The Celebrated Mrs Macaulay
The statue of a woman simply entitled ‘History’ has stood in the foyer of the Museum & Library since 1965 where it has been seen by millions of people entering or leaving the building over the last 55 years. Relatively few of our visitors know the identity of the subject, namely one of the first female English historians Catharine Macaulay (1731- 1791). Fewer still know the strange story of how a statue of one of the most prominent writers and political thinkers of 18th century Britain came to be here in Warrington.
Catharine Macaulay was born Catharine Sawbridge at Olantigh Manor near Wye in Kent on 23rd March 1731. Tragically her mother died when Catherine was barely 2 years old but her father, a somewhat reclusive local landowner paid a tutor to educate his daughter privately at home rather than send her to a seminary or boarding school like many of her contemporaries.
During the 18th century making a good marriage was considered the most important – if not the only – goal for wealthy girls like Catharine and so her early education would likely have centred around making her as “marriable” as possible. She would almost certainly have been taught reading, writing, arithmetic, needlework, and dancing. She may even have been taught music, art, and literature – these subjects having recently become fashionable in England so that the English gentlewomen could compete with French women in the marriage market. In Catharine’s case she became particularly attracted to reading history and in later life she claimed to have been something of a child prodigy in the subject – while privately admitting she did not read Greek or Latin and had did not even picked up a book until the age of 20.
Whatever the truth about her early years by the time Catharine reached the age of 26 she was attracting a reputation as an adept conversationalist and her learned nature was already impressing her contemporaries. After meeting her in Canterbury the classical scholar Elizabeth Carter (1717-1806) described the young Catharine with the somewhat back-handed compliment that she seemed a “very sensible and agreeable woman, and much more deeply learned than beseems a fine lady”.
Amongst Catharine’s early admirers was the Scottish physician Dr George Macaulay (1716-1766). The son of a prominent Edinburgh family, George was trained both in medicine and philosophy and had spent most of his career in charitable works as a surgeon and also as a man-midwife – the 18th century term for an obstetrician. George and Catherine married on 20th June 1760 and the couple soon moved to a large house in St James’ Place in London.
It was in London that Catharine began to establish her reputation as a historian, publishing the first volume of her ‘History of England’ in 1763. Female historians were almost unheard of at the time and Catherine intended her ‘History’ to be the definitive political history of the 17th century arguing that the liberties she and her contemporaries enjoyed had been won during the previous century by those who “attacked the formidable pretensions of the Stewart family, and set up the banners of liberty against a tyranny which had been established for a series of more than one hundred and fifty years”.
Soon after publication Catharine’s ‘History’ found favour with the politician Horace Walpole and other supporters of the Whig party who praised her work in the House of Commons. Walpole felt that Catherine’s ‘History’ formed a Liberal counterpoint to David Hume’s earlier ‘History of England’ which was widely perceived as favouring the Tory party.
It was not just politicians who enjoyed Catherine’s work. The poet Thomas Gray described the book as the “most sensible, unaffected and best history of England that we have had yet” while the philosopher and author Thomas Hollis praised Catherine’s ‘History of England’ as “honestly written, and with considerable ability and spirit; and is full of the freest, noblest, sentiments of Liberty“.
The second volume of the ‘History of England’, published in 1765, took the narrative up to the year 1644. The same year Catharine gave birth to a daughter Catharine Sofia Macaulay. Unfortunately, the couple’s happiness was not to last as around a year later George Macaulay died on the 16th of September 1766 leaving Catherine widowed with a small child.
Catharine refused to retreat into mourning, publishing a third volume of her History in 1767. By this time, the “celebrated Mrs Macaulay” as she was by then known was vaunted by society with Horace Walpole describing a dinner with Catherine as “one of the sights that all foreigners are carried to see”.
Unfortunately, Catharine’s reputation was damaged somewhat in 1768 with the publication of the fourth volume of her ‘History’. By now her narrative had reached the end of the English Civil War where she controversially argued the execution of Charles I was entirely justified. Liberal sentiments were one thing but expressing support for the execution of a king was another and the Whig party began to distance themselves from their favourite historian.
Although the political class had started to shun Catharine, she was still a popular and relatively well-known figure with the English people as James Burgh observed that her work was written to impress upon them a “love of liberty and their country”. Her writings were also to attract a great deal of praise across the Atlantic in America where she was considered one of the foremost English radicals and was even quoted in American Revolutionary pamphlets.
In 1774 Catherine moved to Bath with her daughter and it was there that she met Dr Thomas Wilson (1703-1784), rector of St Stephen’s Church in Walbrook and a widower whose wife had died 2 years previously. Thomas was fascinated by the learned and witty Catharine and doted on her daughter, putting his house and belongings in Bath at her disposal. Although there is nothing to indicate that Catharine and Thomas’ relationship was anything other than platonic it caused much public comment in Bath society because there was almost 30 years separating them – he was 71 years old and she was 43.
