Thursday, 28 October 2010

Ideology, Absolutism and the English Revolution: Debates of the British Communist Historians, 1940-1956 (2008) David Parker-Part 1

This review is only a provisional look at David Parker’s book. It will be in four parts.

Before reading Parker’s book it is important for the reader to have a rudimentary knowledge of the writings of the British Communist Party and most importantly a firm grasp of the differences that occurred in the Soviet Communist Party between Stalin and Leon Trotsky. One of the main weaknesses of Parkers book which is well researched and useful is the fact that this debate largely passes him by.

A roll call of the names of the historians and significant intellectuals that occupied the British Communist Party Historians Group (CPHG) in the 1940 and 1950s shows the importance of this group. It is significant that in London’s National Portrait Gallery used to hang a painting which has been described as “of seven people arranged on either side of a low table in a book-lined study. They were historians, members of the editorial board of the journal Past & Present, which arose from the British Communist Party’s Historians’ Group”. Eric Hobsbawm, Edward and Dorothy Thompson, Christopher Hill, Victor Kiernan, George Rude, Raphael Samuel and Rodney Hilton to name but a few. The majority of these historians were moulded by the early strategic experiences of the 20th century, the depression during the 1930s and of course the Second World War.

The first seventy odd pages provide the reader with an introduction to the book. In this Parker attempts to give a picture of the relationship between the Historians group and the Communist party and its leading figures such as R Palme Dutt (See Document 1 1940 Amended Draft The English Revolution 1640). It is clear from Parkers book that there were significant differences not only between the historians on the class nature of the 17th Century English Revolution but also between the CP and the History group.

One major fault of the book is that you get no feel for the times the historians began writing in. It should therefore be noted that these historians and Hill in particular began writing their books and essays in the midst of the Purges instigated by Stalin against all the old Bolsheviks.

Trotsky one of the chief defendants described the trials 'It is time, my listeners, it is high time, to recognise, finally, that a new aristocracy has been formed in the Soviet Union. The October Revolution proceeded under the banner of equality. The bureaucracy is the embodiment of monstrous inequality. The revolution destroyed the nobility. The bureaucracy creates new gentry. The revolution destroyed titles and decorations. The new aristocracy produces marshals and generals. The new aristocracy absorbs an enormous part of the national income. Its position before the people is deceitful and false. Its leaders are forced to hide the reality, to deceive the masses, to cloak themselves, calling black white. The whole policy of the new aristocracy is a frame-up.' And “But it remains an incontestable historical fact that the preparation of the bloody judicial frame-ups had its inception in the “minor” historical distortions and innocent” falsification of citations. The bureaucracy found it indispensably necessary to adapt Bolshevism to its own needs. This could not be done otherwise than by corroding the soul of Bolshevism. To the revolutionary essence of Bolshevism the bureaucracy gave the name of “Trotskyism.” Thus it created the spindle on which to wind in the future its falsifications in all the spheres of theory and practice.

The Popular Front Policy pursued by the Stalinists was another millstone around the necks of the CPHG. The policy of the Popular Front would have a profound effect on the Communist Party History Group (CPHG). Yet again nothing is really mentioned by Parker of this.

Parker fails to mention that Leon Trotsky co leader of the Russian revolution wrote considerable amounts on this policy. His writings on Spain are some of his best. Trotsky on the popular front said”

From the standpoint of theory, the most astonishing thing about Stalin's Spanish policy is the utter disregard for the ABC of Leninism. After a delay of several decades - and what decades! - the Comintern has fully rehabilitated the doctrine of Menshevism. More than that, the Comintern has contrived to render this doctrine more 'consistent' and by that token more absurd. In Tsarist Russia, on the threshold of 1905, the formula of 'purely democratic revolution' had behind it, in any case, immeasurably more arguments than in 1937 in Spain. It is hardly astonishing that in modern Spain 'the liberal labour policy' of Menshevism has been converted into the reactionary anti-labour policy of Stalinism. At the same time the doctrine of the Mensheviks, this caricature of Marxism, has been converted into a caricature of itself.” The theoreticians of the Popular Front do not essentially go beyond the first rule of arithmetic, that is, addition: 'Communists' plus Socialists plus Anarchists plus liberals add up to a total which is greater than their respective isolated numbers. Such is all their wisdom. However, arithmetic alone does not suffice here. One needs as well at least mechanics. The law of the parallelogram of forces applies to politics as well. In such a parallelogram, we know that the resultant is shorter; the more component forces diverge from each other. When political allies tend to pull in opposite directions, the resultant proves equal to zero”. Continue "A bloc of divergent political groups of the working class is sometimes completely indispensable for the solution of common practical problems. In certain historical circumstances, such a bloc is capable of attracting the oppressed petty-bourgeois masses whose interests are close to the interests of the proletariat. The joint force of such a bloc can prove far stronger than the sum of the forces of each of its component parts. On the contrary, the political alliance between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, whose interests on basic questions in the present epoch diverge at an angle of 180 degrees, as a general rule, is capable only of paralysing the revolutionary force of the proletariat.” Civil war, in which the force of naked coercion is hardly effective, demands of its participants the spirit of supreme self-abnegation. The workers and peasants can assure victory only if they wage a struggle for their own emancipation. Under these conditions, to subordinate the proletariat to the leadership of the bourgeoisie means beforehand to assure defeat in the civil war."

It does not take a tremendous leap of faith to work out that the origins of the concept of history from below “instigated by the CPHG owes a lot to the Popular Front policy. That historians such as Hill, Rude etc. were influenced by it was clear.

Leslie Morton’s work a People’s History of England was the founding book of the group. From the beginning there was a contradiction between the avocation of the Popular Front politics and the historian’s group writing about democratic groups such as the Levellers in the vain of history from below. The CPHG group tended glorify an unbroken historical line of English Radicalism. This outlook portrays the English Working Class as inherently radical and therefore does not need a scientific perspective. A Leading member of the Group, Dona Torr, decided to position Tom Mann in her study Tom Mann and his Times, as a figure that “was a late representative in a story of England’s long running struggle. Which in many ways is reminisant of the Whig view of British history.

Ann Talbot writes “For the Communist Party sponsored a form of “People’s History”, which is typified by A.L. Morton’s People’s History of England in which the class character of earlier rebels, revolutionaries and popular leaders was obscured by regarding them all as representatives of a national revolutionary tradition. This historical approach reflected the nationalism of the bureaucracy, their hostility to internationalism and their attempts to form an unprincipled alliance with the supposedly democratic capitalists against the fascist Axis countries. People’s history was an attempt to give some historical foundation to the policies of Popular Front—the subordination of the working class to supposedly progressive sections of the bourgeoisie and the limiting of political action to the defence of bourgeois democracy—which provided a democratic facade to the systematic murder of thousands of genuine revolutionaries, including Trotsky. It was the approach that Christopher Hill was trained in, along with E.P. Thompson, Rodney Hilton and Eric Hobsbawm, who were part of the Marxist Historians Group and came under the influence of Maurice Dobb and Dona Torr”.

“There is something Jesuitical about the relationship of these historians to Marxism. They seem to have been capable of partitioning their minds and pursuing a scientific Marxist approach to history up to the point where the Stalinist bureaucracy drew the line, like the Jesuit scientists who would pursue their investigations as far as the Church authorities permitted, but no further. It was an approach that was further encouraged by the extreme specialisation of academic life that enabled them to concentrate on very narrow areas of history that never brought them into direct collision with the bureaucracy on political questions.”

