Saturday, 21 December 2019

Interview with Historian Norah Carlin


Norah Carlin’s new book  – Regicide or Revolution? What Petitioners Wanted, September 1648 - February 1649 is out now and is published by Breviary Stuff. I caught up with her and asked a few questions about the book.

Q. What made you pick the subject of Regicide or Revolution and what were the difficulties if any in researching such a wide-ranging subject matter. Basically, I would like to know how you write and approach a subject.

 A. I was spurred on by hearing once too often (at a 350th-anniversary conference) that the motives for regicide were not political as we would understand them, but religious fanaticism and superstition. The army was said to be have been committed since April 1648 to the death of the king as a 'man of blood', and too many books claim that this was also the main content of the late 1648 petitions from soldiers and others. I knew this was not true of the ones I had read, so I set out to find and read them all.

This involved trawling the contemporary printed material in the British Library's Thomason Tracts (now available online), which is sheer pleasure to me, and printed record sources like the Commons Journal. From there, I moved on to whatever manuscripts related to the petitions survive. I also researched each regiment, county and town involved as far as I could without greater specialisation, mainly in secondary sources (some of the Victoria County Histories are a good starting point) but sometimes going back to the national or local archives when I felt existing literature didn't deal satisfactorily with a particular issue.

Q. What is your take on recent historiography on the subject of regicide and revolution?

A.Recent debate has centred on whether the trial of Charles I was intended all along to lead to his execution. The petitions feed into this with their very varied approach to 'bringing offenders to justice'. Most of them don't name the king explicitly, and when they do even fewer attack Charles I personally in the way that some well-known pamphleteers and politicians did. But they are also full of interesting political ideas that could move the discussion away from that narrow theme onto wider issues of what the English Revolution was, what motivated it, and what it achieved.

Q.Since, your first articles on the English revolution, were in the early 1980s, how would you say your historiography on the revolution has changed if at all. How do you see future historiography developing?

A.My main focus remains the many faces of English radicalism in this period, a subject that spreads (like the Leveller movement was said to do at the time) in ever-widening but concentric circles.

Q.The English revolution clearly holds a tremendous interest for you why is that. Also, do you think that left political tendencies have neglected the subject?

 A.I think it's because of the mass of material relating to popular action and radical ideas. Nowhere else in early modern Europe do you have anything like William Clarke's record of the Putney Debates, or the range of pamphlets and news in print.

Most left political tendencies have recognised the importance of the subject to some extent in recent times, though some have got bogged down by making a shibboleth of some over-simplified interpretation. Ironically, the left organisation I belonged to for many years regarded me as a heretic because I didn't agree with every last word written by Christopher Hill, including his claims that the gentry were 'the natural rulers of the English countryside' and that 'the Bible caused the death of Charles I'. As I said in the 2019 memorial lecture, I value Hill's contribution to the historiography of the English Revolution very highly indeed, but his writings are not the last word on everything! It's only when there is no more debate that history ceases to be interesting.

Until very recently I would have said the subject also suffered from a lack of mainstream media attention, but since the December 2019 BBC2 documentary 'Killing a King' there is bound to be a resurgence of interest, and I hope it lasts.

QWhat are you planning to do next?

A.I have a book that was written some time ago but should be published soon, on the history of a grand house in Essex, Old Copped Hall near Waltham Abbey, where I have regularly taken part in an ongoing archaeological project. Over the centuries from 1258 to 1748 its owners were involved in all the major events in English history from the Barons' Wars to the South Sea Bubble, and I was pleased to go back to periods I had studied long ago so as to write about each of them. One owner, the second Earl of Middlesex, even happened to be on Parliament's team negotiating with Charles I at Newport in late 1648, right at the heart of 'Regicide or Revolution?' I am also writing up some research on Scottish local society in the age of the Reformation that I have done since moving back to Scotland.

I am pleased to call myself 'a jobbing historian' because I enjoy taking on a variety of subjects where I find surprising and interesting connections as well as contrasts — always centred on how the world has been changed, on the understanding that it is possible for human action to change it again. I hope these are relevant answers to the questions you asked.


What Historians have said about the book

'Popular petitions were at the very heart of the revolutionary crisis of 1648-1649 and this book is unique in recovering their meaning, the context in which they were issued, and the people who wrote and supported them. Essential reading.'

John Rees, author of The Leveller Revolution

'The petitions Norah Carlin has transcribed and carefully contextualized in Regicide or Revolution? represent an incredibly important cache of materials for understanding the crisis of the English Revolution, the trial and execution of Charles I. Carlin convincingly demonstrates that these petitions were not straightforward demands for bloody retribution. Rather, their content varied considerably, incorporating radical demands for legal, social and constitutional reform, giving historians a highly important window into the ideals and aspirations of the ‘well affected’ both within and outside the army. The collection should be required reading for scholars and students of the English Revolution, and the general reader alike.'

Ted Vallance, University of Roehampton, London

'At last, the army petitions of 1648-9 have found their editor and historian. Every student of the English Revolution will be indebted to Norah Carlin for bringing together in one place the soldiers' petitions, from all over England and Wales, that demanded justice. However, they conceived it, after the first and second civil wars. Each petition has been carefully edited, set in a context, and assessed in what is an authoritative edition of very important documents in the history of relations between Parliament, army and people.'

Stephen K. Roberts, Director, History of Parliament Trust

About the author


Before retirement Norah Carlin was a Principal Lecturer in History at Middlesex University (London). She is also the author of The Causes of the English Revolution (Oxford, Blackwell for the Historical Association, 1999) and a number of articles on aspects of the seventeenth-century English revolution. Having moved back to her native Edinburgh some years ago, she is currently pursuing research on the kirk and rural society in Scotland in the century after the Reformation.