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Revolution Then

The Court and the Country

by Perez Zagorin
Atheneum, 336 pp., $10.00

What happened in England in the middle of the seventeenth century? Was it a “great rebellion” as Clarendon believed, the last and most violent of the many rebellions against particularly unprepossessing or unpopular kings that had been staged by dissident members of the landed classes century after century throughout the Middle Ages? Was it merely an internal war caused by a temporary political breakdown due to particular political circumstances? Was it the Puritan Revolution of S. R. Gardiner, to whom the driving force behind the whole episode was a conflict of religious institutions and ideologies? Was it the first great clash of liberty against royal tyranny, as seen by Macaulay, the first blow for the Enlightenment and Whiggery, a blow which put England on the slow road to parliamentary monarchy and civil liberties?

Was it the first Bourgeois Revolution, in which the economically progressive and dynamic elements in society struggled to emerge from their feudal swaddling clothes? This is how Engels saw it, and how many historians of the 1930s, including R. H. Tawney and C. Hill, tended to regard it. Was it the first Revolution of Modernization, which is the Marxist interpretation in a new guise, now perceived as a struggle of entrepreneurial forces to remold the institutions of government to meet the needs of a more efficient, more rationalistic, and more economically advanced society?

Or was it a Revolution of Despair, engineered by the decaying and backward-looking elements in rural society, the mere gentry of H. R. Trevor-Roper, men who hoped to re-create the decentralized, inward-looking, socially stable, and economically stagnant society of their hopeless, anachronistic dreams.

In the last half-century the historiography of the English Revolution has gone through three fairly well-defined stages. First we had the political narrative, worked out with meticulous care and scholarship by a great Victorian historian, S. R. Gardiner. This religio-constitutional interpretation came under heavy attack from the Marxists just before the Second World War, and the comfortable old Whiggish model collapsed, to be replaced by a clear-cut conflict between rising bourgeoisie and decaying feudal classes. Next came a short postwar period of dazzling and wildly contradictory theorizing on the basis of the most slender documentary evidence, until the areas of agreement on every aspect of the problem were reduced almost to zero, and the historiography of the English Revolution lapsed into the sort of fragmented chaos in which that of the French Revolution wallows today.

With both revolutions, once historians have realized that the Marxist interpretation does not work very much better than the Whig, there has followed a period in which there is nothing very secure to put in its place. The last twenty years, however, have seen the most remarkable efflorescence of specialized historical monographs, the work of scholars on both sides of the Atlantic who have been prepared to take the infinite pains required for any historical research of enduring value, and who have also had the insight, imagination, and intellectual capacity to marshal their findings and to generalize from them. As a result a good deal of light is at last beginning to penetrate the fog: truth—partial, imperfect, provisional truth—is starting to emerge.

Professor Zagorin has now produced a new interpretation of the events leading up to the political breakdown and beyond to Civil War, organized around the concepts of “Court” and “Country,” which were the words used by contemporaries. It is a most erudite work sparkling with brand-new and telling quotations taken from an extremely wide range of sources; it is well written; and it shows great insight into the workings of revolutionary politics. As a political narrative of the events leading up to the war, and particularly of the period 1640-1642, it is the best we have, with more insight and better research than even the excellent narrative of C. V. Wedgwood, published in 1955. Professor Zagorin has, for example, studied the manuscript of D’Ewes’s diary, the best source for the parliamentary debates of the prewar period, most of which, to the enduring shame of British scholarship, is still unpublished. (This is rather like leaving unpublished the major source for the debates in the States General in 1789 or the Duma in 1917.)

One of the mysteries about The Court and the Country is that from internal evidence the text must have been substantially completed by 1963 or thereabouts. Some of the extraordinary output of critically important writings on the subject over the last six years are occasionally referred to in the footnotes, but hardly any of them are fully absorbed into the text.

Here is a book, published in 1970, which wholly ignores Christopher Hill’s writings of the 1960s, including his important if flawed volume on the intellectual origins of the English Revolution (1965); which deals with merchant society in the towns without either B. Supple’s book on the commercial trends of the period (1964), or R. Howell’s important study of Newcastle (1967), and which does not even make full use of V. Pearl’s definitive work on London (1961); which discusses the Marxist interpretation without mention of Barrington Moore (1966); which treats Puritanism in the absence of P. Collinson’s brilliant and profound book on Elizabethan Puritanism (1967) or Michael Walzer’s trailblazing study of the role of Puritanism as a revolutionary ideology (1965); which talks of the Long Parliament without mention of Trevor-Roper’s work on the sermons preached before it (1967); which lays great stress on the Country and the Court without mention of A. Everitt’s work on Kent (1966) or even T. Barnes’s on Somerset (1961); and which (if I may be forgiven for mentioning it) largely ignores my own work on the aristocracy (1965), the Court (1965), the social structure (1966), and literacy and education (1964 and 1969). So rapidly is the field still developing that a book that would have been fully up-to-date six years ago has a strangely anachronistic appearance in 1970.

