CFHS code : ML91

Parish : St Mary the Less

Inscription : In Loving Memory of JOHN ROBERT SEELEY KCMG LittD Fellow of Gonville & Caius College Hon Fellow of Christ College and for twenty-five years regius Professor of Modern History University of Cambridge b Sept 10 1834 d [Jan 13] 1895 also MARY AGNES his wife b Nov 2 1839 d Dec 26 1921

Monument  : Headstone

Above information from Cambridge Family History Society Survey

Lat Lon : 52.202709, 0.13735903 – click here for location

Seeley grave
Seeley headstone


This headstone, in the parish area of St Mary the Less, is located on the south side of the central circle.


‘In loving memory of
John Robert Seeley KCMG LittD
Fellow of Gonville & Caius College, Hon Fellow of Christ College
and for twenty-five years Regius Professor of Modern History
University of Cambridge
born Sept 10 1834 died [Jan 13] 1895’

‘also Mary Agnes his wife
born Nov 2 1839 died Dec 26 1921’

Sir John Robert Seeley (1834-95)see also Life Story page

John was born in London and baptised on 10 October 1834 at St. Dunstan in the West Church. He was the son of Robert Benton Seeley and Mary Ann (née Jackson). Robert Seeley was a book seller and publisher and John went to school at Stanmore and then City of London school.  His intellectual ability was obvious and he entered the sixth form when he was just thirteen years old.  He was physically weak however and he was forced to leave school for a time in order to recover.  During his recovery he became an avid reader and was said to have read Milton’s Paradise Lost four or five times before he left school. He went to Christ’s College Cambridge in 1852 and ‘impressed at least one of his teachers by his remarkable command of language and expression. In society he was somewhat reserved and shy, but he made some warm friends’.  Due to ill-health he had to defer his degree for a year, but graduated at the top of the classical tripos, and was said to be the best scholar of his year.  He was made a fellow of Christ’s Collge and appointed as a lecturer in Classics. In 1859 he was appointed chief classical assistant at City of London School, and then Professor of Latin at University College, London (1863-1869). John married Mary Phillott on 17 August 1869 at Christ Church, Albany Street, London and they had one daughter: Frances Phillott (1871-1954). In 1869 he was made Professor of Modern History ,Cambridge and then Fellow of Gonville and Caius College in 1882 (he had lost the Fellowship at Christ’s College when he married).  In 1871 the family were living at 43 Regent Park Road in London, but had moved to 7 St. Peter’s Terrace, Cambridge by 1881.

At Cambridge his lectures were said to be hugely popular – they ‘were carefully prepared, epigrammatic in style, animated in delivery, attractive and stimulating from the originality, width, and suggestiveness of their view’.  He was very interested in political history and when the Historical tripos was introduced in 1873 he ‘infused into it a stong political element’. His main interests were history from the last two decades and international history.  The income of the Modern History post was reportedly modest, so John Seeley lectured elsewhere and also published books and essay (eg ‘Fall of the Romal Empire’ and ‘Milton’). After some years however an anonymous benefactor supplemented the income of the post and John Seeley’s income from publishing was enhanced by the Cambridge University Press. This enabled him to devote more time to research and  his most famous publication was ‘The life and times of Stein’.  Other publications included ‘The Greatest of all the Plantagenets’, ‘Short history of Napoleon the First’ and ‘Germany and Prussia in the Napoleonic Age’. His final book ‘Growth of the British Policy’ was published after his death.

John Seeley was made K.C.M.G (Knight Commander of the order of St. Michael and St. John) in 1894, but was ill for the last years of his life. He died of cancer at St. Peter’s Terrace in January 1895 – ‘he had long been in somewhat weak health and suffered much from insomnia; but he bore his troubles with marvellous patience and attended to his professorial duties when not actually incapacitated by illness’. He had been gravely ill the previous year but had recovered. The Cambridge Independent Press reported ‘those of his friends who knew the painful and hopeless nature of his malady – cancer, we believe – were not permitted to hope that his recoverey was other than temporary. The end seems to have come with what in the circumstances must be regarded as merciful suddenness on Sunday evening’.

His funeral took place in the chapel of Caius College on 17 January. His coffin was carried into the college through the Gate of Honour and met by the Master of Trinity who opened the service. The funeral was lead by Dr. Abbott. late headmaster of the City of Lonodon School and Rev. Knight, Dean of Caius College. Many of the college masters attended the service, as well as many professors. After the service the ‘the procession left the chapel, headed by the choir who were followed by the Fellows of the two colleges with which the deceased was connected. The coffin left the college by the main entrance and proceeded to Mill Road Cemetery.

On Sunday 20 January 1895 Rev. H. Russell  devoted his sermon at St. Mary’s, Bryanston Square, London to the life and work of John Seeley. ‘The world of letters had within the last few days lost a very prominent figure whose works had been singularly influential in stimulating thought. They were of a class of book which generally proved of very real power because expressing in simple thought and clothing in scholarly garments the feelings of ordinary people’.  Joseph Jacaobs wrote in the Athenaem that ‘Seeley’s was essentially a Cambridge mind. Lucidity, sound judgment, accurate knowledge, wide outlook were his. But there was an absence of elan, an avoidance  of the personal note, a refusal to appeal to the emotions or to be moved by them, which left his readers cold. He could convince but not charm. His lifht to use the expression of another great Cambrige man, was a dry one. It has been said that Cambridge produces great men, Oxford great movements, or, as another variant puts it ‘Cambridge breeds men; Oxford, Oxford men’.

There were various meetings to establish a Seeley Memorial Fund in his name.  The aim was to raise £2,000 or £3,000 for a scholarship ‘open to men who have taken their B.A. degree, principally to encourage the study of English and foreign archives bearing upon modern international history.  By March 1896 however only £635 had been pledged.  Eventually the funds were given for providing an annual  ‘Seeley Medal’ for the encouragement of the study of History. In October 1897 the balance of the fund was given towards encouragement of women to study at Cambridge Univeristy.

Dame Mary Agnes Seeley (née Phillott)(1839-1921)

Mary was the eldest daughter of surgeon Arthur Phillott (1812-1853) and his wife Frances Caroline (née Frend) (1810-1912). Her maternal grandfather William Frend was a well known Unitarian, reformer and scentific writer (1757-1841). Mary grew up at Wimpole Street, London and married John Seeley when she was 29 years old. After she was widowed she lived at St. John’s Croft, Madingley Road with her daughter Frances (at least 1911 onwards) and died in London aged 82 years.



Newspaper archives

Cambridge Alumni Database

Dictionary of National Biography

By Sean Lang with further information added by Claire Martinsen

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John Robert Seeley; Mary Agnes Seeley