The English Civil War occupies a strange niche in contemporary memory. To all official appearances, no episode of the country’s modern past is so parenthetical. Leaving no reputable trace in common traditions or public institutions, it looks in established retrospect like a temporary black-out in the growth of the national psyche. Our only republic remains under ban, a historical freak. Rosebery could raise a statue to Cromwell outside Parliament: eighty years later, Benn could not even get him onto a postage-stamp, at a time when Rosa Luxemburg adorned West German mail.
Such treatment, it might be argued, is not without all justice. For in a comparative perspective, did not the English Civil War – however traumatic at the time – prove in the end to be the least significant of the political upheavals that ushered in the leading nation-states of the capitalist world? Set beside the Dutch Revolt, America’s War of Independence, the French Revolution, Italy’s Risorgimento, the unification of Germany, let alone the Meiji restoration in Japan, the overthrow of the English monarchy seems of a different order: not a modern starting-point of institutional development, more an exotic intermission. If this is so, however, there remains a paradox. For what would be the most barren convulsion has produced the most fertile literature. The volume of modern writing on the French Revolution – the only possible rival – is larger than on the English. But intellectually it is thinner.
The difference has much to do with the respective situations of the revisionism that has dominated each side of the Channel in recent years. Where the French variant, personified by François Furet, has been fashioned as a polemic against what it has identified as a single historiographic tradition, a Jacobin-Leninist continuum running from Mathiez through Lefebvre to Soboul, the English school has developed as an argument with two conflicting traditions – the Whig view descending from Notestein through Hexter, and the Social Interpretation passing from Tawney through Hill. Ideologically, the consequences can appear marked. English revisionism often looks more unequivocally like a historiographic Right, locked in struggle with a liberal Centre and a socialist Left – where French revisionism tends to occupy both right and centre positions in its polemic against the local Left, shifting from liberal-conservative to conservative-liberal accents as the occasion demands. That might seem a politically more commodious posture. Intellectually, however, the topographical contrast between the two countries has benefited the English historians. Seeking to displace not just one but two explanatory paradigms, they have had to display greater ingenuity. The outcome has been more tough-minded and original.
It has been also more various, as can readily be seen from the cluster of summa recently published by three leading historians, whose work has set the agenda for debate on the English Revolution since the Seventies. Kevin Sharpe’s Personal Rule of Charles I, Conrad Russell’s Fall of the British Monarchies and John Morrill’s Nature of the English Revolution all represent distinct standpoints, but certain common features continue to stand out. Rejecting both constitutional explanations of the Caroline crisis, and class interpretations of the Civil War, these histories focus on the politics of royal finance and court faction, clerical administration and diplomatic manoeuvre, at the apex of the state, and of parochial lobby or credal grievance in the localities below. If the new costs of war placed unfamiliar strains on the compact between the monarchy and gentry in the mid-17th century, the breakdown of a fundamentally consensual polity was fortuitous – the result of a sequence of mishaps, springing from management of the Stuart patrimonies in Scotland and Ireland, rather than any incurable division within England itself. The targets of criticism remain Whig or Marxist conceptions of the Civil War as a struggle grounded in long-term oppositions of either juridical principle or social interest.
Taxing such accounts with anachronism, the revisionists insist on the primacy of palace imbroglios and theological feuds, and the fumbling collisions attending them, as the stuff of politics in the age of Buckingham and Pym. Not that the new orthodoxy is at all abstemious itself in mixing past and present, for its own purposes. The revisionists, indeed, relish gestures of a swashbuckling topicality. Sharpe depicts Henrietta Maria as a bubbly twin of Princess Diana, and even transvests Charles I into a baroque Margaret Thatcher, closing seven hundred pages on the King with the words: ‘He believed some principles worth adhering to whatever the repercussions – and well, he may even have been right.’ Russell will compare Ship Money to the Poll Tax, and describe the arrival of James I in London as a foretaste of the Single European Act. Such are the playful flourishes of a scholarly ascendancy. In these pages Blair Worden has even ventured the view (LRB, 29 August 1991) that Russell’s ‘hegemony’ over Civil War studies has ‘banished controversy to the margins’. There, pockets of Whig resistance no doubt remain – readers of Lawrence Stone’s correspondence with Russell in the TLS not so long ago might be surprised to learn the field had become so pacific. Yet even Stone has conceded the second part of the victory the revisionists claim. For he, too, has opined that the Marxist interpretation of the Civil War is dead.
Merchants and Revolution, dedicated to Stone, comprehensively overturns that judgment. Its author, Robert Brenner, belongs to that rare group of historians who have given their name to a whole literature – the ‘Brenner Debate’ on the origins of agrarian capitalism in Europe recalling the ‘Pirenne Thesis’ of old. His new book, in which the name of Marx is never mentioned but his spirit is omnipresent, transforms the landscape of the English Revolution. Merchants and Revolution is distinguished by three achievements, any one of which would be impressive enough. First is the simple magnitude of the research the book embodies. Brenner’s archival investigation into the activities of the leading merchant networks of Stuart England – a quest that often reads like a vast, intricate detective story – has no counterpart in recent literature. Moving below the level of the landed élite, Brenner has made more discoveries of importance about the period than any of his contemporaries. To read Merchants and Revolution is to realise how far revisionist histories – for all the acuity of their negative insights – have tended to tinker at the edges of existing stocks of positive knowledge, truffling in official holdings. Brenner’s book opens another world.
