make sure that his readers would understand his exact meaning, and to guard them against all possible misconceptions. His lengthy explanations are the more grievous because he insists on the same points in several of his books. His prolixity was increased by his unwillingness, when writing without prescribed limits, to leave out any detail, however unimportant. His passion for details not only swelled his volumes to a portentous size, but was fatal to artistic construction. The length of his books hindered their usefulness. They were written for the public at large, but few save professed students, who can admire and value his exhaustiveness, will read the many hundreds of pages which he devotes to a short period of history. In some of his smaller books, however, he shows great powers of condensation and arrangement, and writes tersely enough. His style is correct, lucid and virile, but generally nothing more, and his endeavour to use as far as possible only words of Teutonic origin limited his vocabulary and makes his sentences somewhat monotonous. While Froude often strayed away from his authorities, Freeman kept his authorities always before his eyes, and his narrative is here and there little more than a translation of their words. Accordingly, while it has nothing of Froude's carelessness and inaccuracy, it has nothing of his charm of style. Yet now and again he rises to the level of some heroic event, and parts of his chapter on the "Campaign of Hastings" and of his record of the wars of Syracuse and Athens, his reflections on the visit of Basil the Second to the church of the Virgin on the Acropolis, and some other passages in his books, are fine pieces of eloquent writing.

The high quality of Freeman's work was acknowledged by all competent judges. He was made D.C.L. of Oxford and LL.D. of Cambridge honoris causa, and when he visited the United States on a lecturing tour was warmly received at various places of learning. He served on the royal commission on ecclesiastical courts appointed in 1881. In 1884 he was appointed regius professor of modern history at Oxford. His lectures were thinly attended, for he did not care to adapt them to the requirements of university examinations, and he was not perhaps well fitted to teach young men. But he exercised a wholesome influence over the more earnest students of history among the resident graduates. From 1886 he was forced by ill-health to spend much of his time abroad, and he died of smallpox at Alicante on the 16th of March 1892, while on a tour in Spain. Freeman had a strongly marked personality. Though impatient in temper and occasionally rude, he was tender-hearted and generous. His rudeness to strangers was partly caused by shyness and partly by a childlike inability to conceal his feelings. Eminently truthful, he could not understand that some verbal insincerities are necessary to social life. He had a peculiar faculty for friendship, and his friends always found him sympathetic and affectionate. In their society he would talk well and showed a keen sense of humour. He considered it his duty to expose careless and ignorant writers, and certainly enjoyed doing so. He worked hard and methodically, often had several pieces of work in hand, and kept a daily record of the time which he devoted to each of them. His tastes were curiously limited. No art interested him except architecture, which he studied throughout his life; and he cared little for literature which was not either historical or political. In later life he ceased to hold the theological opinions of his youth, but remained a devout churchman.

See W. R. Stephens, Life and Letters of E. A. Freeman (London, 1895); Frederic Harrison, Tennyson, Ruskin, Mill and other Literary Estimates (London, 1899); James Bryce, "E. A. Freeman," Eng. Hist. Rev., July 1892.​d

(W. Hu.)

Thayer's Notes:

a The diligent reader may have come here from or after, or on the other hand avoided, the article on this historian in Wikipedia.

The latter choice shows experienced judgment: at the time I transcribed this entry in the Britannica, Wikipedia's article consisted of this same transcription, here and there very slightly abridged or changed (for example: "Historical and religious sentiment combined with his detestation of all that was tyrannical to inspire him with hatred of the Turk" had become the flat and incomprehensible "He hated the Turks"; further flattened by Aug. 2012 to "He expressed an antipathy for the Turks") except for the addition of a single small paragraph of essentially prurient content, a little bibliographical section one of the citations in which is blatantly spurious, and the prominently placed comments that the article (a) contains "weasel words" or may be biased or unverifiable — itself a weaselly catchall statement — and (b) is not up to snuff and may need to be rewritten. . . . Such a breathtaking mass of mixed lunacy and incomprehension in so brief a compass can only be characterized as projection, and this note of mine will have achieved its purpose if it sets you on guard against Wikipedia and indeed much of what we read online.

b Harborne, 5 km SW of downtown Birmingham, is now a suburb of that city. It was transferred to Warwickshire in 1891, just before Freeman died.

c The massacre by the Turks of thousands of Bulgarians in 1876; detailed in Gladstone and the Bulgarian Atrocities, a chapter of George Horton's The Blight of Asia: An Account of the Systematic Extermination of Christian Populations by Mohammedans and the Culpability of Certain Great Powers (1926).

d Bryce's biographical essay, on the occasion of its subject's death, must be considered the original of the article you've just read on this page, which is merely a pedestrian condensation of it: in that essay you'll find Freeman's life and character more fully portrayed of course, but also much more vividly and sympathetically, as well as an idea of what made Freeman tick, something a brief entry in an encyclopedia can't realistically provide.

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Page updated: 25 Apr 17