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…

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