J. Michael Braddick, ed. The Oxford Handbook of the English Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. 672 pp. $160.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-969589-8.
Reviewed by Jonathan Scott (The University of Auckland)
Published on H-Albion (January, 2016)
Commissioned by Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth (Red Deer College)
Good News from the Forest Floor
Forty years ago the historiography of the English Revolution had an epic quality. Across an untamed landscape large creatures ranged at will. There was the herbivorous Tawney Mammoth, the mighty Eltodon, the high-altitude Pocockodactyl, magnificent but defensive Christo-pherotops, the dazzling Hextoraptor, unsuspecting Stonosaurus and apex, doom-dealing T. Ropersaurus Rex. Their famous performances were absorbed by a global audience (European, American, Australasian, Russian, Japanese, and Chinese). They addressed the rise or fall of social classes and of political institutions, the nature and implications of the first revolution of the modern West (of which events in Paris in 1789 were merely a belated echo, a thought to which Laura Lunger Knoppers here returns), the revolutionary impact of Puritanism, a demand for liberty and/or citizenship, the origins of industrialization and modernity, and the grateful moral spectacle of a struggle against oppression by people even of relatively humble social status.
This was when English history still appeared to have something to teach the world. It was also before the fatal asteroid shower called revisionism, which identified many of the grand theories in play as mere phantasms of the dinosaur brain. Raining down equally upon supposition, anachronism, unsound sampling, teleology, ideology, and wishful thinking, this meteorological watershed ushered in a new-stage flora and fauna of much less interest, initially at least, to anyone outside the profession. This was a worry, leading to the early identification of regrowths like post-revisionism (absorbing the impact and attempting to move beyond it) and the post-Reformation (shifting the focus from Puritan revolution to a centuries-long English and Scots reformation process). The most important development was a reassessment of the English upheaval within three-kingdom and European contexts (the Stuart being one of seventeenth-century Europe’s several multiple monarchies). This exchanged untested assumptions concerning English exceptionalism for appropriate and informative comparative frameworks.
The thirty-three-chapter Oxford History of The English Revolution (2015), edited by Michael Braddick, “takes the opportunity to reflect” upon this historiographical scene (p. 4). The result is richly rewarding, with few weak contributions, great though not complete range, authoritative and sometimes arresting scholarship from senior and younger figures, consistently fresh and illuminating analyses, and crisp, accessible writing. It is more comprehensive on the three-kingdom political and constitutional history of the revolution than on its ideological and moral core. Among the things it makes clear are that we have never known more about it than we do now, that complexity need not inhibit clarity, and that that there is now much more scholarly agreement about fundamentals, while debates continue and new hypotheses abound. Finally there remains ample scope for a large-picture account of the ultimately transformative significance of the events of 1640-60, and not only for England. This emerges from analyses which neither transcend, nor condescend to, the historical experiences in question (in the words of Peter Wilson: “A more satisfactory approach is to return to the contemporary understanding of events,” p. 580).
Over the last generation the quantity of historical evidence available for this subject has been transformed, as has the quality of archival, electronic, and bibliographic access. If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, the disadvantages of more are less obvious, although increasing historical specialization is one. Long-term causes of the revolution have given way to long-term contexts, one of which was the failure of the Tudor/Stuart monarchy to keep pace with the consequences of price inflation and European military revolution. Another was the ongoing cultural impact of Protestantism, again on an increasingly dangerous European stage. From 1603 (though in fact before) these challenges had to be addressed in three kingdoms rather than just one. Who, in the resulting fetid hothouse of anxiety and conspiracy theory evoked by Peter Lake would have volunteered to wear this crown of thorns?
The production, by the roulette wheel of heredity, of a king “as stiff in disputes” (as James Harrington put it) “as the nerve of the monarchy was grown slack” transpired to be a turning point. The Scots petard upon which Charles I was hoist was supported by a national unity in defense of that reformation superior to anything available in England or Ireland. The loss of that unity by 1648, and the disaster of conquest from 1651 (discussed by Julian Goodare, Laura Stewart, and R. Scott Spurlock) do not detract from the indispensability of Scotland’s role, both in provoking the wider upheaval and informing it politically as well as religiously and militarily (see David Smith’s account, for instance, of Scots government by committee as carried over into England via the Committee of Both Kingdoms). Like the other Stuart kingdoms engaged in a Europe-wide confessional struggle, Ireland also exhibited a painful cross-hatching, both generational and geographic, of imperial settlement and resistance. On Ireland itself here Micheal O Siochru’s account of the Confederacy stands out. Concerning the kinetic impact of each of the three kingdoms upon the others Derek Hirst and John Morrill are particularly illuminating. A three-kingdom crisis was not necessarily British, though it had “Britannic” dimensions, particularly in 1640-42, and 1654-60. The Anglo-Scots ambitions of the Scots covenanters and then Engagers do not entitle us to say that “the English Revolution was driven by a British dynamic” (p. 560), particularly when they were studiously ignored by a militarily rampant England (and when the Scots mozzie continued to annoy it was swatted at Dunbar and then squashed at Worcester). What was British was the crown and so king, but there was no “Kingdom of Great Britain” (p. 557). Ergo if no crown--abolished in England in 1649--no British problem, leaving the achievement of a United Kingdom in 1707 to await the need to defend another such (Hanoverian, and Protestant) crown.
