Wilfrid Prest. Albion Ascendant: English History 1660-1815. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. xx + 363 pp. $76.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-820417-6.
Reviewed by John Miller (Department of History, Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London)
Published on H-Albion (June, 2000)
For many long decades, the period between the English civil wars and the Industrial Revolution languished as scholarly attention focused either on the momentous and seemingly revolutionary developments of the mid-seventeenth century or on the social and political impact of industrialisation and the coming of the machine age. The Revolution of 1688-9, celebrated throughout the eighteenth century as both the source and the saviour of English liberties, was relegated to the status of a palace coup, paling into insignificance compared with the regicide and the establishment of the republic. Perhaps more insidiously, Namier's analysis of mid-eighteenth-century politics in terms of 'fierce though bloodless struggles for place' made the subject seem tame indeed compared with the bloodshed of civil war and the human drama as whole populations were herded into the factories and the mines.
Mercifully, for those of us working in the period between the Restoration and the French Revolution, much has changed since then. If mid-Georgian high politics can still seem uninspiring, we are now aware of the vigor of popular politics and the continuing strength of Toryism and even Jacobitism under the 'Whig ascendancy'. Moreover, before the coming of the Hanoverians, from the middle of Charles II's reign to the end of Anne's, politics at all levels were dominated for much of the time by the 'rage of party', whose divisive tentacles reached through all areas of social as well as political life. Awareness that politics in this period involved real emotions and centred on real issues has led historians to think again about the finality of the changes allegedly brought about by the mid-seventeenth-century 'revolution'.
At the same time, historians addressing the question of why parliamentary politics seem so much less turbulent under George II than under Anne have realised that the Revolution of 1688-9 did bring about real changes in the relationship between crown and Parliament but also, within the entity known as the crown, between the person of the monarch and the ministers who ostensibly served him, but who often (as George II acidly remarked) seemed more like kings. But this reinstatement of the importance (if not perhaps the alleged 'gloriousness' of the Revolution) did not go uncontested. From the perspective of Scotland and still more Ireland, it seemed far from 'bloodless'. Scots of a nationalistic bent saw it as leading directly to the Union of 1707, in which Scotland lost much of its national identity in a forced and unequal merger with England. In Ireland, the Boyne was followed by the completion of the establishment of the Protestant ascendancy and the dispossession and exclusion from public life of the Catholic majority. More recently, in relation to England, Jonathan Clark and others have argued that neither the civil wars nor 1688 changed very much and that the English ancien regime, monarchist, deferential, rural and Anglican, proceeded serenely on until it was destroyed in the sudden cataclysm of 1828-32. The Hanoverians, claimed Clark, exercised as much real power as the Stuarts and industrialisation, in the form of factory production, did not really begin until well after 1832.
These historiographical changes, and debates, have generated a considerable amount of heat and no little ill feeling. At the same time other developments in the study of the eighteenth century have added new dimensions to our understanding and to the literature: work on the development of a consumer society, on alleged changes in gender relations and on the English 'urban renaissance' for example. It has become abundantly clear that it is possible to write about more than one eighteenth century. Against Clark's picture of an unchanging, mainly agrarian society one can place Roy Porter's dynamic, urbanising and far from deferential society, increasingly obsessed with the possession of goods, which are desirable not because they are necessary but because they are attractive. Moreover, the production of these goods led to a transformation of manufacturing, albeit one which as yet did not give rise to factory industry. Against Clark's emphasis on the confessional state can be set evidence of both the pastoral failings of the Church of England (why else should the Methodists have been so successful?) and the growth of both heterodoxy and scepticism. The eighteenth century was full of contrasts and paradoxes, which render facile generalisations dangerous, but also make it possible to put forward diametrically opposed interpretations.
All of which would suggest that to attempt a general survey of the period 1660-1815 is brave, to say the very least. Moreover, despite the title, Wilfrid Prest's book deals with the British Isles as a whole, and to some extent with Britain's overseas empire. The literature is vast and full of disputes and contradictions. In general, Prest copes with a fiendishly difficult task pretty well. He shows himself well aware of differing viewpoints and picks his way judiciously between them. This is a careful, not a brash book. As such it eschews bold syntheses and grand schemes: he is too well aware of the complexities of the subject. He concludes that 1688 made possible the creation of a much enlarged 'fiscal-military state,' which was to enable England, later Britain, to begin to play a role in European and world affairs out of all proportion to its population and resources. 1688 also effectively removed the threat of an English absolute monarchy and led to the progressive reduction of the power of the monarch. Moreover, however far one can qualify the self-image of eighteenth-century Britons as 'freeborn,' Prest concludes that in comparison with most continental countries the image contained a good deal of truth. These are not perhaps ground-breaking conclusions, but in the face of recent challenges to them it is worthwhile to restate them.
