Monday, 10 December 2012

W.H.Coates on the ‘Major Conflicts in Seventeenth-Century England’

(This is an article written by Chris Thompson. I do not know much about Wilson H Coates but I would like to publish Chris's article here. The Storm over the Gentry is a complex debate and although it took place over half a century ago the debate is still relevant to today's historiography on the English revolution.)

The ferocious debates over the fortunes of the English aristocracy and gentry that dominated historical debates over the origins and course of the English Revolution in the 1940s and 1950s were played out by the mid-1960s. They are now distant memories, best known probably for the methodological issues they raised and polemical edge to the exchanges between R.H.Tawney and Lawrence Stone on one side and Hugh Trevor-Roper and J.P.Cooper on the other. Undergraduates and, perhaps, postgraduates are most likely to come across this disputed territory when reading J.H.Hexter’s discussion of the ‘storm over the gentry’ and R.C.Richardson’s comments in his work on the historiography of the  Revolution. Assessments by other scholars – by W.H.Coates, Christopher Hill and Perez Zagorin, for example, - are less familiar or even forgotten.

This neglect of their views lends them interest. The first of these figures, Willson H.Coates, contributed an essay on the ‘Analysis of Major Conflicts in Seventeenth-Century England’ to the festschrift published in Wallace Notestein’s honour in 1960. It had originally been given at the meeting of the American Historical Association in December, 1956 to which Hexter and Zagorin had also given papers. It would have been fascinating to have been present then as a fly on the wall. In its apparently revised version, Coates began by addressing the claims of an American historian, Alexander Thomson, on the significance of the crises through which England passed in the seventeenth-century before moving on to discuss the rival claims of English historians since then. I am not going to comment on his discussion  of Alexander Thomson’s views but rather to focus my attention on his analysis of the claims and counter-claims of Tawney, Trevor-Roper and others, which formed the bulk of his essay.

Coates’s analysis focused initially on the Whig interpretation of the English Revolution. Whigs, he argued, viewed it as “essentially a war of ideas concerning religion and politics which rent families and divided members of the ruling gentry class. The seventeenth century was the crucial period in the emergence of constitutional government and of religious and intellectual freedom in England. Whether or not such a result was the intent of the Puritans, the Parliamentarians, the Cromwellians or the Restoration Whigs, it was – partly because powerful opponents of their particular views survived – their main historical achievement.” There is little or nothing in this to which Whig historians from Hallam and Macaulay to G,M,Trevelyan might have objected.

The most formidable assault on the Whig version of the English Revolution had, however, been made by R.H.Tawney according to Coates. He had found the cause of this political upheaval in antecedent social change and had described the economic transformations in England after 1540 to which political institutions had had to be adjusted to meet the requirements of a new social structure. Coates was not, however, convinced by this argument. Tawney’s hypothesis was not adequately linked in his view to the events in the early-1640s it was meant to explain. Tawney himself had conceded as much in his introduction to Brunton and Pennington’s book on the members of the Long Parliament’s House of Commons when he admitted that, as far as the members of the lower House were concerned, divisions between Royalists and Parliamentarians had little to do with diversities of economic interest and social class: even so, Tawney evidently still hankered after an explanation based on economic divisions amongst the ruling elite in and after 1642. Coates’s conclusion was that Tawney’s pre-occupation with underlying causation prevented him from appreciating that there had been other possible outcomes to the events of 1637-1642 and that he had thus failed to account for the English Revolution.

Essentially, Coates stated or re-stated the standard objection of historical empiricists to all forms of economic and social determinism, namely, that the connection between events and their assumed causes had not been made. Lawrence Stone’s progress from a view of the Revolution as “inevitable” in 1948 to one in which the old regime was overthrown peacefully in 1640-1641 and subsequently on to one in which the political struggle could no longer be explained primarily in economic terms was discussed more summarily. Despite his remaining reservations about Stone’s approach to the Civil Wars of the 1640s, Coates was apparently sympathetic to this evolution in Stone’s thinking.

He was much more critical of Trevor-Roper’s hypothesis about the fortunes of the declining and mere gentry. The idea that the Country-house radicalism of the mere gentry might lead either to Catholic desperation or Puritan Independency struck him as implausible. Indeed, the historical irresponsibility of this kind of diagnosis deserved to be ‘anatomized’ itself in the Trevor-Roper manner. Moreover, neither the declining gentry nor the Puritan Independents could be held to have controlled events between 1637 and 1642. And those M.P.s recruited to the House of Commons after the start of the Civil Wars were scarcely more radical than those elected in the autumn of 1640. Changes in the composition of county committees in a more radical direction after 1642 were hardly enough to vindicate Trevor-Roper’s contentions. Once again, the substance of Coates’s objections appear to lie in the inability of such claims to sustain a secure political analysis.

