Monday, 19 March 2012

On the historiography of the English Civil War

I have just received this email from Chris Thompson. Chris is something of a rarity in this Internet age a man who while forcibly puts his point across but does so in almost gentlemanly way. A good exchange of views is healthy for the pursuit of clarification and knowledge especially on such a complex subject as the English revolution. 

I will return to his comments shortly as I have some other projects which are taking my limited time. As for the original target of my piece called should the English Civil War Be at the Heart of the National Curriculum? Paul Lay I will not hold my breath for a reply. I am not sure that blog writers appear on his intellectual radar too much to warrant a reply. I hope to be surprised. Chris Thompson’s blog can be found at here Any one studying the subject of early modern Britain will find a valuable research tool.

Over the last three years, I have become more sympathetic to Keith Livesey’s blog, A Trumpet of Sedition. I have grown to like him too. This is partly because he is an unrepentant Marxist of a kind much more common when I was an undergraduate and postgraduate in the 1960s. He believes that the events of the period between 1640 and 1660 were a genuine revolution, that they had as their principal causes antecedent economic and social changes and that they paved the way for the emergence and triumph of capitalism in England with all the momentous consequences that had for the world as a whole in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Christopher Hill, it is no surprise to find, is one of his heroes in the ranks of professional historians and he is no less interested in the Communist Party’s group of historians that flourished in the late-1940s and until the mid-1950s. This is a perfectly respectable and defensible position although not one that I accepted either in the 1960s or subsequently.(One of my favourite conversational gambits when confronted by a Marxist four or five decades ago was to deny that there had been a ‘Revolution’ in a recognisably Marxist sense at all.)

Keith Livesey recently (13th March) commented on the views of the Editor of History Today, Paul Lay, on the contents of a revised National Curriculum for history. He agreed with Paul Lay that it should cover the English Civil War and offered his agreement if the former meant “that the English Revolution paved the way for capitalism to flourish in England”. But he was apprehensive that Paul Lay seemed to belong to a group of historians who “have sought to revise previous Marxist historiography of the English Civil War.” He went further when he expressed the view that Paul Lay and other revisionist historians had downplayed the role of economics in people’s actions at that time. “Lay’s real beef is with Marxist historiography .... Lay blames Marxist historians such as Christopher Hill for using base and superstructure to best understand the civil war. Lay believes that the demise of Marxism has once again brought the role of religion as the main driving force behind civil war. Lay has the right to his ideology but the constant attack by revisionists and their apologists is doing untold disservice to those students who wish to have a multi rather than one dimensional understanding of the civil war.”

I am sure that Paul Lay, if he so wishes, is perfectly capable of responding to these criticisms. Nonetheless, there are some important points that need clarifying for the record. There was never a time when Marxist interpretations of the English Civil War or the English Revolution constituted an established historiographical orthodoxy in this country (the United Kingdom).Nor did they do so in the United States. Hugh Trevor-Roper, John Cooper and Jack Hexter’s criticisms decisively punctured the sub-Marxist explanations of Tawney, Stone, Hill, and others: this was why there was such an explosion of advanced research into the gentry’s fortunes and the experience of counties from the late-1950s onwards. Christopher Hill himself came to the view by the 1970s that the events of the 1640s were not the result of the rise of the bourgeoisie but the precondition for such a rise later in the seventeenth century. He was severely criticised by figures like Norah Carlin for such apostasy.

The second major point that I should make is that ‘Revisionism’ as it came to be termed had a very short life-span. It was born in the mid-1970s with Conrad Russell’s work on the Parliaments of the 1620s and was defunct after 1990-1991 when his works on The Causes of the English Civil War and The Fall of the British Monarchies 1637-1642 appeared in print. There has been no campaign of continuing criticism of Marxist historiography in this area or of Christopher Hill’s body of work because both have, in general terms, ceased to be regarded as relevant by academic historians. The debates amongst historians of the Civil War period have moved on a very long way over the last twenty years or more.

No historian that I know maintains that economic and social changes before 1640 were unimportant or unrelated to the events of the years thereafter. But very few would maintain that economic and social changes in themselves were decisive in determining the outcomes of the military struggles between Royalists and Parliamentarians in England or the conflicts in Ireland and Scotland. Much more sophisticated connections between intellectual and popular culture, between literacy levels and political and religious changes, between the rise of aristocratic constitutionalism and the demands of landed and mercantile elites have been developed since Christopher Hill’s prime. 

The terms of the debates will no doubt continue to change. That is right and proper in academic history. Whigs, Marxists and Revisionists have had their day and now belong to the students of intellectual historiography.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Should the English Civil War Be At the Heart of the National Curriculum?

I believe that few people would argue with the History Today’s editor Paul Lay when he said recently that “The English Civil War, the Civil Wars, the Wars of the Three Kingdoms: call them what you will, they are the most important and perhaps the most exciting period in British history and they should be at the core of the school curriculum throughout the UK”.

