At a time when historical works are losing wide readership, the English Civil War has remained immensely popular. Other great historical episodes, other famous battles, no less landmarks of the English historical past, have failed to arouse the same interest or emotion. On both sides of the Atlantic, seventeenth-century English history has also attracted some of the finest historical talents; like some timeless model, it has shown the best of the traditional and avant-garde in historical writing.
Perhaps the appeal of the period to both layman and scholar is rooted in the same belief, the same preconception (even the same misconception): that the English Civil War is an event that helped to set the course of Western history, the event that secured the triumph of representative institutions over absolute monarchy, of liberty over tyranny, of Protestantism over popery. In a history written from this perspective, the victims of Charles I’s regime fled to sow the values of freedom and godliness in the New World; the victors of the eventual conflict fought to defend them in the old. Few even of the many emotionally attracted to the plumed chivalrous hero of the Cavalier legend, or to the valiant Prince Rupert of reality, doubt that it was a war for freedom or express regret at the outcome. Even those repelled by the austere demeanor and canting puritanism of the Roundheads celebrate their constitutional victory. In the words of Sellar and Yeatman in 1066 and All That, the Royalists were “Wrong but Wromantic,” the Parliamentarians, “Right but Repulsive.”
Among scholars, discussions of the causes of the war have produced some of the most brilliant and vituperative historical exchanges. But these have masked a large measure of agreement—a consensus that the Civil War was the explosion of long-term political and social conflicts. Historians have quarreled about what were the causes; they have never questioned whether there were causes. In this sense seventeenth-century historiography, for all the violence, has seen only skirmishes, not full-scale conflict.
Recently the peace was shattered. In 1976, Conrad Russell questioned whether the period between 1604 and 1629 was one of inevitable constitutional conflict centered upon rival claims for power between an absolutist monarchy and a developing House of Commons. He argued that there was no “opposition” in early Stuart parliaments; nor did they possess the power (or the will) to sustain one. Whatever the nature of the war in 1642, its causes could not easily be traced from the parliamentary debates of the 1620s. Mr. Russell wrote a reconnaissance piece that might have stimulated us all to renewed investigation.* But, against his wishes, he reopened a conflict waged three hundred years ago. For on the one side some displayed the dogged reaction of the besieged. On the other, in America and in England scholars deployed new evidence in the attack on the old citadel—a citadel that has defended the national past and the national myths of both countries: the Whig interpretation of history.
The Old Guard—the military phrase is Lawrence Stone’s—did not easily surrender. Faced with heavy artillery and rigorously trained opponents, they have resisted, dug in, and counterattacked, some with skill and effectiveness, others, less well equipped, with more bravado than tactical acumen. Theirs is a stand for the central place of ideology and commitment in the story of the English Civil War, and perhaps too in the course of (English?) history in general.
Some have been quick to detect in this exchange the influence of changing historical styles and even of recent political experience. Lawrence Stone, a formidable scholar with an (overzealous) inclination for combat, has dismissed his critics as young men seduced by the unprincipled cynicism of modern politics into a retreat from the “big why” questions of history to narrow antiquarianism. There are two observations here. One may be true. Historians can never escape the preoccupations and values of their own age; indeed, the Old Guard view of the seventeenth century may owe as much to the experience of the Spanish Civil War as to the study of the English Civil War.
The second point is indisputable. Recent work on Stuart parliaments and the English Civil War, like recent work on the American and French revolutions, epitomizes a shift in historiographical style. To Lawrence Stone it marks “the end of the attempt to produce a coherent scientific explanation of change in the past.” Certainly it is a change fostered by disillusionment with the explanations cast in a universal (Marxist, Toynbeean, or whatever) mold. It is a change too that reflects the recent popularity (even necessity) of the PhD as a training for historians, and the related though separate interest in local and county studies. The detailed study has, more often than not, undermined the generalization. At its worst, this scholarship can sink to antiquarianism. But for the most part, as in the three books under review, it represents a retreat less from the “big why” questions than from insufficiently founded “big because” explanations of the seventeenth century.
