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William Stubbs

The Rt Revd
William Stubbs
Bishop of Oxford
Portrait by Hubert von Herkomer, 1885
Diocese Diocese of Oxford
Predecessor John Mackarness
Successor Francis Paget
Other posts

Regius Professor of Modern History

Consecration 25 April 1884
Personal details
Born (1825-06-21)21 June 1825
High Street, Knaresborough, England
Died 22 April 1901(1901-04-22) (aged 75)
Cuddesdon, Oxfordshire
Nationality British
Denomination Anglican
Spouse Catherine Dollar
Education Ripon Grammar School
Alma mater Christ Church, Oxford

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


  • Early life 1
  • Education and career to 1889 2
  • Honours and degrees 3
  • Approach to church office 4
  • Final illness and death 5
  • Reception of his historical work 6
    • Registrum Sacrum, Constitutional History, and Select Charters 6.1
    • His merits as a historian 6.2
  • Modern views of him 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10
  • Sources 11

Early life

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

Education and career to 1889

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 Dellar, 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. In 1872, he founded Oxford University's School of Modern History, allowing postclassical history to be taught as a distinct subject for the first time. 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. He was a Member of the Chetham Society, and served as Vice-President from 1884.[1]

Honours and degrees

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 honorary 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.[2]

Approach to church office

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 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.

Final illness and death

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[3] 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.

Reception of his historical work

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.

Registrum Sacrum, Constitutional History, and Select Charters

In 1858 he published his Registrum sacrum anglicanum, which sets forth episcopal succession in England, which was followed 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. He edited nineteen volumes for the Rolls series of Chronicles and Memorials.

It is, however, by his Constitutional History of England (3 vols., 1874–78) that he is most widely known as a historian. It became at once the standard authority on its subject.[4] 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. It was followed by its companion volume of Select Charters and Other Illustrations of English Constitutional History.

His merits as a historian

By his contemporaries and after his death Stubbs was considered to have been in the front rank of historical scholars both as an author and a critic, and 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.[5] 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.

However, his work is not entirely unquestionable. Some modern historians have questioned his acceptance of some medieval chronicles, written by monastical scribes whose views would be, to some extent, influenced by the politics of the Catholic Church. One such criticism was Stubbs' tirade against William Rufus whose character was much-maligned by the chroniclers perhaps due to his opposition to Gregorian reforms during his reign, which led to Archbishop Anselm going into exile.

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.

Modern views of him

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.

J. W. Burrow proposed that Stubbs, like John Richard Green and Edward Augustus Freeman, was an historical scholar with little or no experience of public affairs, with views of the present which were romantically historicised and who was drawn to history by what was in a broad sense an antiquarian passion for the past, as well as a patriotic and populist impulse to identify the nation and its institutions as the collective subject of English history, making

...the new historiography of early medieval times an extension, filling out and democratising, of older Whig notions of continuity. It was Stubbs who presented this most substantially; Green who made it popular and dramatic... It is in Freeman...of the three the most purely a narrative historian, that the strains are most apparent.[6]

See also


  1. ^ "Chetham Society: Officers and Council" (PDF). Chetham Society. 2014-01-13. Retrieved 2014-01-13. 
  2. ^ "DEATH OF THE BISHOP OF OXFORD". Tamworth Herald ( 
  3. ^ William Stubbs, Bishop of Oxford, 1825-1901 by William Holden Hutton, p233
  4. ^ s:A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature/Stubbs, William
  5. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.).
  6. ^ A Liberal Descent: Victorian Historians and the English Past by J.W. Burrow, Cambridge University Press, 1981. ISBN 0 521 24079 4

External links


  • Letters of William Stubbs, Bishop of Oxford, ed. W. H. Hutton.
  • Seventeen Lectures on Mediaeval and Modern History
  • The Constitutional History of England in Its Origin and Development, (sixth edition 1903),
    • Volume One
    • Volume Two
    • Volume Three
  • Charles Petit-Dutaillis, Studies and Notes Supplementary to Stubbs' Constitutional History,
    • Volume One
    • Volume Two
  • Select Charters and Other Illustrations of English Constitutional History
Academic offices
Preceded by
Goldwin Smith
Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford
Succeeded by
Edward Augustus Freeman
Church of England titles
Preceded by
William Jacobson
Bishop of Chester
Succeeded by
Francis Jayne
Preceded by
John Fielder Mackarness
Bishop of Oxford
Succeeded by
Francis Paget
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