January 17, 2010

Review: Restoration Politics, Religion and Culture

This blog and therefore this blogger has an obsession and can acknowledge it, with the seventeenth century. The reason is that that century saw a vast revolution which swept away for a time all the forms of English government and set England on a different route than its continental cousins. Whereas Charles I failed to defeat Parliament, Louis XIV did defeat the Fronde and some of the differences between the English and French monarchy through the next sixty years, indeed through the next three hundred and fifty years come down to that distinction. The story is more complicated than that in England of course: history is seldom uncomplicated and anyone who tells you it is is telling lies. In 1660, the Stuarts returned, after several regimes during the preceding ten years had failed. They returned because the other agents that might have provided a political settlement were incapable of so doing. The story of what happened next which takes us to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 is important because under Charles II, to a degree, and under James II definitely, the Stuarts made an attempt to imitate the revolution of Louis XIV. They failed and the line of James was swept away, replaced by his sisters and eventually by the Hanoverian dynasty of Northern Germany.

The story of what happened between the arrival of Charles II in England in 1660 and the fall of his brother in 1688 is told by a new volume by George Southcombe and Grant Tapsell. What they argue is that English politics in this era was dominated by fear. On the one hand many feared a resumption of civil war: the devastation that war created in England cannot be underestimated- it is probably one of the most tragic events to have ever happened in these islands. On the other, people feared a resumption of Catholic tyranny. Catholicism was naturally, in the view of many English Protestants, tyrannical. Tapsell and Southcombe, in line with John Adamson's recent work, dismiss the idea that there is any kind of division between tyranny and religion: these fears were related in the minds of Englishmen. The word Catholic brought up images of the Jesuits and of the reign of Mary I, the word tyrant brought up the same images- especially after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685) sent an army of Huguenot refugees into England with their experiences of French persecution.

Charles and James both fell victim to these linked ideas- they did so in different ways though. Charles, according to Tapsell and Southcombe, wished to create an absolutist monarchy but wished more to survive. This meant that as in 1672 he rowed backwards at the first signs of dispute. The only moment when he insisted on his rights as a King against his Parliaments was over the exclusion crisis in 1678-81 and as Tapsell and Southcombe make clear, it was this series of events more than any other that polarised the country into those who feared civil war and wished to protect Anglicanism (Tories) and those who feared tyranny (Whigs). James tried to do the same thing with more determination- Tapsell and Southcombe establish from 1685 a series of moves was made by James in which he attempted to establish an absolute monarchy. Both monarchs used the resources of Ireland and Scotland within England and attempted to govern their three kingdoms together- but both faced huge problems, especially in Scotland where anti-Catholicism in Scotland.

This is an old story, recognisable to many I suspect from older historians and yet Tapsell and Southcombe infuse it with some new elements. In particular their analysis of Restoration culture is interesting to a non-specialist. For example they chart the way that Charles II's mistresses became emblematic of the King's disposition to tyranny. It confirmed that the King was ruled by his appetites. That virtuous male republicans were being ruled by a King dominated by his women. Scurillous rhymes in London contrasted the ways in which Louise de Kerrillac, the Duchess of Portsmouth, the Catholic whore managed to outdo Nell Gwyn, the Protestant whore, in sexual gymnastics to satisfy Charles's lust. The King's prick ruled his sceptre as Rotchester said and his sceptre ruled England. Languages about sex and politics and religion all tended to the same outcome- the creation of a public who was determined against Catholicism and tyranny and identified the same in their Stuart Kings. The strength of this volume lies in its clear statement of the case and its exploration of the parts played in the decline of Stuart monarchy by dissenters, the different Kingdoms, the characters of each King, the cultural politics of the day and the religious politics of the day. Their structure is very clear- proceeding along the same lines as Clive Holmes's recent book on Charles I, they divide the subject into various questions (eg. "How important was dissent") and in answering those develop an interpretation.

This kind of expansion of the historical narrative combined with the book's clarity and conciseness make it a perfect introductory text. It is useful to have an account which fuses together the cultural and the political with such ease and facility. Perhaps I should confess a personal interest here in that Grant Tapsell is a good friend of this blogger, but another personal interest should also be confessed: I have read three books on the Restoration period recently- this, Steve Pincus's and Tim Harris's and this is by far the shortest, the best organised, the least repetitive and the easiest to read. Occasionally I would have added a comment on two- Charles II's mistresses were not merely symbols of the King's lack of self control, there must have been a basic horror within the elite of a man who was dominated by women- such images appear often enough in pamphlets at the time. I would have been kinder to Charles- occasionally the judgements of James and Charles and whether they were a good or a bad king are neither charitable nor needed for the greater point that is being made. Lastly the question format in which the authors have organised the work is good in that it enables a clear focus to every section, but also can at times interrupt the coherence of what is ultimately a very coherent book.

I don't think those are major questions. This is definitely the best introduction I have read to the period, and in some senses, given that this was a period that my undergraduate education missed out (I studied papers at Oxford which effectively ran 1520-1660 and 1688-1832), it was on a period I don't know much about.