Conrad Russell

  • The Experience of Defeat: Milton and Some Contemporaries by Christopher Hill
    Faber, 342 pp, £12.50, July 1984, ISBN 0 571 13237 5

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

Those Mr Hill recognises as defeated produced a multiplicity of explanations of their failure. Among all the explanations, two types seem to recur with more frequency than others. Some ascribed their lack of success to simple failure to make enough converts: they recognised that the bulk of their contemporaries did not want the sort of revolutionary changes they advocated, and blamed their failures on the dead weight of resistance at all levels of society. John Cook, Charles I’s prosecutor, said that ‘we would have enfranchised the people, if the nation had not more delighted in servitude than in freedom.’ William Sedgwick told the generals that ‘not one of a hundred will own what you set down as the public interest ... should you not rather propose that all power and domination should be given to the Lord?’ Sedgwick, like many others, was frank about the extent to which he regarded the rule of the Saints as made necessary by the reluctance of sinners to be governed as they should be: ‘we cannot in reason expect to have a free Parliament at this time, because the people are not fit to have a free choice of members.’ It is important to ask how far this line of analysis was in fact correct, for if it was correct, 17th-century England was a less revolutionary society than it is sometimes made out to be.

The commonest alternative line of explanation for failure was that which is summed up in the slogan ‘sell-out’. Fifth Monarchists, Levellers and so forth regularly accused Cromwellians and grandees of abandoning their principles for the sake of power, place and profit. This analysis would suggest that the cause failed because its leaders, like Oscar Wilde, could resist anything except temptation. No doubt this line of explanation was valid in some cases: Major General Lambert, for example, is a figure whose ambition cannot easily be denied. Yet the truth in this type of explanation is surely limited: ‘the world’s mistake in Oliver Cromwell’ was surely largely a case of self-deception. Cromwell and others around him did not sell out a cause in which they had once believed: they opposed a multiplicity of causes in which they had never believed. Cromwell had always believed in the right of the Saints to be captains (not generals, it may be noted), but he had never believed in a world in which Saints took over power from gentlemen. Indeed, the letter to Hampden in which Cromwell first expressed his demand for better officers expressed a desire for officers who would go as far as a gentleman may go. The terms of the comparison are surely significant. By contrast, the cause of religious toleration, in which Cromwell did believe, was one he did not sell out.

It seems likely that many of the cries of ‘sell-out’ arose from a failure, in which Mr Hill in part shares, to recognise that there was no such thing as the radical cause: there were many radical causes, sharply opposed to each other. Hostility to the supremacy of the gentry (which Mr Hill appears to have taken as his radical shibboleth) no more implies agreement in any further cause than hostility to the supremacy of Charles I had done. For example, did Christopher Feake and William Walwyn stand for ‘the radical cause’, or did they stand for two causes as sharply opposed to each other as they were to Charles I? Was Walwyn, admirer of Montaigne and precursor of Mill, a natural ally of Feake, who believed in rule by what his colleague Aspinwall called ‘the military officers of the lamb’?

The experience of defeat is a rich theme, which calls for much further work in the years after 1660. This book is still to be written: what Mr Hill has given us here is rather a series of occasional pieces, concentrating on radical figures, but not to any appreciable extent using them to illustrate any common theme. As usual, Mr Hill’s ‘unconsidered trifles’ can be a joy to the reader. Abiezer Coppe, reacting to the Restoration by changing his name to Higham, and settling down to live a ‘blameless life’ as a physician, is a theme which might appeal to a novelist, and few descriptions pack as much into three words as Broghill’s description of Johnstone of Warriston as a ‘Fifth Monarchy Presbyterian’.

This book is not a single, coherent work, and therefore invites the reviewer to do what reviewers normally do with collected essays, and look for common themes. One which Mr Hill sees in the material is the central importance of Harrington: he confesses that ‘I had not thought that Harrington and the Harringtonians would have become so central.’ It is perhaps a pity that they have done so. Now, when most of Harrington’s social analysis can be demonstrated to be incorrect, it is no longer possible to use him as guide to the interpretation of the age. He remains, of course, an intellectual figure of some distinction, but this does not justify giving him a position more crucial than that occupied, for example, by Thomas Hobbes.