No less striking is the way Merchants and Revolution restores narrative to the 17th-century crisis, on a grand scale. In principle the revisionists are committed to a variant of the English one-damn-thing-after-another view of the past, stressing acceptance of the contingency of historical events as a condition of understanding them, which ought to have generated a narrative school. In fact, the reverse has been closer to the case. Russell’s Fall of the British Monarchies, as Worden has pointed out here, is a selective patchwork of themes that makes no attempt to recount the actual process of breakdown to which its title alludes. Ironically, Russell in turn has lodged the same objection against Sharpe (LRB, 10 June), complaining that The Personal Rule lacks any coherent narrative. For its part, Morrill’s Nature of the English Revolution is a splendid collection of essays, from which we learn that the author has for the moment desisted from a projected history of England’s Wars of Religion. An earlier work, Anthony Fletcher’s Outbreak of the Civil War, offers a genuine chronology, but one so clotted and short-winded as often to defeat its purpose. For truer narratives, we have to move forward in time to historians – Underdown, Woolrych, Worden, Gentles – more sympathetic to the revolutionary experience itself, who have written the modern accounts of Pride’s Purge, the Putney Debates, the Rump or the New Model Army. But with the exception of the last, these still cover relatively brief episodes. Brenner’s work is of an altogether different range. Its subtitle indicates a span of a century, but although there is a necessary preamble starting in Elizabethan times, what the book offers is a sustained account of its subject from the accession of James I to the arrival of Cromwell as Protector – with a crucial flash-forward to the overthrow of James II. This timescale sets the English Revolution within a longer dynamic than any other study of comparable detail.
The narrative is an analytic one. Rather than plotting the movements of individual actors, or the evolution of political factions, Brenner’s account reconstructs the trajectory of the social forces that led to the Civil War and its aftermath. It does so through the prism of one particular, hitherto largely unnoticed, but crucial player in the drama: that sector of the London merchant community which made its fortunes in the Americas, rather than in trade with Europe or Asia, under the early Stuarts. By focusing on this pivotal group, and its development within the wider constellation of power and property in the first half of the century, Brenner rearranges the whole look of the time. The upshot – the third achievement of the book – is the most powerful social explanation of the breakdown of the Caroline monarchy we now possess. Merchants and Revolution connects structure and event in a continuous tale of pointed historical meaning.
What is the gist of this account? Brenner shows that, contrary to received opinion, the expansion of English trade after the acute commercial crisis of the mid-16th century was not powered by the search for new markets to sustain staple cloth exports, but was essentially import-driven. The Merchant Adventurers who monopolised the cloth trade with Northern Europe continued to dominate the City establishment in Jacobean times, but were now increasingly challenged by the Levant and East India Companies, controlled by a quite distinct group of merchants, engaged in the import of Mediterranean or Oriental delicacies and luxury goods – wines, currants, silks, spices. By the end of the 1630s, the leaders of this combine were typically wealthier than the cloth traders, and had displaced them from hegemony in London’s municipal power system. The two groupings, however, still shared a common interest in tight political regulation of their respective trades – the legal exclusion of outsiders and monopolistic price-setting within them. By contrast, in the Americas there emerged a very different kind of merchant, accumulating capital in a zone of free competition open to new entrants. Here the valuable commodities were tobacco, sugar or furs. The growth of these westward trades spawned a third commercial interest, whose rise is Brenner’s particular concern. Forming an intricate network, tied by bonds of kinship and partnership, the merchants of the New World were a breed apart as chancers and innovators. Brenner picks out as the central figure among them one Maurice Thomson. His career makes an amazing story.
Born in the Home Counties about 1600, the eldest of five brothers, Thomson emigrated to Virginia in his teens, where he soon became a ship’s captain, acquired land, and entered the tobacco trade. Returning to London in his mid-twenties, he pioneered slave plantations in the Caribbean, and within a decade had become the major tobacco merchant in the Atlantic, with sidelines in New England provisioning and fisheries. Supply contracts for colonial ventures off Honduras, prospecting for silver in Panama, and raids on Venezuela followed. By the 1640s, Thomson and his associates were planting Barbados with sugar, and stocking it with slaves from West Africa. Soon they were embarking on another huge arc of operations, breaking into the chasses gardées of the Old World, with voyages to the Guinea Coast and then schemes for bases in Madagascar and the Celebes. On the eve of the Civil War, these interlopers were second only in wealth to the Levant-East Indies combine itself.