Perhaps because the values of losers seem less interesting than those of victors, historians have all but neglected the subject investigated by Mr. Parry: the glorification of the monarch and the projection of the royal interest at the early Stuart court. Anxious to establish his distant claims to the throne and a firm link with the Tudors, James I early adopted many of the symbols of Elizabethan iconography: associations with St. George and St. Andrew, with Brutus, mythical king of the Trojans, with the virtues of peace and wisdom. But a change of style too was evident from James’s first royal entertainments: a departure from Biblical subjects and images to classical allusions which depended for their full force on considerable learning. This was a mode that, reflecting the Scottish monarch’s antipathy for the mob, appealed less to the citizens, more to a cultured, aristocratic audience. It was evidently a conscious reorientation, designed by the new artist of court ceremonial, Ben Jonson, who intended that his elaborate shows might “declare themselves to the sharp and learned: And for the multitude no doubt but their grounded [i.e., earthly] judgment did gaze, said it was fine and were satisfied.”
The new Jacobean style found perfect expression in the court masque, developed by Jonson, perhaps under the influence of Queen Anne. The purpose of the masque was the celebration (by means of complex allusion in scene and verse) of ideal virtues which were identified with the king’s majesty. Parry interestingly compares the masque to the mass: a ritual in which the action and the vestments had a symbolic significance beyond the rationally intelligible, only partly understood by those who attended. Its high priest was Jonson, who continued to conduct these services of worship to the royal deity throughout the reign of James.
Jonson, however, was hardly a sycophant. He saw himself as the moral commentator on, indeed the moral tutor to, his age. If James I was Britain’s Augustus, Jonson aspired to be its Horace. At home in Whitefriars as well as in Whitehall, Jonson expressed the criticism of the court that was mumbled in the City and in the country. The royal court itself harbored differing values: while the king projected the image of Rex Pacificus, the court of James’s eldest son, Prince Henry, famed for chivalry and the tilt, sounded a more martial trumpet.
Prince Henry’s circle influenced the development of another cultural style that owed little to the king: an interest in the visual arts. No less than the masques, the arts proclaimed the values of order, peace, and union in the microcosm of the commonweal and with the macrocosm of the divinely molded universe. “A Palladian building represented a statement in stone of basic cosmic harmonies.” In drama and dance, in statue and stone, brilliant expressions of divine monarchy were bequeathed to King Charles by the Jacobean court.
The Whitehall ceiling, Rubens’s painting depicting the apotheosis of the monarch, was Charles’s homage to Jacobean culture as well as to Jacobean kingship. Yet, Parry argues, Charles I’s reign marks a decline from that of his father. The court masque, entrusted now (why?) to writers of lesser talent than Jonson, sank into empty and repetitious eulogy, as the world on the stage withdrew from reality. His inventive capacity for masque design now evidently exhausted, Inigo Jones turned for inspiration to Italian and French engravings, but his dazzling projects for rebuilding were prevented by an impoverished exchequer. Neoplatonism, the only injection of novelty into court culture, was for the most part trivial, becoming, it is maintained, little more than a cult which offered Charles I “an admirable means of projecting the royal image in a way that distracted attention from the political aspects of his kingship.” “Almost predictably,” the creative talents came to lie outside the court. Caroline culture, like the royal cause, was moribund, deriving what life it had from earlier vigor and from a surviving and (to Parry surprisingly) vital belief in “the immeasurable and fateful influence of royal power.”
By investigating the symbols of court culture Parry has offered new evidence for the study of early modern kingship. He has also suggested how a particular painting or play may be read. All too often, however, Parry does not read them closely enough, or read them in context. Court culture can tell us much not only about attitudes to the monarchy, but also about its values and personalities. Parry exhibits too little understanding of and too little sympathy with the power of monarchy and the force of the king’s person. We learn little of the characters of these kings, who dictated important changes of taste. James I loved verbal wit and irony; Charles preferred visual statements, transiently in dramatics or more permanently in stone. His plans for building a magnificent new Whitehall reveal far more of his political vision than the dismissive phrase “burgeoning megalomania” would suggest.
Nor is the masque satisfactorily explored. It was an exercise in propaganda and flattery; but it was more. Kingship was a duty, as well as an honor. For the king as for the other participants and the audience the masque expressed ideals to be attained as well as blessings to be celebrated. This was no less true of Charles than of James. In the masques of Charles’s court during the 1630s, in accordance with royal taste, there was greater emphasis upon spectacle, but no less seriousness of purpose.
