Sunday, 25 September 2016

The Nature of the English Revolution Revisited: Essays in Honor of John Morrill, edited by Stephen Taylor and Grant Tapsell. Boydell Press, 2013. 296 pp

The Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky was fond of saying that "every sociological definition is at bottom a historical prognosis." When John Morrill stated that "the English civil war was not the first European revolution but the last of the wars of religion" [1] he was forming a historical prognosis of the English revolution that has defended all his life.

This collection of essays is a reply albeit rather late to the publication, twenty years ago, of John Morrill's significant collection of essays The Nature of the English Revolution (1993). This current volume of essays was written by former students, colleagues, and historians who have collaborated with Morrill and broadly support Morrill's historical viewpoint.

While not all essays break new ground, some like John Walter's and Phillip Baker do. It is also evident that this volume of essays will provoke further work on their related topics. There have been two interrelated developments that have characterized the historiography of the English Revolution over the last few decades. The first one has been the systematic and protracted attack on Marxism in the form of hostility to the method of historical materialism.

The second one and a by-product of the first has seen the demise of a "grand narrative" as regards the English revolution. The theory that England passed through a bourgeois revolution during the seventeenth century was championed by historians Christopher Hill and Brian Manning. The rejection of this theory has led to an increasingly specialized field of study and with it the adoption of a smaller and more parochial narrative. An approach conducted by John Morrill and his book Revolt in the Provinces: The People of England and the Tragedies of War, 1630-48.

From very early on in his career, Morrill opposed the Marxist approach to the English revolution. He rejected the "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 some people quite independently reacted against" [2]. In his lower narrative, Morrill characterized the Civil Wars as England's 'Wars of Religion.'

This recent collection of essays gives us an excellent opportunity to examine the state of seventeenth-century English historiography, especially the contemporary post-revisionist historians. The first thing that should strike the reader about this collection of essays is the title. Why bother with the English revolution since very few of the contributing writers, including Morrill, believed that one took place. Moreover, as one reviewer pointed out, the "global dimensions of the Revolution are barely acknowledged."

Chapter one -Charles I and Public Opinion on the Eve of the English Civil War (pp. 1-26) is by Tim Harris who is perhaps best known for his work on the Post-Restoration period, in this chapter he examines the formation of a Royalist Party. When we talk about a party, we cannot compare a 17th-century structure of today's political parties, but the Royalist party did begin to take on specific characteristics that we are familiar with such as the use of propaganda which the king saw as a valuable tool against his enemies. As Harris points out, the first use of this against the Scots did not work out too well.

Harris's chapter is something of an attempt to reevaluate and rehabilitate Charles Ist. There is a view among contemporary post-revisionist historians that it is crucial to concentrate on the king's strengths as opposed to his weakness of character. 
Harris does not sufficiently convince this reader that Royalist forged a coherent ideology. Nevertheless, if they did, Harris tends to divorce it from its economic base. Harris does not investigate what social or class forces the disparate groups who fought for the king represented.

Harris also rejects the conception of a long-term cause of the war. G R Elton began the attack on this theory which has been peddled by countless revisionist historians ever since. Harris also promotes the belief that things went disastrously wrong for Charles through no fault of his own. Harris belongs to the camp of historians who include Kevin Sharpe who regard the personal rule as a period of constructive and welcome reform in England.

Chapter 2 Rethinking Moderation in the English Revolution: (pp. 27-52) is by Ethan H. Shagan, whose article is closely related to his recent book[3] . He admits that it does seem paradoxical that in the midst of the bloodiest and revolutionary conflict England had ever seen all parties both left and right sought the mantle of moderation.

Much of this moderation was a smokescreen to hide very controversial political opinions. Take, for instance, the Levellers their main publication was called the Moderate, but in reality, their political program called for a more extensive franchise, a revolutionary act if there ever was one. This outlook was summed up by the words of Col Thomas Rainsborough "I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he ". An extraordinary call for social equality, given that the only people who could vote were a tiny section of the population.

In many ways, this chapter more than the rest reflects current historiography to downplay the revolutionary actions of the leading participates of the revolution. The killing of a king, the establishment of a republic and to top it all a coup d'état by the New Model Army are not the actions of reasonable men.

Chapter 3 The Parish and the Poor in the English Revolution (pp. 53-80) is by Tim Wales. Wales essay is firmly in the spirit of John Morrill. He examines the bitter political and religious conflicts within Norwich in the middle 1640s. There is nothing wrong with exploring local political events as long as they reflect broader socio-political groupings. Wales's chapter does not examine the connection between politics and economics.

