Since the end of the Second World War the attention of some of the ablest academic minds in Britain has been focussed on the growth of English society in the century following 1540. Synthesis has succeeded synthesis, theory has begotten theory, and the debate has been conducted with an asperity which many find quite shocking, if not alarming. Yet the word “debate” is appropriate for the activities of many of the contestants, for of actual research there has been very little (or very little published), and many pieces of evidence have been shuffled and dealt so often that they are dog-eared and greasy with use. But one of the original contestants, Lawrence Stone, has now retired to the comparative isolation of Princeton and produced an immense piece of detailed research the like of which has not been seen in English history for many years, if ever. By sheer weight of authority it may succeed in suppressing much of the controversy or at least diverting it into new channels.
It was around 1540 that the English land-owning middle class began that steady rise to political prominence which was to end in the tragic adventure of the Great Rebellion; and so powerful were the forces unleashed in the 1640s that for a few giddy years the monarchy was overthrown, the House of Lords abolished, and the Church disestablished. The attempt of the older literary historians, headed by the majestic figure of Samuel Rawson Gardiner and ably represented today by C.V. Wedgwood, to attribute this to a defect of personality and government on the part of the Stuarts, accompanied by an upsurge of precocious democratic liberalism riding on the back of militant Puritanism, was never very satisfactory, but it persisted for more than forty years for want of anything better. But in 1941 R.H. Tawney, already the doyen of English economic historians, published an article which was soon to be famous on “The Rise of the Gentry.” He argued that the rise of the gentry was an economic and social rather than a political or religious phenomenon; because of their superior skill in land utilization, commercial investment, and new industrial enterprise, and because of the comparative elasticity and adaptability of their economic structure, the landowning middle classes grew steadily richer in the sixteenth century as the Crown, the Church, and the aristocracy grew poorer. Economic power carried with it political power, and the gentry acquired so much that by 1640 the framework of the Ancient Constitution, King, and Parliament could not contain them.
TAWNEY SUBSEQUENTLY disclaimed any pretensions to originality, and indeed his thesis was essentially a restatement in economic terms of the theory of the rise of the middle classes made fashionable in the 1920s by historians like A. F. Pollard. But this is to play down the dogmatic self-confidence of much of what he wrote, and to ignore its intellectual brilliance, its logical cohesion, and its literary charm. “The Rise of the Gentry” was, and still is, wonderfully readable, which unfortunately can be said for very few papers published in learned journals. Economic historians were impressed, and it took political historians by storm. Summarized in innumerable lecture courses, and garbled in undergraduate assignments, it soon became the new orthodoxy, and therefore a target for the new generation of ebullient young historians who returned to Oxford after the war, among them the young Lawrence Stone, who may be said to have ignited the whole controversy by an unwary article published in 1948 in support of Tawney. He was promptly savaged by H. R. Trevor-Roper, who was then preparing his own demolition of Tawney’s thesis.
Stone has handsomely admitted the mistakes of fact and interpretation in this early paper on “The Anatomy of the Elizabethan Aristocracy,” but he has never abandoned the general thesis he then put forward that the rise of the gentry was accomplished and perhaps even occasioned by the financial recklessness of the aristocracy, which squandered its resources in money and land, so leaving room for an expansionist middle class below. However, what was in 1948 merely a contributory factor has now become the main impulse; in Stone’s view now the important social and economic fact of sixteenth-and early seventeenth-century history is the decline of the aristocracy, while the rise of the gentry is almost “an optical illusion.”
Professor Stone has worked hard and waited long, and his thesis is now clothed in a work of heroic proportions which brings together in one great synthesis every scrap of evidence bearing on the English aristocracy in the period 1558 to 1641. The book opens with a discussion of the place of the aristocracy in contemporary society, and proceeds to a description and an analysis of the great changes brought about by the reckless creation of peerages by James I and Buckingham between 1603 and 1628. Stone then examines the instability of aristocratic finances at this time, which he attributes to a combination of “sterility and stupidity,” and in a chapter on “Power” he traces the decline of organized violence and with it the military function of the nobility. This, incidentally, is a brilliant and original contribution to the history of sixteenth-century English society in general, and many historians would have been content to publish it in isolation.
Part Two examines in greater detail the nobility’s sources of income, from landed estates, trade and industry, and the court and government service; then their power of borrowing; then their pattern of expenditure. Finally, under the heading “Minds and Manners,” Stone discusses the marriages and marriage customs of the nobility, their family life, education and culture, and tries to make some sense of their religious persuasions, varied as they are. At the end he has succeeded in presenting the Tudor and Stuart aristocracy in their “total environment,” drawing upon a very wide range of sources, literary as well as financial, social, and political, and many of them in manuscript, hitherto little used.
