Tuesday, 29 March 2011
From Christopher Thompson
I ought to begin by saying that I have become increasingly fond of Keith Livesey's blog, A Trumpet of Sedition. He and I do not agree on the origins and causes, the course and significance and the consequences of the struggles in the British Isles (or the Civil Wars or Revolution) of the 1640s and 1650s. I believe that the existence of differing views is a good thing because it stimulates debate and new research. He is attached to the views of figures like Christopher Hill and Brian Manning, both Marxists and both figures from my youth. Their approaches were superseded with the rise of the mis-named 'revisionism' of the mid-1970s.
Christopher Hill ceased to shape the course of historiographical debates at that time: it is doubtful whether Brian Manning, whose views had been formed in the early-1950s and which changed remarkably little, ever had.
This process - of once fashionable views going out of fashion - happens to everyone. It happened about twenty years ago to Conrad Russell. He no longer shapes historiographical debates about these events. So, I hope Keith Livesey will forgive me when I say that there is no group of revisionists controlling academic or any other forms of discussion about the 1640s and 1650s in these islands. The debate has moved on: Christopher Hill like Conrad Russell is 'old hat'. Historians now wear different headgear and will change it again in the future.
I would like to return the compliment made by Christopher Thompson on my blog and take up briefly a few of his points. I enjoy his blog. It is the first blog I read and contains extremely valuable information and insight into Early Modern England. As he has mentioned above we do not see eye to eye on the origins and causes of the English Revolution but that is life. If everybody agreed on everything History would be a very boring subject.
In fact I am of the opinion that through understanding contending views of the civil war we get a closer approximation as to its complexities. Christopher is of course right when he says that different generations throw up different types of historians and for that matter different types or schools of history. Perhaps I am wrong to say that the revisionist historians control current historiography. Control is too strong a word but they certainly do dominate. But I will allow a concession to Christopher and admit that I need to carry out a far more accurate analysis of their historiography and politics. If the new group of historians have moved beyond the term revisionists then what are they proposing and can a common theme be detected amongst them. The next few months will show.
Sunday, 27 March 2011
Radical Religion in Cromwell’s England A concise history from the English Civil War to the end of the Commonwealth Andrew Bradstock published by I.B.Tauris 2011 pp189 paperback £15.99.
This book is a rarity. Under conditions where current historiography of the English Civil war is mostly controlled by revisionist historians who think that groups such as Ranters, Diggers or Levellers should be mere footnotes of history this book is a welcome change to this practice and seeks to examine the origins and religion of these groups.
Bradstock, who is a Howard Paterson Professor of Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago New Zealand is to be commended for taking on such a book in a very hostile intellectual climate. After all a large number of the historians, such as Christopher Hill and Brian Manning who Bradstock quotes have fallen slowly from favour.
Having said this Bradstock is not immune to the siren call of the Revisionists. This book while examines groups such as the Levellers, Ranters, Diggers, Fifth Monarchists in some detail he does so while eschewing any linking of these groups to the changes to England’s social and economic development at the time. A second concession to the revisionists is his almost apologetic reasoning for using the word Radical to describe these groups. In the end Bradstock does not bow to this pressure.
Bradstock begins with a real question. Why study these groups? To answer this, he makes a valid point when he says you define your attitude to the civil war by your attitude to the radical sects.
In the introduction, Bradstock uses the quote from Winstanley to set the scene for his history of these groups. The present state of the old world is running up like parchment in the fire.' claimed Gerrard Winstanley, leader of the radical religious group the Diggers, in mid-seventeenth century England.
The blurb advertising the book describes the period as “one of the most turbulent periods in that country's history. This title presents ideas and modern movements which emerged during this period”.
For the student of this time this is an excellent introduction to the groups such as the Levellers, but it does have weaknesses outside of the ones mentioned above. While you cannot fault his research or his writing style which is very accessible the book is very light in an analysis.
He breaks down the religious groups into their own chapters. To his credit, Bradstock cites Hill as one of his influences from an early age, but it is clear that Bradstock comes from an entirely different social and political standpoint from Hill.
He grew up in a Baptist household while his first encounter with these groups was “The World Turned Upside Down" Bradstock seems to have not to have taken on board too much of Hill’s placement of these groups in a social or economic setting.
