Maypoles

Conrad Russell

  • The Restoration: A Political and Religious History of England and Wales 1658-1667 by Ronald Hutton
    Oxford, 379 pp, £17.50, June 1985, ISBN 0 19 822698 5

During the years 1659-60, England enjoyed (if that is the right word) more constitutions than in the whole of the remaining eleven hundred and more years of its history as a united country. In an age when historians looking for subjects are almost as thick on the ground as subjects looking for historians, the most remarkable fact about this book is that it remained to be written. Dr Hutton was justified in complaining that hitherto the history of the ‘English Revolution’ has read like ‘a marvellous story with the last chapter missing’. This is so no longer, but what does it tell us about ourselves that we have allowed the concept of ‘revolution’ (itself a French import) to excite us so much that we do not attempt to study other events in proportion? And could it be that our indifference to the rather anti-climactic ending of the story has led us to make bigger statements about the fundamental importance of the ‘English Revolution’ as a watershed in historical development than the events themselves will warrant?

Dr Hutton had originally hoped to write a provincial history of the Restoration settlement, which would have been designed to revise the accepted picture of central politics in the light of local findings. He found that ‘there existed no picture of central politics to be treated in this manner.’ Like Anthony Fletcher, writing on The Outbreak of the English Civil War, he has been forced to tell the story ab initio. In the process, he has highlighted, even more than workers on the period before the Civil War have done, the fact that the great Victorian narratives are now old enough to need revision. Like town-planners, historians are now finding that their infrastructure is in need of renewal. Dr Hutton has thus undertaken a massive task.

In addition, he has set himself the challenge of carrying it out with a light touch: he proclaims his ambition to make the book accessible to ‘the widest possible audience’. That he is on the whole successful in so challenging a collection of aims is a very considerable achievement. The popular purpose shows in such pleasant asides as the expression of regret that Hacker did not keep a diary, or in the recording of such vivid information as that the Great Fire was audible in Oxford. Yet at no point does truth appear to have been sacrificed to popularity, and the weight of archival research which has gone into the book is formidable. The list of acknowledgments reminds us of what is becoming an increasingly serious problem: the cost of research is increasing faster than the cost of living, and much faster than the funds available to sustain it. The task of visiting archives in every county in England and many in Wales is one designed to enrich both British Rail and the hotel industry. Those with established reputations, such as Dr Hutton, may be successful in obtaining support for this task, but how many books are simply not being written because their potential authors cannot afford the costs entailed?

Logically, if not formally, this book divides into two parts, one dealing with the fall of Republican England, and the other with the restored monarchy. The second may perhaps be the more significant, yet, in terms of its additions to our factual knowledge, the first is perhaps an even bigger achievement. Republican England, as presented by Dr Hutton, shows a surprising amount of vitality even in 1659. Richard Cromwell’s regime appears as enjoying a considerable body of support, and there is much food for thought in the fact, illustrated by the career of General Monck, that on the whole Monarchy and Protectorate, through the crises of 1659-60, drew support from the same body of people. It is easy enough to understand how the desire for stability turned many of these people into supporters of monarchy, but this book must make us wonder again whether there was anything inevitable about this development. Could a different turn of the wheel have given us a stable monarchy in the house of Cromwell? Is it a matter of mere chance that we will have to wait for the accession of Prince William to find the first descendant of Oliver Cromwell to wear the English Crown?

