Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Mitford, William

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MITFORD, WILLIAM (1744–1827), historian, born in London on 10 Feb. 1744, was the elder of the two sons of John Mitford, barrister-at-law, of Exbury House, Hampshire, by his wife Philadelphia, daughter of W. Reveley of Newton Underwood and Throphill, Northumberland. John Freeman-Mitford, baron Redesdale [q. v.], lord chancellor of Ireland, was the younger son. William Mitford was educated at Cheam school, Surrey, under William Gilpin [q.v.], whom he afterwards presented, in 1777, to the vicarage of Boldre in the New Forest (Nichols, Lit. Illustr. i. 778; on Mitford's supposed education at Westminster School, cf. Notes and Queries, 7th ser. vii. 278, and Welch, Alumni Westmonast, p. 548). He matriculated at Queen's College, Oxford, 16 July 1761, but neglected the ordinary studies, and left without a degree. At Queen's, where he was distinguished by his good looks and his personal strength, he was of the same breakfast club as Jeremy Bentham, who ' thought his conversation commonplace ' (Bowring, Life of Bentham, p. 40 a). In the vacations, however, he read some Greek and attended Blackst one's Vinerian lectures at Oxford with a view to the bar. He became a student of the Middle Temple in 1763, but never practised. On his father's death in 1761 he succeeded to the property at Exbury. In 1802 he acquired the Reveley estates in Yorkshire, through his mother's family, but continued till his death to live at Exbury, where he rebuilt the house about 1800. From 1761 Mitford lived for several years in comparative retirement at Exbury, and devoted himself to the study of Greek. He was verderer of the New Forest in 1778, and was colonel in the South Hampshire militia, in which Gibbon, the historian, was a brother-officer. While in the militia Mitford published a 'Treatise on the Military Force, and particularly the Militia (of England),' and on Gibbon's suggestion undertook his principal work, the 'History of Greece.' The first volume appeared in 1784, 4to, and vol. ii. in 1790, but the book was not completed till 1810. Other editions appeared (1789-1818, 4to; 1795-7, 8vo; 1818-20, 8vo; 1822, 8vo; 1829, 8vo; 1835, 12mo). Mitford's history for many years remained popular, and had the merit of supplying a laborious English work on a comparatively neglected subject. It was superior at most points to the Greek history by John Gillies (1747-1836) [q. v.], published in 1786. It was praised by Brougham in the 'Edinburgh Review,' and by Alison (Hist. of Europe, 1815-52, chap, v.); but the obscurity and oddity of the author's style have been severely commented on by Byron (Don Juan, canto xii. st. xix, note) and Macaulay. Clinton (Fasti Hellenici) has attacked the work for its chronological shortcomings, and Grote (Hist. of Greece, Preface) contrasts its tone unfavourably with 'the liberal spirit of criticism' displayed by Thirlwall. Alison considers that the author, writing at the time of the French revolution, intended chiefly to counteract visionary ideas as to the blessings of Athenian democracy. Dr. Arnold thought that Mitford's anti- Jacobin partialities at any rate saved his history from dulness (cf. Byron, loc. cit.) Lord Redesdale, in the preface to the 1822 edition of the 'History of Greece,' attempts an ingenious defence of his brother's treatment of ancient Hellenic politics. It may be added that Mitford never visited Greece, never travelling beyond Naples.

Mitford was M.P. for Newport, Cornwall, 1785-90; for Beeralston, 1796-1806; New Romney, 1812-18. In parliament he upheld the militia system, in which he strongly deprecated any innovations, but seldom spoke. He was a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and professor of ancient history at the Royal Academy. He died at his seat, Exbury, on 10 Feb. 1827. There is a monument to him in the church at Exbury. A portrait is prefixed to the last edition of his 'History' (1835). Mitford married, 18 May 1766, Frances, daughter of James Molloy of Dublin, by Anne, daughter of Henry Pye, M.P. for Faringdon, Berkshire, and had issue five sons and one daughter. Henry Mitford, the second son, was captain in the royal navy; another son, Bertram, was LL.D. and a commissioner of bankrupts in Ireland. Mrs. Mitford died 27 April 1827.

Besides the works already mentioned, Mitford published:

  1. 'An Essay on the Harmony of Language,' &c. (especially the English language), 1774, 8vo; 2nd edit. 1804.
  2. 'Considerations, &c., on the Corn Laws' (contending that England could grow wheat enough for its own supply), London, 1791, 8vo.
  3. 'Observations on the History … of Christianity, and … on the Primeval Religion, on the Judaic and on the Heathen, Public, Mystical and Philosophical, the latter … an Appendix to the … "History of Greece,"' London, 1823, 8vo.
  4. 'Principles of Design in Architecture, traced in Observations on Buildings,' &c., 2nd edit. London, 1824, 8vo.

A 'Review of the Early History of the Arabs,' in two chapters, which forms the introduction to Shakespear and Home's 'History of the Mahometan Empire in Spain' (London, 1816), may also be safely attributed to him.

[Burke's Landed Gentry, 'Mitford of Exbury;' Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1715-1886; Mitford's Hist, of Greece, with Lord Redesdale's Memoir; Lit. Memoirs of Living Authors, 1798, ii. 49; Allibone's Diet. Engl. Lit.; Gent. Mag. 1827, pt. i. pp. 368-9; Brit. Mus. Cat,; information kindly furnished by the Eev. the Provost, Queen's College, Oxford.]

W. W.