The Not-So-New Men

Parliaments and English Politics 1621-1629

by Conrad Russell
Oxford University Press, 453 pp., $36.00

In 1976, the English historian Conrad Russell published an article, “Parliamentary History in Perspective: 1604-1629.” Russell’s main views on that history diverge sharply from those of every specialist for the past century, and if he is right, then the interpretations of other historians of the years between 1560 and 1660 are surely askew. Russell himself believes that his findings call for a drastic revision of the “traditional view,” the “conventional belief,” the “received opinions.”

In his article, Russell points out that during the first quarter century of Stuart rule the House of Commons was not doing precisely what, in the “traditional view,” it was alleged to be doing. It was not a powerful and power-seeking ing institution. It was not engaged with the King in a hundred-year struggle for sovereignty, a conflict that in the “traditional view” made the 1600s a century of revolution.

Professor Russell’s recent Parliaments and English Politics 1621-1629 describes in detail the parliaments of the 1620s. No historian up to now has ever known as much about them as Russell knows. With prodigious industry he has examined dozens of manuscript accounts of these parliaments on two continents, in three nations and a multitude of libraries and archives. What emerge from his effort are detailed portraits of those parliaments and of the relations of the King, the Lords, and the Commons in them.

Russell’s account is strictly chronological, considering each parliament of the 1620s as separate from the others, each with its own chapter and subtitle. Thus he calls one chapter “The Parliament of 1621: Business as Usual?” because, as usual, in the ordinary course of proceeding the members “put their county before their country.” Another chapter is called “The Parliament of 1624: The Prince’s Parliament,” because, for once, instead of struggling against the imminent heir to the throne and his favorite, the Duke of Buckingham, the House compliantly followed their lead. Then we have “The Parliament of 1625: The Plague and the French,” because Parliament gave little attention to the French (or to anything else) out of dread of a plague raging in London. “The Parliament of 1626: The Reformation of the Duke?” is so called because the plan of the noble leaders of that parliament to impose limits on Buckingham’s power went awry.

In any case, the effect of Russell’s old-fashioned march through one parliament after the other is to emphasize his view that to its members, the meeting of a parliament is an occasion, a sort of accident; it is not the manifestation of an institution. The members of Russell’s parliaments were not “parliament men.” That is, they did not make their service in parliaments the focus of their careers. Indeed, it was a good thing for them that they did not. Between 1611 and 1640 a career parliament man would have found himself employed less than one year in fifteen. Not much of a career. When he entitled his book Parliaments and English Politics …

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