Catharine Macaulay and “The History of England”

An unknown, Catharine Macaulay became “the Celebrated Mrs. Macaulay” overnight. She was the first English female historian, and besides her abilities to retell history with a flair, she was also an adept conversationalist, attracted many admirers, and became a bluestocking. The first of her admirer’s was her husband, a Scottish physician named George Macaulay, M.D., whom she married in 1760. They lived at St James’s Place, London, had one child together, Catharine Sophia in 1764, and he died six years later.

Catharine Macaulay

Catharine Macaulay. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After his death, the widow Catharine Macaulay devoted her energies to her daughter and writing. In November of 1763, Scots Magazine published a list of new books and along with Jonas Hanway‘s The Seaman’s Faithful Companion and Robert Waddington’s A Practical Method for Finding the Longitude and Latitude of a Ship at Sea, by Observations of the Moon, was Macaulay’s first book. It was one of eight volumes, titled The History of England from the Accession of James I to that of the Brunswick Line.

Before all of The History of England volumes were published, Macaulay moved to St. James’s Parade, Bath. It was there in 1774 that she became acquainted with Dr. Thomas Wilson. He was the non-resident rector of St. Stephen’s in Walbrook, London. The two became fast friends, and when Wilson requested Macaulay accept his hospitality and dwell at his residence at No. 2 Alfred Street, she agreed.

Catharine Macaulay was no shrinking violet. She was fond of conversation, the good life, and parties. At Wilson’s residence she carried on an active social life, which included many admirers. One admirer described her as “elegant in manners, delicate in person … with features, if not perfectly beautiful, so fascinating in their expression, as deservedly to rank her face among the higher order of human countenances.”[1]

Her countenance was also one reason a number of admirers called regularly. Among the “competitors” for her smiles, was a teenager named Richard Polwhele. Polwhele later became a Cornish clergyman, poet, and historian. He wrote and read “Six Odes,” to her on her birthday in 1777, and these odes were published the same year.

Richard Polwhele, Public Domain

Richard Polwhele. Public domain.

Another competitor for Catharine Macaulay’s smiles and attention was a Scottish doctor, James Graham. He was described as a well-known quack doctor. He became so enamored with Macaulay he proposed marriage, and, “the bargain would … have been completed, if Mrs. Macaulay had not accidentally discovered that her lover was already married, and his wife still living.”[2] The doctor was nonplussed by Macaulay’s discovery of his marital status and ingeniously told her that “the excess of his passion had made him forget that circumstance.”[3] He then introduced her to his unmarried younger brother, William, who resembled James both in features and principles. Thus, the outcome was not surprising: James was excused, William substituted, and the fair historian soon became Mrs. William Graham in 1778.

As “her talents and power could not be denied; her beauty was therefore called … into question.”[3] One writer noted that her critics “did not shrink from depreciating her personal appearance, though she was tall in stature, with a good figure.”[4] Part of the problem was her increasingly radical leanings, her criticism of English policies, and several  tracts she wrote favoring America’s fight for independence. Moreover, bitter attacks against her occurred after she took a trip to Paris for her health.

On her return to England, English radical, journalist, and politician, John Wilkes, described her as “painted up to the eyes, and looking as rotten as an old Catherine pear.”[5] Dr. Samuel Johnson had a similar opinion and was “not well disposed to a ‘vile Whig’ historian.”[6] In fact, he “opined that she was ‘better employed in reddening her own cheeks than in blackening other people’s character.'”[7]

John Wilkes, Courtesy of Wikipedia

John Wilkes. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

As resentment began to build against Catharine Macaulay, her marriage to Graham made things worse. Part of the reason was the large age difference between the two: He was twenty-one and she was forty-seven. The age disparity exposed her to constant ridicule. Among those offended and upset about the age difference was Wilson. As he could not legally remove her from his house, he used another tactic. He “removed her statue from St. Stephen’s, to the great satisfaction of his parishioners, who contemplated raising a motion in the ecclesiastical courts.”[8] Then he sold a vault that he had provided for her use at St. Stephens.

Eventually, in 1784, Macaulay and her husband William, who had become an Anglican minister, left Bath. They traveled to North America and stayed from 15 July 1784 to 17 July 1785, during which time they associated with many leading figures of the American Revolution. Among those they met and visited was Jame Otis and his sister Mercy Otis Warren, who then wrote to John Adams praising Macaullay as “a Lady of most Extraordinary talent, a Commanding Genius and Brilliance of thought.”[9] They also visited New York and met Richard Henry Lee through Samuel Adams. In addition, Macaulay and William remained for some time as the guest of George Washington at Mount Vernon.

