Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Lawrence Stone and the Historiography of the Gentry Contoversy

By Christopher Thompson

The controversy over the economic and social origins of the English Revolution was a topic that excited ferocious debate over sixty years ago. Historians of the calibre of R.H.Tawney and Hugh Trevor-Roper, J.P.Cooper, Christopher Hill and Lawrence Stone advanced radically different interpretations to explain the violent events of the 1640s and 1650s in the British Isles. American scholars, most famously of all, J.H.Hexter, like Willson Coates, Harold Hulme, Judith Shklar and Perez Zagorin also commented with varying degrees of sharpness on the issues at stake. But only one of the major participants, Lawrence Stone, offered an account of the historiography of the dispute, first of all in his introduction to the anthology of academic articles and documentary sources entitled Social Change and Revolution in England 1540-1640 which he edited in 1965 and then, in slightly revised form, in Chapter 2 of his work, The Causes of the English Revolution 1529-1642, published in 1972. It is with this account that this note is concerned.

Stone began the earlier version of his essay with a description of the genesis of the controversy. He found it in R.H.Tawney's article on the rise of the gentry between 1558 and 1641 published in 1941. Tawney had detected important changes in the distribution of landownership in the period before the English Civil War due to the decline in the fortunes of old-fashioned landlords and the rise of a new class of gentry able to adopt modern methods of estate management and to profit thereby. As a result, the political structure of the country shifted in and after 1640 to accommodate these economic and social changes. Tawney's argument was underpinned by statistics claiming to show a fall in the size of the peerage's manorial holdings compared to those of the gentry and a contraction in large manorial holdings in contrast to a growth in medium-sized manorial holdings. Apparent confirmation on the decline of the aristocracy was offered by Stone himself in an article published in 1948 which argued that the late-Elizabethan peerage was weighed down by debts due to over-spending and on the brink of financial ruin. Only the largesse of King James VI and I averted aristocratic collapse.

Stone was admirably frank in retrospect in admitting to his use of extravagant language in this article, to his statistical errors and failings over his employment of corollary evidence in response to Hugh Trevor-Roper's initial criticisms. Nonetheless, he maintained a revised version of his original position in 1952. This proved the catalyst for Trevor-Roper's wider assault on Tawney's thesis in the following year: according to Trevor-Roper, the difficulties of the lesser or mere or small gentry were more characteristic of the pre-Civil War period than the advance of newly-risen gentry who were able to profit from Court offices, the law and mercantile monopolies. These lesser gentry constituted the 'Country party' whose supporters overthrew the Caroline regime in 1640, who advocated decentralization, reform of the law, the reduction of offices, etc., and who were the mainstay of the Independents in the latter half of the 1640s and in the 1650s. Subsequently, J.P.Cooper demolished the framework upon which Tawney and Stone had erected their manorial figures. By then, Stone asserted, the way had been cleared for the general acceptance of the Trevor-Roper thesis.

In fact, according to Stone, it was not until 1958-1959 that Trevor-Roper's arguments were seriously criticised when Christopher Hill and Perez Zagorin exposed the fragile nature of his assumptions about the lack of profitability of agriculture for landowners in general, about the Court as a highway to riches and about religious radicalism as a refuge from economic decline. There were serious problems too over Trevor-Roper's analysis of the Parliamentary politics of the 1640s and identification of the Independents as the party of the small gentry. J.H.Hexter was equally critical of Tawney and Trevor-Roper: the former was obsessed by the Marxist theory of the rise of the bourgeoisie and the latter by economic motives rather than by ideals and ideology, politics and religion. Hexter preferred and proffered an analysis based on the decline of the aristocracy in military rather than economic terms, the assumption of political leadership by the House of Commons instead of the House of Lords, and the traditional constitutional and religious explanations for the breakdown of the 1640s.

By the time Hexter's essay first appeared in 1958, Stone was engaged in a major study of the aristocratic archives which had become available since 1945 and which culminated in his book, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641, published in 1965. He claimed in his discussion of the social origins of the English Revolution that this book offered a synthesis of his own and Hexter's ideas about the problems facing the late-Tudor and early-Stuart peerage. Stone argued that the aristocracy had lost military power, landed possessions and prestige: their incomes under Elizabeth had declined due to conspicuous consumption but recovered under James and Charles due to royal largesse and rising landed incomes. The King and the Church of England were nonetheless left dangerously exposed by the crisis in the affairs of the landed elite after pursuing unpopular constitutional and religious policies up to 1640. The prior decline of the aristocracy made the upheavals of that decade possible. He expected criticisms of his arguments in 1965 and conceded that a range of questions over the fortunes of the gentry would be raised: the debate would inevitably continue. Seven years later, there had indeed been criticism but also, in his view, the development of a more sophisticated view of the causes of the English Revolution.