“It is notable that of the Marxist Historians Group Hill wrote on the seventeenth century, Thompson on the eighteenth century, Hobsbawm mostly on the nineteenth century and Hilton on the Middle Ages. But none of them specialised in the twentieth century. In more recent areas of history, as in politics, the control of the Stalinist bureaucracy was too great to allow the free development of Marxist thought and whether deliberately or not they all avoided venturing into the modern arena. It is notable that E.H. Carr, who was never a member of the Communist Party but wrote on the history of the Russian Revolution and expressed a high regard for Trotsky, was for long periods unemployed and unemployable because his views clashed with those on both the left and right of British academic life”.

Despite their handicap it would be fair to say that the CPHG historians did try to examine “the early plebeian movements and utopian communists of the English revolutionary period as precursors of the modern socialist movement” This was done by the CPHG largely in the spirit of Marx who in 1847 said “The first manifestation of a truly active communist party is contained within the bourgeois revolution, at the moment when the constitutional monarchy is eliminated. The most consistent republicans – in England the Levellers, in France Babeuf, Buonarroti, etc. – were the first to proclaim these ‘social questions’.”

It was correct of the early Marxists to look at the early plebeian movements as precursors of modern socialist movement. What needs to be clarified is what a modern socialist movement is. The CPHG historians alongside numerous radical groups did have a tendency to glorify the spontaneous movement of the middling sort and to link it to working class struggles today as if there was some unbroken radical and democratic thread that would supersede the need for a scientifically grounded need for a revolutionary party.

Parker also attempts to establish what kind of ‘Marxists’ were the in the history group. He describes their attempt to apply orthodox Marxist theory i.e. Historical Materialism to a study of the English Revolution was no easy task. To explore these questions would take a book. It is a subject I will return to at a later stage.

Parker provides an extremely useful introduction to the subject with his sighting of major documents from the group. He reviews issues of methodology and the ‘empiricism’ of the group.

It is clear that the group’s use of Marx was mainly farmed from his work on historical materialism in Preface to the Contribution to the critique of political economy. The group relied heavily on Engel’s’ correspondence in the 1890s which was translated by Historians Group member Dona Torr.

The empiricism used by the group would largely stem from the influence of Stalinism and also a dash of English empiricism thrown in.

This methodology was confirmed by E P Thompson who described the groups approach as “Quaintly empirical. I am not condemning the all the work of the historians by raising this point that would be facile as they produced some of the most outstanding historiography of any generation but it does show the handicap they were working under.

David Parker’s collection of the internal discussions of the British Communist Party Historians Group in the 1940s-50s provides only a partial record of debates within the group you can get inkling on the tremendous ideological pressure that was exerted by the CPGB and the Soviet Communist party on the CPHG. Stalin’s theory of Socialism in a single country which ran contradiction to Trotsky’s development of International revolution would have a deep impact on the history writing and research of the history group. Stalin’s general writings also had a significant impact on the History group. Hill for instance sided with Stalin over the debate on Pokrovsky (This will be elaborated further in part 2).

Leon Trotsky asked the question "In what did Stalin’s own theoretical work express itself? In nothing. All he did was to exploit his fellow-traveller theorists, in the interests of the new ruling caste. He will enter into the annals of the history of “thought” only as the organizer of the greatest school of falsification. But for this very reason Stalin, more truly and completely than anybody else, expresses the ideological physiognomy of the new ruling stratum. Each theoretical formula of anti-Trotskyism (whether it involved Zinoviev, Bukharin or Pokrovsky) became at the very next stage an intolerable burden to the new masters of the situation. Official “theory” is today transformed into a blank sheet of paper on which the unfortunate theoreticians reverently trace the contours of the Stalinist boot. Retreating with seven league strides from its Bolshevik past, the bureaucracy at first devoured at each successive stage its own theoreticians. Nowadays that is no longer adequate. The bureaucracy cannot be reconciled with anything but the destruction of the entire old generation of Bolsheviks. Such is the consummation of the Soviet Thermidor!

The English Revolution has been written on quite extensively down the years by many of the great Marxist thinkers. So it gives the reader a chance to evaluate to what extent the CPHG applied orthodox Marxism to their studies of the English Revolution. It must be said that some did a better job than others.

Hill application of Historical materialism enabled him in the words of Ann Talbot identify “the mid-seventeenth century crisis as a revolution, which in the case of Britain overthrew the rule of one class and brought another to power. Secondly he 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”.

In 1850 Marx and Engel’s reviewed a pamphlet, titled why did the English revolution succeed? Marx and Engel’s “M Guizot finds it superfluous to mention that the subjection of the crown to parliament meant subjection to the rule of a class. Nor does he think it necessary to deal with the fact that this class won the necessary power in order finally to make the crown its servant. According to him, the whole struggle between Charles I and parliament was merely over purely political privileges. Not a word is said about why the parliament, and the class represented in it, needed these privileges. Nor does Guizot talk about Charles I’s interference with free competition, which made England’s commerce and industry increasingly impossible; nor about the dependence on parliament into which Charles I, in his continuous need for money, fell the more deeply, the more he tried to defy it.”

“The English class of great landowners, allied with the bourgeoisie – which, incidentally, had already developed under Henry VIII – did not find itself in opposition, as did the French feudal landowners in 1789, but rather in complete harmony with the vital requirements of the bourgeoisie. In fact, their lands were not feudal, but bourgeois property. On the one hand, they were able to provide the industrial bourgeoisie with the manpower necessary for manufacturing, and on the other they were able to develop agriculture to the standards consonant with industry and commerce. Thus their common interests with the bourgeoisie, thus their alliance with it.”

One of the most important points Marx and Engel’s that England passed from what amounted to a feudal country into the early stages of a bourgeois in the 17th century. This analysis was common coin amongst other Marxist thinkers of both the 19th and 20th century. In Karl Kautsky’s ‘Revolutions, past and present’ (1906), [and also in Trotsky’s Where is Britain going? (1926). Who wrote “In the England of the 1640s we see a parliament based upon the most whimsical franchise, which at the same time regarded itself as the representative organ of the people. The lower house represented the nation in that it represented the bourgeoisie and thereby national wealth. In the reign of Charles I it was found, and not without amazement, that the House of Commons was three times richer than the House of Lords. The king now dissolved this parliament and now recalled it according to the pressure of financial need. Parliament created an army for its defence. The army gradually concentrated in its ranks all the most active, courageous and resolute elements. As a direct consequence of this, parliament capitulated to this army. We say, “As a direct consequence,” but by this we wish to say that Parliament capitulated not simply to armed force (it did not capitulate to the King’s army) but to the Puritan army of Cromwell which expressed the requirements of the revolution more boldly, more resolutely and more consistently than did Parliament.

“The adherents of the Episcopal or Anglican, semi-Catholic Church were the party of the court, the nobility and of course the higher clergy. The Presbyterians were the party of the bourgeoisie, the party of wealth and enlightenment. The Independents, and the Puritans especially, were the party of the petty bourgeoisie, the plebeians. Wrapped up in ecclesiastical controversies, in the form of a struggle over the religious structure of the church, there took place a social self-determination of classes and their re-grouping along new, bourgeois lines. Politically the Presbyterian party stood for a limited monarchy; the Independents, who then were called “root and branch men” or, in the language of our day, radicals, stood for a republic. The half-way position of the Presbyterians fully, corresponded to the contradictory interests of the bourgeoisie – between the nobility and the plebeians. The Independents” party which dared to carry its ideas and slogans through to their conclusion naturally displaced the Presbyterians among the awakening petty-bourgeois masses in the towns and the countryside that formed the main force of the revolution”.