Among the inclusions and exclusions in this volume, there is no particularly clear principle, but some are more questionable than others. One of the more surprising inclusions is Andrew Marvell. To classify him as one who suffered ‘the experience of defeat’, we would need more certainty about his convictions than is easy to come by: the author of ‘Last Instructions to a Painter’ is also the author of ‘To Richard Lovelace’, and of the vitriolic assault on the literary reputation of Tom May. Even by itself, the Horatian Ode is not easy to read: why, for example, did he hope Cromwell would be ‘to Italy an Hannibal’? Hannibal was on the wrong side, and moreover, he lost. Marvell is too protean a figure to be fitted within the straitjacket of a ‘Harringtonian’.

One of the themes which appear, from the reviewer’s point of view, to be more central than that of Harringtonianism is hostility to the professions. It was not only William Erbery who thought that ‘clergymen and common lawyers are the chiefest oppressors.’ It is worth pondering on Mr Hill’s remark that ‘theological differences between Calvinist and Arminian, high and low, were insignificant differences by comparison with what united the clergy as a profession.’ It was Hobbes who hit this nail on the head: ‘whoso pretends to teach mankind the way of so great felicity, pretends to govern them.’ Their professional dominion, like so many other dominions, was shaken during the years after 1649, but ultimately, it survived. Whether this point is more important than doctrinal differences is, of course, another question.

Intriguingly, the material in this volume perhaps shows more hostility to the lawyers than to the clergy. The clergy had been hammered a good deal since 1530, and after the abolition of bishops, conspicuously rich clergy were perhaps a little thin on the ground, while the lawyers, it was felt, had yet to be cut down to size. Seventeenth-century England was like the present-day United States in the extent to which it combined reverent devotion to the law with hatred and contempt for lawyers. James Nayler, for example, claimed that ‘the law, as it is now used, is scarce serviceable for any other end but for the envious man who hath much money to revenge himself of his neighbour.’

This type of hostility to the legal profession is worth more investigation, since it is one of the few themes which show a clear continuity from the 1620s to the 1650s. When Edward Burrough wrote, ‘Hath not the great and heavy oppression of the law been long felt and cried out against, the long delays in courts, and the great fees of officers, which causeth many to be excessively rich out of the ruins of the poor, which hath brought odium upon the law itself?’ he was saying little which had not been said in Volpone, in A New Way to Pay Old Debts, or even, with inimitable brevity, in Hamlet. Perhaps the most striking example I have seen is the petitioner to the House of Lords in 1640 who described how one of his relatives, ‘being a lawyer’, had defrauded him of his inheritance. But, if Dr Prest is right about lawyers’ earnings, their actual incomes do little to support their evil image. Yet this finding should only make it the more urgent to understand how that image was created.

The unsung hero of Mr Hill’s book is George Thomason, and perhaps the biggest historiographical question the book leaves behind it is the problem of how to put the Thomason Tracts into perspective. The Thomason Tracts, like Shakespeare, are a phenomenon so big that there is a risk that it may overshadow everything around it. As an archival phenomenon, indeed, it has no parallel in the previous history of the world. A collection in which Hobbes and Milton rub shoulders with doggerel, scandal sheets and ephemera is something so striking that it must be given a central place in the interpretation of the period.

Yet even something so immense as the Thomason Tracts must be read in context, and it is very hard to know how to do this. The great dearth of archives (extending even to private estate documents) deprives us for the years 1642 to 1660 of much of the material we are used to relying on for the previous and subsequent periods. When this fact is set beside the fact that the censorship deprives us of any equivalent printed material for the years before and after the Thomason Tracts, we have a real risk that the Tracts may upstage the rest of the evidence, or perhaps, more subtly but no less dangerously, a risk that, in trying to prevent them from upstaging the rest of the evidence, we may not give them the importance they deserve.

It is particularly important, and regrettable, that we cannot know whether this torrent of ideas began before the Civil War, and only found its way into print later, or whether it is essentially a reaction to the breakdown of authority and the consequent invitation to construct something new. As Mr Hill says, it ‘must lead us to ask where the apparently new ideas came from, and where they went to’. In other words, we do not know whether this fascinating flow of ideas should be seen primarily as a cause, or as a consequence, of the Civil War. This is clearly a significant area of ignorance.

