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Sir Winston Churchill As A Historian

July 2024
12min read

A famed British historian and poet looks at Churchill's two masterpieces.

In slightly fuller form, this remarkable article was presented earlier this year as the Founder’s Day Address at the Huntington Library in California; it appeared in the Library’s Quarterly, but deserves, we believe, wider notice. A. L. Rowse, Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and authority on Elizabethan England, has written the history of Sir Winston’s family in two volumes— The Early Churchills and The Churchills (Harper, 1956 and 1958). Dr. Rowse is now working at the Huntington Library on a biography of Shakespeare and an edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

An English authority on American history, Professor H. C. Allen of London University, has suggested that when we consider the total bulk of the historical work, “judged as an historian alone, and setting aside all his other manifold and in some cases greater achievements, Sir Winston Churchill’s fame would be secure.” It is extraordinary to think that in a lifetime of activities as soldier, journalist, politician, painter, traveler, statesman—who has held nearly all the highest offices of state as president of the Board of Trade, Home Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty (twice), Minister of Munitions, Colonial Secretary, Secretary of State for War, and for Air, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Prime Minister—he should have found time to write two historical masterpieces, each in four volumes. Any reasonably eminent historian might well be content with one masterpiece. Sir Winston has written two: Marlborough, His Life and Times , and A History of the English-speaking Peoples .

I propose to devote myself mainly to these two, though he has made other, very important, contributions. There are two bulky works of memoirs: those of the First World War, in which he played his part, The World Crisis , in six volumes; and those called The Second World War , in which he played a far greater role, also in six volumes. I do not underrate these twelve volumes. In addition to what we learn from them, there is some very fine writing. But they are primarily historical memoirs, surveying the scene from the point of view of an individual participant in the action; that is their value: he is contributing his evidence for the historians later to consider with that of others and combine in a general synthesis.

Besides all these, there are other works of his that come into the category of history, and some that lie on the frontiers of it. His big two-volume life of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was hailed by Lord Rosebery—no mean judge—as “among the first dozen, perhaps the first half-dozen, biographies in our language.” If this seems putting it rather high, it may well be true if we restrict the term to what Lord Rosebery probably had in mind—political biographies.

Already, when only twenty-five, Churchill had written The River War , a two-volume account of the war in the Sudan, which showed a mastery unusual at such an age. Other books of his trench on history, too: notably his Great Contemporaries , incisive portraits, though generous and just, of the leading figures of his time. And what about My Early Life —his own selfportrait up to the first stage of his career in office? Autobiography can be a contribution to history—Clarendon’s is a classic example—especially when the story is that of someone who has played a significant part in his time.

But perhaps we may concentrate on his two masterpieces, and first on his Marlborough .

The motive for undertaking this work was to vindicate his ancestor—first of English soldiers and one of the most influential figures in our history—from the aspersions of Macaulay. Macaulay depicted this great soldier and servant of the state as a mean villain, not far removed from a traitor. Macaulay’s genius as a writer blackened Mar !borough’s reputation, and fixed this picture of him in the history books and in our tradition—such was the power of a brilliant pen. Now rectifying this was not only a question of family piety with his descendant, but a case of putting right a grave historical injustice.

That dedicated task turned out to be not without practical effect upon Churchill himself; a former colleague of his gave it to me as his opinion that it was in the course of writing that work that Churchill matured as a statesman. It turned out an incomparable apprenticeship for the task that would befall him in the war. For, during these years, he was studying in Marlborough, who was the military and diplomatic linchpin of the Grand Alliance against Louis XIV, all the problems of conducting such a war and how to keep the alliance together. By the time he had reached the third volume in the 1930’5, he had learned to put up with what he would find in action in the 1940’s: “the history of all coalitions is a tale of the reciprocal complaints of allies.”

But we must here confine ourselves to historical writing. The book is not only the life of Marlborough, it is his times. It is a splendid canvas of the whole life of the age, painted in strong and glowing colors, full of lifelike portraits, scenes (especially battlefields), descriptions (especially of political and court life), presented with generosity of judgment, immense gusto, and intellectual energy. Two things are obvious: that he enjoyed it all, when with some historians one would think writing was worse than having a tooth extracted; the other thing, which we are apt to ignore, is that Churchill is a man of great power and originality of intellect. Nor is he afraid to add humor to the category of the historian’s gifts. It is a thing to be very careful about; but some of the best historians have had it: certainly Gibbon and Hume and Clarendon, and even the erring Macaulay, who wrote, “there is a vile phrase of which bad historians are exceedingly fond, ‘the dignity of history.’”

Churchill’s strong personality is present in all that he writes, and in any case a man expresses himself in every inflection of his style. He writes, or rather dictates, every word himself; every word bears his personal stamp. It is true that he uses the aid of research assistants to delve in the archives for him and to look out, under his direction, the large masses of material that he likes to deploy. But, very much of an artist, he organizes and shapes up the material himself, gives it his own structure and character down to the last button. Then, when the volume is in draft, he likes to have it vetted by a recognized authority on the period or subject, and, with his artistic conscience, he considers and acts on the suggestions made, the corrections and emendations proposed—as I know, from having had the honor to vet the Tudor section of his History of the English-speaking Peoples . The result is to be seen in the remarkable accuracy of one who has written so much.

