New-Model History

Valerie Pearl

  • The City and the Court 1603-1643 by Robert Ashton
    Cambridge, 247 pp, £10.50, September 1980, ISBN 0 521 22419 5

The ‘major reinterpretation’ of City and Crown politics, promised by Professor Ashton in his book on the English Civil Wars, and long awaited, has now been published in a slim volume covering the years from 1603 to the outbreak of the Civil War. Put briefly, his theme runs thus.

The city fathers, defenders of monarchy, not Parliament, under James I, and again allied to the Crown from the autumn of 1641, were nevertheless temporarily ‘alienated’ from their natural ally during the 1630s. The City was estranged as a result of Royal attacks on municipal and corporate privileges which have long featured in our histories. As Clarendon, the first and greatest historian of the time, wrote of Charles’s relations with London: ‘the city was looked upon by the crown as a “common stock” not easily to be exhausted and as a body not to be grieved by ordinary acts of injustice.’ The city’s later Royalism, Ashton tells us, should be attributed to the radical events of 1640 and 1641, and not to a long-standing and continuing alignment. By the end of the 1630s, the city fathers were ‘as alienated from royal policies as was the vast majority of the political nation’.

According to the author, this ‘new model’ does not rest on fresh evidence. It is another way of looking at events which were treated briefly in my book on London and the Outbreak of the Puritan Revolution (1961), but which have been familiar to historians since the days of S.R. Gardiner and W.R. Scott. While the incidents do not themselves amount to ‘irrefutable proof’, the author tells us, they do suggest that such incessant attacks ‘alienated’ the city fathers and caused them to enter into an alliance with the Parliamentary leaders. Since the force of Ashton’s case for a political realignment rests on the piling up of unconnected incidents, it is important that each of them should be placed in context and studied from the original documents. It is also important that each episode should be solid enough to sustain the construction placed upon it by the author. Let us look at a few of these episodes.

One of the most significant organisational changes in the gilds in the Early Modern period was the rise of the yeomanry, of which a scholarly study is badly needed: such a work would greatly enhance our understanding of the position of the small master and artisan in London society. The context of events in which the yeomanry wrested their not inconsiderable concessions from the liveries is not touched upon in this book. A dispute in the Goldsmiths’ Company in 1529 relating to that change is wrongly described by Ashton as a dispute within the Livery over the powers exercised by the Court of Assistants. In fact, the Livery was not divided and the dispute was not about the Court of Assistants. The conflict concerned the struggle of the ‘young men’ outside the Livery for constitutional and financial benefits, and culminated in the creation of the yeomanry. The Goldsmith Court Minute Book leaves no doubt as to the true nature of the episode.

I suggested in my book that in the 1630s the City was more favourable to the Royal plan for rebuilding St Paul’s than to the radical Puritan Feoffees of Impropriation. Ashton throws doubt on this. It should not be thought, he tells us, that the City’s contribution to St Paul’s was eagerly donated, or that it raised any considerable sum: the Royal expectation of generous contributions was sadly disappointed. The reader is left to conclude that in this important matter, so dear to the heart of Archbishop Laud, the City failed to raise the necessary cash. But this was not so. The City responded with enormous generosity. By 1636, the national fund amounted to nearly £56,000, most of it raised in London. The money enabled Inigo Jones to rebuild the west front of the cathedral and to restore the choir – work which was not pulled down until 1687, having been weakened by the Great Fire. By contrast, the Puritan Feoffees of Impropriation, which Ashton hints were not necessarily distrusted by the City, raised little more than a paltry £6,000 in citizen contributions over the eight years of their existence – a sum which hardly suggests that rich merchants preferred that radical organisation to the rebuilding of St Paul’s.

There is evidence on other policy matters contained in the City Lands Committee records, company records and repertories and journals indicating that the Crown and City were not so far apart on municipal policies as Ashton implies. Take the City’s attitude to new building. One supposed clash, on compounding with offenders by fine, was not unknown in the practice of the City Lands Committee, which made the same kind of distinction as did the Crown between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ developers, permitting the former to fine while demolishing the buildings of the ‘poorer sort’. It was not the City, as a quick reading of Ashton might suggest, but Parliament which complained of ‘the sale of pretended nuisances’ in the Grand Remonstrance of 1641.

The most disappointing feature of the book is the failure to ask questions prompted by recent and current thinking. Can we assume, as Ashton does, that political choice or stance, in a time of crisis, can be explained by individual clashes of interest? Before the 19th century, and even after, perhaps, there are surely few important conflicts in political life which were not mainly determined by more general cultural considerations. Notions of social cohesion, loyalty to the Crown or to other institutions, traditional allegiances, attitudes to social inferiors, competition for privilege and power, and so on, were more likely to be crucial than consideration of economic benefit or profit by itself. Even in our age of economic man, individual clashes of interest rarely by themselves dictate political allegiance.

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