The majority of the book concentrates on “Religious issues and the Bible” and for him, religious issues “drove the conflict and affected the way people thought and acted. Bradstock is of the firm opinion like John Morrill who coined the phrase that the civil war was “Europe’s last war of religion”.
While the book “focuses on people who joined together to a certain body of ideas and who wanted political, economic, social and religious change” you get very little understanding of the massive social and economic changes which the writings of the religious sects were a distorted reflection, he writes as though their writings were unconnected with social reality.
The book does, however, challenge the conception that interest in these groups is nil and he believes that these groups still have a resonance with societal problems in the 21st Century. Which is true after all we are still grappling with many of the issues discussed by Ranters and Diggers such as the nature of democracy, dictatorship and social inequality.
The fact that these groups sought to understand the social, political and economic changes of their day within the framework of religion is not a surprise. Cliff Slaughter makes this point “Like the religious systems of all class societies, Christianity is a set of beliefs whose meaning can be turned in different and sometimes opposite social directions. Since it is not a rational or scientific theory of the world its parts may be rearranged and selected according to the needs and inclinations of the faithful. For the revolutionary workers under modern capitalism religion is, without any qualification, part of the armoury of reaction. But in previous epochs, before the objective conditions existed for an oppressed class fully to comprehend social reality and achieve its own liberation, the framework of all social doctrine, reactionary and progressive, remained religious. The two-sidedness of Christian development (on the one hand, it served to defend feudal and then capitalist reaction, on the other it served as an ideological cover and inspiration for revolt) is rooted in the very nature of universal religions. In Marx’s words, ‘Religious misery is at the same time the expression of real misery and the protest against that real misery’.”
While Bradstock does not have very much to say on modern day revisionists, he does provide some information on past controversies. Perhaps the most famous were the remarks by J C Davis who went further than most historians by doubting that a group like the Ranters even existed. Perhaps this is a little inaccurate Davis did think they lived but he attempted to “restrict them to three or four individuals. Anything more was the creation of hostile pamphleteers”.
In Fact according to Christopher Hill Davis main argument was that the radical sects were largely a figment of the imagination of the Communist Party Historians Group. In reply this Hill said I don't think I need comment on Davis's allegation that the rediscovery (or invention) of the Ranters in the 1970s was part of a conspiracy between Communist and ex-Communist historians. This is flattering to A. L. Morton and myself, though I hardly think it will recommend itself to Norman Cohn, who preceded both of us, and the many other good historians who have studied them. But the analogy perhaps tells us something about Davis's mode of thought. Conservative conspirators invented the Ranters in the seventeenth century, communist conspirators re-discovered (or re- invented) them in the twentieth. The opposing arguments are both necessary if we are to avoid the just possible alternative, that the Ranters did in fact exist. Why is it so important for Davis to prove that they did not? What is he frightened of?
Perhaps the strongest aspect of this book is Bradstock's placement of the groups such as the Levellers within the context of the day. This is a very healthy thing to do. Bradstock makes it is clear that much of what the Levellers fought for was incredibly radical for the time. The Levellers appeared and were in fact organised like a political party in the years 1645-46. They were responsible for many of modern day political techniques such as mass demonstrations, collecting petitions, leafleting and the lobby of MPs. Their strength mainly lay in London and other towns and had quite considerable support in the army. The movement was an extremely disparate group containing groups such as the Diggers or as they have called the True Levellers and Ranters who were on the extreme left wing of the Leveller movement.
The central plank of its manifesto was the call for a democratic republic in which the House of Commons would be more important than the House of Lords. A Leveller would have wanted redistribution and extension of the franchise, legal and economic reform on behalf of men of small property, artisans, yeoman, small merchants, and the very layer which made up the Levellers themselves.
Bradstock outlines very well the persecution suffered by the radical sects. The treatment of the Quaker leader James Nayler even by today’s’ standards is truly shocking. The Baptists, who were one of the smallest groups were constantly hounded akin to the McCarthy which hunts of the Communists of the 1950s and 60s. Their leaders were regularly imprisoned and tortured.
