Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Green, John Richard

748833Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 23 — Green, John Richard1890Mandell Creighton

GREEN, JOHN RICHARD (1837–1883), historian, was the elder son of Richard Green, a citizen of Oxford, and was born in 1837. He was sent to Magdalen College school at the age of eight, and both at home and at school was trained in the strictest tory and high church views. His father died when he was twelve, leaving him to the guardianship of an uncle, which lasted till he was sixteen. The father had by careful exertions left provision for his son's education, an act which the son never ceased to record with grateful affection. From the time when he could read he was scarcely ever without a book in his hands, though his want of verbal memory made school lessons very trying to him. Of an emotional and religious temperament, he was as a boy a fervent and enthusiastic high churchman, and became eagerly interested in the old customs which survived in Magdalen College. He gathered all the information that he could about the meaning of the old-world ways which were left in Oxford, and used to tell in later days how he was awestruck by the venerable look of Dr. Routh, the president of Magdalen, who as a boy had seen Dr. Johnson at Oxford. At the age of fourteen Green wrote an essay on Charles I, in which he incurred the displeasure of his teachers by coming to his own conclusion that Charles I was in the wrong. A few months later he reached the head of the school, and the authorities advised his removal. He was sent to private tutors, first to Dr. Ridgway in Lancashire, and then to Mr. C. D. Yonge at Leamington. He had just reached sixteen when Mr. Yonge sent him up, as a trial of his power, to compete for an open scholarship at Jesus College. Green was elected (1854), but was too young to come into residence at once. At that time Jesus was almost entirely a Welsh college, and its undergraduates were scarcely known outside its walls. Green had gained a scholarship, and his tutor was content his guardian was dead, and he had no home, and not a single adviser. He went to college friendless, and he continued as an undergraduate to live a solitary life. He was not understood by the authorities of his college, who could not sympathise with his preference for Matthew Paris over the classics. The study of modern history had not at that time taken root in Oxford, and Green did not make much use of such teaching as there was. He lived much by himself, wandering about among the antiquities of Oxford and its neighbourhood, recalling for himself the memories of the past, and exercising his imagination in combining them. He ended his academic career in 1859 without distinction, and without any training save such as had come to him from the place itself. Already as an undergraduate he had found out his subject, and had devised a method. A series of papers which he contributed to the 'Oxford Chronicle' on 'Oxford in the Eighteenth Century' showed the same power of historical imagination which marked his later work. After taking his degree Green left Oxford for a clerical life. He was ordained deacon in 1860, and went as a curate to St. Barnabas, King Square, Goswell Road, London. In 1863 he was put in sole charge of the parish of Holy Trinity, Hoxton, and in 1866 was appointed by Bishop Tait incumbent of St. Philip's, Stepney. As a clergyman Green worked hard and successfully. His quickness, readiness, good sense, kindliness, and humour made him personally popular. He preached extempore, but took the utmost pains with the composition of his sermons, which were clear, forcible, and thoughtful, yet adapted to those whom he addressed. His opinions in politics and theology had gradually become those of a pronounced liberal, and he could speak to his people with sympathy and fervour. He threw himself ardently into all plans which could promote their social well-being, and he was unsparing of himself. A paper on Edward Denison the younger [q. v.] in his 'Stray Studies' gives some insight into his clerical life.

While he worked hard as a clergyman, he also continued to find some time for study. Such money as he could possibly spare he spent on books, and such time as he could save he spent in the British Museum. Whenever he needed a holiday he devoted it to archæological excursions to various parts of England. He began to be known to some historical students, Mr. E. A. Freeman, Mr. James Bryce, and Mr. Stubbs, now (1890) bishop of Oxford. In 1862 he began to contribute articles, light sketches of social subjects, admirable studies of historic towns which he had visited, historical reviews, short critical essays on historical questions, to the 'Saturday Review.' But his head was full of plans for a book, and the subject which chiefly attracted him was the period of the Angevin kings. He read the chronicles, and read largely historical literature of every kind, working out for himself points that interested him. To him English towns had an individual life which he delighted to trace in its details, and his quick eye for local features enabled him to read history in every landscape. His intellectual activity was enormous, and his knowledge always had an immediate application to actual life and its political and social problems. The strain of these manifold occupations told upon Green's health, which had never been robust. His lungs were affected, and he had to abandon clerical work in 1869, and confine himself to the congenial duty of librarian at Lambeth. Moreover, his views on theological questions had become more decidedly liberal, and he no longer felt that he had a calling for clerical life. From this time forward he had to be very careful of his health, and his winters were generally spent in the Riviera. The consciousness of uncertain health prompted him to gather his knowledge together into a clear and popular form. He projected his 'Short History of the English People,' and worked at it with patient energy. It was twice rewritten, and was only published at last owing to the urgent advice of his friends. This book, which appeared at the end of 1874, fused together the materials for English history, and presented them with a fulness and a unity which had never been attempted before. Its object was to lay hold of the great features of social development, and show the progress of popular life. What Macaulay had done for a period of English history, Green did for it as a whole. From a mass of scattered details he constructed a series of pictures which were full of life. Subjects which before had been treated independently—constitutional history, social history, literary history, economic history, and the like—were all brought together by his method, and were made to contribute their share in filling up the record of the progress of the nation; and he was the first to show how important an element in history the study of the 'geography' of towns might be made. The writer's profound admiration for the conception of liberty which Englishmen had worked out for themselves, his full sympathy with the objects of popular aspiration, and the lofty tone of hopefulness for the future which ran through the book, gave it a moral and political value, besides its literary and historical merits. The book was immediately popular; its treatment was new, its tone fresh and vigorous, its style attractive, its arrangement clear; above all, it never halted, but carried on the reader with unabated enthusiasm. Green was in fact not only a scholar, but an artist; he had a passion for fine form, and he never rested till he found it. The book from first to last was the building up of one great conception, ordered in all its parts, and instinct with emotion.

