The Noble Revolt: The Overthrow of Charles I 
by John Adamson.
Weidenfeld, 742 pp., £25, March 2007, 978 0 297 84262 0
Show More
Show More

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 He was dissatisfied with his typescript, which became a famously unpublished book.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’.

Much of Adamson’s career has been devoted to the bold advancement of exactly that thesis, which he developed independently. Now he cautiously qualifies it. Having borne the scars of controversy, he here proposes that the ‘baronial’ component of the Puritan revolution was but one ‘context’ among many. The gentry who supplied political leadership in the Commons, far from being the ‘servile’ followers of the peers, were their partners. It was not, he concedes, because the nobles retained a feudal military base that they were able to reduce the Crown to impotence in 1642: they had lost that base. The actions of the nobles of 1640-42 were sustained not by the social structure but by contingency. They thrived on the existence or prospective existence not of feudal armies but of royal ones, which were raised or to be raised to meet the emergencies of the rebellions in Scotland and Ireland. The peers who opposed Charles I planned to turn those forces to their own uses, either by procuring defections from among the Crown’s military leaders, or by parliamentary measures to control military funding and the composition of the high command.

Aristocratic leadership is nonetheless the raison d’être of Adamson’s book. For all his back-watching eirenicism towards living historians with different perspectives, he presents the peers as the initiators and steersmen of events whenever he can. At the heart of his account is the organisation of resistance to the Crown by the ‘stupendously rich’ Earl of Bedford and the Puritan magnate the Earl of Warwick, and by the fellow peers whom they mobilised. If the book has a single explanation of the breakdown of Charles I’s rule, it lies in the relationship, half co-operative, half competitive, between Bedford, the instinctive courtier who wanted to pressure Charles into voluntary concession, and Warwick, who saw hope only in the forcible coercion of the king.

What values and aims, then, motivated the two earls and their colleagues and followers? Trevor-Roper, too, placed Bedford and Warwick at the heart of his story. ‘In a sense’, he wrote, Bedford was his book’s ‘hero’. He was the second of two statesmen who, since the growth of tension between court and country in the 1590s, had sought to resolve it. The first was James I’s leading adviser Robert Cecil, first Earl of Salisbury, Lord Burghley’s son, whose ‘Great Contract’ of 1610 attempted to place the Crown’s finances on a less vexatious footing. Bedford used parliamentary pressure to the same end in 1641. Adamson’s account bears out Trevor-Roper’s assessment of Bedford’s financial proposals. But whereas Trevor-Roper related them to the structural problems of society, Adamson engages only fleetingly with questions of social organisation and change. As specialists will, he brings no long-term or comparative framework to his analysis. He acknowledges that nobles whose ancestors had regarded rebellion as a feasible and legitimate form of protest had come to see that effective challenges to the Crown could now be mounted only through Parliament. We are left to wonder how so momentous a transition, which exercised Trevor-Roper’s generation of historians, had occurred, and how the leadership of the aristocracy had survived the change.

Even within the period from 1640 to 1642, Adamson’s perspective entails a certain narrowness. The interchange of opinion between the centre and localities, so richly productive a topic in the decades since Trevor-Roper wrote, counts for little in Adamson’s interpretation. He has more on the city of London, whose hard-fought politics, prominent in Trevor-Roper’s account, were crucial in the national power-struggles that preceded the war, but they emerge only in subordinate relation to the higher political world where the king on one side, and Bedford and Warwick on the other, competed for the allegiance of aristocratic privy councillors. Adamson does recognise the ferocious resentments that were felt through the land, and across classes, at the political and religious policies of Charles I. But he sees them essentially through noblemen’s eyes. It is a limitation which his concessions to the middle ground of current debate – such as his recognition that hostility to the High Churchmanship of Archbishop Laud ‘was sufficiently widespread to have a life of its own, irrespective of any promptings from the oppositionist peers’ – only accentuate.

Adamson has fine gifts of characterisation, which bring his dissident peers vividly before us. Yet he finds it easier to portray their calculations and manipulations than to enter into their hearts and feelings. That is because of their Puritanism, of which he dutifully acknowledges the force but with which he has difficulty engaging. He finds royalist convictions easier to penetrate, even if they play a smaller part in his book. Trevor-Roper re-created, as Adamson does not, the experiences through which the Puritan leaders of the Civil War had lived. He dwelled on the formative impact of the 1620s, an era of cumulative disaster for the Protestant cause at home and abroad. Not that he admired Puritanism. In its fanatical form, which swayed in the 1640s, he detested it. The professors of religious virtue, in his eyes, deceived either themselves or others, for the conflicts over the Church were in essence struggles for power in the state.

