Letters from Edward Augustus Freeman to Edith Thompson

Scope and Content

Letters from Edward Augustus Freeman to Edith Thompson (between 1868-1892) with whom he collaborated to produce a number of history texts for school children including 'A History of England' in Macmillan's historical course for schools series. Their friendship continued throughout his life and their letters are both informal and considered.

Administrative / Biographical History

Edward Augustus Freeman was born at Harborne, Staffordshire in 1823, the only son of John Freeman and Mary Anne Carless. His parents died while he was still an infant and he was schooled by the Reverend Browne at Cheam in Surrey and then privately-tutored by the Reverend R Gutch at Segrave in Leicstershire, whose daughter, Eleanor, he ultimately married. His tertiary education was not totally smooth; he was turned down at Balliol College, Oxford, before being accepted at Trinity College, Oxford, where he obtained a second class in the schools in 1845. He married in 1847 and in 1849 published his first book, A history of architecture Architecture was to remain an abiding interest, particularly ecclesiastical architecture. In 1855 he moved to Lanrumney Hall near Cardiff, the year of the foundation of the Saturday Review, a journal to which he contributed for 22 years. In 1856 he went on a continental tour for the first time and from then on he travelled as an extension of his eclectic historical interest, writing articles on places he visited and adding to his knowledge of Greek and Roman political and architectural history (Dictionary of National Biography).

In 1860 the Freeman family moved to a house and park called Somerleaze near Wells and most of the letters in the collection were posted from Somerleaze or abroad. During the 1860s Edward Freeman made two unsuccessful bids for chairs at Oxford and published on constitutional history and the history of the Norman Conquest. He also published a history of Wells cathedral and Old English history for children. The latter was done in collaboration with Edith Thompson and together they produced a History of England in Macmillan's Historical course for schools series. Their correspondence dates from this time. Edith Thompson's friendship with Edward Freeman continued throughout his life and their letters are informal on the one hand and considerable in their intellectual content on the other. She contributed a number of anonymous reviews to the Saturday Review. Edward Freeman's collaboration with women extended also to one of his daughters - Margaret - who compiled indexes for him. She married the archeaologist, Arthur Evans, keeper of the Ashmolean Museum. Born in 1848 she died only a year after her father (Dictionary of National Biography).

In 1874 and 1875 Freeman was awarded honorary doctorates from both Oxford and Cambridge, but he was often an outspoken critic of Oxbridge collegiate structures and this combined with his very eclectic research and publication made his career a bit bumpy. However, he was finally awarded the highest honours by being appointed to the regius chair of modern history at Oxford in 1884. A sufferer from gout, his health was already declining by this time, but he began working on a large history of Sicily. His Oxford lectures for 1886 and 1887 appeared as Methods of historical study and Chief periods of European history. He produced work prolifically in the last years of his life and his volumes on Sicily, as well as Studies of travel appeared posthumously, edited by Florence Freeman. Edward Freeman died from smallpox while travelling in Spain in 1892. Macmillan immediately gave the task of writing his biography to his close friend, William Richard Wood Stephens, dean of Winchester (Dictionary of National Biography).

Edith Thompson was the daughter of the lawyer Thomas Perronet Edward Thompson, the son of Thomas Perronet Thompson, the Hull anti-slave-trader and radical politician. It is clear from the correspondence that Edward Freeman often stayed with the family and the friendship might be explained by his own dabbling in politics towards the end of his life (his letters to W E Gladstone about Irish Home Rule are in the British Library). An early letter sympathises with her on the death of her elderly grandfather.

The correspondence in U DX9 is intellectually lively and socially playful. 'So you recommend me as light reading', he teased her, on 28 September 1868. 'Did I ever tell you how Sir George Lewis...asked Dr Paley, in whose house he was staying, for a "light book" [and]...Dr Paley showed him such books as he had, and Lewis chose, neither a sermon nor a novel, but Alison's History of Europe'. He wrote to her frequently on matters of history, some of it in Greek and Latin, and asked for her opinion on his work. When he died she passed their correspondence to his biographer and the instructions about his use are in the collection. 'It is a melancholy business reading over letters in the past' she told Margaret Freeman, '[but] one thing I feel strongly, and that is, what a privilege it is to have had such a friendship'. Many of the letters were reprinted in Stephens's Life and letters of Edward A Freeman which came out in two volumes in 1895.

Edith Thompson's own papers are embedded within the papers of her grandfather at U DTH in the archives. She wrote an unpublished biography of her grandfather and published in her lifetime a number of edited works and a history of the War of the Roses. She was also a friend of Eleanor Freeman, with whom she worked on the Oxford English Dictionary (there is one letter from Eleanor Freeman to Edith Thompson dated 6 December 1887 in Edith Thompson's papers at U DTH/5/33.


The letters are arranged in a simple chronological sequence

Access Information

Access will be granted to any accredited reader

Custodial History

Donated by Mrs Hughes, 3 May 1934

Related Material

Papers of Edith Thompson [U DTH/5]

Papers of Thomas Perronet Thompson, 1757-1933 [U DTH]

Other repositories:

Correspondence of E A Freeman in British Library [Add.MSS.]


  • Dictionary of National Biography
  • Stephens, W R W, Life and letters of Edward A Freeman (2 vols., 1895)
  • Correction to a date in a letter from E. A Freeman to Edith Perront Thompson, in Notes and Queries, Vol 253 (New Series Vol 55) No. 4, December 2008