Nathaniel Salmon: his history … and Hertfordshire County Histories

Frontispiece of Nathaniel Salmon's history of Hertfordshire

A major loophole filled

The Society is delighted to have acquired a book to fill the major lacuna in our Hertfordshire collections. Chris Reynolds has very kindly donated to the Library: Nathaniel Salmon, History of Hertfordshire (1728). This handsome folio volume completes SAHAAS’s holdings of the major histories of Hertfordshire.

Earlier histories of the county

Preceded by John Norden’s Description of Hartfordshire (1598) – barely a history but the pioneering account – and Sir Henry Chauncy’s Historical antiquities (1700, 2nd ed. 1826), Salmon’s History was followed a century later by Robert Clutterbuck’s massive three volume The History and Antiquities of the County … (1815–27), energetically carried around by J.E. Cussans in his visitations of every parish for his History of Hertfordshire (1870–81). The monumental Victoria County History for Hertfordshire completed in 1914 builds on all its predecessors in four volumes + index, edited by William Page, a luminary of our Society.

A man of strong convictions

Nathaniel Salmon, born 22 March 1675, the second son of a Bedfordshire vicar, was admitted to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, obtaining his LL.B in 1695, and ordained in 1699. Curate at Westmill, Herts, on Queen Anne’s accession by refusing to swear allegiance he became a Nonjuror [clergy and lay officials who scrupled to take the oaths imposed after the deposition of James II]. Deprived by his principles of clerical living and income, he turned to ‘physick’ and practised medicine at Bishop’s Stortford.

A High Anglican, he held strong principles and views which he was not fearful of expressing, including contempt for the Civil War Parliamentarians, and concern for the plight of the ‘lower orders’. A man of great vigour and contradictions, he turned to antiquarian research and writing. Although a Nonjuror, Salmon’s first publication (1715) was a biography of Henry Compton, Bishop of London, the only ecclesiastical signatory to the invitation to William of Orange in 1688. He developed a deep interest in Roman remains, publishing A survey of the Roman antiquities of some Midland counties … and Roman stations in Britain, both in 1726.

Salmon’s History of Hertfordshire appeared in 1728, printed for subscribers. It melds his own antiquarian researches into Roman antiquities and his observations on early 18th century Hertfordshire with further work collected by Chauncy, to whose papers Salmon had access. Much criticised by contemporary and succeeding county historians, it became more kindly regarded in the 20th century. Certainly there are faults – he worked at speed, with consequent errors, and took little time for reflection; he wrote at unnecessary length (though often engagingly); he could be unwilling to change his mind in the face of contradictory evidence (vide some of his Roman speculations) leading to some disregard as a tendentious eccentric; the utility of the work was also hampered by its lack of an index.

With the development of modern local historical studies, Salmon is now more highly regarded. Compared to his contemporaries, and for all his ideological conservatism, he looked at his surroundings with more modern eyes. He was an acute observer of economic especially agrarian conditions in early 18th century Hertfordshire. He mentions features of contemporary topography no longer present and changing local circumstances – e.g. migration to linear villages. He has an appreciation of landscape not present in Chauncy. Similarly he comments on the fabric of churches from his own observation, noting details – often now disappeared.

Local customs and folklore traditions

Most unusually, he frequently describes local customs and folklore traditions. To quote Stephen Doree [p. 213], by “push[ing] through the press the manuscript notes of others [Salmon] deserve[s] the regard of posterity, but he did more …. His Hertfordshire is … an independent history of the county which whatever its shortcomings and idiosyncrasies, made a genuine attempt to link the topography and landscape of the county he knew with a pre-Roman, Roman and Anglo-Saxon past. This had not been attempted by Chauncy and was not to be seriously attempted by either Clutterbuck or Cussans.”

Besides Hertfordshire, Salmon also wrote inter alia histories of Surrey (1736 – essentially Roman antiquities), an unfinished history of Essex (1740), and The lives of the English bishops from the Restauration to the Revolution (1733). Having exhausted his financial resources through printing and publishing, he died in poverty in London in 1742.

Donald Munro

Principal sources

Stephen Doree “Nathaniel Salmon: Hertfordshire’s neglected historian” in Hertfordshire in history, ed. Doris Jones-Baker (1991) 205–22. Nicholas Connell “Nathaniel Salmon (1675– 1742) the Hertfordshire historian”. Hertfordshire’s Past, 50 (Spring 2001) 5–12.