Monday, 19 January 2015

John Gurney and the English Revolution

"Action is the life of all and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing" Gerrard Winstanley

There is no denying that the death of John Gurney was a sad and terrible moment for both his family and the history community. His passing at such a young age of 54 of cancer, removes from the scene a gifted historian whose work was starting to produce results on a level of the great Christopher Hill, with whom he met at Oxford.

Gurney was not a Marxist historian, but his latest work published after his death showed a profound shift to the Left in his thinking. His paper Gerard Winstanley and the Left is insightful and thought-provoking. It is certainly one of the best analyses of left-wing historiography of the English Revolution.

Contained within his writings is an excellent example of the Historians Craft. I never met him but had some correspondence with him towards the end of his life. Even with this brief connection, I could tell he was a historian of great ability and tenacity. This was recognised by his friends and colleagues. In a tribute to him, Scott Ashley wrote "John was someone who in both his professional and personal lives could sniff out a story and extract the gold from the archive that made time and place shine fresh. To walk with him around North Shields was to see the streets and buildings with different eyes, not only in the sometimes prosaic now but as part of a more poetic then, as home places to Commonwealth-era churchmen, eighteenth-century ship captains, Victorian professionals. Among the many things I learned from John during the years, I knew him was that being a historian and making a home, physical and imaginative, were part of a common enterprise" [1].

Gurney spent most of his historical life studying the area around where he lived. However, his work on the Diggers and Gerard Winstanley was far from parochial. In many ways, he was instrumental in bringing a fresh perspective to the Diggers and Winstanley. He produced two books on them Brave Community: The Digger Movement in the English Revolution published in 2007 and Gerrard Winstanley: The Digger's Life and Legacy of 2013[2].  Both books took our understanding of the Diggers to a new level.

John had many skills as a historian, but three leap out at you. He could explain complicated historical issues in a way that anyone could understand. Secondly, he brought his subject to life and thirdly his stamina to spend significant amounts of time "grubbing in the archives".

To deep mine, an archive may to a layperson seem odd, but this ability gave him a more in-depth insight into the complicated problems faced by revolutionaries such as Winstanley. These seventeenth-century revolutionaries were working without precedents in which to guide their revolution.

If Gerard Winstanley is more well known and highly thought of today, it is because of Gurney. It is hard not to agree with Michael Wood's claim that Winstanley's place in the pantheon of English literature and political thought should be higher than previously thought. Wood believes he should be put alongside Hobbes and Harrington as one of the great writers of English prose of the seventeenth century. We should not forget that Winstanley was also a man of action as well as words. In 17th century eyes, he was a dangerous revolutionary.

Historians Craft

Gurney's attempt to recreate the past and therefore understand it is done with much empathy and imagination. There is also a doggedness and intellectual objectivity about his work. While some historians seek to make an objective understanding of history, Gurney was almost religious in his pursuit of historical truth.

Gurney's work exhibited a disciplined approach to complex historical questions. He recognised that he did not know everything about his area of study. But his work did show honesty which enabled him to have a greater understanding of his role in the presentation of facts.

Gurney was also mindful of presenting his work in a way that was never apart from its moment in time. Gurney's approach was similar to the French historian of feudal society, Marc Bloch, who wrote in his book, The Historian's Craft "In a word, a historical phenomenon can never be understood apart from its moment in time. This applies to every evolutionary stage, our own, and all others. As the old Arab proverb has it: 'Men resemble their times more than they do their fathers.'

Gerrard Winstanley: The Digger's Life and Legacy of 2013.

The book is meticulously researched, scholarly and well-presented. Gurney provides us with a good understanding of the origins of the Digger movement. It has been praised for setting an "extremely high standard for local histories of this sort and must rank alongside similar studies such as Eamon Duffy's acclaimed The Voices of Morebath."

Gurney was clear that the study of Winstanley should be not solely of historical value but must have a contemporary resonance. He says: Today, knowledge of Winstanley is widespread, and he has become one of the best-known figures from the period of the English Revolution. There have been numerous plays, novels, TV dramas, songs and films, and Winstanley has often been cited as an inspirational figure by politicians of the Left.

