347 The English Revolution

Well this is exciting! The English Revolution. A title which is controversial, and a historiography which is bigger than the eponymous crocodile. We talk about as many theories as we can – and there’s a poll and Prize draw, sponsored by Halls Hammered Coins

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The English Revolution Poll and Prize Draw

Please do the poll and let’s see what you think caused the English revolution. And who would you have been – Royalist, Parliamentarian, or Clubman? And if you wish, but only if you wish, you can enter the Prize Draw.

Yes! Take me to the Poll and Draw!

The Prizes – sponsored by Halls Hammered Coins 

Simon Hall is a long term friend of the podcast and has helped me out before, and runs an online British coin specialist. There’s a wealth of fantastic coins there, so if you don’t (or indeed – do!) win, go along and have a look. Simon has found and generously sponsored some wonderful prizes for me.

First out of the hat: This Charles I Silver Penny was minted in a city under siege – the King’s headquarters at Oxford, in 1644. Not only that – but it has been pierced, so that it could be worn as a Royalist badge of pride.

Second Prize is a ‘Rose’ Style Halfpenny minted in the reign of Charles I , minted in 1638-9 as thinks were really getting hot for Charles with the Scottish Revolution reaching fever pitch,


Third Prize is a silver, Half Groat –  groat was worth 4 pence, so a half groat…twopence, another coin that would have been used and handled by people going through the day to day experience of the Civil Wars. It was minted for Charles between 1625 and 1649.


This episode is sponsored now and forever by Simon Hall at Halls Hammered coins, the online British coin specialist and long term friend to the history of England, to be found at www.hallshammeredcoins.com/. You’ll find out why in a mo.

Now then everybody, we have arrived at the foothills of the English Revolution – a phrase rarely used now I believe; the new Orthodoxy from which one must not deviate on pain of death or possibly taxes being the requirement to describe the period between 1637 and 1660 as something like the wars of three kingdoms or the British civil wars; though you appear to be allowed to use the phrase Scottish Revolution – or at least no one has shouted at me for doing so. Well, I shall be using the phrase English Revolution to a degree, while of course giving due deference to the other kingdoms involved, and would like to salute a Frenchman one Francois Guizot, who coined the title English Revolution. Guizot was a liberal politician who tried to maintain a constitutional monarchy after 1830. So maybe we’d better give him the first quote of what will be many. He wrote a history of European civilisation and described the struggle to establish constitutional rights thus:

‘The first clash took place in England … the effort to abolish absolute power in the temporal sphere and in the intellectual sphere, that is the meaning of the English revolution, that is its role in the development of our civilization .’

It is a claim almost as grand as any that the likes of Thomas Babbington Macauley would give, and our Babbers was not given to understatement. Nowadays I doubt you’d find a French politician saying that, and I am put in mind of PM Thatcher on being asked politely what she thought of the French Revolution airily replying that oh we’d had ours 150 years earlier. That, I believe, is what’s called the Entente Cordiale.

However, let me admit my deep wrongness in using the phrase English Revolution – or at least my threadbare justification for it, in the same way as I defend my scurrilous love of the phrase Dark Ages. Peter Laslett, in one of those stunningly superb works of historical genius, a work called ‘The World We have Lost’, argues convincingly that the idea of a revolution strongly suggests social revolution and change as well as political; and in his view, horribly paraphrased by me here, there is no great ideology that tried to over turn the old social rules such as in France in 1789 or the Bolshevik revolution; the extent of the legacies of the English Revolution are disputed, it is clearly a British not simply English phenomenon; and the social revolution that occurred in England and wales started well before and continued well after. I am not worthy so much as to pick up the crumbs under Peter Laslett’s table. And yet I stick by the phrase. Because there was a flowering and explosion of ideas and diversity that shocked many; there was utter political turmoil and change, however strongly reversed, and there has been a legacy in political and social thought that has affected later generations. And also because…well, like the Dark Ages it’s a much more evocative phrase that conjures up the extraordinary character of the age. We need not to be funsuckers. I’ll probably quietly drop it later on, watch out for it.

Anyway I should start at the beginning with Doe, rather than launching in with Ray, or Me, or whatever. Today then ladies and gentlemen and all the company of this parish, we are going to talk about the historiography of the English Revolution. I am going to fill every Revisionist historian out there with burning rage – well probably mild irritation would be a better phrase – by including the entire reign of Charles I in that, 1625 to 1649 of course. Because your view of the Personal Reign of Charles I is also part of the historiography. I will not cover in this the historiography of Oliver Cromwell in any great depth, for two reasons really. One, because the popular history of said Revolution tends to be dominated by the old chap, and really it shouldn’t, he was a bit part player for much of it, though you’d never guess from the 1970s classic film Cromwell, soon to be covered on the History of Technicolour Podcast. The second is that he deserves his very own historiography when we get a little closer to the Protectorate, cos you know, he’s worth it. I remember on one of the many social media rages from Ireland about the horrors of the English someone remarking that Cromwell was revered in England – nothing, of course, could be further than the truth. Like everything else about the Revolution, his historiography is deeply contentious and contested. Obviously, he’ll get the odd mench here and there, can’t avoid that.

So, why historiography I hear you ask, can we not just get on with the people hitting each other bit? Two reasons again, the best things come in twos – feet, ears, arms, buttocks for example. Firstly, the historiography of the civil war is Wild. I mean Wild with a capital W in fact come on, let’s capitalise the whole darned word. In fact, the Revolution has been a key battleground which has been part of forming the entire national history, and not only that, defined political allegiances such as Whig and Tory until the modern day – it is a deeply political period, maybe a little less so now.

