Sunday, 24 February 2013

Review of The King's Revenge: Charles II and the Greatest Manhunt in British History Michael Walsh, Don Jordan -ISBN-13: 978-0349123769

 "We are not traitors or murderers or fanatics, but true Christians and good commonwealths men, fixed and constant in that noble principle of preferring the universality before particularity.

 John Cooke. Regicide.

"We shall therein… by all means possible endeavour to pursue and bring to their due punishment those bloody traitors who were either actors or contrivers of that unparalleled and inhuman murder." 

Charles ll

This is a very well written and soundly researched book. Jordan and Walsh's book has been described as "a work of popular history". It would also suit the more academically minded reader.

The fact that both authors are not historians in the formal sense is all the more remarkable because this is a very serious attempt at a complex subject and should be read by any student, academic or member of the public interested in the story of the regicides.

The book works on many levels. On a lower level, this is a personal story of a son's revenge for the killing of his father. One minor criticism of the book is that the authors dwell a little too long on this. On a much higher level, the vengeance expressed in the manhunt and ultimate murder of over twenty regicides was the product of a deep-seated counter-revolution against the very people who took part in the English revolution especially its most far-sighted and courageous republican representatives.

The first few chapters of the book give an adequate introduction to the events that led up to one of the greatest show trials in English and for that matter World history. The book could have done with a bit more research into the historiography of the events of the civil war and the trial itself. 

I share Geoffrey Robertson belief that "historians rarely have a good word to say about the trial: 'Oh dear, oh dear – shocking, shocking' was all that Richard Holmes, Cromwell's advocate in the BBC's 2002 Great Britons series, could manage (so it was little wonder that Oliver came last in the voting). J.G. Muddiman, the editor of the notoriously slanted version of the trial published in 1928 in the influential Famous British Trials series, was a ranting royalist".[1]

This downplaying of the importance of the trial of Charles l is also expressed by numerous revisionist historians. Perhaps the most eloquent of these is Blair Worden who in his book The English Civil Wars, believes that the war achieved nothing and that the parliamentarians: "whose exploits were ... emphatically reversed" with the restoration of Charles II in 1660, would have supported John Dryden, view in 1700: that  "Thy wars brought nothing about."

The most open hostility towards the trial is expressed by Blair Worden in his book The English Civil Wars, believes that the war achieved nothing and that the parliamentarians "whose exploits were ... emphatically reversed" with the restoration of Charles II in 1660, would have supported John Dryden, view in 1700: that  "Thy wars brought nothing about." According to Worden, nobody wanted a revolution; no one wanted to kill the king and that the king died because of "the law of unintended consequences".

Hopefully in their next book, Walsh and Jordan will pay more attention to this historiography and less to drama. To their credit, the authors have consulted Geoffrey Robertson book The Tyrannicide Brief. Robertson dubbed the trial of the regicides as the "the first war crimes trial in history" he also made a valid point in comparing it to  Stalin's show trial of old Bolsheviks. While not on the same scale both were counter-revolutions against previous revolutions and both carried out a series of judicial state murders.

This book is not a radical history of the English revolution. The authors are if anything sympathetic to the Whig interpretation of history and seem to be republicans. They believed that the civil war was a progressive development  and support Robertson contention that  "The proceeding against Charles I in 1649 secured the constitutional gains of the Civil War – the supremacy of Parliament, the independence of judges, individual freedom guaranteed by Magna Carta and the common law".

It must be said that large numbers of these regicides have been woefully under-researched and their ideas and motivation have been largely left to small footnotes in old history books. One such figure is the leading regicide and republican lawyer John Cooke who has been finally recognised in a recent biography by Geoffrey Robertson. Cooke it seems is more known for his refusal to pick up the Kings silver top than for providing the theoretical, constitutional and practical justification for killing the king. 

As Cooke said, "We fought for the public good and would have enfranchised the people and secured the welfare of the whole groaning creation if the nation had not delighted more in servitude than freedom."One thing is clear that many who took part, including Cooke, did not believe that the trial and execution of the king was a foregone conclusion. The majority of the leading figures of the revolution "did not at first want to kill the King". 

