Sir Arthur Wynne Morgan Bryant, CH, CBE was an English historian, columnist for The Illustrated London News and man of affairs. His books included studies of Samuel Pepys, accounts of English eighteenth- and nineteenth-century history, and a life of George V. He moved in high government circles, where his works were influential, being the favourite historian of three prime ministers: Winston Churchill, Clement Atlee and Harold Wilson…
Bryant’s historiography was often based on an English romantic exceptionalism drawn from his nostalgia for an idealised agrarian past. He hated modern commercial and financial capitalism, he emphasised duty over rights, and he equated democracy with the consent of “fools” and “knaves”.
Arthur Bryant was born on 18 February 1899, the son of Sir Francis Morgan Bryant, who was the chief clerk to the Prince of Wales, and wife Margaret (May) née Edmunds. His father would later hold a number of offices in the royal secretariat, eventually becoming registrar of the Royal Victorian Order. Arthur grew up in a house bordering the Buckingham Palace Gardens near the Royal Mews. There he developed a feel for the trappings of traditional British protocol and a strong attachment to the history of England.
He attended school at Pelham House, Sandgate, and Harrow School where his younger brother the Rev. Philip Henry Bryant later became an assistant Master. Though he expected to join the British Army, he won in 1916 a scholarship to Pembroke College, Cambridge. Despite that, he joined the Royal Flying Corps the following year, as a pilot officer. While there, he served in the first squadron to bomb the towns of the Rhineland during World War 1. He was also for a time the only British subject formally attached to the United States’ Expeditionary Force’s Air Service, to one of its detachments that had arrived in England for training for frontline service.
In 1919 he read Modern History at Queen’s College, Oxford, obtaining distinction in the honours courses offered to ex-servicemen in 1920.
Arthur started work at Holloway School as a history teacher. There he developed strong sense of social justice and became convinced that education would be an effective way of uniting the people. That conviction led him to become a historian. Tall, dark, and attractive, he was popular at the debutante balls he regularly attended, where he often persuaded his dancing partners to help him teach some of the less fortunate children at a children’s library he had established in Charles Dicken’s’s old house in Somers Tow, London.
He became a barrister at the Inner Temple in 1923, but left later that year to take the headmaster position of the Cambridge School of Arts, Crafts, and Technology, becoming the youngest headmaster in England. He organised the Cambridge Pageant in 1924 and the Oxford Pageant in 1926. Altogether, he proved remarkably successful in enrolling students, the school growing from three hundred to two thousand students in his three years there. During 1926 he married Sylvia Mary Shakerley, daughter of Walter Geoffrey Shakerley, the third Baronet Shakerley, and the following year became a lecturer in history for the Oxford University delegacy for extramural studies, a position he retained until 1936. His marriage was dissolved in 1930. He also served as an advisor at the Bonar Law College at Ashridge. His first book, The Spirit of Conservatism, appeared in 1929 and was written with his former students in mind.
In 1929, after cataloguing the Shakerley family library, he was asked by a friend in publishing to produce a new biography of Charles II of England. Yale Professor Frank W. Notestein suggested that he begin the work with Charles’s escape following the Battle of Worcester, incorporating details of his earlier life into the narrative thereafter. This dramatic opening led the Book Society to choose it as their October 1931 selection, and it became a best-seller. Arthur ‘s success with this volume encouraged him, and he remained in that field. The book has been described as being both readable and informed by solid scholarship. He also regularly continued to produce pageants. These included the Wisbech and Hyde Park pageants, and the Naval Night Pageant in Greenwich, which was attended by the King, Queen, Prince of Wales, British Cabinet, and members of the World Economic Conference. For the quality of his work in this field, he was acclaimed “the English Reinhardt”.
He helped found the National Book Association, and its subsidiary, the Right Book Club, as an alternative to the Left Book Club. The new organisation was not outstandingly successful, however, although it did publish several of his own writings.