Perhaps the most important attack on the group and particularly Hill came from a number of Stalinist writers who were critical of Hill’s characterization of the English Revolution as ‘Bourgeois’.

The catalyst for this criticism was Hill’s publication in 1940 of The English revolution 1640. From the start Hill argued that the revolution should be termed bourgeois and had similar characteristics to the French revolution of 1789. From Hill “I use the word feudal in the Marxist sense, and not in the more restricted sense adopted by most academic historians to describe narrowly military and legal relations. By “feudalism” I mean a form of society in which agriculture is the basis of economy and in which political power is monopolised by a class of landowners. The mass of the population consists of dependent peasants subsisting on the produce of their family holdings. The landowners are maintained by the rent paid by the peasants, which might be in the form of food or labour, as in early days, or (by the sixteenth century) in money. In such a society there is room for small handicraft production, exchange of products, internal and overseas trade; but commerce and industry are subordinated to and plundered’ by the landowners and their State. Merchant capital can develop within feudalism without changing the mode of production; a challenge to the old ruling class and its state comes only with the development of the capitalist mode of production in industry and agriculture”.

Hill is the most identifiable historian with the label Marxist because of his membership of the Communist Party. Without going into detail of the history of the British CP this was a Stalinist party that abandoned any link with orthodox Marxism in the late 1920s. So in strictly political terms Hill was closer to Stalinism than Marxism. This is not to belittle Hills work as a historian. While handicapped by his association with the CP he was one of the finest historians of his generation.

Hill argument was sharply critiqued by German Stalinist Jurgen Kuchynski. Who wrote in the CP’s journal Labour Monthly? Kuchynski put forward Tudor England was already capitalist. In his book Parker quotes him describing Queen Elizabeth I was “the most prominent capitalist in capitalist bourgeois society” (p32).

He went to describe the 640 revolution somewhat bizarrely as an attempted feudal counter-revolution.


1) 1940-1956, Ideology Absolutism and the English Revolution: Debates of the British Communist Historians, 1940-1956.

2) mike.macnair(at)

3) Leon Trotsky --The Stalin School of Falsification-Foreword to the American Edition

4) Leon Trotsky Writings on the Spanish Revolution- Pathfinder Press.

5) Morton’s book was first published in the 1930s. The Communist Party Historians? Group first began to meet after the war to inform the argument of the second edition.

6) "These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill Ann Talbot.

7) Marx- The Moralising Criticism and critical Morality. Source: MECW volume 6, p. 312;Written: at the end of October 1847;

First published: in the Deutsche-BrĂ¼sseler-Zeitung Nos. 86,87,90,92 and 94; October 28 and 31; November 11, 18 and 25, 1847.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Parliamentary History In The 1620s: In Or Out Of Perspective?

(This article was written by Professor Christopher Thompson. He has given his permission to post it on my blog).

The debate about the origins of the English Civil War is as old as the conflict itself. The view taken by S.R.Gardiner and C.H.Firth that it was largely the result of the constitutional and religious struggles between the early Stuart kings and their subjects long ago ceased to be regarded as adequate. The focus of investigation switched to economic and social causes and beyond to the examination of urban and county history. Such has been the pace at which these enquiries were conducted that no new orthodoxy or synthesis commanding widespread assent has emerged.

The seminal influence of Wallace Notestein and his colleagues and pupils in the United States ensured that the importance of Parliamentary proceedings in this period was not forgotten. Our debt to the work of American scholars in this field has grown considerably in the last decade and a half with the publication of some of the major sources for the subject and a flow of studies on individual sessions and institutional procedures. Here in England, the influence of the History Schools of Oxford and Cambridge has been equally apparent in recent years. But the piecemeal work of revision in both countries has been superseded with the publication by Conrad Russell of a series of articles and a remarkable book on the Parliamentary politics of the 1620s. Together, they constitute a radical challenge to the old orthodoxies about early Stuart Parliamentary history.

The genesis of Russell’s work lies in a conscious protest against the ‘Whig’ view that Parliament was set on a collision course with the Crown leading inevitably to a struggle for supremacy in the state. He therefore set out to confute the belief that Parliament was a powerful institution and to undermine the contention that there was a constitutional struggle between ‘government’ and ‘opposition’. His polemically brilliant article, ‘Parliamentary History in Perspective, 1604-1629’, was devoted to demonstrating that the withholding of supply was not an effective bargaining counter. 

There was indeed no systematic attempt to make supply conditional on the redress of grievances: on the one occasion that this was tried – over impositions in 1614 – the manoeuvre failed. And there was relatively little effort until 1626 to bargain over the amount of supply demanded by the Crown. His further denial that the House of Commons had wide-ranging constitutional aims or that it intended to restrict the prerogatives of the monarch and enlarge its own powers struck at the heart of Whig views. On the contrary, as he showed in his book, Parliaments and English Politics, 1621-1629, the constitutional ideas of M.P.s were conservative, aiming at consensus within the House and harmony with the king. It was for this reason that they were more reluctant to force confrontation with the monarch over their privileges than has sometimes been supposed. Because there was no clear Court or government policy, let alone a substantial legislative programme, because of the breadth of the Court’s political and religious patronage, because, indeed, Court support was vitally necessary for a successful career in the counties, it was institutionally and ideologically impossible for there to be a fundamental ‘Court-Country’ division.

It was not until the late-1620s that the rise of Arminianism made religion a controversial subject. The persistent localism of M.P.s made them reluctant to accept responsibility for financing the war into which the Duke of Buckingham and Prince Charles had led them in 1624. As a result, the administrative machinery of the kingdom proved increasingly unable to cope with the burden placed on it by the war effort. Parliament’s failure to accept its responsibilities inevitably raised questions about its continuing existence and it was no surprise that it was dispensed with after 1629. To interpret the Parliamentary history of the period since 1604 as a contest for power between government and opposition is an illusion. “Before 1640, Parliament was not powerful, and it did not contain an ‘opposition’.”

Professor Russell’s case is a formidable one, argued with great learning and winning general acceptance from his reviewers. Many of his arguments – about the basic conservatism of M.P.s and their desire to preserve a harmonious balance between the rights of the subject and those of the king or on the contribution that Court faction made to the revival of Parliamentary judicature in the 1620s – were already familiar. His attempt to reassess Parliamentary history in the light of the research conducted into county politics in the early seventeenth century is a welcome one. If his general analysis is sound, then our view of the political history of the period must be profoundly altered. It is on this point that there has been most reaction.
 There have been vigorous counter-attacks to re-capture the intellectual territory he has taken, to re-establish the importance of long-term constitutional and ideological differences and to re-emphasise the significance of social conflict. The use of the term ‘opposition’ has been strongly defended. But it is noticeable that none of these attempts to undermine the bastions of his position have tempted Professor Russell out of his citadel.

It may therefore be of interest to look again at some of the central issues he has raised to see how far his claims can be fully sustained. It may then be possible to reconsider, however schematically, the analytical framework in which he has placed the politics of the period.

The terms in which Russell formulated his original argument and subsequently developed it are of prime importance. He was concerned with the “ingrained assumption of English Parliamentary historians that Parliament, well before the Civil War, was already set on a course which led to serious challenges to the Crown and ultimately to political supremacy.” The theory of the ‘high road to Civil War’ marked by periodic constitutional milestones implied in his view the belief that Parliament was a powerful institution: “ it is only if Parliament is thought of as a great power in the State that it can be made to fill the role for which it is cast, as a potential challenger to the king for supreme power.”

