- The Noble Revolt: The Overthrow of Charles I by John Adamson
Weidenfeld, 742 pp, £25.00, March 2007, ISBN 978 0 297 84262 0
Fifty years, almost to the month, before the publication of John Adamson’s book, Hugh Trevor-Roper stated his intention to write what he knew would be ‘a very long book’, the most ambitious of his career, on the Puritan revolution of 17th-century England. The project went through many mutations over the next four years, but by 1961 it was virtually complete. He was dissatisfied with his typescript, which became a famously unpublished book. It has only recently surfaced in his archive, and Adamson can have known nothing of its content. Yet there are uncanny correspondences between the two works, both of which centre on the brief but congested time, perhaps the most controversial period of English history, between the breakdown of Charles I’s personal rule in 1640, when financial collapse and military defeat by the Scots drove the king to call the Parliament that would destroy him, and the year of the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642 (though whereas Trevor-Roper’s narrative went beyond the beginning of the war in August, Adamson’s halts with the king’s attempted arrest of five members of the Commons for treason in January, the event that drove Charles from London and marked the irreparable divide between Crown and Parliament). Trevor-Roper was 47 when he completed his text; Adamson must have been at, or very close to, the same age when he completed his. Trevor-Roper’s book, though eventually reduced by a quarter, was planned to be about 300,000 words long, which is the length of Adamson’s text, too. The two accounts stand above all that has been written on the prelude to the Civil War in the intervening half-century. Between their approaches and arguments there are instructive resemblances, and no less instructive contrasts.
Trevor-Roper wrote in the wake of the great debate of the 1940s and 1950s that was dominated by R.H. Tawney, Lawrence Stone, Christopher Hill and Trevor-Roper himself. Its focus was the economic causes of the war. The conflicting hypotheses about the wealth and power of the aristocracy and gentry, about the waning of feudalism and the rise of the bourgeoisie, and about the relationship of those social forces to the causes and course of the Puritan revolution, provoked an intensity of research and disagreement that has had few equals in modern historiography. The argument has never ceased, even if the issues that excite debate, which have moved away from economics to politics and ideas, have altered beyond recognition. Our base of knowledge is immeasurably larger and firmer than it was fifty years ago. From that perspective Trevor-Roper’s book looks like an early map of a territory that has subsequently been thickly charted.
Yet he had mixed feelings about the process of investigation he had helped to launch. He knew the value of close engagement with the archives, but resisted the trend towards specialisation of which the frenzy of research was both cause and symptom. In his own work, the Puritan revolution was one subject among many others, which ranged across centuries and countries. That generalist approach, which was already unusual in the 1950s, is unimaginable now. Adamson’s scholarly career has rarely ventured out of the Britain of the 1640s. His book triumphantly displays the gains of specialisation. Yet something has been lost, too.
Trevor-Roper’s starting point was the crisis of monarchy in mid-17th-century Europe. The revolution in England, together with the upheavals in Scotland and Ireland with which they interacted, belonged to a pattern which also produced rebellions in France, Spain, Portugal and Italy, as well as a series of coups d’état elsewhere. That broad pattern, he reasoned, must have a broad explanation. He found it in the tensions between the swelling resources and power of the late Renaissance state on the one hand, and on the other the population, especially the land-owning population, which bore the cost of it. But he was not content with structural interpretation. Contingencies of circumstance and decision-making mattered too.
For there was, he maintained, nothing inevitable about the Civil War. Hardly anyone now thinks that the war was inevitable, but fifty years ago determinist and neo-determinist interpretations reigned. To explain why a revolution broke out in 1642, Trevor-Roper argued, it was necessary to move beyond the tensions of society to the mood of events and the human choices on which they turned. Such contextual recovery required, alongside the social analyses mounted by him and his adversaries, the writing of political narrative, which those adversaries belittled. In their eyes, political events were the mere surface of history, and the recovery of social structures was a tougher and more reputable intellectual activity than mere storytelling. Here too, Trevor-Roper’s position is no longer contentious. Politics has returned to 17th-century studies with a vengeance. Yet until Adamson’s book the art of narrative has, with rare exceptions, been in abeyance.
Trevor-Roper reacted against the orthodoxies of his time not only in his historiographical premises but in his empirical conclusions. He assailed the pervasive representation of the Civil War as a challenge to the aristocracy by either the rising gentry or the bourgeoisie. Recent perspectives on the war, he observed, had been over-influenced by the modern decline of the peerage, and by the supposition that in the 17th century as in the 20th it was the House of Commons, not the House of Lords, that mattered. On the contrary, in the lead-up to Civil War the Commons ‘was still a subordinate body’. It was ‘the great peers’ who ‘claimed to be the natural councillors of the king’, ‘they who held military command as lords-lieutenant in the counties’. ‘In general’ they exercised, ‘by the numerous bonds of patronage’, ‘an effective social dominance over the gentry’, their ‘clients’.