Maypoles

Conrad Russell

  • The Restoration: A Political and Religious History of England and Wales 1658-1667 by Ronald Hutton
    Oxford, 379 pp, £17.50, June 1985, ISBN 0 19 822698 5

During the years 1659-60, England enjoyed (if that is the right word) more constitutions than in the whole of the remaining eleven hundred and more years of its history as a united country. In an age when historians looking for subjects are almost as thick on the ground as subjects looking for historians, the most remarkable fact about this book is that it remained to be written. Dr Hutton was justified in complaining that hitherto the history of the ‘English Revolution’ has read like ‘a marvellous story with the last chapter missing’. This is so no longer, but what does it tell us about ourselves that we have allowed the concept of ‘revolution’ (itself a French import) to excite us so much that we do not attempt to study other events in proportion? And could it be that our indifference to the rather anti-climactic ending of the story has led us to make bigger statements about the fundamental importance of the ‘English Revolution’ as a watershed in historical development than the events themselves will warrant?

Dr Hutton had originally hoped to write a provincial history of the Restoration settlement, which would have been designed to revise the accepted picture of central politics in the light of local findings. He found that ‘there existed no picture of central politics to be treated in this manner.’ Like Anthony Fletcher, writing on The Outbreak of the English Civil War, he has been forced to tell the story ab initio. In the process, he has highlighted, even more than workers on the period before the Civil War have done, the fact that the great Victorian narratives are now old enough to need revision. Like town-planners, historians are now finding that their infrastructure is in need of renewal. Dr Hutton has thus undertaken a massive task.

In addition, he has set himself the challenge of carrying it out with a light touch: he proclaims his ambition to make the book accessible to ‘the widest possible audience’. That he is on the whole successful in so challenging a collection of aims is a very considerable achievement. The popular purpose shows in such pleasant asides as the expression of regret that Hacker did not keep a diary, or in the recording of such vivid information as that the Great Fire was audible in Oxford. Yet at no point does truth appear to have been sacrificed to popularity, and the weight of archival research which has gone into the book is formidable. The list of acknowledgments reminds us of what is becoming an increasingly serious problem: the cost of research is increasing faster than the cost of living, and much faster than the funds available to sustain it. The task of visiting archives in every county in England and many in Wales is one designed to enrich both British Rail and the hotel industry. Those with established reputations, such as Dr Hutton, may be successful in obtaining support for this task, but how many books are simply not being written because their potential authors cannot afford the costs entailed?

Logically, if not formally, this book divides into two parts, one dealing with the fall of Republican England, and the other with the restored monarchy. The second may perhaps be the more significant, yet, in terms of its additions to our factual knowledge, the first is perhaps an even bigger achievement. Republican England, as presented by Dr Hutton, shows a surprising amount of vitality even in 1659. Richard Cromwell’s regime appears as enjoying a considerable body of support, and there is much food for thought in the fact, illustrated by the career of General Monck, that on the whole Monarchy and Protectorate, through the crises of 1659-60, drew support from the same body of people. It is easy enough to understand how the desire for stability turned many of these people into supporters of monarchy, but this book must make us wonder again whether there was anything inevitable about this development. Could a different turn of the wheel have given us a stable monarchy in the house of Cromwell? Is it a matter of mere chance that we will have to wait for the accession of Prince William to find the first descendant of Oliver Cromwell to wear the English Crown?

The loyal addresses to Richard Cromwell, though a potentially suspect source, do not suggest that the Protectorate fell because of any lack of hold on public opinion. Indeed, it is even possible that the Cromwellian Protectorate, in its last year, came nearer than the restored monarchy did to England’s political centre of gravity. Such a suggestion is of necessity pure speculation, and indeed it may well be wrong, but it is not self-evidently absurd. Nor does Richard Cromwell, as he appears in this book, look as convincing an architect of his own downfall as the ‘Tumble-down Dick’ on whom we were brought up. He fought back vigorously against his opponents, and, like Charles in 1641, was prepared to turn to support from Scotland and Ireland to keep power against his enemies. The fact that, unlike Charles I, he soon realised that the logistical difficulties were too great seems to confirm, rather than weaken, Dr Hutton’s picture of him as a man with some political judgment. It can still be argued that the Protectorate carried the seeds of its own fall from the beginning, but if so, the case cannot be rested on its lack of public support or its lack of political skill: it must be rested on its ambivalent struggle with the Army. When the Army pulled down Richard Cromwell, why did it so conspicuously fail to govern without him?

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