Having said that, in seeking to pack so much into a limited space there is much that has had to be left out, sometimes to the detriment of clarity. For example, in his discussion of the bitter partisan divisions of 1708-10, there is no mention of the Whigs' insistence on 'no peace without Spain.' By insisting on terms which Louis XIV could neither agree to nor deliver, the Whigs seemed set on making the war perpetual (and with it war taxation and conscription for the army). Small wonder that Tories like Bolingbroke saw this as part of a sinister design to complete the transfer of wealth from landowners and the consumer to those who benefitted financially from the war: the Bank, the great city companies and the monied interest in general. Indeed, Prest is perhaps a little too judicious and balanced: he finds it difficult to get across the intensity and ferocity of party battles. There are also other problems inherent in his approach. This is very much a synthesis of others' work, illustrated and enlivened by quotations from contemporary sources. This is a perfectly reasonable approach, but it is one which it is very difficult to apply really well. An obvious comparison is with the previous volume in the series, Conrad Russell's The Crisis of Parliaments, 1509-1660, first published in 1971 and still an excellent textbook. Russell's grasp of his material is more assured and his quotations and examples are more telling; he also had what was then a more original thesis, which he has since developed much further, about the functional breakdown of monarchy and the dangers which stemmed from religious division. Another problem has its source in the format of the book. Leaving aside the irritating habit of giving each person's dates when they are first mentioned, breaking the text up into short 'reader-friendly' sections sometimes leads to disruption and confusion. Thus it is difficult to discuss the changing balance of power between crown and Parliament after 1688 (p. 69) without mentioning the crown's new-found financial weakness vis-a-vis the Commons -- but this is not discussed until p. 83. Similarly it seems odd not to conclude an account of the Jacobite war in Ireland with something on the Treaty of Limerick, not least because that would raise doubts as to whether the Jacobites were actually 'defeated' (p. 90). In trying to pack everything in, Prest has perhaps prioritised less than he should between issues of different levels of long-term importance.
It would be churlish to end on a negative note, however. By any standards, Prest has packed a great deal into a limited space and has produced a readable and sometimes amusing book. Although he ranges into economic, social, intellectual and cultural history, there is a firm spine of political history (in the wider sense, embracing government as well). For students or the general reader wanting quick guidance as to what happened, it will be most useful, especially as he provides chronological tables, lists of first ministers, etc (and suggestions for further reading). Indeed, if it whets the appetite and brings new readers to an increasingly well-studied period of history, it will perform a useful service.
Another area of history which was once unfashionable is the study of royal courts. For those historians obsessed with class struggle or 'history from below', royal courts could be dismissed as peripheral, concerned with the shallow and trivial lives of king and queens and vacuous, outdated and meaningless ceremonies and rituals. Such a view is now hard to sustain. Decades ago Norbert Elias argued that royal courts played a crucial role in 'the civilising process', whereby the spontaneity and honour culture of the middle ages gave way to a growing discipline (and self-restraint) based on increasingly elaborate codes of etiquette and manners. Although this process started with the nobility dancing attendance on the monarch at the royal court, it percolated downwards through the households and salons of the nobility to those who looked up to them as role models. On a rather different tack, court historians have become aware that ceremony helped project an image of the monarchy which inspired awe, respect and a predisposition to obey. From a very different perspective, political historians emphasise that it was in the royal courts that major decisions were made and much government patronage was dispensed. The court was a political 'point of contact', but also the epicentre of a number of networks of patronage and clientage constructed by leading courtiers and ministers.
The systematic study of courts in their various aspects has probably developed more fully for the Tudor and early Stuart period than for the monarchs who ruled after 1660 (although Robert Bucholz's fine study of the decline of court culture under Queen Anne is an honourable exception). Those of us who have worked on high politics under the later Stuarts are usually well aware of the importance of the court as a political arena, in which people without obvious political roles or responsibilities could exercise very considerable influence, not least royal mistresses and more generally the men and women of pleasure ('the little people', Clarendon called them). That said, there has been hitherto no systematic study of the court as an institution and a political and cultural arena in the later seventeenth century. This is what Alan Marshall seeks to provide.
In one sense he is well-qualified to do so. The research for his excellent book on espionage and intelligence under Charles II gave him an unrivalled knowledge of government records for the reign, but perhaps less of an understanding of high politics. Apart from a brief but interesting collection of documents, the book is divided into two sections. The second, a narrative of court politics, is the less satisfactory. It is chronologically very uneven, skating very quickly over 1667-74 (a complex and difficult period) or 1681-5. More fundamentally, it adds little to earlier and more detailed studies, such as the superb account of court politics in three reigns in John Kenyon's biography of Sunderland. This section may be of some use to students, but they would really do better to read the more specialised works. The first section is a very different proposition. In it, Marshall attempts a thematic analysis of the nature and working of court life, stressing its social and cultural importance as well as its role as a centre of policy-making and the distribution of patronage. Specialists in the field will no doubt quibble at some of his claims and conclusions, but for me this is an important contribution to both court studies and the political history of the period.
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John Miller. Review of Marshall, Alan, The Age of Faction: Court Politics, 1660-1702 and
Prest, Wilfrid, Albion Ascendant: English History 1660-1815.
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