Historians are sometimes asked to say what the verdict of history will be upon the issues and personalities of contemporary politics. The only certain answer is that whatever history decides, it will change its mind. On no subject can it have changed its mind more often than the civil wars of mid-seventeenth-century England, an event on which the passions of posterity have run almost as high as those of the participants. The participants themselves cared deeply how posterity would judge their choices and their conduct, a concern generally ignored by historians and yet largely responsible for the memoirs and diaries on which historical interpretation has depended and by which it has been shaped.

How and why did the convulsions of the mid-seventeenth century come about? There were many upheavals in Europe at the same time—the Frondes in France, the revolts of Portugal and Catalonia against the Spanish monarchy, coups in Sweden and Holland and Denmark—but the underlying explanation of those crises, which were less radical and less protracted than those in England, lies in the strains of the Thirty Years War, in which England was scarcely involved. The rebellion in England was preceded by rebellions in Ireland and Scotland, and would not have occurred without them, but they lacked the ideological complexity and novelty of the English revolution. There had been English civil wars before, in the Middle Ages, but they had been either wars of succession, fought to determine the occupancy of the throne rather than its powers, or quarrels between Crown and nobility. Kings had been deposed before and slain before, but none had been convicted and executed in the name of the people, the fate of Charles I in 1649. There had been nothing to parallel the eleven years of republican rule that followed, and nothing in the political and religious conflicts of the earlier seventeenth century to intimate that the institutions of state and Church would collapse.

The contemporary explanation of the civil wars was simple: they were caused by sin. The English people, blessed with the favor of a Protestant God, had provoked His wrath by their incorrigible ingratitude. The miraculous deliverances He had vouchsafed them, from the Papacy at the Reformation, from the Spanish Armada in 1588, from the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, had been answered by the contemptuous neglect of His ordinances and by an unending epidemic of sexual and alcoholic iniquity. The peace and prosperity that were divinely bestowed in the 1630s, and that would be yearningly recalled during the succeeding turmoil, prompted not thankfulness but wantonness and vanity. Yet while royalists and parliamentarians were agreed in blaming the whole nation for the wars, they were sure that God’s indignation had been especially provoked by the sins of their opponents. The royalists, claimed the parliamentarians, had aimed to extirpate Protestantism, to debauch the nation’s morals, and to extinguish its constitutional and legal rights. The parliamentarians, claimed the royalists, cloaked ambition and private grievance as public virtue, and were lured by malice and hypocrisy into rebellion against God’s anointed king.

Those sterotypes, created by the propaganda of the civil wars, long outlasted them. The wars destroyed the language of union and harmony that had dominated public life before them. After the Restoration of 1660 the violence of the reaction against Puritanism, and the persecution of the defeated Puritans, showed how deep the divisions of the nation had become, and ensured that they would endure. The instinct for polarization that has long characterized English politics and society has its genesis in the confrontation first of Cavaliers and Roundheads, then of Anglicans and Dissenters. For two centuries after the civil wars, most interpretations of them would be frankly partisan interpretations, Whigs deriding Tories as the heirs of the Cavaliers, Tories scorning Whigs as latter-day Roundheads, and both sides encouraging the publication of civil-war histories, and the publication of civil-war documents, that would support their case.

It is in the later nineteenth century that the modern study of the civil wars begins. S.R. Gardiner’s classic narratives of the years 1603–1656* laid the scholarly foundation on which all subsequent interpretation has been built. The historians who followed in Gardiner’s steps, and in those of his successor C.H. Firth, who extended and supplemented Gardiner’s narrative, have been able to argue at a higher level of sophistication than has been evident in the periods before and after the civil war, in which Gardiner and Firth have had no counterparts.

And argue they have. For more than a third of a century, from around 1940 until the early 1970s, they argued about the social and economic dimensions of the revolution. The idea that the wars were fought from financial or class motives was not new. It had been suggested during the rule of Oliver Cromwell by the political thinker James Harrington, glimpsed by the royalist statesman and historian the Earl of Clarendon, and later given a populist twist by the parliamentary reformers of the Industrial Revolution. But only in the mid-twentieth century was the middle ground of debate captured by the conviction that the political and religious beliefs of the contending parties could be regarded as projections of their material interests and grievances.


