William Stubbs

William Stubbs

William Stubbs (21 June 1825 – 22 April 1901) was an English historian and Bishop of Oxford.

The son of William Morley Stubbs, a solicitor, he was born at Knaresborough, Yorkshire, and was educated at the Ripon grammar school and Christ Church, Oxford, where he graduated in 1848, obtaining a first-class in classics and a third in mathematics.

He was elected a fellow of Trinity College, and held the college living of Navestock, Essex, from 1850 to 1866. In 1859 he married Catherine, daughter of John Dollar, of Navestock, and they had several children. He was librarian at Lambeth Palace, and in 1862 was an unsuccessful candidate for the Chichele professorship of modern history at Oxford. In 1866 he was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, and held the chair until 1884. His lectures were thinly attended, and he found them a distraction from his historical work. Some of his statutory lectures are published in his "Lectures on Mediaeval and Modern History". He was rector of Cholderton, Wiltshire, from 1875 to 1879, when he was appointed a canon of St Paul's Cathedral. He served on the ecclesiastical courts commission of 1881-1883, and wrote the weighty appendices to the report. On 25 April 1884 he was consecrated Bishop of Chester, and in 1889 became Bishop of Oxford.

Until Bishop Stubbs found it necessary to devote all his time to his episcopal duties, he concentrated on historical study. He argued that the theory of the unity and continuity of history should not remove distinctions between ancient and modern history. He believed that, though work on ancient history is a useful preparation for the study of modern history, either may advantageously be studied apart. He also believed that the effects of individual character and human nature will render generalizations vague and useless. While pointing out that history is useful as a mental discipline and a part of a liberal education, he recommended its study chiefly for its own sake. It was in this spirit that he worked; he had the faculty of judgment and a genius for minute and critical investigation. He was equally eminent in ecclesiastical history, as an editor of texts and as the historian of the British constitution.

His right to be held as an authority on ecclesiastical history was proved in 1858 by his "Registrum sacrum anglicanum", which sets forth episcopal succession in England, by many other later works, and particularly by his share in "Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents", edited in co-operation with the Rev. A. W. Haddan, for the third volume of which he was especially responsible. His place as a master in critical scholarship and historical exposition is decided beyond debate by the nineteen volumes which he edited for the Rolls series of "Chronicles and Memorials". It is, however, by his "Constitutional History of England" that he is most widely known as a historian. The appearance of this book, which traces the development of the English constitution from the Teutonic invasions of Britain till 1485, marks a distinct step in the advance of English historical learning. Specialists may here and there improve on a statement or a theory, but it will always remain a great authority, a monument of patient and exhaustive research of intellectual power, and of ripe and disciplined judgment. Its companion volume of "Select Charters and Other Illustrations of English Constitutional History", admirable in itself, has a special importance in that its plan has been imitated with good results both in England and the United States.

Bishop Stubbs belongs to the front rank of historical scholars both as an author and a critic. He stands out as a master of every department of the historian's work, from the discovery of materials to the elaboration of well founded theories and literary production. He was a good palaeographer, and excelled in textual criticism, in examination of authorship, and other such matters, while his vast erudition and retentive memory made him second to none in interpretation and exposition. His merits as an author are often judged solely by his "Constitutional History". The learning and insight which this book displays are unquestionable: it is well planned and its contents are well arranged; but constitutional history is not a lively subject, and, in spite of the skill with which Stubbs handled it and the genius displayed in his narrative chapters, the book does not afford an adequate idea of his place as a writer of history. Several of the prefaces to volumes which he edited for the Rolls series contain monographs on parts, or the whole, of the author's work. In these his style is more lively.

Among the most notable examples of his work for the Rolls series are the prefaces to Roger of Hoveden, the "Gesta regum" of William of Malmesbury, the "Gesta Henrici II", and the Memorials of St. Dunstan. Both in England and America Bishop Stubbs was universally acknowledged as the head of all English historical scholars, and no English historian of his time was held in equal honour in European countries. Among his many distinctions he was D.D. and hon. D.C.L. of Oxford, LL.D. of Cambridge and Edinburgh, Doctor "in utroque jure" of Heidelberg; an hon. member of the university of Kiev, and of the Prussian, Bavarian and Danish academies; he received the Prussian order "Pour le Mérite", and was corresponding member of the "Académie des sciences morales et politiques" of the French Institute.

Stubbs was a High Churchman whose doctrines and practice were grounded on learning and a veneration for antiquity. His opinions were received with marked respect by his brother prelates, and he acted as an assessor to the archbishop in the trial of Edward King, Bishop of Lincoln. Although he was disliked many of his episcopal duties, he fulfilled them, and threw his heart into the performance of those of a specially spiritual nature, such as his addresses at confirmations and to those on whom he conferred orders. As a ruler of the Church he showed wisdom and courage, and disregarded any effort to influence his policy by clamour. His wit was often used as a weapon of defence, and he did not suffer fools gladly.

An attack of illness in November 1900 seriously impaired his health. He was able, however, to attend the funeral of Queen Victoria on 2 February 1901, and preached a remarkable sermon before the king and the German emperor on the following day. His illness became critical on 20 April. Bishop Stubbs was buried in the churchyard of All Saints, Cuddesdon, next to the palace of the bishops of Oxford.

In the main his ideas of a confrontational political framework have been superseded by K.B. McFarlane's 'community of interest' theory; the idea that the amount of possible conflict between a king and his nobles was actually very small (case in point, Henry IV, 1399-1413). Historians like Richard Partington, Rosemary Horrox and notably May McKisack, have pushed this view further.


*"Letters of William Stubbs, Bishop of Oxford", ed. W. H. Hutton.
* The Constitutional History of England in Its Origin and Development, (sixth edition 1903), [http://socserv2.mcmaster.ca/~econ/ugcm/3ll3/stubbs/ConstitutionalHistoryv01.pdf Volume One] [http://socserv2.mcmaster.ca/~econ/ugcm/3ll3/stubbs/ConstitutionalHistoryv02.pdf Volume Two] [http://socserv2.mcmaster.ca/~econ/ugcm/3ll3/stubbs/ConstitutionalHistoryv03.pdf Volume Three]
* Charles Petit-Dutaillis, "Studies and Notes Supplementary to Stubbs' Constitutional History", [http://socserv2.mcmaster.ca/~econ/ugcm/3ll3/stubbs/studies01.pdf Volume One] [http://socserv2.mcmaster.ca/~econ/ugcm/3ll3/stubbs/studies02.pdf Volume Two]

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