Where did these rival complexes of merchant capital stand on the political chequer-board of the time? Between the chartered companies and the monarchy there was in normal conditions a symbiosis: the Merchant Adventurers and eastward traders needed royal power to enforce their monopolies, and the King needed taxes on overseas commerce and loans from merchant syndicates to cover state expenditures. The logic of the bargain – a kind of exchange of letters of marque – was so strong than even when Charles I’s wartime exactions of 1626-9 drove the City élite into indignant alliance with the Parliamentary opposition, triggering a shipping strike against the Government, the conflict was rapidly absorbed. The years of Personal Rule, bypassing Parliament, soon restored working relationships rooted in mutual dependence. By contrast, Brenner argues, there was no comparable nexus between the English gentry and the Stuart monarchy. For landowners now typically derived their incomes from a capitalist agriculture that did not require extra-economic forms of coercion, such as the absolutist taxation that helped support the French aristocracy through offices and gifts. They therefore had no reason to consent to arbitrary impositions, which threatened the principle of unconditional rights in property even when directed at trade rather than land. Hence the paradox that customs levies generally accepted by the merchants on whom they fell were fiercely resisted by MPs who were not directly affected by them.
Overlaying this basic economic discord between the monarchy and the gentry was a further ideological divergence. The Tudor state, Brenner argues, had performed invaluable service to the English landowning class by quelling unruly magnates and subduing peasant discontent, rife in late feudalism. Once these conditions of internal order had been achieved, however, the focus of the gentry’s interest in the state came increasingly to bear on its external role. Formally, the Elizabethan Church had settled the religious issue. But the national brand of Reformation it represented at home still left the diplomatic position of England relatively indeterminate. Here a potential field of conflict opened up. For dynastic sense of dignity pulled one way, impulses of doctrinal solidarity another. The only Western monarchies of suitable rank for matrimonial alliance were Catholic, the one Protestant strategic power was a republic. Warfare was increasingly expensive, and England lacked a standing army. Thus for reasons both of prestige and of prudence, the throne was wary of letting religious sentiment get the upper hand in its diplomatic manoeuvres. Parliament, on the other hand, less troubled by either issues of precedence or calculations of risk, tended to view foreign policy through a more theological lens. So disputes were all but inevitable. Brenner does not share Russell’s low opinion of the Parliamentary opposition to the monarchy’s European stance, as ill-informed and irresponsible. He stresses rather the coherence of a forward policy against Spain, to be waged by cheap naval campaigns in the Caribbean, that became the hobby-horse of militant Puritans in the House.
This was not a general concern of the landed class, but it was the fixed objective of one particular coterie within it, the ‘colonising aristocrats’ around the Earl of Warwick and their clients, Pym prominent among them, who financed and organised a range of Puritan settlements in the New World. In the course of such ventures, this group had quietly started to draw on the resources of the network of interloper merchants. Here they found allies whose position – unlike that of regulated commerce – gave them no economic reason for loyalty to the monarchy, still less any political bond with it, of the kind that Parliamentary representation accorded even the most disgruntled landowners. What, on the other hand, the new merchants did possess were strong ties with popular strata in London – domestic traders, sea captains, small shopkeepers, from whose ranks they had often sprung, and with whom they shared exclusion from municipal power. The informal collaboration between colonising nobles and interloping traders thus had a wider potential undertow. Beneath the carapace of personal rule, a fateful mixture was brewing.
When the king’s peace was broken by Scottish rebellion, Brenner shows, it was this alliance that seized the initiative in challenging Charles’s regime, and then forced the pace in the slide to civil war. In September 1640, Warwick’s group fired off the first élite demand for a recall of Parliament: while a mass petition from London was brought up to the King at York by Thomson. In November, three of the four MPs elected to the Long Parliament from London had links to the interloper connection. By December, the radicals in the City were launching a campaign to do away with bishops. With the Scots still in occupation of the border, and the Long Parliament facing a recalcitrant King, the new merchants occupied an increasingly powerful position. By regulating the flow of loans from the City to Parliament, for onward payment to the Scots, and orchestrating the tide of popular demonstrations against the Court, they brought critical pressure to bear on the course of gentry politics in the Commons. Two results were decisive. In the spring of 1641 Strafford’s attainder was pushed through, over the hesitation of Pym and the resistance of the Lords, and Charles was deprived of the power to dissolve Parliament without its consent, a measure nicely proposed to the House as a surety for its creditors.
By the summer of 1641 the apparatus of personal rule had been dismantled, to the all but unanimous satisfaction of the landed class. Why then did civil war break out a year later? The revisionist answer singles out religion as the principal reason. English landowners – the argument runs – were broadly united in constitutional outlook. But they were separated by their conceptions of the Church. While the great majority wished to return to what they imagined had been a happy Elizabethan mean, a vehement minority now pressed for a more radical Reformation, with an intransigence which split the ranks of the gentry. For Russell, it was Scottish leverage which forced Puritan zeal up the agenda of an English Parliament dependent on Covenanter military insurance against Charles, but itself containing few committed Presbyterians. For Morrill, the dynamic of a new Calvinist bigotry in England itself was quite sufficient for the task. In either case, it was the religious issue – as it first crystallised around the dispute over bishops, and then precipitated rebellion in Ireland, under threat from a still more punitive Protestantism – which pushed the landed class over the brink, into a fratricidal conflict that eventually brought down the monarchy itself.
