Conrad Russell

Conrad Russell whose books include The Crisis of Parliaments: English History 1509-1660 and Parliaments and English Politics 1621-1629, is at present Professor of History at Yale. He hopes to take up the Astor Chair of British History at University College, London in October.

Leave it to the teachers

Conrad Russell, 20 March 1997

‘This is not how things were done when we were at the schools.’ This is not John Major yearning to get back to basics: it is Pope Innocent IV writing to the schools of Paris in the middle of the 13th century. There is nothing new about politicians aching to stick their noses into the management of education, nor about their belief that because they have received education, they know all about it.

Draining the Whig bathwater

Conrad Russell, 10 June 1993

This is a big book, not only in the sense that it runs to 954 pages, but also in that it contains a prodigious amount of work. All the familiar sources are here, but Dr Sharpe also draws on many manuscript collections which are less familiar because they are newly available or in remote places. He gives us many valuable ‘unconsidered trifles’. I will not soon forget the man protesting against militia rates who believed England was at peace in 1626, when it was at war with both France and Spain. The picture of Charles behaving with a gravity that spoiled the conversation at Henrietta Maria’s private supper parties, brings the couple alive. The proclamation enjoining men to keep their urine for a year for the making of saltpetre captures the impracticality which was characteristic of Charles, and government ministers of any generation will recognise the gentleman in 1640 who hoped that a Parliament would do something to stop so many sparrows eating his grain.

What happened in Havering

Conrad Russell, 12 March 1992

This is perhaps the fullest and most vital study of a single community in Tudor and Stuart England that we yet possess. The Liberty of Havering, moreover, is large enough, and varied enough, to escape many of the typical criticisms of the significance of the local study. It stretched from the Thames, at Hornchurch Marsh, through the village of Hornchurch, to the main road to Chelmsford and Colchester, straddled by the busy market town of Romford, to the village of Havering-atte-Bower, well off the beaten track to the north. One of Dr McIntosh’s greatest successes is in contrasting the development of the very different areas which made up the Liberty of Havering.

They would not go away

Conrad Russell, 30 March 1989

This is a much-needed book. Perhaps no issue, not even those much-discussed issues of Justification by Faith and election, is as central to the debates of the first century of the English Reformation as that of idols or images. In this case, everything is in the word, for one man’s image was another man’s idol: for one, the terms were almost synonyms, while for another they were as opposite as God and the Devil. The issue not only divided theologians: it divided parishes. The altar stone the Marians recovered from the road at Smarden in Kent was potentially divisive: the altar stones at Sutton Valence and Hartlip, which had been built into the fireplaces of Master Harper and Master Norton, were potential sources of riot. The divisive potential of ecclesiastical ornament lasted right down to, and into, the Civil War, as illustrated by the churchwarden of Bromsgrove, who was reported to the Long Parliament for saying he had saved their church windows, and cared not a fart for any orders of the Parliament not confirmed by the king. Images were not only objects of belief: they were visible symbols of the unity of communities, and an unsuccessful symbol of unity is a symbol of disunity. Images were not an issue, like predestination, which authorities could ever hope to confine to the learned obscurity of the schools: they would not go away, even when taken down. A parish divided on whether to bow to the altar was as hard to manage as a Parliament divided on whether to bow to the mace.

Radical Heritage

Conrad Russell, 1 September 1988

It is only necessary to cite the cases of Gwilym and Megan Lloyd George to show that a politician’s biological heirs are not necessarily the infallible custodians of his or her political legacy. The fact that Alan Ryan’s view of Bertrand Russell and my own are very closely similar is not, therefore, proof that we are both right. It is merely proof that our perceptions are compatible with a thorough knowledge of the evidence, and perhaps reason for suspecting that he and I view the evidence from fairly similar political standpoints.