The loyal addresses to Richard Cromwell, though a potentially suspect source, do not suggest that the Protectorate fell because of any lack of hold on public opinion. Indeed, it is even possible that the Cromwellian Protectorate, in its last year, came nearer than the restored monarchy did to England’s political centre of gravity. Such a suggestion is of necessity pure speculation, and indeed it may well be wrong, but it is not self-evidently absurd. Nor does Richard Cromwell, as he appears in this book, look as convincing an architect of his own downfall as the ‘Tumble-down Dick’ on whom we were brought up. He fought back vigorously against his opponents, and, like Charles in 1641, was prepared to turn to support from Scotland and Ireland to keep power against his enemies. The fact that, unlike Charles I, he soon realised that the logistical difficulties were too great seems to confirm, rather than weaken, Dr Hutton’s picture of him as a man with some political judgment. It can still be argued that the Protectorate carried the seeds of its own fall from the beginning, but if so, the case cannot be rested on its lack of public support or its lack of political skill: it must be rested on its ambivalent struggle with the Army. When the Army pulled down Richard Cromwell, why did it so conspicuously fail to govern without him?

The Army of 1659 is not the same body of men as the New Model Army whose rise was chronicled by Professor Kishlansky, and the Army of 1659 has much the better claim of the two to be regarded as a revolutionary body. Dr Hutton, on the whole, aligns himself with those who see the Army of 1659 as a firmly republican force, and it was certainly a force ready to defend many forms of radical and sectarian religion which a purely civilian Protectorate would have found it difficult to tolerate. It was not only radicalism which inclined the Army to toleration. When Lambert, in the Nayler debate, reflected that Nayler had been his quartermaster, and that he was a good quartermaster, he was showing that the Army was not immune from those social forces which led to principles of ‘live and let live’ in the English counties.

The Interregnum never produced any truly revolutionary army-based regime. Even after the fall of Richard Cromwell, it never really tried to produce one. From beginning to end of the story, the Army remained convinced of its dependence on a legal Parliament. The Army’s failure after 1659 was a failure to create a civilian regime which would live with it. Was this evidence that, in true 17th-century style, the Army had an essentially legalistic outlook, or did it have no other option? That the Army was happier if it had a legal government is an incontestable fact, yet perhaps other forces as well as constitutionalism entered into this. The Army’s need to be paid was such a pressing problem, all through the Interregnum, that a Royalist agent could suggest that the Good Old Cause was money. Could a revolutionary army regime, without a Parliament, County Committees or JPs to sustain them, have ever raised the money they needed? It is a tenable view that they could not: that the self-government of the English counties was so entrenched a fact, both in the politics and in the society of England, that mere overwhelming force at the centre was not enough to make taxpayers pay their taxes. If this speculation is correct, the Army’s insistence on having a Parliament would seem to partake as much of realpolitik as of legalist idealism. Moreover, the fate of the Army could then be seen as a real guide to what might have happened to Charles I had he had the misfortune to win the English Civil War. That counties could only be governed through the co-operation of their leading inhabitants was a firmer fixed point in 17th-century England than whether the supreme authority in Westminster was going to be King, Parliament or Protector. It tells us volumes about gentlemen’s respect for property that the key debate in the Convention Parliament on whether to restore the King was initiated by a petition for the post of Serjeant at Arms. The question which set the whole constitutional issue open was whose property the right to appoint to this post might be. This is the type of outlook which ensured that, though the Protectorate might possibly have survived without the Army, the Army could never have survived without the Protectorate. It is no wonder that Fleetwood, scanning the ways of Providence, was moved to exclaim that God had spat in their faces. The Army was no more able to impose its own creed on the country than Charles I had been.

One of the most interesting reassessments in the first section of this book is that of General Monck. In the summer of 1660, of course, Monck let it be supposed that he had always intended to restore Charles II. He had, it seems, given Charles II this impression before he had even got as far as Coldstream. Yet Monck telling Charles he was a Royalist should no more be taken as conclusive evidence than Charles II telling Catholics he was a Catholic. In political terms, Monck was far too good a politician to do anything other than keep his options open. The symbolic junction with Fairfax as he came through Yorkshire indicated very clearly what sort of political and religious strand Monck wanted to benefit from his intervention, but it did not indicate which figurehead he meant to name as a leader for that strand. It was not until the arrival of William III that this strand of English opinion found a leader who could occupy the middle ground between Charles II and Oliver Cromwell, and it was not until it did so that any long-term stability was restored.