Following on from that then is the second cheek in this brace of buttocks; one of the more recent articles about the historiography, by Peter Lake, rather wearily remarks that it appears we have now completed, over the last 400 years, after historical writing and research that would more than fill Xanadu’s caverns measureless to man, a complete 360 degrees and are now back pretty much where we started with the contemporary politician and historian Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, and his ‘History of the Rebellion’, written before his death in 1674 but not published until 1702 . So, remembering our historiography is important, for as John Adamson wittily remarked re-coining George Santayana’s classic phrase, those who do not remember their historiography may be condemned to repeat it. Which is a hoot, though maybe this reworking is every bit as flawed as George’s original concept; because as Blair Worden also remarked, every generation refights the English Civil War after its own fashion. Oops, I mean British civil wars – don’t shoot! But look, could I get preachy for just a moment, would you mind terribly if I did? There is a lesson there for us all is there not – that Today’s new orthodoxy may well be tomorrow’s heresy or vice versa. We’ll hear about Thomas Babbington MacCauley later, an MP and historical writer most convinced of his opinions. The Prime Minister Lord Melbourne remarked sarcastically

I wish I was as cocksure of anything as Tom Macaulay is of everything

Every generation rewrites history. And not just academic historians, history belongs to us all, even if they are the keepers of the keys.

Now, at the end of the aforementioned weary article by Peter Lake, he argues for a more balanced and syncretic approach to the civil war, a move away from grand theories that seek to package everything up in a Grand Unified Theory – although that’s a lot less fun, but temperamentally the balanced nuanced thing is indeed in the Mikhail Kerensky, centrist Dad land which I inhabit. But in the words of Chris Tarrant and Millionaire, we don’t want to give you that! Which brings me to the English Revolution Grand Day Out Poll and Competition. Or should that be the English Revolution Wrong Trousers in recognition that I am going to do exactly what Peter Lake begged his fellow historians to stop doing – to stop all the binary stuff, long term struggle Vs short term crisis and Lord forbid – Roundhead Vs Cavalier.

There are two buttocks, sorry reasons, why I propose to do this. Firstly, because I’m not a historian just a teller of historical stories and tellers of historical stories just wanna have fun, and so on. And also because I would like to get a reading of the temperature from you all before we plunge into the waters of Charles’ reign and Republic – what are your preconceptions of why all this happened? So we are going to have a Poll which will present you all with some questions to answer about your view of the causes of the Revolution, in a couple of formats. These will all be mentioned in the following narrative so sharpen your pencils – or go and see the transcript for this episode, which I always publish on thehistoryofenglandco.uk – did you know that by the way? There you will also find the poll. And there will be a prize gentle listeners, a prize draw for which you may enter for some coins. And another prize of a coin, from Charles’ I’s reign. Hie thee to the historyofEngland.co.uk to find out more – you can do the poll and not enter the prize draw, btw but if you do the prize draw you will need to give me your email address so I can get in touch, but I will give that valuable information to no one and not re-use it, which will keep the paparazzi from your door when you win.

Good golly I have warbled. Let us begin at the beginning, which as I have mentioned was with Clarendon, who was a first hand witness at the centre of affairs as an adviser to Charles I, and who wrote the first monumental history of the period. Those days you didn’t mess about when writing history – no neat single volume affairs good lord perish the very thought 6 Volumes was a minimum. Now, Clarendon’s work has stood the test of time pretty well in terms of its quality and writing, but as you might guess from the title it’s a little biased – Rebellion sort of gives it away. After the Restoration the history, language and heroes you quoted from the period were heavily, heavily loaded; Samuel Pepys was asked to change a reference in a paper from ‘the late disruption between king and Parliament” to the term ‘rebellion’. If you were a Royalist, your hero was the King Charles I the Martyr and you celebrated his day in the Anglican church on 30th January; if of the other, republican persuasion, you spoke of the Good Old Cause, of John Hampden and Algernon Sydney. The historian Catherine Maccauley would later write of Clarendon that ‘he is apt to disgust a candid reader with his prejudices and partiality’.

Might I make a personal remark here about a basic problem of telling the story of the English Revolution? This might be less of a problem for professional historians, who are trained to be as objective as possible, however impossible Post Modernists might believe that to be, but for popular history, it seems to me that there’s a bit of a problem with period. This is that we want the English Revolution to be what we want it to be. It’s much more attractive in this day and age to see the parliamentarian side to be selfless labourers after liberty, so the religious extremities rather get in the way; a bit like the Scottish Revolution actually. You’d think the Covenant would be a much celebrated thing in Scotland, the radicalism of the Scots in 1637 to 1640, well ahead of their southern neighbours. But no, the big national story, is all about a couple of baronial warlords winning a civil war in the 13th century, and a letter complaining about ecclesiastical organisation at Arbroath. The Covenanters are relatively ignored – because their anti Catholic views look so hideous these days. So, my laboured point is there’s a real danger of interpreting the English Revolution in a particular light; maybe that’s why Cromwell is so hated in Ireland, and his Irish brutalities relatively sidelined by the English – we want the lad to be a seeker after liberty, rather than a tyrant. Equally, we might want Charles to be a martyr not a stubborn, duplicitous political ingenue. Anyway, that’s my warning, contentious, maybe totally wrong.