Professor Zagorin’s book is not only rather dated, it is also somewhat lopsided. So wholeheartedly anti-Marxist has Mr. Zagorin become that he has thrown the baby out with the bath water. In order to reject Marxist theories of economic determinism based on class conflict over the means of production, one need not ostentatiously ignore economic and social history altogether. No mention is made of the changes in agriculture, in both productive methods and tenurial relations, the impact of inflation and rising population, the growth of overseas trade and colonies, the shift from wood to coal for heating, and other important mineral and metallurgical developments.

So allergic is Mr. Zagorin to questions of socio-economic change that he dismisses the vexed problem of the gentry in a single page, although it is the gentry, or rather the richer elements of them, whom he believes to compose the core of the “Country.” To leave all this out is to miss some of the best that the Marxist school of historians has had to offer, and is to impoverish our understanding of the historical process.

What Professor Zagorin has undertaken is an interpretation of the rise of the opposition as a consequence of the polarity between Court and Country. But these are bland and vague concepts which have all kinds of ideological, religious, moral, and even aesthetic overtones, over and above the conflict of interest and power. So malleable and accommodating a polarity needs the most careful analysis and definition if it is to illuminate rather than obscure.

The Court is easy enough to define: all these ministers, courtiers, officials, servants, and financiers of the Crown. However, it also presumably includes bishops, and those merchants who benefited from royal monopolies and who controlled local corporations by virtue of restrictive royal charters. In short it is what today we would vaguely call “the Establishment.” Not all its members stuck to the Crown when the crisis came, but all had a strong vested interest in doing so. The Country, however, raises difficult semantic problems, which Mr. Zagorin solves by limiting his story to Parliament at Westminster, just as Gardiner did a century ago, and using the phrase “the Country” where earlier historians had used “the opposition.”

But what was “the Country”? To find out, we have to go away from Westminster, back into the shires, which is an area into which Mr. Zagorin did not venture. We will not find out by looking at the “citizen element” to which Mr. Zagorin devotes a chapter, since, as he is careful to point out, they merely composed one element of both the supporters and the opponents of the Crown in 1640. We will not even find out by looking at the Puritans, to whom he devotes another chapter, since they were a lot of clergymen and a divisive minority of the Country, who supplied it with its radical passion for change. And we will not find out merely by looking at the people who turn up in Parliament calling themselves “the Patriots” or “the Country.” We will have to dig a good deal deeper.

The Country is firstly an ideal. It is that vision of rustic peace, simplicity, and virtue that goes back to the Roman classics and which fell on the highly receptive ears of the newly educated gentlemen of England. To it was opposed the bustle and activity and smog and filth of the City. It is also a vision of moral superiority, of honesty, frugality, probity, sobriety, and chastity, all allegedly Country virtues which stand in contrast to manifold vices of the degenerate sycophants who haunt the purlieus of the Court.

Secondly, and this is important, it began to become an institution. As Mr. Zagorin rightly points out, when an Englishman in the early seventeenth century said “my country” he meant “my county.” And what we see in the half-century before the civil war is the growth not only of an emotional sense of loyalty to the local community, but also institutional arrangements to give that sentiment political force. The causes of this growth of the county community are twofold. The first was the decline of the family or household community of “good lordship,” by which the late medieval gentry had been attached to the families of great magnates, crossing county boundaries, splitting counties, and creating personal rather than geographical loyalties. The decline of the aristocratic magnate household freed the gentry for new psychological and political orientations, and made way for new patterns of education at school and university.

The second was the growing burden placed on the local gentry by the state, as it expanded its statutory social and economic controls without setting up a paid local bureaucracy of its own to handle them. The result was the development of the county bench of justices as administrators and judicial authorities, who slowly began to attach a political identity to their membership. This development was greatly fostered by the growth in the numbers of resident gentry in the countryside and by marriage patterns showing very high endogamy within the local county gentry group. The paradox of English history—and by osmosis of American history—is that the growth of power in and loyalty to the center has been exactly commensurate with that of power in and loyalty to the local communities.

But the Country did not only mean sentiment for an institutional arrangement to express particularist local feelings. It also meant a growing feeling for the national community expressed in a heightened interest in the national political institution of Parliament. Consequently the third element in the phrase “the Country” is a political program. Because of the growing financial, political, and religious interference of the central government, the gentry developed a policy of their own, which they brought with them to Westminster. Mr. Zagorin shrewdly points out that when they met in their alternative capacity as members of Parliament, they increasingly came to look upon themselves as representatives of the gentry constituents they left behind them. Their program was one of political and institutional decentralization. To be more specific, the Country wanted local office left in local hands, the removal of economic controls exercised by the central government, the end of interference in local lay patronage in the Church, some restriction on the taxing powers of the central government and also a thoroughly Protestant—but inexpensive—foreign policy.

