Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Kishlansky on The Rise of the New Model Army

Dear Keith,

                  I have seen your comments on Kishlansky's book on your blog, A Trumpet of Sedition. This work is identical to his doctoral thesis supervised by David Underdown, a copy of which is in my possession. The text was not rushed into print prematurely.

Its central argument about the post-1646 politicisation of the New Model Army depends on his claim that, prior to that date, the armies of the Long Parliament lacked political interests of their own but this is clearly mistaken as any study, for example, of the 3rd Earl of Essex's army after the autumn of 1642 or of that of Sir William Waller or of the 2nd Earl of Manchester shows. Each of these armies had its own allies and advocates at Westminster and followers or supporters in the capital and relevant counties.

Kishlansky failed to recognise the implications of the works of Hexter and of Valerie Pearl in this respect. Nor should it be taken that the Levellers alone were significant in forming the political and religious attitudes of the New Model Army: the proposals debated at Putney were, as Philip Baker and Elliot Vernon showed, formulated by Henry Marten and his radical London allies rather than by the Levellers. 

       In any case, by the time Kishlansky's work was written, his argument hardly fitted into the pejoratively-termed 'Revisionist' project of Conrad Russell and his allies: that project focused on overthrowing the Whig-Marxist synthesis embraced by Hill, Stone, Manning and others. Its dominance was, however, mythical since it had already been challenged by figures like Hexter and John Ball in the 1950s.

In Christopher Hill's case, his influence waned rapidly after c.1972 when his model of analysis came under sustained challenge. Kishlansky's thesis and book were incidental to this process rather than central to it. Peter Lake described Kishlansky in September, 2015 as a "contrarian", someone who liked turning old notions upside down. You can see what he means from Kishlansky's study of Parliamentary elections in early modern England or from his last short book on Charles I.

It was this aspect of his approach that appealed to Russell and Morrill. Revisionism itself was, in any event, spent by c.1990 and has long since passed into the pages of secondary works just like the Marxism of Hill and his CPGB colleagues.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

The Rise of the New Model Army Paperback – 12 Jan 2008 Mark Kishlansky- Cambridge University Press; Reprint edition ISBN-10: 0521273773

They lived, they suffered, they died. Thomas Hardy

This version of Mark Kishlanksy’s The Rise of the New Model Army in paperback form is a meticulously-researched but highly controversial study of the rise of the New Model Army. Kishlansky challenges the fundamental assumptions upon which all previous interpretations of the New Model Army have been based.

It is Kishlanksy’s contention in the run up to the formation of the New Model Army to be more precise the years 1643–6, Parliament far from being in conflict operated as “model of consensus”.

So, for him, the New Model Army was not a direct result of Cromwell’s attempt to prosecute a far more aggressive and radical war against the King, and by radical I mean Leveller influenced. For Kishlansky radicalism hardly existed and the army was a by product of Consensus and compromise.

It was only after this consensus broke down did the army develop a political voice and become radicalised. The historian Ivan Roots is critical of Kishlansky’s attitude towards the army when he wrote “The New Model Army, 'departing little from the armies it replaced', is seen as a child of compromise. Not until the spectre of defeat was lifted in 1646 did 'adversary politics' seriously disturb Westminster internally, encouraging outside pressures. Factious now, Parliament failed to comprehend genuine professional grievances – arrears of pay and whatever – and by denying the right to petition politicised the Army, equating national liberties with soldiers' rights, making it seem more radical than it really was. (To all this the Levellers were irrelevant.) Stung in its honour the Army, reluctant but in good order, entered London in August 1647 to restore 'a free and lawful parliament' against internal and external 'faction and interest'. At this point, the story breaks off – on the brink of a revolution as yet undefined”.[1]

Kishlansky in the book discounts the belief that the army had a relatively worked out perspective and was beginning to act as a political force. He believed that  “From disparate and inchoate ideas the army formed its self –justification, and the process by which this happened, as do so many others of similar circumstances, remain mysterious”. The dictionary definition of inchoate used for our purpose is: not organised; lacking order, this is not correct.

It is clear the army had some form of collective ideology. The actions it took before and after Putney proved this. This is perhaps why Kishlansky stops short of discussing the Putney debates in his book.The Levellers persistent agitation had turned the New Model Army into a potent military and political force that had to be recognised.

Kishlansky attacks the concept that it is possible to draw wider political conclusions from the debate that took place in the New Model Army. He believed that Ideology inside the army had been exaggerated and misconceived.

He writes  ‘Much has been written about the ideology of the army, but most of it misconceived. A principle reason for this has been historians have assumed that the lowly social origins of many of the officers created a commitment to radical ideology. This is false on both factual and logical grounds. There were men of low birth among the new Model’s officers, and much has been made of Pride the drayman and Hewson the cobbler more still might be made of obscure officers like Spongers and Creamer whose surnames suggest backgrounds in trades and service. The army also contained a Cecil, a Sheffield, and three colonels who were knights. A careful study of the armies social origin, which lends support to the view that they were more traditional in nature (of solid status in rural and urban structures) still does not meet the real objections to existing interpretation- the fallacy of social determinism’.[2]

If we were to accept Kishlanskys assertion that “From 1645 to March 1647 there is almost no evidence of political activity within the New Model Army: for fifteen months the soldiers fought; for eight they waited”.