At the center of this web the royal spider Charles I gradually became a fly. While recognizing the difficulty of his circumstances Richard Cust emphasizes the destructive impact, first in Scotland and then in England, of the king’s refusal “to agree terms which he saw as personally humiliating” (p. 74). Perhaps Charles felt the cup of humiliation had been drained by his father. Perhaps he just didn’t fancy it; in any case in this respect the personal was also professional and Charles’s aversion to the fatal drop proved admirably unbending. As Philip Baker observes, “His actions over the past decade … for which he then stood trial, were … a continual demonstration of his absolute commitment” to a certain notion of monarchy (p. 165). The result--regicide as assisted suicide--was a triumph over mere political and military reality which made an impact not only within the three devastated kingdoms but well beyond. In this respect it is hard, or at least unnecessary, to see Oliver Cromwell as the victor, left as he was to hold the baby, to eventually fire the babysitter, and then to single-parent the troublesome composite state.
How to explain the emergence of fundamental and bloody conflict within a society so unprepared, and unwilling to accept it? One of the achievements of this collection is to clarify the points of contention, which within England were not only religious and political but economic and social. Here essays by John Walter (in particular), Stephen Roberts, and Anne Hughes show how much there is still to say about a revolution deeply informed by social issues, whether or not it brought social change. Another feature of the volume is to pay careful attention to the enormous efforts made, even as fighting raged, to negotiate an exit. Braddick’s essay on mobilization (rather than allegiance) and Walter and J. C. Davis on negotiation show how much we can learn by analysis of a crisis about how the state actually worked. This is so even if Davis’s redirection of our focus away from Cromwell’s military power risks overstating a key insight. Often these negotiations had less impact on the immediate outcome than fighting; they were not less historically significant. Much of the revolution’s distinctive culture--its precocious political practices (covenanting, petitioning, constitution making), its rich religious and political ideologies, its prodigious print culture and its spectacular vernacular-language literature (covered here in fine essays by Jason Peacey, Alan Cromartie, John Coffey, and Steven Zwicker, among others)--resulted from precisely such attempts to talk within, and through, an unprecedented emergency.
Restoration attempts to put the clock back did not aspire beyond 1641 and were only partially successful. English religious and political culture had been changed forever; so had Ireland; and if Scotland had to swallow some punishment in 1660 this was ameliorated in 1689. As Mark Knights explains, the entire period from 1660-1720, with its own climacterics of Glorious Revolution, Anglo-Scots union, and Hanoverian succession, can be understood as a process of bedding down and acclimatizing the ineradicable fissures and changes of the mid-century upheaval. These included religious toleration in England, the expiration of press licensing, the abolition of episcopacy in Scotland, the erection of a Protestant monarchy, and the elaboration of parliamentary government, as well as of party politics. The egg was broken and there was nothing for it but to make an omelette.
As John Miller explains, between 1660 and 1720 the architects of the English state, economy, and empire built relentlessly upon the innovations of 1640-60: the revolution in taxes, Navigation Acts, expansion of the navy, committee government of political and military affairs and state finances, rapid expansion of trade, expansion of plantations, joint-stock companies, and foundation of a bank, insurance companies, and the national debt. If one result was a new golden age of aristocratic power, this was no longer a merely traditional (territorial rather than quasi-commercial) aristocracy. In short the revolution was decisive, not only religiously and culturally, but in laying the basis for the growth of an eighteenth-century economic prodigy and imperial and global superpower. This was not an achievement in one country, or even three kingdoms, but an Atlantic, and more specifically Anglo-Dutch-American achievement. In any case it is a matter of more than merely local historical interest.
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Jonathan Scott. Review of Braddick, J. Michael, ed., The Oxford Handbook of the English Revolution.
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