Monday, 26 September 2011

The Noble Revolt: The Overthrow of Charles I by John Adamson 576 pp, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25

To begin with, this review of John Adamson’s Nobel Revolt is not an attack on the merits of Adamson as a historian. Adamson is a competent historian and his books are usually well written and extensively researched. The Noble Revolt has been described as "a work of great style and imagination as well as scholarship... As with a great 19th-century novel, the story and the characters will become your friends for life."

Adamson’s books on the English Civil war are part of what has become the ‘post-revisionist’ school of history writing. The main characteristic of this school of thought is a rejection of both the Marxist and Whig views English Civil War historiography. From the beginning of his career, Adamson sought to distance himself from any form of socio-economic explanations which have largely been championed by ‘Marxist’ historians such as Christopher Hill and Brian Manning

Before the Post-Revisionist era there consisted a group of historians who were for want of a better term simply “revisionists.” From the late seventies onwards a group of mainly but not all right wing historians sought to pour scorn on Marxist theory based largely on a socio-economic explanation of historical events. The result of this has been a chaotic mix of differing opinions with Adamson’s being one of them. Adamson elaborated his thesis when he edited the recent book The English Civil War: Conflict and Contexts 2009. Again no space could be found for socio or economic explanations of the war.

The Noble Revolt is a work that took Adamson nearly 15 years to research and write. The book is a formidable read with close to two hundred pages of notes. The central theoretical premise of the book is to put forward a view of the Civil war as basically a coup d’état by a group of nobles or aristocrats who no longer supported the King.

According to Diane Purkiss, these nobles were “driven by their code of honour, they acted to protect themselves and the nation. Names such as Saye, Bedford, Essex and Warwick move from the sidelines to occupy centre stage, as do their counterparts among Scottish peers. It was they and not the ignorant masses who plucked a king from his throne. Oliver Cromwell, for Adamson, was merely one of their lesser lackeys”. The work is light on analysis. It must be said that Adamson’s theory is not that original and is mainly a rehash of some previous revisionist historians.

It is also noticeable in the majority of Adamson’s work “ordinary people” rarely get a look in which is less to do with his historical proclivities and more to do with the right wing nature of his politics. Adamson’s politics and traditional attitudes were formulated during the Thatcher era. He belongs to a generation of historians that include Niall Fergusson whose primary task seems to be working towards removing any trace of Marxist or Whig influence from current history writing.

Robert Boynton describes the early days of this group in an article “Ferguson calls this his "punk Tory" period, a phase when he and Sullivan listened to the Sex Pistols and vied to see who could most effectively rankle the left-liberal majority. He treasures an invitation he received from friends at Balliol in the early eighties, to a cocktail party to celebrate the deployment of U.S. cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe. The invitations were illustrated with champagne bottles emitting mushroom clouds. The conservative Cambridge historian John Adamson remembers dining with Ferguson the night Thatcher resigned. "We both sensed it was the end of an era," Adamson said. 

One aspect of the Noble Revolt you feel that despite Adamson writing about a palace coup you get a strong feeling that he has a lot of sympathy for Charles  1st. You can see this in his book title the Noble Revolt (notice this is not a revolution from below but a revolt from above) The reader can judge for themselves when Adamson writes "From the cabin at the stern of the barge, Charles caught a glimpse of the gilded weather-vanes of Whitehall Palace before the boat turned westwards, past the Abbey, and under the great east window of St Stephen’s Chapel – the Commons’ chamber, and the scene of his most recent political debacle. It would be seven years before Charles saw his palace again”.

Adamson also seems the revel in his idea that the main players in the revolution were mainly reacting somewhat blindly to events. One reviewer of Adamson’s book said “Unlike hind sighted historians, they stumbled forward, seeking peace if possible and war if necessary. Like Oliver Cromwell, in 1640 an obscure farmer on the fringes of Warwick's circle, once said, 'no one travels so high as he who knows not where he is going'.