AS A MATTER OF PRINCIPLE as well as convenience he has borrowed many of his techniques and some of his vocabulary from the social sciences, particularly sociology, demography, and economics. Elsewhere he has admitted “a determination to substitute, whenever possible, quantification for rhetoric; a willingness to borrow the tools and concepts of the social scientists to ask new questions and provide new answers; and a recognition that the historian has a responsibility to formulate meaningful hypotheses about the evolution of human society.” In England, where sociology is still not much more respectable than astrology and demography is kept in its place, this has occasioned some concern; also his economic conclusions have been sharply, though anonymously, criticized, and the debate will no doubt continue. Certainly some of his statistical appendices are more entertaining than conclusive, and the demographers have yet to pronounce on his work. But in some ways it is unfortunate that this book should have appeared at a time when demography is all the fashion and sociology is still a cult; it has already suffered comparison with Hollingworth’s excellent Demography of the British Peerage, but in fact it is a very different kind of work. A demographer or a sociologist conceives of his subject as existing in its own right; his published works are contributions to demography or sociology. But Stone is still and always a historian, and he describes this book as “a study in social, economic and intellectual history, which is consciously designed to serve as the prolegomenon to, and an explanation of, political history.” In fact, this is a performance in the direct tradition of great historical scholarship, of which the new social sciences are the servants not the masters.
For, despite its length, its weight of digested learning, its seriousness, and its wealth of detail, this is an exciting book. We imagine that the “high works” of history, like Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico, or Macaulay’s History of England, are products of a bygone age and, like antique furniture, can be copied but not repeated. But our point of view has changed; the emphasis of nineteenth-century historical writing was on narrative, which is understandable; usually it was necessary to establish for the first time what actually happened in the past and when; the “why?” had to be left for later. But the emphasis of the best historical writing today is on analysis and synthesis, and in its imaginative sweep, the quality of its writing, and its intellectual authority, The Crisis of the Aristocracy is a brilliant work.
IT IS NOT EASY to say where all this leaves the gentry. Elsewhere, in a short textbook on Social Change and Revolution in England 1540-1640, Stone has given a magisterial summing-up of the whole question, but it would be idle to hope that this will have any more effect than the equally magisterial summations attempted by J. H. Hexter of Yale and Willson Coates. After publishing his article “Storm over the Gentry” in 1958 Hexter ruefully admitted that “the way of the peacemaker is hard,” and that the scholarly rejoinders to this article, some of them ferocious, were treated with more consideration than his own contribution which had provoked them.
Hexter’s intervention has done little but give those in charge of the gentry controversy an exaggerated idea of their own importance, if they did not have that already, and introduce further cant. Particularly depressing, because so unnecessary, is Hexter’s determination to suppress the term “middle class,” reminiscent of another ill-starred attempt, also from across the Atlantic, to do away with the useful if muddling terms “Whig” and “Tory.” Peter Laslett now regards the term “middle-class” (surely innocuous though occasionally misleading) with pious horror, and commiserates with those authors still so benighted as to employ it. Tawney, in terms significantly theological, described it as “a very prince of darkness,” shedding “a disastrous twilight.” But it is possible, like Laslett and Hexter, to reject the pseudo-Marxism that sees all historical changes according to the rise and fall of social classes, without forsaking the use of terms which provide a convenient shorthand. This revision of historical terminology has now gone so far that historians who do not want to appear old-fashioned are driven to inventing even more confusing and wholly imaginary categories, like Christopher Hill’s “industrious sort of people.”
BUT ONE THING IS CLEAR. Stone’s critics will not have to “put up or shut up”; they can only refute his conclusions by work equally scholarly, exact, and comprehensive. The Crisis of the Aristocracy is part of a general trend towards exact investigation as against mere blather. Ten years ago a detailed investigation of the more important Northamptonshire gentry was published, followed by a similar study of the Norfolk gentry; a study of the Welsh gentry is in preparation, and so no doubt are others. Alan Everitt has also intensively studied the gentry of Kent during the Civil Wars and Interregnum. Before long, on the basis of these regional studies, it should be possible to build up a picture of the gentry to compare with Stone’s picture of the aristocracy. But already it is fair to say that Tawney’s original thesis is now so battered that it should be withdrawn from the front line altogether. Indeed, there is plenty of ammunition here for those reckless iconoclasts who assert that the gentry had no more importance in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries than it had in the thirteenth or the eighteenth, save for the temporary political importance it acquired by the abdication of its superiors. The researches of Treherne and Roskell suggest that this class was active enough in the latter Middle Ages, and indeed by the reign of Henry IV had assumed something like its “modern” appearance; and instead of a dramatic “rise” or even “fall” of the gentry in any one century we should imagine a steady progression over the whole period between the collapse of feudalism and the onset of the industrial revolution, a progression which sometimes was well publicized and sometimes not, this giving a false impression of fluctuation.
Finally, as Trevor-Roper pointed out from the beginning, any theory of social change must rest on political realities; if the gentry was a rising class up to 1640. why did it fail so lamentably to seize the political opportunities granted it by its victory in the Civil Wars? Tawney dismissed this as “speculation”; true, but it is perfectly valid speculation. The great advantage of Stone’s work is that it does explain political events in a natural, unforced way; not only the failure of the King’s government in the crisis of 1640, but the subsequent failure of the parliamentary gentry to consolidate its grip on central authority.
July 7, 1966