Its corollary is the belief that “the Parliaments of these years witnessed a constitutional struggle between two ‘sides’, government and opposition, or, in modern language, court and country.” It is on these propositions “logically implied in statements made by well-known historians” which “have gained the status of received opinions” that he wreaked such terrible destruction. What is striking about his analysis, quite apart from the exculpation of Notestein from wholehearted subscription to its provisions, is that its adherents are nowhere identified nor are their views cited in detail. I have no doubt that some statements along these lines can be found but I am not persuaded that they have enjoyed much scholarly currency in recent times.

 My second reservation is more serious. It is not essential to view Parliament as “a great power in the State” in order to argue that there were persistent areas of conflict with the Crown: its role, or more particularly that of the House of Commons, as defender of the rights and liberties of the subject and its responsibilities as the representative body of the kingdom provide a more satisfying explanatory framework.

To argue furthermore from the contents of the opening speeches by King James to successive meetings that there was little or no Conciliar desire to legislate (apart from the issue of the Union with Scotland) and therefore much less power for either House to obstruct royal wishes involves a drastic foreshortening of perspective. It renders inexplicable the Earl of Salisbury’s efforts to manage the business of the first Parliament of the reign, the bills of grace prepared by the Privy Council and offered on the King’s behalf in 1614, Conciliar preparations for dealing with grievances before the 1621 Parliament and the measures taken in the light of proceedings then which paved the way for some of the legislation of 1624. It is in the mid-1620s, as D.H.Willson pointed out, that the break in preparations comes. The contraction in the Crown’s legislative programme to little more than a demand for supply and the decline in the arts of Parliamentary management was a slower process than Russell recognised. 

The importance of the process of bargaining between the King and the Privy Council on the one hand and the House of Commons on the other over supply and the redress of grievances is thereby partially obscured. As a result, the explanation for the deterioration in relations between them and the development of sustained criticism of the Crown’s methods of raising finance is reduced to Court faction and localist resistance to taxation. This is much too rigid a formula to sustain the explanatory burden.

It is true that Russell was able to support his initial analysis by offering a test of Parliamentary power over the granting of supply and the redress of grievances. “A monopoly of the power of extraordinary taxation was the only means by which Parliament could, in a situation of conflict, hope to force its will on a reluctant Crown.” But this apparently potent weapon proved surprisingly ineffective in practice. The ability to link subsidies with the redress of grievances did not confer any significant bargaining power on the House of Commons in the first Parliament of King James and the attempt to force the Crown to abandon its right to levy impositions in 1614 ended in dismal failure. It was even further from the minds of M.P.s to use this power as a lever in 1621 when they voted two subsidies to the King just over a fortnight after the opening of the session. Subsidies were voted in 1624 before grievances were discussed.

Admittedly, the House of Commons went through the motion of requesting redress before supply in 1625 but this was not successful and the attempt to grant Tonnage and Poundage for only one year backfired when Charles went on collecting it without statutory authority. It was only in 1626 that a belated attempt was made to link supply with the redress of grievances by voting subsidies early and then delaying the bill in committee to see how the King would respond to the attack on Buckingham. But Charles’s decision to dissolve Parliament and his success in collecting the Forced Loan called the point of this manoeuvre into question.

Its repetition in 1628 did not prevent Charles evading the restrictions of the Petition of Right. “The conclusion appears irresistible that the withholding of supply was not a powerful bargaining counter. At the end of the Parliament of 1628, the King still had impositions, Tonnage and Poundage, Buckingham, and, as the event was to show, the powers of arbitrary taxation and arbitrary imprisonment. Parliament’s inability to sustain a constitutional struggle with the Crown appeared to have been clearly proved. The one challenge in James’s reign had achieved nothing, and three in four years at the beginning of Charles’s reign had merely called Parliament’s survival into question ... if Parliament was to continue at all, it would be on the King’s terms.”

This appears to be a convincing explanation of the relative impotence of Parliament in general and of the House of Commons in particular. It is very doubtful, however, whether the test of financial coercion which Russell applies is a valid one. In the first place, it ignores the other sources of revenue – from the sale of land or titles, the resources of the customs farms and other levies on external trade, the granting of patents and monopolies, the exploitation of feudal rights and, ultimately, of the Crown’s emergency powers – which were available right up until the autumn of 1640 in default of Parliamentary supply. It is not, therefore, enough for Russell to contend that the sums offered were too small to be worth bargaining for or that the concessions Parliament sought were worth more than the prospective supply.

There were alternatives open to James and Charles up to and after the Short Parliament. Secondly, the argument is hardly compatible with the prolonged negotiations that took place between the two Houses and King James over the surrender of wardship and purveyance in return for an assured annual income in the Parliament of 1604 to 1610. It was precisely the power of the House of Commons and the House of Lords to sanction an alternative means of raising supply from the subject that made a bargain with Parliament so attractive to Salisbury and the King. On the subject of the negotiations over the Great Contract, Russell says absolutely nothing. His remarks to the effect that supply in 1614 was conditional on the abandonment of impositions are misleading: the House of Commons decided to defer discussion of supply until the issue of impositions had been resolved but informed the King that supply would be granted at the end of the session. The quarrel with the House of Lords over Bishop Neile’s remarks on the subject prevented any further progress. Even when James’s ultimatum on supply had been delivered, the Commons offered supply if he would hear the arguments against impositions in the normal Parliamentary way.

There is no sign in the records of the King being “asked to choose between impositions, at £70,000 a year, and a sum unlikely to exceed two subsidies, of £70,000 each, with no certainty that they would be followed by more.” It was James’s insistence on supply regardless of the redress of grievances that precipitated the dissolution. Nor is it true to say that “the issue of impositions remained unmentioned” in the next Parliament until December, 1621.

There was a persistent stream of complaints about the burden impositions placed on trade from February of that year onwards. Sir Robert Phelips, whom Russell quotes as his authority for stating that the lower House had not discussed the issue before 5th December, had explicitly denied the King’s right to impose a week earlier. Serjeant Hitcham’s attempt to defend impositions in April, 1624 resulted in his speech being erased from the Journal. The charges against Lord Treasurer Middlesex included, as Russell himself notes, allegations over the unauthorised levying of impositions. This is hardly “the most deafening” of silences. 

Attempts were subsequently made to settle the issue along with that of the collection of Tonnage and Poundage in 1625, 1626, 1628 and 1629. The comparison Russell draws with the apparent lack of protest over the collection of Tonnage and Poundage without Parliamentary sanction and the absence of objections from M.P.s to its continuing collection is poorly chosen. The draft declaration made by the House of Commons in June, 1626 and the formal one of June, 1628 specifically condemned the taking of Tonnage and Poundage and other impositions, in the latter case because it was a breach of the fundamental laws of the kingdom.

Russell’s handling of the issue of supply is just as wayward in other instances. In February, 1621, King James’s initial attempt to gain supply on the 5th, the first full day of business, was frustrated when the House of Commons refused to discuss the subject until the attempt to restrict members’ freedom of speech was abandoned: the move was effective enough to induce James to make concessions ten days later whereupon a free gift of two subsidies was agreed.
 The further subsidy offered in November, 1621 was intended to keep the army in the Palatinate in being while the Commons incidentally completed the passage of legislation: a full discussion of supply for war was envisaged in a session after Christmas. There was no sign here of “a sharp fall ... in the bargaining power control of the subsidy conferred on the House of Commons.” The claim that the subsidies voted in March, 1624 were granted “before grievances were discussed” is not supported by his own subsequent account of proceedings in the lower House and is in implied conflict with his observation that “there was no possible further concession for which members could have been holding out.” Even with the exception of 1614, it is impossible to accept his assertion that “on almost every other occasion up to 1626, they voted as many subsidies as were asked of them and did so with a reasonably good grace.” King James was obliged to explain away the request he made for a grant in June, 1604 and the addition of a third subsidy and a final two fifteenths to a grant made in 1606 was carried by a single vote. In July, 1610, the grant of one subsidy and one fifteenth had to be carried by a division and was followed by the defeat of a proposal to grant two subsidies.