Brenner’s analysis challenges this orthodox account. What it suggests is that the polarising force which divided the gentry was not disputation over the Church, but unrest in the capital. Parliamentary opposition to the King, he argues, was from the outset dependent on municipal insurgency in the City. It was coordination between Pym’s leadership in the Commons and the new merchant radicals in London, controlling money supply and mobilising street intimidation by apprentice gangs, which corralled the monarchy in the first session of the Long Parliament. That victory, however, remained insecure so long as the Commons was unarmed and Charles bent on revenge. The only effective counter-weight to the coercive reserves of the monarchy lay in the citizenry of the capital – mob or militia. But for many MPs, the escalation of popular activism in London was becoming steadily more alarming. In Brenner’s account, it was the inescapable choice between two political evils which came to divide the country’s rulers. Which was to be feared more: a vindictive king or a turbulent people – the threat to a traditional order from above, or below?
The new salience of religion in the autumn of 1641, Brenner contends, was an effect of this dilemma. For as spiritual ferment in London blended with popular insubordination, in a climate of increasing hostility to the Established Church, the episcopacy that had earlier been widely perceived among the gentry as a nursery of overbearing clericalism came to seem to many landowners as, after all, a necessary fixture of the social hierarchy. In that change of mind lay the route to subsequent Royalism. If Pym and his band moved in the opposite direction, towards root-and-branch Puritanism, the reason was not only that they were more exposed to vengeance in the event of a royal comeback. It was also, and above all, that they had greater confidence in their ability to handle a mass movement in London, because of their long-standing ties to the new merchants behind it.
When Catholic rebellion in Ireland brought the political situation in England to flash-point in the winter of 1641, as Pym’s caucus demanded control of the King’s ministers and the Army, and the King tried to recover power in the capital by securing the Tower, it was the radical movement in London that settled the outcome. Mass petitions against royal moves poured in, apprentices threatened a countercoup, shops shut down, the City gave shelter to the ring-leaders of the Commons, and the streets bristled with arms. At the helm of resistance there emerged a Committee of Safety, conspicuously dominated by the American merchant interest. Faced down by this show of force, Charles evacuated the capital. Municipal revolution followed. The Levant-East Indies combine, which had remained loyal to the monarchy throughout the crisis, fell from power as the oligarchic constitution of the City was opened up, and the mayor replaced. London had saved Parliament, and the Parliament that remained – half its members left to join the King – accepted the remodelling of London.
The interloper merchants lost no time in demonstrating their new position of strength, with two spectacular enterprises undertaken before the start of the Civil War in August 1642: a major land-and-sea expedition to plunder Ireland, under the direction of Maurice Thomson and associates of such later fame as Thomas Rainsborough and Hugh Peter; and a naval rampage round the Spanish possessions in the Caribbean, from Maracaibo to Jamaica to Guatemala, in collusion with Warwick. Once the fighting in England broke out, the same syndicate moved into control of the financial and Naval machinery of Parliament’s war effort, capturing the Customs in the process. As Royalist forces gained initial advantage, the new merchants and their radical allies in the City pressed for a more resolute pursuit of the war and the formation of a volunteer army. By the summer of 1643, with Parliamentary fortunes at their nadir, the Commons was cornered into accepting a mass petition demanding the creation of a Committee for a General Rising – or a new popular army under militant command, designed to shunt the Earl of Essex’s mainline forces aside. Brenner describes this move, calculated to wrest power from Pym’s leadership itself, in favour of an alliance between new party MPs and militant citizens, as the climax of the radical drive in London. In making it, the political front around the American combine over-reached itself. The General Rising failed to materialise, Parliament assembled the New Model Army, and as its victories turned the tide, moderates regained ascendancy in the City.
In a careful analysis, Brenner shows that power in London now passed away from the major overseas merchants to smaller domestic trades, with some representation from the older cloth exporters. The result was to invert the relationship between the Parliamentary leadership and the City. For if the municipal oligarchs of the mid-1640s shared with leading MPs the political priority of winning the war, their religious aim – a Presbyterian settlement along Scottish lines – was more conservative than the centre of gravity in Parliament. Brenner explains this option as a symptom of social insecurity. Landowners, enjoying traditional authority in their localities, required no clerical busybodies to police their parishes; parvenu retailers in the big city, on the other hand, watching the religious ferment around them with dismay, sought the discipline of elders to check the risks of popular anarchy. In this frame of mind, the City Presbyterians – once victory on the battlefield was secure – came to view the New Model Army, with its unprecedented freedom of religious expression, with even greater apprehension than did moderate civilian MPs. The result was the repeated efforts of a bloc between the Commons majority and the City fathers to settle a peace at the expense of the Army in 1646-8 – when there was a faster slide towards outright royalism in the City than at Westminster.
With the outbreak of the Second Civil War, the spotlight of Brenner’s narrative swings back to the new merchants. The radicalisation of the New Model Army now gave them their opportunity. In the emergency of 1648, with Royalist forces at the gates of London, Maurice Thomson was securing the Thames and fetching vessels from Holland, his brother George – now army colonel and MP for Southwark – manning the perimeter of the South Bank; one of his partners was ensconced as private secretary to Cromwell; a few months later, another was to figure in joint planning with the Levellers for the coup to put an end to an unregenerate Parliament. Pride’s Purge accomplished, the interlopers were immediately restored to power in the City, and after the execution of the King became central pillars of the new republican regime.