The ' History ' had a success such as few books on a serious subject have had in English literature. The first edition was exhausted immediately; five fresh issues were called for in 1875, and one or two issues have marked every subsequent year. But Green did not rest content with his success. While none acknowledged more cheerfully the excellence of the work of other historians, none clung more firmly to his own method, or defended it more gently, with an admirable and singular mixture of self-confidence and humility. He knew that there were some mistakes in detail in his book, and that some subjects had been passed over briefly so as to keep the volume within its limits. He set to work to expand his book into a fuller form, so that it should contain more facts, and give detailed information in support of general views. This larger work, which appeared in four vols. in 1877-80, did not deviate from the point of view already taken, and kept the title, 'A History of the English People.' Green's health was now decidedly better, and he could form new plans of life and work. In June 1877 he married Alice, daughter of Edward A. Stopford, LL.D., archdeacon of Meath. His wife entered warmly into all his pursuits, acted as his amanuensis, taught him to husband his resources of health and strength, and encouraged him to begin his labours on a still larger and completer scale. Having written the history of England for the people of England, he resolved to write it again for scholars. Beginning with Britain as the Romans left it, he pieced together the history of the English invasion and settlement, infusing life into archæology, and bringing his knowledge of the physical features of the country to the explanation of the scanty records of early times. While he was engaged on this work an unfortunate journey to Egypt again upset his health in the spring of 1881, and The Making of England' was finished under very adverse conditions. This book, published in 1882, brought down English history to the consolidation of the kingdoms under Egbert, and showed Green's qualities as a critical historian. His rare power of dealing with fragmentary evidence, his quick eye for what was essential, his firm hold of the main points, his ripe knowledge of all that could illustrate his subject, above all, his feeling for reality, and his insight into probabilities, enabled him to give life and movement to the earliest period of our national life. Apart from its other merits this book exercised a wide influence, which is still growing, as an example of the methods by which archæology can be turned into history. It gave a stimulus to the pursuit of local archæology, and showed archæologists the full importance of their work. It established Green's title to a high place among critical historians, and showed in a marked degree all the qualities which are required for the best historical work. It proved not merely that the merits of the 'Short History' were those of literary style and brilliancy of presentation, but that the whole book was the fruit of patient research and thorough knowledge, which only needed longer time and a larger scale to establish its conclusions. Time, however, was not granted to him. His health grew worse, but he eagerly used every moment that he could to carry on his work. In the autumn of 1882 he had to leave England for Mentone, where he struggled against increasing weakness of body to finish his next volume on 'The Conquest of England,' which was to carry down the history to the coming of the Normans. He worked on steadfastly till a few days before his death on 7 March 1883. He left behind him materials which enabled Mrs. Green to publish the book at the end of the year.

Besides the books mentioned above Green reprinted in 1876 some of his early papers, under the title of 'Stray Studies in England and Italy,' a book which contains much that illustrates his sympathetic and genial character, as well as his knowledge of men and his interest in places and scenes. In 1879 he issued 'Readings from English History,' a series of selections for the use of teachers who wished to interest their pupils in points of detail. In 1880 he wrote, with Mrs. Green, a 'Short Geography of the British Isles,' which contained the substance of much that he had learned in his rambles in England. In 1881 he edited 'Addison's Select Essays.’

Green possessed in a very marked degree the qualities which make a man attractive in society. He was a brilliant talker, with a command of epigram, a fertility of illustration, a lightness of touch, a ready sympathy, a large field of interests, marvellous versatility, and unfailing geniality and good humour. Ill-health, however, cut him off from society, in any large sense of the word, and, though he had a circle of intimate friends, he led a comparatively solitary life for one who had a remarkably expansive nature, and was dependent on intercourse with others for the full expression of his manifold enthusiasms. This comparative solitude was a real trial to him; but neither that nor the ill-health which caused it ever soured him or preyed upon his spirits. However wearied he might be, he would always welcome the visit of a friend and forget himself in his interest in others. A portrait of him, from a pencil sketch by Mr. Sandys, is engraved as a frontispiece to 'The Conquest of England.'

It is too soon to appreciate Green's influence on historical studies in England; but it may be mentioned that since his death two projects of his have been realised on the lines which he laid down, the 'Oxford Historical Society,' and the 'English Historical Review.' Both owe their existence to his suggestion, and his activity did much to bring them into being.

[A revised edition of the Short History was issued in 1888 by Mrs. Green, in accordance with her husband's wishes. The prefaces to that edition and to the Conquest of England give short accounts of Green's life; obituary notices in the Times, 10 March 1883; Academy, 17 March 1883; J. Bryce in Macmillan's Mag. xlviii. 59, &c.; P. L. Gell in Fortnightly Review, new ser. xxxiii. 734, &c.; personal knowledge.]

M. C.