The Marxist version of Christopher Hill portrayed the wars as a conflict between a feudal monarchy and a bourgeois Parliament, and hailed the overthrow of Charles I as an inevitable stage in the triumph of capitalism and of its progressive ideology, Puritanism. In the “storm over the gentry,” that epic battle between R.H. Tawney and Lawrence Stone on the one hand and Hugh Trevor-Roper on the other, the wars were interpreted as a conflict not between classes but within the landed class, between a declining nobility and a rising gentry or alternatively between rising gentry and declining gentry—although Trevor-Roper, taking the latter view, was less taken by economic determinism than were his adversaries, while J.H. Hexter, who made himself the abrasive umpire of the controversy, remained skeptical about the links between interests and principles which were assumed by his colleagues.

Few other historical controversies have been so boldly, so confidently, so eloquently conducted. To return to that war of giants is to enter a world far distant from the narrow specialisms, the hesitant conclusions, and the congested prose that can sometimes seem the distinguishing features of later debate. Yet the same world seems no less distant in less enviable respects: in the improbability of the determinist arguments, in the simplicity of the premises about human nature on which they rested, and in the thinness of the evidence on which grand hypotheses were constructed. The recollection that within recent memory the civil wars could be persuasively described as a bourgeois revolution, and the Marxist categories of class no less plausibly applied to the social ranks of seventeenth-century England, is a particularly sobering intimation of the mortality of historical judgment.

The surviving historians of that querulous era must be surprised to find that their successors are more struck by their common assumptions than by their differences. Those assumptions are now conventionally called “Whig,” although no term of disparagement can have been more elastically used. Conrad Russell, John Morrill, and other historians who have challenged those assumptions, and who have built a new orthodoxy, are conventionally called “revisionist,” a term scarcely less flexible but useful for shorthand description. On the evidence of these books, revisionism is in its turn in retreat. It is when an orthodoxy loses its hold, and begins to settle into the historiographical landscape, that its distinguishing features take on clear outlines.

Revisionism began not as a reaction against social and economic explanations but as a wish to test them. Local and provincial case studies showed the wealth of regional variation, and the subtleties of gradation, in the English social structure, and exposed the artificiality, if not the anachronism, of the class divisions which historians had imposed on the fighters of the civil wars. If the social categories crumbled, so did the political categories of royalist and parliamentarian to which they had been held to correspond. From the pioneering study of civil-war Kent by Alan Everitt, and from a series of distinguished regional studies that followed—above all those by John Morrill on Cheshire, Clive Holmes on East Anglia, Anthony Fletcher on Sussex—we learned how reluctantly the nation became involved in the wars, and how the choosing of sides could be determined not by responses to national issues but by local rivalries or merely by the instinct for survival.

As the outlooks of the landowners who ran the shires came to seem more provincial, so other historians, Conrad Russell at their head, began to rewrite the history of the parliaments of the earlier seventeenth century, where the grievances of landowners had found expression. Previous generations of historians, seeing in the constitutional conflicts of the Stuart age the seeds of parliamentary sovereignty, had generally represented those parliaments both as a progressive and as an increasingly powerful force. In Russell’s interpretation they appeared to be forums of inarticulate and ineffective provincial protest, incapable of addressing abstract constitutional issues and concerned more with their own privileges than with principles of liberty. It was the Court rather than the Commons, we learned, Whitehall rather than Westminster, that defined the political issues of the day.

These findings, and the intensity of research that has produced them, have brought us much closer to the texture of everyday Stuart politics. Yet they have also posed an obvious problem. If parliaments were so provincial and so impotent, and constitutional issues so unimportant, how did it happen that in 1642 the Long Parliament seized the administration, mobilized the nation (or half of it) to resist the king, and (in effect) claimed sovereign powers? An answer came from the second wave of revisionism, which argued that the members of the Long Parliament were emboldened not by constitutional ambition or sophistication but by the Puritan zeal provoked in them by the High Churchmanship of Charles I’s Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. MPs who were innately wary of political innovation were inspired by a neurotic fear of popery, and by apocalyptic hopes of reform, to cast their inhibitions aside in God’s cause. We should think of the civil wars, John Morrill tells us, not as the first of those modern revolutions in which they were placed by Christopher Hill and Lawrence Stone, but as the last of the wars of religion that convulsed Europe after the Reformation.


