Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Regicide or Revolution? What Petitioners Wanted, September 1648 - February 1649-Norah Carlin- £18.50-Publisher Breviary Stuff

'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-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 demonstrate 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

There are two types of historians. The first type is the historian that spends a tremendous number of hours deep mining archives to produce a book. The second type is the historian that writes about the former.

Norah Carlin has produced a book that firmly places her in the first type of historian. It takes a skilful historian like Carlin to produce a book out of such a large and significant number of texts. The English revolution is one of the most worked-over topics in English history, and rivals only the American, French and Russian revolution in books produced. It is to Carlin’s credit that she has created something new and highly interesting.

It is widely accepted amongst historians of the English revolution that the many petitions addressed to Parliament and the army in the five months before Charles I’s execution influenced the events that led to his trial and death.

However, more Conservative historians have argued that the petitions had little effect and represented little more than a propaganda campaign by a small number of political and military leaders.

It is to her eternal credit that Carlin has undertaken the task to carry out a wide-ranging examination of over sixty texts. As Carlin has said, the book has been nearly twenty years in the making.The sheer number and diversity of the texts in the book indicate a tremendous politicisation of a significant layer of the population. It would not be an overstatement to say this is a groundbreaking book. Every text begins with a context and ends with a background analysis. It is clear that a lot of work and time went into this book.

In a recent interview, Carlin described this process, “this involved trawling the contemporary printed material in the British Library's Thomason Tracts (now available online), which is a 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”[1].

Dual Power

Carlin clearly believes that the majority of the texts came from plebeian elements  in other words, from the rank and file activists. These texts then gained a wider audience. They also testify to the dual nature of power during this short period as Leon Trotsky describes so well : “the English Revolution of the seventeenth century, exactly because it was a great revolution shattering the nation to the bottom, affords a clear example of this alternating dual power, with sharp transitions in the form of civil war.

At first, the royal power, resting upon the privileged classes or the upper circles of these classes – the aristocrats and bishops – is opposed by the bourgeoisie and the circles of the squirearchy that are close to it. The government of the bourgeoisie is the Presbyterian Parliament supported by the City of London. The protracted conflict between these two regimes is finally settled in open civil war. The two governmental centres – London and Oxford – create their own armies. Here the dual power takes a territorial form, although, as always in a civil war, the boundaries are very shifting. Parliament conquers. The king is captured and awaits his fate.

It would seem that the conditions are now created for the single rule of the Presbyterian bourgeoisie. But before the royal power could be broken, the parliamentary army has converted itself into an independent political force. It has concentrated in its ranks the Independents the pious and resolute petty bourgeoisie, the craftsmen and farmers. This army powerfully interferes in social life, not merely as an armed force, but as a Praetorian Guard, and as the political representative of a new class opposing the prosperous and rich bourgeoisie. Correspondingly the army creates a new state organ rising above the military command: a council of soldiers’ and officers’ deputies (“agitators”). A new period of double sovereignty has thus arrived: that of the Presbyterian Parliament and the Independents’ army. This leads to open conflicts. The bourgeoisie proves powerless to oppose with its own army the “model army” of Cromwell – that is, the armed plebeians. The conflict ends with a purgation of the Presbyterian Parliament by the sword of the Independents. There remains but the rump of a parliament; the dictatorship of Cromwell is established. The lower ranks of the army, under the leadership of the Levellers – the extreme left wing of the revolution – try to oppose to the rule of the upper military levels, the patricians of the army, their own veritably plebeian regime. But this new two-power system does not succeed in developing: the Levellers, the lowest depths of the petty bourgeoisie have not yet, nor can have their own historic path. Cromwell soon settles accounts with his enemies. A new political equilibrium, and still by no means a stable one, is established for a period of years[2].

Carlin tackles a number of important issues in the book. One of the most important issues is to what extent were the authors of the various texts merely responding to political events or were the cause by their actions of subsequent events.

