Saturday, 26 June 2010

The Civil Wars of England-John Kenyon - Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988 - xvi + 272pp

"A Civil War is not only the conflict of opposing principles but the shock of material forces."[1]

Sir Charles Firth.

The causes of the Civil war have been fought over by historians for centuries.  So much so that not for nothing did Lawrence Stone describe it as "a battleground which has been heavily fought over…beset with mines, booby-traps and ambushes manned by ferocious scholars prepared to fight every inch of the way."

Kenyon's book, which is one of the better military histories, does not confine itself to a straightforward, matter of fact description of the civil war. It is an excellent piece of history, with a deep understanding of the politics and economics of the conflict which he combined with his military understanding.

Kenyon's work was praised by Christopher Hill who said Kenyon's narrative was "orthodox Tawneyite: towns and cities 'solidly for Parliament', so much so that in 1643 Charles I insisted that he 'dared not trust his person inside any closed town'; the clothing areas were 'aggressively parliamentarian', Birmingham 'a solidly parliamentarian industrial town'. Kenyon grasps the fact which 'revisionist' historians ignore, that before 1642 social revolution was always potentially present"[2]. As we shall see later, Kenyon did not return Hill's compliment.

The book, while being well researched, has the pace of an excellent novel. It is methodically researched as to be expected of a historian of Kenyon's experience. As one writer states, he had "scholarly attention to detail and ability to extract every nuance from his sources. He distrusted fads and was sceptical of theories not fully backed by the historical fact". 

It is not for nothing he was described as "one of Britain's leading scholars of 17th-century English history". Kenyon sought to position himself between the two camps and tried to place his book within the context of the civil war being a product of a general European Crisis of the 17th Century. This view tends to cut across the mainly nationalist English view of the civil war. (See Eric Hobsbawm-The General Crisis of the European Economy Past and Present No 5 May 1954 pp 33-53).

It is hard as regards historiography to fit Kenyon into a discernable category. Robert Ashton makes an interesting point on why some historians while not being Marxist did use Marxist ideas saying "The idea of religious, political and constitutional issues as an ideological superstructure based on foundations of material and class interests has been influential far beyond the ranks of Marxist historians. It has indeed been adopted, in part at least and with a radically different emphasis, by some of their more formidable and determined opponents".[3]

As Christopher Thompson forcibly wrote Kenyon was not a Marxist or fellow traveller but believed there was a "Great Rebellion" not an English revolution. However, Kenyon’s use of this quote from Sir Charles Firth that "a Civil War is not only the conflict of opposing principles but the shock of material forces." tends to confirm Ashton's perceptive analysis.

Kenyon's use of the quote by James Harrington, "the dissolution of this government caused the war, not the war the dissolution of this government"[4]  is further confirmation that Kenyon was a very thoughtful historian more than many have given him credit.

Harrington is a significant figure if you are looking for a materialist understanding of the English revolution. The writer and historian Gaby Mahlberg makes this perceptive point "'Good laws', Harrington believed, could give the country stability, and these laws had to be infallible, so that bad man would not be able to corrupt the state. Harrington never saw his dream come true. The Restoration of the Stuarts in 1660 meant a return of many of the old problems. However, his ideas of mixed government and a balance of power remained influential in the writings of the Neo-Harringtonians of the later 17th and early 18th century. They influenced both the American and French Revolutions, while his materialist theory of political change would also strike a chord with Marxists and modern economic and political thinkers"[5]. Kenyon was not a Marxist, but Harrington certainly struck a chord with him.

High Tide of Revisionism

The fact that Kenyon had no discernable historiography meant that many could claim him for their brand of history. Leading one obituary writer to say "When he appeared at Christ's in 1954, he cast himself in the role of mocking outsider, offering caustic criticisms from the fringes of college power in the confident and correct expectation that they would mostly be ignored. They were. College meetings would be punctuated by Kenyon's heavy sighs and even heavier disapproving sniffs and brief, dismissive comments, but the college men of affairs went about their efficient business untroubled by these background mutterings".

