"Associated in remarkable contrast with his vivid outward life and activity at this time, was an inward life, peculiarly sensitive, subtle in thought, more subtle still in feeling, full of poetical and religious sentiment." — Stopford A. Brooke

Like so many other important and influential Victorians, Robertson appears an often uneasy synthesis of contrary tendencies and emphases: a boy's boy, like Richard Jeffries' Bevis, a leader in rough games, he had the sensitivity to nature of the young Wordsworth, whose poetry he greatly admired. Successful academically and socially, he lived with major self-doubts, found himself surprised by his success, unable to judge accurately of his own superior abilities, and tended toward bouts of depression. Raised in a military family, he passionately desired a career in the army like his grandfather, father, and uncles, and for a while seemed destined to achieve one despite the wishes of his father, who thought his sensitivity and strong faith destined him for the church. After starting to train as first a lawyer and then a military officer, he was at last unexpectedly persuaded to join the clergy. A young man with many aristocratic attitudes, he yet sided with the working man. Like many a major Victorian, religious faith came to him in the form of evangelical protestantism, which he then abandoned, but unlike so many others, he generally continued to honor both Evangelicals and their opponents, the Tractarians or High Church Party, even though he strongly disagreed with both.

Robertson's Military Heritage

According to Stopford A. Brooke, the sometime chaplain to Queen Victoria who edited his Life and Letters, Frederick W. Robertson was born in London on 3 February 1816 "at the house of his grandfather, Colonel Robertson, a distinguished officer, who was wounded in the service." His father, also named Frederick,

was a captain in the Royal Artillery. Two of his brothers, Charles Duesbury, of the Royal Engineers," and Harry, of the 6oth Royal Rifles, won frequent Honourable mention' in the Kaffir war. The third, Struan, was a captain in the Royal South Lincoln Militia. They all survived him, but before he had reached his twenty-fifth year he had grieved over the death of his three sisters.

The first five years of his childhood were passed at Leith Fort. . . . his enthusiasm for a military life . . . was literally born with him. At Leith, before he was five years old, he drank in, with all the eagerness of a boy, the intoxicating aroma of his father's profession. 'I was rocked and cradled,' he writes, 'to the roar of artillery, and the very name of such things sounds to me like home. A review, suggesting the conception of a real battle, impresses me to tears; I cannot see a regiment manoeuvre, nor artillery in motion, without a choking sensation.'

The traditions of his family suggested and fostered this passionate love of arms. The conversation at home was full of recollections of bivouac and battle, and of the daring exploits of Sir Charles Napier, who was his fathers personal friend and comrade in arms.

Robertson's Education

My pony, and my cricket, and my rabbits, and my father's pointers, and the days when I proudly carried his game-bag, and my ride home with the old gamekeeper by moonlight in the frosty evenings, and the boom of the cannon, and my father's orderly, the artilleryman who used to walk with me hand-in-hand — these are my earliest recollections.

According to Brooke, in 1821 Robertson's father, a "Captain in the Royal Artillery, retired on half pay in order to attend to the education of his children, left Leith and settled at Beverley, in Yorkshire," where he home schooled Frederick for four years before sending him to a local grammar school. He then moved the family to France in 1829, presumably in part for financial reasons, "where young Robertson studied the classics with an English tutor, attended a French seminary, and laid the foundation of his accurate knowledge of the French language. In consequence of the revolution of 1830, his father returned to England, and placed the boy, now nearly sixteen years old, in the New Academy, Edinburgh, under the late Rev. John Williams, afterwards Archdeacon of Cardigan." Robertson's editor credits his parents with the churchman's moral and spiritual development:

He owed much to the careful education and watchfulness of his parents. They kept him apart from evil influences, and made his home his most honoured recollection. This seclusion, and the books he was induced to read in childhood, were both so calculated to develop his character in a true direction, that he mentions them afterwards in some MS. notes, written at Winchester, as two of the special mercies with which God had blessed his infancy. The loneliness which is more or less the lot of the eldest of the family, soon created in him a thoughtfulness full of imagination, and a spirit of inquiry which supplied him with the materials for a silent self-education. But on this account he became neither morbid nor unnatural. On the contrary, he was a radiant and eager child, full of healthful enjoyment of life, delighting in air, and sunlight, and active exercise. His happy childhood at Leith Fort was a cherished memory of his ministerial life; and he looked back upon it with a pleasure deepened by the necessarily sedentary nature of his profession.

Brooke's someone repetitious biographical introduction paints a portrait of the young Robertson as a combination of a sensitive Wordsworthian child, a boisterous leader of other boys in physical activities, and a sensitive solitary thinker. Robertson, Brooke tells us, "wandered over the country with an open eye and heart, and found in every walk and ride something to admire and to love. He had a child's affection and reverence for animals, and especially for birds," but at the same time he "He excelled in manly games and athletic exercises, and was the leader of all the daring exploits of his companions. To this he joined a love of reading and of quiet remarkable at his age. On the brightest day he would become entranced in some tale of chivalry or imagination which charmed him into stillness." Brooke moves from a recitation of the boy's attractive qualities to a description of "dreaminess" and "sensitiveness of nerve and feeling which so strongly marked and influenced his whole existence. It betrayed its presence during boyhood in his shy and sometimes defiant manner, and in a settled self-mistrust, often sinking into hopelessness. 'Deficiency of hope,' he says himself, 'is the great fault of my character.'" From early youth, in other words, Robertson's inward and outward lives seemed in conflict, one sign of which seems to have been a lack of self worth that continually led him grossly to underestimate his own intellectual abilities and academic accomplishments and sometimes plunged him into fits of depression.