This account of the historiography of the gentry controversy looked straightforward enough and attracted no attention in 1965 or 1972. Lawrence Stone had claimed that the publication of Trevor-Roper's essay on The Gentry 1540-1640 in 1953 and of J.P.Cooper's analysis of the statistics on manorial holdings produced by Tawney and Stone himself had apparently “cleared [the way] for general acceptance of the Trevor-Roper thesis.” He had gone on to maintain that it “was not until 1958 and 1959 that the Trevor-Roper thesis in turn came under serious criticism” from Hill, Zagorin and Hexter, the latter of whom was also critical of Tawney. But these arguments were and are fundamentally at variance with the record.

Take Hill for example. The essay Stone cited was entitled Recent Interpretations of the Civil War. It had been given as a paper to the Mid-Wales branch of the Historical Association in January, 1955 and was published in Volume LXI of History in 1956. It had a number of specific objections to Trevor-Roper's categorization of the gentry, to his alleged elision of the terms “mere”, “lesser” and “declining” gentry, to his belief that it was the Crown rather than the peasantry from whom rising gentlemen secured their gains and so on. This essay was reproduced in Hill's volume of essays entitled Puritanism and Revolution published in 1958. In Zagorin's case, he had published a paper in the Journal of World History in 1955 entitled 'The English Revolution 1640-1660' in which he took the view that Trevor-Roper's criticisms of Tawney and Stone remained to be substantiated and that it was unlikely that the revolution could be regarded as rising of the excluded “mere gentry.”A year later, in 1956, Zagorin gave the paper entitled 'The Social Interpretation of the English Revolution' at the meeting of the American Historical Association: an enlarged version of his text expressing his objections to Trevor-Roper's arguments appeared in the Journal of Economic History and is noted in Stone's bibliography in 1965. It was incidentally at this AHA meeting that Hexter's essay, Storm over the Gentry, was given its first outing. Furthermore, when Past and Present organised a conference on seventeenth-century revolutions in London in July, 1957, the consensus of historians present was, according to Eric Hobsbawm, “unfavourable to Prof. Trevor-Roper's views that they [the gentry] represented a declining class”, a verdict endorsed as far as this meeting was concerned by J.H.Elliott many years later. J.H.Hexter's famous essay in Encounter in 1958 was, as those who read it in its original version or in the longer 1961 version, more hostile to Tawney and Stone and comparatively benign in its analysis of Trevor-Roper's case. Conscripting Hexter to the ranks of the latter's critics is a difficult exercise to perform. It was, in any case, simply not true to argue that there was a delay until 1958-1959 until Trevor-Roper's arguments came under critical scrutiny. On the contrary, there had been serious, perhaps partially-organised, scepticism expressed well before then.

Why did Stone offer this clearly erroneous account? There are two possibilities. Either he had forgotten the facts and thus misled himself and his readers. This seems unlikely, prima facie. Alternatively, this exercise may have been undertaken deliberately. There is some evidence to support the latter explanation. In the spring of 1964, Hexter invited Stone to give a lecture at Washington University in St Louis “undoubtedly [as] some sort of peace-offering to one of the many victims of his scalding wit” according to John M.Murrin, then a colleague of Hexter and later of Stone at Princeton. Both the invitation and the lecture were a success. But whereas, in 1958, Stone had regarded Hexter's views on the military decline of the aristocracy as inadequate in explaining the peerage's problems in the 1640s, by 1965, Stone was prepared to claim that The Crisis “developed a new interpretation, an amalgam of some of my earlier ideas and those of J.H.Hexter.” What contribution Hexter had made to this new synthesis is difficult to detect since he was mentioned only once in the text – and not at all in the chapter on Power – and only twice in its footnotes. There is really no positive evidence for Hexter's influence on Stone's opus. But a rapprochement had occurred. When Hexter published his review of The Crisis in the Journal of British Studies in 1968, his critical faculties so evident a decade before had been largely suspended and his overall verdict was laudatory. Hexter had become a “friend” of Stone as Murrin explained in the festschrift to mark Stone's retirement and contributed to the volume of essays marking Hexter's own retirement.


Was Stone ignorant about the course of the 'gentry controversy' between 1953 and 1958 or 1959? Given his direct participation in it, this appears highly unlikely. On balance, the erroneous account he offered in 1965 and again in 1972 and the unsubstantiated deference to Hexter seem to owe more to a desire to placate and neutralise a potentially serious critic and to recruit him to Stone's camp. If this is a tenable line of argument, it illustrates Stone's failings as an historian in a particularly revealing way.