Back to Clarendon then; the truth is that his judgments and insights of people are thought to be often powerful, and he can’t be accused on being far away from the action. He was a Constitutional Royalist – a term which has stuck to a grouping within the Royalist side despite the obligatory griping from historians, those who wanted to make limited concessions to parliament, but saw the monarch’s rights as paramount and crucial to defending the constitution – and the Anglican church and government by Bishops. One of his contentions was, that the persona rule of Charles after 1625 was anything but a tyranny – it was a period of peace and prosperity and there was no sign of trouble in the country; the problem was instead with just a small group of malicious malcontents, stirring up trouble in parliament. The Rebellion had no deep roots or long causes, it wasn’t the king fault, whatever errors he may have made – this was a short term political crisis, caused by an ambition group of rebels, that could and should have been avoided.

Now this went dead against the view Edward Coke had made in parliament in the 1600s, and that would be picked up by plenty of others – notably John Lilbourne of the Levellers, but believed much more generally; that all they were doing in this Rebellion was not revolution at all – just seeking to restore ancient rights that derived from before the Norman time when the Norman Yoke had crushed the egg of Anglo Saxon liberties; an idea Clarendon and indeed Charles believed to be tommy rot, stuff and nonsense. But it was not long before the baton of what would become Whig history was picked up – by a Frenchman again as it happens, writing for a non English audience. His name was Paul Rapin de Thoyras, in a history from Alfred onwards he declared that

‘The English have been at all times extremely jealous of their liberties’

And that English history was a continuous struggle to defend ancient freedoms, and that Parliament was the defender of the nation and its freedoms against royal absolutism. The defenders of the Good Old Cause loved that, and the battle was joined with Clarendon’s message.

Sadly, for this viewpoint, the next intellectual climbing into the boxing ring of history was no bantam weight, but a super heavyweight goliath – David Hume. He wrote a racy and apparently short – 6 volumes doesn’t sound short to me but hey – History of England, published in 1757, and he blew the happy parliamentary view of the eternal fight for liberty out of the water for a hundred years or more. Hume was not a fan of adversarial politics, and despised the whig-tory party rage. He made a bonfire of all those whiggish favourites – there had been no Anglo Saxon liberty, the Normans had brought enlightenment and culture not ploughing furniture, Simon De Montfort was a cruel destroyer and Magna Carta had brought no liberties to the people. And – cruellest cut of all – anyway, liberties hadn’t come from England but from France. Ouch. Liberty came not from resistance to monarchy; but from the Monarchy’s growing power to restrain the tyrannical barons and defend the people against them:

‘It required the authority almost absolute of the sovereign … to pull down those disorderly and licentious tyrants who were equally enemies to peace and to freedom.’

He also made up the name of the Tudors, which is interesting – I did not know that; I knew Henry and family didn’t use the phrase but did not know when it was invented, so there you go. He dissed the parliamentary heroes Pym and Hampden, Cromwell was a tyrant usurping power by force and violence. Hume was very cross about Wilkes and his demands for liberty in the 1760s, and thought the English had a good deal more liberty than they deserved so – nerks.

Well obviously, the Whigs hated all of this and threw mud at the great man. But Hume’s narrative all stuck and also struck a cord; popular memory of the standing army of the Republic and Protectorate was strong, and the taxes that went along with them, and they equated those wars and taxes with the Whig wars and taxes of the 18th century. Crowds at elections still shouted ‘Down with the Long Parliament!’ and London street gangs in the 1750s called themselves ‘Cavaliers’ or ‘Tory Rory Ranter Boys’. It’s not that the radicals and whigs didn’t fight back – they did; Wilkes with his History of England in 1762 and Catherine MacCauley who wrote a very popular History finished by 1783. But events such as the extremist anti papish Gordon riots of 1780 scared even Gibbon with memories of Cromwell.

Then the French Revolution happened, as it will. At first, Whigs tended to respond angrily to one of their own number, Burke, and his reflections on said revolution; because Burke stressed the long evolution of the Constitution as an organic part of the English character, based on law, custom and monarchy. He hated the violence of revolution, and predicted France would soon be in the grip of a strongman. Poo poo, said the Whigs. So the Terror, Bonaparte and 2 decades of European war made the whigs rather sheepish, and heaped kudos on the Burkean shoulders. The Edinburgh Review remarked that

‘it was thought as well to say nothing of Hampden or Russell or Sidney, for fear it might give spirits to Robespierre, Danton or Marat’.

So, Hume’s distinctly sceptical view of the source of English liberties, and downer on the Revolution reigned supreme, and Burke’s view of the glories of a gradually evolving mixed constitution reigned supreme – alongside political suppression in Britain in the turmoil after the Napoleonic Wars, albeit blown by the winds of growing working class collective and radical movements. And that’s how it remained.

Until, which hero should come into view in 1848, riding the white steed of Whiggism, the shining armour of English liberty and struggle against absolutism, and brandishing the sword of narrative history? Why, Thomas Babbington Macauley, of course, that’s who, intellectual and MP. And writer of talent. In 1848, his 6 volume History of England was a racy, compelling peon to the whig cause, and our Tom was not shy of making big claims, not a man to hide the whig light in a bushel, no ma’am. The Whig cause in his view was indeed

‘entitled to the reverence and gratitude of all who in any part of the world enjoy the blessings of constitutional government’.

Just in case you had any doubts who were the good guys. But wait – there was more, much more:

To the Whigs of the seventeenth century we owe it that we have a House of Commons. To the Whigs of the nineteenth century we owe it that the House of Commons has been purified.

