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Gibbon and the 'Watchmen of the Holy City'The Historian and his Reputation, 1776-1815$

David Womersley

Print publication date: 2002

Print ISBN-13: 9780198187332

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198187332.001.0001

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Gibbon and the 'Watchmen of the Holy City'
Oxford University Press


Date of Composition*



References to ‘Memoirs’ in Letters etc.

Responses to Events in France


Late 1788 and early 1789: posthumous publication.

Early records of the family to 1761


21 Nov. 1787, to Lord Sheffield [L iii. 82]: allusion to John Gibbon the herald. I7 june 1788, to J. C. Brooke [L iii. 110]: enquiry concerning John Gibbon. 27 june 1788, to J. C. Brooke [L iii. 114]: another request to investigate his family history.

‘My own amusement is my motive, and will be my reward; and if these sheets are communicated to some discreet and indulgent friends, they will be secreted from the public eye till the author shall be removed from the reach of criticism or ridicule’ (A 353; draft ‘A’).


1788-1789: posthumous publication.

Birth of E. G. (1737) to 1764



1789: posthumous publication.

Birth to 1772


15 Dec. 1789, to Lord Sheffield [L iii. 183–4]: ‘What would you have me say of the affairs of France? We are too near and too remote to form an accurate judgment of that wonderful scene. The abuses of the court and government called aloud for reformation and it has happened as it will always happen, that an innocent well-disposed prince pays the forfeit of the sins of his predecessors … The French nation had a glorious opportunity, but they have abused and may lose their advantages. If they had been content with a liberal translation of our system, if they had respected the prerogatives of the crown and the privileges of the Nobles, they might have raised a solid fabric on the only true foundation the natural Aristocracy of a great Country. How different is the prospect!’


1790: possibly non-posthumous publication.

Birth to 1770 (death of E. G. senior)


7 Aug. 1790, to Lord Sheffield [L iii. 199]: ‘Poor France, the state is dissolved, the nation is mad. Adieu.’ 7 Nov. 1790, to Thomas Cadell [L iii. 210]: ‘I thirst for Mr Burke’s Reflections on the Revolutions of France. Intreat Elmsley, in my name, to dispatch it to Lausanne with care and speed, by any mode of conveyance less expensive than the post.’


January and February 1791: completed, 2 March 1791: nonp-osthumous publication.

Early history of the family to 1789


5 Feb. 1791, to Lord Sheffield [L iii. 216]: ‘Burke’s book is a most admirable medicine against the French disease, which has made too much progress even in this happy country [the Pays de Vaud]. I admire his eloquence, I approve his politics, I adore his chivalry, and I can even forgive his superstition. The primitive Church, which I have treated with some freedom, was itself at that time, an innovation, and I was attached to the old Pagan establishment.’ 18 May 1791, to his stepmother [L iii. 227]: ‘In the moving picture of this World, you cannot be indifferent to the strange Revolution which has humbled all that was high and exalted all that was low in France. The irregular and lively spirit of the Nation has disgraced their liberty, and instead of building a free constitution they have only exchanged Despotism for Anarchy… Burke, if I remember right is no favourite of yours, but there is surely much eloquence and much sense in his book. The prosperity of England forms a proud contrast with the disorders of France …’


1792–3: posthumous publication.

Early records to 1753


28 Dec. 1791, to Lord Sheffield [L iii. 240]: ‘I have much revolved the plan of the Memoirs I once mentioned, and as you do not think it ridiculous I believe I shall make the attempt: if I can please myself I am confident of not displeasing: but let this be a profound secret between us: people must not be prepared to laugh: they must be taken by surprise.’

24 Feb. 1792, to John Nichols (of Gentleman’s Magazine) [L iii. 246]: enquiry about family history.

30 May 1792, to Lord Sheffield [L iii. 264]: ‘the work appears far more difficult in the execution than in the idea, and as I am now taking my leave for some time of the library, I shall not make much progress in the Memoirs of P P. till I am on English ground.’ 6 Jan. 1793, to Lord Sheffield [L iii. 312]: ‘And now approach, and let me drop into your most private ear a literary secret. Of the Memoirs little has been done, and with that little I am not satisf0ied: they must be postponed till a mature season, and I much doubt whether the book and the author can ever see the light at the same time.’ 23 Jan. 1793, Lord Sheffield in reply to Gibbon’s of 6 Jan. 1793 [Prothero, ii. 366]: ‘I shall never consent to your dropping the Memoirs. Keep that work always going: but you should decide whether the book and the author are to see the light together, because it might be differently filled up according to that decision. A man may state many things in a posthumous work, that he might not in another; the latter often checks the introduction of many curious thoughts and facts.’

16 Jan. 1793, 4 Apr. 1793 and ? July 1793, to John Nichols [L iii. 314-15, 323–4 and 344–5]: matters relating to family history.

7 Aug. 1793, to Samuel Egerton Brydges [L iii. 344–5]: enquiries about the early history of the Gibbon family in Kent.

‘This passage [the passage concerning posthumous publication from draft ‘A’ above] is found in one only of the six sketches, and in that which seems to have been the first written, and which was laid aside among loose papers. Mr. Gibbon, in his communications with me on the subject of his Memoirs, a subject which he had never mentioned to any other person, expressed a determination of publishing them in his lifetime; and never appears to have departed from that resolution, excepting in one of his letters annexed [that of 6 Jan. 1793 (L iii. 312)], in which he intimates a doubt, though rather carelessly, whether in his time, or at any time, they would meet the eye of the public. — In a conversation, however, not long before his death, it was suggested to him, that, if he should make them a full image of his mind, he would not have nerves to publish them in his lifetime, and therefore that they should be posthumous; — He answered, rather eagerly, that he was determined to publish them in his lifetime’ (note by Sheffield to Memoirs; Edward Gibbon, Miscellaneous Works [1796], i, 1).

10 Nov. 1792, to Lady Sheffield [L iii. 299]: speculates as to ‘a new system of life in my native Country, for which my income though improved and improving would be probably insufficient.’

1 Jan. 1793, to Lord Sheffield [L iii. 307]: ‘My own choice has indeed transported me into a foreign land, but I am truly attached from interest and inclination to my natvie country: and even as a Citizen of the World, I wish the stability of England, the sole great refuge of mankind against the opposite mischiefs of despotism and democracy.’

(*) The drafts were first dated by William Alexander Greenhill in 1871–2.G. A. BonnardThe dating adopted here follows G. A. Bonnard’s revision of Greenhill’s findings (G. A. Bonnard (ed.), Edward Gibbon: Memoirs of My Life (1966), pp. viii—xix).

() These are the number of pages occupied in John Murray (ed.), John Murray The Autobiographies of Edward Gibbon (1896).

(p.373) (p.374) (p.375) (p.376) (p.377)