The picture of the court is also oversimplified. Parry finds that Jonson “rather surprisingly” voiced criticisms of the court. That phrase suggests a misunderstanding of both Jonson and the court—one stemming perhaps from reliance on dubious contemporary commentators like Arthur Wilson (“the historian” of James I’s reign?). Neither the court of James I nor that of Charles I was a cultural—or political—monolith: there was a diversity of style as of opinion. Like Jonson, the masque writers of the 1630s wrote stage plays (often performed by the king’s company) that criticize and even deride the court. Just as we need to study culture in order to understand the court as a political center, so we need to investigate the politics of the dramatists and the topicality of the plays in order to read them with sensitivity and profit. Parry has snapped a broad landscape: the details are hazy, but the picture is clear enough to encourage exploration.
Where Parry uses a wide-angle lens, Anthony Fletcher focuses on the two years prior to the outbreak of civil war. He begins his story in November 1640 with the meeting of the Long Parliament, and with the conviction of the Puritan MP John Pym that the realm was endangered by a popish conspiracy. The man and the fear were to remain at the center of the action as gossip and rumor combined with events to ignite a war that no one wanted. The history of the Long Parliament as told here is the story of the attempt by Pym and his adherents to persuade the House of Commons of the validity of his fears and the necessity of his policies. It was no easy task. The interests of the leaders of the House and of the country gentlemen differed considerably. Where most MPs pursued legislation to end grievances and protect local interests, Pym’s aim was to attack the monarch’s evil counselors and secure adequate revenue. By the summer of 1641, after eight exhausting months, there was deadlock not so much between Parliament and the king as between the leaders and the back bench in the Commons. The summer recess was forced on Pym, while the king left London for Scotland and MPs drifted back to their homes and harvests.
During the summer Pym worked to establish his control and to convince the localities of his viewpoint. The Grand Remonstrance he helped to draft that summer was an advertisement for his remedy for the ills of the realm, and a plea for preventive action against the infectious canker of popery. His action was timely and necessary, for many were beginning to doubt, if they had ever feared, the Catholic threat, and to suspect Pym’s motives for warning of it; and many were beginning to show concern at the sectarian excesses that his campaign aroused. An emerging royal leadership in the House gave parliamentary voice to those doubts. Events played fortuitously into Pym’s hands. The Irish rebellion, in seeming to confirm his worst suspicions, established his position.
The Irish rebellion was decisive. As Fletcher points out, it precluded a dissolution of Parliament. (He might perhaps have emphasized that it also involved troops, and so immediately gave rise to the question of control of the army, on which there was no constitutional consensus.) Charles embarked upon a campaign to win support. Believing that the loyalty of the Commons was undermined by the machinations of Pym’s faction, he took action to remove the conspirators and made an abortive attempt to arrest Pym and four other members. Mr. Fletcher suggests convincingly that the whole affair may have been a trap laid to turn a suspect into a convicted criminal. Pym “teased” Charles I into the action that condemned him. For condemnation it was. The coup provided final proof of the papist design and, more damaging, evidence that it had infected the king’s intimate counsel. Thereafter the militia ordinance was passed, and Pym’s program, so long fought for and so often in the balance, was accomplished. The country drifted into war.
“Great events,” Fletcher sagely reflects, “do not necessarily have great causes.” But that is not to say that for him the Civil War was an accident. In part it arose from idealism and passion, especially religious commitment; more important, it grew from myths, from (largely misplaced?) fears and suspicions which fed one another. As the Earl of Bristol put it, “Our sickness is rather continued out of fancy and conceit (I mean fears and jealousies) than out of any real distemper or defect.”
Fletcher tells his story impeccably. His learning is awesome, his command of evidence magisterial. I know of no other modern chronicler of these years who has better caught the decisive event; or has shown such sensitivity to the impact of short-term change. Fletcher moves with agility from Westminster to the localities and back. His account of the county petitioning movements and of Pym’s response has added a vital chapter to the story of how the war came about. There are, of course, questionable judgments: the sincerity of Pym’s fears is open to question; even in the autumn of 1641 the gap between Pym’s interests and those of the country was greater surely than is argued here. For the most part, however, Fletcher’s story is convincing, even indisputable.
It is what is not addressed that raises some problems. To say that “settlement depended upon an atmosphere of political harmony and purposefulness which it proved impossible to achieve” is to say nothing unless it is explained why that atmosphere evaporated and proved irrecoverable. To argue that competing myths were the cause of conflict is not to explain where those myths were born or what malfunctions of the political machine allowed them to become entrenched. Myths, as we know, can be more powerful than reality. But we know too that there are usually reasons why myth is followed while truth is suppressed. Perhaps the breakdown of trust in 1640 was a breakdown of the monarch’s ability to communicate with his subjects. Few who knew Charles I can have seriously suspected him of any inclination toward Rome. But he was not good at being his own publicity agent—at least not until it was too late.
