Winner’s History

Howard Erskine-Hill

  • Some Intellectual Consequences of the English Revolution by Christopher Hill
    Weidenfeld, 100 pp, £5.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 297 77780 7
  • The Century of Revolution, 1603-1714 by Christopher Hill
    Nelson, 296 pp, £5.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 17 712002 9

Some great and some good things, and some both great and good, undoubtedly came out of the period 1640-60 which Christopher Hill calls ‘the English Revolution’. What came out, however, was not necessarily originated by the period. It is a nice problem to distinguish causation from succession. In 12 short and easygoing chapters, originally the Merle Curti Lectures at the University of Wisconsin, Professor Hill’s account slides to and fro from causation to succession. For example: ‘Locke drew on the experiences of the revolutionary decades’ and is thus an ‘intellectual consequence’ of ‘the English Revolution’; and ‘the great revolution in human thought … echoed from England all over Europe … Harrington, Locke, Newton, Hume and Adam Smith gave the lead to the whole of Europe. Richardson and Fielding, building on 17th-century spiritual autobiographies, and on the writings of Bunyan and Defoe, created the novel, the dominant literary form of the modern age.’

If we consider these claims, we may agree that Harrington’s influence was a consequence of the experience of 1640-60, for his work, like the writings of Filmer and Hobbes, was a response to the crises of that time, though it would not have been what it was had he not also drawn so fully on Italian republican thought of the 16th century. That Locke (whose 1660 panegyric to Charles II as a new Augustus Hill may not know) drew on mid-century experience and Puritan and Leveller argument concerning original contract and natural freedom is probable. These key concepts already existed in 16th-century political thought, but their most powerful recent formulation was doubtless in Parliamentarian apologetic writing of the Civil War period and in Leveller pamphlets. With Newton, Hume – hardly a partisan of Parliament in his History of England – and Adam Smith, the links in the chain of consequence become weaker. How confidently can we say that if Britain had continued without interruption under its kings, new mechanical and sceptical philosophies would not have developed? Charles I and Laud could hardly have abolished Machiavelli, Galileo and Descartes, or Bacon, whose influence on such developments was not insignificant, Anglican and royalist though he was. That Fielding, Richardson and the novel should be suggested as an ‘intellectual consequence’ of ‘the English Revolution’ (if that is what is being suggested) is surprising. If Calvinism fostered spiritual autobiography and spiritual autobiography the novel, we should recall that the Anglican Church was widely Calvinist under Elizabeth and James. Cervantes’ Don Quixote, not so far as I know the consequence of a revolution, echoes on into 18th-century fiction, while the great European picaresque novel with its powerfully developed religious strain was, in the hands of the Spaniard Aleman and the German Grimmelshausen, in full maturity by the middle of the 17th century. The English novel is a river from many sources. It would be absurd to claim either that England gave the novel to Europe, or that 1640-60 gave the novel to England.

To say that the English novel sprang from the ‘English Revolution’ would be just as misleading, but would have a certain visionary appeal. From this we may see, though magic may have declined, what a magical word ‘revolution’ is. In a more or less stable but self-critical modern culture it is pregnant with easy excitement, and Hill conjures with it as with the philosopher’s stone, thus gilding his cloudily ambitious claims. But discussion of the intellectual influence of 1640-60 depends on the character that is assigned to the period. Despite the frequent use of the word ‘revolution’ by Hill and some others, it is actually a matter of controversy whether, or rather in what sense, these two decades comprised a revolution. In the contemporary 17th-century sense, where the word means a radical reversal in government, there were four revolutions within the period: the first completed by the defeat and execution of Charles I; the second accomplished by Cromwell’s attainment of quasi-monarchical power; a third marked by the overthrow of Richard as Lord Protector and the brief re-establishment of the Rump; and the fourth, to be termed the ‘glorious revolution’ by Bevil Higgons in 1726, the restoration of Charles II. Hill, however, is using the term in a more modern sense: for a vast and possibly premeditated outbreak from ‘the centuries-old crust of custom’, a great leap forward towards modernity. Applying this sense of ‘revolution’ to the period in question, some will conclude that there was no ‘English Revolution’ at all, but rather a civil conflict that got out of hand, a civil war that neither side desired, a modern social revolution proposed by the Levellers but nipped in the bud, and a very explicable burgeoning of political theory. Hill does not discuss these distinctions. His title begs the question. The application of the term to the whole period may be thought to obscure the extraordinary political enterprise of the Levellers, and, while religious toleration and the relaxation of press censorship were certainly real gains, to suggest that other events of 1640-60 were more progressive than was really the case. Should it be concluded that the salient feature of the period was not the accomplishment of a modern revolution but the tenacity of the gentry through twenty years of exceptional political turbulence, that would, of course, alter the character of the ‘intellectual consequences’ which it is the purpose of the present book to explore.