 It is clear, too, that the single subsidy offered in November, 1621 fell far short of what was anticipated. James’s demand for five subsidies and ten fifteenths for the “great business” of the Palatinate plus a further one subsidy and two fifteenths each year until his debts were paid had to be hurriedly explained, qualified and reduced by Buckingham and Prince Charles in March, 1624. The two subsidies granted to the new King in July, 1625 were a free gift. But there is nothing surprising at all in the House’s discussion of a further grant at Oxford in August, 1625. Since the request came from Charles himself, the Commons could do no less. But, despite personal pleas by the King and Duke, Russell’s dictum did not hold good: there was no offer of supply and no grace whatever about the attack on Buckingham that followed.

The problem with Russell’s entire account of the interaction between supply and the redress of grievances in early Stuart Parliaments springs from the mechanistic criteria on which his judgment is based. His adoption of Professor Koenigsberger’s suggestion that “a Parliament which failed to insist on redress of grievances before supply had no chance of winning its struggle with the monarchy” led him to the conclusion, once he had examined the early seventeenth century evidence, that “the English Parliament before 1629 was heading for extinction.”

Yet this test is not one which accords with Tudor Parliamentary practice or, as his analysis shows, with that of early Stuart Parliaments. His idea that delaying or threatening to delay supply was not used as a device to secure concessions until the mid-1620s is equally fallacious. It had been discussed in Elizabethan Parliaments and was actually employed in 1601 when the threat to delay the subsidy bill in the House of Commons produced almost immediate concessions over the grievance of monopolies. 

The Earl of Salisbury warned his fellow Councillors before the 1606 session that the King’s programme, which included supply, might be delayed in the lower House “because it is not unlike that many which have desires of their own will at least protract the consent until they see some hope of retribution, and others which have absolute indisposition to all, or part of them, will come prepared with as many arguments as wit or will can furnish.” Lord Chancellor Ellesmere complained of M.P.s in 1610 who planned to prevent any grant being made at all. Delaying tactics were certainly employed in 1614 and 1621.

Bargaining over supply and the redress of grievances took place throughout the period. It did so within a set of conventions that the artificial test applied by Russell ignores. The House of Commons was perfectly capable of challenging royal exactions and of refusing concessions from the monarch if the subject was expected to pay too high a price. It could and did delay discussion on supply to persuade the King to consider concessions on controversial issues well before 1626. The result was that the Crown was forced to turn towards a more vigorous exploitation of its prerogative revenues in peacetime and of its emergency powers in the military crisis of the late-1620s. Both evoked a fundamental challenge from the House of Commons.

The second theme strongly developed in Russell’s work involves a shift in focus away from Parliament. The majority of important political events in England took place, so he argues, outside its walls: major decisions were usually taken at Court. Diplomatic manoeuvring over Prince Charles’s marriage, the trade depression of the 1620s, county reactions to the billeting of soldiers later in the decade, etc., “all deserve more prominence than the echoes of these events which can be heard at Westminster.” Parliaments were thus “ad hoc gatherings of men reacting to events elsewhere” and their deliberations ought to be seen “in part, as second-hand history.” The Court itself, especially under James and “throughout Buckingham’s period of power”, was open to men of widely differing political and religious persuasions.

James’s lack of energy and of enthusiasm for political programmes precluded him from presiding over an ideologically polarised country. He came to the last years of his reign being served by a crypto-Catholic Secretary of State, Sir George Calvert, and an Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbot, “who was as nearly Puritan as most of the House of Commons.” Buckingham avoided such polarisation by the sheer universality of his patronage. He was the patron of the Puritan divine, John Preston, and of the Arminians in the Church: the York House conference between them in February, 1626 was not a contest between ‘ins’ and ‘outs’: it was a contest between rival groups of his supporters. And the quarrel over predestination and free will remained “first and foremost a dispute within the Court” in the years before 1629. Even so, Buckingham’s dominance was never absolute and it was possible for a major Court figure like the Earl of Pembroke to use Parliament to attack him and to survive. In fact, Court faction fed the revival of Parliamentary judicature. But to have opposed a Court whose leading figures displayed such a range of views “would have required a formidable feat of political gymnastics.” Few M.P.s were “so eccentric that they could not find one among the many potential court patrons to share their political objectives.”

Court favour was, in any case, necessary to enable the most rustic of country gentlemen to perform his local duties. The good will of the King and the Privy Council was a prerequisite for appointment to office and for promotion: hence, the concern of men like Eliot, Phelips and Wentworth to keep open their links with the Court. But they also had to accommodate themselves to the views of their neighbours and countrymen in their localities and when they represented them in Parliament. Under the strain of war, which had been entered more in a spirit of compliance than of enthusiasm in 1624, their loyalties came under increasing pressure: service to the Court conflicted with duty to the Country. The attempt to put local administration on a war footing brought relations between the centre and the localities and between the King and Parliament to the point of collapse. It was only the commitment of Charles to customary ways that kept the institution in being for so long.

There is no doubt about the compelling nature of this synthesis and the deep mark it has left on subsequent studies. It offers a persuasive combination of analysis and narrative based on the concept of an ‘open’ Court interacting with the constraints imposed by the relatively closed world of county politics. More cogently still, it provides a key to the functional breakdown of administration which hamstrung the war effort in the late-1620s.

Nonetheless, it is not entirely convincing. First of all, it lacks a sustained analysis of Court and Conciliar politics without which the Parliamentary history of the period is deprived of a vital dimension. The interplay between Conciliar politics and the debates in the two Houses is only illuminated intermittently in Russell’s work. Secondly, it implies that the Court remained ‘open’ and that the range of its political and religious patronage did not contract during the 1620s. It is highly doubtful whether this is true after the spring or summer of 1626 when the resort to the emergency powers of the Crown and the rise of Arminian influence in the Church altered the political perspective and religious complexion of the Court. The domestic conflict that ensued clearly involved an ideological element.

Finally, it is altogether too simple to explain Parliamentary protest in 1628 as the result of the pressure the war measures adopted since 1624 put on county administration. Men, money and munitions were provided on a scale not seen since the late-sixteenth century. The machinery linking central and local government did work under this pressure. The problem lies in explaining how this was achieved and why the effort could not be sustained.

Russell’s analysis of the evolution of Court politics in the early-1620s and the effects of this process on the Commons’ debates on foreign policy illustrate my case. The major issue of this period concerned the role England should play in the developing crisis over Bohemia and the subsequent invasion of the Palatinate by Spanish and Imperial forces. King James and an important group of pro-Spanish Privy Councillors led by the Earl of Arundel were committed to resolving the crisis without imperilling England’s diplomatic relationship with Spain: others, including the Earls of Pembroke and Southampton and Archbishop George Abbot, were more inclined to support overt intervention on behalf of James’s son-in-law, the Elector Frederick. The picture Russell offers is of an initially quiescent House of Commons drawn by conciliar invitation into a debate on foreign policy in November, 1621 and led (or, perhaps, misled) by confusion over the Court’s official line into raising the issue of Prince Charles’s proposed marriage to the Infanta, thereby provoking the dispute on privilege which led to the dissolution. The failure, however, of the marriage negotiations meant that the House of Commons had to be cajoled by the Prince and the Duke of Buckingham aided by Pembroke and his allies into supporting a breach of the treaties and into providing supply for a war. The succession of Charles to the throne in the spring of 1625 confirmed the Duke’s supremacy at Court and quietened his critics there. But the attempt to win further supply foundered on the resistance of the lower House to the war policy. It was the only Court-Country confrontation of the decade. Unfortunately, the elaboration of this analysis and the conclusions drawn from it are largely wrong.

