Real Power

Conrad Russell

  • Revel, Riot and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England 1603-1660 by David Underdown
    Oxford, 324 pp, £17.50, November 1985, ISBN 0 19 822795 7
  • The Reign of Henry VIII: Personalities and Politics by David Starkey
    George Philip, 174 pp, £9.95, November 1985, ISBN 0 540 01093 6

These books are both attempts, by oblique routes, to explain major events in English history: in one case the Civil War, and in the other the Reformation. That, however, is where the resemblance between them ends: for the rest, it would be hard to find a more extreme contrast in historical methods. Professor Underdown, as he makes clear in his preface, sees no virtue in attempts at explanation of the Civil War which concentrate on political events at the centre. For him, it is necessary to understand society in depth. For Dr Starkey, on the other hand, it is self-evident that, to understand political events, it is necessary to understand political circles. If Dr Starkey wishes to understand an event in a period of which he has previously known nothing, he will ask who was Groom of the Stool: Professor Underdown, faced with the same task, will ask who was constable of Batcombe. Both of them will then do a first-class piece of research answering their chosen question. Yet the really big decision, the choice of the field for investigation, is one which appears to both of them to be so obvious as to stand in no need of justification.

Professor Underdown’s book, like so much else of value, arises from a conversation in the common room of the Institute of Historical Research. Professor Underdown maintained both that the Civil War was a cultural conflict and that the allegiance of different places in this cultural conflict was explicable in regional terms. Dr Morrill asked him for evidence, and this is Professor Underdown’s reply. It shows the meticulous integrity in research that anyone familiar with his work would have expected: over and over again, he has been the first to point out the flaws, limitations and inconsistencies in his own evidence.

The idea of the Civil War as a cultural conflict is not new: it goes back to William Chillingworth, preaching before the King in 1643, and saying all the scribes and pharisees were on one side, and all the publicans and sinners on the other. What is new here is the meticulous investigation, town by town and village by village, of the growth of tension between these two groups. The investigation is mainly concentrated on the three western counties of Somerset, Wiltshire and Dorset, but supporting examples are drawn from the whole country. It is possible to imagine the tension in 1619 when the town oligarchy of Stratford on Avon tried to cut down a maypole, and were told they had ‘set all the town together by the ears, which is the true office of a Puritan’. John White, the patriarch of Dorchester, and his allies, got a touring company of players banned, only to be attacked as a ‘counterfeit company and pack of Puritans’. It is one of the skills of this book that it encourages sympathy with both sides in the disputes over the ‘reformation of manners’. Many readers will sympathise with the constable of Wellington, beaten up by disorderly revellers at Halloween. Many, too, will sympathise with the group of young people on their way home from Catechism at Westbury on Severn in 1610, who fell to ‘dancing and quaffing’, and deriding the doctrine of their minister. This incident gave rise to some fifty prosecutions, for drunkenness, fornication, bearing bastards and so forth. Two of the girls prosecuted for bearing bastards were married before the children were born, and two women prosecuted for ‘harbouring’ pregnant women had been housing their own daughters. Drunkenness and riot, on the one hand, and the weight of ecclesiastical discipline, on the other, could arouse formidable resentments. It should, by now, be no matter for surprise that under James, the mechanism of supposedly ‘Puritan’ discipline was frequently carried out through the official machinery of the Church courts, nor that under Charles, this was increasingly rarely the case. That we have in these issues one of the sources of the resentments which led people to fight, and one of the manifestations of a conflict between two rival cultures, should cause us no difficulty.

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