Wales is one of many historians who reject a materialist outlook as regards the English revolution. Historians like Christopher Hill have been accused of being too "social determinist." As the Marxist economist, Nick Beams points out "Another "frequently employed caricatures of Marxism is the claim that it argues that ideology is just a cover for the real economic motivations of social actors. Accordingly, Marxism is "disproved" by the discovery that individuals act, not according to economic motives but by dominant ideologies. Marxism does not deny that historical actors are motivated and driven into action by their ideological conceptions, and it does not claim that these ideologies are merely a rationalization for the real economic motivations. However, it does insist that it is necessary to examine the motives behind the motives—the real, underlying, driving forces of the historical process—and to make clear the social interests served by a given ideology—a relationship that may or may not be consciously grasped by the individual involved"[4]

To give Wales his due, he correctly states that the English Revolution was a pivotal moment in how the poor were treated in England. This period saw the escalation of taxes to fund poor relief that lasted well into the restoration period. Chapter 4 Body Politics in the English Revolution (pp. 81-102) is by John Walter.Walter's essay is a useful barometer of class relations during the English revolution. His examination of the use of gestures indicates a growing radicalism amongst the middling sort and sections of the poor. The question of "hat honour" is important in that the refusal to take one's hat off in the presence of a superior person was seen as the height of political opposition.

As one writer states "Walter discusses the body language that reflected the lack of deference paid to figures of authority and status during this period. I think this a critical point, as it struck at the very heart of traditional English society. Turning one's back or refusing to doff one's cap were tremendously symbolic actions. Walter does an excellent job in calling attention to this relatively unexplored subject. One is reminded of the story that King Charles II took his hat off in a conversation with the Quaker, William Penn, saying that someone had to doff their hat in the presence of a king".

Chapter 5 The Franchise debate revisited is by Philip Baker. Baker's essay adds substantially to a growing interest in the Levellers. The question of the Levellers is one of the most contentious issues arising out of the English revolution. Morrill wrote little on them, and his views on the Putney are that no Levellers were present during the debates

Morrill argues that Leveller rhetoric was fundamentally opposed to a standing army and that Lilburne's experience made him suspicious and out of touch with its rank and file. While Baker sees the Levellers as radicals not revolutionary, his work is essential in so much that it contributes significantly to our further understanding of this group.

The central plank of the Levellers manifesto was the call for a democratic republic in which the House of Commons would be more important than the House of Lords. A Leveller would have a wanted redistribution and extension of the franchise, legal and economic reform on behalf of men of small property, artisans, yeoman, small merchants, and the very layers, which made up the composition of the Levellers themselves.

However, as Baker points out, there was a limit to the extension of the franchise. The poor in the 17th century, and this contains a large section of the population would not be given the vote. However, this does not undermine the revolutionary implications of the call by the Levellers to widen the franchise.

As Andrew Hopper points out "Phil Baker's contribution builds on his recent work on the New Model Army and the Levellers to approach the issue of the franchise from a new direction. In view of the "unacknowledged republic," he argues that Leveller thinking was shaped by office holding and local political participation, specifically the world of London politics in which many of their leaders had participated. Provocatively, he terms the New Model's concern that their rank and file had won the right to vote as "elitist" because it fell short of advocating a universal male franchise. Based on the experience of New Model soldiers and civilian Levellers, Baker concludes that we should reconnect the disputed relationship between voting and governance in early modern England and that a republican tradition of citizenship and officeholding existed alongside a contemporary concern for the right to vote."[5]

As regards the Putney debates as John Rees shows  many Levellers were in the Army themselves. Lilburne had an exemplary and widely publicized military record. But Lilburne was not alone in this. Leveller William Allen served in Holles' regiment. Leveller printer William Larner served as a sutler in Lord Robartes' regiment. Thomas Prince fought in the London Trained Bands until he was injured at Newbury in 1643. John Harris ran an Army printing press. Leveller ally Henry Marten had a close engagement in military affairs in London and eventually raised his regiment in Berkshire. Thomas Rainsborough and his brother William were Leveller sympathizers. Edward Sexby was a central figure in the actions of the Agitators. Army chaplains Jeremiah Ives and Edward Harrison supported the Levellers."[6]


In total, there are eleven essays in this book. The articles are well written and researched, and some do break new ground and explore new trends in post-revisionist historiography. The one area that certainly does need far more extensive research is the debates at Putney. It is clear that despite his hostility to a Marxist Historiography, Professor Morrill has produced a distinguished body of work. Despite having deep disagreements with the essays, they are a fitting tribute to an outstanding historian. They will be of interest to specialists and students and are written in a style that would be acceptable to the general reading public interested in this period.

[1] The Religious Context of the English Civil War. John Morrill
[2] Interview with John Morrill-www.estraint in Early Modern Englan Paperback – 29 Sep 2011-by Ethan H. Shagan
[4] Imperialism and the political economy of the Holocaust-By Nick
[5] Reviewed Work(s): The Nature of the English Revolution Revisited: Essays in Honour of John Morrill by Taylor and Tapsell Review by: Andrew Hopper Source: Renaissance Quarterly , Vol. 67, No. 3 (Fall 2014), pp. 1020-1022
[6] John Rees, review of The Levellers: Radical Political Thought in the English Revolution, (review no. 1519)