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The Century of Revolution

Authority and Conflict: England, 1603–1658

by Derek Hirst
Harvard University Press, 390 pp., $35.00

Faction and Parliament: Essays on Early Stuart History

edited by Kevin Sharpe
Methuen, 292 pp., $13.95 (paper)

Wallington’s World: A Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth-Century London

by Paul S. Seaver
Stanford University Press, 258 pp., $29.50

Order and Disorder in Early Modern England

edited by A. Fletcher, edited by J. Stevenson
Cambridge University Press, 248 pp., $44.50

Parliamentary Selection: Social and Political Choice in Early Modern England

by Mark Kishlansky
Cambridge University Press, 258 pp., $10.95 (paper)

The seventeenth century in England has been called “The Century of Revolution.” It is the last period when there occurred on English soil physical violence on a large scale, involving up to 10 percent of the adult males, and a large if ephemeral eruption of radical ideologies. The patterns that emerged from that turbulent century set the stage for England’s subsequent, astonishing rise to preeminence in wealth, power, empire, intellect, high culture, constitutional stability, and social cohesion. It is thus not surprising that the causes, nature, and consequences of the upheavals of that century have ever since been the subject of vigorous debate and disagreement, each generation reinterpreting the past in its own image. A look at two new textbooks, two major analytical monographs, an intellectual biography, and two volumes of essays on single themes, makes it possible to see not only where the history of seventeenth-century England stands in the mid 1980s, but also to compare the relative merits of the textbook, the monograph, and the essay.

Narrative history textbooks for college students are a genre held in such low esteem by intellectuals that when their authors come up for tenure at large universities these books are usually ignored. This is largely because new ideas and new data nowadays appear in articles in journals or in specialized monographs, while large advances in understanding history can occur only through the analytical rather than the narrative method normally employed in textbooks. Another problem is that the most important recent advances have all taken place in social history, whereas textbooks are inevitably mostly concerned with high politics.

This snobbish attitude is not justified. A truly first-rate history textbook, like that of Robert R. Palmer and Joel Colton on modern European history,1 can shape the vision of a whole generation, and it is therefore very important that the textbooks used in schools and colleges be accurate, up-to-date, fair-minded, intelligent, and written in such a manner as to stimulate curiosity. It is of special importance that the educated public have a clear idea of just what happened in the past, since versions of that past are so regularly used—or more commonly misused—by politicians to justify actions in the present, as Richard Neustadt and Ernest May have recently pointed out with devastating clarity.2

In evaluating Gerald Aylmer’s short narrative history Rebellion or Revolution? one is inescapably drawn to apply the adjective “judicious.” Aylmer is calm, knowledgeable, fair-minded, and open to diverse interpretations. He has written a brief, sensible, and unpolemical survey, whose readers will not be deafened by the grinding of axes and will come away with a fair idea of how historians today tend to see what happened. It is certainly the best short account that we have of a traumatic twenty years of English history.

There are, however, two drawbacks to these virtues of common-sensical judgment, detachment, and impartiality. The first is that when Aylmer sees a fence, he has a strong tendency to sit on it. For example, when faced with the hotly debated issue of whether or not the country enjoyed unprecedented peace, prosperity, and contentment under the royal autocracy of Charles I in the 1630s, Aylmer takes refuge in scholarly doubt. “It is hard to be sure” how unpopular were the policies of Archbishop Laud in the church; it is “a little far-fetched” to think that there was real fear of popery; “it is less clear how much resentment” was generated by royal abuse of the courts; it is “hard to estimate” resentment over non-Parliamentary taxation; the problem of popular reactions to royal policies raises “questions unanswerable.” There are “no means of telling” whether Charles intended an indefinite suspension of Parliament. Finally “things could all too easily have been much worse.” Each statement is true and wise and prudent, but the sum leaves the inquisitive reader feeling somewhat empty.

There is also the question of whether it is entirely a virtue to adopt so calm and reasonable a tone when dealing with such traumatic and irrational events as a bitter civil war, the trial and execution of an anointed king, and a radical cultural revolution that at one stage threatened to challenge the very fabric of society. What gets lost is the intense passion, the excitement, the dreams, the fanaticism, the madness, the horror of it all. Even Hobbes, though appalled at the breakdown of social and political order, found the entire experience immensely exhilarating and illuminating. When it was all over, he had to admit that “if in time, as in place, there were degrees of high and low, I verily believe that the highest of time would be that which passed between 1640 and 1660…. wherein men used to see best into good and evil.”3 For a short while men and women were saying and doing things that had never been said or done before, and were to ring down the ages to our own time with persistent resonance. It was a time of giddy exploration of the unknown, involving millenarian hopes of a golden age, radical ideas about liberty, equality, and fraternity, as well as acts of folly, bloodshed, cruelty, pillage, enslavement, and death. Thus, in his new book, Paul Seaver sums up the intellectual experience of the Presbyterian London artisan Nehemiah Wallington in the following terms:

For a long generation this rather unsuccessful member of a minor London craft guild knew that he was witnessing events of cosmic significance and, despite his self-doubts and manifest imperfections, was called to participate in their fulfilment. It was perhaps the first time in history that ordinary Englishmen were to have such an experience.

