Conrad Russell’s Civil War

Blair Worden

  • The Causes of the English Civil War by Conrad Russell
    Oxford, 236 pp, £35.00, November 1990, ISBN 0 19 822142 8
  • The Fall of the British Monarchies 1637-1642 by Conrad Russell
    Oxford, 580 pp, £40.00, April 1991, ISBN 0 19 822754 X

For fifteen years Conrad Russell has dominated that most embattled and most heavily populated area of historical study, the origins of the civil wars of mid-17th-century England. In doing so, he has banished controversy to the margins. This is a highly unusual accomplishment. Advances in contentious historiographical territory are generally achieved through baronial feuds, not through submission to a monarchy. Even Geoffrey Elton, who admittedly has dominated a much larger period for a much longer time, from the outset created controversy rather than orthodoxy. Russell has achieved his hegemony by not seeking it. The instinct of historians for confrontation has been disarmed by his intellectual ecumenicalism, by his distaste for entrenched positions, his readiness to modify his findings in the light of fresh evidence or reflection, his generosity to his younger critics: in other words, by his transparent determination to get things right. Those who have heard him lecture – who have witnessed his intensity of intellectual concentration, his unsurpassed mastery of archival evidence, and a memory that reproduces it with the alacrity and accuracy of a photocopying machine – will understand the magnetic authority of his findings. In the last five years or so, it is true, ‘revisionism’, the term popularly given to his position, has begun to go out of fashion –though it is also true, as these books show, that Russell’s own revisionism has been substantially qualified. Yet his critics remain under his spell. If their answers are different from his, their questions and their techniques are the same.

Can such a hegemony, and the relative interpretative calm it has brought, be altogether healthy? The constitutional and religious conflicts of the earlier 17th century have aroused passions and divisions since they occurred. The last generation of historians was convulsed by the problem of the relationship between the civil war and long-term class conflicts, a controversy which has been as fertile as it has come to seem misconceived. Now, if fur ever flies, it is over the question where the Earl of Northumberland was on 31 July 1647. The ‘revision’ of political history has put paid to the notion that the civil war was fought between classes. It has other negative achievements to its credit too, notably in exposing the simplification and exaggeration by earlier historians of the Parliamentary conlicts of the years 1604-1629. But when we ask what positive arguments revisionism has built instead, we notice a contraction of ambition. Even Russell’s critics sometimes seem content to register negatives against his negatives. Thus it is not true that the constitutional and legal conflicts of the 1620s were not inflammatory.

Hitherto Russell has written mainly on the Parliaments of the 1620s. Arguing that historians of that subject have been swayed by hindsight, that they have misunderstood Parliamentary debates by looking for the origins of the civil wars in them, he has begged the question where the origins of civil war should be sought instead. In these two books he addresses that question. Though the short book (The Causes of the English Civil War) was published before the long one (The Fall of the British Monarchies 1637-1642), it was written after it. The short book is an ‘extended conclusion’ to the large one. Before we write about ‘causes’ we must first identify the effects. The long book describes the phenomenon to be explained, and the short book explains it.

Russell lines up his causes and effects with the conviction of a mathematician drawing up equations. Historians have got into muddles about the causes of the civil war, he thinks, because they are muddled about the effects. Instead of answering one question – Why was there a civil war? – we need to untangle the sequence of events that culminated in the outbreak of war, and answer seven questions to explain seven developments, each of which was dependent on the one before. So we have to ask why the Bishops’ Wars broke out in 1639; why the Scots won them; why the King and his English critics failed to reach a pre-war settlement; why the King failed to dissolve or prorogue the Long Parliament; why Englishmen took sides in 1642; why negotiation failed in the same year; why the majesty of Charles I became so diminished that men were ready to fight him. Once these seven effects have been identified, it ‘becomes possible to match cause to effect’ with ‘precision’.

Though the world hears more about Russell’s social than about his intellectual ancestry, these books remind us that he is the son of a mathematician and philosopher. Penetrative as his identification of his seven effects is, their choice is inevitably the product of interpretative selection. Can living experience, past or present, be confined within the language of causes and effects? Let us say that an accountant in Walthamstow is one day late for work. What are the ‘causes’ of his lateness? We find what we take to be convincing evidence that he was late because he missed his bus; that he missed his bus because he overslept; that he overslept because, as kept happening lately, he woke in the night, consumed with worry about his mortgage. What in turn were the ‘causes’ of his anxiety? Do we trace them through the labyrinth of decisions and accidents that got this normally prudent man into debt, and allocate a proportion of significance to a recent increase in interest rates, a proportion to his wife’s victory in getting him to buy a new carpet, another to the unexpected failure of his maiden aunt, when she died last year, to leave him a penny? Or do we explore the recesses of his psyche, or the history of his private relationships, to discover what made him such a worrier and a bad sleeper?

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