Antiquarianism and English History


“Britannia”: frontispiece illustration to William Camden’s Britannia, 1600


Among the Ruins


In his twenty-ninth year John Milton wrote in a letter that “my genius is such that no delay, no rest, no care or thought almost of anything, holds me aside until I reach the end I am making for, and round off, as it were, some great period of my studies.” In Bread Street, London, he studied as if for life.

Milton is in all respects a profoundly English writer, and became an iconic representative of England for poets as diverse as Blake and Wordsworth. His first great ambition was to compose an epic upon the “Matter of Britain”; in 1639, two years after composing the letter upon his genius, he wrote a poem in which he entreats his pastoral pipe, if “patriis mutata camoenis” (if transformed by native songs), to play a British melody. In another poem of the same period, “Mansus,” he speculates upon the commemoration of English kings in his own native verse. He was aware of his inheritance. The mystical vision surrounding Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained is conceived within the vast apparatus of the miracle plays; as one critic has put it, Paradise Lost is “the last of the medieval attempts to write the history of Everyman, to survey the whole course of events from the Creation to man’s final ascent into Heaven, and to relate this course to the universal plan of Divine Providence.” 1

Paradise Lost was itself immensely influential. The resourceful and melodic verse of that poem revived, for all practical purposes, the role of blank verse in English poetry. Wordsworth’s Prelude, for example, could not have been written without Milton’s example. He became “the English author who could be presented as a classic to a burgeoning middle-class readership.”2 Handel set his poetry to music, and scenes from that poetry were depicted by Blake, Fuseli and a host of other artists aspiring to the sublime. In the year of Milton’s death John Dryden composed an opera of Paradise Lost entitled The State of Innocence, thus inaugurating two centuries of Miltonic imitation.

Even as Milton still wrote, his was known as an “antiquated” style. This could be a term of celebration—“ancient liberty recover’d to the Heroic Poem,” as a 1688 edition of Paradise Lost asserted—or a term of mild opprobrium. One early eighteenth-century history claimed that “Mr. Milton chose to write (if the Expression may be allow’d) a hundred Years backward.” In the 1730s it was suggested by William Warburton that Milton’s archaic style was “best suited to his ‘English History’; his air of the antique giving a good grace to it.” Here Warburton touches upon a presiding element of Milton’s genius and, by natural extension, of the English imagination itself; it lies in the nature, and nurture, of antiquarianism.

Goethe mocked the English obsession with the ruined fabric of the past. In his Faust Mephistopheles asks:

Are Britons here? They go abroad, feel calls To trace old battle-fields and crumbling walls . . .

In the fifth act of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, a soldier remarks that:

from our troupes I straid, To gaze vpon a ruinous Monasterie, And as I earnestly did fixe mine eye, Vpon the wasted building suddainely . . .

And in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi Antonio claims that

I do love these ancient ruines: We do never tread upon them, but we sette Our foot upon some reverend history

The prospect of ruined walls seems to provoke some inward delight and to release some natural fervour. We are greedy for times past. Consider Byron drinking wine out of a monk’s skull in the ruined quarters of his ancestral dwelling, Newstead Abbey, where “Thy yawning arch betokens slow decay.” Shelley composed Prometheus Unbound among the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla and among scenes of “sublime and lovely desolation.” Edward Gibbon conceived his Decline and Fall within the broken Capitol. Fatalism and melancholy are here mingled in characteristic fashion, but some pleasure may also be derived from the prospect of destruction and extinction; it is part of the curious English love affair with death itself, as if only that quietus can effectively destroy feeling. When this is conflated with an admiration for all things antique, then a rich mixture indeed is being concocted.

