Page images
PDF
EPUB

by relieving the reigning Solomon from his great rival for that title. But the thing seems to me altogether incredible.

If it be urged on the other hand that the character of Henry as interpreted by Bacon, however unlike it may be to James, is not so unlike Bacon himself; and that he was therein delineating his own ideal ; it is enough to say that many of the peculiarities which he detects and points out in Henry's mind and ways, are noticed as weaknesses and errors, derogatory to his judgment and injurious to his fortunes. Many of his difficulties, for instance, are attributed to the shortness of his foresight, which prevented him from seeing distant dangers in time to prevent them. Who can suppose that that entered into Bacon's idea of a politic king? His “ settled determination to depress all eminent persons of the house of York,” might perhaps, upon Machiavel's principle that in order to secure a conquest it is necessary to extirpate the reigning family, have been reconciled with the proposed ideal. But Bacon expressly notices it as an error in his policy arising from a weakness in his mind; and the cause in fact of almost all his troubles. The severity of his exactions again is excused by Polydore Vergil as a politic art to keep turbulent subjects in obedience. Bacon imputes it to a vice of his nature in coveting to accumulate treasure, and represents it as procuring him the hatred of his people to such a degree that his state was insecure even in the height of his felicity. In the matter of Brittany, Bacon represents him as outwitted by the French king: and how? not (as Polydore would have it) from reposing too much trust in the promises of his confederates ; but simply because the French king understood the case, and he did not. His system of secret espionage is indeed justified, as necessary to protect him against secret machinations; but the darkness and closeness with which he conducted all his affairs is censured, as creating general diffidence and alarm which bred danger. His discountenancing of the nobility, which has been regarded by some historians as a stroke of profound policy to which the subsequent settlement of the kingdom was chiefly owing, is considered by Bacon “ as one of the causes of his troublesome reign.” And generally the many difficulties with which he had to contend are expressly mentioned as not inherent in the case, but as the consequence of “some grand defects and main errors in his nature, customs, or proceedings.” Nay, the sum total of his achievements is evidently regarded by Bacon as hardly worthy of him ; and the short-coming is ascribed not to any want of opportunity or untowardness of fortune, but to a deficiency in himself, a deficiency fatal to all heroic pretensions, - a want of worthier aims. “If the king (he says) did no greater matters, it was long of himself; for what he minded he compassed." Who can suppose that in such a representation he meant "to convey a theory of king-craft and the likeness of its ideal model ” ?

But we are told that he almost owns as much himself — " almost avows an intention of embodying in the person of his hero too much of the ideal conception &c. &c. Where such an avowal is to be found we are not informed ; and I cannot myself discover any passage in which he speaks of what he intends to do. When he speaks of what he has done, he certainly makes an avowal of a very different kind. 6 I have not flattered him” (he says in his dedicatory letter), " but took him to the life, as well as I could, sitting so far off and having no better light." And certainly this is the short and true account of the whole matter. Whoever will take the trouble to compare this history with those that went before, will be convinced that the portrait of Henry is a true study from nature, and one of the most careful, curious, and ingenious studies of the kind ever produced. It is important too that this should be understood ; because upon this it is that the main interest of the work depends. For it must be confessed that Henry's reign, though entertaining from the bustle and variety of incidents, and important for some of its results, includes but few matters which for themselves are much worth remembering. The subjects of all those negotiations and treaties retain no interest for us. The wars and the warriors have alike passed and left no trace. The story of Perkin Warbeck has the interest only of a great romance.

The laws did indeed print their footsteps deeper ; but the progress of knowledge and the changes of time have gone over them too, and they remain only as curiosities of the past. But as the memory runs back along the surface of English history from the last of the Georges to the first of the Plantagenets, the reign of Henry the Seventh still presents one conspicuous object;—an example of a king who was also prime minister; a king, not indeed of ideal wisdom or virtue, but yet of rare sagacity, industry, and courage, who for twenty-three years really governed the country by his own wit and his own will. Bacon has accordingly treated the history of his reign as a history of the administration of affairs in England from 1485 to 1509, and represented Henry as what he really was during all that time, the sole and real minister, conducting in person the affairs of each several department.

In what spirit he has executed the work, what kind of moral impression the narrative is made to suggest, is a question difficult to answer, because different readers will be differently affected by it. I would only say that those readers who, like Sir James Mackintosh, rise from the perusal of the narrative full of passionate pity for the oppressed, and resentment against the oppressor so vehement that it overflows even upon the innocent historian whose faithful report has excited it, are the last persons who ought to complain of the writer for telling his story in such a way as not to produce such impressions. If strong disapprobation and dislike of Henry be the feeling which his history properly written ought to excite, there is scarcely a writer that has touched the subject since who may not be called as an unconscious witness that Bacon's history has in that respect done its office. We do not blame a painter for flattery because he does not write under his picture “this is the portrait of an ugly man ;” enough if he paints him as he sees 'him. Why blame a histo rian because, content with describing his hero as he is, he abstains from calling him names ?

Passing from the particular to the general question, there is no doubt a real and considerable difference between Bacon's conception of the proper office of history and Mackintosh's. According to Bacon, “it is the true office of history to represent the events themselves, together with the counsels; and to leave the observations and conclusions thereupon to the liberty and faculty of every man's judgment.” 1 According to Mackintosh, history so written “loses the interest which bestows on it the power of being useful: ” it must “maintain its sway” by inspiring feelings of pity,

anger, &c.

Now that the reader, in order to derive any benefit from history, must feel as he reads, Bacon I suppose would not have denied ; but he would have said that the reader should be able to feel without being told when and how; that when an object of emotion is truly represented to a capable mind, the emotion will follow of itself; that a man who is affected by the sight of good and bad in nature, will be affected in the same way when he sees them in a book ; that if he be not, it is for want not of epithets and exclamations and notes of admiration in the history, but of moral sensibility in himself, and he should be referred to the preacher or moralist for his cure before he comes to the secular historian. The duty of the historian, being first of all to set forth the truth of the case upon which judgment is to pass, bears a very close analogy to the duty of the judge in summing up. The summing up of the judge is truly the history of the case; it is meant not only to inform the jury as to the facts, but also to guide their judgment. Now we see that in performing this part of his duty the judge is expected carefully to abstain from all expressions which address themselves to the feelings of the jury as distinguished from their judgment; which are calculated “to inspire pity for the sufferer, anger against the oppressor, or earnest desires for the triumph of right over might.' The common sense of Englishmen (guided in this case

1 Adv. of Learn. the Second Book, paragraph 7.

« PreviousContinue »