Reviewed by Martyn Bennett (College of Communication, Culture and Education, Nottingham Trent University)
Published on H-Albion (October, 2005)
This book marks a return to the seventeenth century by one of the period's most enlightened scholars. Professor Hutton has worked in a number of fields since his early published work on the mid-seventeenth century; on pagan religion, cultural ritual, shaman, and Merry England. In this work the author revisits some of the areas in which he was a contributor to historical debate; the civil wars, the Republic, and Charles II. This is a very welcome perspective on the period.
The book consists of six principle chapters and a brief conclusion. Professor Hutton opens with a formidable discussion on the failures of revisionism. The argument here is that the revisionists sought to progress beyond the Whig and Marxist tradition of viewing the crises of mid-seventeenth century Britain and Ireland as the natural development of long-term causes at the social and economic as much as political level. In so doing they did refocus attention upon the short-term impetus from which catastrophe sprang. Hutton argues, however, that instead of breaking free of the mold cast in the nineteenth century they returned very much to it, thus concluding that revisionism really presented an updated Victorian view of the period, concentrating upon monarchy and divisions between court and country. The second chapter deals with developments in civil war history, principally during the last forty years; Hutton analyzes the range of approaches and motives behind historians, including himself, who have made the seventeenth century the focus of their attention. Studies that have developed from the revisionist impulse and even the counter-culture of the "sixties and seventies" are discussed in an interesting and insightful way that should be essential reading for students embarking on study of the period's historiography. This chapter leads to the discussion of the new framework for seventeenth-century studies, notably the examination of the multiple kingdoms or four nations. Professor Hutton addresses the changing perspectives that this introduces into study of various facets of the period, including the kings, James and Charles, and the impact this has on the revolution and what it means. The essay argues that the differences between Charles and his executioners have little resonance in the present world. It is a debatable point, heavily dependent upon the religious burden of the political argument--belief held by both parties in a providentialist God, but subject to wildly different interpretations of the same events/manifestations. It may be true for "the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of the United Kingdom," but it certainly is not true for all of them, nor of large sections of the populations of other nations (p. 92). In any case the practical outcomes of such manifestations; the relationship between executive and legislative, between the electors and the elected are live issues that can be related to.
The chapter on Oliver Cromwell puts forward the contentious argument that Cromwell was more of a religious bigot than a man in favor of religious toleration; more of a man vested in the "New England way" than one who would be the natural forerunner of ecumenicalism. Hutton suggests that calls for toleration were in effect a means of buying time and breathing space for Cromwell's minority views. In the Presbyterian-dominated post-war climate there was every chance that the Godly minority could be snuffed out. Cromwell in calling for toleration hoped that his Godly-party could survive long enough to become the majority or at least the dominant group which could control the moral reform of society. This certainly is an arguable proposition, despite the realpolitik realism that seems to set it forth. Moreover it does feed neatly into the notion of Cromwell as a devious politician, if of limited skill, capable of manipulating those around him. It denies that Cromwell had much more than a single motive when he became a statesman and negates any notion of a greater if flawed, and ultimately failed, vision. It is certainly a perspective that deserves to be taken up by students and historians.
The chapter on Charles II is in many ways the most interesting, as an exposÃ© of the way a historian works. It has been about twenty years since Professor Hutton embarked on his important and influential biography of the third Stuart monarch of the British Isles. The essay considers the process of how the biography was written and researched, and the way that it was undertaken at a time when the study of history was changing, from one of confidence in the historians' ability to solve mysteries of the past and relate them to a wide audience to one more marked by alienation from the past and bafflement at its processes and its dramatis personae. Again this seeming pessimism is contentious and a great opener to debates with students of the discipline. The final full essay is on the Glorious Revolution and argues powerfully and convincingly that this "poor relation" of the mid-century revolution should really be recognized as important and central to the nations' history. Quite so.
This is a book full of insight and contentious argument, and in some ways it could be used as a frame for a series of discussions. It might be interesting to see what the historians discussed in the earlier chapters thought of Professor Hutton's categorizations of their work and motivations: a suitable theme for a conference.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-albion.
Martyn Bennett. Review of Hutton, Ronald E., Debates in Stuart History.
H-Albion, H-Net Reviews.
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