Sir John Seeley (1834-95) was Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge and an eminent commentator on the development of the British Empire.
Seeley read Classics at Christ’s College, Cambridge, graduating in 1857 and becoming a Fellow of that College. He was appointed Regius Professor of History in the University in 1869, and became a Fellow of Gonville & Caius College.
Work and significance
He first came to prominence with his theological work Ecce Homo (1866), which attracted controversy by its attempt to humanise and contextualise the person of Christ. He was a firm believer in the importance of history as background for a study of modern politics and his best known work, The Expansion of England (1883), was an application of historical analysis to the contemporary issue of Britain’s relationship with its Empire. The book originated in a series of lectures, in which he called on the British people to wake up to the existence of other ‘Englands’ in the settler colonies overseas – Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and even the United States. He wanted these to function as a global brotherhood operating for the moral and material improvement of people everywhere, but he felt that the British took no particular notice of their imperial role, rather as if they had acquired it, in a phrase that became famous, ‘in a fit of absence of mind’.
Seeley was a serious-minded man, and a social invitation from him and his wife Mary seems to have been regarded as something of an ordeal to be endured. His lectures were well received, however, and remained in print until 1956.
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By Sean Lang