John Cooke, at the beginning, thought that "the proceedings would end with some form of reconciliation". It was only the threat of an intervention from the New Model Army that moved most of the leading regicides to kill the king. It was after all the army that wanted "to call Charles Stuart, that man of blood, to an account for that blood he had shed, and mischief he had done".

The regicides were leading intellectual figures of the English revolution. The majority were republicans and were "men of principle". John Cooke was  concerned with the plight of the poor. He wrote in several publications calling for action to be taken to secure a better standard of living for the poor. In the book The Poor Man's Case.  He called for social equality and even called for a national health service, In another far-sighted way he believed that poverty was a significant cause of crime, he would later call for limits to the death sentence and abolition of imprisonment for debt. He even urged fellow barristers to give away small parts of their salary in order to carry out legal work for the poor.

Cooke for his trouble was hunted down like a common criminal and was a given the traitor's death: hanged, drawn and quartered. Agents and spies were sent all over the world to hunt down and murder if necessary, every regicide. In 1664 Sir John Lisle, a barrister who helped organise the trial but did not sign the warrant, was shot on his way to church in Lausanne, Switzerland, shortly after Edmund Ludlow and five others fled there from nearby Vevey.

The writer's Don Jordan and Michael Walsh at times turn their book into a spy novel. They show how Charles spymaster Sir George Downing of Downing Street fame, and described by Samuel Pepys as "that perfidious rogue", plotted and planned to go himself to the Continent, kidnap and if necessary murder then and there his former friends or bundle them back to England to stand trial and certain execution.

It would appear from the book that the reign of Charles was dominated by this manhunt. While sanctioning what amounted to judicial murder, the regime was hardly a picture of stability. The longer the show trial went on, the more nervous Charles and his ministers became and recognised the growing danger of a rebellion. As Jordan and Walsh point out when the mistake was made to give a public funeral to one of the regicides, over twenty thousand people attended testifying the still considerable support held for republican ideas.

Another striking aspect of the book is how people who were once leading members in the Cromwellian era shifted their allegiances like some people change a shirt.

Charles Monck, who has always struck me as a person of extreme opportunism, was "a turncoat of heroic proportions". He had been commander in chief of the English army in Scotland and an ardent follower of Cromwell. But after being promised the unheard-of sum of £100,000 a year for the rest of his life changed sides and decided to do the kings dirty work.

One severe weakness of the book is that it fails to convey how the regicides lost power and a monarchy established albeit with the help of substantial sections of the bourgeoisie. The book is absent as to the political and economic makeup of the Charles ll regime. The trial far from just being about revenge was a counter-revolution by sections of the bourgeoisie who were still closely connected to the Monarchy.

Given the skill of the two writers, the failure to explain the demise of the republicans of the Cromwellian era is a major weakness. Even if the authors of the book are not sympathetic to Marxist historiography the least, they could have done examined for instance James Holstun's assertion that "What turned the tide was the failure of bourgeois republican revolutionaries to unify themselves militarily, and create an interest and stake in the republic among the copyholders, soldiers, sailors and apprentices; and the superior power of General Monck and the forces of Restoration in shaping and controlling the army".

To conclude, despite the books many weaknesses I would still recommend this serious attempt at explaining the "Kings Revenge". It is a cracking read and deserves a wide readership and should be put on university reading lists on the subject.

[1] Geoffrey Robertson, QC is author of The Tyrannicide Brief: The Man Who Sent Charles I to the Scaffold (Vintage, 2005)

Friday, 15 February 2013

Comments on Alex Callinicos’s review of Neil Davidson, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?

These are some observations made by Chris Thompson on Alex Callinicos’s review of Neil Davidson, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? For some reason the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) did not post these comments on their website.  

Calinicos's review can be viewed at In the near future I shall review Davidson’s book for my own blog.

 This review offers a clear expression of the ever-widening gulf between modern academic research and writing on the events of the 1640s in the British Isles and an approach based on a Marxist, indeed Trotskyite, analysis.

 The prolific use of terms like ‘bourgeoisie’, ‘feudal’ and ‘modern’ aristocracy, ‘proletariat’ and ‘non-bourgeois strata of the middle class’ invites comparison with the debates of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s historians’ group in the late-1940s and early-1950s recently edited by David Parker. Antique concepts like the claim that a class of urban capitalists were developing in the sixteenth century with feudalism or that these people were held to be socially inferior and were excluded from power by Absolute States are given vigorous exercise.

