Helmer J. Helmers. The Royalist Republic: Literature, Politics and Religion in the Anglo-Dutch Public Sphere, 1639-1660. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 344 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-08761-3.
Reviewed by Zachary W. Schulz (Purdue University)
Published on H-Albion (June, 2015)
Commissioned by Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth (Red Deer College)
Simply stated, The Royalist Republic by Helmer J. Helmers is wonderful. Employing Dutch and English tracts, plays, and poems from the 1630s through 1650s, Helmers successfully completes the task he set for himself: bridging the divide existing between political and literary history as well as the vast distances existing between Anglo-Scoto, or as he terms it, “British,” and Dutch disciplinary traditions (p. xii). In this task, he argues against the ongoing geographical and topical self-limitations occurring in British-Dutch historiographical narratives. Further, he asserts that the Dutch royalist support for Charles II arose from a wider “Anglo-Scoto-Dutch discourse inspired by the Wars of the Three Kingdoms,” independently of Stuart appeals for help and British propaganda apparatuses, and influencing politico-religious discourses in the Netherlands and British Isles (p. 5). Finally, he affirms that the First Anglo-Dutch War was more complex than a simple religious conflict that contemporary propagandistic rhetoric may suggest. Indeed, according to him the international conflict between the Republic and Commonwealth arose from economic competition.
Early in the monograph, Helmers establishes his stance against the archipelagic nature of British history. Noting John Pocock’s critiques originating in the 1970s, Helmers suggests that the historiographical narrative has only begun to move beyond the confines of the British Isles. England is still often cast as the predominant actor in the historiography, and relations with the Dutch are still viewed from an anglocentric perspective. By focusing on the Dutch and their contributions to the pamphlet war of 1638-60, he concludes that Anglo-Scoto politico-religious debates that played out in the Netherlands allowed the British to partake in Dutch “vernacular propaganda.” The interplay between English sources and Dutch audiences, fomented by discursive overlaps, allowed various confessional and political identities to be negotiated on both sides of the English Channel. This international audience, infused with “vernacular propaganda,” explored the morality and ramifications of backing either the Stuart regime or the Commonwealth. Hence, the Anglo-Scoto propaganda, translated into Dutch, had real influence in the Netherlands and was not limited to, or intended only for, English readers. For example, Helmers posits that the foreign policy of the States General relied on democratic consensus between the nobles, provincial assembles, and the city councils which instructed the assemblies. Thus, the translation of English and Scottish pamphlets into Dutch had a “pivotal role,” as the translated propaganda influenced Dutch public opinion, political rhetoric and debate, and, ultimately, the taking up of foreign policy issues by the States General (p. 59). The War of the Three Kingdoms, in short, was an international affair.
It is little surprise, then, that the English Civil Wars affected Dutch politics as well as the Dutch religious response to events in the British Isles during the 1640s and 1650s. For example, Helmers notes the printing of Contra-Remonstrant pamphlets and treatises in support of Parliament. These pamphlets “embarrassed both the States General and the Stadtholder,” whom held a strict policy of secular neutrality (p. 69). As a result, the politico-religious ramifications of the Contra-Remonstrant support for Parliament limited the Prince of Orange, Frederick Henry, from aiding Charles I. Facing domestic challenges to their authority, the House of Orange could ill afford losing Contra-Remonstrant backing. This growing affinity between Dutch and Anglo-Scottish Protestants was further reinforced by propaganda beyond merely offering support for Charles. The ongoing conflict between Puritans and supporters of Arminianism became an ostensibly international affair, Helmer maintains, with Dutch Remonstrants, such as Gerardus Vossius and Hugo Grotius, feeling kindred with the Laudian Church. However, with the execution of Charles I in 1649, the Dutch support for Parliament quickly deteriorated regardless of confessional sympathies. The growth of a new propagandistic form, which Helmers terms “the cult of the martyr king,” motivated Dutch intervention in the British Isles by promoting the late Charles as a Christ-like figure. Beyond using the famous Eikon Basilike, Helmers also provides a multitude of translated poems, pamphlets, and imported engravings to support his argument. Accordingly, he finds that Dutch republicanism was not necessarily averse to absolutism and kingship, with prominent jurists such as Dirk Graswinckel and the Dutch public both sympathetic to Charles I’s heroic performance on the scaffolds and supportive of the Republic. Therefore, Anglo-Scoto propaganda and British domestic politico-religious affairs affected the establishment not only in the Three Kingdoms, but also in Dutch international and domestic affairs.
Regardless of Remonstrant and Contra-Remonstrant, Puritan and anti-Puritan, reactions to the English Civil Wars, Helmers holds that the First Anglo-Dutch War was not particularly prompted by religious concerns. Rather, he proposes that the war resulted from economic issues. In particular, he criticizes James Jones’s and Stephen Pincus’s scholarship that promotes a religiously ideological understanding of the war. Further, in agreement with Jonathan Scott, Helmers writes that, “by relegating trade to the background, Pincus loses sight of the Dutch perspective” (pp. 199-200). The rhetoric of pamphlets, as noted throughout this monograph, was infused with religious undertones. During the 1650s, the rhetoric became even more confessional as demonology became a popular topic of discussion. Dutch propaganda began casting images of the Stuarts and Dutch royalism as bringers of “divine goodness” and their Parliamentarian and Puritanical opponents as perpetuators of “satanic evil.” Regardless of this turn, though, Helmers writes that, “an economic reading of the war did not preclude a religious reading, but rather necessitated it” (pp. 201-202). The economic aspects of the war became an outwardly visible sign that “Evil” was attacking Dutch interests. Despite the Dutch loss of the war in 1654, Anglo-Scottish and Dutch propaganda continued to coach the discourse against Cromwell in terms of a fight against Evil itself. This propaganda, brought about by both Dutch and Anglo-Scoto efforts and not only English efforts alone, provided the discourse necessary to encouraging the Restoration and later Dutch opposition to the Stuart regime. While permeated with religious understandings, the discourse noted economics nonetheless and demanded that justice be rendered for attacks upon the financial well-being of the Netherlands.
Helmers’s monograph adds to the ongoing internationalization of the English Civil Wars, moving the historiography beyond the limitations imposed by the continuance of archipelagic approaches. Employing translated pamphlets, poems, plays, and other media, he successfully asserts that Dutch and Anglo-Scoto propaganda had real, tangible effects on both British and Dutch domestic politics, internal religious conflicts, and foreign policy. Finally, though the period in question was infused with religious rhetoric and discourses, international conflicts had equally economic and political dimensions that some historians continue to downplay or overlook. Truly, Helmers work adds a much-needed complexion to the historiography with his bridging the divide between disciplines and traditions. His efforts are most welcome by this historian.
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Zachary W. Schulz. Review of Helmers, Helmer J., The Royalist Republic: Literature, Politics and Religion in the Anglo-Dutch Public Sphere, 1639-1660..
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