That is Adamson’s line too. He argues, against recent trends, that the Civil War cannot usefully be called a ‘war of religion’. Time and again, in his depiction of religious demands – for the abolition of bishops, for the prosecution of Catholics, for the execution of Laud, for the purification of church buildings and services or the destruction of ‘popish’ images and rituals – he shows the noble leaders blowing hot or cold as political requirements dictated. The peers intensified their calls for reform when they needed to sweeten their Presbyterian allies in Scotland, but drew back when moderate English opinion had to be conciliated. The ‘piety’ of ‘Warwick’s godly mafia’, an organisation which in one of Adamson’s eirenic moments is allowed to have been ‘first and foremost the outward expression’ of an ‘inward religious and ideological bond’, is elsewhere more characteristically summarised as ‘politic’. What the dissident peers objected to about bishops, he maintains, was not their ecclesiastical status and aspirations, but their political influence and their presence in the House of Lords, where they could swing votes in favour of the Crown that had appointed them.

His case is marshalled with compelling power. Yet he is torn between two impulses. The first is to maintain that constitutional and political issues – the rights and powers of Parliament, the evil of non-parliamentary taxation, the need to replace the king’s advisers with the leaders of ‘the Bedford-Warwick coalition’ – mattered more than religious ones. The second is to reason that it is meaningless to choose between those ‘alternative modes of explanation’, since the religious and the secular were inseparable. Religious goals, as their most zealous advocates appreciated, could be achieved only through the securing of political and constitutional power, which therefore had to come first. That proposition is, I believe, entirely correct, but its logical corollary is that the peers’ shifts of objective can tell us only about their strategies, not about their ultimate priorities. As for the term ‘war of religion’, points parallel to Adamson’s could be made about other conflicts of the late Renaissance which are uncontroversially given that label, but which had obviously central political components: the revolt of the Netherlands in the later 16th century; the troubles in France at the same time; and the Thirty Years War, with which the English Civil War overlapped.

The recent emphasis on religious conflict has, thinks Adamson, distracted historians from fundamental differences of constitutional belief between the king and his aristocratic opponents. Here Trevor-Roper and Adamson are on opposite sides. To Trevor-Roper the crisis of 1640-41 was no more inherently revolutionary, and perhaps less so, than the parliamentary conflicts of the late 1620s had been. Only a series of unpredictable events, especially the Irish rebellion of November 1641 and the responses to it at Whitehall and Westminster, transformed a peaceable and containable movement for reform into a slide to revolution. Countering what was then the conventional equation of the Parliamentarian cause with political and ideological progress, Trevor-Roper maintained that the aims of Bedford, Warwick and their friends were essentially conservative. Those men wanted to restore what they took to have been the political harmony of the reign of Elizabeth I. There was, Trevor-Roper thought, no basic divide of political theory between king and Parliament, both of whom called for a ‘limited’ or ‘mixed monarchy’. The division between Roundheads and Cavaliers was the cause, not a consequence, of the struggle for sovereignty over which the Civil War was fought.

That interpretation has since become something like a commonplace. Adamson confronts it head-on, to imposing effect. In his eyes there was a revolutionary situation even before the Long Parliament met in November 1640. Historians, he asserts, ‘have not grasped how close England came to civil war in the late summer’ of that year. Giving an interpretative edge to recent archival discoveries, he argues that the dissident peers entered into a treasonous alliance with the Scottish Puritans or ‘Covenanters’. They worked with the Covenanters again in 1641, planning to strip the Crown of its powers in both countries, and simultaneously devising a militantly Protestant foreign policy to be jointly controlled by English and Scottish Puritans almost independently of their shared king. Within England, their methods were no less ruthless or hazardous. In 1640 they threatened to summon a Parliament themselves if Charles would not call one. By the end of 1641, through inexorable pressure on the king, they had drawn large spheres of the government’s financial and judicial activity into their hands. Prerogatives of the Crown were in effect usurped.

Alongside those administrative coups, argues Adamson, there ran a no less radical legislative programme. ‘Mixed monarchy’, to his mind, was an empty slogan, paraded by both sides to win the middle ground. In 1640-42, he repeatedly insists, England faced a choice between two constitutional futures. Either it would preserve some form of ‘personal monarchy’, in which the king chose his own policies and advisers; or, if Adamson’s peers had their way, power would pass to councillors and Parliaments and the king would become a ‘cipher’.