In the first volume of his Marlborough , too much space is given up to Churchill’s controversy with Macaulay—as Sir Winston has admitted to me; but he felt he had to do it, to rebut Macaulay’s accusations point by point, and he has done it once and for all. One of Macaulay’s habits he has followed to good purpose—which other historians might practice to advantage: namely, of going to see the places one is writing about, describing them as they lie under one’s eye. Hence, in part, the visual vividness and clarity of his books. He has told me how he followed Marlborough’s route across Germany to Blenheim and studied all his battlefields on the spot—as he has a good many of the Civil War battlefields in the East. He has had the advantage of his early training as a soldier, and of a passionate interest in every aspect of war, strategy, tactics, new methods and weapons, at sea as on land, and latterly in the air. The importance of this was not appreciated in the slack, pacifistic atmosphere of the 1930’5, in which his was a solitary voice speaking out against the well-meaning illusions of the democracies. The factor of power, after all, is the first consideration, though it may not be the last, in human affairs. Some reflection of his irritation with our fondness for illusions appears in his summing up of Marlborough’s achievement at half-time: “one man and three battles had transformed all. Yet men bleat— War settles nothing .” The sad truth is that sometimes only a war will settle something: the evil of Nazi Germany, for example, or Napoleon’s tyranny over Europe. Or what about the Civil War?

The miserable decade of the 1930’s in Britain, which kept Churchill out of office and enabled him to finish Marlborough , also gave him time to write the first draft of his History of the English-speaking Peoples .

Once more Churchill had undertaken an immense task, a narrative history on a large scale such as professional historians nowadays are apt to shrink from. There was much professional curiosity as to how he would acquit himself. We need not have feared: it turned out a masterpiece, though he had not finished his work upon it—in his usual conscientious manner, rewriting, correcting, inserting, shaping up—until his eighty-third year.

Even the most technical historians saw the point that Churchill’s immense political experience, his proved long-sighted vision into affairs, his practical grasp of statesmanship, gave extra value to his judgment of affairs in the past, which is the staple of history. “History is past politics” is a restricted definition of the subject, but it serves for Churchill. Men have the defects of their qualities, but also the qualities of their defects. He has never been much interested in economic matters—a surprising omission in a former Chancellor of the Exchequer. His real concern as a historian has been with the state as such, its government and institutions, its power expressed in its armed forces, diplomacy and the art of war—which is, alas, one aspect of the relations of the powers. This is the central thread of history to him: what governs, not what wells up from below.

The first volume, The Birth of Britain , goes from prehistoric times to the end of the Middle Ages. It is at its best on Roman Britain, perhaps too favorable to the imperial idea at the expense of the native Celts; though when he comes to a doughty fighter among them—Cassivellaunus, who delayed the Roman conquest—he is ready with a salute: “Little is known of Cassivellaunus, and we can only hope that later defenders of the Island will be equally successful and that their measures will be as well suited to the needs of the time.” This, with an eye on what was to come at the end of that decade.

We notice another trait: he always likes to be generous in his estimate of kings; it is a good fault, but he is sometimes too much so. Richard Coeur-de-Lion—of course, he would fall for him: “worthy, by the consent of all men, to sit with King Arthur and Roland and other heroes of martial romance at some Eternal Round Table, which we trust the Creator of the Universe in his comprehension will not have forgotten to provide.” Now the truth is that Richard I utterly neglected his country, and drained it of resources in order to go careering off on a crusade. He was a bad king of England. And there is little in this volume about social growth, literature, and the arts, and hardly anything about the economic development of the country.

Remote as our medieval history may seem, it comes alive in his robust imagination and breezy humorsometimes the two are combined. There is Richard III, the murderer of the two princes, his nephews, in the Tower. On Richard’s first coup against his nephew’s maternal relatives and defenders, “Edward V took the only positive action recorded of his reign. He wept. Well he might.” For what happened next?—the murder of the young king and his brother.


The next volume, on the Tudor and Stuart period, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, shows no falling off in quality. As a general criticism, I find he makes personal factors overimportant; as against this, everyone appreciated the splendid gallery of portraits of personages. Again he is too generous to some kings—there is an endearing loyalty in his makeup—in especial to Charles I, who was really no good as a ruler, and to James II, of whom he says, “his sacrifice for religion gained for him the lasting respect of the Catholic Church, and he carried with him into lifelong exile an air of royalty and honor.” That is much too handsome for a crowned nincompoop.