George Washington at at Verplanck’s Point on the North River on September 14, 1782, reviewing the French troops under General Rochambeau on their return from Virginia after the victory at Yorktown. By John Trumbull in 1790. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The French Revolution broke out about four years later. Soon after Macaulay sent a note to Washington, who had been inaugurated U.S. President on April 30, 1789. Macaulay’s letter was dated 30 October 1789 and in part stated:

“All the friends of freedom on this side the Atlantic are now rejoicing for an event which in all probability has been accelerated by the American revolution. You not only possess yr selves the first of human blessings but you have been the means of raising that spirit in Europe, which I sincerely hope, will in a short time extinguish every remainr of that barbarous servitude under which all the European Nations in a less or a greater degree, have so long been Subject.

The French have justified the nobleness of their original character, and from the immerssions of Luxury and frivolity, have set an example that is Unique in all the histories of human society. A populous nation effecting by the firmness of their union, the Universality of their sentiments; and the energy of their actions; the intire overthrow of a Despotism that had stood the test of ages. We are full of wonder in this part of the world, and cannot conceive how such things should be.

Yr Friend and Eleve the Merquis de la Fayette has acted a part in this revolution which has raised him above his former exploits; because his conduct has been directed to the good of his distressed country men and shews him far above those base and narrow selfishnesses with which particular privileges are so apt to taint the human mind.”[10]

In 1790, she wrote Letters on Education with Observations on Religions and Metaphysical Subjects noting that the apparent weakness of women was due to their mis-education. She also gave advice to parents to avoid educating women only in “ornamental parts” and those subjects that would attract a husband. Instead she encouraged parents:

“Confine not the education of your daughters to what is regarded as the ornamental parts of it … Suffer no prejudices to prevail on you to weaken Nature, in order to render her more beautiful; … The wisdom of your daughters will preserve them from the bane of coquettry, and even at the age of desire, objects of temptation will lose somewhat of their stimuli, by losing their novelty. … The principal study I would recommend is history; I know of nothing equally proper to entertain and improve at the same time, or that is so likely to form and strengthen the judgment of human nature, in some measure to supply the defect of that experience, which is usually attained too late to be of much service to us.”[11]

Catharine Macaulay

Catharine Macaulay (seated, far left), in the company of other “Bluestockings” (1778). Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Macaulay suffered a long and painful illness before she died on 22 June 1791 at the age of sixty-one. A week or so later the Caledonian Mercury reported:

“The celebrated Mrs. Macaulay Graham, author of several admired productions on historical and political subjects, died on Wednesday last, at her house at Binfield in Berkshire. … By the death of Mrs. Macaulay, her whole fortune goes from her husband, 400l. a-year to the executors of Dr. Wilson, and the remainder to her daughter. — Her personal effects are said, however, to be considerable, and they of course are her husband’s.”[12]

Catharine Macaulay visited George Washington's Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon – front view. Author’s collection.

An interesting connection to Jane Austen and her family with Macaulay would come to light in an 1808 letter written by Jane to her sister Cassandra. Macaulay had been born Catharine Sawbridge and her childhood home was a grand Palladian mansion that neighbored the Godmersham Estate that Jane’s brother Edward would eventually inherit. Macaulay’s cousins had been set to inherit Godmersham and the rest of Thomas Knight’s estate but once Knight and his wife, Catherine, adopted and designated Edward as their heir, Macaulay’s cousins were disinherited. Jane Austen apparently knew of Catharine Macaulay and of the Macalulay family’s relationship to the Knights. Jane also mentioned the marriage of Miss Sawbridge, daughter of John Sawbridge, to Rev. Patrick Maxwell, who was tutoring Macaulay’s two grandsons by her only child Sophia, who had married Charles Gregorie in 1787. Jane stated:

“Before I can tell you of it, you will have heard that Miss Sawbridge is married. It took place I beleive on Thursday, Mrs. Fowle has for some time been in the secret, but the Neighbourhood in general was quite unsuspicious. Mr. Maxwell was Tutor to the young Gregorys — consequently they must be one of the happiest Couple in the World, & either of them worthy of Envy — for she must be excessively in love, & he mounts from nothing, to a comfortable Home.”[13]

Jane Austen. Public domain.


  • [1] The Belfast Monthly Magazine, Vol. 11, 1813, p. 31.
  • [2] Lives of Great and Celebrated Characters of All Ages and Countries, 1860, p. 319-320.
  • [3] The Belfast Monthly Magazine, p. 31.
  • [4] Stephen, Sir Leslie, Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 34, 1893. p. 407.
  • [5] Craig, William Henry, Doctor Johnson and the Fair Sex, 1895, p. 139.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] The Book of Days, Vol. 1, 1881, p. 810.
  • [9] Davies, Kate, Catharine Macaulay and Mercy Otis Warren, 2005, p. 85.
  • [10] To George Washington from Catherine Sawbridge Macaulay Graham, 30 October 1789, in Founders Online, National Archives.
  • [11] The Parents’ Friend, Volume 2, 1803, p. 109, 235.
    109, 235.
  • [12] Mrs. Macaulay Graham,” in Caledonian Mercury, 30 June 1791 in p. 3.
  • [13] Le Fay, Deidre, Jane Austen’s Letters, 1995, p. 153-154.

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