Dictionary of National Biography, 1927 supplement/Gairdner, James

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GAIRDNER, JAMES (1828-1912), historian, was born at Edinburgh 22 March 1828, the second son of John Gairdner, M.D. [q.v.]. Through his mother, Susan Tennant, he was, like Archbishop Maclagan [q.v.], a great-grandson of Dr. William Dalrymple, minister of Ayr, the ‘Dalrymple mild’ to whom Burns devotes a stanza in The Kirk’s Alarm. Educated privately, in 1846 he obtained a clerkship in the then newly established Public Record Office, and there laboured at the arrangement and description of records until his retirement from the public service in March 1898—an uneventful life. In 1856 he was associated with John Sherren Brewer [q.v.], whom the master of the Rolls had commissioned to prepare a Calendar of Letters and Papers of the Reign of Henry VIII. Brewer died in 1879, when nine bulky parts, comprising the first four volumes, of that monumental work had been issued, and Gairdner continued. editor of the Calendar to its completion in twenty-one volumes, being assisted in the last eight by Mr. R. H. Brodie.

The Calendar gives the purport of about a hundred thousand documents in many languages. Gairdner devoted the whole of his leisure time to historical work, beginning with Memorials of King Henry VII (1858) and Letters and Papers of Richard III and Henry VII (1861–1863), edited for the Rolls Series of Chronicles and Memorials. He afterwards edited The Historical Collections of a Citizen of London in the Fifteenth Century (1876), Three Fifteenth-Century Chronicles (1880), and The Spousells of the Princess Mary (1898) for the Camden Society. In 1872–1875 he published in three volumes a greatly enlarged collection of The Paston Letters, with a long introduction which is probably his best work. He published three later editions of the Letters; that of 1904 is the definitive edition. A Life of Richard III followed in 1878. In 1884 he collected and published Brewer’s prefaces to the first four volumes of the Letters and Papers under the title of The Reign of Henry VIII from his Accession to the Death of Wolsey, and in 1889 wrote Henry the Seventh for the popular series known as ‘Twelve English Statesmen’. After retiring from the public service he wrote the volume on the period 1509–1559 (1902) in Stephens and Hunt’s History of the English Church, and in 1908 began to publish his longest work, Lollardy and the Reformation in England, in four volumes, the last of which was issued after his death under the editorship of Dr. W. Hunt. He was also the author of innumerable articles for historical publications. He died at Pinner, Middlesex, 4 November 1912.

Gairdner’s power as an historian lies in describing the course of events, for the elucidation of which he marshals, with patient logic and in clear and vigorous style, his contemporary authorities, and explains their obscurities of diction or handwriting. In treating of characters and motives he is less convincing, and to some readers seems to let a natural bias in favour of constituted authority influence his judgement of documentary evidence. Yet he is never intentionally unfair, and quotes all his evidences with simple confidence that other minds will interpret them as he himself does.

Gairdner married in 1867 Annie, daughter of Joseph Sayer, of Carisbrooke, by whom he had one daughter. There is a bronze bust of him by Frank Baxter in the National Portrait Gallery.

[Preface by W. Hunt to J. Gairdner’s Lollardy and the Reformation in England, vol. iv; personal knowledge.]

R. H. B.