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

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.

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