Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Obituary:Barry Coward: A Partisan Historian of the English Civil War.

These remarks come one day after attending a memorial service for the historian and teacher Barry Coward. Well over 130 of Barry’s family, close friends, co-workers and former students attended the service. Perhaps it is a bit strange to say this, but it was a hugely enjoyable and uplifting occasion. The death of any person is a sad thing, but the fact of the matter is that Barry Coward was a special historian and I certainly left the memorial with the feeling that knowing him made you a better person.

I first met him in 1999 at Birkbeck University. I was attending an open evening because I was thinking of doing a part time degree and Birkbeck had been recommended to me by a friend. At the public meeting was Barry Coward. Part of the attraction of the degree was the study of the English revolution. I had a vague likening for the subject, but when I asked Barry about the course, he immediately fired my enthusiasm and signed up a week later. This was probably one of my better decisions

The first thing that struck me about Barry Coward was his incredible and infectious enthusiasm for his chosen topic. He was also something rare amongst most historians in that he was always warm and friendly towards his students.

In his own words “I never ceased to be amazed by their ability to combine full-time employment with part-time study and gain degrees as good as, and often better than, those who studied full time. It was enormously rewarding to watch Birkbeck students – especially those who had not done a formal study for some time – develop academically, and then use Birkbeck as a launch pad for life-changing experiences. I’d like to thank them for their enthusiasm and the freshness of their ideas that I drew on in my writings.’

Barry Coward was rare bread. He was both a serious historian, but he was also a first class teacher. John Croxon who was one of Barry’s students who spoke at the memorial testified to Barry’s special talent as a teacher. John’s experience echoed my own and many other students in the fact that Barry always had time and patience for students no matter how small their questions.

While listening to the speakers, you got a great sense of Barry’s modesty. This may have stemmed from the fact that he had a formidable knowledge of his subject so much so that some his books such as The Stuart Age, England 1603–1714 (latest edition 2003)The Cromwellian Protectorate (2002) are standard texts on the subject of the English Civil War. Fellow historian Ian Roy spoke of Barry’s work. I tend to agree with him as regards probably Barry’s most important task certainly because of its value for research purposes was his English Historical Documents, 1603-1660: which edited alongside Peter Gaunt.

His book on Oliver Cromwell (1991) has also become a standard textbook on the period. This was not an orthodox biography. He kept an open mind on the main issues surrounding Cromwell. He made an important point of saying that it is good to strip away the myths surrounding Cromwell. Many of these myths and falsehoods were spread by hostile biographers.

As the title says, Barry was a partisan Historian. He was a former president of the Cromwell Association. While he wore his history on his sleeve, he did so to further our understanding of not only Cromwell but also his place in the English revolution.

Coward was not a materialist historian. While not a revisionist historian, he accepted the way history of this period is now written without any attention to underlying socio-economic causes of events portrayed in the book. However Coward did concede that the differences which arose amongst parliamentarians were political rather than religious. The main reason for disagreement was over what to do with the king. What was the class basis of the differences between the Independents and Presbyterians?

He makes an outstanding claim that the New Model Army was not political from the outset and that it was not politicised by the Levellers, which I don to agree with. Coward says the army spontaneously gravitated to radical solutions over pay grievances etc. This downplaying of the ideological debates that took place in the army is a major weak point in the book. That is not to say that Coward had no grand narrative, which was his fascination with Cromwell’s attempt at a “Godly Reformation”. Again the weakness in this book is the absence of any class analysis. What social forces were moving not just Cromwell but other players?

Barry was an excellent public speaker although not the best he was not the worse. He also had one of the best traits of a historian in that during his lectures you could almost sense that when he was speaking on a subject, he was already rethinking his remarks.

It would be remiss of me to say that I did not always see eye to eye on his political and historical conclusions on the Civil War. We came from different political family trees. He was old school labour, and I was certainly to the left of him, but I must say that during his seminars which were probably the best part of my degree course we had a frank exchange and that was it. Having said this he was always, the gentlemen and these debates never became bitter or rancorous.

In conclusion, while Barry never subscribed to the Marxist method of studying historical events I am sure he would not mind me quoting Karl Marx to highlight Barry’s attitude to study. In the 1872 Preface to the French edition of Das Kapital Vol. 1, Marx emphasised that "There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits". Reaching a scientific understanding was hard work. Conscientious, painstaking research was required, instead of philosophical speculation and unwarranted, sweeping generalisations. Suffice to say Barry made it to that luminous summit. I will miss Barry and so will the past and future students of 17th century English revolution.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Historians on the Levellers and the English Revolution 1642-1652

by Chris Thompson

I am afraid that it is not true to claim that there was a dearth of works on the Levellers before Christopher Hill and other members of the Communist Party’s Historians’ Group began work to rescue them from historical oblivion or that this was the responsibility of Whig historians. S.R.Gardiner considered the Levellers’ influence in the period from 1647-1649 in some detail in Volume IV of his history of the English Civil War and in his biography of Oliver Cromwell: the first Agreement of the People, now known to be the product not of Leveller thinking but of a group of radicals around Henry Marten, appeared in 1889 in his Constitutional Documents of the Puritan Revolution.