That may have been his most important failing. If so, it is a failing whose sources in his own blindness deserve more examination. Pym’s triumph within the Commons is, as Fletcher recognizes, one half of the story of the Civil War; the king’s mounting conviction that he must wage war against a conspiracy is the other. If, in the summer of 1642, the peace party could not prevent the war, it was not least because by then the king had decided to fight.
But a decision alone does not create an army. Ronald Hutton has much to say about how this was done in his investigation of the military and political fortunes of the Royalist cause from 1642 to 1646. He passes rapidly over questions of the allegiances of the troops to examine the instruments by which they were raised. The authority to recruit men devolved from the royal grant of “commission of array,” a long obsolete instrument but the best means open to Charles without the support of Parliament. By that authority commissioners raised troops of volunteers, often because they were the first to arrive in a village offering pay in return for enlistment. By this means, within three weeks Charles I raised a force sufficient to face his enemies. From the beginning the localities reacted with antipathy and resistance. But events overtook them. The royal commanders managed “to draw most of the region into the war by drawing the war itself into most of the region.” The winter of 1642-1643 saw the defeat of provincialism.
In order to coordinate strategy, Charles, like Parliament, appointed six regional generals. Initially, like Lord Herbert, they were aristocratic grandees, possessed of greater status in their community than of military experience. But if this was intended to appease the locality and to facilitate civilian cooperation, it failed. By necessity effective power came to be wielded by the military commanders, and looting by troops alienated the community on whose support they depended. This spiral undermined the Royalist war effort from within. In the end Charles replaced the local magnates with proven military commanders—the “warlords” as Hutton calls them. The best of these, like Prince Rupert, tried to reform the army and to work with the local communities. His dazzling military successes fostered, and may have resulted from, the degree of local cooperation that he secured.
But local antipathy remained a problem. And because the Royalists’ base was also a battlefield, administrative authority was ruptured, extraordinary levies were added to the burden, commerce was disrupted, and the wealth of the area was sapped by plunder. Defeat exacerbated these problems. Ultimately the provinces formed gentry associations for their own protection—against the king’s troops no less than those of Parliament. “In the last analysis it was the local community, not Parliament, which defeated Charles I, not from hatred of his cause but from hatred of the war itself.”
In his vigorous, at times bewilderingly brusque, survey, Hutton explodes myths and makes important distinctions. An excellent critic of his sources, he is quick to see evidence of bias or a gap in the records. The Royalist army, we can now be sure, was no feudal host but a volunteer force prepared and compelled (no less than its Parliamentary counterpart) to ride roughshod over provincial custom and sentiment in order to sustain the fight. The county neutrality pacts and the later Clubmen bands he shows, in the best account yet, constituted not one movement but several, born of different courses and intent upon different ends.
But it is not clear why the Royalists lost. Had Hutton commenced his story a little earlier, had we a fuller picture of who the Royalists were, it might have been easier to understand the fortunes of their cause. Nor does he make sufficient comparisons to illuminate whether the Royalists faced problems markedly different from those of their Parliamentary foe. The Royalists, it is true, never possessed a secure base, free from skirmish and battle. But it might be expected that the constant threat to local safety would have facilitated the raising of funds. Though the commission of array was a sensible expedient, its unfamiliarity may have raised difficulties. After riding the western circuit in the summer of 1642 Sir Robert Foster told Charles: “The truth is the counties are much possessed with the illegality of the commissions of array and the unlimited power…in the commissioners.” There may have been more problems from the beginning.
Both Hutton and Fletcher convincingly describe a war that no one wanted, a war that was resisted by the localities and only imposed upon them by force. As Hutton puts it: “The civil war did not arise, inevitably, from any fundamental social, economic, religious or even political cleavage within local society. It was an artificial insemination of violence into the local community.” It is on this point that these revisionists and others concentrate their guns. And if evidence is the ammunition of historical exchange, they bring to their assault a formidable firepower and skill in deploying it. If the Old Guard is to stand, it will have to do more than rally around the flag. It will need to answer evidence with evidence.
December 2, 1982