Interestingly enough, Coates had relatively little, if anything, to say about the validity of manorial counts as guides to changing economic fortunes or on the relative rewards of Court office compared to those from landownership that had preoccupied his colleagues in England. He was not opposed in principle to deploying insights gained into the operation of economic and social forces but thought that the dialectical methods of Tawney and Trevor-Roper belonged to “a kind of scholastic world of twentieth-century economic history.” Coates preferred the complex analysis to be found in C.V.Wedgwood’s narrative works and seventeenth-century realities presented in those of William Haller. “Major historical changes can be analysed only on assumptions of multiple causation and the intricate interdependence of a succession of events.”

Coates did, however, have his own analytical framework to suggest. Three categories of conflict in seventeenth-century England might be distinguished. First of all, there was the “continuous social conflict” of interest to economic historians. A good deal was known about the price revolution of 1540-1640, about the expansion of banking, commerce and industry, the sale of Crown and former monastic lands and the shifting patterns of property ownership among the aristocracy and gentry, industrialists, merchants and yeomen. “Innumerable shifts in property divided members of a class, cut across the well-demarcated class lines and effected new combinations of interest” even if the social revolution was a silent one incapable of large-scale organization. Such vast social changes did not culminate in one single historical event but could be seen, for example, in the political legislation of the Long Parliament in 1641 and in the uncontested sway of mercantilist doctrines later in the century. This category of social conflict had strong economic roots and was “closely related to the emergence of modern Western capitalism.” Calvinism, as Weber and Tawney had argued, placed an emphasis of prudence, industry and frugality, which were the appropriate ideological tools for the accumulation of wealth, including land. It was, Coates claimed, “a moulding factor in economic conflict and change.”

The second distinct category identified by Coates concerned the issues contemporaries thought they were fighting about, i.e. over the roles of the royal prerogative, of Parliament and the judiciary as well as the character of the State Church. In essence, the nineteenth-century picture of the conflict was right although the part of the Tories in the post-1688 settlement needed to be recognised alongside that of the Whigs.

Finally, there was “the real class conflict that loomed up in the mid-seventeenth century” with rising demands from the lower classes articulated by the Levellers and the Diggers. Behind these radical movements lay social and economic discontent. But they were premature and hopeless: the threat of social revolution was easily crushed. Even so, these movements had drawn on intellectual and social circumstances that permitted free discussion and the democratic tendencies of English Puritanism. Religious ideas and concepts of natural law as well as a selective reading of history and law fashioned Levellers’ demands.

What remained to be explained was the relationship between the two main factors in these conflicts, the political and the religious. In 1641, men were concerned with both: by 1688, they were obviously more secularly minded.

The ground upon which Coates chose to stand was clearly demarcated. He saw the economic and social changes of the period up to the English Revolution as critical to its explanation and focused on the influence of Calvinism and the rise of Capitalism as fundamental. Broadly speaking, he accepted the Whig interpretation of political and religious conflicts in the course of the seventeenth-century and an explanation in terms of class conflict for the appearance of the Levellers and Diggers in the late-1640s. The idea of an abortive revolution from below would have appealed to Christopher Hill.

But the objections Coates had made against Tawney’s case for the ‘rise of the gentry’ could have been made with equal validity against his own analytical framework. The economic and social changes he postulated in the century before 1640 were not linked either to the key events of 1637-1642 or to the subsequent period. His approach was based on the old claims of Marx, Weber and Tawney for Calvinism and the rise of Calvinism. This was the Tawney thesis shorn of its untenable statistics and without its analytical failings.

Secondly, of course, Coates gave succour to the Whig interpretation that economic and social explanations were supposed to have rendered redundant. He himself shared the presuppositions of economic and social determinism at the same time as he protested against such preconceptions. Logically, he could not begin by making such a protest and then end by offering a synthesis of the two.

Finally, there is the matter of his use of the language of ‘class’ and of ‘class conflict’. Contemporaries did not use such terminology and the consensus of historical opinion is that attempts to apply these terms to seventeenth-century English society have failed, although some, if not very many, historians believe they can be deployed in this way. When Coates wrote that Royalists and Parliamentarians alike found “the rising demands from the lower classes were ominous” and that the Levellers and Diggers constituted a “social revolutionary movement”, he was using anachronistic language and testifying to his own antique intellectual equipment.

This is why this essay from a mature historian in his prime was so conservative. It is in part confused. It is in part confusing because it has nothing new to offer. The powerful stimulus that the ‘storm over the gentry’ had already given to studies of the origins and course of the English Revolution in economic and social history, in county and urban history was never recognised by Coates. That, perhaps, more than anything explains why his comments have languished in obscurity for so long.