Enough now. However, Tom Macauley’s view of English history was not the one of Edward Coke and Lilbourne, of ancient liberties, nor one of popular agitation – that would be too democratic an interpretation which left poor Tom a’cold. Nope- the good guys were the Whig elite, in their promotion of trade, libraries, industrialisation & industry; and in the words of a liberal MP,
‘the history of the English constitution is a record of liberties wrung and extorted bit by bit from arbitrary power’.
Interesting, Thomas Carlyle also published the complete speeches and letters of Oliver Cromwell at a similar time; apparently according to Robert Tombs it was very popular and helped rescue Cromwell’s reputation from where it had lain in the dust, as a duplicitous and bloodstained dictator. I find this interesting – honestly, Crommers’ speeches tend to be at the long and rambling end of the spectrum and I cannot imagine them these days filling a window display in Waterstones. But maybe it was Carlyle’s biographical introduction that did the trick.
Macauley achieved his objective, especially among the aspiring non Conformist middle class, and achieved wide admiration in Europe actually, so that Britain’s constitution and seemingly stable politics and mixed, liberal, rather than democratic constitution, added to the idea that Britain was an exceptional place in the constitutional world. It was the heyday of the British constitution, rather than what it appears now, rightly or wrongly, as something of an outlier. You might be interested to learn that there is a most boudacious short series of podcasts available to members of the history of England in the shedcast series, and you can become a member for a paltry, insignificant and frankly nominal fee at the historyofengland.co.uk website. Jus’ sayin’.

We might come back to this whig view of history just briefly before the end, but instead let us return specifically to the English Revolution, and the work of S R Gardiner. Though before we do, we might note that though Babbers Mac focussed on the Whig elite, the English Revolution was once more rehabilitated; history really began to focus on the winners. In 1874 J R Green published a genuinely short History of England – short rather than the oh yeah it’s only 6 not 8 volumes sort of short – and declared that ‘Modern England began with the triumph of Naseby’, which is you know, slightly partisan. Puritanism was seen as the engine of progress now; there was a sort of romantic sympathy for the royalist cause such as that immortally saccharine painting ‘When did you last see your father?’ by Yeames, couple with a distaste for Roundhead oppression, but the Revolution was a Good Thing which helped Britain become Top Nation, capital T, capital N, and Crommers was A OK in the main. We are in classic whig history territory as will be the target of assassination in the 1930s at the hands of Herbert Butterfield and the wonderful Sellars and Yeatman line which just encapsulates the whole in the beautifully crafted division of Right but Repulsive and Wrong but Wromantic. Just such a flash of genius to sum up an entire whig historical tradition in one pithy line. Respect, guys, respect.

So in the words of Olivia Newton John, let’s get physical now, let’s really start to feel the heat of historical debate – because this is where it really starts to become like a game of tennis, and the wheel starts to turn with us strapped to it, dipping in and out of the fire. Because the debate about the English Revolution really does at multiple times get very fractious, people get grumpy and bang tables and spill ink. I’ve always thought that Academia, looks lovely from the outside, ivory towers and all, but really it’s a catfight, red in tooth and claw, a vicious fight for survival and if once you show weakness, you are dead. I may be exaggerating for effect, but you know.

We start then with S R Gardiner, a Gladstonian Liberal, who’s credited with the first really academically researched and written history of the period, based on the techniques and objectives of the new German methodology of scientific history, of which I believe we credit the work of one Leopold Von Ranke. Gardiner wrote his History of the Great Civil War, 1642–9, in three volumes between 1886 and 1891. It’s a long time ago – but the voices of historians who know these things are hushed in tones of respect for the work, even now. That must be something of an achievement in itself.

And there is lots about the history which seems quite extraordinary; not just that it eaves the rampant partisanship and lecturing of Hume and Babbers behind; but there’s a framework of themes that will define historiography for – well, ever basically. They are all in there. Some of them, we forgot for a while, things were lost which should not have been lost, and then suddenly re-discovered – only for the re-discoverers make great claims for a ‘New British History’ – aren’t we moderns clever. Principal among these is the point that the fate and stories of the Three kingdoms of England & Wales, Scotland and Ireland are inextricably mixed, and the English Revolution is inexplicable without understand what happens across the British Isles and Ireland. This was an idea that would be touted in the 1990s as the new orthodoxy that explained everything. Poor old Gardiner – or Cassandra as he maybe should known, who had made the point a 100 years earlier. Gardiner also identifies religion as a major driver of conflict; both the rise of Arminianism, and the idea that Calvinism was strong among the Country Gentry – a Puritan Revolution almost. And then he did not ignore the royalist party as had by then become the norm – instead he recognised that the actions of the king and the varied factions around him, espousing to Charles a variety of different strategies, was just as important as what went on in Parliamentarian ranks. OK – so pencil sharpening we have three themes already as part of our explicatory framework on which you’ll be quizzed – the British Problem across 3 kingdoms, Religious conflict, Royal policy and action. Alles clar?

There’s another one though. Protestantism as a force of social change. Embedded in Gardiner’s analysis is a dichotomy that will be very powerful and long lived – a division between Protestantism as a radical, dynamic force for change and modernisation, as against royalism and Catholicism as representative of an old decaying, feudal order that obstructed the inevitable lines of European progress. Thus, the theory goes, a country based, puritan Gentry and parliament was set against a pluralist, feudal royal court. In the early 20th century this explanation of what was going on acquired new force, not due to a historian necessarily, but a sociological theorist – Max Weber, and his uber famous work ‘The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ which seemed to underpin and emphasise the idea of Puritanism as a dynamic force of progress. In the process of the continuation of Gardiner’s work, this also meant that the royalist view began to be very much sidelined again – people focussed very much on the eventual winners, gentry and parliament, that was where the interest lay.