It may help to elucidate the mysteries of the native passion for artificial ruins, which was known throughout Europe to be a particularly English obsession. Picturesque ruins, constructed out of brick or painted on canvas, were first recommended in Batty Langley’s New Principles of Gardening published in 1728; the enthusiasm spread so rapidly that forty years later there were books concerned with the principles of their composition. “In wild and romantic scenes,” Thomas Whateley wrote, “may be introduced a ruined stone bridge, of which some arches may still be left standing.” Lord Kames in Elements of Criticism (1762) remarked that these melancholy objects manifested “the triumph of time over strength,” which might be described as a characteristically Anglo-Saxon sentiment. Kames also suggested that their effect was picturesque since “each of the emotions is most sensibly felt by being contrasted with the other”; this in turn might be considered a sufficiently native expression of that familiar appetite for heterogeneity and variety.

Classical ruins were agreed to be delightful, especially if adorned with ivy and judiciously arranged cracks, but it was believed that ancient British monuments were more suitable in an English landscape as “an object to be seen at a distance, rude and large, and in character agreeable to a wide view.” There is a curious atavism at work here, manifested also in the desire to re-create thirteenth-century castles in the grounds of eighteenth-century stately homes. “Mr. Lyttleton,” the poet and landscape gardener William Shenstone wrote, “has near finish’d one side of his castle. It consists of one entire Tow’r, and three stumps of Tow’rs, with a ruin’d Wall betwixt them.” Shenstone himself assisted Bishop Percy in his collection of ancient British poetry, which demonstrates, perhaps, the ubiquity of these antiquarian restorations. Horace Walpole said of Lyttleton’s edifice that “it has the true rust of the Baron’s wars” but, since its window tracings were taken from a minor thirteenth-century abbey at Halesowen, the nostalgia felt for the past was not unmixed with a certain delight in vandalism.

The Anglo-Saxon word “aergod” means literally “as good as the beginning,” and thus the most excellent or the very best. It is the antiquarian temper in miniature. The Anglo-Saxons themselves cultivated antiquarianism in a refined and learned spirit, and indeed the past of the Anglo-Saxon imagination was much more elaborate and more intense than any current model. To them, history was of pressing social and religious significance, and began at the moment of Creation. It was deeper and darker than our own misty sense of origin. King Alfred engaged enthusiastically in historical research, and his imagination ranged like an eagle over the kingdoms of the past. Bede loved to write of “earthworks and walls, of ruined churches.” 3 The yearning for ruins is of long duration.

The English landscape itself seems to harbour ruins as if in an embrace, but their cultivation may also be an aspect of English melancholy. In the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Wanderer,” there is an invocation of the ruined walls which are “standing beaten by the wind and covered with rime. . . . He then who in a spirit of meditation has pondered over this ruin and who with an understanding heart probes the mystery of our life down to its depths. . . . How that time passed away, grown shadowy under the canopy of night as though it had never been!” Another Anglo-Saxon poem is an elegy upon the same theme, and has been entitled “The Ruin”; it is the harbinger of a flood of English writing devoted to the power of old stone.

In the early Middle Ages, too, there was a consciousness of what one literary historian has described as “the fierce glory of the past”;4 it is evident in the romances as well as in the histories, in verse as well as prose chronicle. That past was seen as better and brighter than the present, furnishing examples of liberty and heroism all too manifestly absent from a contemporary England. The Arthurian romances, which many of the English imbibed as children, were a token of this lost inheritance. Yet here, too, there is an arresting connection. Is it not possible that this longing for the past was in part a longing for childhood itself? From this latent infantilism, too, may spring all the exuberance and violence of the early English character.

The conventions of antiquarianism were continued in verse history, monastic compilations, chronicles such as the Gesta Regum Anglorum and Historia Novella, as well as in the millions of charters prepared by scribes throughout the medieval period. Yet it was really only in the sixteenth century that antiquarianism became a recognised or at least recognisable pursuit, which as a result obtained institutional status. In 1586 the Society of Antiquarians was formed, with several distinguished members meeting regularly to read papers on various aspects of England’s history. Tudor scholars were obsessed with genealogy and historiography, partly as a way of confirming contemporary dynastic politics within the myths and legends of the country and partly as a way of reclaiming the past in imminent danger of destruction at the hands of the religious reformers.