More specifically, his ideas and achievements have remained prescient, inspiring generations of activists and social movements". He believed that Winstanley "has in recent years also been invoked by freeganism, squatters, guerrilla gardeners, allotment campaigners, social entrepreneurs, greens and peace campaigners; and both Marxists and libertarians have laid claim Who was to him as a significant precursor".

Gurney's book is invaluable when it starts to trace the origins of Winstanley's radicalism. Gurney did not subscribe to the theory that it was solely down to the war radicalising people such as Winstanley. Gurney believed that radical views were being expressed all over the country before the outbreak of the civil war.

In a previous essay, Gurney elaborates on why the Digger's achieved a level of local support in Cobham "Local support for the Diggers may also have been connected with Cobham's marked traditions of social conflict. The manor of Cobham, a former possession of Chertsey Abbey, had passed into the hands of Robert Gavell in 1566 and was to remain with his family until 1708. During the later sixteenth century the Gavell family became involved in a long and protracted series of disputes with their tenants. In a case brought in the court of Requests by William Wrenn, a Cobham husbandman, Robert Gavell was accused of overturning manorial customs and of infringing his tenants' rights, by seeking to extract more rent than was customarily paid, and by spoiling the timber on Wrenn's copyhold. He was also charged with attempting to escape the payment of tax by shifting the burden on to his tenants, laying 'a hevy burden uppon the poorer tennants contrarye to the Ancient usage, equitie and Consciens'Actions against Robert Gavell and his son Francis were resumed in the court of Chancery during the 1590s by tenants seeking to halt the continued assault on manorial custom" [3].

Who Were The Diggers

Gurney was one of the few contemporary historians involved in the study of Early Modern England who understood the importance of class in understanding the English revolution and its radical wing.

The Diggers were part of a group of men that sought to understand the profound political and social changes that were taking place at the beginning of the 17th century. They were the right 'Ideologues of the revolution' and had a capacity for abstract thought. While the Diggers were sympathetic to the poor, this stemmed from their religion, they had no programme to bring about social change; they never advocated a violent overturning of society. Their class outlook, that being of small producers, conditioned their ideology. At no stage did the Diggers or that matter did the larger group the Levellers constitute a mass movement. The contradiction between their concern for the poor and their position of representatives of the small property owners caused some tension. They had no opposition to private property, and therefore they accepted that inequalities would always exist, they merely argued for a lot of the poor to be made more equitable.

Brave Community: The Digger Movement in the English Revolution published in 2007

Gurney's study of his local area in this case Surrey was not done from a parochial viewpoint. A survey of local events correctly done can add to a more broad and objective understanding of events.

Brave Community was the result of painstaking investigations. Somewhat surprisingly it was the first full-length modern study of the Diggers. 

It was well-received by academic historians. One review of Brave Community by Henk Looijesteijn described it as "a study that successfully blends social and intellectual history in recreating the environment in which one of the most original thinkers of mid-seventeenth-century England originated and acted. As such, this book should be regarded as the starting point for any student of Winstanley and the Digger".

Gerrard Winstanley and the Left

Gurney's last essay Gerrard Winstanley and the Left is a very significant piece of work. It lays the critical groundwork for a further examination of the Left's attitude towards the English revolution. Gurney understood when writing about left-wing historiography on the English Revolution that you had to be aware of the pratfalls especially when writing about the Communist Party Historians Group. One must be cognizant of the enormous amount of ideological baggage these historians carried around. It must be said that some of this baggage was not always in perfect condition.

In many ways, this essay is in microcosm a summation of Gurney's whole body of work. He was very much at the height of his powers when he wrote this article. Gurney acknowledges that it is only recently that the words of Winstanley have been fully appreciated.  However, he believed that it is not the case that nothing of note was written before the 20th century. He thought that Winstanley's 'extraordinarily rich body of writings' were read and studied between the years 1651 and the 1890s.

As he wrote in the essay "The historical legacy of the Diggers is usually seen as being very different from that of their contemporaries, the Levellers. If the Levellers were misremembered, the Diggers have been understood as being largely forgotten before the 1890s, with professional historians playing little part in their rediscovery.  It took, we are told, the Marxist journalist and politician Eduard Bernstein to rediscover Winstanley quite independently of academic historians when he spent part of his exile in London working on the section on seventeenth-century English radical thinkers for Karl Kautsky's Die Vorla¨ufer des neueren Sozialismus. 

