Decline and Fall

The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1640

by Lawrence Stone
Oxford, 866 pp., $16.80

Since the end of the Second World War the attention of some of the ablest academic minds in Britain has been focussed on the growth of English society in the century following 1540. Synthesis has succeeded synthesis, theory has begotten theory, and the debate has been conducted with an asperity which many find quite shocking, if not alarming. Yet the word “debate” is appropriate for the activities of many of the contestants, for of actual research there has been very little (or very little published), and many pieces of evidence have been shuffled and dealt so often that they are dog-eared and greasy with use. But one of the original contestants, Lawrence Stone, has now retired to the comparative isolation of Princeton and produced an immense piece of detailed research the like of which has not been seen in English history for many years, if ever. By sheer weight of authority it may succeed in suppressing much of the controversy or at least diverting it into new channels.

It was around 1540 that the English land-owning middle class began that steady rise to political prominence which was to end in the tragic adventure of the Great Rebellion; and so powerful were the forces unleashed in the 1640s that for a few giddy years the monarchy was overthrown, the House of Lords abolished, and the Church disestablished. The attempt of the older literary historians, headed by the majestic figure of Samuel Rawson Gardiner and ably represented today by C.V. Wedgwood, to attribute this to a defect of personality and government on the part of the Stuarts, accompanied by an upsurge of precocious democratic liberalism riding on the back of militant Puritanism, was never very satisfactory, but it persisted for more than forty years for want of anything better. But in 1941 R.H. Tawney, already the doyen of English economic historians, published an article which was soon to be famous on “The Rise of the Gentry.” He argued that the rise of the gentry was an economic and social rather than a political or religious phenomenon; because of their superior skill in land utilization, commercial investment, and new industrial enterprise, and because of the comparative elasticity and adaptability of their economic structure, the landowning middle classes grew steadily richer in the sixteenth century as the Crown, the Church, and the aristocracy grew poorer. Economic power carried with it political power, and the gentry acquired so much that by 1640 the framework of the Ancient Constitution, King, and Parliament could not contain them.

TAWNEY SUBSEQUENTLY disclaimed any pretensions to originality, and indeed his thesis was essentially a restatement in economic terms of the theory of the rise of the middle classes made fashionable in the 1920s by historians like A. F. Pollard. But this is to play down the dogmatic self-confidence of much of what he wrote, and to ignore its intellectual brilliance, its logical cohesion, and its literary charm. “The Rise of the Gentry” was, and still is, wonderfully readable …

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