What is his point? Ideas do take the time to develop, and they do change under the pressure of political and economic changes. There is not a mechanical relationship between economic changes, and their political expression there is a dialectical one.

Kishlansky’s hostility to Marxist historiography is well known and runs through all of his work. He does not believe that class has any bearing on how a person thinks or behaves and rejects ‘the conception that social being determines social consciousnesses. A by-product of this intellectual myopia has led him to downplay the amount of radical literature available to the army. Kishlansky calls for a complete rethink on what ideas did motivate individual soldiers.

Book Reviews

The book was well received by some high profile historians. Bernard Norling comments which have been echoed by many other reviewers said “ A more fitting title would be "The Efforts of the House of Commons to Govern England, 1640-1647[3]”.

Some commentators have picked up on that Kishlansky stops short of discussing the Putney Debates of 1647. It would appear that he is looking to fit his ideological positions into a highly particular time frame something he has accused other historians particularly  Christopher Hill of doing.

Kishlansky walks a tightrope with this book. It is not easy to combine one's ideological convictions and still produce an objectively written book. Very few historians have managed it. Kishlansky has a habit in this book of letting his conservatism get the better of him.

Christopher Hill and the CPHG

Kishlansky defends his positions like an animal protects her offspring. He has a no holes barred approach to historical work. This approach has led him into many scrapes. He seems to have reserved most his ire for the historians who came out of the Communist Party of Britain. Despite the Stalinisation of the Party, these historians produced a level of work that has not been surpassed.

Despite launching many unprovoked and in some cases disrespectful attacks especially on Christopher Hill, it must be said that the CPHG returned very little fire. Hill’s conception of the revolution and the New Model Army are well known and do not need to repeating here suffice to say as Ann Talbot writes Hill “recognised that revolutions are made by the mass of the population and that for a revolution to take place the consciousness of that mass of people must change since revolutions are not made by a few people at the top although the character of their leadership is crucial at certain points. These achievements were considerable at the time and are of continuing relevance today when historians increasingly reject any serious economic or social analysis and argue that revolutions are nothing but the work of a tiny group of conspirators".[4]

Kishlansky accused Hill of being “ immune to criticism”. An attack that was answered by Alex Calinicos “Well, if the criticism Hill’s work has encountered were all of the quality of Kishlansky’s shabby attack who could blame him for ignoring it? The insinuation that refusing to follow the tide of historiographic fashion is morally equivalent to sending dissidents off to the Gulag Archipelago is typical of a critique which proceeds by insult and innuendo rather than by anything resembling a careful argument.[5]


This book is not without merit, and Kishlansky is a capable writer. It has been pointed out that the book seems to have been hurried and that many mistakes occurred that should not have given the quality of the publishers.

The discounting of sources such as Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, Edmund Ludlow, Bulstrode Whitelocke, and Richard Baxter on account of bias and their supposed unreliability is bizarre, to say the least.

As one writer said, “This strategy enabled Kishlansky to conclude that Cromwell’s New Model Army, far from being the mainspring of revolution, was the product of a politics of consensus and, in its early years, at any rate, lacked any radical consciousness. In the 1980s, the age of Margaret Thatcher, the Levellers, Diggers, and other radical groups, whose seemingly modern doctrines had so fascinated an earlier generation, were consigned to the historiographical sidelines”.

The Rise of the New Model Army book was the by-product of the revisionist domination during the last three decades of English Revolution historiography, and the reader should be aware of that. The American historian Mark Kishlansky embraced the revisionist doctrine fully. While recommending the book the reader should be aware of the Historians politics.

[1] The Rise of the New Model Army -Ivan Roots-History Today
[2] Ideology and Politics in the Parliamentary Armies, 1645–9-Taken from Reactions to the English Civil War 1642–1649-Editors: John Morrill-ISBN: 978-0-333-27566-5
[3] The Rise of the New Model Army by Mark A. Kishlansky Review by: Bernard Norling- The Review of Politics, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Jan. 1981), pp. 139-141
[4] http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2003/03/hill-m25.html
[5] https://www.lrb.co.uk/v18/n23/letters

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

John Gurney and the English Revolution

‘Action is the life of all and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing ‘– Gerrard Winstanley

There is no denying that the death of John Gurney was a sad and terrible moment for both his family and the history community. His passing at such a young age of 54 of cancer, removes from the scene a gifted historian whose work was starting to produce results on a level of the great Christopher Hill, with whom he met at Oxford on some occasions.

Gurney was not a Marxist historian but his latest work published after his death showed a profound shift to the left in his thinking. His paper Gerard Winstanley and the Left is insightful and thought provoking. It is certainly one the best analysis of left wing historiography of the English Revolution.