For all its admirable qualities of balance and good judgment, Aylmer’s textbook also illustrates the difficulty of writing history in the narrative mode, a problem of which he is well aware. By doing so, Aylmer deprives himself and his readers of full understanding of the deeper currents underlying the surface of events. The English monarchy was unique in Europe in its lack of three central features of autocracy—a standing army, a large local bureaucracy, and independent powers of taxation and imprisonment: unless the remote causes of these defects are explained, the reasons for the weakness of the regime and for the ease of its collapse in 1640 tend to remain a mystery. Without more discussion of England’s legal and constitutional past, one cannot understand the intense legalism that permeated and structured political discourse, and the intense devotion to freedom, liberty, the “ancient constitution” and Magna Carta.

The deep-seated and irrational fear of popery is equally baffling without some investigation of the Elizabethan identification of the Pope with antichrist, which the abortive Gunpowder Plot fanned into paranoia. Without some understanding of the economic, educational, administrative, and political rise of the gentry, and of the temporary weakness of the aristocracy, it is impossible to explain why the House of Commons took the lead in the political debates of the age, to say nothing of how the parliamentary forces eventually triumphed in battle over the king and a large majority of the greater landowners in the country.

To conclude this bill of particulars against the narrative mode of historical writing, the growth of Puritanism—defined as a particularly extreme and zealous form of Church of England Calvinist Protestantism—is not comprehensible without careful examination of the failures of the Reformation, and the experience of religious indifference and social disorder in the Elizabethan period, which generated the sense of moral panic which fueled the Puritan vision of the world. Despite these almost inescapable drawbacks, Aylmer’s book is still the best and most reliable guide to the English Revolution for the general reader.

The textbook by Derek Hirst is a different kind of undertaking. It is about a third longer than Aylmer’s book and is directed toward a narrower group of readers, who have a fairly well-developed curiosity about the period. But it would be a great pity if so successful a synthesis of modern and traditional scholarship, one written with such verve and elegance, did not also find a wider audience of educated readers. Hirst gets around the problem of analysis vs. narrative by prefacing his primarily political narrative with three long analytical chapters: “Economy and Society,” “The Body Politic,” and “Hearts and Minds,” the three effectively covering changes in social structure, the political system, and religious, social, political, and scientific ideas. What is missing is any mention of literature, art, or architecture, including the way they can be used to illuminate the clashes of culture that spilled over into politics.

Following these analytical chapters are eight chapters of chronological political narrative, within which are deftly inserted lengthy disquisitions on problems of law, finance, and political tactics and strategy. Without question Authority and Conflict is the most up-to-date, well-balanced, and interesting survey of the politics of this tumultuous period that we are likely to have for a long time.

In Hirst’s conclusion he defends his choice of the year 1658 to end the volume. Most historians today see the period between 1621 and about 1720 as an epoch of continuous political turmoil, as England lurched unsteadily between tendencies toward royal absolutism on the French model and gentry-controlled anarchy of the Polish type, before settling down to the eighteenth-century constitutional compromise of aristocratic Whig control of royal patronage and perquisites, and corruption and manipulation of a sharply reduced electorate. It is also now generally agreed that the great revolutionary explosion of 1640–1660 did not finish the job, and that Stuart absolutism had to be fought and defeated all over again in 1688–1689, this time resulting in a decisive victory for the landed elite in Parliament. Under both versions of events, the story does not end until 1689, or perhaps 1720.

Hirst defends his choice of ending his study in 1658, two years before the Restoration of Charles II, on the ground that the year marks the turn of the tide in England after the long period of religious fanaticism, which was first generated by the Reformation and was at last burning itself out in revolution and civil war and a failed attempt at a godly reformation. We do indeed enter with the Restoration into a new cultural atmosphere, marked by strong hostility to any form of “enthusiasm,” the development of a low-key “rational” religion sympathetic to science and economic development, and a slowly growing tolerance toward different interpretations of Christianity. Moreover the Puritan conflation of sin and crime—exemplified by the 1649 act making adultery an offense punishable by death—was at last recognized as unworkable in the real world, which for the next 120 years was mostly content to settle for social order rather than a moral utopia.

In his narrative sections Hirst steers his way through the mine fields, exercising admirable judgment as he goes. He tells the story of the growing constitutional crisis of the early seventeenth century, skillfully striking a balance between the new interpretations put forward by the self-styled “revisionist” historians and those associated with the older “Whig” model. The revisionists reject the notion of an increasingly embittered struggle between Crown and Parliament, which lasted for half a century and was concerned with such fundamental issues as liberty of person and property, consent to taxation, the Protestant religion, and foreign and military policy. They claim that there were no more than a number of isolated episodes of conflict within a general climate of deference and loyalty; that Parliament was in any case powerless to affect policy; and that such quarrels as did occur were the result of factional infighting between great nobles, often members of the Privy Council. This vision of the early seventeenth century is, of course, borrowed from the picture drawn by Sir Lewis’ Namier of politics in the 1760s, and in each case the implict aim is a conservative rewriting of English history. Insofar as this has helped to redress a longstanding liberal bias, it can only be welcomed as a contribution to historical truth.

  1. 1

    Robert R. Palmer and Joel Colton, A History of the Modern World, sixth edition (Knopf, 1983).

  2. 2

    Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers (Free Press, 1986).

  3. 3

    T. Hobbes, Behemoth, ed. F. Tönnies (London, 1889), p. 1.

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