Kenyon's book appeared when writing about the English revolution was an extremely hazardous occupation. Kenyon was too independent of mind to call himself a revisionist, but this did not stop the dean of revisionism John Morrill claiming him for their side.

John Morrill for one believed that Kenyon was close to the revisionists and made it abundantly clear in his obituary for the British Academy that Kenyon had the "fundamental disapproval of model-builders and systematisers. He had no time for social determinism as a tool of the historian for explaining the past or of social engineering as a tool of the politician in effecting the future". [6]

To say that Kenyon was a mass of contradictions would be an understatement but sometimes he went too far. His review of Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down was not only wrong, rude and disrespectful as this quote shows:" I think we are entitled to ask where all this discussion of obscure left fanatics is getting us. That some of them were mad, we have always impatiently known, but Dr Hill positively glories in it. This was not a proletarian movement at all. It was an unexpected opportunity for failed shopkeepers, lazy artisans and eccentric historians to find their voice".

Kenyon rejected being dragged into the Revisionist or post revisionist camp as his article Revisionism and Post Revisionism in Early Stuart History[7] shows. His attack on Conrad Russell's reluctance to see the revolution as a clash of social classes scolding "to Russell, then, the crisis was one of central organisation: how to control the three kingdoms in a war situation; how to solve the church problem when each nation had a majority espousing a different faith from the other two, each with a substantial minority inclined toward the faith of another kingdom; and how to secure a financial settlement adequate for early modern government. The effect was to create a bewildering number of new axes of division. Russell has never allowed that this was a struggle between social classes, constitutionalism and absolutism, between Court and Country, or between "government" and "opposition".[8]

To conclude it is perhaps fitting and generous on my part to allow John Morrill to have the last word on Kenyon when he wrote" John Kenyon had the best historical intelligence of his generation. He understood men and women in the past and wrote about them with a rare precision, clarity and conviction. He was a productive scholar, and all his works except one wore their learning with a deep deceptive lightness. He fitted into no school, reacted against fashion, came to look old fashioned in his interests. He was a magnificent historian who could not quite build on the brilliance of his early promise, but who greatly underestimated the magnitude of his own achievement and the continuing appeal of his writing".[9]

[1] Continuity and Anachronism: Parliamentary and Constitutional Development by P.B.M. Blaas
[2] The Civil Wars of England--John Kenyon - Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988 - xvi + 272pp-
[3] The Civil War and the Class Struggle-Robert Ashton-1970
[4] A History of England, Volume 1: Prehistory to 1714- By Clayton Roberts, F David Roberts, Douglas Bisson
[6]Proceedings of the British Academy (Volume 101 (1999), pages 441-461)
[8] Review: Revisionism and Post-Revisionism in Early Stuart History- The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 64, No. 4 (Dec., 1992), pp. 686-699
[9] Proceedings of the British Academy (Volume 101 (1999), pages 441-461)

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Oliver Cromwell: Politics and Religion in the English Revolution, 1640-1658, David L. Smith Cambridge University Press, 1991, 120pp.,

" Do not trust to the cheering, for those very persons would shout as much if you and I were going to be hanged'. Oliver Cromwell.

"I do not know whether you have been alive or dead. I have not heard you all this time; I have not … Instead of peace and settlement, instead of mercy and truth being brought together, righteousness and peace are kissing each other . . . weeds and nettles, briers and thorns, have thriven under your shadow!"[1]

A good biography of  Oliver Cromwell should be to do what  Thomas Carlyle did and "drag out the Lord Protector from under a mountain of dead dogs, a huge load of calumny and oblivion".

David L Smith's short and handsomely illustrated book does this to a certain extent. Smith's job is not an easy one as over the centuries Cromwell's reputation has suffered more than most of calumny and oblivion.
It is, therefore, a little surprising in 2002 the Lord Protector was voted 10th Greatest Briton after John Lennon and Horatio Nelson. His statue still sits outside Parliament. Given Cromwell's celebrity status.  it is still a little disconcerting to find that it is possible to go through all phases of the UK education system and not be taught who Cromwell was.

