Lecky, William Edward Hartpole (1838–1903), historian, was born 26 March 1838 in Newtown Park, Dublin. Of Scottish origin, the Leckys had settled in the north of Ireland in the early seventeenth century, and became prominent in the public life of the city of Derry. Robert Lecky, born in the mid-seventeenth century, moved from Donegal to Carlow and was the ancestor of the branch of the family from which the historian came. The historian's paternal grandmother belonged to the Hartpole family, once prominent in the affairs of Queen's Co. (Laois). Robert Hartpole was constable of Carlow castle and governor of the Queen's County in the days of the Elizabethan conquest. The portion of the Hartpole and Lecky properties in Queen's Co. and Carlow which the historian's father, John Hartpole Lecky, inherited allowed him to live as a gentleman of independent means. The historian's mother, Mary Anne Tallents, was the daughter of a solicitor in Newark, England. The Tallents family had included academics and divines in seventeenth-century Cambridge. Lecky was only a year old when his mother died. His father's second marriage was to Isabella Eliza Wilmot of Queen's Co. Lecky had one stepbrother and a stepsister.
He attended a number of schools for brief spells in Ireland and England – including Cheltenham College – before his entrance to TCD. At Trinity he played a leading role in the Historical Society, winning its gold medal for oratory. His student days in Trinity (1856–60) culminated in a pass degree, a second-class divinity testimonium, and the anonymous publication of three small books – Friendship and other poems (1859); The religious tendencies of the age (1860); and The leaders of public opinion in Ireland (1861).
After graduation Lecky spent the greater part of the 1860s engaged in research in the libraries of the Continent. The result of what he himself described as ‘an immense amount of literary vagabondage’ was the publication of his two books, History of the rise and influence of the spirit of rationalism in Europe (1865), and History of European morals from Augustus to Charlemange (1869). These works were written while he was very much under the influence of Henry Thomas Buckle's History of civilization in England (1857–61). They were pioneering studies into the new sociological history of ideas and the search for the laws underlying causation. Although these books on the history of rationalism and morals won immediate and wide acclaim for Lecky, they were to lack the more enduring qualities of his later work on the eighteenth century.
Having settled in London he began to take a keen interest in current politics and in the history of Ireland in the eighteenth century. A second enlarged edition of his The leaders of public opinion in Ireland, which included essays on Swift (qv), Flood (qv), Grattan (qv), and O'Connell (qv), was published in 1871. That same year he married Elisabeth, Baroness van Dedem, eldest daughter of Gen. Baron van Dedem and of his first wife, Baroness Sloet van Hagensdorp. Elisabeth, at the time of her marriage to Lecky, was maid of honour to Queen Sophia of the Netherlands. They had no children.
The first two volumes of his History of England in the eighteenth century were published in 1878 and the final volumes (vii, viii) appeared in 1890 and confirmed Lecky's reputation as a leading historian of his time. The Irish and the English chapters were published separately in a cabinet edition in 1892, with seven volumes devoted to England and five volumes to a History of Ireland in the eighteenth century. The reviews that greeted each successive volume on the eighteenth century placed him in the tradition of Gibbon, Macaulay, Carlyle, and Froude (qv). He was praised for his impartiality, judiciousness, moral tone, and liberal sympathies. His volumes on England have long been replaced as the leading textbook on eighteenth-century England, but the volumes on Ireland – especially the chapters dealing with the 1790s, which were largely based on original documents – still retain much that is of value. Convinced that the art of history writing had more to do with literature than with the new science pioneered by the nineteenth-century German schools of history, he remained in the great tradition of the nineteenth-century English amateur historians.
Irish nationalists, Gladstone, and other leading liberals all quoted from Lecky's historical work on Ireland in support of an independent Irish parliament. But Lecky himself as an Irish landowner was horrified by what he regarded as an unholy alliance of democracy, nationalism, and socialism. For him Parnellism equalled agrarian crime and extreme political demands by men who were lawbreakers. To counter the nationalism that his historical writings helped to promote, he turned to unionist pamphleteering. He was elected to parliament for Dublin University in a by-election in December 1895 as a liberal unionist. He played a prominent part in debates on the land bill of 1896, the local government bill of 1898, and the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction Bill of 1899. He spoke also in favour of university education for catholics and on Anglo–Irish financial relations. He resigned from parliament for health reasons in 1902. His Democracy and liberty, published in two volumes in 1896, was a defence of individual liberty against the inroads of advancing democracy. His Map of life (1899) was based on observations and reflections he had written into his commonplace books over the years. Historical and political essays was a collection of occasional pieces written during the early 1890s and published posthumously in 1908. The third (revised and enlarged) edition of Leaders of public opinion in Ireland in two volumes was published in 1903. He died in his library in London on 22 October 1903.
Although he confessed to not caring much for what he called ‘the feathers of life’, he was the recipient of honorary degrees from the universities of Dublin (1879), St Andrews (1885), Oxford (1888), Cambridge (1891), and Glasgow (1895). He was offered the regius professorship of history at Oxford by the prime minister, Lord Salisbury, in 1892 but he turned down the offer. He was elected correspondent of the French Institute in the Académie des Sciences in 1893. Among the honours bestowed to mark the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria (1897), Lecky was made a privy councillor. On the occasion of the coronation of Edward VII in 1902 Lecky was one of the twelve to receive the newly instituted Order of Merit. He was also a founding fellow of the British Academy. The National Portrait Gallery, London, has a portrait of Lecky by George Frederick Watts; the National Gallery of Ireland has one by John Lavery (qv). The bronze statue of Lecky in the front square of Trinity College is by Goscombe John. The main collection of his papers is in TCD; a comprehensive bibliography of his writings is in Donal McCartney's biography (1994).