This, in Adamson’s judgment, was no ad hoc programme, designed to meet the particular emergency caused by the misrule of a particular king. It was meant to produce a ‘permanent’ constitutional revolution, which would disempower not only Charles I but ‘any future monarch’. The result would be a ‘Venetianisation’ of England, a process that would give the country a ‘republican’ government, or anyway a ‘quasi-republican’ one with ‘distinctively republican’ features. We can agree that the legislative proposals of 1641-42 were fundamental entrenchments on the Crown. What kind of king would it be who could not veto parliamentary bills, who had to choose his advisers from Parliament’s nominees, who did not control his own armies? Yet Adamson’s thesis, brilliantly sustained when it addresses the practical exploits of his peers, falters in the realm of political theory. However often he quotes Charles’s rhetorical complaint that his Scottish enemies wanted to make him no more than a doge of Venice, he can find nothing to indicate that the king’s opponents in either country thought in the language of republicanism. The models they invoked were not foreign kingless states but the native limited monarchies of the Middle Ages, whose principles they believed Charles to have broken. The Earl of Bedford may, as Adamson observes, have shown an acquaintance with the political practices of ancient and modern republics in his notebooks. So did a great many other people in theirs. But there is nothing to connect that intellectual cosmopolitanism to the schemes of the grandees of 1640-42.

Were the legislative measures of those years really intended to be ‘permanent’? Adamson emphasises that that ambition is to be found in the ‘Ten Propositions’ which Parliament pressed on the king in the summer of 1641. But nothing in that document, or in any other aristocratic or parliamentary statement quoted by him, shows peers or MPs thinking beyond the present crisis to the problems inherent in monarchical power. The document that famously summarised their political programme, the Grand Remonstrance of November 1641, was an indictment solely of the misgovernment of Charles I, not of the constitution he had abused. Of course, laws passed in an emergency generally outlive the monarchs under whom they are passed. But it did not occur to the Parliamentarians who resisted Charles to try to devise constitutional or legal formulae that would bind their successors. The legislation of 1641 to whose significance Adamson gives most emphasis is the Triennial Act, which required the Crown to call a Parliament every three years. But that measure was wholly compatible with medieval notions of mixed monarchy. Potentially more radical was another act of that year, which forbade the dissolution or adjournment of the present Parliament without its own consent. Parliaments in permanent session would indeed have been a revolutionary prospect. Yet the act, an emergency measure only, avoided it, for it made no stipulation about future Parliaments.

Of course, a reign like Charles’s can radicalise its opponents. There were men who, before his accession, had wanted merely to weed the Church of its failings, but who had come to demand its root-and-branch reform, so that no king could corrupt it again. But was there a parallel radicalisation in political thought? Let us suppose, to take one of those accidents on which the fates of generations have rested, that Charles’s elder brother, Prince Henry, had not chanced to die young, and had reigned in Charles’s stead. Suppose that, as king, Henry had lived up to the Calvinists’ hopes and pursued the ecclesiastical reforms and the militant foreign policy for which they yearned. Would Adamson’s peers then have sought to curb the Crown? Would they not, like their contemporaries among the national leaders in Sweden under that hero of Charles I’s Puritan adversaries, Gustavus Adolphus, have welcomed the strengthening of the monarchy in the Protestant cause? Did Bedford and his allies not offer to make Charles ‘the richest king in Christendom’ if he would only adopt their policies?

Adamson treats Parliament’s habitual expressions of deference to majesty as mere concessions to convention, which cloaked novel aims in reassuringly familiar language. Certainly, there was much meaningless courtesy. How many people can have believed what was so widely said, that Charles was a virtuous ruler whose only deficiency was that his ‘evil counsellors’ held him ‘captive’? Yet it was the perversion of majesty, not majesty itself, that provoked Charles’s subjects. The conventional doctrine of ‘the king’s two bodies’, which distinguished between the ‘office’ of the ruler and the ‘person’ who deserted or betrayed it, enabled them to launch fundamental attacks on Charles’s misrule while retaining their commitment to regality. The king’s hardline parliamentary opponents were torn, as their predecessors over many generations had been, between rival longings: for good kings to be powerful and bad ones to be powerless.

Planning and action, not beliefs and ideas, are Adamson’s forte. The momentum of the events of 1640-42, the ebb and flow of power and opinion and morale between the contending parties, the bold initiatives, the tactical compromises and retreats, the misjudgments and provocations that played into opponents’ hands, have never been so incisively and graphically recounted. His interpretations of them will not command universal assent, even among readers generally sympathetic to his approach. In the heavily populated world of Civil War studies, less sympathetic ones will pick over his every detail. The lacunae of the evidence bequeathed by necessarily secretive politicians have left little scope for certainty and endless room for rival explanations. Adamson’s text is nervously but understandably peppered with the words ‘seems to’, ‘appears to’, ‘arguably’. Yet the book works best when he puts the anxieties of academe aside and performs the historian’s, or anyway the political historian’s, first and oldest task: the telling of a story. Without the dimension of narrative, the cerebral dissection of the past that is valued by the academic world can become mere tail-chasing. Time and again an episode which, when separated from its chronological context, has looked to have one kind of significance is shown by Adamson to have a different one when restored to it. Narrative has another function, for which academic training provides no preparation: the recovery of the atmospheric pressure of events, which, to be understood, has to be not merely thought about but felt.