According to one writer "The National Curriculum at no point prescribes that Cromwell be studied, and the range of GCSE and A level options also mean that a positive decision has to be taken to teach on the subject, it does not happen as a matter of course".

It is to David Smith's credit that he has written a book that is aimed at A-Level students. He tackles a subject that is both complex and "seldom straightforward".

According to his biography page at Cambridge David L. Smith is a historian on the Early Modern period of British history. He is particularly interested in the political, constitutional, legal and religious history in the Stuart period. He has been an Affiliated Lecturer in the Faculty of History at Cambridge since 1995, and he served as Convenor of the Directors of Studies in History from 2006 to 2010. He also teaches regular weekend, day-school and summer school courses for Cambridge's Institute of Continuing Education.

He is the author or co-author of eight books and the editor of four others. David L Smith's book on Oliver Cromwell from the Cambridge University Press Topics in History provides us with an excellent introduction to Oliver Cromwell and his place in history. It is not an orthodox biography of Cromwell but a guide to study. It works both for A-Level students, or degree level students. The general reader will find the book a good introduction to both Cromwell and the English revolution.

A significant amount of scholarship published on Cromwell and the English Revolution, in general, have prompted some university examination boards to reflect this at the Advanced level.It is hoped that this publication is the start of more less expensive resources being made available to teachers and students alike. After all, it is cheap to study the 17th century.

Smith's book has managed to combine a high academic with a relatively small price. The book shows significant objectivity towards its subject. One problem I have with the book is that dismisses both Whig and Marxist historiography as outdated and no longer fashionable. Smith's historiographical preferences are on the conservative side and would not look out of place with other revisionist historians of his generation.

He states "Over the past 20 years, scholars have placed much greater emphasis on political and religious culture rather than on high politics. They are also showing increasing sensitivity to the relationship between ideas and action, and much more sophistication in the analysis of these themes. Many of the sources that I use are records of government (e.g. the State Papers Domestic) and the records of Parliament. I also make extensive use of the letters, diaries and memoirs left by private individuals, together with a range of other sources that reveal political or religious attitudes, including literary sources" [2].

He continues "I came to this period through being taught as an undergraduate by Professor John Morrill, who later supervised my PhD thesis. His inspiration and infectious enthusiasm for this period were crucial in leading me to specialise in it. Another important influence was the late Professor Sir Geoffrey Elton who also took a very supportive interest in my work. Both these historians helped me to appreciate not only the importance of this period but also its complexity, dynamism and colour".

The book neither favours or criticises Cromwell. Smith does not pad the book out with long-winded explanations of events or Cromwell's action. He provides the academic or general reader with strong notes to carry out further studies. The book appeared when there were significant re-evaluations of Cromwell and his place in the English Revolution.

Despite having only a hundred and twenty words to play with Smith has made excellent use a wide variety of primary sources. Smith's book is a useful tool in navigating the choppy water that is the English Revolution.

The book has been well received with Irene Carrier saying "It is a masterly selection from a bewildering profusion of Cromwellian material. It provides a cogent overview of staunchly held opinions and interpretations. A hint of a rather mechanical thesis, antithesis, synthesis approach in the Introduction is occasionally intrusive. Again, the British dimension merits fuller coverage, both during the 1640s and the Protectorate. After all, Cromwell was 'Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland'. Limitations apart, this book is lively, provocative, and an essential stimulus for Advanced level students".[3]

[1] The Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, with Elucidations by Thomas Carlyle, ed. S. C. Lomas (3 vols., 1904), 11, 407. 409.
[2] ]
[3] Oliver Cromwell: Politics and Religion in the English Revolution, 16401658, (Cambridge Topics in History series) by David L. Smith Review by: Irene Carrier Source: Teaching History, No. 67 (April 1992), p. 38