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Cicely Veronica Wedgwood

Cicely Veronica Wedgwood

The British writer Cicely Veronica Wedgwood (1910-1997) was a narrative historian of the 17th century. She depended on primary documents to make sense of history.

One of Britain's most celebrated historians, Cicely Veronica Wedgwood was born on July 20, 1910, in Stocksfield, Northumberland, England. She was the descendant of the great 18th-century Staffordshire potter Josiah Wedgwood, about whom she wrote a biography. Her father, Sir Ralph Wedgwood, was chairman of British Railways during World War II. Her mother, Iris Pawson, was the author of several books of history and topography.

Her mother's father, a formidable patriarch, doted on his favorite granddaughter. He was well-travelled and well-read and had a great influence on her. At age 12 she was encouraged by her father to write history because he thought she was writing too much poetry and fiction. She wrote history from then on.

Early Works

In 1927-1928 Wedgwood studied at Bonn University and learned German. She then studied at Oxford University, where her history tutor was the famed A. L. Rowse. She graduated with honors in history in 1931 and published her first book with the support of Rowse and historian G. M. Trevelyan, a family friend. This was Strafford, 1593-1641 (1935), the story of the brilliant, tragic adviser to King Charles I.

Her second book is a study of "that squalid struggle, " as Wedgwood called it, The Thirty Years War (1938). She relied on primary sources in the relevant languages and on seeing for herself the locales she was to describe in her history. Written with clarity, detachment, and freshness, it was the first good book on the subject, written when she was 28.

William the Silent (1944), a book about William I, prince of Orange, the Dutch statesman and the father of Dutch independence, has been criticized for being unfair to Philip II of Spain, but the book points out that William was a happy man until his country's sufferings made him "Silent." It has been translated into six languages and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

The Civil War Study

In The Great Rebellion in two volumes (The King's Peace, 1637-1641 [1955] and The King's War, 1641-1647 [1958]), Wedgwood concentrated not on the "underlying causes" of the English civil war, but on the "admitted motives and illusions of men of the seventeenth century." Wedgwood sought "to restore their immediacy of experience."

A great narrative stylist, Wedgwood was criticized by some historians whose writing was more analytical or interpretive. Wedgwood shunned interpretation and let the narrative speak for itself. She was interested in how things happened, rather than why they happened. "I have tried to describe the variety, vitality and imperfections as well as the religion and government of the British Isles in the seventeenth century, deliberately avoiding analysis, and seeking rather to give an impression of its vigorous and vivid confusion, " she wrote in The King's Peace. Later she explained in Contemporary Authors (Vol. 21), "I am by nature an optimist. I continue stubbornly to believe that if an intelligent reader is given all the facts (or should I say all the available facts), he should be able to work out his own conclusions about the underlying causes … I have a very deep suspicion of the modern habit of analyzing causes without a close attention to facts."

Wedgwood was at ease with the primary documents of her trade for the 17th century. "I enjoy the unexacting company of the dead, " she once said of her addiction for churchyards.

Wedgwood went on from The Great Rebellion, the British civil war, to give the conclusion of the story in A Coffin for King Charles: The Trial and Execution of Charles I (1964). The book is the "finest account of the trial that has ever been written, " according to the historian J.H. Plumb. She also wrote about Oliver Cromwell, the other leading political figure of the 17th century, in Oliver Cromwell (1939, rev. ed. 1973) and Oliver Cromwell and the Elizabethan Inheritance (1970).

Wide Interests

Her studies of poetry and literature are also impressive. She published Seventeenth Century English Literature (1950, rev. ed. 1977), Poetry and Politics Under The Stuarts (1960), The World of Rubens (1967), Milton and His World (1969), and The Political Career of Peter Paul Rubens (1975). She also edited poetry: New Poems, 1965: A P.E.N. Anthology of Contemporary Poetry (1966). Wedgwood also was successful as a German translator. Several universities in America and the British Isles gave her honorary degrees.

Wedgwood lived off her books, lectures, talks for the British Broadcasting Corporation, reviews, and fellowships. She was literary editor of Time and Tide, a London journal (1944-1950), and a member of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton University (1953-1968). She was a trustee of the National Gallery in London (1960-1976) and a member of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts (1952-1978), the Arts Council Literature Panel (1956-1967), and the Advisory Council of the Victoria and Albert Museum (1959-1969). Wedgwood was president of the English Association (1955-1956) and of the Society of Authors (1972-1977). She was a fellow of the British Academy, the Royal Historical Society, and the Royal Society of Literature of the United Kingdom. In 1968 she was named a "dame" of the British Empire, and in 1969 she became one of the 24 members of the Order of Merit.

Her writings include her essays, which are interesting for autobiographical reasons: Velvet Studies: Essays on Historical and Other Subjects (1946) and Truth and Opinion: Historical Essays (1960). She spent her later years working mainly on a volume of world history, The Spoils of Time: A World History from the Dawn of Civilization through the Early Renaissance (1985).

Unlike many academic histories, Wedgwood's books were highly readable and sold in great numbers. "She had a novelist's talent for entering into the character of the giants of history, " noted an obituary in The Economist. Wedgwood, who died in 1997, respected the power of historians' view of truth and believed that "historians should always draw morals, " so that villains could not use their work to deceive the public. She was also willing to change her assessment of historical figures when new information was unearthed. "The stuff of history is by no means coherent, " she wrote. "No agreed consensus has yet emerged, nor ever will."

Further Reading

C. V. Wedgwood's Velvet Studies: Essays on Historical and Other Subjects (London, 1946) contains autobiographical material. A thorough source is Richard Ollard and Pamela Tudor-Craig, eds., For Veronica Wedgwood These: Studies in Seventeenth-Century History (1986). Other sources of information on her include John Kenyon, History Men (1983); Time and Tide (January 8, 1955); New York Review of Books (September 10, 1964); New York Times Book Review (September 29, 1964); History and Theory I (1961); and New Yorker (December 15, 1962). □

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