Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Historians and the passing of time


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 Their approaches were superseded with the rise of the mis-named 'revisionism' of the mid-1970s.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.

My Reply

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 dominated by revisionist historians who think that groups such as, Diggers or Levellers are not worth looking or that the Ranters did not exist at all this book is a welcome challenge.

Bradstock, who is a Howard Paterson Professor of Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago New Zealand is to be commended for writing such a book in a very hostile intellectual climate. His use of historians, such as Christopher Hill and Brian Manning, who have fallen out of favour is to be congratulated. It is safe to say that Braddock's historiography is heavily influenced by the fact that he is a Christian socialist.

His examination of groups such as the Levellers, Ranters, Diggers, Fifth Monarchists is highly detailed unlike Christopher Hill his failure to link these groups to the changes to England's social and economic development is a weakness. His apology for using the term is too much of a concession to the revisionists.

Bradstock was very reluctant to get into a scrap with the revisionist historians explaining"I do, of course, make it clear (p. xxiv) that it is not my intention in the book to engage in this debate, though I am afraid my main reason for adopting this policy is rather tame and un-academic. Early in the piece, I did inform my publishers that I was rethinking the appropriateness of the term ‘radical’, and might wish to adopt some other term in the text, but was duly advised that the title of the book was already fixed and that retaining the word radical in it was important as a"selling point’. I must admit I did entirely see their point – and their concern that the book serve primarily to introduce new readers to the movements it discusses, not specific scholarly debates – and so decided simply to flag up the debate and stick with the term (though careful readers will notice that it actually appears very infrequently in the text, and then almost always in inverted commas). It seemed to me that, even if I were to go into the issue in some depth, I would have to come down on the side of retaining the term in order to make the text match the title, and so I simply indicated my general ‘relaxedness’ regarding the term, echoing Christopher Hill’s exasperation with those calling for a new one (p. xxv)”.

Bradstock begins with a crucial question. Why study these groups? Moreover, 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.  As the book states, this period was "one of the most turbulent periods in that country's history.

Despite Bradstock's reluctance to use the word radical, this is an excellent introduction to the groups such as the Levellers and Diggers. His diligent research and writing style is very accessible. The book is broking down by the different religious groups into their own chapters. While Bradstock cites Hill as one of his influences from an early age, it is clear that Bradstock comes from an entirely different social and political standpoint from Hill. While admitting that these groups did turn the world upside down, Bradstock seems to have not to have taken on board too much of Hill's materialist outlook.

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 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” Bradstock hardly mentions the massive social and economic changes which pulsed during the 17th Century.

The book does, however, challenge the conception that interest in these groups is nil, and he believes that these groups still have a contemporary significance mirroring societal problems in the 21st Century. We are still grappling with many of the issues discussed by Ranters and Diggers such as the nature of democracy, dictatorship and social inequality today.

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. The Marxist writer Cliff Slaughter in his better days wrote  Like the religious systems of all class societies, Christianity is a set of beliefs whose meaning can be turned in entirely 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. However, in previous epochs, before the objective conditions existed for an oppressed class fully to comprehend social reality and achieve its 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’.” [1]

While Bradstock does not have very much to say about modern-day revisionists, he does provide some insight on past controversies. J C Davis challenged whether the Ranters even existed. Davis went further than most historians by saying the Ranters were a myth. They were not a coherent group whom Davis limited to three or four individuals. Anything more was the creation of “hostile pamphleteers”. [2]

According to Christopher Hill, Davis’s main argument was that the radical sects were primarily a figment of the imagination of the Communist Party Historians Group of which Hill was a leading member. In reply is Hill said “I do not 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. However, 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 reinvented) them in the twentieth. The opposing arguments are both necessary if we are to avoid the just possible alternative, that the Ranters did exist. Why is it so crucial for Davis to prove that they did not? What is he frightened of”. [3]

The most substantial part of the book is Bradstock take on the Levellers. The Levellers started to organise 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 a hugely disparate group and frequently crossing over into the Diggers or as they have called the True Levellers. The Ranters were on the extreme left wing of the Leveller movement.

The central plank of the Leveller 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 shows the persecution suffered by the radical sects. The treatment of the Quaker leader James Nayler, even by today's standards is genuinely shocking. The Baptists, who were one of the smallest groups were constantly hounded akin to the McCarthy witch hunts of the Communists of the 1950s and 60s. Their leaders were regularly imprisoned and tortured.

Bradstock observes that arriving 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. Oliver 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. This fear was not altogether unfounded. Ranters leader Coppe highlights this friction between classes:‘Mighty men! ... Those that have admired, adored, idolised, 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. [4]

No wonder that George Fox, the Quaker, found the Ranters, ‘were very rude, and stirred up the rude people against us.’

It is a shame that  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  his radicalism coincided with one of the most revolutionary chapters in English history.

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. In “ 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".

I would not say that Bradock's book is a turning point in the study of the radicals of the English revolution. However, does add to our understanding of these groups and his work forms a growing body of knowledge that has recently appear other work by John Rees and Rachel Foxley.

In conclusion, as Slaughter writes “for the understanding of some of the great problems of human history, the study of religion is a necessity but"the criticism of religion is the beginning of all criticism.”

[1]   Religion and Social Revolt
From Labour Review, Vol.3 No.3, May-June 1958, pp.77-82.
[2]   See Fear,Myth and History-The Ranters and the Historians.
[3] The Lost Ranters? A Critique of J. C. Davis-Christopher Hill
History Workshop-No. 24 (Autumn, 1987), pp. 134-140
[4] Mania and Literary Style: The Rhetoric of Enthusiasm from the Ranters to ...
By Clement Hawes


Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Barry Coward- (February 1941 – 17 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 the 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 launchpad 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 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 the subject he was already rethinking his remarks.

It would be remiss of me to say that I did not always see eye to eye with 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.




Friday, 4 March 2011

Conrad Russell and a case of suppressio veri?


( 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.