‘Bourgeois’ revolutions inevitably occurred and, in their outcomes, promoted capitalism. There is also an undertow of historiographical controversy: Callinicos’s protest against the revisionist historians of the 1970s is linked to an attack on ‘Political Marxists’ like Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood for their assistance in undermining a more authentically Socialist interpretation.

It is easy to see where the origins of this interpretation can be found. Neil Davidson and Alex Callinicos have recognised that, between 1500 and 1800, the basis for a new form of society was laid down. As a matter of Marxist theology, they believe that the transition to capitalism could not have been achieved peacefully but required a violent break-through, in other words, a ‘bourgeois revolution’. It was logical, therefore, to assume that such ‘bourgeois revolutions’ could be identified in the revolt of the Low Countries against Spanish rule in the latter part of the sixteenth-century and in the violent Puritan Revolution of the 1640s in England.

The motive force for these and later such revolutions was that of a productive bourgeoisie hampered by the protective system of absolute monarchs and a feudal aristocracy. Only in England, where the bourgeoisie was better developed and represented in Parliament, was capitalism able to triumph. A new form of economic organisation was established and industrial capitalism was subsequently able to transform the world.

The profound problems with such arguments and assumptions were obvious six or seven decades ago. It is straightforward enough to claim that economic changes occurred in England in the course of the seventeenth-century and that the country’s economy was more advanced in 1700 than in 1600. But is has never been shown that these changes precipitated the English Revolution or that the economy of 1700 would have been more backward had the English Revolution not occurred. The Revolution itself was undoubtedly immensely costly in human and animal lives, in demographic terms and in the destruction of property. That it forwarded the development of capitalism remains unproven.

There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that the bourgeoisie headed the 1648 revolution despite Callinicos’s pleadings or that the bourgeoisie was allied to the ‘modern aristocracy’ – who were they? – against the monarchy, the feudal aristocracy and the established – in fact, disestablished – Church at that time. The idea of the existence, real or potential, of a non-bourgeois strata of the middle class or of an embryonic proletariat is completely anachronistic.
There was no victory of bourgeois ownership over feudal ownership, no evidence of the abandonment of primogeniture, of competition over the guilds, etc. 

The new economy, the new historiography, the new philosophy and the new science of the post-Restoration period was as much the work of former Royalists as of former Parliamentarians. None of this was stifled by the return of the King, the House of Lords and the Church of England. Tories and Whigs alike contributed to the defenestration of James II in 1688-89 and to the emergence of Britain as a major military and naval power.

The political and religious lessons of the Interregnum had been learnt: there was to be no return to such chaos. In 1640, political and religious fissures could be found across all ranks of English society but they were not based on class or on the rise of a bourgeoisie or on the opposition of a reactionary monarchy or aristocracy or church. After 1660, there was a deep-seated determination never to let such divisions lead to Civil Wars again: slowly, the constitutional machinery to accommodate political and religious differences was put in place.

But these changes have yet to be shown to have been due to the rise of the bourgeoisie or of capitalism. It has, indeed, yet to be shown that there was a ‘bourgeois revolution’ at all. That is why it cannot be found in the works of early modern historians and why the assumptions of Callinicos and Davidson are fallacious and unconvincing.   

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Review: Oliver Cromwell: British Library Historic Lives by Peter Gaunt the British Library Publishing Division (Sep 1 2004) ISBN-13: 978-0712348577

Peter Gaunt’s biography of Oliver Cromwell is a well written, handsomely illustrated and the product of substantial research. The book was well received by the general reader though academic reviews were few and far between. Despite this fact, one writer said, “this book is as disciplined, vivid and vigorous as the man it celebrates”.

The book has only a hundred pages of text, with the rest of it taken up by illustrations. Gaunts uses several portraits of Cromwell and others well. The book also contains reproductions of letters and other documents. It is clear that Gaunt has used his access to the British Library well.

Guant is extremely careful in his use of Cromwell’s letters mindful that Cromwell’s early life is a minefield of historical inaccuracy. It is therefore hoped that John Morrill’s new editions of Cromwell’s writings and speeches will clear a lot up of the myths and inaccuracies surrounding Cromwell.