My own criticism of this volume and the next is that there should have been much more about the development of the colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, their characteristic idiosyncrasies, their culture, the remarkable growth of their trade and maritime interests which have left beautiful memorials in such unspoiled towns as Newcastle, Delaware, or Salem and Newburyport, Massachusetts, the settlements on Narragansett Bay with their prosperous eighteenthcentury houses, not to mention the grand houses of Tidewater Virginia and in and around Philadelphia. Nevertheless, our most austere professional, the lamented Richard Pares, paid tribute to “the splendour and variety of Sir Winston Churchill’s second volume…”

There is general agreement that Volume III, dealing with the eighteenth century—the Revolution of 1688, the quarrel with America, the struggle with Napoleon—is the weakest. The constitutional achievements of 1688 are not gone into; Pares says, “the fact is that Sir Winston, like William III himself, has scrambled over these matters as quickly as possible in order to get to the wars.” There is next to nothing about the industrial and agrarian revolutions which were the foundation of modern Britain. Hardly a thing about the Wesleyan and evangelical revivals. What is so curious for a painter is that the great age of English painting, from about 1760 to 1830, is not even mentioned; nor is the greatest age of English architecture, the Georgian—very odd for someone born in Blenheim Palace. Yet, after these criticisms, Pares concludes, “the work is a noble work.”

When we come to Volume IV, which attempts to cover Britain, the Empire, and the United States in the nineteenth century, we begin to wonder whether the enterprise is at all possible. And the truth is that this volume becomes a parallel history of Britain and the United States, rather than a history of the English-speaking peoples: that would require a fifth volume. Still, this volume is more varied and entertaining than any; the good humor is at a high level and is often politically perceptive.

With his treatment of American history, it is generally agreed that he gives disproportionate space to the Civil War—that is, if it is possible to give disproportionate space to the Civil War. My chief criticism of this volume is that it omits the western migration across the prairies that conquered a whole continent, and is one of the decisive folk movements of history: the grand epic of nineteenth-century America. So far as the Civil War is concerned he gives us, as we should expect, a most vivid account of the campaigns and the battles, set in a generous perspective: “Thus ended the great American Civil War, which must upon the whole be considered the noblest and least avoidable of all the great mass-conflicts of which till then there was record.” He sums up the losses, and the historic gain. As an old soldier his sympathies are with the soldiers on both sides, rather than with the politicians: “If these two Presidents had let McClellan and Lee fight the quarrel out between them as they thought best the end would have been the same, but the war would have been less muddled, much shorter, and less bloody.” As you would expect, his soldier’s admiration goes to Lee, but he has a fine tribute to Lincoln: “Lincoln’s political foes, gazing upon him, did not know vigour when they saw it.” And his own wartime experience shows in the knowledgeable comment: “It is sometimes necessary at the summit of authority to bear with the intrigues of disloyal colleagues, to remain calm when others panic, and to withstand misguided popular outcries. All this Lincoln did.”

Here, as one reviewer pointed out, is the most powerful criticism of the book—that the real history of the English-speaking peoples proceeds and finds a living unity “on levels of the historical process with which Sir Winston does not concern himself at all.” Englishspeaking ties in the nineteenth century were above all economic and social, demographic and popular. There was the fundamental interchange of British manufactures for American raw materials and food; the contribution of British shipping and capital investment, especially in railways, in opening up the new continent.

And there is the reverse process: the immense impact of America on Britain in this period, the constant influence of the great American writers from Fenimore Cooper onwards—sometimes their fame was first made in Britain; of American political and social ideas in the extension of democracy and equality; of American religious and revivalistic movements; of folklore and popular music and entertainment of every kind, from Negro spirituals to circuses; not to mention the humbler inventions that lightened millions of working class homes with paraffin lamps, sewing machines, harmoniums, rocking chairs, at length telephones.

If justice were to be done to this dual process of action and reaction at every level it would need another volume. But it is not Churchill’s subject, and he has done enough for one lifetime.

Perhaps we may sum up.

What are his qualities as a writer of history? They are allied to those of the maker of it, the man of action. The combination of powerful common sense with imagination is always a stronger one for a historian than any amount of ethical uplift—more in keeping with the facts of life, the subject matter of history. There is no humbug in Churchill, not a trace: it has been one of his disadvantages as a politician to be incapable of it. Nor is he in any way religious: he is at the opposite pole from any sort of mysticism—though he has pietas, like an ancient Roman, and in time of trouble, stoicism. His lifelong inspiration has been patriotism, an out-of-date virtue today. He is philosophically a rationalist, who sees life in terms of struggle; his intellectual outlook was much shaped by his reading of Darwin when young. He has always attached importance to the role of chance, luck, fortune in human affairs. In his own life, so closely bound up with politics, he has seen far too much of its changes and chances, its ups and downs, its course deflected by a mere pebble in the stream, not to appreciate the role played by mere chance in history. What are his values? Courage, resource, duty to country and mankind, achievement in all fields; for no one is so human or so enjoys fulfillment in all spheres of action, physical and mental.

All this appears in the historian: such a sense of life, such a way of re-creating the past; the choice of subjects of significance combined with the presentation of new material, marshaled like troops on a battlefield; vitality, perception, political understanding, and the style to express it: without these no historian can properly be called great.

Of course, he has had a double dose of vitality, a double inheritance. I have said that his chief inspiration has been patriotism, which he has come to broaden out to apply to the English-speaking peoples as a whole. In this, too, he has had the double advantage that in him the British and American strains are equally strong. He sees, prophetically, that our separate histories are tending to merge into one stream: his last words to us on his last page are, “Nor should we now seek to define precisely the exact terms of ultimate union.”


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