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When the Lid Came off England


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 the years of 1640 and 1660.” With these words the philosopher Thomas Hobbes opened his dialogue Behemoth (1679), which surveyed the tumultuous happenings of mid-seventeenth-century Eng- land, when there was “a circular motion of the sovereign power,” as “it moved from King Charles I to the Long Parliament; from thence to the Rump; from the Rump to Oli- ver Cromwell; and then back again from Richard Cromwell to the Rump; thence to the Long Parliament; and thence to King Charles II.”

For Hobbes, the main interest of these bewildering events was that they afforded the viewer an unequaled prospect of injustice and folly. But most subsequent commentators have seen them, though from very different perspectives, as formative of the essential features of the modern British state. For the Whig historians, from Hallam and Macaulay to G.M. Trevelyan and Wallace Notestein, the Civil War was the culmination of constitutional opposition to the Crown, which surfaced in the reign of Elizabeth I, became vocal under James I, reached a crescendo in the 1620s, and found its final expression when the Long Parliament met in 1640. The execution of Charles I (1649), the proclamation of a republic (1649), and the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell (1653–1658) were all necessary steps in the defeat of royal absolutism, the establishment of parliamentary sovereignty, the safeguarding of the liberties of the subject, and the growth of religious toleration. For the great Victorian historian Samuel Rawson Gardiner, this was the Puritan Revolution, a constitutional struggle colored by conflicting religious loyalties and embodied in that complex and tormented forerunner of the nonconformist conscience, Oliver Cromwell.

For twentieth-century Marxists, the significance of the dramatic events that occurred between 1640 and 1660 was quite different. In the triumph of the New Model Army over the Royalist forces, the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, the overthrow of the Church of England, and the confiscation of the estates of the bishops, cathedral chapters, and Royalist landowners, they saw the first bourgeois revolution, the English equivalent of what happened in France in 1789. They interpreted it as the political result of long-term social and economic change, notably the decline of the aristocracy, the rise of the gentry, and the desire of the economically aspiring classes to be free from the restraints of feudalism. Puritanism was the ideology of the bourgeoisie. For the young Christopher Hill, writing in 1940, “the period 1640–1660 saw the destruction of a whole social order—feudalism—and the introduction of a political structure within which capitalism could freely develop.”1 In the eloquent writings of the Digger Gerrard Winstanley, who came to prominence in the year of Charles I’s execution, it even foreshadowed the communism by which capitalism would eventually be replaced.

Between the 1940s and 1960s, the most gifted British historians of the day conducted a bitter debate about the precise nature of the long-term social changes which had brought about these cataclysmic events. Was R.H. Tawney right to see the Civil War as a sort of foreclosure by a creditor class, the rising gentry, upon the debts of a decadent feudal aristocracy? Or should H.R. Trevor-Roper be followed in regarding the war as a revolt by impoverished, backwoods gentlemen, excluded from court and the profits of office? Whichever their viewpoint, participants in this controversy were united by their assumption that the Civil War, being a great historical event, must necessarily have had long-term causes. Lawrence Stone summarized the conventional wisdom of the time when, in The Causes of the English Revolution (1972), he began the story in 1529, and divided the ensuing process into “preconditions” (1529–1629), “precipitants” (1629–1639), and “triggers” (1640–1642).

Yet even as Stone was producing his synthesis, the inevitable reaction had begun. Urged on by G.R. Elton, the doyen of Tudor history, who detested Marxism in any shape or form, and led by the historian Conrad Russell (the son of Bertrand Russell), who was uniquely knowledgeable about early- seventeenth-century parliamentary history, a new generation of so-called “revisionist” historians denied that the events of 1640–1660 had a long prehistory or that there was any “high road to civil war.”2 Dismissing the posturing of early Stuart Parliaments as mere shadowboxing, they argued that the true center of politics was not Parliament, but the royal court. The existence of factions and of royal and aristocratic patronage generated conflict, and so did religious differences; but MPs were not polarized into two parties and there was no constitutional “opposition” in the modern sense. The gentry did not like paying for foreign wars, but otherwise a monarchical consensus prevailed. The Civil War was not the product of long-term social change. Whigs and Marxists alike had seen deep divisions when they were not there, because they had read history backward.

For some revisionists, the Puritans were not revolutionaries; if anyone deserved that title, it was the Laudians and Arminians, whose ritualist innovations, supported by the King, upset the balance of the Anglican Church. Russell defiantly called a collection of his essays Unrevolutionary England, 1603–1642. Even Charles I’s personal rule (1629–1640) did not at first arouse serious discontent. “England in 1637,” Russell declared, “was a country in working order, and was not on the edge of revolution.”3 It was only the invasion by the Scottish Covenanters, provoked by the King’s attempt in that year to impose on them the Anglican Prayer Book, that precipitated a crisis. That crisis was further compounded by the outbreak of the Irish rebellion in 1641. This intensified scares about popery, made the raising of an army an immediate necessity, and inflamed a dispute with the King which otherwise would have been peacefully resolved.

