John Lingard's History of the English Reformation: History of Apologetics?

By Vidmar, John | The Catholic Historical Review, July 1999 | Go to article overview

John Lingard's History of the English Reformation: History of Apologetics?


Vidmar, John, The Catholic Historical Review


People in the 19th century are too wise for such trash as forms Poper," (Gentleman's Magazine, 89 [April, 1819), 343).

In 1819 John Lingard published three volumes of his History of England.' His would be the first attempt by a Roman Catholic in modern times to write a comprehensive history of England. Five hundred copies of these volumes, concerned with the pre-Reformation period, were sold within eight days. In 1820 and 1823, the volumes on the Reformation were published, and they have provided a battleground for histori:ms ever since. Even recently, Lingard has attracted the attention of several critics who find his work to be too highly charged with the emancipation debate of the early 1800's, and too manipulative of the reading public. Rosemary O'Day, in The Debate on tbe English Reformation (1986), gives Lingard a thorough and measured treatment, and contends that Lingard's motives in writing about the English Reformation were primarily political, i.e., to bring about Catholic Emancipation. This criticism, of course, begs the question whether Lingard`s history is accurate or not, but it also implies that Lingard, with such per litical motivation, could not help but be misled by historical events or give them an inaccurate interpretation.John Kenyon complained in The History Men (1984) that Lingard was less than honest:"There is something repugnant in his willingness initially to pander to Protestant prejudice, then alter his work in subsequent editions, when the 'enemy' was off his guard.`'2 At the tI University of Canterbury Philip Cattermole seconded this with a doctoral dissertation (1984) entirely devoted to the thesis that Lingard was a calculating apologist,"[balancing] phrases to please the Roman Catholics with those to please the Protestants."

Thus, the main arguments against Lingard's account of the English Reformation can be grouped under two headings: that Lingard's motives were so political as to preclude the writing of good history, and that Lingard was consciously deceptive in his presentation-i.e., the real Lingard emerged in later editions only after he had established his reputation. These two arguments come together because of Lingard's Roman Catholicism, which dictated how he would approach the Emancipation debate and how (cautiously) he would approach his original audience. And these criticisms fail as a result-not because such arguments are not without validity, but because their obsession with Lingard's religion causes them to miss the point. Lingard made mistakes, and sometimes very big mistakes, but he did not make them because he was a Roman Catholic.

The understanding that Lingard was an unashamed apologist for Roman Catholicism is not new. As soon as Lingard's Reformation volumes appeared, John Allen wrote in the Edinburgh Review in 1825 to warn his readers that Lingard's History was replete with bias, and that the author's"passions are warmed whenever the honor of his Church is at stake.T At the same time, the Eclectic Review, far more contentiously, found Lingard's treatment of Anne Boleyn"rancorous;' and this was "but a specimen (and by no means the worst) of the spirit in which Dr. Lingard's volumes are written."S And Thomas Babington Macaulay was mocking in his reference to Lingard as an advocate:

The practice of distorting narrative into a conformity with theory is a vice not as unfavorable as at first sight it may appear. We have compared the writers who indulge in it to advocates; and we may add, that their conflicting fallacies, like those of advocates, correct each other.... A tribunal will decide a judicial question most fairly when it has heard two able men argue, as unfairly as possible, on the two opposite sides of it. . .

This is at present the state of history. The poet laureate [Robert Southey appears for the Church of England, Lingard for the Church of Rome.... In the midst of these disputes, however, history proper, if we may use the term, is disappearing. …

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