Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Historical and Political Writings > Bacon’s Henry the Seventh
   Lord Herbert of Cherbury  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

IX. Historical and Political Writings.

§ 1. Bacon’s Henry the Seventh.


IN the present chapter, which has to deal with a number of more or less conscious endeavours to put the results of historical study or of personal experience into a literary shape, it seems well to begin with a notice of some of the works produced in the period under discussion which aimed at being “perfect history” or history proper. Whether the masterpiece of the historical works of the age, Clarendon’s Rebellion, viewed in connection with his autobiography—from which (as will be seen) there is no possibility of detaching it—be regarded as history proper, or as partaking of the character of memoirs, it must mark the height of our survey of the histories of the age, and will, at the same time, serve as a transition from these to the accumulation of memoirs, diaries, contemporary biographies and autobiographies, and personal narratives of various sorts from which some selection will be attempted. What has to be said of political literature, for the most part, will be added as occasion may arise, for it would not be feasible to spread the net widely over the sea of unnumbered pamphlets of an age in which every subject in church and state was regarded as contentious, and few were left undiscussed in “fundamental” argument and with a vast expenditure of printer’s ink.   1
  The days of the later Tudor annalists and chroniclers, thoroughly national in their spirit and sympathies, had not passed away when upon some few far-seeing minds had dawned the conception of historical writing which, while still furnishing a full account of the events of the past should, at the same time, interest the political thinker and satisfy the demands of literary art.   2
  Bacon’s Historie of the Reigne of King Henry the Seventh (1622), which may practically be regarded as the earliest of English historical monographs, was actually composed in 1621, probably after Bacon, on his release from the Tower, had returred to Gorhambury. In the circumstances, as Spedding points out,  1  the book could not be written otherwise than at second-hand; for, during all but the last six weeks of the four or five months within which the task was executed, the author was excluded from London and from the house of Sir Robert Cotton, who supplied him with some of his material. It is, consequently, in the main, founded on Bernard André and Polydore Vergil, with Fabyan and the later chroniclers, and a few additions by Stow, and, more especially, by Speed, some of whose mistakes were copied by Bacon. Yet this Life was by no means a piece of mere compilation, either in design or execution. The conception of the character of Henry VII dates from an early period of Bacon’s career, as is proved by a fragment of a history of the Tudor reigns from Henry VIII to Elizabeth, discovered by Spedding;  2  which also seems to refute Mackintosh’s idea that the Historie of the Reigne of King Henry the Seventh was written, not only (as, in a sense, it certainly was) to justify James I, but, also, to flatter him by representing Henry VII as a model king and the prototype of the reigning monarch. For the rest, if features are observable in Bacon’s king Henry which seem to support Mackintosh’s view (thus, Henry was “careful to obtain good intelligence from abroad”), there are others in which the resemblance is most imperfect (“for his pleasures, there is no news of them”; “he was governed by none”)—though it might be possible to see in this very unlikeness the most subtle flattery. There is certainly no flattery to be found in some touches of unmistakable irony—in the reference to Henry’s great attention to religious foundations as he became old, or in the turn given to the application of the phrase “his Salomon of England (for Salomon also was too heavy upon his people in exactions).” On the whole, Henry VII, in the mirror of Bacon’s narrative, appears, not as a man of genius, but as a wise and singularly ready politician, and as one of whom it might be said that “what he minded he compassed.” It need hardly be added that the spirit of the book is thoroughly monarchical; the writer’s contempt for “the rude people,” always intent upon being deceived, is especially noticeable in the narrative of the attempts of Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck. The style of this work possesses a kind of charm absent from few of Bacon’s writings, which always have the fascination belonging to deep waters, and the concluding sentence of the work is exceedingly graceful. The author’s fondeness for Latin forms (“militar,” “indubiate,” and so forth is very obvious; the Latin translation of his book seems to have been made either by himself or under his own eye.   3

Note 1. Bacon’s Literary and Professional Works, vol. I (VI), pp. 23 ff. [ back ]
Note 2. See ibid., pp. 17–22. [ back ]

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