It would be unjust to portray the Restoration as the fruit of nothing more than a search for stability: people cannot live for 18 years under a regime dependent on armed force without revealing something of their frustrations when it disappears. The Restoration, as it appears in Dr Hutton’s account, produced a wave of emotion, and it is interesting to see what was, and what was not, included among its symbols. As described here, it was emotion for the Prayer Book and the maypole, and against the Army and the Quakers. It is interesting that, among the various apparatus of the Church of England, it was the Prayer Book, and not bishops or altars, which became the object of attachment. After Dr Morrill’s findings on the clergy during the Civil War, this should not cause any very great surprise. The Prayer Book (with, perhaps, some occasional excisions) could appeal to an Abbot-type Calvinist episcopalian and certainly to someone who had no attachment to the impedimenta of Laudian worship: it is a more eirenic symbol of the Church of England than most of the alternatives would have been likely to be. The maypole, on the other hand, was probably, as it had been in 1642, a more aggressive type of symbol. It was an appropriate rallying-point for opposition to a ‘Puritanism’ defined in terms of its threat to cakes and ale, rather than in terms of its theological content. Like refusing to kneel at communion, the maypole was also a good symbol to pick because it created a very visible problem of enforcement. The defence of maypoles also illustrates one of the main failures of the Interregnum regimes. Just as Laud failed to eradicate the Calvinist strand in the Church of England, which lived on to be revived as Evangelicalism, so the Long Parliament and its successors failed to achieve anything resembling the moral reformation for which they had hoped. Still less did they achieve the eradication of some of the outward symbols they attacked. Of all the Parliamentarian measures there is perhaps none which more completely sank without trace than the attempt to abolish Christmas.

The Army, as a target for hostility, is probably self-explanatory. The Quakers, on the other hand, present a much bigger interpretative challenge. Hostility to them, and apparently fear of them, appear to have been among the dominant emotions all through the crisis of 1659-60. It would be very nice (as it is essential to the task of explanation) to know whether the strength of the Quakers in any way justified this hostility. The movement was certainly large enough to have made an impact, and very much less pacific than its subsequent image would suggest. Yet what we have in the way of Quaker records makes it rather hard to believe in the objective reality of a Quaker threat. Is anti-Quakerism one of those great fears like McCarthyism, which are the richer ground for the historian precisely because their ostensible object never had the strength to justify them? One question which must be asked is how far anti-Quakerism was a form of displacement aggression. Was it, like Bernard Levin belabouring Communism, a convenient way of tarring many less radical movements with guilt by association? The defence of maypoles shows a real hostility to what had become identified as ‘Puritanism’, yet belabouring ‘Puritans’ was a strategy likely to be attractive only to people who wanted another Civil War. If such hatred were bottled up, were the Quakers a good, safe target for displacement aggression? Or were the Quakers a good symbol because their movement seemed to carry with it the reductio ad absurdum of much of what English gentlemen feared about radical religion? A defence of the learned ministry seems, from about 1650 onwards, to have been a good rallying-point for conservative opinion, and what better target for criticism, in this context, than a sect which had no ordained ministry at all? Many gentlemen feared religious insubordination in their own households perhaps even more than they feared any form of public anarchy, and such occasions as the incident in which young Ell-wood refused to take off his hat to his father were convenient pegs on which to hang very profound fears of the threat which religious liberty might offer to male supremacy. To those who, like Locke, thought that ‘promises, covenants and oaths ... are the bonds of human society,’ the Quaker refusal of oaths was a useful symbol of the fear of anarchy which religious division so frequently created. It would be very nice to know, for example, whether Viscount Saye and Sele saw Quakers as primarily a threat to the position of the peerage. Does all this provide some clue to the mental world of those who expressed fear of Quakers, or were they simply frightened of Quakers?

