December 22, 2009

Review: The Noble Revolt

John Adamson's most recent book fulfils several of the criteria to be a good history book. Firstly it is well written. Adamson's style is filled with verve and confidence. Secondly it is about an important subject. The years 1640-1642 are amongst the most important and exciting to study in English history. They saw the first rebellion in England since the Essex rebellion of 1602, the first large scale rebellion since the rising of the Northern Earls under Elizabeth in 1569. Charles's rule broke down first in Scotland, then Adamson argues in England and finally in Ireland. The final breakdown led immediatly to civil war in England- a civil war that eventually consumed the entire three Kingdoms that Charles ruled and ended with the deaths of many thousands of his subjects, including in 1649 the death of the King himself. By that point the originators of that revolution had been replaced themselves- some had died, some had fallen away politically from the centre of power and others had even defected to the King. John Adamson's book does not focus on how the revolution developed until the execution of 1649 (I presume that this is what his next volume will do), it focusses on the original problem- why between 1640 and 1642 did Charles's rule break down, particularly in England?

This is unusually for modern histories of the period an anglocentric approach. Ireland and Scotland are interesting to Adamson as they illuminate a central English story. The central English story that Adamson wants to tell us is about the way that a small group of nobles coordinated from the House of Lords opposition to the King. This started before Charles had summoned the Short Parliament- a Parliament that these nobles had forced him to call- and it continued right up until the outbreak of civil war in 1642. The opposition to Charles was led by a small group of nobles (the Earls of Warwick, Northumberland, Bedford, Holland, Bristol, Leicester, Essex, Viscount Saye and Sele, Viscount Mandeville and more) and assisted by a semi-autonomous group of 'clients' in the House of Commons (John Pym, Sir John Clotworthy, Oliver St John, Sir Walter Erle and others). This group did not always agree- some even like Lord Bristol ended up as royalists, others like Bedford sought for a peace deal with the King and died before they could decide which side of the civil war they would have fought on, others like the Earl of Warwick became stalwart Parliamentarians and of course there were some minor figures around the outside (Oliver Cromwell, John Lilburne).

Adamson stresses that this group came to negotiate with the King for a particular type of settlement. That settlement was what Adamson calls a Venetian oligarchy- we could describe it to borrow Patrick Collinson's words as a monarchical Republic. What these men wanted was a state in which Charles had lost the power of the executing or making policy, choosing his own ministers or using his own finances: Parliament led by the natural councillers of the realm- the nobility- should be in the position to govern the Kingdom. Adamson suggests that this ideology had with it theological baggage- noticably ideas about purifying the church and divesting it of what were seen as Laudian innovations. Adamson in my view underplays this aspect of the story because he makes it secondary- he underplays how crucial religion was to the outlook of these men. They wanted a constitutional settlement not merely for its own sake but for the sake of religion. Obviously there were some who did not believe this- Henry Marten is a good example. But many, in England or Scotland, would desert the cause if it seemed to desert the divine, they could accept politically it was not always a priority and reading Adamson one should be careful to distinguish between the political and the principle. Oliver Cromwell may have accepted in the Parliament of late 1641 that root and branch reform was not going to happen immediatly, that did not stop him believing later that the subject of the war was 'our Civil Liberties as men, our Spiritual liberties as Christians' (Carlyle Lomas Volume 3 151).

Adamson underplays religion in part because of his concentration. He has always been interested in the politics of courts and peers rather than the commons. This creates a vibrant narrative of high politics- but misses the Tolstoyan question, why did people follow the Earl of Warwick and Earl of Essex to fight against the King. We know some of the reasons for that and they are much less Venetian than the aspirations of the peers. Adamson refers to the crowd but only as an instrument of the peers and commoners without reference to their own aspirations. These limitations to Adamson's thesis are not criticisms- a book cannot do what it does not set out to do but amidst the torrent of Adamson's prose it is easy to imagine that he has proved what he has not. This book is not a complete explanation of the English civil war- it is a fairly complete narrative of the high politics surrounding the civil war's beggining. Within his narrative there are points he needs to explain more or refine: for example on p. 184 without explanation he refers to Nathaniel Fiennes as a loose cannon, we need a reason why Fiennes is such but neither the footnote nor the text make it clear. Furthermore Adamson appears unaware or unwilling to acknowledge the work of other historians that might substantiate his picture: so he ignores Jason Peacey who shows how the pamphlets of the early ideological struggles linked to their sponsors in the nobility. Such an understanding is key if we are to grapple with what the nobility wanted out of the war and what appeal they made to others.

Disregarding these flaws though, does Adamson offer us a plausible answer to the question of why during the early 1640s war came to England. That question is probably too complicated for a single historian to ever answer properly. There were longterm and short term factors which led to war. What Adamson offers us is a very good, well documented account of how the actors within high politics decided that there was no alternative to civil war. He shows us that Charles I reacted out of hauteur and pride- this is not neccessarily new. He shows us the way that the great lords coordinated opposition to the King- again this is not a neccessarily novel position- but Adamson shows us its mechanics. He takes us through the cycle of accident and fortune that led to the point at which Charles's subjects took up arms and he leaves us in no doubt that the outcome was contingent upon a series of events. There were good reasons for believing in 1640 that England was on the brink of civil war, but equally war was not inevitable. In that sense Dr Adamson's work is truly post revisionist: incorporating the insight of the revisionists that the coming of war was confusing and accidental, but showing us the deep anger and resentment that war helped assuage.

A final verdict will take a while to come in on this book which is incredibly long- but it is worth reading. For a general reader I would reccomend reading a survey like Blair Worden's first in order to orientate yourself in the period: Adamson does only cover two years but he does write well and this is definitely a book worth reading if you have the time and enough interest to read 500 pages about 18 months.

4 comments:

edmund said...

very good review-very fair. he does acknowledge religous role. Be interested to what degree u agree with him that even committed puritans like Warwick didn't realy care about presbytery etc at that piont.

Link to Worden or indeed adamson?

Gracchi said...

My feeling is that Warwick etc did care about Presbytery but that it wasn't politically expedient to say so. I think one of the issues that I didn't quite bring out in my review of the book is that Adamson often takes people's actions as a signifier of their real beliefs- this strikes me as problematic because it undervalues the degree to which people will aim for what they can achieve and not what they want. Warwick etc were on stronger ground against the King constitutionally than they were ecclesiastically and I think that their ambivalence towards Presbyterian reform in Parliament was a matter of tactics not principle.

I don't understand your last comment.

edmund said...

thanks gracchi very interesting-would love to read a debate on this issue which sounds fundamental - i can also see a more ambiguous attitude. E.g presbytery or congregationalism is not necessary or central-but it'd be nice becuase it'd dish the bishops and the laudians forever

why not link to the two books on amazon etc in the article ?

edmund said...

thanks gracchi very interesting-would love to read a debate on this issue which sounds fundamental - i can also see a more ambiguous attitude. E.g presbytery or congregationalism is not necessary or central-but it'd be nice becuase it'd dish the bishops and the laudians forever

why not link to the two books on amazon etc in the article ?