The Court/Country polarity in politics is therefore little more than a version of the normal state of tension that exists in all organized societies between the centralizing and decentralizing forces: between Hamilton and Jefferson, for example. Since the polarity continued to play an important political role in England at least for another seventy-five years after 1640, it cannot be regarded as the exclusive cause for a breakdown of government. This is especially so since, when the crisis came, the lines of division did not run with mathematical precision between the country gentry and the courtiers. Many gentry saw the virtues of strong monarchical rule, and not a few courtiers fell off the bandwagon when it began to totter.

In order to provide a convincing interpretation of the collapse of the central government in 1640, other forces have therefore to be brought into play. The collapse was caused not only by the undeniable ineptitude of Charles and his advisers, but also by certain specific historical trends. Unfortunately for the Crown, the ideals, interests, and programs of the Country found powerful allies in two other ideologies and three other interest groups: Puritanism and the Puritans, the Common Law and the common lawyers, and the merchants, the first and third of which Mr. Zagorin describes and the second of which he inexplicably ignores altogether.

The objectives of none of these groups were the same as those of the Country, but they became linked to them by a process of convergence which owes more to historical accident than inexorable necessity. As for the Puritans, had Elizabeth, and later the Stuarts, continued to keep their options open, to admit aristocratic and bureaucratic Puritan sympathizers to the privy council and the court, to go easy on the persecution of Puritan dissidents, and to keep the official doctrinal policies and religious ceremonies on the fairly Low Church lines of early Elizabethan Anglicanism, the intimate association of Puritanism with the Country might not have taken place. There was a long history of elective affinity between the two, but, as Mr. Zagorin well shows, it was the policy of Archbishop Laud and his associates which finally drove them together in the 1630s. And even so, the gentry still remained solidly Erastian and had no sympathy for the theocratic pretensions of the Puritan clergy.

As for the lawyers, they had their own grievances against the Crown and the prerogative courts, notably their hostility to the interference of the Church courts in common law business, and the competition afforded to the common law courts by the parallel and overlapping jurisdictions of the two regional prerogative courts and the several courts at Westminster dealing with particular types of clients, like Admiralty or Exchequer or Wards, or certain types of offenses, like Star Chamber.

This intramural dispute between lawyers would not have taken on political overtones had the Crown not come too readily to the help of the embattled prerogative courts and of Chancery, and if its search for extra revenue had not led it to stretch its own prerogative powers too far. The result was the growth of a “Magna Carta” ideology among some lawyers about the nature of the constitutional balance, and an alliance of these common lawyers with the gentry and the Puritans. But once again the basic objectives of the lawyers were not those of the Country; the two were merely tactical allies in a joint battle for control over the central direction of the state.

The third group of allies of the Country gentry in their political battle was drawn from the merchant community. They were men who lacked an ideology but possessed a program. Most merchants stayed on the sidelines, part of the vast silent majority which stood idly by as the tides of war and revolution lapped ever closer around their feet. Others were tied to the royal side by dependence on trade monopoly favors, or on support for the oligarchic control of their own communities in the face of rising pressure from below.

But other important merchant elements can now be identified, men interested especially in the American trades, in New England colonization, and in breaking the monopoly of the East India and Levant Companies. They were new men in new fields of entrepreneurial endeavor who chafed at the political and economic stranglehold of the older established monopolistic oligarchies. They were usually Puritan in their religious opinions, they wanted to reorient English foreign policy and commercial policy to a more aggressive and dynamic thrust toward the Americas, and they wanted to open up the Mediterranean and Indian trades to newcomers.

These men were important members of the group of radicals who seized control of London at a critical moment in 1641, and so swung the power and influence of the City decisively on the side of Parliament. The City was an ally without whom the Country would not have dared to launch a war on its own; indeed Parliament would have been defeated in a matter of weeks without the support of London. On the other hand, these merchants had little except a leavening of Puritanism, an interest in North American colonization, and a common enemy to bind them to the grandees of the Country.

Although used by contemporaries to describe the political opposition to the Early Stuarts, the term “Country” is therefore little more than a convenient portmanteau expression which conceals a wide variety of interests and ideas, to only one of which it properly belongs. By adopting it, Professor Zagorin powerfully illuminates many things which were hitherto obscure, but at the expense of obscuring many others. The great strength of his book is the way he has explored a huge range of documents to tell the old story of the growing political confrontation with the Crown in a new way, using this fresh evidence to drive his points home. It is this that makes his book a valuable contribution to the historiography of the period.

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