Trevor-Roper, who knew this as well as anyone, urged professional historians to address a lay audience, which it is the duty of the humanities to reach, and whose demands can draw specialists away from the snares of introspection. Adamson’s account, long and dense as it is, has a lay readership in mind. There is some magnificent writing, which in its imaginative resourcefulness, though happily not in its language, can recall Carlyle. No amount of dispassionate analysis could convey that essential component of the crisis of 1640-42, the king’s isolation as events slipped from his control, more tellingly than Adamson’s account of the royal entourage as the London populace celebrated the passage of the Triennial Act: ‘In the Privy Lodgings at Whitehall, Charles was spared the sight of the bonfires. But not even the oak shutters and heavy curtains of the king’s bedchamber could muffle the ringing of an entire city’s bells, and their irksome peals.’ Elsewhere, London’s hours of daylight, the stirring of political and commercial activity at dawn, the transformations of mood as political processions were delayed into the winter dusk and torches were lit, are woven into Adamson’s narrative, not as indulgences in the picturesque but as aids to comprehension. No historian of the period since Trevor-Roper has had so keen a visual sense.

The high point of Adamson’s artistry is his relation of the impeachment of the king’s leading minister, the Earl of Strafford, whom the peers had to break before he could break them. It turns on an observation of blinding simplicity: the significance of the grandees’ decision to hold the trial not, as tradition enjoined, in the cramped and private setting of the House of Lords, but in theatrical style before a large public audience, which carried the story into the wider world. ‘It is impossible,’ Trevor-Roper wrote, ‘to read without emotion the story of Strafford’s trial and fate.’ Subsequent commentators have found it impossible, or anyway undesirable, to write with it. Adamson restores, if not emotion – for he is interested less in Strafford’s human or tragic stature than in the dexterity of his defence – then at least the drama of shifting fortunes that determined the significance and outcome of the trial.

Here and elsewhere Adamson makes the most of his unusual command of the topography of Whitehall and Westminster. The Thames, with its bustle of ferries and the landing-stages and mudflats on its edge, becomes a protagonist. We are thus well prepared for our final view of it, as the king, in the wake of his botched and fateful attempt to arrest the five members, slips away from the capital by water in the January cold: ‘From the cabin at the stern of the barge, Charles caught a glimpse of the gilded weather-vanes of Whitehall Palace before the boat turned westwards, past the Abbey, and under the great east window of St Stephen’s Chapel – the Commons’ chamber, and the scene of his most recent political debacle. It would be seven years before Charles saw his palace again.’ May Adamson turn his pen to the politics of those seven years, the era of war that ended in the regicide, for they now look deprived without him. He has raised his subject to a new level.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 29 No. 13 · 5 July 2007

Blair Worden’s review of John Adamson’s book on the overthrow of Charles I is contradictory, or apparently so, on one important matter, and seriously underplays the radicalism of the parliamentary actions and proposals of 1640-42 (LRB, 24 May). The apparent contradiction is between Worden’s affirmation of the view that religion and politics in the period were ‘inseparable’, and his later, much more polemical assertion that the radicalism of the opposition in this period was entirely in the religious sphere and that there was no ‘parallel radicalisation in political thought’. In order to state the latter, Worden has to discount the apparent radicalism of Parliament in the period. He tries to get round the Triennial Act (‘compatible with medieval notions of mixed monarchy’) and the act against proroguing Parliament without its own consent (‘it made no stipulation about future Parliaments’), but misrepresents the most important statement issued by Parliament in the period, the document of November 1641 that has come to be known as the Grand Remonstrance. Worden says that this document was ‘an indictment solely of the misgovernment of Charles I’, and had no constitutional implications. This is simply false. It ignores much of the text, especially its second half. Certainly the Remonstrance is not a republican text in the sense that it imagines abolishing kingship; but Charles was right to see it as a ‘Venetianising’ text, as, in other words, a strong assertion of parliamentary sovereignty. The text celebrates Parliament’s power and institutional reforms; it sees the articles that provide for regular meetings of Parliament and forbid dissolution by the king not only as securing a ‘remedy’ for the present crisis but as ‘a perpetual spring of remedies for the future’. The Parliament sees its actions as transformative and world-historical; it sees itself as so thoroughly reforming the political abuses of Charles’s reign, especially ‘the immoderate power of the Council Table’, that such abuses ‘will appear in future times but only in stories’. The Remonstrance ends with a list of items ‘for the perfecting of the work begun’, which the king is ‘humbly’ asked to ‘be pleased to grant’. These include virtually complete parliamentary control over the king’s selection of ‘counsellors, ambassadors and other ministers’. The Grand Remonstrance has, in other words, quite a clear picture of the revolution in political structure that it is in the process of creating.

Richard Strier
University of Chicago

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences