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The worthy Doctor Fuller: M.J. Cohen celebrates the life of Thomas Fuller, a pioneer historian and contemporary of Milton, with whom he shares a 400th anniversary.


'History, maketh a young man to be old, without either wrinkles or grey hairs; privileging him with the experience of age, without either the infirmities or inconveniences thereof. Yea, it not only maketh things past, present; but enableth one to make a rational conjecture of things to come. For this world affordeth no new accidents ... Old actions return again, furbished over with some new and different circumstances.'

(Thomas Fuller in the Epistle Dedicatory to his The History of the Hob/War, March 6th, 1639).

Thomas Fuller was born in June 1608 in Aldwincle, Northamptonshire, the son of its rector. In June 1621, at the age of thirteen, he went up to Queens' College, Cambridge, where the College president was his mother's brother John Davenant, Professor of Divinity. Davenant resigned from Queens' soon after, when elected Bishop of Salisbury (where he succeeded Fuller's uncle by marriage, Robert Townson) but would remain important to his nephew's career for the next twenty years. When he was twenty-one, Fuller moved to Sidney Sussex (from which Oliver Cromwell had matriculated in 1616) to study theology just as John Milton, also born in 1608, graduated from Christ's College, up the road. On different sides in the Civil War, the two disagreed in print between 1641 and 1643. By the time Fuller was ordained in 1631 he had already been appointed vicar of St Benet in Cambridge. That year he published a narrative poem, the first of many works in a richly productive writing career that encompassed history, biography, books of 'characters', sermons, meditations and biblical commentary.

As he made plain in his actions and writings during the 'troublesome times' through which he lived, Fuller was always seeking a peaceful 'accommodation'. This was partly out of self-interest, for, as a royalist, his position was vulnerable and his livings ever precarious. The Faithful Minister in Fuller's The Holy State (1642) is characterized as 'moderate in his tenets and opinions. Not that he gilds over lukewarmness in matters of moment with the title of "discretion"; but, withal, he is careful not to entitle violence, in indifferent and inconcerning matters, to be zeal.' John Milton in his pamphlet Of Reformation of that year had no doubts whom the Parliamentary party blamed for the advent of civil war:
   The emulation that under the old
   Law was in the King toward the
   Priest, is now so come about in the
   Gospel, that all the danger is to be
   feared from the Priest to the King.
   Whilst the Priest's office in the
   Law was set out with an exterior
   lustre of Pomp and glory, Kings
   were ambitious to be Priests; now
   Priests not perceiving the heavenly
   brightness, and inward splendour
   of their more glorious Evangelical
   Ministry with as great ambition
   affect to be Kings.


That same year Fuller left his parish in Broadwindsor (in the gift of his uncle Davenant), 'none of the worst of livings and one of the best prebends [in Salisbury] in England' to freelance as a 'lecturer' in various London churches. A minister would be retained to give a number of sermons, at 6s 8d apiece. The dying Episcopacy 'at its last gasp' as he put it, was abolished in 1642. London clergy were carefully vetted by Parliament. Fuller, described by his anonymous biographer of 1661 as 'being cried up for one of the most excellent preachers of the age', was nevertheless fortunate to be appointed by the parishioners to the Savoy Chapel, off the Strand, where the congregation was largely royalist, through its proximity to the Court and nobles' houses. But in 1643 as a known (though never uncompromising) royalist he was forced to escape from London to join the royal court in exile in Oxford, leaving behind, to his eternal regret, the library so crucial to his writing.

He was soon engulfed in the war as chaplain to Sir Ralph Hopton's royalist army. By the next year he was in Exeter appointed chaplain to the newborn Princess Henrietta. Remaining faithful to the royalist cause, his became the itinerant life of a preacher and writer: in London with his publisher, and supported by a succession of patrons, in Northamptonshire (where Edward Lord Montague had a useful library) and Chelsea. Livings in the gift of the nobles had not disappeared, and in 1648 the Earl of Carlisle made him 'perpetual curate' at Waltham Abbey in Essex.

It was the need to support his family that made Fuller such a prolific author. His many published sermons and titles such as Good Thoughts in Bad Times, published in 1645, reflect reaction to the course of the Civil War, Interregnum and Restoration. Its sequel Good Thoughts in Worse Times came two years later. By then he was pessimistic and saw 'iron obstructions [to a peaceful resolution] as come not within human power and policy to take away'. In 1649 these titles were republished in one volume and went through seven editions by the end of the century. In 1660, in the month of the Restoration, came Mixt Contemplations in Better Times. Collections of short prayers, meditations and anecdotes, they were designed to guide and comfort Christians of every persuasion.


The book for which Fuller is best known, however, for which he collected material over many years, is The Worthies of England, published by his son a year after his death in 1662. In the tradition of the great antiquary William Camden, author of Britannia (1586) and John Speed, cartographer and author of History of Great Britaine (1611), Fuller outlines his aim in chapter 1:
   England may not unfitly be
   compared to a house, not very
   great, but convenient; and the
   several Shires may properly be
   resembled to the rooms thereof.
   Now, as learned Master Camden
   and painful Master Speed, with
   others, have described the rooms
   themselves, so it is our intention,
   God willing, to describe the
   furniture of these rooms; such
   eminent commodities which every
   county doth produce, with the
   persons of quality bred therein, and
   some other observables coincident
   with the same subject.

Fuller's memory and erudition were legendary, as John Aubrey testified in his Brief Lives, while in a diary entry for January 1661 Samuel Pepys recorded:
   I met with Dr Tho. Fuller and took
   him to the Dog, where he tells me
   of his last and great book that is
   coming out: that is, his history of all
   the families of England--and could
   tell me more of my own than I
   knew myself. And also to what
   perfection he hath now brought the
   art of memory; that he did lately to
   four eminently great scholars
   dictate together in Latin upon
   different Subjects of their
   proposing, faster than they were
   able to write, till they were tired.

Fuller's earliest major work, The History of the Holy War, published in 1639, showed him to be a pioneering historian. This was the first history of the Crusades in English and became a bestseller that enjoyed a further five editions in Fuller's lifetime.

A lively narrative history, The Holy War was firmly based on the medieval Latin chroniclers. Fuller was not a mere assembler of facts; he also interpreted them and made his own views plain. He first weighs the arguments for and against the first Crusade and is then strongly critical of the papacy's role in the Crusades:
   It is enough with some to make it
   suspicious that there were some
   sinister ends in this war, because
   Gregory the Seventh, otherwise
   called Hildebrand (and by Luther
   larva diaboli), the worst of all that
   sat in that chair, first began it ... As
   the pope, so most of the clergy
   improved their estates by this war.
   (Bk 1 Ch.XI)

He is totally dismissive of Islam:
   It may justly seem admirable [i.e.
   surprising] how that senseless
   religion should gain so much
   ground on Christianity; especially
   having neither real substance in
   her doctrine, nor winning
   behaviour in her ceremonies to
   allure professors. For what is it but
   the scum of Judaism and Paganism
   sewed together, and here and there
   strewed with a spice of
   Christianity.. (Bk 1 Ch.VI)

Yet Fuller recognized the greatness of the Islamic leader, Saladin, who 'wanted nothing to his eternal happiness, but the knowledge of Christ'. On the other hand, among his villains he included St Dominic, claiming that when his mother was bearing him she dreamed 'that she had a dog vomiting fire in her womb'. Her dream was all too prophetic, for her son, whom Fuller called an 'ignivomous cur', subsequently sired 'a litter of mendicant friars called Dominicans' who 'did bark at and deeply bite the poor Albigensians'. (Dominic had preached against the 'heretical' Cathars or Albigensians of the Languedoc, who became the subject of the Albigensian Crusade (1208-29) launched by the nobles of northern France at the exhortation of Pope Innocent III.) Two centuries after its publication, Charles Lamb highly rated The Holy War, commenting in The Reflector in 1811 that The History's 'eager liveliness and the perpetual running commentary of the narrator, happily blended with the narration, is perhaps unequalled'. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's admiration for Fuller equalled, if not exceeded, Lamb's. Writing at the end of his copy of The Church History, Coleridge declared:
   Next to Shakespeare, I am not
   certain whether Thomas Fuller,
   beyond all other writers, does not
   excite in me the sense and emotion
   of the marvellous ... Fuller was
   incomparably the most sensible, the
   least prejudiced great
   man of an age that
   boasted a galaxy of
   great men.