For the Commonwealth, with its oligarchic republicanism, mild religious toleration and militant imperialism proved to be a virtually perfect framework for the realisation of new merchant goals. Thomson and his friends were put in charge of the Navy and Customs, Excise and Assessments, City and suburban militias. North American and Caribbean colonies were rapidly wrested back from Royalist settlers; the East India Company was prised open; Levant trade was accorded government escort. Most fatefully, war was unleashed against the Dutch, when they refused to abandon commercial competition for political union with England. The very narrowness of the social base of the Commonwealth favoured the interlopers. The gentry were by now disaffected; the soldiers away on campaigns in Ireland or Scotland; the Levellers dispersed. So power at the centre fell into the hands of the small group of committed republicans in what remained of the Commons, whose imperialist aims made them ideal interlocutors for the new merchants. So intimate became the cohabitation of the two that when the officers returned to the capital and, discontented with the lack of electoral reform, dissolved the Rump, the American connection immediately expressed solidarity with it – although, a point Brenner does not make, the new merchants had no particular stake in the Rump’s conservatism as against the Army’s more radical attitude on constitutional issues. Their collective protest to Cromwell, however, ensured exclusion from the counsels of the Protectorate. Cromwell’s personal rule was ultimately to see a move back to a regime somewhat more accommodating to the gentry, in which merchant lobbies had less direct leverage. But this was not on the cards in 1653. Brenner is content to rest his case with the fall of the Commonwealth.
What became of his chief actors in later years we are not told – save for a tantalising glimpse of Maurice Thomson and one of his brothers under the Restoration, perhaps now secret agents for the Dutch. But if the ending of Brenner’s story is frustratingly abrupt, an arresting coda follows. For his narrative inevitably poses the question: was the nexus between ‘merchants and revolution’ ultimately sterile – a dead-end in the nation’s development, largely hidden from modern attention because of little further moment? Brenner’s answer is quite precise. The sequels to the alliance of 1640-2 are to be found in the Exclusion Crisis of 1679-81 and the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9. The project of an English absolutism did not disappear with Charles I, and when his sons renewed it, they ran into the same oppositional front as their father. On each occasion, aristocratic landowners in Parliament once again came together with unregulated traders in the City. The Whig campaign under Charles II failed because the gentry remembered the lessons of the Civil War – the Levellers had worn green ribbons too. But James II could be safely banished, once a Dutch Army had – in Brenner’s words – performed ‘the veritable miracle’ of checking the monarchy for the gentry, without their having this time to appeal to the people. The regime of grandees and merchants which oversaw the financial revolution and the war against France in the 1690s was a descendant of the compact of colonists in the 1630s. Brenner’s book concludes with the words: ‘The Revolution of 1688 and its sequels not only realised the project of 1640-1641 of the Parliamentary capitalist aristocracy; in so doing, it also realised, in a politically subordinated form, the project of 1649-1653 of its leading allies outside the landed classes, the American colonial and East Indian-interloping leadership.’
Formidable in its volume of evidence and concentration of argument, Merchants and Revolution will shift the parameters of all future discussion of the Civil War. To gain a sense of how new is the scene it offers, it is enough to note that the central figure of Brenner’s narrative, recurring on page after page, is mentioned just once in Russell’s Fall of the British Monarchies, as in Worden’s Rump Parliament, and figures not at all in Morrill’s Nature of the English Revolution. No image, indeed, of any of the Thomson brothers seems to have survived, though the hooded gaze of their partner Thomas Andrewes, first Mayor of London under the Commonwealth, whose portrait adorns the cover of Brenner’s book, projects the appropriate sense of collective power. It will take time to assimilate the implications of Brenner’s account for the aspects of the Civil War it does not discuss. A number of obvious questions, however, are posed by it.
The English Revolution, unlike the French, was a conflict ultimately fought out in the countryside. It was decided, not by insurrectionary journées in urban squares, but by pitched battles in open fields. Yet the capital city was of much greater structural weight in England than in France. In 1640 London had perhaps 450,000 inhabitants out of a population of 4.5 million, and was more than ten times larger than any other town: in 1789 Paris had no more than 650,000 out of a population of 25 million, a qualitatively lesser magnitude. The economic disparity was even greater, because of London’s role as a major port as well as manufacturing centre. Although the importance of the City in the Civil War has been familiar enough in outline to historians since the pioneering work of Valerie Pearl, the effect of Brenner’s work is to make it clear that the full extent of its contribution to the English Revolution has not been registered.
At the same time, the blazing light in which they emerge from Brenner’s treatment only deepens the darkness in which other levels of London life remain. Indeed, the trajectory of popular politics in the capital becomes yet more of an enigma. If, as Brenner maintains, the American-based merchants possessed a special advantage in their downward links to shopkeepers and small traders, allowing them to mobilise radical pressures in 1640-2, why were their Presbyterian opponents able to reverse the situation so easily after late 1643, and dominate the streets for the rest of the Civil War – indeed even through the rise of Leveller agitation in 1647? Ian Gentles has suggested that Presbyterian strength was based on a combination of the wealthier tradesmen and the poorest layers of porters, watermen and sailors, in which apprentices from the more substantial guilds acted as a shock-force, against an Independent – later Leveller – constituency of artisans and smaller traders.