It was C.H.Firth who edited and published The Clarke Papers, which throw such light on relations between the leaders of the New Model Army, the Agitators and Levellers, between 1891 and 1901. Eduard Bernstein’s book, Cromwell and Communism; socialism and democracy in the great English Civil War was published in German in 1895 and in an English translation in 1930. G.P.Gooch’s work, The history of English democratic ideas in the 17th century, first appeared in 1898 and T.C.Pease’s book, The Leveller Movement; A Study in the history and political theory of the English Great Civil War, was published in 1916. Margaret James’s book, Social Problems and Policies during the Puritan Revolution 1640-1660, was published in 1930 as was J.W.Gough’s article, ‘The Agreements of the People’ in History in the following year. The truth is that there had been a significant amount of work done on the Levellers long before they attracted the attention of Christopher Hill or of the Communist Party’s Historians’ Group.

It is true that there were Marxist historians of importance working in the pre- and post-Second World War periods. But, by the early-1970s, their influence was largely spent as far as the early modern period was concerned as was that of Lawrence Stone. Marxist influence had never been overwhelming or absolutely predominant even if it had attracted the support of, perhaps, a third of the specialists in this period. Hugh Trevor-Roper, J.P.Cooper and J.H.Hexter had seen to that. ‘Revisionism’ in the sense you use the term was born in the late-1960s and was itself defunct by the early-1990s.

To be a non-Marxist is not to be a ‘revisionist’. Personally, I prefer a situation in which a range of influences and trends shape the historiography of the period before, during and after the struggles of the 1640s and 1650s in the British Isles. Critical attacks on Kishlansky, Morrill and Russell will not revive historical materialism of the kind advocated in the 1950s and 1960s. The Levellers were an interesting phenomenon and important for their ideas amidst the competing political and religious debates of the late-1640s but their support was relatively small and they were gone in the space of a very few years. Such a transient phenomenon deserves serious historical evaluation rather than hagiography.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

A Short Biographical Sketch of Sir Michael Livesey

Sir Michael Livesey was born in 1614. During his early years, he has been presented as a bit of a rebel. How accurate this picture is open to debate. His family were in reality, somewhat established members of the 17th century English gentry.

Michael Livesey's grandfather was employed as the sheriff of Surrey. Michael's father was the first Livesey to inhabit Kent. The family soon became settled so much so that they became essential community members.

The Livesey's growing political and financial status was confirmed when Livesey was granted a baronetcy in 1627. Given the exalted status of the family, it is a little perplexing to find that Michael Livesey played such a prominent part on the side of Parliament and a radical independent to boot.

Why people choose, sides in the English Civil War has occupied historians for centuries.  One of the main problems in determining why Sir Michael Livesey chose parliaments side in the war is so little is known about his personal views. However, he did fight and towards the end of the war became a radical independent and gleefully signed the king's death warrant.

He was to become one of the most fanatical puritans in the County who gave information according to Jason Pearcy's biography "against recusants to the Long Parliament in November 1640. In 1642 he was one of the ringleaders of the Kentish petition of grievances.

This petition provoked Parliament's ire, and it answered thus "This Conference is desired concerning the Kentish Petition, upon the Informations my Lords have received, That it is yet, by the malignant and ill-affected Party, with great, though secret Industry, carried on; and not only in that County, but in some others of this Kingdom: And as it may have an ill Consequence, and a dangerous Effect, in the Disturbance of what the parliament hath settled for the present Safety of the Kingdom, the Desire of the Lords is, That the Delinquents, and such as have been Actors in this Petition, may speedily be brought to their Trial: And that forthwith there may be a Declaration unto the Kingdom, that whosoever shall be found to further or to countenance this Petition, or any other of the like Nature, shall be held to be Disturbers of the Peace and Quiet of this Kingdom, and justly liable to the Censure of Parliament: And those that shall discover and give Information of such Practices, shall be reputed to do an acceptable Service to the King and Parliament."Ordered, That a Message be sent to the Lords, to acquaint their Lordships, That this House doth assent to the Declaration mentioned at the last Conference; and do desire that a Committee of both Houses may be appointed to draw up one to that Purpose."[1]

In November 1642 he was one of only two Kentish parliamentarians excluded from pardon by Charles I". Livesey's record in the civil war is one of contradiction. He commanded a Kentish regiment during the first civil war. He was a fervent member of the county committee and sheriff in 1643. He had a reputation for ruthlessness against Royalist forces but also elicited grave suspicions amongst parliamentarians.

Little is known about Livesey's politics (he did not leave a diary and seldom wrote anything down) other than he was an independent and was closely aligned to its radical wing. He was a prominent military figure although his troops were on numerous occasions accused of disorder and plunder He was warned to keep them under control, "for fear of disaffecting the community further".

It is not known whether his army had Leveller influence, but they were radical enough to sanction Pride's Purge in December 1648[2]. He was so trusted by Cromwell that when it came to killing the king, he served on the high court of justice to try Charles I. His signature is fifth on the death warrant. Livesey attended every day of the trial. One writer has joked that he was so eager that he was almost waiting with a quill in his hand, dripping with ink.