His next book was a three-volume biography of Samuel Pepys, completed in 1938 and regarded as “one of the great historical biographies in the language” by John Kenyon. Almost three-quarters of a century after its publication it remains an important guide to Pepys’s career.
Arthur also was a frequent contributor to London papers and magazines, and scripted radio broadcasts relating to his historical interests, as well as radio plays for the BBC. He published a collection of scripts in his book The National Character. He was editor of the Ashridge Journal and president of the Ashridge Dining Club.
Unfinished Victory was a book which he had published in January 1940; it dealt with recent German history, and explained sympathetically how Germany had rebuilt herself after World War I. He asserted that certain German Jews had benefited from the economic crises and controlled the national wealth, and although he criticised the destruction of Jewish shops and synagogues. Initially most reviewers received the book positively, but after the ‘phoney war’ ended, public and elite opinion turned sharply against appeasement of any sort. Arthur realised his mistake in proposing a compromise and tried to buy up unsold copies.
After the fall of France in 1940, Arthur’s writing celebrated British patriotism. His English Saga, published at the end of that year, described England as “an island fortress … fighting a war of redemption, not only for Europe but for her own soul”. Roberts says of his popular essays and books, “Bryant did a superb job in helping to stiffen the people’s resolve by putting their sacrifices in historical context.”
He married again, in 1941, to Anne Elaine Brooke, daughter of Bertram Willes Brooke, one of the White Rajahs of Sarawak. His books during this decade dealt less prominently with the 17th century, and included a collection of Neville Chamberlain’s speeches.
His works during this period were well-received for their style and readability, although they also tended to be less well researched, which has caused them to be questioned by younger historians. Several of these works, including English Saga (1940), The Years of Endurance 1793–1802 (1942), and Years of Victory, 1802–1812, drew notable criticism, particularly for his preoccupation with comparing Napoleon and Hilter. The shortcomings of these works, possibly combined with their unusual popularity, helped ensure that he never received the highest academic honours.
His single major work in the decade was a two-volume collection of Alan Brooke, 1st Viscount Alanbrooke’s’s diaries with additional commentary, The Turn of the Tide (1957) and The Triumph in the West (1959). These books created substantial controversy, given their criticism of Churchill, who was then at the height of his popularity. They are still considered essential reading for understanding the British military during the war.
The books he wrote during his later years included several volumes of broad English histories. They include Set in a Silver Sea (1984), Freedom’s Own Island (1986, edited posthumously by John Kenyon, and a third volume. He retained a large readership and was guest-of-honour at the Conservative Monday Club’s’s 1966 annual dinner. He spoke on “The Preservation of our National Character”. The dinner, at the Savoy Hotel, was sold out.
Arthur’s total output was remarkable. He wrote over forty books overall, which collectively sold over two million copies. Also, in collaboration with W.P.Lipscomb, he wrote a play dramatising Pepys’ life, titled: ‘Thank you, Mr. Pepys!’, which ran for one hundred and fifty performances in London. He was a frequent lecturer, speaking at many of the leading cities and schools in Great Britain, as well as in the United States and fourteen European countries. His public speeches included the 1935 Watson Chair lectures sponsored by the Sulgrave Manor Trust. These lectures, on American history, literature, and biography, were later collected into the book The American Ideal.
In 1936, Arthur took over G.K. Chesterton’s “Our Note Book” column for the Illustrated London News. He continued writing this column until his death, which occurred almost half a century after Chesterton’s. Overall, Bryant produced about 2.7 million words for that magazine.
Although professional historians were frequently negative about his best-sellers, Bryant’s histories were explicitly praised by prime ministers Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain, , Churchill, Attlee, Macmillan, Wilson, James Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher..
During the 1950s Arthur was knighted and made a Companion of Honour in the 1960’s. His second marriage dissolved in 1976. In his final years he lived in Myles Place, Salisbury, Wiltshire.
Arthur died after a brief illness at the age of 85 on 22 January 1985. His body was cremated, with its ashes being entombed in Salisbury Cathedral.