As regards the footnotes it is some sort of an overkill to publish some many. One reason maybe because previously Adamson was attacked by historians such as Mark Kishlansky who alleged that Adamson was “deliberately abusing and misreading sources”. This doubtless explains why Adamson’s book comes with so many footnotes. What began as a disagreement between two historians soon became a significant historical debate

Both sides of the debate took their gripes to the pages of academic journals. Big name historians such as Conrad Russell, Lawrence Stone and Hugh Trevor-Roper took one hand or the other without actually resolving the issue.

Outside of the academic community, these debates which occur frequently might seem like storms in teacups but in reality particularly when concerning the discussion over the civil war, they are expressions of very deep-seated divisions over cause and effect. As Lawrence Stone described the history of the 17th century as 'a battleground which has been heavily fought over...beset with mines, booby-traps and ambushes manned by ferocious scholars prepared to fight every inch of the way.”

The book is clearly written for a minuscule academic community and not for a general readership. While not agreeing with Adamson premise it was true to a certain extent that there was a revolt amongst the nobility but Adamson fails to or does not want to explain what provoked this rebellion and whether there was the socio-economic or class basis to it. Purkiss is correct to say that “he has impressively uncovered a neglected aspect of the mentality of the age. It does not follow that the juntos were the cause of the war or that the war was what they thought it was”.

Another criticism I have of the book is that it tends to overestimate this particular group. Adamson clearly explains the political motivation for this group, but this is to the detriment of far more important social layers. Again nothing is said of the ordinary people who made up the main content of the armies. What provoked them to die for a cause in their hundreds of thousands? More importantly, his denigration of leading figures such as Oliver Cromwell is perhaps more tied up with Adamson politics than his history. Certainly, Cromwell is hardly flavour of the month of leading sections of the current ruling elite of whom Adamson no doubt associates himself with now and again.

The book is beautifully illustrated with full-colour photos, helpful maps and plans. You get the feeling that a lot of money was spent on this book. Which is strange as it appeals to such a small audience.

The chronological dates of the book are May 1640 and January 10, 1642, when the King departed London. Not only the period covered by the book but also the layer that Adamson studies composed a minuscule part of the English ruling elite in the early 1640s. Not that I believe this layer does not deserve systematic coverage but if it is done so without placing them in the overall context of the war then it becomes a matter of ego massaging by the historian. Adamson does mention the intellectual climate of the time, but a single paragraph of a 742-page book is hardly objective.

The historian R C Richardson has called the book title and subtitle” both highly misleading. The events documented in this book did not lead to the overthrow of Charles I. As Adamson himself now concedes, what happened in the 1640s "was no mere barons' war" and the "baronial context" was one of several that coalesced at the time. "Nor was it a revolt of the nobility, or even the major part of the nobility, acting alone".

A better book would have recognised that these two years covered by Adamson were extremely crucial not only because of the rebellion by a minority of the Nobility as Adamson suggest but they set the scene for the future course of the war. The tendency amongst post-revisionist historians to concentrate on limited political aspects covering only the ruling elite and a small majority for that matter is detrimental to a fuller and more rounded understanding of the war.

The book also contains significant omissions which include the major role played by the Earl of Essex as Parliamentary commander after the outbreak of civil war, the creation of the Royalist party, the significance of the New Model Army, the military defeat and eventual elimination of the King, and the abolition of the House of Lords.

Another significant omission is the fact that Adamson does not touch upon any of the controversies over the war. According to one blog review by Gavin Robinson “There is no coverage of other historians from a wide range of theoretical or argumentative backgrounds. This extends through the book’s epilogue, where Adamson is keen to debunk Whigs and revisionists alike by finding a third way to explaining the origins of the war – but can coverage of only 1640-1642 cover enough of the origins of the war to adequately explain them? I don’t believe it can.”