John Leland, who flourished in the first half of the sixteenth century, was the first Englishman to style himself an “Antiquarian” and thus can lay claim to being the begetter of what became a significant national pursuit. He was educated at St. Paul’s School and at Cambridge, after which he studied for several years in Paris; the Erasmian humanism which he imbibed in his earlier years was, therefore, amplified by his studies in the texts of the ancients. But his antiquarianism itself was of specifically native growth. He became a royal librarian and, in 1533, was commissioned by Henry VIII “to peruse and diligently to serche at the libraries of monasteries and collegies of this yowre noble reaulme, to the intente that the monuments of auncient writers as welle of other nations, as of this your owne province mighte be brought owte of deadely darkenes to lyvely lighte.” So he embarked upon a long journey across the realm, searching for ancient works which “lay secretely yn corners” of old libraries and scriptoria. It is quite clear, from his notes and written records, that his passion for antique learning was matched only by his fascinated preoccupation both with the landscape of England and with the myths that sprang from it. In an account of the library of Glastonbury Abbey, Leland remarks that he “paid my respects to the deity of the place.” In his Itinerary Leland divined the nature of English place, and bequeathed to the nation a tradition of sacred topography which has never wholly been lost; it is perhaps appropriate that, on his gravestone, his name is spelt Leyland in anticipation of the “leylines” later traced across the English soil. In the words of one commentator, he became “the forerunner of every travel writer on the subject of England from Defoe and Cobbett to H. V. Morton, Arthur Mee and Pevsner.” 5

But the understanding of place was only one aspect of Leland’s endeavours. As he makes plain in his published work The Laboriouse Journey and Serche for Englandes Antiquitees, he was intent upon reclaiming and recovering the relics of the history of this island, and was in the process able “to herald the establishment of a new kind of scholarship.” 6 He was passionately concerned with “all the remains of most sacred antiquity,” while “the mere sight of the most ancient books took over my mind with an awe or stupor of some kind.” Among those books were the histories and chronicles compiled by the great scholars of the past. The antiquarian met his peers and colleagues in the course of his grand pursuit, and became aware of the longevity of historical enquiry in England. It was his good fortune to enter these libraries just two or three years before their destruction and dispersal at the time of the Reformation. This was a period when monasteries and convents were plundered by the agents of Thomas Cromwell, and when abbeys and other old foundations were destroyed for reasons of avarice and in order to signal the power of Henry VIII over the religious life of the nation. It was an act of wholesale devastation.

That is why ruins have always had an especial significance in England, where they are a visible token of an ancient civilisation extirpated in the early sixteenth century. The landscape of England was considered to be “haunted with strange intimations from shadowy vanished worlds,” while ruined abbeys and monasteries, abandoned chapels and hermitages, were the shipwrecks of an old storm. “Amidst the gloom arose the ruins of an abbey,” William Gilpin wrote, “. . . a profusion of rich Gothic workmanship.” This was another meaning of “Gothic” itself, as a synonym for a lost Catholic past. It might have sinister implications, since in “Gothic” novels of the eighteenth century dark nuns and murderous monks pass by night, but the term was often touched with veneration and nostalgia. There has always been an organic need among the English to connect the present and the past, and the forced disassociation from a thousand years of Catholic history provoked in some a profound unease.

John Leland himself was perhaps the last man ever to touch or scrutinise in situ the texts of what is now a lost and forgotten inheritance. He saved some of the books, but most of the material was destroyed, “some to serve theyr iakes [toilets], some to scoure theyr candelstyckes & some they sent over the see to the bokebynders, not in small nombre, but at tymes whole shyppes full, to the wonderynge of the foren nacyons.”

It is something of a paradox that the English, who of all nations used to pay homage to their past and to what Leland called “examples of extraordinarily wonderful antiquity,” should also be the most willing to efface and destroy that past; the vandalism of the Victorian developers in the 1880s, and of urban developers in the 1970s, testifies to that contrast. Yet it is not so difficult to elucidate. The power of the past lies beneath consciousness itself, and is so strong that the most invasive forces of destruction cannot necessarily efface it. It has also been argued that if antiquity is deeply embedded in place and in time, then extant physical memorials are not necessary.