Later, in the 1940s, it was Marxist historians associated with the Communist Party of Great Britain who are said to have picked up Bernstein's baton and created the image of a communist and materialist Winstanley which remains familiar to this day. The Left's responsibility for, and role in, the rediscovery and promotion of the Diggers can, therefore, seem quite clear and uncomplicated. There are, however, a number of problems with this interpretation. For one thing, the Diggers had, before the 1890s, never fallen from public view to the extent often imagined. In fact, it seems that they were reasonably well known over the centuries and perhaps even more accurately remembered than the mainstream Levellers, who were often confused with them. It is also evident that early detailed research on the Diggers was not confined to the Left and that Bernstein was by no means alone in taking an interest in Winstanley's writings in the 1890s" [4].


Where does Gurney's work fit in with today's in today's historiography of the English Revolution? Due to no fault of his own Gurney's work on Winstanley is an oasis in a desert of revisionism.

As Michael Braddick points out, revisionists have "have tried to cut the English revolution down to size or to cast it in its own terms. In so doing, they naturally also cast a critical eye over the reputation and contemporary significance of its radical heroes".

The historian Mark Kishlansky' has a habit of cutting down the radical heroes of the English Revolution. It is perhaps surprising that he recommends Gurney's book saying "this is a clear-eyed yet sympathetic account of one of the most baffling figures of the English Revolution. Gurney's painstaking research provides a wealth of new information that is assembled into a highly readable narrative. An informative and thought-provoking book."

Kishlansky despite recommending Gurney's book he is keen to downplay Winstanley who according to him was "a small businessman who began his career wholesaling cloth, ended it wholesaling grain, and in between sandwiched a mid-life crisis of epic proportions".

Kishlanksky inadvertently raises an interesting question. What was the relationship between Winstanley's religion, his economic status and his politics? As the Marxist writer Cliff Slaughter says "for the understanding of some of the great problems of human history, the study of religion is a necessity. What is the relationship between the social divisions among men and their beliefs about the nature of things? How do ruling classes ensure long periods of acceptance of their rule by those they oppress? Why was the 'Utopians' wrong in thinking that it was sufficient only to work out a reasonable arrangement of social relations to proceed to its construction? It was out of the examination of questions like this in the German school of criticism of religion that Marx emerged to present for the first time a scientific view of society. 'The criticism of religion is the beginning of all criticism[5]".


Gurney's work on Winstanley and the Diggers is the start of a new form of historiography on the English Revolution. His work is groundbreaking in many ways and is an antidote to revisionist historiography. Gurney is correct to state there has never been what he calls a definable left-wing interpretation of the Diggers and Winstanley or to be even more precise there has never been a consistent classical Marxist position on the Diggers.  It is hoped that Gurney's work is used to further our knowledge of the radicals of the English Revolution and present a more unified theory as regards these radical gentlemen of the revolution.

[1]  Brave Community: A communal and personal tribute to our friend and colleague, John Gurney (1960-2014)
[3] Gerrard Winstanley and the Digger movement in Walton and Cobham- John Gurney
[4] Gerrard Winstanley and the Left-John Gurney.
[5] Religion and Social Revolt Cliff Slaughter Labour Review Vol 3 No 3 June 1958

Saturday, 3 January 2015

A Review: Charles I: An Abbreviated Life by Mark Kishlansky 144 pages Publisher: Allen Lane (4 Dec 2014) ISBN-10: 0141979836

"And thus said Shimei when he cursed, Come out, come out, thou bloody man, and thou man of Belial: The LORD hath returned upon thee all the blood of the house of Saul, in whose stead thou hast reigned; and the LORD hath delivered the kingdom into the hand of Absalom thy son: and, behold, thou art taken in thy mischief because thou art a bloody man.—King James Bible 2 Samuel 16:7, 8.[1]

So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.

—King James Bible Numbers 35:33.

