1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Mitford, William

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MITFORD, WILLIAM (1744-1827), English historian, was the elder of the two sons of John Mitford, a barrister, who lived near Beaulieu, at the edge of the New Forest. Here, at Exbury House, his father's property, Mitford was born on the 10th of February 1744. He was educated at Cheam School, under the picturesque writer William Gilpin, but at the age of fifteen a severe illness led to his being removed, and after two years of idleness Mitford was sent, in July 1761, as a gentleman commoner to Queen's College, Oxford. In this year his father died, and left him the Exbury property and a considerable fortune. Mitford, therefore, being “very much his own master, was easily led to prefer amusement to study.” He left Oxford (where the only sign of assiduity he had shown was to attend the lectures of Blackstone) without a degree, in 1763, and proceeded to the Middle Temple. But when he married Miss Fanny Molloy in 1766, and retired to Exbury for the rest of his life, he made the study of the Greek language and literature his hobby and occupation. After ten years his wife died, and in October 1776 Mitford went abroad. He was encouraged by French scholars whom he met in Paris, Avignon and Nice to give himself systematically to the study of Greek history. But it was Gibbon, with whom he was closely associated when they both were officers in the South Hampshire Militia, who suggested to Mitford the form which his work should take. In 1784 the first of the volumes of his History of Greece appeared, and the fifth and last of these quartos was published in 1810, after which the state of Mitford's eyesight and other physical infirmities, including a loss of memory, forbade his continuation of the enterprise, although he painfully revised successive new editions. While his book was progressing, Mitford was a member of the House of Commons, with intervals, from 1785 to 1818, and he was for many years verderer of the New Forest and a county magistrate; but it does not appear that he ever visited Greece. After a long illness, he died at Exbury on the 10th of February 1827. In addition to his History of Greece, he published a few smaller works, the most important of which was an Essay on the Harmony of Language, 1774. The style of Mitford is natural and lucid, but without the rich colour of Gibbon. He affected some oddities both of language and of orthography, for which he was censured and which he endeavoured to revise. But his political opinions were still more severely treated, since Mitford was an impassioned anti-Jacobin, and his partiality for a monarchy led him to be unjust to the Athenians. Hence his History of Greece, after having had no peer in European literature for half a century, faded in interest on the appearance of the work of Grote. Clinton, too, in his Fasti hellenici, charged Mitford with “a general negligence of dates,” though admitting that in his philosophical range “he is far superior to any former writer” on Greek history. Byron, who dilated on Mitford's shortcomings, nevertheless declared that he was “perhaps the best of all modern historians altogether.” This Mitford certainly is not, but his pre-eminence in the little school of English historians who succeeded Hume and Gibbon it would be easier to maintain.

William Mitford's cousin, the Rev. John Mitford (1781-1859), was editor of the Gentleman's Magazine and of various editions of the English poets. For the Freeman-Mitfords, who were also relatives, see Redesdale, Earl of.