Fuller had no doubts about the value of history. In his preface to the Ephemeris Parliamentaria; or A Faithful Register of the Transactions in Parliament in the third and fourth years of the reign of our late Sovereign Lord King Charles, published in 1654 (only five years after the king's execution), he describes its study as:
   One of the most lawful ways
   whereby man in some
   sort may be said to
   revenge himself on
   the shortness of his
   life, and extend the
   measure thereof to
   a larger proportion
   than nature allows
   him ... For History
   is the Remembrance
   of the time
   past, it is the monument
   general erected
   over actions long
   since dead and
   interred, acquainting
   such as read the Epitaph
   thereon with the most
   remarkable passages of
   the ages past.

He champions contemporary history, too. The Ephemeris is a documentary, history consisting entirely of speeches made in Parliament between March 1627 and March 1628. These Fuller transcribed and, where possible, checked over with the speakers. He believed that these early years of Charles I's reign were the key to understanding much of what happened later--'the beginnings of all our miseries'--and this record of parliamentary debates has certainly proved to be of great benefit to subsequent historians.

There is no commentary in the Ephemeris, for Fuller decided that he 'has no commission to be an author' only to be 'a true-tell-time (and no more) to marshal the speeches in due order'.

His regard for the subject led Fuller to stress the importance of making due allowance for bias when studying historical sources. In his preface he warns:
   Some works resent too
   much of their Author,
   frequently infusing his
   own judgement and
   affections clean
   through the contexture
   of his writings, to the
   real prejudice of the truth and
   misguiding of his Reader.

This was a particular danger, indeed an 'Epidemical disease', when it came to 'the Authors of this age', for they were all 'engaged in parties' to such an extent 'that their writings will rather appear pleadings than reports'. Dependence upon writers who were 'crook-sided, warped and bowed to the right or to the left,' meant that it would be hard 'to find a straight, upright, and unbiased historian'.

Although the prevalence of bias made it difficult to deal with the history of recent times, Fuller was convinced that such a study was essential:
   Now of all English History, the
   greatest shame is to be ignorant in
   the Accidents of our own Age of
   nearest concern to ourselves. A
   man is most (as I may say) morally
   edified by reading such men and
   matters as are his own

In so doing he was less likely 'to be deceived by partiality of reports', because, instead of 'taking up so much upon trust', he could base his conclusions on 'his own eyes and ears [as] witnesses of all transactions.'

Fuller had not abandoned narrative history, as he demonstrated in 1655-56 by publishing, in eleven books, The Church History of Britain from the Birth of Jesus Christ, Until the Year M.DCXLVIII. He appended The History of the University of Cambridge, since the Conquest and (literally parochial) The History of Waltham Abbey in Essex. At the time the Church History appeared, the Church itself, still reeling under the impact of the Puritan Revolution, was at a low ebb. Fuller provided a Protestant history, with the Reformation at its watershed. Indeed, Fuller prefaces his work by telling the reader with his customary directness that:
   ... an ingenious gentleman some
   months since in jest-earnest,
   advised me to make haste with my
   History of the Church of England,
   for fear (said he) lest the Church of
   England be ended before the
   History thereof.


However, he was glad to report that the Church he loved was 'still (and long may it be) in being, though disturbed, distempered, distracted.' He prayed to God to 'help and heal her most sad condition.'

Fuller brought his history of the Anglican Church up to the death of Charles I, only six years before, with a moving description of the king's last days. He analysed the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods and the sources of the violent divisions he had witnessed. He believed that the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud (1573-45), had led the Church and his king into:
   ... many controversies betwixt us
   and the church of Rome, so to
   compromise the difference, and to
   bring us to a vicinity, if not
   contiguity therewith; an impossible
   design (if granted lawful) as some,
   every way his equals, did adjudge.