Leland himself became insane, and was for two years in the care of his brother until he died; whether that insanity was produced by the spectacle of dissolution, and by the looting of all that he treasured, is an open question.

He was succeeded in his antiquarian zeal by a number of Tudor historians and topographers, among them John Stow, William Camden, John Bale and Sir Henry Savile. In the sixteenth century there was a great demand for a national historiography as noble as national history itself. Bale asked for “some learned Englishman . . . to set forth the English chronicles in their right shape.” It was recalled that Henry VII had “complained much of our histories of England, and that the English nation, which is inferior to none in honourable actions, should be surpassed by all in leaving the memory of them to posterity.” Antiquarianism could then be associated with national pride, and with the humanist demand for a return to “sources” and clarity of style; certain antiquarians were also concerned to revive the memory of the primitive English Church as a way of claiming spiritual legitimacy for England outside the jurisdiction of Rome. But the pure spirit of enquiry still remained the principal agent within the endless chronicles of the sixteenth century.

John Stow of London, however, can bear the title of Leland’s worthy successor. He was born in 1525, the son of a tallow chandler in Threadneedle Street; although he practised as a tailor for a while, his true passions were antiquarian. His first published work was an edition of Chaucer, that great exemplar of “ancient” English, before he embarked upon the systematic exposition of the old urban and national chronicles. In one of his earlier volumes, A Summarie of Englyshe Chronicles, he wrote that “it is now eight years since I, seeing the confused order of our late English Chronicles, and the ignorant handling of ancient affairs, leaving mine own particular gains, consecrated myself to the search of our famous antiquities.” But his claim to enduring fame must lie with his comprehensive and elaborate Survey of London, published in 1598 as both a celebration and a memorial. It records the antiquities and monuments of the city, ward by ward, as well as local features and particular buildings. In a sense it captures the essence of English antiquarianism, which is conveyed in the notation and description of place. His Survey was successively edited and corrected by Munday, Dyson and Strype, who themselves celebrated London as “birthplace and breeder to us.”

This passionate attachment to one area is of the essence of antiquarianism. Stow loved London and spent much of his time wandering among its new buildings as well as its ruins which “cost many a weary mile’s travel, many a hard-earned penny and pound, and many a cold winter’s night study.” Yet in this pursuit he noted buried walls and old halls, ruinated tenements and luxurious lodgings, tennis courts and warehouses, each of which he attempted to date; his was an enormous undertaking, and every English historian owes him a debt. Yet his greatest achievement, perhaps, was to lend antiquarianism a local habitation. In his reports upon areas of narrow lanes or of monuments to local worthies he divines the genius loci —“now there is no such void place for willows to grow, more than the churchyard, wherein do grow some high ash trees. . . . The antiquities be these, first in Stayning Lane, of old time so called, as may be supposed, of painter-stainers dwelling there.”

His near contemporary William Camden had a similar reverence for the antiquity of place; his Britannia was published in 1568 with the purpose of restoring “Britain to its antiquities and its antiquities to Britain” by undertaking a survey of each county. The pursuit is known as chorography—the writing of place—and seems particularly suited to the English imagination. Camden himself helped to establish the Society of Antiquarians, which lent institutional coherence to a presiding national passion. The antiquarians characteristically delivered in English rather than in Latin their papers on local topography and customs, on charters and chronicles, on tombs and monuments, on laws and genealogy. The linguistic bond between the nation and its inhabitants was thereby asserted. It has been suggested that antiquarianism itself sprang from changes in land ownership, so that new families and new gentry might be ennobled by their location in county history rather than in medieval chronicle; but the study of the society was wider ranging, embracing the interrelationship and historical interaction between the land and its people. At a later date antiquarians were generally acknowledged to be radical in intent, establishing, for example, the nature of pristine English “liberties,” but even at this early juncture there was a marked hostility to antiquarian research from the court; James I effectively closed down the society. By concentrating upon the land and its people, antiquarians were deemed to be anti-monarchical in tendency; this in turn suggests once more that the English imagination itself may be of implicitly egalitarian temper.