The differences between the revisionists and their predecessors have been ones not only of argument but of approach and method. Revisionism has brought a return to chronology: not to the writing of large-scale narrative, an art seemingly lost, but to a recognition of the need to be sure how things happened day by day before we can know why they happened. It had become fashionable to deride the writing of narrative as mere antiquarianism, unworthy of a place in the academies, where historians should earn their professional status not by telling stories but by borrowing the latest analytical models of the social sciences. The chronological base laid by Gardiner and Firth was taken for granted. It is now clear that they had done their work almost too well, by depriving their successors of that incentive to chronological discovery which is the lifeblood of historical inquiry. Good history requires not the separation of analysis from narrative but their interaction. The construction of narrative, an act of selection and therefore of interpretation, is always shaped by the analytical assumptions we bring to it, and the assumptions themselves are changed (or should be) when we submit them to the test of narrative composition, for it is a test they invariably fail.

The revival of chronology has carried with it an implicit insistence upon the importance of free will and decision making and contingency in history. Only if events are merely the working out of inevitable patterns, in which a political victory here or mistake there can affect the timetable but not the outcome, can there seem little point in lingering on them. The revival has carried with it too a skepticism about the necessary primacy of long-term or structural explanations. Anthony Fletcher, whose The Outbreak of the English Civil War (1981) traced in convincing detail the process by which England blundered into war from 1640 to 1642, questioned whether great events need have great causes. Like Clarendon, revisionists find little point in seeking the causes of the wars before the accession of Charles I in 1625, and view the king not as a prisoner of impersonal historical forces but as a decisive contributor to his own downfall.

The emphasis on religion, though it has sown some confusion in the ranks of the revisionists, reflects a further common purpose among them. They like to begin, not with the ways in which the past points to the present, or resembles it, but with the differences, and above all with the now alien language and convictions with which seventeenth-century politicians explained the events of their time to themselves and which, at least at some level, must help to explain their actions.

Having encountered surprisingly little resistance from their seniors, the revisionists have been answered more effectively by their juniors. The challenge came in three monographs published in 1986–1987. Richard Cust’s excellent The Forced Loan and English Politics demonstrated a widespread and articulate concern, both at Westminster and in the localities, with the constitutional issues raised by nonparliamentary taxation in the 1620s. Johann Sommerville’s courageous and incisive study Politics and Ideology in England, 1603–1640 found in the political thought of that period not the bland and cautious consensus located by some revisionists but a stark confrontation between spokesmen for royal absolutism and theorists of contract and consent.

The third book, Ann Hughes’s Politics, Society and Civil War in Warwickshire, took the challenge to the revisionists into the provinces. Historians had already become skeptical of the hold of the “county community” on seventeenth-century imaginations and loyalties. The notion that England was less a single nation than a federation of semi-autonomous shires, although given temporary credence by the concentration of unusually gifted scholars on unusually introspective counties and by the mesmeric archival conveniences of the County Record Offices, was bound to fade. Since the Norman Conquest England had been an exceptionally united realm, and the acquisition of self-consciousness by the counties derived not from dislike of the central authority but from institutions of local government created by the Crown and answerable to it. As Hughes’s book confirmed, the political horizons of England’s more substantial landowners, and not of them alone, were national rather than local.

To those three important books there can now be added a fourth. Thomas Cogswell’s The Blessed Revolution is a work of rich detail and fine scholarship, which centers on the Parliament of 1624, the year when a critical shift in England’s foreign policy, and hence in her domestic politics, was announced by the decision of James I, hitherto the friend of the Catholic Habsburgs, to become their enemy. James, Cogswell makes clear, was pushed into his reversal not merely by the intrigue at Court beloved by revisionists but by a Parliament that had a mind of its own and that drew strength from an informed and excited public opinion. Persuasive as the book is, there is a strong sense in which it belongs, and in which most of the works that have challenged revisionism belong, to the school against which they react. Like the battles that divided the “Whig” historians a generation ago, the conflict between the revisionists and their opponents obscures underlying resemblances. The critics of Conrad Russell follow his scholarly methods and priorities, and if their answers are different they are essentially answers to his questions. There is certainly no challenge to Russell’s emphasis on establishing the precise sequence of events. Cogswell’s study, which dwells on a few critical months, is chronological with a vengeance. The events of the 1620s now take far longer to write about than they took to occur.