Ok, so now more themes; to add to the Three kingdoms, religious conflict, royal policy we have a conflict between dynamic & confident rising class of county protestants gentry against an aristocratic and feudal court. For decades this seemed to satisfy the main themes – the Revolution was about progress and modernity against the old order.

Ok, on to 1926 and R H Tawney, an English scholar born in Kolkatta, who refused an Officer’s commission to instead fight in the ranks during the First World War, before becoming an Oxford Scholar, where he felt constrained to write, among other things, ‘Religion and the Rise of Capitalism’. The Protestant story was upgraded and generally buffed until shiny, because he focused on the Puritans as specific drivers and agents of change, and added in a new class and a social dimension to the mix – the industrious and dynamic middle classes, great consumers of education, modern, capitalist.

There is another, more purely theological angle to the debate about religion, though not sure it fits with Tawney. The question is – was the protestant reformation finished? One view has it that the Elizabethan Settlement left deep divisions about the reformation; throughout Elizabeth’s reign there had been Puritans who believed a more thorough Calvinist reformation was needed, and the theory was that these tensions never went away. That the Revolution was in a sense the working through of the Puritan impulse towards a more complete reformation; here was England’s Thirty Years War. After all, religion was central to the revolutions in both Scotland and Ireland. Patrick Collinson led the charge, though, that the Puritans remained firmly within the church of England, and almost exclusively fought for change within the national church – separatists such as those that left for America on the Mayflower were like the jumblies – far and few I mean, not the green headed bit. As Dermaid MacCullouch remarked, the English Reformation was in fact a raging success and by James’ reign the vast majority had accepted the Elizabethan Settlement – let us call it Anglicanism – and it was only the subsequent rise of Arminianism that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and gave rise to religious conflict, leading to a massive surge in anti papism and fear of a creeping return to Catholicism. Or that’s the idea.

For Tawney, it was the puritans’ commercial, social and political dynamism that counted; and the inherent individualism of the Godly – the idea that a ruler not of the true religion could be removed, the individual unmediated relationship between individual and God through the bible. They were the thesis to the anti-thesis of the old redundant royalist aristocracy, who were destined for the scrap heap of history. Meanwhile capitalism had also entered the lists, seized on by these protestant middling sort. Historiography continued to focus on the ultimate winners, and marginalised the royalists – who wanted to research and write about a bunch of has beens? The British Three Kingdoms approach had completely disappeared by now you might have noticed – good lord yesterday’s news it was all about England now, and progress vs reaction.

In the background, a reaction had also started to the old Whig version about a constant and long term constitutional struggle between the whig nobility against a repressive, tyrannical crown in the inevitable march to the perfect and unique constitution. It came in the form of academic deconstruction in Herbert Butterfield’s article ‘The Whig Interpretation of History’, an article which also blasted the kind of presentism we love so much, as pandering to the ‘ideas and prejudices of the present’. It employed to devastating effect mockery and, frankly, sarcasm, which turned out to be the highest form of humour in the good ‘ole 1066 and all That, which get’s it’s second honourable mench today. We’ll come back to the reasons for the final, general demise of Whiggism in a minute or 10.

Now then capitalism, the 30’s, guess what comes next? Hands up – you at the back? Marxism, sir, yes Madam, Marxism it is, and a poppet of a historian – not sure he’s ever been called a poppet – Christopher Hill and his 1940 book ‘The English Revolution, 1640’. Hill inverted the Whig narrative. Listen to this

When we ask ourselves what has gone wrong with England in the past three centuries, one part of that answer is that the arrogant self-confidence of the ruling class…was for too long unchecked

Whoa, don’t hold back Chris, go for the jugular! Hill’s interpretation of the English Revolution was one of class war and class conflict, a struggle of the hard nosed bourgeoisie businessmen against the old ruling class oppression. At the same time Hill and his disciples of the New socialist Left wanted history from below, the story of the revolutionary masses, blotted out by the whig history of the gilded elite.

So maybe we will have that sideline right now about what really kills off Whig History. The trouble was that it had been the story of success; English and its overseas offshoots leading the world towards freedom. The First World War gave the idea a bloody nose, historians followed up with a whack to the solar plexus with Butterfield at al, there was a brief recovery with the Second World War – one of the reasons I suspect Brits are so obsessed by that conflict these days – but then post war who could argue for Top Nation status anymore? Empire fell to pieces, recently democratised nations such as Germany surged ahead in the success and Top Nation stakes, declinism ruled and the much lauded and loved British Constitution now looked like an anachronism amongst all those written, rationalist things. RIP, Whig History. Robert Tombs remarks that maybe this is why Whig history survived longer in the US than UK – because the US was now, of course, Top Nation, still a story of success.

Christopher Hill was an admirer of Tawney, and one of the things in favour of Hill and the New Left was that their interpretation of class struggle mapped rather nicely onto Weber and Tawney’s social, Puritan, progressive Vs reactionary narrative. So between the 1920s and 1970’s we enter what John Adamson describes as a Cold War confrontation between Marxists and their Tory and Liberal opponents. Historians like Tawney, Hill and Lawrence Stone on one side, the more sceptical Weberians like Hugh Trevor Roper and the American J H Hexter. There are some super famous works along the way; Perez Zagorin and his alienation between noble dominated Court Vs Country in the 1960s; Lawrence Stone and his story of the moral, political and military decline of the nobility in The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558–1641 published in 1965.