Perhaps, in discussing the history of ideas, I may be allowed a small word in self-defence. Mr Hill suggests (pages 23, 25) that revisionist historians are not interested in ideas, or belittle their importance. For myself (I will not attempt to speak for any other revisionist), I began my career as a historian of ideas, and what I learnt in that capacity has done a great deal to influence the work I have done since. What struck me then was the extent to which the clash of Royalist and Parliamentarian in 1642 was not a clash between rival bodies of ideas, but between people who shared the same body of ideas, and were concerned to make each other the scapegoats for the fact that these ideas were no longer workable. Pym and Strafford were equally committed to unity, balance, and the Great Chain of Being: each thought the other was the Achan that troubled Israel. Prynne and Laud were equally committed to unity in religion, and each was equally committed to punishing the other for breaking it. Neither of them was willing to take the step taken by Milton and Walwyn, and ask whether the ideal itself was obsolete, or even wrong. It was this shared attachment to ideas no longer workable to which Anthony Fletcher was referring when he spoke of the ‘intellectual poverty’ of the period before 1640. The debates of the Long Parliament before the war, and even the first twelve months of the Thomason Tracts, show very little sign of the intoxicating draught of new ideas which is to be found after 1645. Even the early publications of such men as Lilburne and Overton show little sign of the originality which distinguished their later work. Those ideas which are visible before 1640 are fascinating, but they are not those of a new world, or of a two-party struggle.

Mr Hill regards his book as being, in part, a plea for recognition that the events which happened in 17th-century England deserve the title of ‘revolution’. Yet, paradoxically, in entitling his book ‘the experience of defeat’, he has helped to illustrate why the notion has become open to question. As he himself argues, the people he is discussing did not bring about a lasting transformation in their society: England was not levelled, the Fifth Monarchy did not begin, tithes were not abolished, and the lawyers were not cut down to size.

It is true that after such a comprehensive outburst of questioning of previously accepted values, nothing could ever be quite the same again, yet it is questionable whether the transformation Feake and his like, or Lilburne and his like, brought about had anything in common with the one they were working for. The Interregnum left behind it a dislike of radicalism, levelling, godliness and soldiers. This dislike, together with a strengthened English dislike for Irishmen and Scots, may perhaps have done more to inhibit change than all the events of 1640-1660 did to promote it. In reading, for example, Professor Cannon’s book on Parliamentary Reform 1640-1832, it is hard not to share his suspicion that, as a result of the reaction against the Interregnum, reform happened a great deal later than it might otherwise have done. That the radicals did not achieve success, then, is common ground: the claim to an English Revolution must rest on something other than what they did.

It is not altogether easy to see what this ‘something’ might be. It is certainly not any lasting transformation in the balance of economic power: Mr Hill has himself drawn attention to the fact that these events, unlike the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions, were not accompanied by any significant changes in landownership. Mr Hill would suggest, as he has done elsewhere, that one of the major long-term consequences of the Civil War and Interregnum was a strengthening of the position of Parliaments. Since the publication of J.R. Western’s book, in 1972, it has been debatable whether this is in fact the case. The only major trial of strength between Charles II and his Parliaments was the Exclusion Crisis, and in that, Charles’s victory was complete. In 1685, James II’s only Parliament voted him such ample revenues that he need never have called them again. 1688 was not a Parliamentary victory: there was no Parliament in session at any time during the year. We will never know whether James II’s attempts to control membership of the Commons would have been successful, but we do know that it was his supporters, not his opponents, who looked forward to the Parliament which was due to meet in November 1688. The timing of William’s landing, indeed, was in part designed to prevent the assembly of this Parliament. Points like these, particularly when taken in conjunction with Professor Colley’s persuasive demonstration of the power of the Crown under the first two Hanoverians, must raise a doubt whether the power of Parliaments had become secure by 1660. Maybe ‘the experience of defeat’ extends to more of the political spectrum than Mr Hill would suggest. Indeed, it is arguable that, in so far as the Civil War, on both sides, was a struggle to preserve a unified church and a unified body politic in which there were no parties, it led to ‘the experience of defeat’ for all the major factions that took part in it.

One final, non-historical note of dissent: Mr Hill’s final dictum that ‘England’s historical destiny has whimpered to its end’ is, as Lord Denning would have put it, ‘definitely obiter’. This is the sort of thing that was being said in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the 980s, and if Mr Reagan can be induced to extend his ‘five minutes’ a little, it may well be being said again in another thousand years’ time.