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Henry Hallam (1777-1859)

Henry Hallam, historian, was born at Windsor on 9 July 1777. He was the only son of John Hallam, canon of Windsor (1775-1812) and dean of Bristol (1781-1800), a man of high character, and well read in sacred and profane literature. The Hallams had long been settled at Boston in Lincolnshire, and one member of the family was Robert Hallam, bishop of Salisbury. Later members had been on the puritan side. Hallam's mother, a sister of Dr. Roberts, provost of Eton, was a woman of much intelligence and delicacy of feeling.

Hallam was a precocious child, read many books when four years old, and composed sonnets at ten. He was at Eton from 1790 to 1794, and some of his verses are published in the ‘Musæ Etonenses’ (1795). He was afterwards at Christ Church, Oxford, and graduated B.A. in 1799. He was called to the bar, and practised for some years on the Oxford circuit. His father, dying in 1812, left him estates in Lincolnshire, and he was early appointed to a commissionership of stamps, a post with a good salary and light duties. In 1807 he married Julia, daughter of Sir Abraham Elton, bart., of Clevedon Court, Somerset, and sister of Sir Charles Abraham Elton. His independent means enabled him to withdraw from legal practice and devote himself to the study of history.

After ten years' assiduous labour he produced in 1818 his first great work, ‘A View of the State of Europe during the Middle Ages,’ which immediately established his reputation. (A supplementary volume of notes was published separately in 1848.) ‘The Constitutional History of England from the Accession of Henry VII to the Death of George II’ followed in 1827. Before the completion of his next work he was deeply affected by the death of his eldest son, Arthur Henry. ‘I have,’ he wrote, ‘warnings to gather my sheaves while I can — my advanced age, and the reunion in heaven with those who await me.’ He fulfilled his purpose by finishing ‘The Introduction to the Literature of Europe during the 15th, 16th, and 17th Centuries,’ published in 1837-9.

During the preparation of these works he lived a studious life, interrupted only by occasional travels on the continent. He was familiar with the best literary society of the time, well known to the whig magnates, and a frequent visitor to Holland House and Bowood. His name is often mentioned in memoirs and diaries of the time, and always respectfully, although he never rivalled the conversational supremacy of his contemporaries, Sydney Smith and Macaulay. He took no part in active political life. As a commissioner of stamps he was excluded from parliament, and after his resignation did not attempt to procure a seat. He gave up the pension of £500 a year (granted according to custom upon his resignation) after the death of his son Henry, in spite of remonstrances upon the unusual nature of the step.

Though a sound whig, Hallam disapproved of the Reform Bill, and expressed his grave fears of the revolutionary tendency of the measure to one of the leading members of the reform cabinet, in presence of the Duc de Broglie (Mignet). His later years were clouded by the loss of his sons. His domestic affections were unusually warm, and he was a man of singular generosity in money matters. Considering his high position in literature and his wide acquaintance with distinguished persons, few records have been preserved of his life. But he was warmly loved by all who knew him, and his dignified reticence and absorption in severe studies prevented him from coming often under public notice. John Austin was a warm friend, and Mrs. Austin was asked to write his life, but declined the task as beyond her powers.

During the greater part of his life he lived in Wimpole Street, the ‘long, unlovely street’ mentioned in Lord Tennyson's ‘In Memoriam,’ and for a few years before his death in Wilton Crescent. He died peacefully, after many years of retirement, on 21 January 1859.

Hallam was treasurer to the Statistical Society, of which he had been one of the founders, a very active vice-president of the Society of Antiquaries, honorary professor of history to the Royal Society, and a foreign associate of the Institute of France. In 1830 he received one of the fifty-guinea medals given by George IV for historical eminence, the other being given to Washington Irving.

Hallam seems to have published very little besides his three principal works. Byron, in ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,’ sneers at ‘classic Hallam, much renowned for Greek.’ A note explains that Hallam reviewed Payne Knight in the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ and condemned certain Greek verses, not knowing that they were taken from Pindar. The charge was exaggerated, and the article probably not by Hallam. The review of Scott's ‘Dryden’ in the number for October 1808 is also attributed to him. At a later period he wrote two articles upon Lingard's ‘History’ (March 1831) and Palgrave's ‘English Commonwealth’ (July 1832). A character by him of his friend Lord Webb Seymour is in the appendix to the first volume of Francis Horner's ‘Memoirs.’

Hallam's works helped materially to lay the foundations of the English historical school, and, in spite of later researches, maintain their position as standard books. The ‘Middle Ages’ was probably the first English history which, without being merely antiquarian, set an example of genuine study from original sources. Hallam's training as a lawyer was of high value, and enabled him, according to competent authorities, to interpret the history of law even better in some cases than later writers of more special knowledge. Without attempting a ‘philosophy of history,’ in the more modern sense, he takes broad and sensible views of facts. His old-fashioned whiggism, especially in the constitutional history, caused bitter resentment among the tories and high churchmen, whose heroes were treated with chilling want of enthusiasm. Southey attacked the book bitterly on these grounds in the ‘Quarterly Review’ (1828).

His writings, indeed, like that of some other historians, were obviously coloured by his opinions; but more than most historians he was scrupulously fair in intention and conscientious in collecting and weighing evidence. Without the sympathetic imagination which if often misleading is essential to the highest historical excellence, he commands respect by his honesty, accuracy, and masculine common sense in regard to all topics within his range. The ‘Literature of Europe,’ though it shows the same qualities and is often written with great force, suffers from the enormous range. Hardly any man could be competent to judge with equal accuracy of all the intellectual achievements of the period in every department. Weaknesses result which will be detected by specialists; but even in the weaker departments it shows good sound sense, and is invaluable to any student of the literature of the time. Though many historians have been more brilliant, there are few so emphatically deserving of respect. His reading was enormous, but we have no means of judging what special circumstances determined his particular lines of inquiry.

Hallam had eleven children by his wife, who died 25 April 1846. Only four grew up, Arthur Henry, Ellen, who died in 1837 (the deaths of these two are commemorated in a poem by Lord Houghton), Julia, who married Captain Cator (later Sir John Farnaby Lennard), and Henry Fitzmaurice. He had one sister, who died unmarried, leaving him her fortune.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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