Turbulent Londoners: Catharine Macaulay, 1731-1791

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. This week it is the turn of Catharine Macaulay, who was a radical and a republican, as well as the first female English historian.


Catherine Macaulay

Catharine Macaulay in around 1775, by Robert Edge Pine (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

A lot of the women I feature on Turbulent London probably wouldn’t describe themselves as activists or campaigners; many of them wouldn’t even describe themselves as feminists (the term didn’t exist before the late 1880s). These women advanced women’s rights by simply striving for, and achieving, the things they wanted, even if they were told they couldn’t because they were female. Catharine Macaulay, the first female English historian, falls into this category. Her determination to conduct and publish historical research in a time where there were no other female historians in the world made her remarkable. Her successful career as a historian was her primary goal, and the advancement of women’s rights was just a side effect.

Born Catharine Sawbridge on 23rd of March 1731 to parents who were wealthy landowners, Catharine had a comfortable childhood. She was educated at home by a governess in Kent. We don’t know much about the quality of her education, but by her twenties she was a voracious reader and had a deep love of history. On 20th June 1760, Catharine married a Scottish physician, Dr. George Macaulay. The couple moved to St. James’ place in London, where they had one daughter, Catharine Sophia.

It was during this first marriage that Catharine began to publish The History of England from James I to the Revolution. It was a sprawling, detailed historical account of the seventeenth-century that would eventually run to 8 volumes, the last of which was published in 1783. Not only was it remarkable for a woman to undertake such a task (it was deemed inappropriate for a woman to be a historian), it was very unusual for her husband to support her endeavours. But George did support Catharine, and after the publication of the first volume she became an overnight celebrity.

Catharine believed that English society during the Anglo-Saxon period was characterised by freedom and equality, but that this ideal society was lost after the Norman conquest. She argued that all of English history since 1066 had been about the attempt to win back the rights crushed by the “Norman yoke.” This stance was very popular with Whigs, who saw her work as an alternative to Hume’s ‘Tory’ History of England. However, when Volume 4 was published in 1768, Catharine alienated her Whig supporters by justifying the execution of Charles I. She was a republican, and believed that if Kings become tyrants, as Charles did, then they forfeit the right to rule. She was no fan of Oliver Cromwell’s either though; she blamed him for the downfall of the English republic.

Catharine was also critical of the 1688 Glorious Revolution. She acknowledged that it had limited the power of the monarchy, but argued that it was a missed opportunity to create a second English republic. She was also anti-Catholic, believing that Catholicism was incompatible with a “free constitution.” Catharine was very concerned with the morals of the historical figures she wrote about; she argued that self-interest was the worst fault that a King or politician could possess, and believed that only a virtuous people could create a successful republic.

Macaulay-History-title-page-vol-1-1769

The title page of a 1769 reprint of Volume 1 of History of England (Source: Journal of the American Revolution).

After George’s death in 1766, Catharine’s London home became a gathering place for reformers, American sympathisers and visiting Americans, an important node in a transatlantic network of campaigners, radicals, and republicans. In 1774, Catharine moved to Bath, where she was treated by a physician, Dr. James Graham. There were rumours of a relationship, but in November 1778 Catharine married Dr. Graham’s brother, William. The significant age gap (she was 47, he 21) was controversial, and many of Catherine’s friends and supporters abandoned her. However, it seems that her second marriage was as happy as her first.

In July 1784, Catharine became the first English radical to visit a newly independent United States. Her books had been influential on American radical thought, and she was much admired there. Catharine and William stayed with George Washington and his family, and he allowed her to see his personal papers with the goal of writing a history of the War of Independence, although it was eventually written by another of Catharine’s American supporters, Mercy Otis Warren.

After the last volume of History was published in 1783, Catharine continued to write and publish. Like Mary Wollstonecraft, Catharine believed that women’s ‘weakness’ was due to their lack of education, and if they had the same opportunities as men they would excel. She also called for the abolition of capital punishment, reform of the penal system, and the abolition of slavery.

Catharine Macaulay died on 22nd June 1791, after suffering from poor health for many years. She was not a campaigner for women’s rights, but she furthered this cause because of the way she lived her life. Catharine acted as if gender equality already existed: she refused to leave the room with other women after dinner, and she once said that “a historian is of no sex.” She was determined to achieve her goals, no matter whether or not society deemed them appropriate. By achieving those goals, she paved the way for other women to follow similar paths.

Sources and Further Reading

Donnelly, Lucy Martin. “The Celebrated Mrs. Macaulay,” William and Mary Quarterly. Vol. VI (1949): pp. 173–205.

Gleason, Emily Gilbert. “Macaulay, Catharine (1731-1791).” Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Last modified 2002, accessed 9th May 2019. Available at https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/macaulay-catharine-1731-1791

Hill, Bridget. The Republican Virago: The Life and Times of Catharine Macaulay, Historian. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Hill, Bridget. “Macaulay [nee Strawbridge; other married name Graham], Catharine.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 24th May 2012, accessed 9th May 2019. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/17344 (subscription required to access).

Wikipedia. “Catharine Macaulay.” Last modified 11th April 2019, accessed 9th May 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catharine_Macaulay

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