There was an entirely clear ‘Court’ line articulated by Lord Digby, Lord Treasurer Middlesex and Lord Keeper Williams, later repeated by their fellow Privy Councillors, Edmondes and Weston, in the autumn of 1621 that supply should be given for the Palatinate and the broader issues of war strategy forborne. The call for an expedition to the West Indies, which Russell attributes to Solicitor General Heath and uses as evidence of official encouragement for a wider war, was actually made by George Shilleto. Goring’s famous intervention on 29th November indicates that the Palatinate was the central objective in Court policy and a threat of war against Spain a useful bargaining point in the conflict envisaged in the Empire. Even those like Sir Thomas Wentworth, Sir Edward Coke and Sir Francis Seymour who, according to Russell, wished merely to pass bills, were prepared to support supply for the forces already in the Palatinate and to discuss the war strategy in detail after Christmas.

The Court’s objectives were much more clearly defined in 1621 than a reading of Russell’s work suggests. So, too, was the willingness of the House of Commons to fund a war. But the failure to obtain supply then and the need to override the resistance of the pro-Spanish group in the Council made the difficulties of managing the House of Commons in 1624 all the greater. New allies – Oxford and Say and Sele in the House of Lords, Sandys, Phelips and Diggs in the Commons – had to be sought by the Prince and the Duke.

It is true that the king would have preferred to have continued to use diplomatic means to recover the Palatinate but he was by no means as isolated at Court as Russell implies. A persuasive case has been put forward by Dr Ball to suggest that James had the assistance and support of the Earl of Pembroke and, indirectly, of Sir Benjamin Rudyerd in seeking adequate supply before foreign adventures were contemplated. There is a marked lack of appreciation of the tactical manoeuvring that went on in the Commons before it was agreed to vote three subsidies and three fifteenths on 20th March. It is difficult to agree that “war had been forced on the House of Commons in circumstances most of its members did not understand” when they were apparently able, as subsidy commissioners, “to go back to their homes and make speeches explaining why they had voted money.” The divisions at Court were not settled by Charles’s accession. All the contemporary evidence from Lord Keeper Williams’s correspondence, the dispatches of the French and Venetian Ambassadors, and the fragments in the State Papers runs directly against Russell’s view that the “one necessary ingredient to an explosive Parliament, an openly divided court” was missing in 1625. These divisions explain why the request for further supply at Westminster in July had to be laid aside. The strain on Conciliar solidarity was equally apparent at Oxford in August where Buckingham tried to use complaints over the lax enforcement of the recusancy laws to bring the Lord Keeper down and where Arundel and Pembroke were questioned in the Privy Council about accusations in the lower House against the Duke.

The renewal of the plea for supply provoked an assault that was clearly the prelude to impeachment proceedings. Russell’s failure to notice any of this material on Court conflicts vitiates his entire account. Just as the Parliament of 1624 witnessed the defeat of the pro-Spanish group on the Privy Council and the widening of the range of the Prince and Duke’s contacts, so that of 1625 marked the estrangement of many of their Parliamentary allies from the previous year. The Court was no longer ‘open’ in the sense it had been in 1621 with room for differing views on foreign policy: the nature of the war policy adopted since 1624 meant that its representative character had been partly lost and that its range of Parliamentary contacts was contracting sharply.

The political contraction of the Court was accompanied by a notable change in its religious complexion. Under James, the episcopate was largely filled by men who were doctrinal Calvinists. But a minority of men like Neile, Andrewes and Montagu existed who rejected predestinarian teaching and who profited from the King’s distaste for criticism tinged with Calvinist undertones during the negotiations for the Spanish match. The prospect of winning Prince Charles’s support is known to have been discussed by them in 1623 and it is likely that the publication of Richard Montagu’s ‘New Gag’, which reduced the number of issues disputed with Rome and which specifically repudiated predestinarian Calvinism, was intended as a deliberate challenge.

There is some evidence to suggest that the petition from Yates and Ward complaining about the book to the House of Commons in 1624 had the indirect backing of Archbishop George Abbot. But the lower House’s decision to refer the work to Abbot to deal with was frustrated by King James’s action in passing it to a small group of sympathisers – Williams, Neile and Dean White of Carlisle – for examination. Montagu’s clarification of his views in ‘Appello Caesarem’ was equally provocative to his Parliamentary opponents. The condemnation of his doctrines in the House of Commons in July, 1625 revealed that he was the servant and chaplain of the King himself. Montagu and his episcopal supporters - Laud, Howson and Buckeridge – responded by appealing to Buckingham with a denial of Parliament’s jurisdiction. The issue was barely taken any further in the second session at Oxford. But the King’s personal support for the Arminians could be detected in the exclusion of bishops of Calvinist persuasion from appointments to episcopal committees. Buckingham was placed in the position of having to choose between Montagu, whose doctrines were debated at York House on 11th and 17th February, 1626, and John Preston, the noted Puritan divine he had advanced since 1622. John Cosin, one of Montagu’s supporters, closed his account of the conferences by recording that the King “swears his perpetual patronage of our cause.” 

It is significant that this was the moment chosen for the establishment of the Feoffees for Impropriations. Montagu was inevitably the target for a renewed attack in the House of Commons. The 1626 Parliament witnessed an attempt to pass a bill giving statutory authority to the Irish Articles of 1615, thereby rendering Montagu’s doctrinal position untenable since they confirmed Calvinist teaching on grace. It was also a riposte to a royal proclamation forbidding religious controversy. But the dissolution of Parliament in June, 1626 meant that, to all intents and purposes, predestinarian teaching was forbidden. The struggle for control of the Church at its highest level had been won by the Arminians.

These conflicts seriously weakened the King’s control over the House of Lords. The view that the upper House was of secondary importance in the politics of the period is open to question: it was, if anything, of growing importance to the Crown in the late-1620s because its direct influence was so much stronger there than in the Commons. The combined presence of a large number of Privy Councillors and the bench of Bishops provided a solid nucleus of support which was buttressed by the proxy system.

 The adoption of the war policy in 1624 was preceded by a series of reconciliations with peers like Oxford and Southampton who had been confined for their criticism of the Spanish match in 1621 and with Lord Say and Sele who had been committed and interrogated for resisting the benevolence of 1622. It was even easier to win the support of figures like the Earl of Essex, who had served as a volunteer on the continent in the preceding three years, and the Earl of Warwick. Of course, these new allies were only obtained at the cost of alienating the old. It is clear that Arundel opposed a breach with Spain, a view courageously expressed by his ally, Sir George Chaworth, in the House of Commons in March, 1624 and that he was prepared to do what he could to help Bristol and Middlesex stem the tide of charges brought against them. By July, he, Calvert and Williams had been excluded from the negotiations with France. Arundel’s plea to Charles at his accession to allow the Privy Council a share in advising him was not heeded and he came to be suspected of supporting the lower House’s attacks on the Duke. The loss of Pembroke’s support was more serious still. He had been much more cautious about the consequences of breaking the treaties with Spain than Buckingham and Prince Charles had wished. Pembroke is known to have been anxious to secure a firm alliance with France before war with Spain began. By the spring of 1625, he was openly sceptical about the terms Buckingham had obtained. He doubted whether there would be any benefit from the adjournment of Parliament to Oxford and complained to the Earl of Leicester in October, 1625 that “Buckingham carried all business in his heart.”

It was not just Buckingham’s monopoly of influence that exposed him to criticism. The Earl of Essex was alienated by his experiences on the disastrous Cadiz expedition and by the exculpation of Sir Edward Cecil, its incompetent leader, by the Privy Council on his return. The last chance of retaining the support of Warwick and Say was sacrificed at the York House conferences in February, 1626. Amongst the peers, the same pattern – of expansion in the range of the Court’s contacts in 1624 and of contraction in 1625 – can be detected.

The attack on Buckingham in the Parliament of 1626 is one of the best known and least understood set-pieces of the period. The exclusion of half-a dozen of the Commons’ leaders of 1625 by pricking them as Sheriffs allowed M.P.s like Eliot and Diggs to play much more prominent roles. Buckingham also had to take account of his enemies in the upper House from the beginning of the session. On 25th February, a vote was carried against his advice to limit the number of proxies a peer might hold to two in future sessions. A little over a week later, Arundel showed unmistakable signs of interest in the case of the seized French vessel, the St. Peter of Le Havre, which Eliot was charged with pursuing in the Commons.

The discovery that Arundel’s son had secretly married a royal ward without the King’s consent was used as an excuse to confine him and remove an enemy with five proxy votes at his command. The Duke’s efforts to divert the developing attack by sheltering behind royal orders or attempting to provoke disputes on privilege between the two Houses proved unavailing. Furthermore, the position of his supporters in the Lords was gradually undermined. The investigation of precedents undertaken after complaints from the Earl of Lincoln and from Viscount Say and Sele revealed that no peer had previously been committed during a Parliamentary session. Charles was accordingly asked for Arundel’s release on April 19th. 

It was the first of a series of requests that the King attempted to evade. The charges that the Earl of Bristol, who had successfully defied an order not to attend, brought against Buckingham made every vote vital. A request for the Duke’s confinement sent up by the House of Commons after it had presented its charges was lost by only four votes: the four new peers who were immediately created to bolster Buckingham’s position were described as “heavenly Lords as do need no land to walk upon.” Indeed, there is every sign that the House was deliberately dealing as slowly as possible with Bristol’s charges against Buckingham and the King’s counter-allegations against Bristol. Not a single afternoon session – which was customary when the House was pressed for business – was held between April 1st and June 8th. The Lords even adjourned for a week at the end of May when Charles merely promised a reply on Arundel’s release before the end of the Parliament. Eventually, the King was forced to give in: on 8th June, Arundel returned. The tempo of business at once picked up and afternoon sessions were resumed. But the risk that Buckingham might be condemned by the House of Lords was one the King dared not face. On 15th June, against the wishes of the majority of the Privy Council, Parliament was adjourned.

Buckingham’s escape from impeachment meant that the succession struggle that had been going on at Court since the autumn of 1623 was over. His rivals had been defeated and were, with the important exception of Pembroke, driven out. But this was only achieved at the cost of losing almost all the allies acquired in 1624 and by leaving the composition of the inner circle of the King’s advisers narrower than ever before.

The Privy Council lost much of the representative function it had hitherto played. There was furthermore a distinct hardening in the King’s attitude towards Parliament. Far from being the patient but puzzled figure Russell portrays, he was increasingly intolerant of what he regarded as factious opposition and inclined to stress his determination to uphold his royal authority. He found support from Buckingham and his allies on the Privy Council for this view and from a small group of Buckingham’s supporters – the Earls of Dorset and Bridgewater and Bishops Laud and Neile – in the House of Lords.

The King’s overt hostility to Parliament and the ideological alliance between the adherents of royal authoritarianism and the Arminian party in the Church is an established feature of English politics after 1626. To finance the military and naval effort for which he could no longer obtain consent in Parliament, Charles turned to his prerogative and emergency powers. There was nothing new in the forced loan, martial law, billeting, etc., but they led to theoretical justifications of prerogative rule and the visible persecution of those who resisted. Leading country gentlemen like Eliot or Phelips or Wentworth whose Court contacts had withered on the vine looked to Parliament for salvation. The decline in their local prestige caused by the loss of places on the Justices’ bench or removal from the post of Deputy Lieutenant could partly be repaired by victory at the polls. They certainly understood the national function of the House of Commons as their predecessors had done to be to seek remedies for the grievances of the subject. That is why they concentrated on the task of re-establishing the subject’s personal liberties in 1628 and on restoring the purity of religion in 1629.

It is because Russell’s mastery of the resources is so uncertain, because his analysis of the tactics and manoeuvres of the leaders in the two Houses is so fragile, because, indeed, his understanding of the structure of politics in the 1620s rests upon rigid criteria, that the framework within which he has tried to place the Parliaments of this period must be suspect. The weakness of his analysis is partly due to the procedure he adopted in examining the Parliaments in turn. The choice of a single account as a base text for proceedings in the House of Commons carries with it inevitable dangers. Unfortunately, the accounts attributed to Pym for 1621, 1624 and 1625 are not ‘diaries’ taken on the floor of the House at all but edited versions written up later. Some of the comments they contain can be shown to be misleading when checked against other evidence. The use of Stowe Ms.366 in 1628 is open to similar but less serious objections.

Apart from the published letters of John Chamberlain and Sir Thomas Wentworth and the manuscript correspondence of Sir Robert Phelips, there is a surprising lack of reference to other sources. Sir John Eliot’s Negotium Posterorum is used but not his letter-book or his collection of Parliamentary papers at St. Germans. There is only one reference supplied by Dr Tite to the vast Petyt collection in the Inner Temple Library and none at all to the Loseley manuscripts at Guildford. More surprising still, he appears to have missed one of the principal sources for Pym’s career.

The description of the French and Venetian Ambassadors’ reports as “gossip” is particularly unfortunate: they provide, when checked against other sources, the best insight available into the politics of the Court. The Mede to Stuteville letters are directly cited only for 1621. Other important printed sources like the Cornwallis correspondence, the Fairfax papers, James Howell’s letters and the autobiography of Sir John Bramston find no mention.

 Neither the printed extracts nor the extensive originals of the Scudamore manuscripts are mentioned. His failure, moreover, to consult the theses of Miss Dawson and Dr Stoddart on the House of Lords was a serious omission. No one scholar can do everything but there are some things which must be done if a study of the kind Russell has written is to prove sound.

There is an even more fundamental problem at the heart of his work. It has long been apparent that many members of the Commons in the 1620s had ‘Court’ connections through marriage or office or patronage and that many office-holders expressed criticisms in the House of the policies of James and Charles. Because of this overlap and because there is now a better understanding of the role of Court faction, attempts to employ the contemporary terms ‘Court’ and ‘Country’ for political analysis have invariably run into difficulties. Russell’s more flexible approach stressing the importance of local interests in many M.P.s’ minds promises dividends it does not fully pay.

The fact that Westminster was a permanent part of Sir Robert Phelips’s way of life is used in one place to explain his support for war in 1624: elsewhere, he takes the view that the interests of Somerset outweighed those of England in Phelips’s list of priorities. The latitude permitted by this approach suggests that the analytical problem has not been solved at all. There is a curious contrast drawn, moreover, between members with a localist approach and others like Pym, Rich and Rudyerd whose freedom of action was, so it is claimed, dependent on a lack of responsibility to an electorate. Whether this is a real distinction seems highly doubtful since no evidence is adduced to support it. It overlooks, in any case, the more plausible hypothesis that the rhetoric of localism is part of the process of bargaining with the centre: the need to respond to royal fiscal and military demands was in itself a unifying national experience for the governors of the counties. Far too little is said about who controlled the debates, managed the business and manned the committees of the two Houses.

When we are told that a lower House containing Sir Edward Coke, Sir Edwin Sandys, Sir Robert Phelips, Sir Dudley Diggs, Sir Thomas Wentworth and many other prominent figures lacked “any effective leadership” in 1621, it is impossible to accept this unadorned assertion. There are whole sections of the narrative – on the debates in the House of Commons leading up to the Petition of Right in May, 1628, for example – in which no attempt at political analysis is made. But it is perfectly possible, as John Ball showed a generation ago, to identify different groups amongst the leaders in the House of Commons, to describe their views and analyse the evolution of their tactics. It is also possible to show, often in detail, how the politics and debates of the two Houses are connected. What Russell offers is a study of Parliamentary history with many of these ingredients missing and the vacuum filled with localism. The echoes produced make no sense in the study of a national institution.

Conrad Russell’s work is an important contribution and will stimulate debate in the years to come. The assumption of Parliamentary weakness on which it is based is, however, highly questionable. It has always been recognised that the early Stuart monarchs had extra-Parliamentary resources which they could and did exploit. Even so, the financial difficulties confronting James and Charles in the 1620s made recourse to Parliament essential if there was to be effective intervention in the European struggle then raging. It is this rather than any principled belief in Parliamentary institutions on the part of King Charles that explains the meetings in 1626, 1628 and 1629. Any practical alternative would have been welcome to him. But the methods by which King James had raised revenue inevitably aroused controversy in 1621 and 1624.

Without the necessary expertise to manage the lower House, it proved essential to employ some of the most prominent members as intermediaries to obtain supply for war in 1624. Unfortunately, the war policy proved an expensive and oppressive failure. It is perfectly true that there was no struggle for power between the King and Parliament in the late-1620s. But there was a bitter and prolonged effort to set limits to the exercise of the royal prerogative and emergency powers. This conflict transformed the complexion of the upper ranks of the episcopate and undermined royal control of the House of Lords. It left a permanent legacy of distrust for the King and his circle of advisers that was to be a powerful influence in the crisis of 1641. It is this conflict and this connection that Russell has left essentially unexplored. The history of the Parliaments of the 1620s and of their place in English politics has still to be written.

[Seminar paper delivered at the University of Cambridge in 1981 and the University of Birmingham in 1985. Published by The Orchard Press, Wivenhoe, Essex (ISBN 0 948206 15 2) in January, 1986. Copyright: Christopher Thompson]

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Conservative Historian Simon Schama to Collaborate with the Tories

According to Richard Grayson writing in the Guardian newspaper albeit in a personal capacity putting the conservative historian Simon Schama in the classroom would “reshape the history curriculum”. Using his storytelling talents would be a good start”.

The words blood bank and Dracula comes to mind. Grayson then goes on to talk up Schama as “a brilliant historian who understands the problem of narrative”. Well, many historians understand narrative. The most important thing is what narrative. To paraphrase the historian E Edward. H . Carr, it would be better to study the narrator before you study the narrative.

Given that this is one of the most right-wing Tory governments since Margaret Thatcher then the narrative will be conservative and in defence of the long-gone British Empire. Grayson does make one good point that he “wondered if the government understands what is going on in state schools today when it comes to history teaching”.

It does not. The Torie's perspective is not really to improve the historical understanding of students but instead is looking for an ideological justification for cuts jobs and working conditions and inculcating a new generation of pupils with a very right-wing view of history.

At the recent Conservative conference the Tories ideological bankruptcy was further exposed when they had to rely on what the press has described as an ex-Marxist who wants “to axe bad teachers and drive out the unions”.

Katharine Birbalsingh according to newspapers said the education system was ‘broken as it keeps poor children poor’. Birbalsingh flirtation with Marxism must have brief and is just being used by the Tories to justify their right wing agenda.

Grayson then attempts to whitewash Schama’s ideological persuasion by saying “One of the key strengths of Schama's work points to one of the problems of "narrative". Schama's take on history is a personal take. A History of Britain was precisely that: 'A' not 'The' history. I do not doubt that Schama recognises the partiality of his approach. It is the same for any historian. We do not state at the start of each book, "this is only my view", but we all know it, despite the accusations that postmodernist theorists have tried to pin on the profession”.

There you go no one has to be responsible for a particular narrative, then history is just a collection of opinions, narratives and has no objective basis or truth.

Gove also said that education had been undermined by left-wing “ideologues” who believed schools “shouldn’t be doing anything as old-fashioned as passing on knowledge, requiring children to work hard, or immersing them in anything like dates in history or times tables in mathematics.” “These ideologues may have been inspired by generous ideals, but the result of their approach has been countless children condemned to a prison house of ignorance,”
This statement makes clear that any lingering egalitarian sentiments expressed in the current education system will not be tolerated.

The announcement that Schama was to help rewrite the history curriculum has received widespread media coverage. The Financial Times recently carried an interview with the Michael Gove, the education secretary, said recently that he would not have left school without learning "British narrative history".
It is clear that the Tories would like to introduce a more nationalistic form of narrative. “Children are growing up ignorant of one of the most inspiring stories I know – the history of our United Kingdom. “Our history has moments of pride and shame, but unless we fully understand the struggles of the past, we will not properly value the liberties of the present."

This is pretty rich from a government who are hell-bent on trampling civil liberties, expelling immigrants and carrying out a slash and burn policy towards education which will do great harm.

The Tories are good at making big announcements regarding which conservative historian will rewrite the curriculum, but these announcements are significant to smokescreen their real intentions to slash budgets, cut jobs and union busting.

For historians Niall Ferguson and Simon Schama this collaboration may look good on their CV and will also sell their books, but both will be damned for their collaboration with the Tories cuts in public spending.

Also, one point these historians fail to notice is that if the cuts go through unopposed then access to libraries for historians, researchers and the public will be cut and will damage historical research. Already the British Library has announced future cuts in jobs and funding.

This right-wing agenda will provoke global social unrest. Schama has already warned of this. Writing in the Financial Times May 24, for example, the historian stated, “Far be it for me to make a dicey situation dicier but you can’t smell the sulphur in the air right now and not think we might be on the threshold of an age of rage.… in Europe and America there is a distinct possibility of a long hot summer of social umbrage.”

As if in answer to Schama and his friends Chris Marsden writing for the wrote “When Karl Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto that “a spectre is haunting Europe,” he did so on the eve of the revolutionary eruptions that began in Italy and France in 1848 and engulfed much of the European continent. In recent days, some media commentaries have predicted a similar eruption of social unrest of revolutionary dimensions as a direct result of the worsening economic crisis. These warnings are accompanied by dire predictions that Europe will suffer the return of nationalist tensions, the emergence of fascist movements and even war”.


1. Improve history in schools? Put Simon Schama in every classroom by Richard Grayson. Grayson is one of three vice-chairs of the Liberal Democrat federal policy committee (writing in a personal capacity) and professor of twentieth-century history at Goldsmiths, University of London. Guardian 2010
2. Europe’s media warn of global social unrest-2 June 2010-

3. Historian Warns New Age of Rage http://keith-