Scarisbrick’s Bomb

Peter Gwyn

  • Reformation and Revolution 1558-1660 by Robert Ashton
    Granada, 503 pp, £18.00, February 1984, ISBN 0 246 10666 2
  • The Reformation and the English People by J.J. Scarisbrick
    Blackwell, 203 pp, £14.50, March 1984, ISBN 0 631 13424 7

Two very different books by two professors at English universities. That written by Professor Ashton is a bad book of a kind that is all too common, that by Professor Scarisbrick is good, perhaps very good, but of a kind that is now all too rare, in that it was written for the simple, old fashioned reason that its author was passionately interested in imparting his views. Professor Ashton, writing to meet the requirements of the A-level student, seems never even to have decided what he really wanted to tell us. It looks as if at one stage he may have had it in mind to engage with Christopher Hill, whose heroic efforts to persuade a sceptical English audience that during the 17th century some kind of Marxist revolution occurred in England, leading to the rise of such things as capitalism and science, will be familiar to all those with any interest in this period. Indeed, it might be thought that so familiar are Dr Hill’s views, and so telling the many criticisms of them, that a book which took them as a major theme might now be redundant.

One of Professor Ashton’s problems may have been that his book took him a long time to write, and that as a result many of his original views may have been challenged by the recent wave of ‘revisionism’. The revisionist historians of the Stuart period, led by Conrad Russell with Kevin Sharpe in support, have sought to persuade us that, contrary to what most English historians have led us to believe, the first two Stuart kings were on the whole a good thing, the Parliamentarians a bad thing. Perhaps even more important than this, they want us to believe that, but for the wars with Scotland in 1639 and 1640, there would have been no Parliamentarians at all: in other words, that the notion of a sustained Parliamentary opposition to James I and Charles I, leading inevitably to a military conflict fought over constitutional principles, cannot be sustained. Indeed, they look with deep suspicion at any notion of inevitability. They admit that the Crown was faced with serious problems – of religious diversity and finance – but then all governments are faced with serious problems, and what these particular problems do not explain is what happened in 1641 and 1642. The revisionists adhere to the dictum that a week is a very long time in politics, and they see the faction fighting at court as the key to events. Of course, the fighting frequently spilled over into Parliament – and incidentally the revisionists have a tendency to see the House of Lords as being every bit as important as the House of Commons. All this has been very exciting, but also, for Ashton at any rate, rather worrying.

On many matters of detail, such as the failure of the Parliament of 1625 to pass a tonnage and poundage Act, previously but no longer thought of as being a matter of some constitutional importance, Ashton tends to agree, albeit reluctantly, with the revisionists. However, he stitches these agreements into an older view of Stuart incompetence, a view which is much more congenial to him. James I in particular is not a favourite of his. Unlike Elizabeth, James relished Lord Henry Howard’s ‘unctuous brand of flattery’. He also had a penchant for beautiful young men. Ashton makes no moral judgment about their gender, but he is very critical of the fact that, unlike Elizabeth, who also had male favourites, James allowed his to monopolise power and patronage. When a favourite of Elizabeth’s like the Earl of Essex did aspire to such a monopoly, according to Ashton, he was ‘driven out into the wilderness’. Actually, he was driven into rebellion, which perhaps does not reflect so well on Elizabeth’s superior political skills. James’s prodigality in the giving of cash rewards and the bestowing of titles of honour are both considered by Ashton extremely damaging to royal prestige and influence – and again the comparison with Elizabeth’s careful management and reluctance to bestow titles is very unfavourable to James. Nothing here about the dangerous drying up of royal patronage during the last years of her reign which some historians have commented upon. As for James’s efforts to unite his realms of Scotland and England, this is only evidence of his desire for ‘self-glorification’.

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