Here Fuller as ever is distancing himself (and his late 'Lord and Master' King Charles) from the Church of Rome. He took issue, among much else, with its luxury and its obfuscation through the use of Latin.

The earlier chapters of the Church History demonstrate Fuller's skills as a historian. He used a number of Latin sources dating from the early days of Christianity, but weighed their accuracy and did his best to distinguish truth from mere expression of opinion. He was highly sceptical of some of the hagiographies. Of the much revered Augustine of Canterbury he wrote:
   He brought in a religion spun of a
   coarser thread though guarded with
   a finer trimming, made luscious to
   the senses with pleasing ceremonies;
   so that many, who could not judge of
   the goodness, were courted by the
   gaudiness thereof.

Fuller treated accounts of the English Reformation by Catholic historians with the same scepticism and, as a consequence, to counter the Catholic view, produced one of the first Protestant histories of the Church in Britain.

The Church History led to a major controversy between Fuller and Laud's disciple and admirer, Peter Heylyn (1599-1662), who claimed that the work was full of errors and showed a bias towards nonconformists and against bishops. Fuller responded to Heylyn's attack with The Appeal of Injured Innocence, published in 1659. Their quarrel, however, ended in friendship.

The Restoration saw Fuller reinstated at the Savoy Chapel, London, and given back his prebend at Salisbury Cathedral. In addition, he was appointed 'chaplain extraordinary' to Charles II. After the upheaval of the Civil War years, Fuller could finally devote attention to the Worthies, which he had long been researching. In it, Fuller dealt with all the English counties separately, gathering an extraordinary amount of information about them. Bedfordshire, for instance, was distinguished by its larks, of which 'the most and best ... are caught and well dressed about Dunstable in this shire'. Other categories included manufactures, buildings, wonders, proverbs [e.g. 'As plain as Dunstable road'] princes, saints, martyrs, prelates, judges, writers, benefactors to the public and sheriffs. Each county, too, had its 'Memorable Persons', though they were not necessarily drawn from the local elites--as instanced by a Bedfordshire woman 'whose name I cannot recover':
   [She] lived, died and is buried at
   Dunstable in this county. It
   appeareth by her epitaph in the
   church, that she had nineteen
   children at five births: viz several
   times three children at a birth, and
   five at a birth two other times.
   How many of them survived to
   man's estate is unknown. Here I
   must dissent from an author maintaining
   that more twins were born
   in the first age of the world, than
   now-a-days; whereas we meet with
   none but single births in the patriarchs
   before the flood.


Fuller is, as ever, firm in stating his sources for the Worthies:
   These may be referred to three
   heads; first, Printed Books; secondly,
   Records in Public Offices;
   thirdly, manuscripts in the possession
   of private gentlemen. To
   which we may add a fourth, viz.,
   Instructions received from the
   nearest relations to those persons
   whose lives we have presented.

Fuller's boast to Pepys that his forthcoming 'history of all the families of England ... could tell me more of my own than I knew myself' may have been overblown, for when Pepys came to check in his bookshop in St Paul's Churchyard on publication, he was naturally disappointed but admits:
   ... being much troubled that he had
   some discourse with me about my
   family and arms, he says nothing at
   all, nor mentions us either in
   Cambridge or Norfolk. But I
   believe indeed our family was never

However, in the same bookshop a year later, with money to spend 'I did here sit two or three hours, calling for twenty books to lay this money upon.' After browsing Chaucer, Shakespeare and Stow's London among others, Pepys opted for Dr Fuller's Worthies.

Further Reading

Richard Barber (ed), 'Fuller's Worthies' selected from The Worthies of England (The Folio Society, 1987); William Addison, Worhty Doctor Fuller (J.M. Dent & Son, 1951).

To read other relevant articles, visit:

M.J. Cohen is co-editor, with John Major, of History in Quotations (Weidenfeld 2008).
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Author:Cohen, M.J.
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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