The antiquarian publications of the seventeenth century follow broadly in the tradition established by Leland, Stow and Camden; Elias Ashmole’s Institutions, Laws and Ceremonies of the Order of the Garter, William Dugdale’s Origines Judicales and Robert Plot’s Natural History of Oxfordshire took antiquarian methods into different areas. In the “epistle” to his Parochial AntiquitiesWhite Kennet remarked that “I cannot but congratulate the present Age, that a genius to our National Antiquities seems now to invigorate a great many Lovers of their Country.” As one historian of seventeenth-century literature has remarked, “Antiquarianism had undoubtedly become endemical in learned circles, and the utter devotion with which it was often pursued sometimes suggests that seventeenth-century fanaticism was emerging again in a new and more benign form.”7

Yet the rigour of such studies faded by degrees into a form of imaginative antiquarianism. Inigo Jones, on surveying the monoliths of Stonehenge, pronounced them to be of Roman origin; he was no doubt encouraged in this belief by the classical ambience of his masques for the early seventeenth-century court. John Aubrey was always of an antiquarian disposition; he studied old stones and collected evidence of folklore, all in the service of an overwhelming passion for the past. His contemporary the antiquarian Anthony à Wood described him as “a pretender to antiquities . . . a shiftless person, roving and magotie-headed, and sometimes little better than crased . . . being exceedingly credulous, would stuff his many letters sent to A.W. 8 with fooleries and misinformations.” But in that sense Aubrey was the very model of an English antiquary; he was exactly the sort of person whom Goethe derided, but who has added immeasurably to the English capacity for nostalgic scholarship. His knowledge was capacious but piecemeal, and was transmitted in random notes or jottings. “I have not leisure,” he wrote in typically English fashion, “to heighten my Stile.” He had a native fascination for biographical detail, too, and his Minutes of Lives combines erudition and scandal in an unmethodical digest.

The full movement of fanciful or romantic antiquarianism, however, manifested itself in the eighteenth century as the precursor or harbinger of what has become known as “romanticism.” The most celebrated and influential antiquarian study of the eighteenth century was undoubtedly Bishop Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, published in 1765; its three volumes created the “ballad industry,” which was to have so powerful an effect for the next two hundred years, and reintroduced the Arthurian myths into English discourse. The titles of many of the ballads, rescued and often “improved” by Percy, are indicative: “King Arthur and King Cornwall” vies with “Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne,” while “Hugh Spencer’s Feats in France” lies alongside “Durham Field.” Percy’s collection also inaugurated a revision of English poetic history.

This tendency to look backward, in the act of historical retrieval, emerges also in the eighteenth-century rediscovery of ancient music. An “Academy of Ancient Music” was established in 1731, and became “the first organisation to perform old works regularly and deliberately”; 9 it was joined in 1776 by the “Concert of Ancient Music,” and one historian has noticed that “no other country rivalled it in the amount and diversity of old music performed during the eighteenth century; no other went so far in building up significant social roles for such works in public ritual, or in defining them as a canon.”10 The antiquarian tradition had existed before; the term “ancient music” emerged at the turn of the seventeenth century, and before that date Elizabethan “anthems and services”11 were performed in many English cathedrals. But in the eighteenth century “ancient music” became a key phrase for any understanding of English culture. The academy published a series of letters upon musical subjects, addressed nominally to Italy, in one of which it was stated that “when you cast your eyes upon those pieces [by Tallis and Byrd], you will clearly perceive that true and solid music is not in its infancy with us, and that, whatever some on your side of the Alps may imagine to the contrary, the muses have of old taken up their abode in England.” It is of some significance that in 1728 Daniel Defoe was one of the first to propose an Academy of Music; William Hogarth, too, was one of its members. It would seem that the notion of ancient music was remarkably congenial to the English imagination. It has even been claimed that the “tradition of ancient music was the foundation of the canon of musical classics in England,” 12 where antiquarianism becomes the standard both of taste and of performance.