"Even his virtues were misinterpreted and scandalously reviled. His gentleness was miscalled defect of wisdom; his firmness, obstinacy; his regular devotion, popery; his decent worship, superstition; his opposing of schism, hatred of the power of godliness.
Mark Kishlansky's new biography of Charles I is an extremely controversial work. 

Kishlansky believes that Charles has been misunderstood by history a viewpoint that is not shared amongst the majority of historians who study the English revolution. For Kishalnsky Charles was not a "man of blood" as General Thomas Harrison called him and that history has much-maligned this monarch.

Kishlanksy's book is an aggressive defence of both Charles and the monarchy in general. "Princes are not bound to give an account of their actions, but to God alone" Kishlanskyhas taken the quote and turned it into a historical perspective.

According to him "Charles I is the most despised monarch in Britain's historical memory. Considering that among his predecessors were murderers, rapists, psychotics and people who were the mentally challenged, this is no small distinction."

One of the basic premises of writing a biography is to put the individual being written about the context of their times. In this case, the English revolution. The revolution caused widespread devastation and hundreds of thousands were killed and wounded a reigning monarch is executed a republic declared, and the House of Lords abolished, but there is very little of this drama in Kinshlansky's book. One of the main protagonists of the revolution Oliver Cromwell only gets one mention.

Given that the English revolution was primarily a political and religious dispute, Kishlanksy's heavy emphasis on the individual mistakes, misjudgments and general bad luck of the monarch is typical of his historical methodology. In many senses, this biography is primarily a political rehabilitation of Charles. The book takes on the form of a polemical essay rather than a history book.

It is not surprising that Kinshlansky's historiography regarding Charles has been a challenge in academia. As Clive Holmes explains“Mark Kishlansky, in his rather implausible attempt to create a historiographical uniformity, cites a series of quotations from a wide range of historians. He then triumphally demonstrates that a proportion of these comments are dubious or just plain wrong. I have argued here that Kishlansky's attempt to reconfigure the king as open and accessible by a study of his progress itself entails overstatement and misunderstanding. Kevin Sharpe's guarded judgement on this topic, 'it may still remain true that Charles was less than assiduous in cultivating his people in general and his influential subjects in particular, is more compelling.51 But, ultimately, isolation is not simply a matter of propinquity; we do not need to imagine Charles as physically inaccessible, locked away from his people in either Van Dyck's studio or his damp hunting lodges, to judge him isolated.

His isolation was a function of his refusal to engage in meaningful dialogue with 'the people who count', and of his consequent failure to understand both the limitations imposed on his actions by the administrative structure of England and the political and legal prejudices of those who staffed that machinery at all levels. Kishlansky does not engage specifically with all the negative comments that he recites in his introduction, imagining that his vigorous refutation of some points will explode every aspect of the professional consensus - Richard Cust's 'straw man' may be a better image - that he has constructed. But some of the arguments he dismisses by implication seem basically right: not least Gardiner's sense that it was the king's lack of empathy, his 'want of imaginative power', that was at the root of his failure is still a most telling judgement”.[2]

Kishlansky defended his love affair with Charles in his reply to Clive Holmes, Nearly every conflict between subjects and sovereign in the early part of the reign of Charles I resulted from fear: fear that the king would introduce popery, fear that the king would govern without Parliament, fear that the king would not obey the law. Although Charles attempted to allay each of these concerns, he learned to his cost that there was something irrational about them, that his subjects 'had not the will to be pleased'.Leading men of his realm misinterpreted his intentions, misapprehended his aspirations, misunderstood his motives and misconstrued his character. He could not see himself as the king that they feared and therefore, could do little to allay their suspicions. In the end, he could only conclude that he was a case of mistaken identity.[3]

This theme of Charles not being understood is a continual theme of the book. The theme is so strong even Amazon deemed it important enough to put it on the cover blurb saying "In Mark Kishlanksy's brilliant account it is never in doubt that Charles created his catastrophe, but he was nonetheless opposed by men with far fewer scruples and less consistency who for often quite different reasons conspired to destroy him. This is a remarkable portrait of one of the most talented, thoughtful, loyal, moral, artistically alert and yet, somehow, disastrous of all this country's rulers".