Types of Ambiguity

Conrad Russell, 22 January 1987

The Church shall not so expound one place of Scripture that it shall be repugnant to another. Of all the Thirty-Nine Articles, this is perhaps the most difficult, yet it lays down a scholarly principle which is binding in other contexts than the doctrinal. By the same logical, even if not theological rule, historians may not expound one period in such a way as to make it repugnant to another. Like the principle of the Thirty-Nine Articles, this is one which is extremely difficult to apply, since it involves co-operation and give-and-take between people of widely different temperaments and experience, working on different bodies of sources. We are, for example, still waiting for a historiography of Early Modern England which expounds Tudor history in such a way as to make it readily compatible with Stuart history. Twenty years ago, when Elton and Hill reigned supreme in their respective centuries, it was quite apparent to all (including, one suspects, both historians themselves) that their outlooks and interpretative methods were so widely different that they could not both be right. Nevertheless, a generation of schoolchildren have been brought up on an Eltonian 16th century and a Hillite 17th century, a sort of Tillyardian monster with which our examiners are still wrestling. In more recent times, revisionism in the 17th century has created the opportunity to build a new coherence, but it cannot be said that this opportunity has yet been fully taken. These four books perhaps suggest that the time is coming when a synthesis will at last be possible, and that when it is reached, the constitutional and religious ambiguity of the English Reformation may be the theme around which it will revolve.

Items on a New Agenda

Conrad Russell, 23 October 1986

These five books represent something of a cross-section of current work on Tudor and Stuart English history, and they give a picture of how fundamentally the agenda for discussion in this field has changed over the past twenty-five years. Yet the point they mark in the development of the subject is not a total revolution: it is a sort of historiographical 1654, a mood in which the interesting question is seen to be, not whether the new approaches are valid, but how much of the old may be seen to have survived their onslaught. With one significant exception, these books do not attempt to turn back the tide of recent historical scholarship, but express a mood in which the chief interest lies in discovering which parts of the old shoreline are still above water. It was a necessary task, which these authors have, on the whole, undertaken with distinction.

Real Power

Conrad Russell, 7 August 1986

These books are both attempts, by oblique routes, to explain major events in English history: in one case the Civil War, and in the other the Reformation. That, however, is where the resemblance between them ends: for the rest, it would be hard to find a more extreme contrast in historical methods. Professor Underdown, as he makes clear in his preface, sees no virtue in attempts at explanation of the Civil War which concentrate on political events at the centre. For him, it is necessary to understand society in depth. For Dr Starkey, on the other hand, it is self-evident that, to understand political events, it is necessary to understand political circles. If Dr Starkey wishes to understand an event in a period of which he has previously known nothing, he will ask who was Groom of the Stool: Professor Underdown, faced with the same task, will ask who was constable of Batcombe. Both of them will then do a first-class piece of research answering their chosen question. Yet the really big decision, the choice of the field for investigation, is one which appears to both of them to be so obvious as to stand in no need of justification.


Conrad Russell, 7 November 1985

This could be called a review of the three Regiuses. G.R. Elton is at present Regius Professor at Cambridge. Owen Chadwick, to whom tribute is paid in a festschrift, is his predecessor in the same chair, while Lord Dacre of Glanton, more commonly known as Professor Trevor-Roper, is the recently retired Regius Professor at Oxford. From this conjunction, a classical or prophetic scholar would no doubt bring forth a portent: if the conjunction of three kings signified so much, what might the conjunction of three Regiuses symbolise? Perhaps this is a line a mere reviewer should not pursue too far, for there are many other things to be said about these works. Only the festschrift is a conventional exercise in scholarly research. Professor Elton is writing for the new series ‘Historians on Historians’. The book tells us a vast amount about the historical creeds both of Maitland and of Professor Elton himself, but it is only occasionally that it tells us much about history that we did not know before. Professor Trevor-Roper has reprinted a collection of ephemera, reviews, talks and occasional articles. Yet these works do say something about the basic outlook of the historians concerned. What emerges most clearly from Elton’s work on Maitland is their love for archives, and in particular for the Public Record Office; and Elton, who has earned the undying gratitude of the profession by his contribution to saving the Public Record Office at Chancery Lane, is a fitting man to pay tribute to the work Maitland did there. Both of them emerge as men whose work grows from the records outwards, from the small piece of grit in the Plea Roll to the published pearl. In this respect, Professor Elton is entitled to his identification with his subject. So he is also in stressing their common respect for legal records, without falling into what Elton once called the ‘essentially a-historical’ attitude of lawyers searching for a precedent. As Maitland put it, ‘what the lawyer wants is authority, and the newer the better: what the historian wants is evidence, and the older the better.’


Conrad Russell, 5 September 1985

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?