The same predilections are also to be found in the arts of architecture. William Kent and John Vanbrugh were enchanted and influenced by medieval architecture, and did not hesitate to reproduce ogees, quatrefoils and fan vaulting. Batty Langley published a volume entitled Gothic Architecture Improved by Rules and Proportions in 1747, but in fact it was the irregularity and eclecticism of Gothic which most appealed to the English imagination. Vanbrugh himself summarised this native inclination when he wrote that there “is perhaps no one thing which the most polite part of mankind have more generally agreed on; than in the value they have set on ancient times.”

It is no paradox, therefore, that the culture of nineteenth-century England, which witnessed the development of an entirely new metropolitan civilisation, should itself have been similarly preoccupied with “ancient times.” It is nonetheless curious that the Victorian age of innovation should also be the age of restoration, that a fervent belief in progress should be accompanied by a deep need for revival, and that a period of unprecedented industrial and commercial expansion should also be a period of unremitting nostalgia. Yet the vagaries of the human and social constitution are such that apparently irreconcilable forces can work together. There was some comfort to be derived, after all, from the close identification of Victorian architects and poets with medieval England; it offered a vision of permanence in the face of constant change, and a monument of faith in an age when scepticism and unbelief were everywhere apparent. The vogue for Pre-Raphaelite painting is part of the same movement of taste.

The close association with medievalism also provided an image of organic unity, of a civilisation established upon firm religious and cultural principles, in a period when every aspect of society was being called into doubt. Between 1821 and 1823 Augustus Charles Pugin published Specimens of Gothic Architecture, which may be seen as equivalent to Sir Walter Scott’s Kenilworth, composed in the same period. Nineteenth-century architecture itself is marked by a conflation of antique styles, from the early Gothic of Pugin himself, most thoroughly exemplified by the interiors of the Palace of Westminster, to the high Victorian Gothic of Butterfield and Burges. Even a pragmatist such as George Gilbert Scott realised that the English imagination was thoroughly backward. “I am no medievalist,” he wrote in Remarks on Secular and Domestic Architecture, Present and Future:

I do not advocate the styles of the middle ages as such. If we had a distinctive architecture of our own day worthy of the greatness of our age, I should be content to follow it; but we have not; and the middle ages having been the latest period which possessed a style of its own . . . I strongly hold that it has greater prima facie claims to be used as the nucleus of our developments than those of ancient Greece or Rome.

Once more emerges the peculiar fact that an old style is considered more appropriate for a new civilisation; peculiar, that is, to the English imagination. Gilbert Scott’s own attempts to restore the churches of medieval England were not altogether popular and prompted accusations of vandalism. His endeavours, however, led to the establishment by William Morris of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, an institution which reflected Morris’s own intense medievalism, which in turn was exemplified by such writings as The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems.

It was suggested, even at the time, that the language and attitudes of the past presented the best medium for understanding the forces of the present. The obliquity is always apparent in John Ruskin’s writing, for example, where in The Seven Lamps of Architecture and The Stones of Venicehe becomes a fiery prophet, loud in his denunciations and lavish in his celebrations, his own rich and multivalent prose levelled against the abuses of modern English culture. The same historicism was at work in Charles Lamb, albeit in milder vein, when the phantoms of an evanescent past are invoked to obscure or shade the horrors of modern civilisation. This nostalgic antiquarianism affected the work of poets also. Tennyson explained that “It is what I have always felt even from a boy, and what as a boy I called ‘the passion of the past.’ And it is so always with me now; it is the distance that charms me in the landscape, the picture and the past, and not the immediate to-day in which I move.” Here is a clear exposition of one aspect of the English imagination which wishes to walk in the veiled distance and in remembered days. Even those writers most concerned with what in the nineteenth century was called “the condition of England question” veiled their fictions in the subdued light of the past; Dickens is only the most obvious and formidable example. Shakespeare was never moved to address the social problems of his period and preferred, instead, to re-create a legendary English past. There are many English writers of genius who have been unwilling, or unable, to insert their work into the present moment or to sketch the outlines of the “modern” condition. It is in part a matter of reticence and embarrassment, but it also represents a signal tendency within the national temperament.


John Stow

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