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.

Since Gardiner and Firth, there has been a huge outpouring of monographs on all aspects, local or national, of the Civil War and Interregnum. Indeed, the period must have been more written about than any other in British history before the two world wars. A great deal of this research has been the byproduct of the detailed undergrad-uate study of “Protectorate and Restoration” (later “Commonwealth and Protectorate”), a topic which Firth introduced into the University of Oxford’s Modern History school and which has been running ever since. Many of the best books on the period have been produced by scholars who underwent that formative experience.

Among them is Austin Woolrych, now retired from his chair at the University of Lancaster. His large and ambitious book is intended to provide a detailed account of the revolutionary years for the general reader who has no previous knowledge of the period. At the same time it is sufficiently detailed and reflective to be necessary reading for the scholar. Woolrych’s qualifications for the task could hardly be bettered. An expert on the military aspects of the Civil War, he is also the author of excellent works of scholarship which carefully reconstruct three key phases in the history of the period: Soldiers and Statesmen (1987), on the years 1647–1648; Commonwealth to Protectorate (1982), on the year 1653; and a long introduction to volume seven of the Yale edition of the Prose Works of John Milton (1980), relating to the period from September 1658 to May 1660.


Britain in Revolution is a meticulous narrative of events, rather than an interpretative essay. It concentrates on high politics and military affairs and is relatively light on social history and religious and political ideas. It is written with admirable lucidity; every sentence has been carefully considered; and the narrative is stylish, lively, and thoughtful. Even so, it is a very long book; the details are inevitably very dense and those readers who come fresh to the subject will not find it easy to keep clear in their minds such a huge list of dramatis personae and such a bewildering sequence of events. Nor, without a strong grasp of English, Scottish, and Irish topography, will they find the military campaigns very simple to follow.6 But the book will reward those who give it the close attention it deserves.

In dealing with the conflicting accumulation of evidence and interpretation, Woolrych is consistently judicious. He draws heavily and with full acknowledgment on the work of other scholars; and when he disagrees with them he is invariably courteous.7 The narrative is reliable and exceptionally fair-minded; and if there are no spectacular new insights, that is because Woolrych is so reasonable and so unconcerned to show off. In fact, he has a pronounced tendency to take a safe, middle position on controversial matters, an attitude exemplified in his judgment that the Levellers were given “excessive prominence” a generation or two ago, but “there is now perhaps a tendency to underestimate them.”

Woolrych’s sympathies are moderate, liberal, and humane. He dislikes “irrational fanaticism,” whether displayed in the “bigotry of Scottish Presbyterianism” or the “crazy expectations” of the Fifth Monarchists, who imminently awaited the millennium, when Jesus and his saints would rule on earth as the Fifth Kingdom predicted in the Book of Daniel. He thinks it “tragic” that there was no religious toleration for Irish Catholics and a “shame” that the remains of the Cromwellian admiral Robert Blake were disinterred at the Restoration. He has no patience for the “dreadful intolerance of the 1660s and 1670s” under Charles II. His instincts are invariably decent and, in the best sense of the word, gentlemanly. When writing military history he has a sharp eye for the extent to which contemporaries observed the prevailing rules of war. Cromwell’s massacre of the garrison of the Irish town of Drogheda shows

the corrosive effect that assumptions about the inherent inferiority of race or creed, especially when stoked by persistent lying propaganda, can have even upon hearts and minds that are otherwise capable of nobility.

Like Clarendon in his History of the Rebellion, Woolrych begins his narrative in 1625. This is a compromise between the views of those, like Lawrence Stone, who trace the revolution back to the redistribution of monastic lands by Henry VIII, and those, like Conrad Russell, who see no need to start the story before 1637. In practice, however, Woolrych gives the fifteen years before 1640 scarcely more space than he allots to the five years of Cromwell’s Protectorate between 1653 and 1658, and it is clearly in the war itself and its aftermath that his real interest lies. In particular, Oliver Cromwell and the New Model Army dominate much of the action. The Royalists are less well represented, though that may be as much because modern historians have given them less attention as from any unconscious bias on Woolrych’s part.