Bradstock also makes the point that to arrive at an objective understanding of the size and influence of these groups is not helped by the exaggerated fear and reaction to them by the authorities. Cromwell, however, was acutely aware that the ideas of the Levellers and the smaller groups within them such as the Diggers and Baptists were becoming a dangerous business. Speaking of the Levellers Cromwell said of what he called the ‘lunaticks’ “You must break these men, or they will break you”
The book on numerous occasions cites the fact that the authorities accused the sects of breaking the social fabric of society. And from the choice of a few quotes below this fear was not altogether unfounded. Ranters leader Coppe highlights this friction between classes:
‘Mighty men! ... Those that have admired, adored, idolized, magnified, set you up, fought for you, ventured goods, and good name, limb and life for you, shall cease from you.’ ‘For this Honour, Nobility, Gentility, Propriety, Superfluity. &c. hath (without contradiction) been the Father of hellish horrid pride, arrogance, haughtiness, loftinesse, murder, malice, of all manner of wickednesse and impiety; yea the cause of all the blood that ever hath been shed. from the blood of the righteous Abell, to the blood of the last Levellers that were shot to death.’
‘Hear one word more (whom it hitteth it hitteth) give over thy base nasty, stinking, formall grace before meat, and after meat ... give over thy stinking family duties, and thy Gospel( Ordinances as thou callest them; for under them all lies snapping, snarling, biting, besides covetousnesse, horrid hypocrisie, envy, malice, evil surmising.’
‘Kings, Princes, Lords, great ones, must bow to the poorest Peasants; rich men must stoop to poor rogues, or else they’ll rue for it ...
‘Howl, howl, ye nobles, howl honourable, howl ye rich men for the miseries that are coming upon you
‘For our parts, we that hear the Apostle preach, will also have all things common; neither will we call anything that we have our own.
‘Do you (if you please) till the plague of God rot and consume what you have.
‘We will not, wee’ll eat our bread together in singlenesse of heart, wee’ll break bread from house to house.’
No wonder that George Fox, the Quaker, found the Ranters, ‘were very rude, and stirred up the rude people against us.’
Bradstock offers little insight into the social origins of any leaders of the various groups. Gerrard Winstanley leader of the Diggers was a businessman and that his radicalism coincided with one of the most revolutionary chapters in English history but that merely points out that at certain times men and women are moved by such profound events such as wars and revolution and that their thoughts during peaceful times sometimes move at glacial speed during revolutions they speed up dramatically.
His avocation of the redistribution of land through the pamphlet called The Law of Freedom in a Platform, saw him elaborate a Christian/Communist basis for society in which property and wages were abolished. From A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England he said "The power of enclosing land and owning property was brought into the creation by your ancestors by the sword; which first did murder their fellow creatures, men, and after plunder or steal away their land, and left this land successively to you, their children. And therefore, though you did not kill or thieve, yet you hold that cursed thing in your hand by the power of the sword; and so you justify the wicked deeds of your fathers, and that sin of your fathers shall be visited upon the head of you and your children to the third and fourth generation, and longer too, till your bloody and thieving power be rooted out of the land".
The ideas of the sects such as the diggers were not entirely new and are very much in direct descent from the continental groups of century’s before.Bradstock is clear that these millenarian ideas expressed by the likes of Winstanley have their origins in the lower strata of society. These ideas were anathema to the victorious upper-middle classes represented by Cromwell and Ireton.
As 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 in order 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.”
I would recommend reading this book. It is first of its kind for a long time. Let’s hope it is not the last book that seeks unwittingly to challenge the grip of the revisionists on current civil war writing.
1. Andrew Bradstock is Howard Paterson Professor of Theology and Public issues at the University of Otago, New Zealand. His previous post was heading up Church and Society in the United Reformed Church and Director of the Christian Socialist Movement.
2. Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (Seeker and Warburg. 1957).
3. Religion and Social Revolt Cliff Slaughter Labour Review Vol 3 No 3 June 1958
4. The Lost Ranters ? A Critique of J C Davis by C Hill
5. Did the Ranters Exist G E Aylmer Past and Present No117 1987
Wednesday, 23 March 2011
It is very sad to hear the death of Barry Coward this week. I first met him in 1999 at Birkbeck University. I was attending an open evening because I was thinking of undertaking a part time degree and Birkbeck had been recommended to me by a friend. At the open meeting was Barry Coward.