Contained within his writings is an excellent example of the Historians Craft. I never met him but had some correspondence with him towards the end of his life. Even with this brief connection, I could tell he was a historian of great ability and tenacity. This was recognised by his friends and colleagues. In a tribute to him, Scott Ashley wrote “John was someone who in both his professional and personal lives could sniff out a story and extract the gold from the archive that made time and place shine fresh. To walk with him around North Shields was to see the streets and buildings with different eyes, not only in the sometimes prosaic now but as part of a more poetic then, as home places to Commonwealth-era churchmen, eighteenth-century ship captains, Victorian professionals. Among the many things I learned from John during the years, I knew him was that being a historian and making a home, physical and imaginative, were part of a common enterprise”[1].

Gurney spent most of his historical life studying the area around where he lived. However, his work on the Diggers and Gerard Winstanley was far from parochial. In many ways, he was instrumental in bringing a fresh perspective to the Diggers and Winstanley. He produced two books on them Brave Community: The Digger Movement in the English Revolution published in 2007 and Gerrard Winstanley: The Digger’s Life and Legacy of 2013[2].  Both books took our understanding of the Diggers to a new level.

John had many skills as a historian, but three leap out at you. He had a capability to explain complicated historical issues in a way that any one could understand. Secondly, he brought his subject to life and thirdly his stamina to spend significant amounts of time “grubbing in the archives”.

To deep mine, an archive may to a lay person seem odd, but this ability gave him a more in-depth insight into the complicated problems faced by revolutionaries such as Winstanley. These seventeenth-century revolutionaries were working without precedents in which to guide their revolution.

If Gerard Winstanley is more well known and highly thought of today, it is because of Gurney. It is hard not to agree with Michael Wood’s claim that Winstanley’s place in the pantheon of English literature and political thought should be higher than previously thought. Wood believes he should be put alongside Hobbes and Harrington as one of the great writers of English prose of the seventeenth century. We should not forget that Winstanley was also a man of action as well as words. In 17th century eyes, he was as dangerous revolutionary.

Historians Craft

Gurney’s attempt to recreate the past and therefore understand it is done with much empathy and imagination. There is also a doggedness and intellectual objectivity about his work. While some historians seek to make an objective understanding of history, Gurney was almost religious in his pursuit of historical truth.

Gurney’s work exhibited a disciplined approach to complex historical questions. He recognised that he did not know everything about his area of expertise. But his work did show an honesty which enabled him to have a greater understanding of his role in the presentation of facts.

Gurney was also mindful of presenting his work in a way that was never apart from its moment in time. Gurney’s approach was similar to the French historian of feudal society, Marc Bloch, who wrote in his book, The Historian’s Craft “In a word, a historical phenomenon can never be understood apart from its moment in time. This applies to every evolutionary stage, our own, and all others. As the old Arab proverb has it: ‘Men resemble their times more than they do their fathers.’

Gerrard Winstanley: The Digger’s Life and Legacy of 2013.

The book is a meticulously researched, scholarly and well-presented. Gurney provides us with a good understanding of the origins of the Digger movement. It has been praised for setting an “extremely high standard for local histories of this sort and must rank alongside similar studies such as Eamon Duffy’s acclaimed The Voices of Morebath.

Gurney was clear that the study of Winstanley should be not solely of historical value but must have a contemporary resonance. He says: “Today knowledge of Winstanley is widespread, and he has become one of the best-known figures from the period of the English Revolution. There have been numerous plays, novels, TV dramas, songs and films, and Winstanley has often been cited as an inspirational figure by politicians of the left.

More specifically, his ideas and achievements have remained prescient, inspiring generations of activists and social movements”. He believed that Winstanley “has in recent years also been invoked by freeganism, squatters, guerrilla gardeners, allotment campaigners, social entrepreneurs, greens and peace campaigners; and both Marxists and libertarians have laid claim Who was to him as a significant precursor”.

Gurney’s book is invaluable when it starts to trace the origins of Winstanley’s radicalism. Gurney did not subscribe to the theory that it was solely down to the war radicalising people such as Winstanley. Gurney believed that radical views were being expressed all over the country before the outbreak of civil war.

In a previous essay, Gurney elaborates on why the Digger’s achieved a level of local support in Cobham “Local support for the Diggers may also have been connected with Cobham's marked traditions of social conflict. The manor of Cobham, a former possession of Chertsey Abbey, had passed into the hands of Robert Gavell in 1566 and was to remain with his family until 1708. During the later sixteenth century the Gavell family became involved in a long and protracted series of disputes with their tenants. In a case brought in the court of Requests by William Wrenn, a Cobham husbandman, Robert Gavell was accused of overturning manorial customs and of infringing his tenants' rights, by seeking to extract more rent than was customarily paid, and by spoiling the timber on Wrenn's copyhold. He was also charged with attempting to escape the payment of tax by shifting the burden on to his tenants, laying 'a hevy burden uppon the poorer tennants contrarye to the Ancient usage, equitie and Consciens'Actions against Robert Gavell and his son Francis were resumed in the court of Chancery during the 1590s by tenants seeking to halt the continued assault on manorial custom” [3].