Woolrych’s argument is that the Civil War began as a quarrel within the governing class and that there was no inevitability about it. Despite a rising groundswell of discontent in the 1630s and some continuity between the political disputes of the late 1620s and the grievances against Charles I of the Long Parliament in 1640, there was no innate opposition between Crown and Parliament. On the contrary, the English Crown, lacking a standing army and a salaried bu-reaucracy, had always been dependent on the cooperation of the landed classes.

In 1640 there was no desire for revolutionary change; what most MPs wanted was a return to the way things had been under Queen Elizabeth. If circumstances had been different, the fear that religion, the law, and the constitution were under threat from the Crown could easily have been dispelled. The legislation of 1641, abolishing Charles’s Star Chamber, his levying of “ship money”—a tax on seaports which he had extended to inland areas—and other instruments of his personal rule, could have provided the basis of an acceptable settlement, as indeed it did when the Restoration came in 1660. But agreement was impossible in 1642 because plots and rumors of plots had created an atmosphere of mutual distrust. Driven on to more extreme courses than they had originally intended, the Parliamentarians were forced to keep running in order to stay in the same place.

Here, as throughout his book, Woolrych shares with the revisionists a profound belief in the importance of chance and contingency and a dislike of any form of determinism. He finds high politics absorbing because at every stage there are choices to be made and alternative courses of action to be considered. He likes speculating how things might have gone differently if a different decision had been taken or if a key battle had gone the other way or if someone had died sooner or lived longer. He regards the personality of actors as crucial and he relishes the repeated irony with which the outcome of some decision proves to have been wholly unforeseen by those involved.

This doctrine of unintended con-sequences underpins his narrative throughout. It emerges that, just as no one wanted a civil war when the Long Parliament met in 1640, so, as late as 1647, no one wanted the execution of the King. In 1649 a republic was proclaimed, even though the number of committed republicans in England was tiny. When, in 1653, Cromwell dissolved the Rump Parliament—the remnant of the Long Parliament that remained after the expulsion of the more conservative members in 1648—he had no intention of becoming head of state before the year was out; and when he died in 1658, no one guessed that the King would be restored in 1660.

Time and again, Woolrych stresses that there was no inevitability about the sequence of events. During the Civil War, Parliament, with its control of London and the sea, had superior material resources. But the war was won in the field and, so long as the Royalists were better led, more determined to fight, and possessed a greater will to win, there was no reason, at least in the first few years, why they should not have triumphed.

Similarly, if Charles I had been less stubborn and untrustworthy, he would not have been executed in 1649. Woolrych sees the King as “tragically miscast” for his role. Insensitive and inflexible, he lacked insight into human motivation and had no sense of what was or was not politically possible. His own catastrophic decisions brought about his downfall. If only he had been less assertive toward the Scots in 1637–1638; if only he had not attempted unsuccessfully to arrest five members of the opposition in Parliament in 1642; if only he had been ready to end the war by compromise and negotiation; if only he had been willing to accept the army’s proposals for a settlement in 1647; if only he had not precipitated the Second Civil War of 1648 by seeking help from the Scots (Woolrych describes this as “the most disastrous decision of his life”); if only he had recognized the authority of the court set up to try him and been ready to abdicate in 1649; if only he had been readier to compromise; if only he had been capable of keeping his word. In short, but for the accident of Charles’s personality, events might never have taken such a revolutionary turn.

Cromwell, by contrast, is very sympathetically treated. Woolrych stresses that Cromwell’s Protectorate was not a mili-tary dictatorship, but was hedged around by legal safeguards. Crom- well favored liberty of conscience and accepted formal restraints on his power. After the unfortunate episode of rule by his major-generals (“the biggest mistake of his political career”), he worked steadily and successfully to give his regime a more civilian character and to broaden its basis of support. With a new Parliament-originated constitution in the shape of the Humble Petition and Advice, a semi-hereditary Protector, a second chamber, a state church, strict limits on religious sectarianism, and the proclaimed objective of a permanent peacetime revenue, “no part thereof to be raised by a land tax,” Cromwell was well on the way to securing the support of the propertied classes.

