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 Their approaches were superseded with the rise of the mis-named 'revisionism' of the mid-1970s.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 controlled by revisionist historians who think that groups such as, Diggers or Levellers should be mere footnotes of history and that the Ranters did not exist at all the book is a welcome challenge to this historiography and seeks to give us a new insight into 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 writing such a book in a very hostile intellectual climate. His use of historians, such as Christopher Hill and Brian Manning, who have fallen from grace is to be congratulated. It is not entirely surprising that Bradstock, who is a Christian socialist, is influenced by Hill. However, Bradstock goes only so far with Hill.

This is fatal and explains his giving in 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.

Bradstock explains his reasoning behind his reluctance to enter into this debate “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’m 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 real 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.

For the general history reader, 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 placement of these groups in their 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 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 contemporary significance with 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.

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.

As the former Marxist writer Cliff Slaughter says “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”.

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. 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”.

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 outlines very well 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, 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.

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. 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".

In conclusion as Slaughter writes “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 was 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.”


Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Barry Coward

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 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.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Review: A Glorious Liberty-the ideas of the Ranters-A.L.Morton-Past Tense-2007.

If there was ever a group of people that needed rescuing from historical obscurity it was the 17th-century radical group the Ranters. It is clear that without the intervention of the historians around the Communist Party of Great Britain, especially Christopher Hill and A L Morton groups like the Ranters would have been consigned to a few footnotes of history.

Morton is well known for his work A People’s History of England. It was the founding book of the Communist Party Historians Group (CPHG). As Ann Talbot writes “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.[1]

The pamphlet A Glorious Liberty is taken from A L Morton’s book The World of the Ranters[2] Despite working under the domination of the Stalinist bureaucracy’s ideological straightjacket Morton, who was probably the world’s leading authority on the Ranters sought to make an objective assessment of the Ranters who up until then had mostly been described as “madmen”. In historical terms, the Ranters had a short shelf life. They came to life towards the end of the civil war and changed their political and social form into 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 nowhere else out of the Creatures.[3]

Like many of the radical groups during the English revolution, the Ranters were a relatively new phenomenon. It is open to debate how new their ideas were. Morton was able to trace their antecedents down through the centuries.

Joachim of Fiore in the twelfth century was identified as one source of Ranter inspiration. "The Ranters, like Joachim of Fiore and the Anabaptists of the Reformation, proclaimed the coming age of the Holy Spirit, which moved in every man. The key difference from orthodox Calvinism or Puritanism is that in those more orthodox creeds, the workings of the Holy Spirit were closely tied to the Holy Word — that is, the Bible. For the Ranters and other Inner Light Groups, however, all deuces were wild. The Ranters pursued this path, too, to pantheism: as one of their leaders declared: "The essence of God was as much in the Ivie leaf as in the most glorious Angel."[4]

One exciting aspect of the Ranter storyline is their associations with other radical groups like the Levellers. Both groups took part in a revolution, and some of their leaders were soldiers in the New Model Army. The social base for both movements was similar. There were, however, significant religious and behavioural differences.

One significant difference was that the Ranters appealed far more than the Levellers to the lower sections of the population. In class terms, this would have been a very embryonic working class.
They appealed to the “poorest beggars, “rogues, thieves, whores, and cut purses”. These are “every whit as good” as anyone else on earth. Morton explains “ 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 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”.[5]

Coupled with their appeal to the poor was their attack on the rich.” 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".

Like many of the radical groups, their appeal was not only to the poor but to the leaders of the revolution, namely Cromwell. Cromwell was acutely aware of the dangers of these groups posed. 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 it would have posed a grave danger to the regime.

While most social and economic conditions were favourable to the Ranters, they had no real means of carrying through their program. Although many Ranters had served in the New Model Army, many were pacifists at heart. As this quote from Morton’s book brings out  “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.[5] .

Ranters pacifism was an integral 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. However, 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”.

