He was born at Metchley Abbey in Harborne, now a suburb of Birmingham. His parents, John Freeman and Mary Ann (Carless) both died while he was in infancy. He was brought up by a grandmother, and was educated at private schools and by a private tutor. Even as a boy, he was interested in religious matters, history and foreign politics. He won a scholarship to Trinity College, Oxford, and a second class in the degree examination, and was elected fellow of his college (1845). While at Oxford he was much influenced by the High Church movement, and thought seriously of taking orders, but abandoned the idea. He married a daughter of his former tutor, the Rev. R Gutch, in 1847, and entered on a life of study. Ecclesiastical architecture was his great interest. He visited many churches and began a practice of making drawings of buildings on the spot and afterwards tracing them over in ink. His first book, save for his share in a volume of English verse, was a History of Architecture (1849). Though he had not then seen any buildings outside England, it contains a good sketch of the development of the art.
After some changes of residence, Freeman bought a house called Somerleaze, near Wells, Somerset, and settled there in 1860. His life was one of strenuous literary work. He wrote many books, and countless articles for reviews, newspapers and other publications, and was a constant contributor to the Saturday Review until 1878, when he ceased to write for it for political reasons. His Saturday Review articles corrected many errors and raised the level of historical knowledge among the educated classes, but as a reviewer he was apt to forget that a book may have blemishes and yet be praiseworthy. For some years he was an active county magistrate.
He was deeply interested in politics, was a follower of Gladstone, and approved the Home Rule Bill of 1886, but objected to the later proposal to retain the Irish members at Westminster. To enter Parliament was one of his few ambitions, and in 1868 he unsuccessfully contested Mid-Somerset. Foreign rather than domestic politics were his main interest. He hated the Turks and had sympathy with the smaller and subject nationalities of eastern Europe. He was prominent in the agitation which followed "the Bulgarian atrocities"; his speeches were intemperate, and he was accused of uttering the words "Perish India!" at a public meeting in 1876. This, however, was a misrepresentation of his words. He was made a knight commander of the order of the Saviour by the King of Greece, and also received an order from the prince of Montenegro.
Freeman advanced the study of history in England in two special directions: by insistence on the unity of history, and by teaching the importance and right use of primary sources. History is not, he urges, to be divided "by a middle wall of partition" into ancient and modern, nor broken into fragments as though the history of each nation stood apart. It is more than a collection of narratives; it is a science, "the science of man in his political character." The historical student will, while reckoning all history to be within his range, have his own special range within which he will master every detail (Rede Lecture). Freeman's range included Greek, Roman and the earlier part of English history, together with some portions of foreign medieval history, and he had a scholarly though general knowledge of the rest of the history of the European world. Freeman regarded Rome as "the central truth of European history," the bond of its unity, and he undertook his History of Sicily (1891-1894) partly because it illustrated this unity. He believed that all historical study is valueless unless based on a knowledge of original authorities, and he teaches how they are to be weighed and used. He did not use manuscript authorities, and for most of his work he had no need to do so. The authorities he needed were already in print, and his books would not have been better if he had used a few more facts from unprinted sources.
His reputation as a historian will chiefly rest on his History of the Norman Conquest (1867-1876), his longest completed book. In common with his works generally, it is distinguished by exhaustiveness of treatment and research, critical ability, a remarkable degree of accuracy, and a certain insight into the past which he gained from his practical experience of men and institutions. He is almost exclusively a political historian. His saying that "history is past politics and politics are present history" is significant of this limitation of his work, which left on one side subjects of the deepest interest in a nation's life. In dealing with constitutional matters he sometimes attaches too much weight to words and formal aspects. This gives certain of his arguments an air of pedantry, and seems to lead him to find evidences of continuity in institutions which in reality and spirit were different from what they once had been. It is true that he has prejudices. Yet if he judges too favourably the leaders of the national party in England on the eve of the Norman Conquest, that is a small matter to set against the insight which he exhibits in writing of Aratus, Sulla, Nicias, William the Conqueror, Thomas of Canterbury, Frederick the Second and many more.
Like many Europeans at the time, Freeman viewed social development in terms of race, although even for his time he was particularly outspoken. Traveling in the United States in 1881-82 he draw far-reaching conclusions regarding the nefarious social impact of "race mixing." "This would be a great land," he wrote to a friend, "if only every Irishman would kill a negro, and be hanged for it." To Freeman, "niggers" resembled "big monkeys dressed up for a game." They were "hideous apes whom Darwin has clearly left unfinished.
Freeman was a prolific writer. The quantity of work which he turned out is enormous, for the fifteen large volumes which contain his Norman Conquest, his unfinished History of Sicily, his William Rufus (1882), and his Essays (1872-1879), and the crowd of his smaller books, are matched in amount by his uncollected contributions to periodicals. His prolixity was increased by his unwillingness, when writing without prescribed limits, to leave out any detail, however unimportant. His passion for details not only swelled his volumes to a portentous size, but was fatal to artistic construction. The length of his books has made them less popular. They were written for the public at large, but only serious students would read the many hundreds of pages which he devotes to a short period of history. In some of his smaller books, however, he shows great powers of condensation and arrangement, and writes tersely enough. His style is correct, lucid and virile, but generally nothing more, and his endeavour to use as far as possible only words of Teutonic origin limited his vocabulary and makes his sentences somewhat monotonous.
While Froude often strayed away from his authorities, Freeman kept his authorities always before his eyes, and his narrative is here and there little more than a translation of their words. Accordingly, while it has nothing of Froude's carelessness and inaccuracy, it has nothing of his charm of style. Yet now and again he rises to the level of some heroic event, and parts of his chapter on the "Campaign of Hastings" and of his record of the wars of Syracuse and Athens, his reflections on the visit of Basil the Second to the church of the Virgin on the Acropolis, and some other passages in his books, are fine pieces of eloquent writing.
The high quality of Freeman's work was acknowledged by all. He was made D.C.L. of Oxford and LL.D. of Cambridge honoris causa, and when he visited the United States on a lecturing tour was warmly received at various places of learning. He served on the royal commission on ecclesiastical, courts appointed in 1881. In 1884 he was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, and was, for a time, a non-resident professor at Cornell University. His lectures were thinly attended, for he did not care to adapt them to the requirements of the university examinations, and he was not perhaps well fitted to teach young men. But he exercised a wholesome influence over the more earnest students of history among the resident graduates. From 1886 he was forced by ill-health to spend much of his time abroad, and he died of smallpox at Alicante, while on a tour in Spain.
Freeman had a strong personality. He was said to be impatient in temper and occasionally rude, but tender-hearted and generous. Eminently truthful, he could not understand that some verbal insincerities are necessary to social life. He had a peculiar faculty for friendship, and his friends found him sympathetic and affectionate. In company he would talk well and showed a keen sense of humour. He considered it his duty to expose careless and ignorant writers, and certainly enjoyed doing so. He worked hard and methodically, often had several pieces of work in hand, and kept a daily record of the time which he devoted to each of them. No art interested him except architecture, which he studied throughout his life; and he cared little for literature which was not historical or political. In later life he ceased to hold the theological opinions of his youth, but remained a devout churchman.