So successful indeed was he that there is every reason to believe that if he had lived longer, the Stuarts would never have returned. As it was, his son Richard, who succeeded him, lacked authority with the army and was unable to hold together the military and civilian arms of the regime in the way his father had done. He was overthrown by a military coup. The soldiers restored the Rump Parliament, only to fall out with its republican members. The ensuing anarchy created the opportunity for General George Monck to bring his army from Scotland and restore Charles II. The Restoration was popular, but only because of what happened after Oliver Cromwell’s death.

So was it a revolution or not? Woolrych’s narrative method does not make it easy to appreciate the overall significance of these years, and the concluding section in which he considers the question is disappointingly perfunctory. Although he regards “rebellion” as “a totally inadequate term with which to describe what happened,” he has three reasons for also disliking the term “English Revolution’: it excludes Scotland and Ireland; it implies a misleading parallel with the French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions; and it suggests that the events between 1640 and 1660 were self-contained, whereas it was not until the period between 1689 and 1707 that parliamentary monarchy, the Bill of Rights, religious toleration, and the Scottish Union were firmly achieved.

So far as it goes, this is a just conclusion; and Woolrych’s narrative is a very fine achievement. But his concentration on high politics prevents him from fully conveying the unprecedented novelty of this period, when the lid was briefly taken off English society, permitting us to hear so many new and unfamiliar voices. Not only did the breakup of the parliamentary cause bring to the surface men of a lower social order and a more radical cast of mind than any who had hitherto participated in English politics. These years also saw the emergence of new religious sects, the Ranters, the Fifth Monarchists, the Muggletonians, and, most notably, the Quakers. They witnessed the readmission of the Jews. They generated an extraordinary ferment of political ideas, from the high political philosophy of Hobbes and Harrington to the less disciplined but equally novel and imaginative writings of the Levellers and Diggers. They saw the formulation of enduring ideas about representative democracy, inalienable human rights, religious toleration, and the accountability of governments. The collapse of press censorship led to an extraordinary explosion of ephemeral pamphlet liter-ature whose diversity and originality still await full exploration. It is this combination of cheap print and dramatically widened political self-consciousness that makes the period between 1640 and 1660 so unlike any other.

The result was to give the era an unparalleled place in subsequent English political mythology. It left the propertied classes with a determination never again to pursue their political objectives by arming their social inferiors; and it produced a literature of conflicting historical interpretation which, after over 350 years, shows no signs of abating. The historiographical triumph of revisionism in the 1970s and 1980s led many of the brightest young historians to drift away from the problem of the Civil War and its antecedents. Content to leave the study of political minutiae to others, they turned to other kinds of history and other periods. But there are signs that they are now returning; and, as they do so, we may expect new interpretations to arise.8

For it is a structural feature of modern academic life that each generation of historians feels obliged to challenge the views of its predecessors. Besides, we are all either Cavaliers or Roundheads; and whether one applauds the pioneers of liberty, equality, and toleration or is horrified by religious fanaticism and the violence of military rule, these are not years about which anyone can be neutral.

  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.

  6. 6

    Nor will they necessarily be helped by visiting the terrain. On the decisive parliamentary victory at Naseby in 1645, Woolrych comments wryly that a modern government has honored the dead of the most important battle on English soil since Hastings by building a motorway through the site.

  7. 7

    On the New Model Army, he firmly prefers the account offered by Ian Gentles, The New Model Army in England, Ireland and Scotland, 1645– 1653 (Blackwell Publishers, 1991), to that given in the earlier book by Mark A. Kishlansky of Harvard University, about whose work Woolrych is notably cool. This may help to explain the embarrassingly ungenerous review of Britain in Revolution by Kishlansky in the TLS, November 8, 2002.

  8. 8

    Particularly notable is the revival of interest in the political involvement of the populace. See the fine monograph by John Walter, Understanding Popular Violence in the English Revolution: The Colchester Plunderers (Cambridge University Press, 1999).