Part of the attraction of the degree was the study of the English revolution. I had a vague likening for the subject but when I asked Barry about the course he immediately fired my enthusiasm and signed up a week later. This was probably one of best decisions I have made in my life.
The first thing that struck me about Barry Coward was his incredible and infectious enthusiasm for his chosen topic. He was also a rare breed amongst most historians in that he was always warm and friendly towards his students. This quote sums up his attitude ‘I never ceased to be amazed by their ability to combine full-time employment with part-time study and gain degrees as good as, and often better than, those who studied full time.
This was regularly shown by the awards to Birkbeck students of the Derby Prize for the best BA in history in the whole University of London. It was enormously rewarding to watch Birkbeck students – especially those who had not done formal study for some time – develop academically, and then use Birkbeck as a launch pad for life-changing experiences. I’d like to thank them for their enthusiasm and the freshness of their ideas that I drew on in my writings.’
He always had time and patience for me no matter how small my question. The other thing that struck me was his modesty. This may of stemmed from the fact that he had a formidable knowledge of his subject so much so that a number of his books such as the The Stuart Age, England 1603–1714 (latest edition 2003)The Cromwellian Protectorate (2002)Oliver Cromwell (1991) have become standard textbooks on the period.
Barry was also a good public speaker although not the best he was not the worse. He also had one of the best traits of a historian in that during his lectures you could almost sense that when he was speaking on subject he was already rethinking his remarks.
It would be remiss of me to say that I did not always see eye to eye on his political and historical conclusions on the Civil War. We came from different political family trees. He was old school labour and I was certainly to the left of him but I must say that during his seminars were the best part of my degree we had a frank exchange and that was it. Having said this he was always the gentlemen and these debates never became bitter or rancorous. I will miss him and so will future students of 17th century England.
Sunday, 13 March 2011
There is no doubt that without the intervention of the historians around the Communist Party of Great Britain groups like the Ranters would have been consigned to a few footnotes of history. Leslie Morton’s is perhaps most well-known for his outstanding work a People’s History of England. It was the founding book of the CPHG. From the beginning, there was a contradiction between the avocation of the Popular Front politics and the historian’s group writing about liberal groups such as the Levellers, Ranters and Diggers in the vein of history from below. The CPHG group tended to glorify an unbroken historical line of English Radicalism. His small book a glorious liberty also has a tendency to do this.
To his credit, A L Morton who was probably the world’s leading authority on the Ranters had sought to make an objective assessment of the Ranters who up until then had mostly been described as “mad men”. In historical terms, the Ranters had a very short shelf life. They burst into life in waning days of the civil war and barely survived the Cromwell Protectorate.
According to Morton “The Ranters formed the extreme left wing of the sects which came into prominence during the English Revolution, both theologically and politically. Theologically these sects lay between the poles of orthodox Calvinism, with its emphasis on the power and justice of God as illustrated in the grand scheme of election and reprobation, with its insistence upon the reality of Hell in all its most literal horrors and upon the most verbal and dogmatic acceptance of the Scriptures, and of antinomianism with its emphasis upon God’s mercy and universality, its rejection of the moral law, and with it, of Hell in any but the most figurative sense, and its replacement of the authority of the Scriptures by that of the inner light. The political views of the Ranters were the outcome of this theology. God existed in all things: I see that God is in all Creatures, Man and Beast, Fish and Fowle, and every green thing, from the highest Cedar to the Ivey on the wall; and that God is the life and being of them all, and that God doth really dwell, and if you will personally; if he may admit so low an expression in them all, and hath his Being no where else out of the Creatures. 
While the Ranters were a relatively new phenomenon, their ideas were not. Morton traced their antecedents throughout Europe and down through the centuries from “ Joachim of Fiore in the twelfth century, with his doctrine of the three ages, in the last of which, shortly to be expected, the sons of God would enjoy perfect spiritual liberty. To trace the course of these ideas in any detail would take me far beyond my present scope - a few salient points only may be noted. A generation or so after Joachim, the Amurians in France added to his doctrine of the three ages a neo-platonic pantheism which declared that “all things are one because whatever is, is God”. Later, in Germany, the loosely connected groups which are known under the general name of the Brethren of the Free Spirit turned this idea into a way of living. While Joachim had expected the age of the spirit in the near future, the Brethren claimed that it was already here and exercised themselves the promised liberty of the sons of God. Sharing the perfection of God all that they did must of necessity be good: sin for them ceased to have a meaning. In the sixteenth century these beliefs received a new social dimension from Thomas Munzer, the leader of the great peasant insurrection of 1525, and among the Anabaptists of Munster”.