Who Were The Diggers

Gurney was one of the few contemporary historians involved in the study of Early Modern England who understood the importance of class in understanding the English revolution and its radical wing.
Gurney is correct to say that there has been no unified theory regarding the class basis of the Diggers. To say this is a complicated question. Even historians such as A L Morton and Christopher Hill changed their position numerous times.

The Diggers along with other radical groups who sought to understand the profound political and social changes that were taking place at the beginning of the 17th century and act upon them.

From an ideological stand point, they were far ahead of the likes of Cromwell and Ireton. Their weakness while being sympathetic to the poor, they had no programme to bring about social change; they never advocated a violent overturning of society. Their class outlook, that being of small producers, conditioned their ideology. At no stage did the Diggers or that matter did the larger group the Levellers constitute a mass movement. The contradiction between their concern for the poor and their position of representatives of the small property owners caused some tension. They had no opposition to private property, and therefore they accepted that inequalities would always exist, they merely argued for a lot of the poor to be made more equitable. 

Brave Community: The Digger Movement in the English Revolution published in 2007

Gurney’s study of his local area in this case Surrey was not done from a parochial viewpoint. A survey of local events correctly done can add to a more broad and objective understanding of events.
Brave Community was the result of painstaking investigations. Somewhat surprisingly it was the first full-length modern study of the Diggers. 

It was well-received by academic historians. One review of Brave Community by Henk Looijesteijn described it as “a study that successfully blends social and intellectual history in recreating the environment in which one of the most original thinkers of mid-seventeenth-century England originated and acted. As such, this book should be regarded as the starting point for any student of Winstanley and the Digger”.

Gerrard Winstanley and the Left

Gurney’s last essay Gerrard Winstanley and the Left is a very significant piece of work. It lays the critical ground work for a further examination of the left's attitude towards the English revolution. Gurney understood when writing about left wing historiography on the English Revolution that you had to be aware of the pratfalls especially when writing about the Communist Party Historians Group. One must be cognizant of the enormous amount of ideological baggage these historians carried around. It must be said that some of this baggage was not in always in perfect condition.

In many ways, this essay is in microcosm a summation of Gurney’s whole body of work. He was very much at the height of his powers when he wrote this article. Gurney acknowledges that it is only recently that the words of Winstanley have been fully appreciated.  However, he believed that it is not the case that nothing of note was written before the 20th century. He thought that Winstanley’s ‘extraordinarily rich body of writings’ were read and studied between the years 1651 and the 1890s.

As he wrote in the essay “The historical legacy of the Diggers is usually seen as being very different from that of their contemporaries, the Levellers. If the Levellers were misremembered, the Diggers have been understood as being largely forgotten before the 1890s, with professional historians playing little part in their rediscovery.  It took, we are told, the Marxist journalist and politician Eduard Bernstein to rediscover Winstanley quite independently of academic historians when he spent part of his exile in London working on the section on seventeenth-century English radical thinkers for Karl Kautsky’s Die Vorla¨ufer des neueren Sozialismus. 

Later, in the 1940s, it was Marxist historians associated with the Communist Party of Great Britain who are said to have picked up Bernstein’s baton and created the image of a communist and materialist Winstanley which remains familiar to this day. The left’s responsibility for, and role in, the rediscovery and promotion of the Diggers can, therefore, seem quite clear and uncomplicated. There are, however, a number of problems with this interpretation. For one thing, the Diggers had, before the 1890s, never fallen from public view to the extent often imagined. In fact, it seems that they were reasonably well known over the centuries — and perhaps even more accurately remembered than the main stream Levellers, who were often confused with them. It is also evident that early detailed research on the Diggers was not confined to the left and that Bernstein was by no means alone in taking an interest in Winstanley’s writings in the 1890s”[4].


Where does Gurney’s work fit in with today’s in today’s historiography of the English Revolution? Due to no fault of his own Gurney’s work on Winstanley is an oasis in a desert of revisionism.

As Michael Braddick points out, revisionists have “have tried to cut the English revolution down to size or to cast it in its own terms. In so doing, they naturally also cast a critical eye over the reputation and contemporary significance of its radical heroes”.

The historian Mark Kishlansky’ has a habit of cutting down the radical heroes of the English Revolution. It is perhaps surprising that he recommends Gurney’s book saying “this is a clear-eyed yet sympathetic account of one of the most baffling figures of the English Revolution. Gurney's painstaking research provides a wealth of new information that is assembled into a highly readable narrative. An informative and thought-provoking book.”

Kishlansky despite recommending Gurney’s book he is keen to downplay Winstanley who according to him was “a small businessman who began his career wholesaling cloth, ended it wholesaling grain, and in between sandwiched a mid-life crisis of epic proportions”.

Kishlanksky inadvertently raises an interesting question. What was the relationship between Winstanley’s religion, his economic status and his politics? As the Marxist writer Cliff Slaughter says “for the understanding of some of the great problems of human history, the study of religion is a necessity. What is the relationship between the social divisions among men and their beliefs about the nature of things? How do ruling classes ensure long periods of acceptance of their rule by those they oppress? Why were the ‘Utopians’ wrong in thinking that it was sufficient only to work out a reasonable arrangement of social relations to proceed to its construction? It was out of the examination of questions like this in the German school of criticism of religion that Marx emerged to present for the first time a scientific view of society. ‘The criticism of religion is the beginning of all criticism[5]”.