She writes “The petitions were responding to events as they occurred, and we must avoid the temptation to see them as causing the events that followed – especially the king’s execution, which has been a focus for hindsight almost since it happened. None of them calls openly for the king’s death, and even among those that call for vengeance for the blood spilt in the civil wars, only a few name him directly. Much express concern for the common people’s rights and liberties, and a substantial minority call for a radical redefinition of the English constitution, with the House of Commons at its centre as representative of the people. Some list reforms in the law and society that reveal a wider vision of revolution for England, and very many expand on their own interpretation of the civil wars and more recent events”.[3]

The texts in Carlin’s book clearly show that England was going through a profound transformation. The debate about whether to kill the king was unprecedented and had its roots in objective processes. Carlin is enough of a Marxist to believe that such events are not merely spontaneous occurrences but are decades if not centuries in the making. Whether the participants are conscious of what they are doing is not the most important point. To be more precise during the English bourgeois revolution some of its actors were to a certain extent semi-conscious of what they were doing it is a different matter during a socialist revolution such as the Russian revolution where the actors were entirely conscious of what needed to be done.

This does not undermine the English Revolution’s lasting historical significance. As Karl  Marx wrote in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under the circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”


It is a pity that Carlin has not written more on the English revolution. Her first book Causes of the English Civil War (Historical Association Studies) was written in 1998 and gave a very good introduction to the English revolution. It introduces the reader to the various strands of historiography. During her time in the Socialist Workers Party(SWP), she produced two groundbreaking essays that should have prompted the State Capitalist organisation to produce more work on the subject and challenge the growing threat of a number of revisionist historians that were seeking to denigrate any Marxist understanding of the revolution.

Carlin in both compositions makes some critical points worthy of much further study, three of which stand out. She believed that England witnessed a bourgeois revolution, that so-called Marxist historians have not done enough to stem the tide of revisionism that undermined both Whig and Marxist historiography and the need for a more precise understanding of the class nature of the radical groups like the Levellers and how they fit into the concept of a Bourgeois revolution. Carlin’s work did not sit very well with the SWP’s orientation to Historians like Christopher Hill and Brian Manning.The SWP rejected Carlin’s historiography and adopted of the genre of “Peoples History”  which was developed by the Communist Party Historians Group (CPHG).

Of the CP Carlin makes this point “Hill left the Communist Party in 1957 after playing a not very memorable role on the Commission for Inner-Party Democracy and ended up as Master of Balliol College, Oxford. Given the nasty and personalised tone of the right-wing attack, it is hardly surprising that defending Hill should come to be almost a significant activity in itself, yet the striking fact is that when a collection of essays by former pupils of his was got together to mark his retirement at the end of the 1970s, not one article made any explicit reference to Marxism, only one contributor (Brian Manning) could be regarded as in any sense a Marxist, and several (including the advocate of muddle quoted above) were openly anti-Marxist. There is something slightly odd about ‘Britain’s greatest Marxist historian’ (as he is described continuously in journals such as New Left Review and History Workshop) raising no successors”.[4]

She recently elaborated more on her time inside the SWP when she challenged the almost religiously orthodox position of the SWP towards Hill. She states “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”[5].


Carlin should be congratulated for producing a marvellous book that deserves to be in every university library. The ideals and principles emanating from the texts were the mainstays of the revolution. But in the final analysis, the English revolution was a bourgeois revolution, and there existed, inevitably, a gap between the ideals its participants proclaimed and their real social-economic and political purpose. However, the revolution did pave the way for the vast expansion of capitalism and produced the first capitalist nation-state.

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.

The book can be purchased directly from Breviary Stuff-

or from Amazon-

[2] The Seventeenth-Century revolution- Leon Trotsky’s Writings on Britain-
[3] Review : Regicide or Revolution? What Petitioners Wanted, September 1648 - February 1649-Norah Carlin £18.50 358pp / 156x234mm / paperback ISBN 978-1-9161586-0-3