The men who signed the death warrant have had a contradictory treatment by history The 17th-century Italian philosopher Vico described them as Heroes. CV Wedgwood book[3] they were  "rogues and knaves".

From what we know of Livesey, it is clear he made choices and acted on those choices with an undeniable passion. What drove him? Unfortunately for several established and distinguished historians, this has become an unimportant question. As far as the historian Conrad Russell is concerned, there were no great causes of the civil war which drove men such as Livesey to do what they did in fact according to Russell "it is certainly easier to understand why sheer frustration might have driven Charles to fight than it has ever been to understand why the English gentry might have wanted to make a revolution against him".

Russell found it easier to trace long term reasons why the king would do what he did but denies that these same long term reasons could also explain the actions of the Gentry.

"If we were to search the period for long-term reasons why the King might have wanted to fight a Civil War, we would find the task far easier than it has ever been to find long-term causes why the gentry might have wanted to fight a Civil War." Why, then, has the task never been attempted? The trouble, I think, comes from our reliance on the concept of 'revolution.' Revolutions are thought of as things done to the head of state and not by him. The result is that Charles has been treated as if he were largely passive in the drift to Civil War, as a man who reacted to what others did, rather than doing much to set the pace himself. This picture is definitely incorrect. Whether the notion of an 'English Revolution' is also incorrect is a question I will not discuss here. Anyone who is determined to find an 'English Revolution' should not be looking here, but later on, in the years 1647-1653, and those years are outside the scope of this article. This article is concerned with the outbreak of the Civil War, an event in which the king was a very active participant".[4]

Well, no one said this was a chemically pure revolution, but revolution it was. The Gentry fought on both sides of the barricade, so did the bourgeoisie. As Ann Talbot explains The prevailing academic orthodoxy is that there was no bourgeois revolution because there was no rising bourgeoisie and that people from all social classes can be found on either side of the struggle. One could not expect a chemically pure 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, historians like Christopher Hill were 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 appeared—as the ideologists of the revolution ransacked the Bible and half-understood historical precedent for some kind of theory to explain what they were doing."[5]

As Talbot confirms the beauty of this period is that identifiable class relations were becoming more definable and parties and political allegiances became somewhat clearly into view. According to a 20th century Russian revolutionary speaking on 17th-century revolutionary politics "The adherents of the Episcopal or Anglican, semi-Catholic Church was the party of the court, the nobility and of course the higher clergy. The Presbyterians were the party of the bourgeoisie, the party of wealth and enlightenment. The Independents and the Puritans especially were the party of the petty bourgeoisie, the plebeians. Wrapped up in ecclesiastical controversies, in the form of a struggle over the religious structure of the Church, there took place social self-determination of classes and their re-grouping along new, bourgeois lines. Politically the Presbyterian party stood for a limited monarchy; the Independents, who then were called "root and branch men" or, in the language of our day, radicals, stood for a republic. The half-way position of the Presbyterians fully, corresponded to the contradictory interests of the bourgeoisie – between the nobility and the plebeians. The Independents" party which dared to carry its ideas and slogans through to their conclusion naturally displaced the Presbyterians among the awakening petty-bourgeois masses in the towns and the countryside that formed the main force of the revolution".[6]

One angle worth looking at as to why men like Livesey fought is a local angle. Several historians like Alan Everitt[7] and John Morrill have sought to explain the behaviour of members of the Gentry such as Sir Michael Livesey from the standpoint of local politics or religion. Morrill's most famous work, The Revolt of the Provinces, addresses this issue.

In an interview with Morrill, he describes how he developed his provincial view of the Civil War "I think it was in 1973 in Oxford when I was a young research fellow that I gave a series of lectures called 'Some Unfashionable Thoughts on English 17th-century History', and these were extraordinarily crude and unsophisticated revisionism Avant la Lettre. However, I'm not claiming I'm the progenitor – I'm saying there were a lot of people trying to work out a new position who were dissatisfied with the existing position. I've no doubt at all that Lawrence Stone's Causes of the English Revolution (1972) were the thing people reacted against, with its rather triumphalist claim that you could now produce a kind of social determinist view of the long-term causes and origins of the English revolution. It was that I think, which a number of people quite independently reacted against".[8]

To conclude, it is very difficult to explain why men like Livesey did what they did. You could spend hours searching for personal traits but in the end, as Karl Marx wrote so beautifully "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 circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past".

[1] House of Commons Journal Volume 2: 21 April 1642', Journal of the House of Commons: volume 2: 1640-1643 (1802), pp. 535-537. URL:
[3] The Trial of Charles I
[4] Why did Charles I fight the Civil War?Conrad Russell-
[5] "These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill
[6] Chapter 11 of The History of the Russian Revolution (1931) Leon Trotsky
[7] A. Everitt, The community of Kent and the great rebellion, 1640–60 (1966)
[8] Professor John Morrill interview Transcript interview took place in Selwyn College, Cambridge, and 26 March 2008.