3687. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 18 May 1821

3687. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 18 May 1821⁠* 

Keswick. 18 May. 1821

My dear R.

Thank you for the Highland R & B Report, – the enormous labour of which I can very well understand. [1]  – The plans provoke x me by the inconvenience & ugliness of their oeconomy. If we are too poor to afford any thing like xxxx ornamental, they might at least have been given upon plates the size of the page, as many in each as that size would allow. The Report tells me of much that I did not know, & pleasantly reminds me of what I did.

I was about to ask you a question which you are more likely than any other person to answer. When was slavery abolished in England? [2] is was it ever abolished by any specific act? I find that a great many villeins emancipated themselves during the wars of Y & Lancaster, [3]  by taking refuge in large towns, & taking advantage of frequent changes of property & the general insecurity; – & I find that when Holinshed compiled his Chronicles, any bondsman setting foot in England became free, such being ‘the privilege of our country by the especial grace of God, & bounty of our Princes.” [4]  But I do not find when this became law or custom; nor can I discover any time, or state of things when such an act was likely to have past.

The Dialogues (which I believe I have mentioned to you) lead me to this enquiry, – & indeed to every thing connected with the progress of society in this England.

The progress of my Peninsular volumes depends now upon the Printer. [5]  I have corrected 21 sheets, & expect that the first volume will be carried thro the press in the course of the autumn. Whether it will be published then, or detained till the whole can be is ready, is as the Booksellers think proper.

Poor King of Portugal & Brazil! His coming to Europe is, I have no doubt, a forlorn hope that he may find an asylum in England. [6]  – Were it not for Spain, the business at Lisbon might be settled as easily as at Naples [7] 

I am glad you are satisfied with the Vision [8]  as a metrical experiment, concerning which different opinions reach me, – the most conclusive being that women readily catch the rhythm & like it. The King took notice of it in the best-natured way possible, by telling my brother at the Birth day that I had sent him a very beautiful poem, & that he had read it with great pleasure. [9]  The truth is if I had not written something out of the common way, I could not have written at all upon such a subject.

The modern O.C. is a person of that name who has lately published Memoirs of his great Ancestor. [10]  – I think old Nol himself [11]  could not have made a worse book. – Your belief in the Έικών  [12]  makes me better pleased with having expressed my own.

God bless you


Remember me I pray you to Mr Telford when you see him. I live in hopes of seeing him here one of these days.


* Address: To/ John Rickman Esqre/ St Stephens Court/ New Palace Yard/ Westminster
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmark: FREE/ 21 MY 21/ 1821
Endorsement: Fr. RS/ 18 May 1821
MS: Huntington Library, RS 414. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), III, pp. 250–252. BACK

[1] Commission for Highland Roads and Bridges, 9th Report (1821), part of the collection of reports, no. 2170 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. It contained lengthy Appendices detailing all the activities carried out since the Commission began work in 1803, for example, Appendix Y, ‘Plans and Dimensions of Harbours, Wharfs, and Ferry Piers made or improved under the direction of The Commissioners for Highland Roads and Bridges, 1806–1821’. Construction of new roads continued until 1828. Southey had viewed these works with Rickman and Telford in August–September 1819. BACK

[2] Slavery was widespread in England in 1066, but seems to have almost entirely died out by 1200. There was no one piece of legislation that created this situation, though the Church strongly disapproved of the slave trade. Southey dealt with the extinction of ‘Feudal Slavery’ in Sir Thomas More: or, Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society, 2 vols (London, 1829), I, pp. 64–76. BACK

[3] The dynastic conflict for the English throne 1455–1487, between the houses of York and Lancaster. A villein was a farmer legally tied to a particular place or Lord of the Manor. The system died out in the sixteenth century, a process confirmed by the decision to end any remaining villeinage on Crown lands in 1574. BACK

[4] Raphael Holinshed (1529–1580; DNB), Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1577). Southey possessed an edition in the Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1807–1812), no. 654 in the sale catalogue of his library. This quotation is from William Harrison (1535–1593; DNB), Historical Description of the Island of Britain, which appeared in the expansion of Holinshed’s Chronicles, 2 vols (London, 1587), I, lines 276–277. BACK

[5] Southey’s History of the Peninsular War (1823–1832). It was printed by Thomas Davison (1766–1831). BACK

[6] An army revolt in Porto on 24 August 1820 had established a junta to run the country; it declared its intention of organising elections to a Cortes, which were held in December 1820, and demanded John VI (1767–1826; King of Portugal 1816–1826) return from Brazil, where the Portuguese court had fled in 1807–1808. The King reached Portugal on 3 July 1821. BACK

[7] A revolution in Naples in July 1820 had been crushed by the intervention of an Austrian army, which entered the capital on 23 March 1821. Southey suggests foreign intervention would be more difficult in Portugal because Spain was ruled by liberals who had ended royal absolutism and forced the restoration of the Constitution of 1812 in March 1820. BACK

[8] Southey’s A Vision of Judgement (1821). BACK

[9] Henry Herbert Southey had possibly met George IV at the King’s levée on 2 May 1821, the court event closest to his official birthday on 23 April. BACK

[10] Oliver Cromwell (c. 1742–1821; DNB), Memoirs of the Protector, Oliver Cromwell, and of His Sons, Richard and Henry. Illustrated by Original Letters, and Other Family Papers (1820). This book provided one of the occasions for Southey’s ‘Life of Cromwell’, Quarterly Review, 25 (July 1821), 279–347. BACK

[11] Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658; Lord Protector 1653–1658; DNB). BACK

[12] ‘Royal Portrait’; i.e. Eikon Basilike, The Portraicture of His Sacred Majestie in His Solitudes and Sufferings (1649), a spiritual autobiography attributed to Charles I (1600–1649; King of Great Britain 1625–1649; DNB). The book was no. 987 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. BACK

People mentioned

George IV (1762–1830) (mentioned 1 time)
Telford, Thomas (1757–1834) (mentioned 1 time)

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)