Gurney’s work on Winstanley and the Diggers is the start of a new form of historiography on the English Revolution. His work is ground breaking in many ways and is an antidote to revisionist historiography.

Gurney is correct to state there has never been what he calls a definable left-wing interpretation of the Diggers and Winstanley or to be even more precise there has never been a consistent classical Marxist position on the Diggers.  It is hoped that Gurney’s work is used to further our knowledge of the radicals of the English Revolution and present a more unified theory as regards these radical gentlemen of the revolution.

[1]  Brave Community: A communal and personal tribute to our friend and colleague, John Gurney (1960-2014)
[2]  https://keith-perspective.blogspot.com/search?q=john+gurney 
[3] Gerrard Winstanley and the Digger movement in Walton and Cobham- John Gurney
[4] Gerrard Winstanley and the Left-John Gurney.
[5] Religion and Social Revolt Cliff Slaughter Labour Review Vol 3 No 3 June 1958

Saturday, 8 July 2017

1666: Plague, War and Hellfire Hardcover by Rebecca Rideal- 304 pages-Publisher: John Murray- ISBN-10: 1473623537

Let the flaming London come in view, Like Nero's Rome, burnt to rebuild it new

The Second Advice to a Painter by Andrew Marvell

“sure, so sad a sight was never seen before as that city is now lying in ashes”-

 Lady Elmes

It is fair to say that 1666 was not a very good year to be in London or England for that matter. In rapid succession, she was struck by a deadly plague that wiped out swathes of the population. The second war with the Dutch caused mayhem and much bloodshed for both nations and to end with London was struck by a deadly fire.

All these events are told with a fair degree of panache by Rebecca Rideal in her new book. The book which reads like a historical novel with bits of academic essay thrown is based on a significant amount of original archival research and makes use of little-known sources. It is safe to say the that Rideal did her fair share of “grubbing in the archives”. Rideal has claimed her approach is novel, but this has been hotly contested.Regarding publications, 1666 joins a very crowded market. Lloyd and Dorothy Moote’s The Great Plague and Adrian Tinniswood on the Fire of London are two which come to mind.

Rideal has not attempted to differentiate her book from these by claiming to have found new evidence. However, she does try to place the events in a more broader context of the bourgeois society. Rideal is correct to point out that 1666 was a crucial turning point in English history. The devastation caused by these events did, however, enable the bourgeoisie to hasten further the process of the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

It was also a time when some of the finest representatives of the bourgeoisie were around. 1666 saw Isaac Newton's discovery of gravity, complementing Robert Hooke's microscopic discoveries. It was also when the great John Milton completed Paradise Lost. Last but not least was the rebuilding of London by Christopher Wren. The three events mentioned in the book came at a time when England in the seventeenth century witnessed a fundamental change.

As the 21st-century Marxist writer David North wrote the “17th century started to fundamentally change the way man saw the world. Up until then, mankind's worldview had largely been dominated by the Aristotelian worldview. Until the early seventeenth century, even educated people still generally accepted that the ultimate answers to all the mysteries of the universe and the problems of life were to be found in the Old Testament. But its unchallengeable authority had been slowly eroding, especially since the publication of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus in the year of his death in 1543, which dealt the death blow to the Ptolemaic conception of the universe and provided the essential point of departure for the future conquests of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Johann Kepler (1571-1630) and, of course, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Intellectually, if not yet socially, the liberation of man from the fetters of Medieval superstition and the political structures that rested upon it, was well under way.[1]

The book outlines that the fire and plague cruelly exposed the class divide and class relations in England at the time. The poor endured the most of both plague and fire. The rich could either stay in their well-built houses to wait out the fire and plague, or they could move out of the city with their possessions. The poor had no such luxury.

As Lady Ann Hobart complained in a letter “I am almost out of my wits, we have packed up all our goods & cannot get a cart for money, they give 5 & 10 pound for carts … I fear I shall lose all I have and must run away … O pity me.”

As Rideal explains the fire was only extinguished when the rich allowed some of their houses to be blown up or knocked down to provide a firebreak. If the rich people had acquiesced to their houses being blown up earlier the fire could have done less damage.

The fire caused widespread panic and paranoia. Riddeal cites one gruesome incident in graphic detail when a Frenchwoman in Moorfields had her breasts cut off after the chickens she was carrying under her apron were mistaken for fireballs. Many foreign nationals especially French or Dutch were accused of starting the fire was attacked by the mobs.


1666 is a debut book and tells the story of that year in narrative form and borrows heavily from the genre of History from Below. The book written during her research on her PHD is orientated to the general reader but does retain a good academic level. Her use of anecdotal evidence is very well done.

The reader will see in her book a contradiction in that it is part “public history” and part academic history. This reflects Rideal’s current predicament. A foot in both camps is a difficult place to be but not entirely impossible, but Rideal will have to make a choice.