Thomas’ infatuation with Catharine – romantic or otherwise – was so strong that he commissioned several portraits of the historian. He was almost certainly the patron behind the portrait of Catharine by Robert Edge Pine (1730-1788) which is now in the National Portrait Gallery. In the painting Catharine clutches a letter to Thomas and is dressed in the sash of a Roman senator, a symbol of her commitment to representative government. This was a significant political statement for a portrait painted around the same time as the American Revolutionary War was breaking out across the Pacific. The portrait was considered a great success and was even recreated in porcelain figures.
The portrait by Pine was also the basis for the sculpture in question, a commission for the sculptor John Francis Moore (circa 1745-1809) who Thomas paid to create the statue of Catharine for his church at St Stephen’s in Walbrook.
As in Pine’s portrait, Catharine is classically dressed although this time she is depicted as Clio, the Muse of History. She wears sandals and her hair is dressed high on her head in a coronet with ringlets falling down her back. Her left arm rests upon the first five volumes of her ‘History of England’. She holds a quill pen in her right hand (now sadly incomplete) and Moore has replaced the letter from Thomas in Pine’s portrait with a scroll, emphasising her profession as a writer.
Sculptural details on the base of the statue hint at Catharine’s political views with a Phrygian cap – the Roman symbol of the republic – and the serpent-entwined staff known as the Caduceus which is a symbol of mercy and peace. Even the owl brooch Catharine wears is heavy with symbolism as it is an emblem of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom.
Yet it is not the details that are there that are most intriguing but the details that are missing. Contemporary accounts of the sculpture indicate that there was a separate plinth, now lost, which paid a somewhat more elaborate tribute to Catharine. This included the most famous quote from her ‘History of England’:
Is a power
delegated for the
when conducted by
According to contemporary accounts this inscription on the plinth for the statue was followed by a quote from a series of letters published in 1775 purporting to be written by George, Lord Lyttelton, from to Apphia Peach, the widow of the former Governor of Calcutta:
You speak of Mrs MACAULAY
She is a kind of Prodigy!
I revere her abilities.
I cannot bear to hear her name sarcastically mentioned:
I would have her taste the exalted Pleasure of the universal Applause:
I would have STATUES erected to her Memory:
and once in every Age I could wish
such a woman to appear,
as proof that GENIUS is not confined to SEX:
but at the same time – you will pardon me – We want no more than ONE Mrs. MACAULAY.
‘Late Lord Lyttelton’s Letters to Mrs. Peach’, p. 114.
Although widely quoted at the time George Lyttleton’s executors (George had died 2 years before the letters were published) claimed the letters were fake and this may explain why this plinth has not been preserved. The final part of the missing inscription was a dedication from the man who had commissioned the statue:
Erected by THOMAS WILSON D. D. Rector of this Parish, as a Testimony of the high Esteem he bears to the distinguished Merit of his Friend CATHERINE MACAULAY A.D. MDCCLXXVII.
Unfortunately, these inscriptions merely fuelled the anger of the churchwardens at St Stephen’s in Walbrook who already objected to a statue of a female historian with Republican leanings in the church, positioned as it was in the sacred area between the altar rails of the church. The churchwardens even threatened their rector with a lawsuit to have the statue removed.
The churchwardens were to get their wish, albeit not perhaps in the way they expected. On 14th November 1778 when Catherine suddenly and unexpectedly married her doctor’s brother, William Graham, who was 26 years her junior. This marriage lost her many friends and supporters, and Wilson was furious. He removed Catherine’s statue from the church and even sold the vault he had arranged for her eventual burial.
Catherine continued to write on history and politics and published the last three volumes of her History of England over the next 5 years, but she was never fully to escape the scandalous nature of her second marriage. Her reputation was, however, undiminished in America which she visited between 1784 and 1785 . Whilst there she became a powerful influence on the American poet and playwright Mercy Otis Warren (1728–1814) and even stayed with then president-general George Washington and his family at Mount Vernon. Washington later described her as a lady “whose principles are so much and so justly admired by the friends of liberty and mankind”.
Catherine returned to England in 1785, hoping to begin the definitive History of the American Revolution, but sadly her health began to fail her. In 1787 she wrote to Mercy Otis Warren to say that “Tho’ the History of your late glorious revolution is what I should certainly undertake were I again young, yet as things are I must for many reasons decline such a task”. Catherine died in Binfield, Berkshire on 22nd June 1791 and was buried in All Saints’ parish there.
So how did the statue of Catherine who, as far as we know, never visited Warrington come to be in the foyer of the Museum & Library?
The truth is that when Thomas Wilson died in 1784 the statue passed to his mother’s family, the Pattens of Bank Hall in Warrington. The statue was transferred to the Patten’s ancestral home of Bank Hall upon Thomas’ death and then to the Borough Council in 1872 when Bank Hall became Warrington Town Hall. There it remained for nearly a century until it was unveiled in it’s new spot in 1965.