People now went looking for evidence of a rising, successful, puritan oriented gentry along with a declining, Anglican aristocracy, to confirm Lawrence Stone’s brilliant hypothesis, and the obvious place to go and look was of course in the counties. And so we get a period where everyone goes to the country and starts digging around. Which true enough is fascinating stuff, really getting stuck into local society, so important to 17th century people, the kind of politics that dominates their lives not all this kings and queens and parliament stuff, which people began to think we’d really overdone and over emphasised. 30 years of county studies went on.

History though, it turns out, is an irritating sort of thing, which annoyingly enough, a bit like people really, seems to refuse to fit into nice, neat, overarching Grand Unified Theories. Or at least not this one. Because instead what they find a rather confusing mix, a quilt rather than a nice clean linen sheet in 3 shades of Tope, and sadly a passion for king vs parliament was distinctly lacking in most places – or any way very often lacking. I have a few examples for you, if you are ready for a tour of some English counties.

In Lancashire the main contrast was between rural areas, dominated by the Stanleys, the Earls of Derby who wielded a feudal influence over the gentry and along with a large surviving Gentry Catholicism sided firmly with the king; and on the other hand the wool towns of Manchester and Bury who supported parliament. Well that sounds classic social war stuff – hardly court Vs county though. In Cheshire the gentry were very keen to just not have a war thanks very much, and worked really hard to make a neutrality treaty stick. One of the fascinating trends of the Revolution, incidentally, is this thing about people just trying to avoid this hideous community conflict, starting with local neutrality treaties, and progressing in some cases to folks like the Clubmen. The Clubmen were a fascination later movement, where in some counties, local people organised themselves into associations, and armed themselves as best they could to resist anyone, Royalist or parliamentarian, who came with war into their country. It’s an extreme form of what Bill called ‘a plague on both your houses’; an appeal to what they believed to be important – keeping their own communities together, making a living and a plague on the big theoretical disputes that seemed so far away. I’m looking forward to covering the Clubmen in more detail.

In the Midlands, neighbouring Northamptonshire and Leicestershire were as different as their Rugby teams are today, given how comprehensively the Tigers outshine the Saints – a bit of local, Rugby Trash talk for you there, so sorry. In Northamptonshire it looks like a classic Tawney-esque bourgoise revolution, with the landowners who had recently risen to Gentry status through trade or office holding, a new dynamic class, supporting parliament, versus the old world gentry clients of the Royalist Earl of Northampton. But on the other hand in God’s Own County of Leicestershire, home of quality rugby, with a mass of Gentry with deep local roots staying out of the whole thing as long as possible; their biggest obsession was with their traditional local feud between the clients of the Earls of Stamford and Earls of Huntingdon – not national politics at all. Parliament, what parliament? Sussex seems to divide geographically between a parliamentarian East and Royalist West. Kent was dominated by Gentry rather than magnates – but most of them again wanted to just keep their heads down.

I could go on, but you get the message – it’s a mess, a patchwork a quilt. And one conclusion reached by the likes of Clive Holmes was that we’d been over obsessing about national politics and king vs Parliament anyway, and that local Gentry were ‘‘surprisingly ill informed’ about ‘wider political issues’ and ‘simply not concerned with affairs of state’. We enter a phase then where the old grand political narratives beloved of the Victorians were almost universally banished, and localism ruled. In was concluded, that all the king vs Parliament stuff was just the rippling of the surface waters, and never touched real life in the ocean depths of England. Those great institutions of state – Court, Privy Council, Parliament – were increasingly ignored as just froth, scum on the surface of the sea. At the same time the lefties brought out a new obsession with bottom up politics – the study took off on the extraordinary flowering of radical sects, politics and religion – the Diggers, Levellers, Ranters, Quakers began to have their day – and the radicalism of the Army and the Putney debates too, topics which remain utterly fascinating.

Into this situation in the 1980s and 1990s rode our penultimate grand narrative and explanatory framework – the Revisionists. Historians such as Conrad Russell, Nicholas Tyacke, John Morrill, and Kevin Sharpe, Mark Kishlansky and Paul Christianson. Of these, Conrad Russell, a bone fide peer of the realm, was probably at the head of the phalanx, with his ‘The Causes of the English Civil War’ published in 1990 and ‘The Fall of the British Monarchies, 1637–1642’ of 1991, although Mark Kishlansky had been publishing along Revisionist lines since 1979. The grand narrative of the centre was back on the agenda., a framework to explain everything, politics and institutions of the centre at the heart of the explanation. Though actually the Revisionists didn’t always have a lot in common, except to essentially say ‘non, non, non’, ‘up your Delors’; just say no: no to long term grand causes for the Civil War. The troubles of James’ reign and the 1620’s were almost completely divorced from the 1640s in the Revisionist narrative. There had been no great constitutional movement since time immemoral, no revival of ancient liberties, no rise of the gentry, the Marxist explanations were rejected on the grounds of pottiness, there was no great conflict between court and country – country were interested only in local issues, not the goings on at court and parliament. The 1630’s were a halcyon time of peace and prosperity, just as Clarendon had said; for example, although the 1635 Ship Money Tax protest of John Hampden had received great attention from historians – the inconvenient truth was that the tax was extremely successful in raising money, refusal rates were very low.