In ideological terms, then, the chief lesson of 1660 was that neither side in the Civil War had succeeded in eradicating those things against which it had fought, and yet the hostilities generated by the Civil War had certainly not gone away. Dr Hutton is entitled to his conclusion that ‘whatever had ended in 1660-62, it was certainly not the English Civil War.’ Here, his work will blend with a lot of the most vital work being done at Yale and elsewhere on the 18th century, which would tend towards seeing the Whig-Tory conflict as being largely between two rival mythologies of the Civil War. Even Brian Harrison, writing on Drink and the Victorians, is moved to remark that for many Dissenters in the Temperance Movement, the Civil War was very much a live issue, and there is surely a 17th-century legacy in Gladstone’s fear, in 1832, that the First Reform Bill would lead to the abolition of Christmas. The Restoration did not mark the healing of the divisions left by the Civil War: it marked the beginning of the long, slow and often undramatic process by which Englishmen learnt to live with them. One is moved to wonder, indeed, whether our own is the first generation which has been able to approach the Civil War as a matter of genuinely past history, or whether, perhaps, that happy time may be still in the future.

In other contexts as well as the ideological, the years 1642-1660 settled very little. Dr Hutton’s valuable account of the financing of the Second Dutch War shows very clearly that the financial difficulties which had hamstrung English warfare before 1642 had not gone away: the Restoration financial settlement did little more than bring the difficulties up to date with inflation. Perhaps the situation was a little better: for the first two years of the war, the English on a shoestring budget were able to match the Dutch, but by the third year, the longer purse was telling – when the Dutch sailed up the River Medway, much of the English fleet was laid up to save money. The fact that in three years the English spent £5¼ million and the Dutch £11 million should tell its own story. Yet, though the number of pounds per annum provided by the Restoration settlement remained too small to change much, it remains true that the financial and administrative machinery it created was capable of much more improvement than the old machinery had been.

So long as England could not finance a successful war, it is hard to argue that the long-term relations of Crown and Parliament were on a stable basis. Indeed, the financial settlement made to James II in 1685 tried so hard to correct this difficulty that Dr Chandaman argues that it could have made James II independent of Parliaments for life. In 1685, granted reasonable royal prudence, the obsolescence of Parliaments was quite a likely possibility. Since James II’s life continued to 1715, there would have been time for obsolescence to go quite a long way. Dr Hutton argues that the placing of the militia in the Crown settled one big question in the King’s favour. Yet it is not entirely true to say that the militia was settled as Charles I wished. The Restoration militia was settled by statutory authority, and the key point about the militia between 1604 and 1642 was that there was no statutory authority for it: if Charles I had legal control of the militia, he had it only by prerogative. The Restoration solution, vesting the militia in the King by Parliamentary authority, was the one for which Pym and Wentworth spoke in 1628, not the one for which Charles I fought in 1642. The settlement of the militia, like the settlement of the religious issue, was an answer answerless: it told all the protagonists they would have to live with each other.

Yet some things were surely settled by the Civil War and Interregnum. It is, perhaps, true that it would have been harder to dispense with Parliaments after 1660 than it would have been before, and yet even this is a conjectural and uncertain conclusion. It was settled that Charles I could not remain king, and yet that had been settled long before 1660. The chief things settled were negative: Puritanism could not be eradicated, yet the Church of England could not be abolished. Gentry control of the counties would not go away, and no ruler could govern without the co-operation of a powerful body of his subjects. Yet these things had been clear, to anyone who wished to see them, long before 1642. How England was to be governed, and how England and Britain were to relate to each other, were questions which were settled in the generation after 1688. The Parliaments of William III, faced with the startlingly large costs of French wars, were prepared, as the Parliaments of Charles I, Charles II and Oliver Cromwell had not been, to use money to buy power. This willingness, of course, did not spring fully armed out of the waters of Torbay on 5 November 1688. It is the result of numerous developments during the generation before 1688. Among these developments, Pym’s Excise of 1643 perhaps deserves an honourable mention: Professor Roots is surely right that it is Pym’s most enduring memorial. Yet to say that developments were taking place which were to lead to the world of Williamite and Hanoverian England is not to say that these developments had become irresistible by 1667. It is a proposition perfectly compatible with a belief that if Louis XIV had sent his troops to the Dutch frontier in 1688, the Stuart dynasty would be on the English throne now. If one point is clearer than any other from the history of the 17th century, it is that the English were unable to overthrow a king without foreign assistance.