Adamson’s theory tends to try and rule out the revolutionary nature of the civil war. His Noble Revolt essentially put forwards a consistent view used by numerous right-wing historians, commentators and one prime minister that Britain does not make violent revolutions Adamson says “Unlike our Continental neighbours, British revolutions have tended to be relatively polite and orderly affairs. Not for us the tumbrels and tanks in the streets, the giddy cycles of massacre”.

According to Ann Talbot “The sense that in Britain things were done differently and without continental excess is not entirely new. Burke had expressed it in his Reflections on the French Revolution, but there were plenty of voices to gainsay him and the social disturbances in the years of economic upheaval that followed the Napoleonic wars were a testimony to the contrary. Luddism, anti-corn law agitation, the anti-poor law movement, strikes and most of all Chartism demonstrated that Britain was not an island of social peace. Nonetheless the Whig interpretation of history had deep roots in the consciousness of the British political class. The visitor to Chatsworth House in Derbyshire can still see in the great entrance hall a fireplace inscribed with the legend “1688 The year of our liberty.” It refers to the “Glorious Revolution” when James II quit his throne and his kingdom overnight and William of Orange was installed as king. This was the kind of palace revolution that the British ruling class increasingly preferred to look back on rather than the revolution in the 1640s when they had executed the king, conveniently overlooking the fact that James would not have run if he had not remembered the fate of his father—Charles I”.

He accused some historians of relying too much on large abstract forces and opposed a downplaying the role of the individual. He said he did not agree that long term views got us anywhere or that it was a bourgeois revolution. He felt that this “economic determinist” viewpoint did not explain too much.

Adamson echoes the prevailing academic orthodoxy that there was no bourgeois revolution largely because he felt there was no rising bourgeoisie and that people from all social classes can be found on either side of the struggle.

According to some historians and I would include Adamson in them even Cromwell, it can be argued could be better understood as a representative of the declining gentry rather than the rising bourgeois. Adamson believes that Cromwell never intended a revolution and come to think of it neither did those around him but according to Ann Talbot who indirectly countered Adamson’s point by saying “wished merely to restore what they believed to be the ancient constitution of the kingdom. The whole unpleasant episode could have been avoided if only Charles II had been a little wiser”.

Adamson linked this distancing away from the Marxist viewpoint on the civil war with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. He somewhat smugly said that no one had anticipated the fall of the wall and communism, which is not true. He went on to say that there has been in the past too much emphasis on social classes in the civil war but in reality, the war was much more about personal allegiances and decisions.

Essentially According to Adamson, the war was caused by Charles the 1st and his inexperience and vanity. There is no doubting Adamson’s work rate or ability to carry out prodigious research his current book’s weight, and I don’t mean academic but physical is a testimony to that. But this is not alone enough to give a multi rather than unique dimension to understanding the complexity and magnitude of the Civil War.

Is the book as the blogger Mercurius Politicus suggests is a “significant contribution to the debate on the origins of the English Civil War”. I do not think it is. Is it worth reading, yes but try and read it  otherwise you may lament spending some much time on it?


1. Not the main act but a prelude to drama 20 July 2007 Roger Richardson-Times Higher Education

2. "These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill by Ann Talbot 25 March

3. How Charles I lost his head 03 May 2007 Malcolm Gaskill reviews The Noble Revolt: The Overthrow of Charles I by John Adamson. Sources

4. John Adamson is the author of The Noble Revolt: The Overthrow Of Charles I (Orion,

5. Leon Trotsky's Writings on Britain Ch 2 Two traditions: the seventeenth-century revolution and Chartism

6. The Nobel Revolt Review by Diane Purkiss Published: June 1 2007 Diane Purkiss is author of”The English Civil War: A People’s History” (HarperCollins

7. The English Context of the British Civil Wars. By John Adamson Published in History Today Volume: 48 Issue: 11

8. From Thinking the Unthinkable: A profile of Niall Ferguson Robert Boynton

9. Class & Cabal Tom Hazledine New Left Review.

10. The War of the Realms: The English Civil War: Noble Revolt John Adamson (To be published in 2013)

No comments: