The story of how the Short History of the English People came to be written would be the story of Mr. Green's life, from the time when his boyish interest was first awakened by the world beyond himself until his work was done. So closely are the work and the worker bound together that unless the biography be fully written no real account of the growth of the book can indeed be given. But in issuing a Revised Edition of the History, a slight sketch of the historical progress of the writer's mind, and of the gradual way in which the plan of his work grew up, may not seem out of place.
John Richard Green, who was born at Oxford in December 1837, was sent at eight years old to Magdalen Grammar School, then held in a small room within the precincts of the College. The Oxford world about him was full of suggestions of a past which very early startled his curiosity and fired his imagination. The gossiping tales of an old dame who had seen George the Third drive through the town in a coach and six were his first lessons in history. Year after year he took part with excited fancy in the procession of the Magdalen choir boys to the College tower on May Day, to sing at the sunrising a Hymn to the Trinity which had replaced the Mass chanted in pre-Reformation days, and to "jangle" the bells in recognition of an immemorial festival. St. Giles' fair, the "beating of the bounds," even the name of "Pennyfarthing Street," were no less records of a mysterious past than Chapel or College or the very trees of Magdalen Walk; and he once received, breathless and awe-struck, a prize from the hands of the centenarian President of the College, Dr. Routh, the last man who ever wore a wig in Oxford, a man who had himself seen Dr. Johnson stand in the High Street with one foot on either side of the kennel that ran down the middle of the way, the street boys standing round, "none daring to interrupt the meditations of the great lexicographer." "You are a clever boy," said the old man as he gave the prize and shook him by the hand.
His curiosity soon carried him beyond Oxford; and in very early days he learned to wander on Saints' days and holidays to the churches of neighbouring villages, and there shut himself in to rub brasses and study architectural mouldings. Other interests followed on his ecclesiastical training. He remembered the excitement which was produced in Oxford by Layard's discovery of the Nestorians in the Euphrates valley. One day Mr. Ramsay gathered round him the boys who were at play in Magdalen Walk and told them of his journey to see these people; and one at least of his hearers plunged eagerly into problems then much discussed of the relations of orthodox believers to Monophysites, and the distinctions between heresy and schism, questions which occupied him many years. Knowledge of this kind, he said long afterwards, had been a real gain to him. "The study of what the Monophysites did in Syria, and the Monothelites in Egypt, has taught me what few historians know - the intimate part religion plays in a nation's history, and how closely it joins itself to a people's life".
Living is a strictly Conservative atmosphere, he had been very diligently brought up as a Tory and a High Churchman. But when he was about fourteen, orthodox Conservatism and school life came to a close which then seemed to him very tragic. A school essay was set on Charles the First; and as the boy read earnestly every book he could find on the subject, it suddenly burst on him that Charles was wrong. The essay, written with a great deal of feeling under this new and strong conviction, gained the prize over the heads of boys older and till then reputed abler; but it drew down on him unmeasured disapproval. Canon Mozley, who examined, remonstrated in his grave way: "Your essay is very good, but remember I do not agree with your conclusions, and you will in all probability see reason to change them as you grow older." The head-master took a yet more severe view of such a change of political creed. But the impulse to Liberalism had been definitely given; and had indeed brought with it many other grave questionings. When at the next examination he shot up to the head of the school, his master advised that he should be withdrawn from Magdalen, to the dismay both of himself and of the uncle with whom he lived. The uncle indeed had his own grounds of alarm.
John had one day stood at a tailor's window in Oxford where Lord John Russell's Durham Letter was spread out to view, and, as he read it, had come to his own conclusions as to its wisdom. He even declared the Ecclesiastical Titles Act to be absurd. His uncle, horrified at so extreme a heresy, with angry decision ordered him to find at once another home; and when after a time the agitation had died away and he was allowed to come back, it was on the condition of never again alluding to so painful a subject. The new-found errors clung to him, however, when he went shortly afterwards to live in the country with a tutor. "I wandered about the fields thinking," he said, "but I never went back from the opinions I had begun to form".
It was when he was about sixteen that Gibbon fell into his hands; and from that moment the enthusiasm of history took hold of him. "Man and man's history "became henceforth the dominant interest of his life. When he returned to Oxford with a scholarship to Jesus College, an instinct of chivalrous devotion inspired his resolve that the study of history should never become with him "a matter of classes or fellowships," nor should be touched by the rivalries, the conventional methods, the artificial limitations, and the utilitarian aims of the Schools. College work and history work went on apart, with much mental friction and difficulty of adjustment and sorrow of heart. Without any advisers, almost without friends, he groped his way, seeking in very solitary fashion after his own particular vocation. His first historical efforts were spent on that which lay immediately about him; and the series of papers which he sent at this time to the Oxford Chronicle on "Oxford in the last Century" are instinct with all the vivid imagination of his later work, and tell their tale after a method and in a style which was already perfectly natural to him. He read enormously, but history was never to him wholly a matter of books. The Town was still his teacher.