In a letter of 5 April 1824 to the Reverend John Tucker Thomas Arnold asks his friend, "Have you seen Cobbett's 'History of the Protestant Reformation,' which he is publishing monthly in threepenny numbers?"
It is a queer compound of wickedness and ignorance with strong sense and the mention of divers truths which have been too much disguised or kept in the back ground, but which ought to be generally known. Its object is to represent the Reformation in England as a great national evil, accomplished by all kinds of robbery and cruelty, and tending to the impoverishment and misery of the poor, and to the introduction of a careless clergy and a spirit of ignorance and covetousncss amongst every body. It made me groan, while reading it, to think that the real history and effects of the Reformation are so little known, and the evils of the worldly policy of Somerset's and Elizabeth's government so little appreciated. As it is, Cobbett's book can do nothing but harm, so bad is its spirit, and so evident its unfairness. [I, 77-78]
This letter reveals Arnold's basic fairness and open-mindedness, for even while intensely disliking much of what Cobett has to say, he finds himself forced to agree that his points about the rapacious side of the Reformation in England and the bad effects upon the poor. Cobett made an important impression, and he brings him up again in a letter written from Florence on 15 July 1825 to another friend, the Rev. George Cornish, when he tells him that he is trying to obtain sound information about the condition of
the lower orders. I have long had a suspicion that Cobbett's complaints of the degradation and sufferings of the poor in England contained much truth, though uttered by him in the worst possible spirit, it is certain that the peasantry here are much more generally proprietors of their own land than with us; and I should believe them to be much more independent and in easier circumstances. This is, I believe, the grand reason why so many of the attempts at revolution have failed in these countries. A revolution would benefit the lawyers, the savans [sic], the merchants, bankers, and shopkeepers, but I do not see what the labouring classes would gain by it. For them the work has been done already, in the destruction of the feudal tyranny of the nobility and great men. [I, 78]
Arnold continues, sounding amazingly like a modern revolutionary, by approving of the French Revolution and all its violence, for, as he explains, "this blessing is enough to compensate the evils of the French Revolution; for the good endures, while the effects of the massacres and devastations are fast passing away" (78-79). Arnold continues to surprise us by adding that, unlike so many other Victorians, such as Pugin, Carlyle, and Ruskin, who saw the Middle Ages as a wonderful time, he finds nothing but good in signs of its destruction. "It is my delight everywhere," he writes Cornish,
to see the feudal castles in ruins, never, I trust, to be rebuilt or reoccupied; and in this respect the watchword 'Guerre aux châteaux, Paix aux Chaumières,' was prophetic of the actual result of the French Revolution. I am sure that we have too much of the oligarchical spirit in England, both in church and state; and I think that those one-eyed men, the political economists, encourage this by their language about national wealth, &c. Toute-fois, there is much good in the oligarchical spirit as it exists in England
Stanley, Arthur Penrhyn. The life and correspondence of Thomas Arnold, D.D., late head-master of Rugby school, and regius professor of modern history in the University of Oxford. 4th ed. 2 vols. London: B. Fellowes, 1845.
Last modified 16 July 2006