collage of Queen Victoria, Alfred the Great, and actors from Selma and the Darkest Hour

A “History of History” – Charles Plummer and the 1901 Oxford Ford Lecture

Around this point in their second year, university students start to think broadly about their work, assess their options and comb over one and a half years of material in attempts to discern a thesis topic. When I started my research, which is certainly imperfect and far from being complete, I did not expect that my search for a title would lead me to consider not only the history of my own university and its development, but the history of my degree and the wider understandings of my subject. My ‘Political and Social Thought in the Age of Enlightenment’ tutor’s reminder that the Carlyle Lectures are taking place in Oxford this term brought my attention to the reality that as we burrow into archives, textbooks and libraries, focusing on disparate topics and bygone time periods, professional historians, many of whom will be familiar to us from tutorials and lectures, are continuing to shape the discipline of History. Given that it is their decisions – what approach to take, which bodies of sources to focus on, what wider themes and motifs of historiography to bring to attention – which will frame our studies for decades, perhaps even centuries, to come, this article will focus on one historian’s outlook on the discipline to illustrate how academic interpretations are in a constant dialogue with wider trends and mentalities.

Charles Plummer (1851-1927) was a medieval and legal historian, and a fellow and chaplain at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Whilst the title of his 1901 Ford Lecture at Oxford, “The Life and Times of Alfred the Great,” might seem a touch antiquarian upon first notice, it comprised a striking commentary on the public’s commemoration and usage of history, whether or not he intended for it to be so relevant (the former seems unlikely). Whilst the contexts of imperialism, the death of Queen Victoria and the Boer War seem to place Plummer’s thinking in a milieu which is far removed from contemporary concerns, his account still prompts a stimulating discussion of historical study.

Statue of Alfred the Great, Winchester.

The first point of interest arising from this lecture is that, as is the case with so many historical inquiries, Plummer’s discussion of the Anglo-Saxon era was heavily inspired by contemporary events which rendered it a commentary on his society. He saw his subject as becoming increasingly popular in the contemporary public context, citing a “boom in things Alfredian lately; and the literary speculator has rushed in to make his profit.” Over a century later, little has changed and historical episodes continue to be interpreted in light of contemporary debates and discussions. Like in the case of Alfredian commemoration of the 1890s-1900s, this trend is illustrated by popular culture. Many film commentators refer to productions about the Holocaust and the Second World War as ‘Oscar bait’ and even though this is a crude phrase, productions including Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and The Pianist have been some of the most commercially and critically acclaimed films of the past three decades. Both British and American commentators saw Darkest Hour and Dunkirk as a reflection of Britain’s reinforcement of national identity following the Brexit referendum.

High-grossing films including Green Book and Selma, both set during high points of the Civil Rights movement for African Americans, have been produced in a critical historical moment during which the US faces its contentious and controversial history of race relations in the BLM movement of 2020. But notably, this does not quite compare with the context which Plummer faced.

“The fact that these celebrations occurred in an era when Alfred’s military victories and other achievements did not seem instantly relevant to public life suggests a harkening-back to a golden age of imperialism which never existed.”

Paul Readman’s “The Place of the Past in English Culture c. 1890-1914” might be one of the most captivating discussions of late-19th century British cultural history I’ve read. It charts how in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, British public history grew and developed and thus became something like a civic religion in an increasingly secular society. This is demonstrated by the number of history and biography titles published each year, which nearly quadrupled from 1,600 in 1870-4 to 4,800 four decades later. An entire industry framed around historical commemoration emerged, with prominent playwright Louis Napoleon Parker and teams of academics and actors organising pageants in Bury St Edmunds, Warwick, London and many other historical cities. Perhaps most notable of all were the commemorations of the thousand-year anniversary of the death of King Alfred the Great, which drew Plummer’s attention especially. Almost five years of planning went into this commemorative event and across three days in September 1901, Winchester was transformed with performances, re-enactments and festivities. The fact that these celebrations occurred in an era when Alfred’s military victories and other achievements did not seem instantly relevant to public life suggests a harkening-back to a golden age of imperialism which never existed, a classic formula for reawakening nationalist mindsets in Britain. Such ironies were not lost on shrewder observers; the newspaper editor W.T. Stead criticised “a present turbid tide of frothy imperialism” (‘Review of Reviews,’ 1st October 1901). But these commemorations were popular on a scale which nothing in the 20th-21st Century, barring those of Remembrance Sunday, has matched. Around 25,000 people across the United Kingdom were estimated to have turned out for the Alfredian commemorations. Around the same time, celebrations marking victory in the Spanish Armada (1588; the tercentenary was 1888) and Trafalgar (1805; the centenary was 1905) also commanded the nation’s attention. These large-scale cultural events reflected the capacity of historical commemoration and the promotion of a reductive, national history to transcend class, wealth and political differences and create something resembling a national mythology.

Queen Victoria

One more observation stands out from Plummer’s lecture. He took an elegiac tone on the death of Queen Victoria, which had taken place only recently in January 1901. He quoted a passage from the Bible – “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers” (Romans 13:1) – and celebrated the fact that the “story of English royalty reaches back some fourteen hundred years.” What I find striking is how in an era of mass political and social change, even a wealthy intellectual like Plummer, who was perhaps separated from the struggles and turbulence faced by the majority of Britons, looked for legitimacy and stability in historical institutions. Charles Plummer’s academic focus might have been on the 9th Century, but he was aware of how episodes from history continued to move the public and define national conversations. Many would expect the 1901 Ford lecture, given by an individual who seemed to embody every tenet of Whiggish Victorian optimism, to retreat into the past. But instead, Plummer was receptive to national culture’s historical implications and connections, and his acknowledgement in this context of the death of Queen Victoria indicates his underlying loyalty to a system he had spent his career analysing.

Over a century later, films and memories of the Second World War might have replaced pageants and meditations on Alfred the Great but it shows that even at the University of Oxford, an institution which has tried to rise above popular currents at times, the appeals of nostalgia and patriotism are never far away.