I am the Watchman

Linda Colley

  • William Cobbett: Selected Writings edited by Leonora Nattrass
    Pickering & Chatto, 2312 pp, £495.00, December 1998, ISBN 1 85196 375 8
  • Rural rides by William Cobbett, edited by Ian Dyck
    Penguin, 576 pp, £9.99, September 2001, ISBN 0 14 043579 4

It is partly because so much appears to be known about William Cobbett (1763-1835) that he is insufficiently understood. Few political writers anywhere and at any time have been more prolific or had more impact on their contemporaries. His newspaper The Political Register, which appeared at intervals between 1802 and 1835, sold at its peak of popularity up to 70,000 copies an issue and was read by millions on both sides of the Atlantic. His now barely remembered History of the Protestant Reformation, published in cheap monthly parts between 1824 and 1826, sold 700,000 copies over two years, and contributed to the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act. Rural Rides (1830) was still more successful and has never been out of print. As even the Attorney General prosecuting him in 1831 conceded, Cobbett was ‘one of the greatest masters of the English language that ever composed it’.

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