Summer Book Club: Seeley’s The Expansion of England

You are asked to think over English history as a whole and consider if you cannot find some meaning, some method in it, if you cannot state some conclusion to which it leads.  Hitherto perhaps you have learned names and dates, lists of kings, lists of battles and wars.  The time comes now when you are to ask yourselves, To what end?  For what practical purpose are these facts collected and committed to memory?  If they lead to no great truths having at the same time scientific generality and momentous practical bearings, then history is but an amusement and will scarcely hold its own in the conflict of studies…. No one can long study history without being haunted by the idea of development, of progress.

J.R. Seeley wrote these words as part of a series of lectures he gave at the University of Cambridge in 1881 and 1882, published as The Expansion of England: Two Courses of Lectures in 1883.  Seeley was a professor of modern history at Cambridge from 1869 to 1895.

NPG Ax17824; Sir John Robert Seeley by Philip Crellin Jr

John Robert Seeley – photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Seeley examined modern British history with the goal of answering the question of what direction the world was headed.  His answer? Toward liberty, democracy, and the advancement of “greater” Britain. Continue reading


Postcard from St. John’s College, Cambridge

Following on the theme from earlier this week

St. John's College, Cambridge - L. Flewelling

St. John’s College, Cambridge – L. Flewelling

While there were definitely things to appreciate about being member of a college which does not have tourists coming through and peaking into the windows of students’ rooms, one of my favorite things to do in Cambridge is wandering through the gorgeous old college grounds.  St. John’s College was founded in 1511 and its buildings date from that year, but the college contains a pleasing array of architectural styles as it was added to over the centuries.

St. John's College, Cambridge - photo credit: L. Flewelling

St. John’s College, Cambridge – photo credit: L. Flewelling

View from the Bridge of Sighs - photo credit: L. Flewelling

View from the Bridge of Sighs – photo credit: L. Flewelling

Bridge(s) of Sighs: A History

I stood in Venice, at the Bridge of Sighs

A palace and a prison on each hand:

I saw from out the wave her structures rise

As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand

-Lord Byron

Venice - photo credit: L. Flewelling

Venice – photo credit: L. Flewelling


Connecting the interrogation room at the Doge’s Palace to the Prigioni Nuove (New Prison), the Bridge of Sighs was designed by Antonio Contino and completed in 1602.  The baroque-style, limestone structure is the only covered bridge in Venice.  The bridge is said to be the last place from which convicts could draw a breath of fresh air before their imprisonment, and gained its romantic associations in the nineteenth century.

Cambridge - photo credit: L. Flewelling

Cambridge – photo credit: L. Flewelling


Cambridge - photo credit: L. Flewelling

Cambridge – photo credit: L. Flewelling

Spanning the Cam, the Bridge of Sighs at Cambridge connects the New Court to the Third Court at St. John’s College.  St. John’s was founded in 1511, and by the early nineteenth century looked to expand its area for student residences.  Thomas Rickman and Henry Hutchinson designed the New Court as the first major building by any college in Cambridge to be placed across the river, with construction completed in 1831.  That same year, Hutchinson’s New Bridge joined the old with the new sections of the college.  The only real resemblance to the Venetian Bridge of Sighs is that both bridges are covered – but this seems to have been enough of a resemblance to have the name adopted for the Cambridge structure.

Oxford - photo credit: L. Flewelling

Oxford – photo credit: L. Flewelling


Hertford College, Oxford, traces its roots to the 1280s.  The college was refounded in 1874, and its site was expanded to include a new Lodge and Hall, the New Quad, Chapel, and several other buildings, all designed by Thomas Graham Jackson.  Jackson also designed the Hertford Bridge, connecting two parts of the college spanning New College Lane.  Oxford’s Bridge of Sighs was completed in 1913 – but it was never intended to be a replica of the Venetian bridge.  Like Cambridge’s version, it has little in common with its namesake other than being covered and, of course, the beauty of the site.