Given her life history, I would say she will continue with a more publicly minded history. She was born in Chester in 1983. She studied history at Leeds University. Her MA was completed at University College London. She is a founding member of the History Vault and had an early career in television. This would tend to point her future career more in the public history arena.

Her main historiographical interest lies with a study of the 17th-century England. Her time spent in television will keep her in good stead for the future. If she does manage to combine Public history with a more academically minded history, then that would be a novel approach.

She describes this method.  “The thing is I am a procrastinator,” she says, “and the way that I combat procrastination is by coming up with something that in my mind is even more important than the thing I am supposed to be doing. So I start something, and that takes over everything, and then I start something else.”

Much of her book is grounded by using contemporary accounts. Although she sometimes gets carried away causing one writer to say that her style is more to do with live television than with dead history.
She recognises this saying “There are probably lines in there that I will cringe about afterwards. There are certainly some that I took out because I was pushing it too far. I am really, nervous about this being published because I’m so nervous about the way I’ve written it, the language that I’ve used, the fact that I’ve written a narrative history before I have written a PhD. I feel very, very conscious of all those things. It is frightening.”

The book does not follow a logical pattern and tends to jump from one event to another. This seems to be the unorthodox style that Rideal has adopted. Once you get used to it does make the reading interesting and allows the historian to set a fast pace almost novel-like. The question being does Rideal want to pursue this style of history writing or as she comes to the end of PHD pursue a more conventional academic style?

Twitter Wars

Not everyone is comfortable with her style which is their right, but as a historian, she should start to develop a thicker skin. That does mean she must put up with the personal abuse she has received on Twitter. Much of the abuse appears to be provoked by the fact that she is an attractive female historian. The general thrust of the abuse is the simple fact that she is a female trying to make a living out of public history writing.

The writer Graham Smith has sympathies for Rideal when he recounts “I have some sympathy with these grumblings. Back in 1982, I returned from completing an MA in Social History at Essex to my first university armed with a poster for Leonore Davidoff’s course. I was just pinning it to a noticeboard when the department’s senior professor of economic history spotted me and declared, ‘Women in History, Graham? Whatever next?’

However, as others have pointed out, the fact that the struggle to go beyond hegemonic discourses continues suggests that winning once is not enough. My belief is that evidence of a new generation reinventing ways of taking up that fight should be a cause for celebration rather than condemnation. As tends to happen on Twitter, battle-lines were drawn, allies and enemies were quickly made, and exchanges sharpened after those initial criticisms of Rideal. On one side were historians who clearly identified with Rideal, especially those aiming to make a living from producing popular histories. On the other, for the most part, were historians working in universities, some of whom began to question whether Rideal was even qualified to write early modern history”.[2]

He continues “these days, the battles within ‘the profession’ are mainly over resources and too often fuelled by egotism. With its proponents organised into warring tribes according to the periods and places they study or corralled into sub-disciplinary groupings, History is fractious even within the academy. In all this sound and fury, and despite constant internal sniping, the discipline has been traditionally slow to innovate, and much of the sparring is about maintaining rather than extending boundaries. It is worth noting, for example, that those pioneering courses in women’s history and oral history at Essex were taught in the Sociology Department. While members of other disciplines frequently offer support for new ideas, historians – too often operating as lone scholars – revel in knocking lumps out of one another, reserving spite for those who try to innovate. The result is that in open competition for resources, most obviously for research grant income or in the formation of mutually beneficial research partnerships, historians do not achieve the same results as, say, political scientists or human geographers. Nor are we as prepared to look after our researchers or early career colleagues as would be the case in economics or sociology”.

Although I use Twitter, I am not a fan of using it for public debates on historical matters. It is too short and how you can explain complex historical differences in 140 character it is just absurd.


The book has been well received but that is not to say it is without criticism. One writer has pointed out that the book tends to concentrate too much on what was known about an individual at the time and to leave it at that according to one reviewer “she refers several times to mysterious rumours about Sabbatai Zevi, the charismatic rabbi who, in Turkey in 1665, proclaimed himself the Messiah. “Questions over the authenticity of Sabbatai abounded,” she says and leaves it at that as if nothing more can be known. However, there is a vast amount of scholarship on this extraordinary man, whose conversion to Islam in 1666 shocked the entire Jewish world; we do not need to confine ourselves today to contemporary rumours”.[3]

My criticism of her does not arise from the book which is very enjoyable it stems from her theoretical position or historiography. Recently she stated, “The time of the grand histories that are all about male figures is coming to an end,”. “I think people are understanding now that there were women around, too, and they were doing important things.”

The main advocate of this type of history was the historian Thomas Carlyle. If that were all she was staying, then no one would have too many complaints. However, as the Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky was fond of saying "every sociological definition is at bottom a historical prognosis."

Rideal’s prognosis is that more history should be written from the standpoint of Gender and race. It is high time that the absurdities of basing a study of history on race, gender, and sexual orientation end. The fundamental division in society is not race or gender but that of class.

As North explains “The logic of class interests’ rules politics. This is a basic truth that is frequently forgotten, especially by academics, which tend to evaluate political factions by subjective criteria. Moreover, their judgments are influenced by their own unstated political biases, particularly when it is a matter of evaluating a dispute between opportunists and revolutionists. To the petty-bourgeois academic, the policies advocated by the opportunists usually appear more “realistic” than those advanced by the revolutionaries. However, just as there is no innocent philosophy, there are no innocent politics. Whether foreseen or not, a political program has objective consequences”.


Rideal is a gifted young historian her debut book 1666 is an enjoyable book. Her chosen subject is probably one of the most interesting times in not only British history but world history. If Rideal wants to write more academically minded stuff which she will have to for her PHD, then she will have to develop a different technique because the one used for this book will not do as it has severe limitations. This is not to say that Rideal’s book does not meet main academic standards. Her use of source material is carefully chosen mostly and up to date, and she provides footnotes for all citations and statistics.There is no point hoping the book gets a wide readership as it already has but I would recommend taking on summer holiday.

Further Reading

[1] See Buettner, Ricardo, and Katharina Buettner, ‘A Systematic Literature Review of Twitter Research from a Socio-Political Revolution Perspective’, in ResearchGate, 2016

[2] Oh, O., C. Eom, and H. R. Rao, “Role of Social Media in Social Change: An Analysis of Collective Sense-Making During the 2011 Egypt Revolution,” Information Systems Research, vol. 26, no. 1, pp.210–223, 2015.

[3] Lea, Richard, ‘Rebecca Rideal: “The Time of the Grand Histories Is Coming to an End”’, The Guardian, 25 August 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/aug/25/rebecca-rideal-the-time-of-the-grand-histories-is-coming-to-an-end [accessed 3 September 2016].

[1] quality, the Rights of Man, and the Birth of Socialism-By David North -24 October 1996-
[2]Beyond Us and Them: Public History and the Battle for the Past on Twitter by Graham Smith- https://historiansforhistory.wordpress.com/2016/09/06/beyond-us-and-them-public-history-and-the-battle-for-the-past-on-twitter-by-graham-smith/
[3] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/what-to-read/plague-fire-and-war-for-london-1666-was-truly-an-annus-horribili/

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Cromwell's Buffoon: The Life and Career of The Regicide, Thomas Pride (Century of the Soldier) Hardcover – 15 May 2017-by Robert Hodkinson- Helion and Company.

 ‘that he was very sorry for these three nations, whom he saw in a most sad and deplorable condition’ Thomas Pride (Weekly Intelligencer, 1–8 Nov 1659, 212).

There are still many prominent figures who played major parts in the English Revolution who have not had the academic research and publicity they deserve. Colonel Thomas Pride is one of those persons.To some extent that anomaly has been-been changed in Pride’s case. Robert Hodkinson’s semi-biography of Pride is a valuable contribution to our understanding of how people from very humble backgrounds rose to prominence during the English Revolution.Colonel Thomas Pride is commonly known for being the driving force behind ‘Pride’s Purge,'[1] which saw the mass and very forcible expulsion of MP’s from parliament paving the way for the execution of the King.

Aside from this momentous event, little else is known about this important and pivotal historical figure. In a recent article explaining his approach to researching Pride Hodkinson made this point “Fifteen years ago, reconstructing the biography of a man in this way – almost from scratch – would have been a great deal more difficult. Many of the sources used to research Cromwell’s Buffoon are now readily accessible online or can be located through online databases. Digitised parish registers, searchable through Ancestry.co.uk, were invaluable in retracing Pride’s family tree, which allowed me to unravel its numerous strands and confirm the dynastic links between Pride’s family and those of other dominant figures of the period: by marrying his children to the nieces and nephews of Oliver Cromwell and General Monck, Pride could consolidate his place in the Protectorate establishment”.

Pride’s position within the Cromwellian revolution did not sit well with conservative historians during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Biographies which were few and far between described Pride as “an ignorant, illiterate fellow” and “a useful man to Cromwell in all his projects. A buffoon to him”.

As Hodkinson explains the development of the internet gives the possibility of a more objective account of Pride can be made. Hodkinson believes the internet has revolutionized research especially when looking at figures such as Pride. Online digital resources allow a researcher a lot more thorough study of historical documents than at a reading room.

Hodkinson graduated from the University of Derby in 2010 with an MA in Humanities. He went on to win a prestigious vice-chancellor's prize for his dissertation on the contemporary poetry of the First World War. He is not an orthodox historian. His history is very hands on, and his interest in Pride developed from his role in the Sealed Knot battle re-enactment society going so far to take on the role of Colonel Thomas Pride.

The scarcity of facts about pride’s life precludes an orthodox biography. Despite the absence of information, Hodkinson makes it clear that Colonel Thomas Pride was a prominent figure during the English Revolution and was party to one of the key events of the war.

The arrest and exclusion of 140 Members of Parliament at Westminster in December 1648 was known as Pride’s Purge. The event had no precedent, and no event subsequently has even come close to its impact. The purge of MPs hostile to the revolution paved the way for the execution of the King. It is open to debate whether Pride was acting consciously, but he must have had some political understanding the nature of his act after all Pride sat as a judge at the King's Trial and was one of the 59 signatories of the death warrant
Hodkinson's well-researched book documents Pride’s rise from businessman and brewer. The book is indeed a groundbreaking piece of work.For once the blurb from the jacket cover is correct in that  “Cromwell's Buffoon is a ground-breaking examination of why and how a former apprentice boy rose in status to challenge the ruling elite and affect the death of a monarch. The first full-length biography of its subject, it is a fascinating story of a man who, until now, had all but vanished from history”.

Hodkinson’s book is significant in another way in that it challenges current conservative historiography. Hodkinson notes that Marxist Historiography despite having fallen out of favor can explain through the use class conflict theory how someone like Pride can play a pivotal role in history.

The book to some extent relies on the only other piece of significant research on the life of Pride, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography by Ian J. Gentles Who brilliantly describes how Pride carried out his famous purge “His regiment joined with Richard Deane's and Thomas Harrison's to present a petition demanding that parliament should proceed against the king ‘as an enemy to the kingdom’ (Several Petitions Presented to his Excellency the Lord Fairfax, 1648, 8). It was also part of the 7000–strong force that occupied London at the beginning of December 1648. Although David Underdown has questioned whether Pride was ‘anything more than the obedient instrument of a policy dictated by others’ (Underdown, 141), he was quite possibly a member of the subcommittee of six officers and MPs who, on the night of 5 December, made the arrangements for the purging of the House of Commons of its conservative or Presbyterian members. There is no doubt about his enthusiasm for the policy concerted by Ireton and others, for it was Pride who on the morning of the 6th set a guard around the house. He then stood on the stairs leading to the entrance, flourishing his list of members to be secured. Presently Thomas, Lord Grey of Groby arrived to help him with identifications. About forty-five members were arrested and four times that number were secluded or stayed away. Pride carried out the political cleansing with courtesy except in the case of the lawyer William Prynne. The cantankerous member for Newport tried to force his way past, but Pride with the help of his soldiers pushed him down the stairs and hustled him away to nearby Queen's Court. Prynne is said to have demanded, as he was being carried off, ‘By what authority and commission, and for what cause, they did thus violently seize on and pull him down from the House’, to which Pride and Sir Hardress Waller pointed to their soldiers with swords drawn, muskets at the ready, and matches alight, answering ‘there was their commission’ (The Parliamentary or Constitutional History of England, 18.449). This violence against the House of Commons became known as Pride's Purge. The colonel and his regiment were richly rewarded for their services. Twelve days after the purge the committee of the army ordered that he should be paid £2600 on account for his regiment. During December 1648 and January 1649 warrants totalling £7691 were issued for the pay of his Regiment. Hardly any other regiment was as generously treated at the climax of the English revolution”.[2]
Pride’s Politics

Given the sparsity of information, Hodkinson has done a tremendous job in piecing together a picture of the politics that drove Pride forward. Pride had like a lot of Puritan Independents ties with London's Baptist churches. These churches according to the book were at the forefront of the independent religious movements of the 1630s.

The Baptists had many of the same political and religious characteristics as other radical sects of the English revolution. However, Hodkinson dismisses the notion that Pride had any sympathies with the Levellers. He states that while “Pride and the Levellers may have had certain principles in common, and mutual enemies, the fact that by 1649 Pride was a wealthy and self-interested London businessman meant that any commonality he may have had with the Levellers stopped far short of their other political goals, such as the release of enclosed lands to common ownership”.

Pride it seems was much closer to the Fifth Monarchist movement that gained strength towards the end of the revolution. Hodkinson eastablishes that Pride had connections to some Fifth Monarchist men like William Goffe, whom Pride served with throughout the revolution. Significantly both Pride and Goffe signed the death warrant of Charles 1st.
Despite Thomas Pride’s role as a regicide, Hodkinson does not believe he was a Republican. According to him.“There were certainly Republican elements in the regiment he commanded, which emerged in the Overton Plot of 1654 and after Cromwell's death in 1658. Pride was able to curb his soldiers' republicanism for most of the 1650s. The fact they supported the Rump Parliament against Richard Cromwell following their colonel's death is a testament to the force of Pride's command and strength of his personality”.

Money and Death

It would be a cynical historian who believes that Pride’s action during the revolution was motivated by greed. However, we should not be naïve to think that monetary considerations did not play a part. It is clear that Pride was more than adequately rewarded for his services to the revolution. As Gentles[3] points out somewhat cynically “as a revolutionary insider, he had had no difficulty obtaining redemption of his debts.” His wealth at death was £12,015 or more.

The Restoration period did not treat Pride very well. After death, he was labeled a traitor, and along with other dead regicides, he was to have his body exhumed and hanged at Tyburn alongside  Cromwell, Ireton and Bradshaw. In pride's case, this, in fact, did not go ahead because his body could not be found.


Cromwell’s Buffoon is a fascinating account of Thomas Pride. Given the sparsity of information, Hodkinson has managed to bring to life a forgotten participant of the English Revolution. The book combines political, social and military history.  It is hoped that this book gets a wide circulation and should be on university reading lists.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pride%27s_Purge
[3] http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/22781