L.J. Reeve’s Charles I and the Road to Personal Rule is another work of detailed chronology. Like Cogswell’s book, and like Hughes’s on Warwickshire, it belongs to an enterprising and vigorous new series, Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History, that has already vindicated itself by a good many useful publications, even if some of them might have benefited from a firmer editorial hand. Concentrating on the late 1620s and early 1630s, Reeve departs from the revisionists in emphasizing national constitutional conflicts, but concurs with them in seeing the early years of Charles I’s reign as troubled less by structural weaknesses of the monarchy than by the failings of the king, “a man very sure of his convictions but unsure of himself,” who bypassed his Privy Council and listened only to advisers who agreed with him. Although the book’s focus is not always clear, it gains steadily in authority. It has two particularly powerful chapters, of which the first describes the legal issues raised by the imprisonment of MPs without trial in 1629, while the second shows how close the king came in the winter of 1631–1632 to abandoning the policies of nonparliamentary government at home and of peace abroad that would contribute so heavily to his downfall.

Yet a fourth book in the Cambridge series, Jacqueline Eales’s Puritans and Roundheads, differs from the others in its agreement with John Morrill on the primacy of religion. The Puritan MP Sir Robert Harley, the central figure, along with his formidable wife, Brilliana, was far more radical in his opposition to Charles I’s ecclesiastical policies than to his secular policies. It is no fault of Eales, who is concerned only to offer a case study and supplies a very informative one, that one finishes her judicious and enjoyable book with mixed feelings about the field of inquiry to which she has contributed. The greater the respect historians of politics demonstrate for the religious convictions of the seventeenth century, the less interest they show in accounting for them. Puritan zeal has come to be treated almost as if it were an autonomous force of which there can be, or need be, no explanation, unless in the divine providence that Puritans themselves saw as its source.

Social explanation has lost favor, too. Certainly Sir Robert Harley’s career cannot be placed into any of the sociological categories created during the “storm over the gentry.” On the one hand, his skillfully arranged marriages and his dexterous land transactions took his family into the front rank of Herefordshire’s landowners, and so seem at first to place him among the ranks of the power-seeking “rising gentry.” Yet on the other, his loss of the Mastership of the Mint after the death of his father-in-law and patron Viscount Conway, a misfortune that seems to have sharpened his aversion to the rule of Charles I, appears to qualify him for the ranks of the aggrieved “declining gentry.” His Puritan zeal, far from giving the victory to either interpretation, persisted through economic fortune and misfortune alike. Yet if the limits of available social explanations have been exposed, ought not historians to be looking for new ones?

Similar questions hover over the collection of essays edited by Richard Cust and Ann Hughes, Conflict in Early Stuart England, a manifesto for the reaction against revisionism that will be seized upon by university students, who will be rewarded by reading it. But will they be rewarded enough? The continuing vitality of seventeenth-century studies, and the wealth of fresh insights produced by it, have been achieved at certain costs. One of them is overpopulation. Skirmishes on the boundaries of scholarly smallholdings do not encourage breadth of perspective or a sense of proportion. Although the most prominent critics of revisionism—Sommerville, Cogswell, the editors themselves—contribute essays to Conflict in Early Stuart England, they seem ill at ease when entering ground broader than their monographs. The very word “revisionism,” not to mention the title of Cust and Hughes’s introduction, “After Revisionism,” hints at a certain shortage of intellectual ambition, and at the self-conscious introversion that leads historians to write not only for each other but about each other. If historical education has a wider purpose than a preparation for scholarly research, it is not obvious that students should be reading these essays when they could be reading (say) Gibbon or Burckhardt, or, come to that, Tawney or Trevor-Roper.

The skirmishes I have been describing have been courteously conducted, a striking departure from the gladiatorial tradition of seventeenth-century historiography that can be explained partly by the laudable generosity of the leading revisionists to their younger critics, partly perhaps by the academic recession in Britain, which has encouraged historians to stick together, but partly too by the extent of the ground common to the two sides. The brief passages in Conflict in Early Stuart England that hint at a return to social and economic explanation are the most tentative of the volume, and in other respects, too, the contributors are loath to look beyond their immediate subject matter. Revisionists and their critics alike, who are healthily vigilant against anachronism, appear to conflate it with the study of historical development, for which they can show equally little patience. Without some alertness to the long-term significance or consequences of past events, we become incapable of deciding why one historical subject matters more than another, and perhaps of explaining why it matters at all.

This Issue

January 17, 1991