If the Civil War settled so little, we are bound to ask whether things would have been very different if the King had won it, or indeed, if it had never been fought. The answer to this question could very well be a heretical no. Dr Hutton is right in arguing that had Charles I been victorious, he would have wanted to run a much more despotic regime than had been seen before, but Wat Montagu’s confidence, in 1643, that the Triennial Act would survive a Royalist victory must make us pause. Yet even if Charles had wanted to try to run a more despotic government, would he have been more successful in doing so than Oliver Cromwell’s Major Generals were? He certainly would not have had more resources behind him.

The dominance of the gentry in local government goes back to the 14th century, and seems to have been too deeply entrenched to be readily removed. If that could not be removed, there was no solid gain to a potentially arbitrary ruler in abolishing Parliaments: he would only have to co-operate outside Parliaments with the same people he was refusing to meet in one. Crown and gentry could not get on without each other, and no amount of civil wars was going to change that. Indeed, the first English ruler to rule in defiance of gentry opinion as a whole was probably Sir Robert Peel, and his rule did not survive the experience. Not fighting a civil war, even more than a royal victory in one, would have left these facts unshaken. Similarly, no number of military victories was ever going to eradicate either the Prayer Book or the Calvinist sermon: both had too strong a hold on too big a section of the population to be wiped out. Like Crown and gentry, they needed to find some way of living with each other. Such a way was not going to be learnt during a civil war, and as much could have been learnt without one as was learnt afterwards. The English Civil War was not the birth of modern freedom: it was a political blind alley which settled very little. If the abortive settlement of 1641 had in fact been patched up, it seems unlikely that either side would have lost anything of importance which they ultimately gained.

Only in one context does 1660 mark a settling of something, and that is the British context. Dr Hutton, who had enough to do already, has pardonably ignored the British dimension of the story, yet that was the only place where a major question had been settled. 1660, for all that it was brought about by an army from Scotland, was an English Restoration, yet it determined the political destinies of Scotland and Ireland. It was settled in 1660 that, within the British partnership, England would be the senior partner. How far that seniority would be allowed to go has been one of the major questions of the subsequent three hundred years.

A quick reading of this review, or of Dr Hutton’s book, which, in this particular, it follows, might tend to suggest an incipient contradiction. It has argued, on the one hand, that the Civil War and Interregnum did not settle very much, and, on the other hand, that the divisions they created (or exposed?) lasted well into the 19th century and perhaps beyond. Carefully formulated, these propositions are not incompatible. The Civil War did not settle how England should be governed because no such settlement was possible until the public at large was willing to pay the true cost of government. Nothing in Dr Hutton’s book encourages us to think that this willingness yet existed in 1667. The Civil War did not settle the religion of Englishmen because it separated two groups both of whom were too powerful, and too entrenched, to be eradicated. It is, after all, worth remembering that, had both sides not believed they had won the contest for popular support in 1642, no war would have happened. It was precisely because the Civil War could not end the religious division of English society that it fortified, romanticised and, for some, almost canonised this division. What is worth remembering, though, is that there was more than one type of religious division in pre-Civil War England. In the fact that the ultimate line-up left Church and King on one side, and Parliament and Dissent on the other, there is perhaps a significant element of the accidental. The Gilbertian belief that ‘every little boy or girl that’s born into this world alive is either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative’ is one which will bear only a sublapsarian interpretation.