Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The London History Festival - Kensington Central Library 3 November 2009

In 2009 editor of History Today Paul Lay discussed with historian John Adamson abo Charles I and the origins of the English Civil War.

John Adamson is a fellow of Peterhouse College, Cambridge and his book The Noble Revolt has been described as "a work of great style and imagination as well as scholarship... As with a great 19thcentury novel, the story and the characters will become your friends for life."[1]

Early on in his career, Adamson courted controversy, according to Roger Richardson" In the early 1990s John Adamson found himself at the centre of a significant historical controversy about his bold re-interpretation of the English Civil War as the "last baronial revolt".[2]

Mark Kishlansky of Harvard University led the attack by accusing Adamson of "slipshod work, misleading handling of the evidence and weakly supported conclusions. The dispute spilt out from the academic journals in which it had originated to the newspaper press and many of the big names of the historical profession at that time - Conrad Russell, Lawrence Stone and Hugh Trevor-Roper among them - weighed in on one side or the other".

The History Today discussion began with elaboration by Adamson on why he began his book The Noble Revolt in 1640. From the beginning, Adamson sought to distance himself from any form of the socio-economic explanation of the civil war.

He accused some historians of relying too much on large abstract forces, and the role of the individual had been underestimated. He said he did not agree with long term views, these got us nowhere, and he certainly did not agree that there was a bourgeois revolution. He felt that an "economic determinist" viewpoint did not explain too much.
Adamson echoed the prevailing academic orthodoxy that there was no bourgeois revolution mainly because he felt there was no rising bourgeoisie and that people from all social classes can be found on either side of the struggle.

Adamson concurs with an increasingly large number of historians who see Cromwell, as a representative of the declining gentry rather than a rising bourgeoisie. Adamson believes that Cromwell never intended a revolution. Adamson's premise that the bourgeoisie was on both sides was of levelled at Christopher Hill.

In her obituary of Christopher Hill Ann Talbot, states that "Hill, of course, was well aware that there were gentlemen and landowners on the Parliamentary side in the Civil war and small farmers and artisans on the Royalist side. He had read enough Marx and Lenin to know that one could not expect a chemically real revolution in which the members of one social class lined up one side of the barricades and those of the other on the opposite side. However, he was sensitive enough to his historical sources to detect the social currents that brought people of diverse social backgrounds into a 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 appearedas the ideologists of the revolution ransacked the Bible and half-understood historical precedent for some kind of theory to explain what they were doing".[3]

Adamson explained his reasoning behind his rejection of a Marxist understanding of history. He believed that socialism had collapsed with the coming down of the Berlin Wall in 1989. He incorrectly stated that no one had anticipated the fall of the wall and communism, which is not valid. He went on to say that there has been in the past too much emphasis on social classes in the civil war, but in reality, the war was much more about personal allegiances and decisions.

According to Adamson, the war was caused by Charles 1 and his inexperience and vanity. Adamson during the meeting expressed much sympathy for Charles 1st. As can be seen from this quote from his book The Noble Revolt "From the cabin at the stern of the barge, Charles caught a glimpse of the gilded weather-vanes of Whitehall Palace before the boat turned westwards, past the Abbey, and under the great east window of St Stephen's Chapel the Commons' chamber, and the scene of his most recent political debacle. It would be seven years before Charles saw his palace again".

The meeting at the London History Festival is crucial in so much as it gives a glimpse at what a revisionist argument looks like. While Adamson said a lot of what he was against he said little about what he was for.

[1] (Ed Smith, The Times.Com
[2] Not the main act but a prelude to drama-
[3] "These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill by Ann Talbot 25 March