Of course, it is Amazon's right to promote the book anyway it sees fit, but as the above quote suggests this has gone beyond standard promotion. Hopefully whoever wrote the media blurb was not a historian for it reduces history to the level of a Janet and John book. Firstly it must be said that the men who opposed Charles both inside Parliament and out were men of principle and fought for those principles through to the end.

Kishlanksy's adoption of the bad man theory of history does not enlighten us about Charles or the men who fought him. Kishlansky believes of Charles that "Beneath the reviled and excoriated King of historical reputation is a flesh-and-blood man trapped by circumstances he could not control and events he could not shape." Kishlanksy's belief that individuals are prisoners of external forces also does not get us very far.

As Herbert Spencer once wrote "You must admit that the genesis of the great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown...Before he can remake his society, his society must make him."[4] Kishlanksy's aim in this book is to overturn centuries of the historiography that attempted to place Charles in the context of his times rather than elevated him above it in some supernatural way.

He believes that the long-held view of Charles and his reign has been distorted and the centuries-long historical narratives opposing this view is mere "Parliamentarian propaganda."Kishlansky's rehabilitation of Charles found support in a surprising place. A review of his book was written on the Guardian website. It is widely sympathetic to Kishlanksy's' view. Without examining in any detail what major historians have printed on the subject matter, it produces quotes that back up the Kishlansky hypothesis. It uncritically quotes Kishlansky "What began as propaganda has been transmuted into seeming fact."

The Guardian article continues Kishlanksy's theme that Charles was battling against bad luck all through his life "Whichever side you take, it's hard to deny that Charles was plagued from early on by almost comical levels of bad luck. As a young man, his daring incognito voyage to Spain to woo the Infanta turned into a fiasco. Two decades later, not only would his armies suffer crippling losses at the battle of Naseby, but Charles's correspondence would be captured: the public revelation of his efforts to secure Catholic support against the forces of Parliament would be a devastating blow to the king's reputation. A botched attempt to attack and plunder Spanish shipping in the first year of his reign set the tone for later military ventures: 'the winds, as always for Charles, were contrary'.[5]

Kishlanksy's defence of Charles I is absolute and unconditional. He rejects the standard view that Charles was intransigent. He believes that the king bent over backwards to conciliate and to compromise with Parliament. Kishlansky is perfectly in his right as an established historian to counter prevailing historiography. It is a little surprising that he chooses to do so in such a limited space is astonishing. But to overturn three centuries of historiography is going to take a lot longer than 144 pages. As one writer puts it, the "small amounts of evidence are made to bear an enormous argumentative burden".

Even the sympathetic Guardian reviewer was forced to admit that Kishlanksy's hoop-jumping was in danger of turning his reconsideration of Charles into a "whitewash."

It is not within the scope of this review to go over Kishlanksy's previous written work, but it is evident from this new book that his place as a pioneer of a transatlantic revisionist interpretation of early Stuart history is secured. Kishlansky joins a growing number of major historians such Kevin Sharpe, Conrad Russell and John Morrill who reject both the Whig and Marxist historians who had seen the Civil Wars of the 1640s as stemming from the growth of ideological opposition to the Stuart monarchs over the previous half-century.

The revisionist school seek to challenge the "ideological consensus" or as Kishlansky puts it the "fallacy of social determinism' that has existed since the 1920s. These historians reject any severe economic or social analysis and argue that revolutions are nothing but the work of a tiny group of conspirators.

To conclude In any review, I try to be as generous as I can, and on the whole, I would recommend this short narrative on the life of Charles I was a competent introduction to the subject. If that were all it was, then I would have no trouble, but as this is more a polemic than a history book it needs to be answered in the future in a more detailed manner.

[1] A Sermon produced thirty years after Charles's death
[2] CHARLES I: A Case of Mistaken Identity[with Reply] Clive Holmes, Julian Goodare, Richard Cust and  Mark Kishlansky Source: Past & Present, No. 205 pp. 175-237
[3] Charles I: A Case of Mistaken Identity Author(s): Mark Kishlansky Source: Past & Present, No. 189 (Nov., 2005), pp. 41-80
[5] Charles I: An Abbreviated Life by Mark Kishlansky –