Robertson, James Burton (1800–77), historian, was born 15 November 1800 in London, son of Thomas Robertson, landowner in Grenada, West Indies, and his wife, Maria B. Purcell, widow of T. I. Lyndsay. The Robertsons were presbyterians but James was brought up in the catholic faith of his mother. He spent his early childhood in Grenada and in 1809 returned to England with his (by now widowed) mother, and was sent to St Edmund's College, Ware, Hertfordshire, where he remained until 1818. The following year he entered the Middle Temple, and was called to the bar on 3 June 1825 although he never practised as a lawyer. The next thirty years were spent largely studying in the Continent, first in France and from 1837 to 1854 in Germany and Belgium. His studies were in literature, philosophy, and theology, and he translated two works from the German: Schlegel's Lectures on the philosophy of history in 1835 and Möhler's Symbolism in 1843. To both works he prefixed memoirs of the authors, and for the latter he wrote a brief history of protestantism and catholicism in Germany during the preceding hundred years. His bent was fervently catholic; this work was a strong influence on the Tractarian party at Oxford. With the establishment of the Catholic University at Dublin in 1854, Robertson was asked by John Henry Newman (qv) to take the chair of geography and modern history. He held this post, together with the chair of English literature, until his retirement in 1869.
Robertson's lectures, which were published in four volumes, were scholarly and stylish, on subjects ranging from the British constitutional settlement of 1688 (which he interpreted from a whig standpoint) to the life and writings of Chateaubriand. His final lectures, published in 1869, were a vindication of Edmund Burke (qv), who, he claimed, had defended institutions and laws fundamental to human society. A gentle, urbane man, much sought after in Dublin society, Robertson was extremely popular with students, who on several occasions turned rowdy in his lectures and used also to mock his English accent. A former student, the journalist John Augustus O'Shea (qv), described him as ‘the beau idéal of a courtier of the old régime, [he] had suave, polished manners with a simplicity and gracious sincerity all his own. He was tall, thin and stooped with a sallow complexion like parchment tightly stretched . . . Hence the nickname of death's head’ (O'Shea, 109). O'Shea found his lectures masterly; however, another student, John Devoy (qv), though he thought them interesting, wrote that he learned nothing of history or geography. Robertson also published a poem, the Prophet of Enoch (1861), which the Dublin Review maintained approached Milton, and the Athenaeum judged the silliest poem the reviewer had ever had to read.
In 1869 he received a civil pension of £90 a year on the recommendation of Gladstone, and in 1873 Pope Pius IX conferred on him the title of doctor in philosophy. He died unmarried in Dublin on 14 February 1877 and was buried in Glasnevin cemetery.