This gave Revisionist a bit of a problem. Though I am aware I am really skimming over the varied and deep work of all these wonderful historians. The problem was this: if all of those great causes people had talked about were all pants, stuff and nonsense – why did the thing happen at all? The answer they came up with that this essentially this was a short term political crisis; caused by three things

  1. A functional crisis and breakdown in government
    This was caused by many things; but principle among them was the arrival of war and its associated pressure on the system and relationships; and, would you believe, the Three Kingdoms thing was back!
    By this time everyone had forgotten that Gardiner had been saying this a hundred years ago – no, the Revisionists were very pleased with themselves and called this the New British history, emphasis on New, and British. A wonderful new map book was recently published called the English Civil War – lovely thing, I got it for my birthday. Twitter was awash with disapproving Historians decrying the title, with appropriate sucking on lemons before tweeting. Heresy.
  2. Number two was the rise of Arminianism, and the extraordinary extremity of the anti papal reaction; though to be honest, anti-papism was pretty extreme anyway well before that, but there was general agreement that the growth of Arminianism it was not handled well.
  3. Both 1 & 2 link to the main reason, number 3– this was political ineptitude on a grand level by King Charles himself. This was Charles fault, he messed up. At the heart of this was the character of Charles himself, which is certainly something we will discuss more. Conrad Russell focused on Charles’ “tunnel vision,” what he described as an almost complete “incomprehension of ideological positions remote from his own’. He contrasted Charles court – austere, formal – with James’ louche, open and probably corrupt court. Charles held rigid, strong beliefs about what was right, the supremacy of the views of the king, and the firm belief that the duty of subjects was to obey – and quickly too. Unlike his Pops, he refused to discuss matters of state with subjects in parliament after his initial few years. This inflexibility made it impossible for him to deal with the complexities thrown up by the wildly varying nature of his three kingdoms. Charles’ arbitrary rule was a matter of temperament, not policy. It led to two groups of opponents at the centre completely failing to achieve a meeting of minds, locked into a vortex of distrust. Leading to implosion and explosion.

And Revisionism, for what it is worth, with a few tweaks and wrinkles, is the commonly accepted orthodoxy now. It’s politics stupid. Until the next orthodoxy hits town of course.
Except there is another version of Revisionism doing the rounds, led I suppose by Mark Kishlansky and in particular Kevin Sharpe who wrote an absolute door stopper on the Personal rule of Charles I, a thousand pages of thematically organised detail – I defy you to read it all, I have not. My Course tutor read it – I know that because tweets of curses of the name of Kevin Sharpe and expressions of personal pain and loss rolled out until he’d finished.

This is a sort of New Wave Revisionism. It focusses again on political failure – no long term causes and grand narratives please, let’s keep our feet on the ground – but in this version of events the balance has shifted from blaming everything on Charles, to return to a rather oddly Whiggish attitude – that it’s puritanism that provides the dynamic. The mood music about Puritanism is different though. And so is the mood about the king and his culpability. For Sharpe and Kishlansky, it is absurd for us to expect King Charles to behave like a flexible modern politician. Sharpe wrote that Charles thought his first responsibility was to do according to God’s dictates, as his reason and conscience discerned them, rather than to act ‘politically’. So, Charles was engaged in a comprehensive attempt to re-educate the English in the ways of true obedience and right religion – the political debate of his father’s reign was repugnant to him, just not the way things should be done at all. In a way, we are completing thereby, the 360 degree journey Peter Lake complained about – all the way back to Royalist Clarendon. The real problem was a group of malignant and rabidly puritan common law lawyers in parliament, stirring up trouble; Puritan fanatics, ambitious and frustrated noblemen, or venal opponents of Laudian clericalism, using populist methods to ride a wave of anti-papist fervour by the likes of the London Apprentice boys. In so far as monarchs are responsible, the finger points at James rather more, for allowing all that political debate and flexibility stuff.

Peter Lake’s article ends rather wearily; have we really, he asks, spent all this time and effort – and simply arrived back at Clarendon and a sort of short term version of whiggism – a constitutional crisis, albeit from a short term, Political crisis? How can this be? You can imagine his head in hands, salty tears seeping between his fingers as he sobs with despair at the pointlessness of life and intellectual endeavour, and takes off instead to tend beetroot at his allotment. The real stuff of life.

Truth is that there are bit of this that do strike a chord. In doing the history of the Scottish Revolution – available to members for the derisorily low membership fee at the historyofengland.co.uk by the way – the three kingdoms political situation was absolutely fiendish. They all want different things, and Charles just could not bring himself to betray the very essence of what he believed to be his divinely commanded duty – and is it not presentism to expect it of him? He was responsible in his mind to God, only.
Kishlansky points out that Charles does compromise at various points – he’s not completely inflexible. But the truth is that it is unreasonable to accuse one side, the Puritans and parliamentarians of being venal and corrupt seekers after power, without really believing in their genuine concerns of the threat of catholic invasion and the ruin of Protestantism, or their belief in ancient liberties. The truth is that both parties were launched into a situation of which neither had experience, for which there was no template in previous parliament – directly oppositional politics. It had always been a matter for compromise, advice and guidance.

Lake therefore argues for a synthesis, and the end to all these grand unifying narratives. Which brings me back to your task, gentle listeners, your opportunity, and your spot of fun.
So, now what follows in a brief summary of the theories, and therefore the poll questions which I will inflict on you.

Question 1: Long-term or short-term?

Broadly speaking, then, there’s a basic difference of opinion about whether we are talking about an English Revolution that came as a result of long-term changes, or whether it’s all a short term political crisis. The long term explanations found are legion. Economic change as England became a more capitalist society, a middling sort growing in extent, wealth and status, a gentry which had also grown in wealth and local influence; a long term pressure for constitutional change, dating back at least to James I and his conflicts with parliaments, but you could go further and reference the growing role of medieval parliaments, magna carta and all that Jazz; the long term outcomes of the protestant reformation – inherent tensions between those that accepted Anglicanism and the Elizabeth settlement, and those that continued to believe the reformation was not yet complete, the Puritans, provoked to rebel rather than attempt to change from within the national church by fear pf Arminianism. If you think these long term, inherent changes and pressures led to the Revolution, and that the short term political crises, such as Bishops wars and short parliament, were merely triggers not cause, then chose the long term approach in the binary question in the poll.

