He was educated at Winchester and Christ Church, Oxford, where he obtained a first class in literae humaniores. He was subsequently elected to fellowships at All Souls (1884) and Merton (1892). For some years he was professor of modern history at King's College, London, and devoted his life to historical work. He is the historian of the Puritan revolution, and has written its history in a series of volumes, originally published under different titles, beginning with the accession of James I; the seventeenth (the third volume of the History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate) appeared in 1901. This was completed in two volumes by CH Firth as The Last Years of the Protectorate (1909).
The series is History of England from the Accession of James I to the Outbreak of the Civil War, 1603-1642 (10 vols.); History of the Great Civil War, 1642-1649 (5 vols.); and History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate, 1649-1660. His treatment is exhaustive and philosophical, taking in, along with political and constitutional history, the changes in religion, thought and sentiment during his period, their causes and their tendencies. Of the original authorities on which his work is founded many of great value exist only in manuscript, and his researches in public and private collections of manuscripts at home, and in the archives of Simancas[?], Venice, Rome, Brussels and Paris, were indefatigable and fruitful. His accuracy is universally acknowledged. He was perhaps drawn to the Puritan period by the fact of his descent from Cromwell and Ireton, but he has certainly written of it with no other purpose than to set forth the truth. In his judgments of men and their actions he is unbiassed, and his appreciations of character exhibit a remarkable fineness of perception and a broad sympathy. Among many proofs of these qualities it will be enough to refer to what he says of the characters of James I, Bacon, Laud, Strafford and Cromwell.
On constitutional matters he writes with an insight to be attained only by the study of political philosophy, discussing in a masterly fashion the dreams of idealists and the schemes of government proposed by statesmen. Throughout his work he gives a prominent place to everything which illustrates human progress in moral and religious, as well as political conceptions, and specially to the rise and development of the idea of religious toleration, finding his authorities not only in the words and actions of men of mark, but in the writings of more or less obscure pamphleteers, whose essays indicate currents in the tide of public opinion. His record of the relations between England and other states proves his thorough knowledge of contemporary European history, and is rendered specially valuable by his researches among manuscript sources which have enabled him to expound for the first time some intricate pieces of diplomacy.
Gardiner's work is long and minute; the fifty-seven years which it covers are a period of exceptional importance in many directions, and the actions and characters of the principal persons in it demand careful analysis. He is perhaps apt to attach an exaggerated importance to some of the authorities which he was the first to bring to light, to see a general tendency in what may only be the expression of an individual eccentricity, to rely too much on ambassadors' reports which may have been written for some special end, to enter too fully into the details of diplomatic correspondence. In any case the length of his wdrk is not the result of verbiage or repetitions. His style is clear, absolutely unadorned, and somewhat lacking in force; he appeals constantly to the intellect rather than to the emotions, and is seldom picturesque, though in describing a few famous scenes, such as the execution of Charles I, he writes with pathos and dignity.
The minuteness of his narrative detracts from its interest; though his arrangement is generally good, here and there the reader finds the thread of a subject broken by the intrusion of incidents not immediately connected with it, and does not pick it up again without an effort. And Gardiner has the defects of his supreme qualities, of his fairness and critical ability as a judge of character; his work lacks enthusiasm, and leaves the reader cold and unmoved. Yet, apart from its sterling excellence, it is not without beauties, for it is marked by loftiness of thought, a love of purity and truth, and refinement in taste and feeling.
He wrote other books, mostly on the same period, but his great history is that by which his name will live. It is a worthy result of a life of unremitting labour, a splendid monument of historical scholarship. His position as an historian was formally acknowledged: in 1862 he was given a civil list pension of £150 per annum, "in recognition of his valuable contributions to the history of England"; he was honorary D.C.L. of Oxford, LL.D. of Edinburgh, and Ph.D. of Göttingen, and honorary student of Christ Church, Oxford; and in 1894 he declined the appointment of regius professor of modern history at Oxford, lest its duties should interfere with the accomplishment of his history.
Among the more noteworthy of Gardiner's separate works are:
He edited collections of papers for the Camden Society, and from 1891 was editor of the English Historical Review.
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.