The son of RH Froude, archdeacon of Totnes, he was born at Dartington, Devon. He was educated at Westminster and Oriel College, Oxford, then the centre of the ecclesiastical revival. He obtained a second class degree, but won the Chancellor's English essay prize, and was elected a fellow of Exeter College (1842). His elder brother, Richard Hurrell Froude, had been one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement. Froude joined that party and helped John Henry Newman in his Lives of the English Saints. He was ordained deacon in 1845. By that time his religious opinions had begun to change, he grew dissatisfied with the views of the High Church party, and came under the influence of Thomas Carlyle. Signs of this first appeared publicly in his Shadows of the Clouds, a volume containing two stories of a religious sort, which he published in 1847 under the pseudonym of "Zeta," and his complete desertion of his party was declared a year later in his Nemesis of Faith, of which the earlier part seems to be autobiographical.
At the college's request, he resigned his fellowship at Oxford, and mainly supported himself by writing, contributing largely to Fraser's Magazine and the Westminster Review. His talent was soon generally recognized. The first two volumes of his History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Defeat of the Spanish Armada appeared in 1856, and the work was completed in 1870. As an historian he is chiefly remarkable for his literary style. He condemns a scientific treatment of history and disregards its philosophy. He held that its purpose was simply to record human actions and that it should be written as a drama. Accordingly he gives prominence to the personal element in history. His presentations of character and motives, whether truthful or not, but he sometimes failed to understand the context of the period on which he was writing. Froude's work is often marred by prejudice and inaccuracy.
The keynote of Froude's History is contained in his assertion that the Reformation was "the root and source of the expansive force which has spread the Anglo-Saxon race over the globe." Hence he overpraises King Henry VIII and others who helped the movement, and speaks too harshly of its opponents. So too, in his English in Ireland (1872-1874), which was written to show thc futility of attempts to conciliate the Irish, he aggravates all that can be said against the Irish, touches too lightly on English atrocities,and writes unjustly of the influence of Roman Catholicism. A strong anti-clerical prejudice is shown in his historical work, doubtless the result of the change in his views on Church matters and his abandonment of the clerical profession. Carlyle's influence on him is seen in his admiration for strong rulers and strong government, which led him to write as though tyranny and brutality were excusable, and also in his independent treatment of character. His rehabilitation of Henry VIII was a useful protest, but his representation of Henry as the self-denying minister of his people's will is founded on the false theory that the acts of Henry's parliaments represented the opinions of the educated laymen of England.
In his Divorce of Catherine of Aragon (1891) Froude made attempted to show that fresh evidence on the subject, brought forward by Dr James Gairdner, Dr Friedmann and others, was consistent with the views which he had expressed in his History nearly forty years before. He worked diligently at original manuscript authorities at Simancas, the Record Office and Hatfield House; but he used his materials carelessly, and brought to his investigation of them a mind already made up.
Froude's Life of Caesar (1879), a glorification of imperialism, betrays an imperfect acquaintance with Roman politics and the life of Cicero; and his travel book, The English in the West Indies (1888) shows that he made little effort to master his subject. Oceana (1886), the record of a tour in Australia and New Zealand, notes the prosperity of the working-classes in Adelaide at the date of his visit, when, in fact, owing to a failure in the wheatcrop, hundreds were then living on charity. Historical scholars ridiculed his mistakes, and Freeman, the most violent of his critics, never let slip a chance of hitting at him in the Saturday Review. Froude's temperament was sensitive, and he suffered from these attacks, which were often unjust and always too savage in tone. The literary quarrel between him and Freeman became news when it blazed out in a series of articles which Freeman wrote in the Contemporary Review (1879) on Froude's Short Study of Thomas Becket.
The literary merit of Froude's History is remarkable; it is a well-balanced and orderly narrative, coherent in design and symmetrical in execution. Though it unnecessarily long, the thread of the story is never lost amid a crowd of details; every incident appears in its appropriate place and contributes its share to the perfection of the whole. Froude was a master of English prose. The most notable characteristic of his style is its graceful simplicity; it is never affected or laboured; his sentences are short and easy, and follow one another naturally. He is always lucid. He was never in doubt as to his own meaning, and never at a loss for the most appropriate words in which to express it. Simple as his language is, it is dignified and worthy of its subject.
The merits of his work met with full recognition. Each instalment of his History, in common with almost everything which he wrote, was widely read, and in spite of some adverse criticisms was received with eager applause. In 1868 he was elected rector of St Andrews University, defeating Disraeli by a majority of fourteen. He was warmly welcomed in the United States, which he visited in 1872, but the lectures on Ireland which he delivered there caused much dissatisfaction. On the death of his adversary Freeman in 1892, he was appointed, on the recommendation of Lord Salisbury, to succeed him as regius professor of modern history at Oxford.
Except to a few Oxford men, who considered that historical scholarship should have been held to be a necessary qualification for the office, his appointment gave general satisfaction. His lectures on Erasmus and other 16th century subjects were largely attended. With some allowance for the purpose for which they were originally written, they present much the same characteristics as his earlier historical books. His health gave way in the summer of 1894, and he died later that year.
His long life was full of literary work. Besides his labours as an author. he was for fourteen years editor of Fraser's Magazine. He was one of Carlyle's literary executors, and brought some sharp criticism upon himself by publishing Carlyle's Reminiscences and the Memorials of Jane Welsh Carlyle, for they exhibited the domestic life and character of his old friend in an unpleasant light. Carlyle had given the manuscripts to him, telling him that he might publish them if he thought it well to do so, and at the close of his life agreed to their publication. Froude therefore declared that in giving them to the world he was carrying out his friend's wish by enabling him to make a posthumous confession of his faults.
Though Froude had some intimate friends he was generally reserved. When he cared to please, his manners and conversation were charming. Those who knew him well formed a high estimate of his ability in practical affairs. In 1874 Lord Carnarvon, then colonial secretary, sent Froude to South Africa to report on the best means of promoting a confederation of its colonies and states, and in 1875 he was again sent to the Cape as a member of a proposed conference to further confederation. Froude's speeches in South Africa were rather injudicious, and his mission was a failure. He was twice married. His first wife, a daughter of Pascoe Grenfell and sister of Mrs Charles Kingsley, died in 1860; his second, a daughter of John Warre, M.P. for Taunton, died in 1874.
Froude's Life, by Herbert Paul, was published in 1905.