On the other hand, you might think that Charles’ personal rule has very few of the signs of a tyranny; that few but the most politicised were bothered by it. But from 1637 a range of issues came one by one in a relentless stream, bruise repeatedly punched, which overwhelmed the possibility of a peaceful resolution. Charles’ failure to compromise in Scotland leading to a war he could not afford; the extraordinary complexity of his three kingdoms – one still largely Catholic, another fiercely Presbyterian, the third Anglican with Puritan reformers panicked by Arminianism. This, combined with Charles’ desire to impose uniformity across all, and his rigid view of the roles of king and subject that made compromise with an aggressive group of reformers difficult for him. Basically, a short term political crisis.

OK, so that’s one question, the binary one – you must choose one, or you must choose t’other.

Question 2: Your favoured themes that help you explain the cirisis (chose as few or as many as you like) 

The next question is asking you to chose one or more of your favourite theories. So here are your options, just to form a summary for our foregoing historiography – on the principle that in gum bleeding repetition lies the heart of education:

1. Are you basically a Whig – this is the pressure of Constitutional change of which we saw so much in the parliaments of James, a demand for a greater say in matters of state against the imposition of royal tyranny and suppression of parliamentary liberties? Or

2. Are you an advocate of the Social & Economic change thesis; Weber, Tawny, Christopher Hill, a puritan dynamic class, political change made inevitable by economic change and the rise of capitalism, the emerging bourgoisie and Gentry OR

3. Or was this Britain’s Religious war, just later than those on the continent, the final working through of the Reformation? Puritans completing the reformation, panicked by fear of Arminianism and the creeping return of Catholicism? Or

4. Is this the Revolt of the Provinces – a protestant, Anglican and Godly provincial elite that saw the court as religiously pluralist and corrupt, that that the protector of their liberties was no longer the king, but parliament and the common law? Or

5. Revisionism: Is this simply a poorly handled political crisis, caused by war, the complexity of Three Kingdoms, turned into perfectly avoidable civil wars by an inflexible and politically incompetent king?

6. New Wave Revisionism: That Charles could only behave in the dictates of his conscience, he could not behave like a modern politician. He tried to compromise and deeply believed in his role as protector of his people – but was faced by a coterie of parliamentary malignants, out to wrest away his power in their own interests, using liberty as a blind? Back to Clarendon, 360 degrees!

Remember – you can choose as many or as few of question 2 as you like

Question 3 – Royalist, P{rliamentarian or Clubman

Final one is a fun question – would you reckoned you’d have been; a Royalist, Parliamentarian or a Clubman; I’m using Clubmen to indicate neutralism, avoidance – a plague on both your houses, take your violence away from my community
Go to the History of England.co.uk, where you will find the quiz – please ignore any scores by the way, this ain’t about score. Choose wisely! If you want to enter the prize draw for a Charles I coin , enter an email into the first dialogue box before you start the quiz. And have fun! You’ll have three weeks to enter – for the next two episode we’ll return to matters social, with W G Hoskins Great Rebuilding, and the story of architecture and living in the country houses of the rich and famous, before getting stuck into the rule of Charles and all that, and how exciting will that be!



6 thoughts on “347 The English Revolution

  1. I am curious if the American Revolution affected the historiography of the English Revolution/War of the Three Kingdoms at all, since it sounds like the French Revolution had a profound impact. I know us Americans tend to think we are the protagonist of every story, so sorry if this question is that tendency coming through! But did the fact that suddenly a bunch of colonies revolting over “liberty” and “representation” change the discourse around the prior revolution at all? Or was it more “That wild bunch of there, clearly crazy, nothing to do with us after all.”

  2. Incredibly, after having binged your podcast for the past two and a half years, I have caught up with you just as you embark on my favourite period of English history. This is a coincidence that makes me glad to be alive. But seriously, I just wanted to log here how thankful I am for your tireless commitment to this podcast; and for the detailed portraits you have drawn of everything from the normal everyday life of the common medieval pleb, to the politick goings-on of the upper echelons. Now more than ever I suspect your talents will shine brightest, for the Civil War is indeed a gallery comprised of all these pictures and more. The astonishing life of Oliver Cromwell is proof of that; as are the Levellers whom you have already been pleased to mention, and those fascinating debates at Putney. Above all, though, I would just like to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed listening thus far, and how much I’m looking forward to listening some more.
    Cheers from Australia,

    1. I am looking forward to it! Such a complex area – just worried about doing it justice

  3. This one is gonna be pretty interesting for me because this is the first time that something is covered in the ”main series” of my two favourite historical podcasters, yourself and Mike Duncan (in its Revolutions podcast). I plan to try to relisten to his series on the War of the Three Kingdoms as much in paralel with your own covering of the events as possible, its gonna be super fun 🙂

  4. It must be a “down under thing” (I refer to Finbar’s earlier message), I to have just caught up after getting behind with the series and I am looking forward to the English revolution …eh I mean war of the 3 kingdoms.
    Loved your examples of how good things come in pairs, eyes, arms, buttocks !!
    Cheers again from Oz

    1. Excellent! OI think I shall wander between all the terms, I have no consistency! Glad the gag tickled you, always nice to know if something lands!

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