Gaunt like Barry Coward is a partisan historian when it comes to Cromwell. Also like Coward, he was also a former chairman of The Cromwell Association. As Stephen Roberts states “His Cromwell Association credentials are a useful clue as to his approach. He is sympathetic to his subject, seeing the lord general and the lord protector as one who achieved much of value and who "always retained a radical edge and never became a self-satisfied, conservative figure" (p. 9). Always inclined to give Cromwell the benefit of the doubt--his defence of Cromwell in Ireland in 1649 is the benchmark of Gaunt's liberalism as it is in similar vindications by liberals before him--Gaunt concludes by emphasising the "inherent decency of the man and his regime “[1].

Guant’s book acknowledges that Cromwell was a leading figure of the revolution but was not its main theoretician. Cromwell is correctly portrayed by Gaunt as a deeply religious man. In the main Cromwell’s courageous and farsighted political action was guided by those beliefs.

As poet Andrew Marvell famously wrote “If these the Times, then this must be the Man. Moreover, well he therefore does, and well has guest, Who in his Age always has forward prest: And knowing not where Heavens choice may light,Girds yet his Sword, and ready stands to fight”.

The great Whig historian Thomas Babington Macaulay added that Cromwell was “A force thus composed might, without injury to its efficiency, be indulged in some liberties which, if allowed to any other troops, would have proved subversive of all discipline. In general, soldiers who should form themselves into political clubs, elect delegates, and pass resolutions on high questions of state would soon break loose from all control would cease to create an army, and would become the worst and most dangerous of mobs. Nor would it be safe, in our time, to tolerate in any regiment religious meetings at which a corporal versed in Scripture should lead the devotions of his less gifted colonel, and admonish a back-sliding major. However, such was the intelligence, the gravity, and the self-Command of the warriors whom Cromwell had trained that in their camp a political organisation and a religious organisation could exist without destroying a military organisation. The same men who, off duty, were noted as demagogues and field preachers, were distinguished by steadiness, by the spirit of order, and by prompt”.

One of the more controversial parts of the book is Guant’s attitude towards the events in Ireland. Gaunt believes that Cromwell was acting as any leading member of the new rising bourgeoisie would act. Cromwell being deeply religious, responded to the persecution of Protestants in Ireland with his form of justice against the Irish ruling elite and sections of the population. He was reported to call them "Barbarous and bloodthirsty.” Perhaps most importantly significant economic gains were made in the plunder of Ireland by the English bourgeoisie. Cromwell himself invested heavily in the colonisation of Ireland.

It is perhaps that given the short nature of this book that Gaunt cannot cover every part of Cromwell’s life and the stuff he does write about must have only a preliminary nature about it.

According to Roberts “Cromwell's attitude to the Scots is skated over somewhat; they took the stage in the narrative only in 1644. The Presbyterianism of the Scots is mentioned but not convincingly described, and the appearance of the "so-called Presbyterians" (p. 59) of the House of Lords and the House of Commons will doubtless convey something meaningful to those conversant with the main themes of the period. However, with no exploration of why "so-called," or of how they relate to the other lot of Presbyterians north of the border, much may well remain perplexing to the readers to whom this book is addressed. The statement that Cromwell was "tolerant of Protestant beliefs" but "hated Roman Catholicism" obscures as much as it reveals. In Gaunt's account, it was Cromwell and the army who dismissed the conservative MPs of the Rump at the time of the dissolution of that parliament in 1653, but no mention is made of the pressure Cromwell was under from the millenarians led by Thomas Harrison and the threat these radicals represented to Oliver's position.


This book is much a political history of the English Civil War as a political biography. Disappointingly there one page of further reading, It therefore clear that the book is aimed at the general reader rather than a guide for students. This may have limited the sales of the book but is not necessarily a bad thing. I will recommend the book as it is a good introduction to the complex world of Oliver Cromwell

[1] Peter Gaunt. Oliver Cromwell. New York: New York University Press, 2004. 144 pp. $22.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8147-3164-2. Reviewed by Stephen Roberts (History of Parliament Trust, London)Published on H-Albion (November, 2006)