If such was the correlation of forces, what was its social logic and how long did it hold? Sharp swings of mood, and abrupt ideological volte-faces, punctuate the history of London crowds in the 17th century. The two later Stuart crises Brenner enlists for his argument exemplify the point. The mass fervour aroused by Shaftesbury for Exclusion exceeded any mobilisation witnessed by Pym, leading to a virtually insurrectionary atmosphere in London by 1681. But when James fled in 1688, leaving a vacuum of power in the capital, the populace scarcely moved. The geography of London politics underwent an all but complete reversal between the 1640s and the 1690s. During the Civil War, a relatively moderate City was surrounded by more radical suburbs. By the time of the financial revolution, the centre of London had become a Whig stronghold, while the outlying districts were hotbeds of Toryism. Such volatility among the menu peuple calls for the kind of close focus, by sector and by conjuncture, Brenner has provided for the municipal élites, although the evidence is unlikely to be as clear-cut.
A second area of query must be religion. Brenner presents the monarchy and aristocracy as potentially at loggerheads over the Church from the Elizabethan settlement onwards – the bulk of the landed class attracted to a more rigid Calvinism of conscience, while royal rulers preferred hieratic forms of worship with their greater stress on ceremony. The tension between doctrine and discipline was, indeed, an original fault-line in the Anglican Church. But it was long containable. Why did it widen so dramatically from the 1620s onwards? The proximate answer is the Arminian turn of the monarchy, which caused an uproar in Parliament from the start. In Brenner’s framework, with its emphasis on the long-range structural logic of social conflict, it is tempting to conclude that this religious option – suspected of crypto-Catholicism by many gentlemen – was the appropriate clerical trapping for the more absolutist ambitions of Charles I, just as a radicalised Calvinism, gravitating towards a second Reformation, was to be expected among the most determined Parliamentary opponents of the King’s will, in sympathy with urban Puritanism.
Such theological associations, however, lacked any compelling necessity. Absolutism could consort perfectly well with Calvinism, as the Great Elector in Prussia – far more autocratic than Charles I – showed. Arminianism, on the other hand, was in its country of invention the creed of a mercantile Dutch patriciate in conflict with an Orange dynasty sponsoring Calvinist orthodoxy – the exact opposite of the English configuration. Such vagaries present no difficulty for the nominalism of the revisionists, committed on principle to just-so stories. But they do pose a problem for Brenner, as a critic of these. In a European perspective, the religious policies of Charles I look under-determined. It is more plausible to view the Laudian Church not as a token of some elective affinity between royal and clerical ceremony, but as the sign of a disorder in the reason of state – a monarchy that was losing its functional bearings in landed society, slipping into contingency. Political authoritarianism did not require theological provocation.
Once the dynamic of religious passions was unleashed, how should their contribution to the Civil War be weighed? Brenner’s contention that, once personal rule had been scrapped, it was the popular eruption into politics rather than the Puritan campaign against the bishops which divided the landed class, leaves a number of issues unresolved. The strongest version of the claim would require significant numbers of Parliamentarians to have put aside partiality for bishops in the interests of rallying the people, and of Royalists to have stifled aversion towards them out of greater fear of the people. A few of the latter can be found, were there any of the former? Tacitly, Brenner’s case must appeal to the operation of a ‘coincidence’ between political militancy and religious zeal in Pym’s wing of the Commons, which its terms do not explain. On his own showing, moreover, confidence in an ability to control mass agitation in the capital can only have been shared by the relatively narrow circle of peers and MPs with ties to the new merchant leaders; not by half of the landowning class – the overwhelming majority of whom had not the slightest purchase on London politics.
The process that converted a small majority in the Commons into a moiety of Parliamentary counties must have involved other determinants. Morrill has cogently argued for the asymmetrical effect of religion in the genesis of the Civil War, on the grounds that Puritanism mustered an intensity of zeal that Anglicanism did not. For most Parliamentary landowners, trust in God is likely to have been more important than trust in the people, even where a common faith might allow one to envisage a measure of the other. In a larger sense, moreover, there is not the slightest doubt that religion was the decisive trigger of the Civil War, since it was the Scottish rebellion against the Caroline Prayer Book which put the King at the mercy of Parliament, and a Catholic revolt in Ireland which unsheathed swords between the two in England. The British matrix of the Civil War is not broached by Brenner: it is an intriguing question how far his line of analysis could be extended to encompass it.