I drew this conclusion like Paul not from any experience of teaching apart from being on the receiving end of some. Admittedly I am biased having run a blog for the last three years dedicated to studying the subject. But more importantly as Lay puts it the civil war was such a seminal event not just in British history but world history that every student should have some knowledge and opinion on this event.

I do not wish to get into a beauty contest over this, but I would contend that without an understanding of at least the fundamental issues that caused the war one's opinion of the rest of history after this event is diminished considerably.

Having said that any student worth their salt should be very wary of agendas being set (including mine) when someone such as Lay and others argues the need for a new curriculum. Lay recently said, “I know my history and that it was in the 17th century that the disparate national histories of these islands came together to forge the modern world”.

If Lay means that the English revolution paved the way for capitalism to flourish in England, then I would agree with him. However, a number of more right wing historians such as Niall Ferguson have used the curriculum debate to foster a very right wing agenda which goes as far to defend the historical interests of British imperialism. Ferguson has just called the current British Prime Minister David Cameron a new Winston Churchill.

I do not believe that Lay is among this growing coterie of historians that have this agenda, but he does seem to be at home with a group of historians that have sought to revise previous Marxist historiography of the English Civil War. Just look at his list of his favourite historians that have written about the English civil war, he writes “for decades the 17th century has been the richest seam mined in Britain’s history departments, attracting scholars of the stature of Conrad Russell, Austin Woolrych, Ann Hughes, Kevin Sharpe, John Adamson, Jane Ohlmeyer, John Morrill, Barry Coward, Michael Hunter and many more”.

I have nothing wrong with the list. All are excellent historians and have made or are making significant contributions to the expansion of our understanding of a complex subject. However, the majority of historians contained in this list are in one form or another revisionist historians.

In Lays articles in both History Today and the Spectator magazine you get a glimpse of his ideological leanings as regards the civil war  he says  “In the aftermath of the great conflict we see the birth of Britain and the emergence of today’s party political system; the British Army and Royal Navy comes into existence in recognisable form; the battle of ideas over monarchy and republic provides stimulating argument for the young; the importance of religion — and witchcraft — is emphasised as a prime motive of people’s actions; there is the beginning of the modern financial system with the creation of the Bank of England and the National Debt. Most important of all, though, this is the age when British history runs into that of a wider world to be explored in all its variety by minds prepared for the complexities and contentions of global history by their engagement with the medieval and Early Modern Worlds. Not even our much maligned exam boards can make that annoying”.

For Lay, the prime mover for people’s action during the civil war was either religion or witchcraft. Which to some extent is genuine and a good historian is one sensitive to numerous historical sources  and helps uncover  the social currents that  according to Ann Talbot “brought people of diverse social backgrounds into struggle against the king and well-grounded enough in history to identify new and revolutionary ideas in the curious and archaic guise in which they appeared—as the ideologists of the revolution ransacked the Bible and half understood historical precedent for some kind of theory to explain what they were doing”

But one political current that Lay and for that matter other revisionist historians have downplayed is the role of economics in people’s actions. In fact, it has become trendy nowadays to completely rule out that the events of the civil war could be better understood with a thorough understanding of the economic changes that helped bring about such a seminal event in English history.

That aside Lay does make this real defence of a systematic study of History, which he says “at its best, calls everything into question. It offers no comfort, no shelter and no respite, it is a discipline of endless revision and argument. It forces its students to confront the different, the strange, the exotic and the perverse and reveals in full the possibilities of human existence. It is unafraid of casting its cold eye on conflict, both physical and intellectual. And there is more history than ever. It is his story, her story, our story, their story, history from above and from below, richer, more diverse and increasingly global. It has no end, as the benighted Francis Fukuyama discovered when the permanent present ushered in by the fall of the Berlin Wall came crashing down on September 11, 2001. History opposes hubris and warns of nemesis. It doesn’t value events by their outcome; the Whig interpretation of history expired long ago”.

This last bit I do not agree. The Whig interpretation of history whether you agree or disagree with this genre it is alive and kicking in the 21st century. Some of the biggest TV historians such as Tristram Hunt, Simon Sharma exhibit Whig tendencies.  But this is not the main point. Lay’s real beef is with Marxist historiography. Lay blames Marxist historians such as Christopher Hill for using base and superstructure to best understand the civil war. Lay believes that the demise of Marxism has once again brought the role of religion as the primary driving force behind civil war. Lay has the right to his ideology, but the constant attack by revisionists and their apologists is doing an untold disservice to those students who wish to have a multi rather than one-dimensional understanding of the civil war.


(1) Put the Civil Wars back on the syllabus, Mr Gove Paul Lay Friday, 2nd March 2012

(2)This Cosy Portrayal of the Past is no Way to Learn the Lesson of History. T Hunt

Observer 21/11/2010

(3) 'History Today and Tomorrow' by Paul Lay is published by Endeavour Press.

(4) Paul Lay -Why the Past is More Important than Ever Posted: 15/02/2012 20:32