Saturday, 17 July 2010

A Revised estimation of Professor John Kenyon’s The Civil War in England


This is a revised article. After publishing the original I received a comment from Professor Christopher Thompson. While not Seeing Eye to eye on methodology or ideology of the English Civil War I welcome his comments on my article. He has far more knowledge on the subject than myself and his comments are worth noting.

John Kenyon’s book the Civil War in England is largely a military history of the civil war but this does not detract from its great worth as a history of the civil war. It is also wrong just to describe it solely as military history as he has a sharp insight into the politics and economics of the conflict which blends well with his military dialogue.

The book is a cracking read and moves along at the pace of a novel. It is well research book. This is the first book I have read of Kenyon so I am not familiar with his work. He has been described as “one of Britain's leading scholars of 17th-century English history “but I will hold judgement until I have conducted further work.

Thompson in a comment on my blog said "I think that you will find it helpful to clarify J.P.Kenyon’s view of Marxism by reading John Morrill’s obituary appreciation in the Proceedings of the British Academy (Volume 101 (1999), pages 441-461). Morrill explains there that Kenyon a “fundamental disapproval of model-builders and systematiser. He had no time for social determinism as a tool of the historian for explaining the past or of social engineering as a tool of the politician in effecting the future.” (ibid. page 443). Later in this piece, Morrill discussed Kenyon’s 1958 book, The Stuarts, and its analysis of the pre-revolutionary period: “it is a very hard and crisp review of the political, legal, and religious culture of the period 1580-1640 and of the origins of the English Civil War. Kenyon found no evidence of a disintegration of an outdated system; no progressive movement made up of an alliance of common lawyers, puritan gentry and clergy, thrusting merchants and trendy intellectuals; rather he found a gentry confused and unsure of itself, at once timidly in awe of firebrand clergy and determined to subject the church and its wealth more and more to lay control”. (ibid. pages 447-448) That remained his view. He was never a Marxist or a fellow-traveller with them".

As I am not familiar with John Morrill’s obituary/appreciation in the Proceedings of the British Academy (Volume 101 (1999), pages 441-461) I cannot comment on his work directly. In my previous blog I described him as a fellow traveller of the Marxist wing. This was miss-leading and wrong. Having read the introduction to his book on Stuart England Kenyon was clearly his own man.

However I did not describe Kenyon belonging to the so called ‘Marxist’ wing of early modern Britain historiography so I will agree with Professor Thompson on this point. I should also point out that Kenyon was also critical of the revisionists as well.

His use of class terms such as “Working Class and Ruling Class would need explaining. Having studied Kenyon a bit more I am inclined to support Robert Ashton’s view who said that “The idea of religious, political and constitutional issues as an ideological superstructure based on foundations of material and class interests has been influential far beyond the ranks of Marxist historians. It has indeed been adopted, in part at least and with a radically different emphasis, by some of their more formidable and determined opponents. The following passage from a celebrated article by Professor Trevor-Roper may serve to remind us that anti-marxist history is not necessarily history which plays down the crucial importance of material factors and class interest".

Hugh Trevor Roper, “Hit by the price revolution, slow to redeem their losses by ‘good husbandry’, left in the provinces from which, they complained, the hated metropolis had drained the wealth and vitality, taxed to maintain ‘the expenses of a court so vast and unlimited by the old good rules of economy’, the English mere gentry felt themselves to be depressed, declining class, and, grumbling, consoled and –or armed themselves with religious dissent. Against a protestant court some of them struck under the banner of recusancy; against a ‘popish’ court others struck again, under the banner of puritanism”.

Kenyon held chairs at the universities of Hull, St Andrews, Kansas and Columbia, he published eight books, and also he was a reviewer for the Observer newspaper.

One obituary described Kenyon “as a product of King Edward VII Grammar School in Sheffield and then Sheffield University. When he appeared at Christ's in 1954 he cast himself in the role of mocking outsider, offering caustic criticisms from the fringes of college power in the confident and correct expectation that they would largely be ignored. They were. College meetings would be punctuated by Kenyon's heavy sighs and even heavier disapproving sniffs and brief dismissive comments, but the college men of affairs went about their efficient business untroubled by these background mutterings”.

Kenyon's publications included The Stuart Constitution in 1966, The Popish Plot in 1972, Revolution Principles in 1977, Stuart England in 1978 and The Civil Wars of England in 1988. The History Men in 1983. While it is difficult to measure the man in one reading it is clear from this book that Kenyon had a “scholarly attention to detail and an ability to extract every nuance from his sources. He distrusted fads and was sceptical of theories not fully backed by historical fact”.

Kenyon was writing on the English Civil War at a difficult time for any historian who upheld views that saw the conflict in socio-economic or historical materialist terms. Kenyon faced growing hostility from a growing collection of revisionist historians who increasingly vocal poured scorn on the ‘Marxist’ wing of Early Modern England historiography. Even today the causes of the civil war and the English Revolution are still contested. While Professor Kenyon presents good and at times objective account of the fighting. He was described somewhat accurately as an “orthodox Tawneyite”

While admitting that the causes and why people took sides was complex he was enough of a historian to realise that historical events do not take place in a vacuum. He was astute enough to make the point that Parliament mainly rested on the Towns which were more industrialised than the rural areas which were mainly in support of the King, so much so that 1643 Charles I said that he 'dared not trust his person inside any closed town'; the clothing areas were 'aggressively parliamentarian', Birmingham 'a solidly parliamentarian industrial town'. In making this analysis Kenyon was clearly attacking the revisionists who were deliberately ignoring this vaguely materialist viewpoint. Kenyon also opposed the revisionists who have sought to deny that before 1642 social revolution was always potentially present.

Again Kenyon did not deny that some rank-and-file soldiers (on either side) were not motivated by political principle. Large numbers of people were conscripted sometimes forcibly, there were mercenary elements that joined for the money and the possibility of plunder. But loyalties were strong. For example when Prince Rupert threatened Bradford in 1642, “an urgent appeal was issued to deserters from the army, and the response was overwhelming”.


Another thing that separated Kenyon from the revisionists was his support for the theory that the English revolution was a product of a general European Crisis of the 17th Century. This view tends to cut across the largely nationalist English view of the civil war as opposed to putting the war in a more international context.
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