Much else in Hill’s discussion is at least open to challenge. One need not want to play Cavaliers v. Roundheads to wish to defend the brilliant culture of Charles I’s court against the (unsupported) charge of triviality. It is not right simply to dismiss as ‘fraudulent’ and ‘exposed’ by Milton the most successful 17th-century work of propaganda: Eikon Basilike. True, the King was probably not the author. Neither was Swift a Draper. But like the royal soliloquies of Shakespearian drama, a convention on which it fully draws, Eikon Basilike humanises the monarch in the very act of acknowledging his sacred role. Again, it is hardly true that Augustan Classicism was the product of a defeated Royalist élite in the early 1650s. The concept is, rather, a resource of Renaissance culture, first singlemindedly deployed in England by that great dramatist and court poet of proletarian origin, Ben Jonson. It is argued that Millenarianism taught revolutionaries to seek a golden age in the future, not the past. Perhaps. But the whole rationale of this topos in Roman and Renaissance panegyric is to connect a past golden age with the hope of its renewal.

We hear of the Commercial Revolution in the mid-17th century, which prepared the way for the Industrial Revolution. We do not hear of the Financial Revolution, of which P.G.M. Dickson’s is the classic study, and which equally prepared the way for the Industrial Revolution. This was largely brought about by William finance his wars against F near of the ‘rationalism and human he 1640s and 1 how the ‘revolutionary deca checke belief in witchcraft. We do not hear of Matthew Hopkins, the witchfinder-general (d. 1647), whose activities in the rational and humane 1640s caused the execution of more than seventy witches in three years. I am not making a partisan point. The man who put a stop to the appalling Hopkins was a Puritan and a Cromwellian.

As we might expect, Hill is reluctant to concede that the Restoration in 1660 may have been popular. Godfrey Davies’s statement that the vast majority of Englishmen favoured it is said to ‘beg every known question’. Hill repeats some memorably hostile remarks about the return of the King and says they may be the tip of an iceberg. It would have been surprising if there had been no hostility. Yet a freely elected parliament showed that a majority of the electorate was in favour. This was of course on the traditional franchise, Leveller proposals for a wider franchise never having been adopted. If the common people without the vote were strongly opposed, would one not expect Milton to have known and made something of it in ‘A Readie and Easie Way’? Instead the great republican seems to have been opposed to the election of a new parliament, hostile to popular opinion, and to have made his ‘Free Commonwealth’ a perpetual oligarchy – a proposal suspiciously close to those for continuing the Rump. By all the measures available, a majority seems to have favoured a restoration. We cannot expect Milton to have been impressed by this, but ought not Professor Hill to be?

‘History is written by winners,’ writes Professor Hill, ‘and especially the history of revolutions.’ Conceding that ‘in the long run the royal martyr was stronger than the generals,’ he goes on to say that ‘in the longest run of all the lesson was learnt that the magic could be controlled.’ Despite professions that ‘it is worth trying to penetrate imaginatively back to the time when options seemed open,’ history in Hill’s hands is evidently winners’ history, and the word ‘seemed’ is redolent of deterministic retrospect. It is a brand of the Whig Interpretation of History – which not all will consider a reproach. Yet even if we go further, and concede a school of historiography which seeks to press one side only of a debate, this book still seems terribly slanted: Roundheads – or rather, in Professor Hill’s new image, Long Hair – v. Cavaliers the whole time. I have fought down the feeling that it seeks to pull the wool over people’s eyes. It is more likely that these lectures, with their engaging picture of heretical, artistic, wine-loving Puritans, their breezy reference to the ‘Calvinist International’ and chilling comparison of Cromwell with Stalin and Mao, were meant to be provocative and simplifying.

Professor Hill’s earlier The Century of Revolution, 1603-1714, while containing some of the same opinions as his latest book, is more satisfying for containing more information.