While it is not within the scope of these notes to examine the relationship between the Levellers in and the Ranters in considerable detail some points can be made. Both groups took part in a successful revolution, and their leaders were prominent members of the New Model Army. The social base for both movements was similar. There were religious differences, but these were not major sticking points as can be seen when some Levellers moved smoothly into the Ranters towards the end of the Civil War. One difference was that the Ranters were able to at least theoretically to think beyond the end of the civil war. They saw the civil war and the revolution as a stepping stone to a better and more equal society. They really did want to see the world turned upside down. Another marked difference with the Levellers was the fact that the Ranters openly appealed to the lower sections of the population i.e. a very early working class.
As this quote shows, they appealed to the “poorest beggars, even “rogues, thieves, whores, and cut purses” are “every whit as good” as the great ones of the earth. Morton is sceptical as to the extent the Ranters got their message to this section of the population. He continues“ In Coppe and Clarkson, in Foster and Coppin there is, in different degrees and forms, a deep concern for the poor, a denunciation of the rich and a primitive biblical communism that is more menacing and urban than that of Winstanley and the Diggers. Like the Diggers, and unlike Lilburne and his followers, they were ready to accept the name of Leveller in its most radical implications, but with the difference that for them God himself was the great Leveller, who was to come shortly “to Levell with a witnesse, to Levell the Hills with the Valleyes, to lay the Mountaines low”. It is hardly accidental that the Ranters began to come into prominence soon after the Leveller defeat at Burford and would seem to have attracted a number of embittered and disappointed former Levellers. Where Levelling by sword and by spade had both failed what seemed called for was a Levelling by miracle, in which God himself would confound the mighty by means of the poorest, lowest and most despised of the earth”.
Coupled with their appeal to the poor was their attack on the rich and powerful.” The rich, Foster declared, grudge the poor even a piece of bread, but “all things are the Lords” and he is coming shortly to bring down their pride, who “because of your riches have thought yourselves better than others; and must have your fellow-creatures in bondage to you, and they must serve you, as work for you, and moyle and toyle for you, and stand cap in hand to you, and must not displease you, no by no meanes”.  Coppe, who like Foster drew much of his imagery from the Epistle of St. James, addressed himself to the poorest and most depressed strata of society, at a time when the slum population of London was suffering terrible hardships as a result of the wartime dislocation of trade and industry".
Abeizer Coppe continues somewhat powerfully:” Thou hast many baggs of money, and behold I [the Lord] come as a thief in the right, with my sword drawn in my hand, and like a thief as I am - I say deliver your purse, deliver sirrah! deliver or I’l cut thy throat!I say (once more) deliver, deliver my money which thou hast to him, and to poor creeples, lazars, yea to rogues, thieves, whores, and cut purses, who are flesh of thy flesh, and every whit as good as thy self in mine eye, who are ready to starve in plaguy Gaols, and nasty dungeons....The plague of God is in your purses, barns, houses, horses, murrain will take your hogs (0 ye fat swine of the earth) who shall shortly go to the knife, and be hung up i’th roof, except - blasting, mill-dew, locusts, caterpillars, yea, fire your houses and goods, take your corn and fruit, the moth your garments, and the rot your sheep, did you not see my hand, this last year, stretched out?You did not see.My hand is stretched out still. Your gold and silver, though you can’t see it, is cankered, the rust of them is a witnesse against you, and suddainly, suddainly, suddainly, because of the Eternal God, myself, its the dreadful day of Judgement, saith the Lord, shall eat your flesh as it were fireJames 5.I-7.The rust of your silver, I say, shall cat your flesh as it were fire”. 
Certainly, at the time this was a radical appeal to the poor and Cromwell and Parliament were certainly aware of the dangers if a broad section of the population could have been provoked into carrying out large scale riots over many issues such as high food prices, low wages and hunger.
While social and economic conditions were favourable to the Ranters, they had no real means of carrying through their program. As professed pacifist they could not militarily oppose Cromwell In their own words “And maugre the subtilty, and sedulity, the craft and cruelty of hell and earth: this Levelling shall up;Not by sword; we (holily) scorne to fight for anything; we had as live be dead drunk every day of the weeke, and lye with whores i’th market place; and account these as, good actions as taking the poor abused, enslaved ploughmans money from him... we had rather starve, I say, than take away his money from him, for killing of men. .
Ranters pacifism was an important part of their philosophy according to Morton “It came partly from the nature of their theology, with its emphasis on the inevitable coming of the new age of liberty and brotherhood. God, they felt, was abroad in the land and they needed only to proclaim his purpose. But it came also from the precise political situation in which Ranterism developed. In February 1649 when A Rout, A Rout was written, Charles had just been beheaded and the Council of State was in effective control. In the two parts of Englands New Chains Discover’d we can sense the feeling of the Levellers that they had been outwitted and betrayed. In a few weeks their leaders would be in prison: in a couple of months their last hope would be destroyed at Burford”.Already a sense of defeat, that something had gone wrong with the expectation of a new England, was in the air. It was in this situation, with the left in retreat and the turning point of the Revolution already passed, that the Ranters became prominent. With ordinary political calculation failing. Many people began to look for a miraculous deliverance”.
It is very easy for some politically motivated historians to dismiss the Ranters as “mad men” or lunatics. And as my research for this article can vouch for there is a lot of malice and exaggeration in a lot of the comments made particularly of sexual practices, as Morton concedes some of these are not far from the mark and “not really at variance with declared Ranter principles. Edward Hide Jun., a hostile but not on the whole unfair critic, explains that they believe “that all the women in the world are but one man's wife in unity and all the men in the world are but one womans husband in unity; so that one man may lie with all the women in the world in unity, and one woman may lie with all men in the world, for they are all her husband in unity”. 
While acknowledging Morton’s work on the Ranters one does not have to accept all his conclusions. I don’t agree with him when he says that “The Levellers, again, had behind them a solid class basis to which their programme made a definite appeal. The Ranters could appeal only to the defeated and declassed, the lower strata of the urban poor and upon these no strong movement could possibly be built”. The Ranters, Levellers, Diggers largely had the same social base it is true but the Ranters appeal to the poor was far more pronounced but failed as Morton said because of the lack of objective conditions i.e. the fact that no substantial working class existed at the time on which to base an alternative program to that of Cromwell who had support from both lower and higher sections of the bourgeoisie.
Morton acknowledged that the Ranters did attempt to have “a comprehensive world outlook, however confused, which gave the Ranters a firm and peculiar place in the English Revolution and in the list of English heresies, and which established them as the main link in the chain that runs from Joachim of Fiore to William Blake”.
1. The Light and Dark sides of God, Jacob Bauthumley, quoted from N. Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium, P. 336.
2. See Norman. Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium, 1957, especially Chapters. VII and VIII. Whatever may be argued against Prof. Cohn’s conclusions, his book is a most valuable compilation of material on popular heresies of the Middle Ages. See also A. L. Morton, The Everlasting Gospel, 1958.
3. Last Trumpet, p. 2.
4. Roll, Pt II PP. 2-3.
5. Roll, Pt. 1, pp. 1-5.
6.A Wonder, p. 42
Friday, 4 March 2011
( This is reprinted from Christopher Thompson’s blog by kind permission. His blog can be found at http://earlymodernhistory1.blogspot.com/
I first met Conrad Russell when I became a Fellow of the Institute of Historical Research in the autumn of 1968. He was engaging company with a dry sense of humour and a wide knowledge of arcane references. We became friends and remained in touch in the early-1970s. The intellectual parting of our ways came in the mid-1970s with the publication of his works on Parliamentary history between 1604 and 1629, on the foreign policy debates in the House of Commons in November, 1621 and the publications in 1979 of his book on English Parliaments between 1621 and 1629. I regarded these as unsound, highly inaccurate and misleading. I still do. To the surprise of many of my friends, I was not and never have been a follower of Russell.
Perhaps, I may be allowed to illustrate this with one example amongst hundreds. In July, 1974, I heard his paper on anti-Spanish sentiment between 1621 and 1624 at the Sheffield Conference on Sir Thomas Wentworth's career. It was subsequently published in The Political World of Thomas Wentworth, earl of Strafford 1621-1641, edited by J.F.Merritt (Cambridge University Press 1996, Pp.47-62.
Wentworth's speeches in the House of Commons on 26th, 27th and 28th November naturally attracted his attention. Russell rightly pointed out (ibid., p.56) that, on 26th November, Wentworth argued that the issue of supply to assist King James to support English forces in the Palatinate and, perhaps, for a wider war should be put off until the following Saturday and, before then, for the House to prepare for the end of the session, presumably by passing Bills.
He went on to claim that Wentworth had not detected any demand for war in his constituency of Yorkshire. When he turned to the debate in the lower House on 27th November, Russell argued that the "first shadow was again cast by Sir Thomas Wentworth, calling for a return to bills .... Wentworth's interventions now pass the test for 'enemy action'. (ibid., p.56) On the28th, Wentworth stated that he would not give his voice for a subsidy if he did not believe there was going to be a session (ibid., Pp.57-58) It was on the basis of these speeches that Russell argued Wentworth could be accounted an opponent of war in the autumn of 1621.
Russell was certainly right to point out that Sir Thomas Wentworth argued on 26th November for a discussion of supply to be deferred until the following Saturday and, in the meantime, for the House of Commons to concentrate upon the passage of Bills and preparations for the end of the session.
What he entirely failed to mention - other than in a passing reference to a demand on Wentworth’s part on the following day for a return to Bills - was Sir Thomas’s speech on 27th November. For that claim, he cited two sources, the 'X' diary and Sir Thomas Barrington's diary (ibid., p.56 n.19) both reproduced in the edition of the Commons' Debates for 1621 edited by Notestein, Relf and Simpson. The ‘X’ diary began its report by recording Wentworth as arguing in favour of “a covenant between the King and his seed and us and our seed. First, for a present supply. Secondly to a future war of the King’s part.”
In return, Wentworth wanted an end to the session and Bills to pass into law: he was willing to “answer the King’s desire to give a sufficient sum before Christmas for supply … [and advocated] that we would declare that we would be ready to lay down our lives and estates at his feet.” Sir Thomas Barrington’s account was equally clear on Wentworth’s desire to preserve amity with the King; James had asked for supply to maintain an army in the Palatinate and to sustain a future war; Wentworth, therefore, sought an end to the present session and a new one in February whilst pledging to “answer the King’s first proposition for the Palatinate, to give before Christmas” and to “declare our selves that we will be ready to laye downe our lives and fortunes when the King shall make a warr.”
These were the two sources Russell cited for his claim that Wentworth was calling for a return to Bills and that his successive interventions on 26th and 27th November “pass the test for ‘enemy action’.” The Commons’ Journal reported the end of Wentworth’s speech as advising the House “1. To give a present Supply for the Army in the Palatinate. 2ly, A Request to the King, by some of the Privy Council, for an End of a Session before Christmas. 3ly, The Proportion of the present Supply, and the manner, as may add most Reputation to his Majesty’s Endeavours abroad. 4ly, Where War and peace in the King’s Hand, to declare, that we will be ready, in a Cause concerning Religion and the Commonwealth, we will be ready to second him.“
The other accounts - Pym, Smyth, Z and Howard - confirm Wentworth’s willingness to vote for an interim supply to keep the forces in the Palatinate in being and his desire for a further session in February. Edward Nicholas, furthermore, noted Wentworth’s suggestion of a conference with the House of Lords on the question of supply. On this basis, Wentworth was not just willing to fund military forces in the Palatinate but also to contemplate grants to pay for a wider war if necessary. Russell’s claims about Wentworth as an opponent of a war by 27th November cannot be reconciled with the surviving evidence.
The questions that inevitably arise are very serious. Did Russell read the sources he used or did he misread them or did he ignore their contents altogether in the service of his striking but unfounded hypothesis? I am afraid that there are not just dozens of examples of this kind but hundreds across his body of work. That is why I cannot agree that he was the foremost scholar of his generation working on the history of early Stuart parliaments and politics.