Joining them

Conrad Russell, 24 January 1985

Goodwin Wharton is a fascinating and amusing figure, but he is sui generis: the same things which make his flirtations with the occult such amusing reading also make it difficult to compare his doings with those of anyone else. He is a figure of the same chronological vintage as Sir Isaac Newton, dabbling in alchemy and gravity by turns, and he exhibits a perhaps comparable mixture (though in very different proportions) of the open-minded and the credulous. Coming as he does right on the edge of the Enlightenment, he does not provide the opportunity for any easy comparison of English and Scottish attitudes to the occult: the gulf between 1590 and 1690 is so deep that Anglo-Scottish differences are liable to become engulfed in it. Nevertheless, though Goodwin Wharton does not provide the material for a comparison, Christina Lamer knew enough about English witchcraft research to have attempted many of the necessary comparisons herself. Her magnum opus, Enemies of God, has been in print for some time. What we have here is a collection of occasional pieces left behind by her tragic death at the age of 49. It would be unjust to review such pieces as if they were finished work, but they do show that she was attempting a genuinely comparative study of witchcraft in Europe.

Wadham and Gomorrah

Conrad Russell, 6 December 1984

John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, one of the original ‘amorous sons of Wadham’, perhaps took part in writing an obscene farce called Sodom. Dr Walker drily observes that ‘to assert this twenty years ago would have damaged Rochester’s reputation as much as to deny it today.’ We are certainly more able than many of our predecessors to accept that this poetry was of some importance for its age. If we look at the claim of an anonymous poet that ‘one man reads Milton, forty Rochester,’ we are no longer tempted to dismiss it out of hand. We are perhaps more in danger of accepting it without adequate empirical investigation. We also have an advantage over the publishers of, for example, the 1691 text in that we are able to print Rochester’s text in the full flower of its bawdiness. Dr Walker has abundantly proved his contention that the 1691 edition is ‘an avowedly castrated text’: most of the passages which give Rochester a distinctively different flavour from other poets are missing from it.


Conrad Russell, 4 October 1984

The point Mr Hill makes in his title is one he has made before, yet it bears repetition. By 1660, and in many cases before, the radical causes which make the middle of the 17th century such an exciting period for the historian of ideas had been defeated. Advocates of these causes were forced to explain to themselves why they had lost, why ‘new presbyter is but old priest writ large,’ or why the Saints had visibly failed to reign. To those who believed their cause was God’s, the experience was as traumatic as any suffered by Job. So far is common ground: the defeat of 17th-century radicalism was long-lasting and apparently complete. Whether the main body of the Parliamentary cause was more successful, or whether the heirs of Pym and Hampden were equally defeated, is a different question, and one to be discussed later.

Masters or Servants

Conrad Russell, 5 July 1984

Cardinal Richelieu’s sister did not dare sit down, because she believed she was made of glass. Facts such as this cry out for psychological explanation, and an attempt to provide it has been made by Elizabeth Wirth Marvick, in The Young Richelieu. The attempt is bravely made, and it rests on solid archival research in the Bibliothèque Nationale, the Archives, the British Library and other places. Yet, though the attempt to provide a psychological explanation of Richelieu and his family circle is well and honestly made, it is again necessary to express doubts about the documentary base for this type of work. In understanding the psychological make-up of our contemporaries, we rely heavily on aural and visual evidence: we listen carefully to them, and in so doing, learn to recognise the places where they protest too much, to perceive the vital distinction between the things they say because they mean them and the things they say because they do not mean them. Such evidence is inaccessible to the historian. In the 19th century, in the age which, in their different ways, Freud and Peter Gay have made their own, sheer bulk of documents may to some extent compensate for this difficulty. In the 17th century, the problem of psychological interpretation is altogether more intractable. That 17th-century characters had psychologies, as much as any later characters, may be instantly conceded. Yet it is hard not to respond to attempts to discover them with a hesitant ‘well, maybe’.

Royal Panic Attack: James VI and I

Colin Kidd, 16 June 2011

Since the 1960s, social historians have made enormous efforts to expand the range of history beyond the familiar cast of monarchs, courtiers and parliamentarians to recover the lives of the lower...

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Swearing by Phrenology

John Vincent, 3 February 2000

This is a rather relaxed book. As such, it may disappoint those who know the author through his brilliant contributions to early Stuart history, or his recent principled interventions in debate...

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Conrad Russell’s Civil War

Blair Worden, 29 August 1991

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...

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Bright Old Thing

D.A.N. Jones, 23 July 1987

Conrad Russell was a nephew of the ninth Duke of Bedford: every publisher in Great Russell Street and Bedford Square must have wanted to publish his selected letters, if only from simple loyalty...

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