The revisionists further pointed out that when the Civil War broke out in 1642, there was widespread reluctance to fight. Most contemporaries were stunned to find that the dispute at Westminster had not been settled amicably and in over half the English counties there were attempted pacts of neutrality. In his The Rise of the New Model Army (1979), the American historian Mark Kishlansky embraced the revisionist doctrine that hindsight distorts and that those who know what came afterward are sure to misrepresent what happened at the time. He accordingly discounted the evidence of such standard seventeenth-century authorities as Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, Edmund Ludlow, Bulstrode Whitelocke, and Richard Baxter, on the grounds that their retrospective accounts projected a misleadingly polarized representation of what had actually occurred. This strategy enabled Kishlansky to conclude that Cromwell’s New Model Army, far from being the mainspring of revolution, was the product of a politics of consensus and, in its early years at any rate, lacked any radical consciousness. In the 1980s, the age of Margaret Thatcher, the Levellers, Diggers, and other radical groups, whose seemingly modern doctrines had so fascinated an earlier generation, were consigned to the historiographical sidelines.

Each of these different approaches had its limitations. The Whig celebration of the Civil War as a decisive blow for liberty had to confront the awkward fact that the events between 1640 and 1660 in no way prevented King Charles II from becoming more absolute in the early 1680s than any other monarch since the early Tudors. In the last years of his reign he ruled without Parliament, in defiance of the Triennial Act requiring Parliament to meet regularly. He enjoyed financial independence, packed the bench with subservient judges, attacked the privileges of municipal corporations, and carried out the judicial murder of his political opponents. All this was done with the passive acquiescence of the political classes, who conspicuously failed to support the Duke of Monmouth when he challenged the Catholic James II’s accession in 1685.

The Marxist proponents of a bourgeois revolution also failed to prove their case. They could not establish that the war was fought on class lines or that the land confiscations of the 1640s and 1650s effected a social revolution. They were forced to admit that the aristocracy and landed gentry continued to form the political nation after the Restoration in 1660, just as they had done before 1640. The growth of capitalism and a market society did indeed accelerate in the later seventeenth century, but that was for reasons largely unconnected with the Civil War. Even Puritanism turned out, on closer examination, to have been a great deal less sympathetic to capitalism than had once been assumed.

As for the revisionists, it soon became clear that they had overstated their case. The evidence of longstanding ideological differences on matters of law and religion was too conspicuous to be so easily brushed aside; and so was the overlap between the political grievances voiced in the Parliaments of the late 1620s and those expressed in the Long Parliament in 1640 and onward.4 By laying so much weight on contemporary professions of loyalty to the King, the revisionists discounted the evidence for real political divisions. Indeed, in taking such protestations at their face value, they came very near to proving that the Civil Wars never happened at all; for it was only at a relatively late stage in the conflict that the Parliamentarians accepted that they were fighting against the King rather than his evil counselors. By the end of the 1980s, opinion was beginning to turn; and, though there was no agreement on what should take its place, it was clear that the days of revisionism were over.5

Nevertheless, revisionists, Marxists, and Whigs have each made a major contribution to understanding the events of the mid-seventeenth century and a convincing synthesis has to take all their different viewpoints into account. It also has to encompass the current vogue for “British” as opposed to “English” history. In the late twentieth century, Scottish devolution, the establishment of a Welsh assembly, and the continued urgency of the problems of Northern Ireland have had the effect of reminding historians that many of Charles I’s problems stemmed from the fact that his was a multiple monarchy. The Civil War in England was precipitated by events in Charles I’s other two kingdoms; and its most important consequences included the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland (1649–1650) and the temporary political union of England and Scotland (1654). The historian of these years is now expected to perform the difficult task of conducting a narrative of simultaneous happenings on three different fronts. Since each of these three kingdoms had its own, largely independent, internal history, the task does not become any eas-ier, or, indeed, any more intellectually coherent.

The basic chronology of the period was established more than a century ago in the great narrative histories of S.R. Gardiner, whose ten volumes on the History of England, 1603–1642 were followed by four on the History of the Great Civil War, 1642–1649 and four more on the History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate, 1649– 1656. When Gardiner died in 1901, C.H. Firth continued his work with The Last Years of the Protectorate, 1656–1658; and, after Firth, the American historian Godfrey Davies completed the series with a rather less satisfactory volume on The Restoration of Charles II, 1658–1660, published in 1955.

  1. 1

    The English Revolution 1640: Three Essays, edited by Christopher Hill (Lawrence and Wishart, 1940; new edition, 1949), p. 9.

  2. 2

    For three lively and illuminating surveys of revisionism and its influence, see Peter Lake, “Retrospective: Wentworth’s Political World in Revisionist and Post-Revisionist Perspective,” in The Political World of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, 1621–1641, edited by J.F. Merritt (Cambridge University Press, 1996); Ronald Hutton, “Revisionism in Britain,” in Companion to Historiography, edited by Michael Bentley (Routledge, 1997); and the prefactory essay to Politics, Religion and Popularity in Early Stuart England: Essays in Honour of Conrad Russell, edited by Thomas Cogswell, Richard Cust, and Peter Lake (Cambridge University Press, 2002). Russell’s own views, which are based on deep research and are much more balanced than those of some of his followers, are well set out in The Causes of the English Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1990) and, in greater detail, in The Fall of the British Monarchies, 1637–1642 (Clarendon Press, 1991).

  3. 3

    Russell, The Fall of the British Monarchies, p. 1.

  4. 4

    See “Introduction: After Revisionism,” in Conflict in Early Stuart England: Studies in Religion and Politics, 1603–1642, edited by Richard Cust and Ann Hughes (Longman, 1989).

  5. 5

    Ironically, the Festschrift presented to Conrad Russell (note 2 above) contains an important essay by Nicholas Tyacke demonstrating that adversary politics were a reality at least as early as 1603 and to some extent also in the later Parliaments of Elizabeth I, just as the currently unfashionable historian of those Parliaments, J.E. Neale, had argued.

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