Within his English framework, however, the division of the country poses a further problem. What determined the territorial configuration of the two camps, as fighting started? Why did most of the countryside in the North and West rally to the King, in the South and East to Parliament? Can either religious conviction or political confidence be regarded as plausible markers for the distribution? Even if they were, we would still be left with the question why they had taken this geographical pattern. No plausible answer is to be found in either the revisionist literature or Brenner’s reply to it. Two alternative explanations have traditionally been available. The first suggests that the diagonal split in the country in the summer of 1642 was essentially a function of Parliament’s original control of London, and of the King’s physical presence in York, each becoming a fortuitous magnet for the surrounding zones, subsequently consolidated along strategic – not social or ideological – lines. How plausible is such a view?
There is no doubt that most civil wars do involve a certain random distribution of the cards, in which military control may correspond less to political strength than to chances of terrain or logistics. The map of Republican and Nationalist regions in the Spanish Civil War can be superimposed on the electoral geography of today’s Socialist and Popular Parties with a high degree of fit – save for Andalusia and Extremadura, now bastions of the Left, but whose proximity to Morocco handed them to the Right in 1936, once the Moorish Legion was airlifted across the Straits. In China, Yenan was far from being a natural home of the CCP, whose strength had been mainly in the south-east, until it was driven there as a refuge more inaccessible to the KMT. Even in the American Civil War, where regional and political frontiers in principle coincided most completely, Maryland and Kentucky found themselves on the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon Line. Nevertheless, the accidents of war have seldom, if ever, radically erased the ecology of class or belief when a country is gripped by civil strife. Even the most aleatory readings of the division of England in 1642 concede the logic of a Parliamentary London.
The second kind of explanation looks for systematic differences behind the territorial separation. In his Revel, Riot and Rebellion, David Underdown has argued that two antagonistic rural cultures – quite close to popular images of Cavalier and Roundhead – existed in sheep-corn lowlands and wood-pasture uplands, based on distinct village and manorial patterns, and that it was these which shaped the geography of political choice in the Civil War. But his concern is with popular rather than élite allegiances, and his evidence, drawn from three Western counties, is intra rather than inter-regional. At the national level, the broad contrast between Wales and East Anglia inverts rather than confirms Underdown’s dichotomy. The older hypothesis advanced by Christopher Hill was less fine-grained. It pointed to the fact that capitalist agriculture had developed further in the South and East of England than in the more backward North and West, and suggested that this was the setting for the dominant options of the gentry in each zone. Hill’s argument belonged to a social interpretation of the Civil War that saw the Stuart monarchy as a nascent absolutism capable of calling on reserves of feudal custom in the outer regions of the country.
What is Brenner’s position? In keeping with his famous account in The Brenner Debate of precocious economic development in England, based on competitive leases and insecure tenures, Merchants and Revolution insists that by the time of the Civil War the landowning class as a whole was capitalist – not ‘divided into advanced and backward sectors’, but ‘extraordinarily homogeneous’ in its forms of exploitation. The polarisation between Royalists and Parliamentarians, therefore, was without any socio-economic basis. ‘In so homogeneous a landed class as that of England in the 1640s, whence could such social differences have arisen?’ This seem categorical enough. Yet looked at a little closer, Brenner’s formulations sometimes fluctuate. The landed class, it emerges, was only ‘by and large’, ‘for the most part’, ‘not of course uniformly’ capitalist, and ‘further consolidation’ would be necessary later in the century. Does the note of hesitation here suggest the underlying issue remains less than completely resolved? Certainly, the agrarian world of manorial courts and copy-holds, wardships and entry fines, advowsons and impropriations, was still a good way from that of Charles Townshend.
Brenner’s central argument for the capitalist character of English agriculture under the early Stuarts is that agrarian property was no longer ‘politically constituted’ – that is, landowners no longer depended on extra-economic powers of coercion to extract a surplus product from the cultivators, along medieval lines. What this argument, focusing essentially on the ‘direct exercise of force’, as Brenner puts it, perhaps understates is the extent to which landed property was still ‘ideologically constituted’ – that is, remained encased in precapitalist relations of justification. The power of such ‘extra-economic legitimation’, as we might call it, was subject to erosion from the rationale of the market. But if we are looking at the regional pattern of the divide within the landed class in the 1640s, it is here we might find part of the answer. It is clear that Royalists and Roundheads cannot simply be decanted in two different categories of estate management, since there were plenty of the most up-to-date landlords on the King’s side. But for there to be a social logic to the division, such a symmetry is not necessary.
Just as religion worked asymmetrically within a broadly common Protestant outlook to polarise the Parliamentary side, so – we might surmise – tradition worked asymmetrically within a broadly improving agrarian class to polarise the Royalist side. In other words, the attachment of many ‘progressive’ landlords to the King does not mean that equal numbers of ‘conservative’ landlords rallied to Parliament. The magnetic pull of London ensured that market forces permeated the South-East more thoroughly than the North or West; and the less modern the setting, the more effective were bonds of loyalty and dependence tying property and authority together, in a traditional hierarchy. We can glimpse this contrast even within the most Roundhead of zones, the Eastern Association – Norfolk, Cambridge and Huntingdon lagging noticeably behind Essex, Suffolk and Herts in ardour for the Parliamentary cause.
