Saturday, 15 December 2018

Roger Howell and the Origins of the English Revolution-by Chris Thompson

I was privileged whilst an undergraduate at the University of Oxford to spend two terms being taught sixteenth and seventeenth-century English and European history in St John’s College by the late Roger Howell. He was then a Research Fellow at that college having completed his D.Phil. on the subject of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the English Civil Wars. He was certainly the best and most demanding tutor I ever encountered as an undergraduate, a man with a gift for teaching that I have only ever seen equalled by one person, the existentialist philosopher, Dr Jan Rogan.

Sadly, from my point of view, Roger Howell shortly thereafter returned to his own alma mater, Bowdoin College in Maine, where he became President of that institution until his premature death in the late-1980s. I only ever saw him once again in the North Library of the British Museum in the late-1960s when he was on a brief visit for his own research.

I had no idea until earlier today that Roger Howell had ever written a short pamphlet on the origins of the English Revolution published in 1975.[1] Its contents were and are unknown in detail to me apart from the comments made by Richard T. Hughes of Pepperdine University who reviewed it in the Sixteenth Century Journal.[2]

According to Hughes, Howell argued that it was the House of Commons which upset the constitutional balance inherited from Queen Elizabeth by her Stuart successors despite its members subscribing to the myth of a balanced constitution.

Its members did not force the issue before 1640 because of their vested interests. Charles I, by contrast, was in the right when he claimed that he was the victim of Parliamentary innovation and the defender of the traditional constitution.

Puritanism as Howell defined it involved a concern for moral improvement and hostility to the laxity of the extravagant Court although Hughes thought that Howell had underestimated the degree to which Calvinists aimed to re-shape English society entirely. He was, however, more impressed by Howell’s brief discussion of the impact of the new science and of scepticism on views of the hierarchy in Church and State.

Unfortunately, I have not been able so far to locate a copy of this pamphlet. But my initial and indirect impression is that Roger Howell had become out of touch with the main currents of historical work in this period by the time of its composition. Other historians based in the U.S.A.

Lawrence Stone at Princeton, for example – experienced the same process. Howell’s argument that the House of Commons in particular and Parliament in general proved to be constitutionally aggressive would not have found favourable reception from figures like Conrad Russell or Kevin Sharpe at that time.

Nor would his claim that Kings James and Charles were conservative defenders of the ancient constitution have carried much weight amongst historians in the 1970s or, perhaps, now. But whatever my reservations based on second-hand knowledge, nothing diminishes my gratitude to Roger Howell for his skill as a teacher. It was and remains a privilege to have known him.

[1] Roger Howell, Jr., The Origins of the English Revolution. (Forum Press, Missouri. 1975)

[2] The Sixteenth Century Journal. Volume 7, No.1 (April, 1976), p.106.