J C Davis

Not every historian welcomed Morton’s resurrection of the Ranters. Morton knew that it was effortless for some politically motivated historians to dismiss the Ranters as “madmen” or lunatics. Morton’s work on the Ranters came under severe attack.

Unsurprisingly this attack came from the right and took the form of a full-frontal assault calling into question the very existence of the Ranters. Leading this assault was the very conservative historian J  C Davis. It is no surprise that Davis’s book Fear, Myth and History: The Ranters and the Historians was Kenneth Baker education secretary under Margaret Thatcher’s favourite book. According to Davis, the Ranters were impossible to define and what they believed in, he writes "There was no recognised leader or theoretician and little, if any organisation. The views of the principal figures were inconsistent with each other"[6].

The debate over the Ranters did not generate the same kind of heat as other more higher profile historian’s spates. The importance of this did force Christopher Hill into battle. Hill reluctantly wrote a reply to Davis. 

“I must declare an interest. This book attacks Norman Cohn, A. L. Morton, myself and others for believing in the existence of the Ranters. 'Ranters' put forward antinomian and libertine views at the height of the English Revolution. Suppressed in 1651, they continued to exercise some influence into the 18th century. Professor Davis recognises that contemporaries believed there were people whom they called Ranters. However, he wishes to restrict them to three or four individuals. Anything more was the creation of hostile pamphleteers. It was not an easy negative to prove, not much easier to disprove. Some, including the present reviewer, may think neither exercise worth while. But lest anybody should take Professor Davis's book too seriously, it may be worth stating some arguments against his case. Professor Davis starts from what he calls a 'paradigm' of Ranter beliefs, allegedly drawn from other historians. But it is a very selective paradigm. It excludes some beliefs which contemporaries thought characteristic of Ranters - mortalism, for instance, the belief that the soul dies with the body, which Bunyan thought 'the chief doctrine of the Ranters'. It also excludes Ranter subversion of the traditional subordination of women, which outraged Bunyan even more. Davis argues that if we are to be convinced of the existence of Ranters, we must find 'a sect with clear leaders, authoritative tests on entry, and controls over numbers' (43). Of course, he cannot find them”.[7]


It is a shame that the debate has gone cold. It is hoped that modern-day historians return to this subject and start to give it the treatment it deserves. Nigel Smith has started this process with his collection of Ranter writings[8] and the work carried out by  Ariel Hessayon is worth looking at (see, Abiezer Coppe and the Ranters,research.gold.ac.uk.

As Hessayon writes “Yet that is not the end of the matter since there remains much to be done. With the partial exception of Coppe, we still need detailed accounts of the Ranters’ reading habits and possible influences on their thought. Moreover, we await research on the lesser-known individuals that comprised ‘My one flesh’, together with a reconstruction of their social networks. The same may be said of members of several other spiritual communities, notably those clustered around Sedgwick and those named in News from the New-Jerusalem. We also require meticulous studies of Bothumley, Coppe  (particularly after 1648), Coppin, and Salmon. So it is fair to suggest that despite all that has been said about them, there is another book on the Ranters still to be written”.

[1] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2003/03/hill-m25.html
[2] The World of the Ranters: Religious Radicalism in the English Revolution – 12 Jul 1979
by Arthur Leslie Morton
[3] The World of the Ranters: Religious Radicalism in the English Revolution – 12 Jul 1979
by Arthur Leslie Morton
[4] [The article is excerpted from An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (1995), volume 2, chapter 9: "Roots of Marxism:www.mises.org/library/early-christian-communism
[5] "a glorious Liberty"the ideas of the Ranters-A L Morton
[6]Fear, Myth and History: The Ranters and the Historians
[7] The Lost Ranters? A Critique of J. C. Davis Author(s): Christopher Hill Source: History Workshop, No. 24 (Autumn, 1987), pp. 134-140
[8] A Collection of Ranter Writings: Spiritual Liberty and Sexual Freedom in the English Revolution

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.