Royal ability to secure feudal exactions during personal rule is one kind of testimony to the continuing strength of the forms of ideologically constituted property. The pledges of allegiance received by the King once war seemed inescapable were another, and more decisive one: feudal conceptions of order and honour were not dead either in the hinterland of the kingdom or closer to the centre. Eventually, in the second round of the Civil War, even Kent and Surrey saw Royalist revolts. In Denbigh or Cumberland, on the other hand, no Parliamentary spark ever flared. The spectacle of popular disorder in London, divisive though it certainly was, does not suffice to explain the split of 1642: indeed, it might have been thought the gentry of the localities closest to the epicentre would be most alarmed, those further away less moved. Over much of the country, it seems likely that fear of the urban mob was less of a recruiter for Royalism than codes of rural fealty to the King.
The ideological role of the monarchy as the keystone of an aristocratic order, holding the arch of ranks upright, has been emphasised by other Marxist historians of the period, notably Brian Manning. Brenner tends to neglect it. His description of English monarchy as ‘patrimonial’ is a Weberian islet within his categories, whose consistency with them goes unexplained. Patrimonialism was one of Weber’s vaguest and most polymorphous notions, and its subsequent use has often been indiscriminate. In the context of Brenner’s analysis, however, the thrust of the term ‘patrimonial’ is clear enough: it is designed to suggest the distance between the Stuart monarchy, conceived as a self-contained household, and the landed class outside it – in other words, its lack of roots in the social soil at large. The unspoken antonym is feudal. This picture of the state is not a quirk but a logical requirement of the claim that the aristocracy was homogeneously capitalist. For where could that leave the monarchy, other than in structural isolation?
The depiction of the English landowning class in Merchants and Revolution is coherent with the account of its evolution in The Brenner Debate, which sets the late medieval stage for the Early Modern transformation of the gentry, now presented as all but complete. Nevertheless, there is a deep paradox in Brenner’s sequel. For the great iconoclastic theme of his original theory of European economic development was the relative unimportance of towns or trade for the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Everything, in that vision, turned on agriculture, and only in England, it suggested, did agriculture turn. Historically, it was the unique self-transformation of the English landowners in the countryside which ushered in the world of capital – and it alone.
One side of Brenner’s polemic was aimed at neo-Malthusian orthodoxies, stressing the primacy of demography in Early Modern economic history, the other at neo-Smithian accounts that gave priority to cities and commerce – unwisely adopted, in Brenner’s view, by too many Marxists. He went on to draw the conclusion that the idea of a ‘bourgeois revolution’, lodged in the Marxist tradition, was misplaced: no bourgeoisie was needed to overthrow a feudal aristocracy, since the latter had changed itself and got to capitalism first anyway. The break with feudalism came not from any accumulation in trade or assault on absolute monarchy, but through an agrarian catharsis. Beside the self-conversion of the English landlords, every other strand in the emergence of capitalism was marginal.
For all the power of this case, there were always difficulties with its overall context. The idea of capitalism in one country, taken literally, is only a bit more plausible than that of socialism. For Marx the different moments of the modern biography of capital were distributed in a cumulative sequence, from the Italian cities to the towns of Flanders and Holland, to the empires of Portugal or Spain and the ports of France, before being ‘systematically combined in England at the end of the 17th century’. Historically, it makes better sense to view the emergence of capitalism as a value-added process gaining in complexity as it moved along a chain of inter-related sites. In this story, the role of cities was always central. English landowners could never have started their conversion to commercial agriculture without the market for wool in Flemish towns – just as Dutch farming was by Stuart times in advance of English, not least because it was conjoined to a richer urban society. Yet, even if the ‘bourgeois’ contribution to the economic genesis of capitalism is conceded, this does not mean that a political ‘revolution’ was necessary to smooth its path. That would have been one possible reading of Brenner’s case, with its emphasis on the immanent dynamism of competitive production for the market. Where does his new work leave the issue?
Merchants and Revolution does not argue that the Civil War was inevitable, but that a political collision between the monarchy and the landowning class was inherently likely. What converted a Parliamentary revolt into an armed revolution was, on Brenner’s showing, the catalytic role of the new merchants in London. Here, if ever, were revolutionary bourgeois. The species declared a fiction in France was bel et bien a reality in England, a hundred and fifty years before the Convention. There is a nice irony that it should be massive historical evidence, running against – not with – a theoretical conviction which has brought a Marxist scholar to this conclusion. The detractor of the significance of merchant capital in principle has been the first to establish, in spellbinding detail, its role as demi-urge in practice. When the revisionists draw their lessons from the Civil War for Ukania today, Conrad Russell – recalling the need for prudent management of Scots affairs and tamping down of ideal passions – dwells on the dangers of a disunited realm. Brenner’s account of the hour of the Committee of Safety reminds us of another question: the conditions of a durable republic.
The historical intelligence that has generated both the comparative breadth of The Brenner Debate and the narrative depth of Merchants and Revolution is without close counterpart. This is a body of writing centred on the medieval and Early Modern worlds. It is an awesome thought that its author is now at work on the central puzzle of our own time, which has so far defeated every analyst. Why has the world economy of the late 20th century been sunk in the intractable slow-down of the past twenty years, whose social consequences lie strewn without number around us? The answer will be worth waiting for.
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