He was an intense worker. He never left a subject till he had done his utmost to exhaust it, and to examine it in all its bearings. At the Academy in Edinburgh, his toil was incessant, and he soon took a high place in his class. Though without the advantage of previous training in the lower forms, he gained at the end of the session the first prizes for Latin verse, English prose, the French language, and French recitation . . . All this success surprised no one more than himself; he continually wrote home in depreciation of his work. This self-mistrust made him even then acutely conscious of small errors. In composition, he magnified slight failures in the rhythm and style of a sentence into grave faults; he was intolerant of a misplaced stop; he shrank with all the over-subtle purism of a boy from a mispronunciation or an antiquated pronunciation of words. He carried this humility and sensitiveness into morals; the slightest deviation from truthfulness in words or truthfulness in action was abhorrent to his nature. His mother said of him, 'I never knew him tell a lie;' and he would rather have lost every prize at the Academy, than owe one to foreign help or to the usual aid which boys seek from translations.

After his brief time at the Edinburgh Academy, he next attended the University, apparently not as a degree candidate, "under the care of Mr. Terrot, afterwards Bishop of Edinburgh," studying chemistry and geography, but by the time he had finished his time there "the secret wish of his heart to enter the army had grown into a settled purpose. This was not, however, the intention of his father, who considered that the character of his son, and his deep religious feeling, were unfitted for a barrack life. The Church, was, therefore, proposed to him as a profession; but his answer was decisive — 'Anything but that: I am not fit for it.' In 1833 he was articled to a Mr. Borton, "a solicitor at Bury St. Edmunds," and out of duty spent a very unhappy year studying law. When his father realized that, he attempted but failed to secure him a commission in the Horse Guards, but through family influence "his name was placed upon the list for a cavalry regiment serving in India." Studying two years for his long-desired military profession with great enthusiasm, he became, Brooke tells us,

a first-rate rider, a good shot, and an excellent draughtsman. He omitted nothing likely to make him a faithful and useful officer. . . . The trained obedience of an army to one head harmonised with his own strong conception of the beauty of order and the dignity of duty. All the impulses of his character to self-sacrifice, chivalry, daring, romantic adventure, the conquest of oppression, the living of life intensely, he looked forward to satisfying as a soldier; and he believed that the active out-door existence of a campaign, with its danger and excitement, would suit his physical temperament, and tend to neutralise his constitutional nervousness.

At the same time that he prepared for a career in the cavalry, immersing himself in the history, geography, religion, and culture of India as well as British military campaigns in South Asia, he also devoted much time to studying religious texts. In March 1837, when he almost given up hope of being called to active duty, he "he met Mr. Davies, now Vicar of Tewkesbury, at the house of a common friend in Cheltenham," who became a lifelong friend and who eventually persuaded Robertson to enter Oxford to prepare for the clergy.

Robertson and Oxford

I rejoice to think of him,' writes one of his friends) as I knew him at Oxford — warm, and generous, and noble hearted; conspicuous for talent, irreproachable in conduct; and, what was most of all valuable, and the most cheering subject of retrospect now, one who carried the banner of the Cross without fear, and was not ashamed of Christ in a place which, though professedly consecrated to His service, offered perhaps more hindrances than helps to a decidedly Christian profession.

From his editor's discussion of Robertson's undistinguished career at Oxford one can discern three main currents or emphases, the first of which is that although the young would-be military officer at first plunged into his studies with characteristic enthusiasm, he soon found that the pre-reform university curriculum had little of educational or religious importance to offer him. Second, Robertson (who probably would have felt far more at home at Cambridge, then much under the influence of Charles Simeon, the leading evangelical) arrived and left the university with his fervent, though unusually tolerant, Evangelical faith unchanged. According to Brooke,

No change took place in his doctrinal views, which were those of the Evangelical school, with a decided leaning to moderate Calvinism. They were mingled with a rare charity and tolerance, which seem, however, in the excitement of argument, to have sometimes failed him. He took a large interest in missionary work, especially in that among the Jews. . . . He strove to interest others in Christian enterprise; but his enthusiasm, though not frozen, was chilled by the apathy and coldness of Oxford. To his excitable and eager temperament, the trim system, the 'donnishness' which gave the tone to the life and studies of reading men, were dreary and sleepy and too hedged in by unelastic rules. With the Utopianism of a young man, he could not at first see that a large and varied society must be governed, not by love, but by law; that if the intellect is to be well trained, it must be restricted to a few subjects, and forbidden to travel over wider fields till it has gained sufficient power.

Thirdly, Robertson suffered those alternating episodes of manic energy and painful depression that afflicted him throughout his entire life. Brooke quotes Robertson's praise of Plato as an author who helped him in times of mental torment "when his brain was throbbing, and his mind incapable of originating a thought, and his body worn and sore with exhaustion, . . . and the darkness in which all life had robed itself." These words, says Brooke

explain much of the deep depression and strong excitement which characterised at once his life and his preaching in after years. If many a time his own imagination was refreshed and kindled by that of another, only too often also for health and mental power his imagination dominated, not over his will, but over his nerves. He was not subdued by the sad and bitter creations of his own, heart, but he suffered, and suffered terribly, in conquering them. [emphasis added]


Brooke, Stopford A. Life and Letters of Fred[erick]. W. Robertson, M. A., Incumbent of Trinity Chapel, Brighton, 1847-53. People's Edition. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Co., 1902.

Last modified 7 December 2007