Conrad Russell’s Civil War

Blair Worden

  • The Causes of the English Civil War by Conrad Russell
    Oxford, 236 pp, £35.00, November 1990, ISBN 0 19 822142 8
  • The Fall of the British Monarchies 1637-1642 by Conrad Russell
    Oxford, 580 pp, £40.00, April 1991, ISBN 0 19 822754 X

For fifteen years Conrad Russell has dominated that most embattled and most heavily populated area of historical study, the origins of the civil wars of mid-17th-century England. In doing so, he has banished controversy to the margins. This is a highly unusual accomplishment. Advances in contentious historiographical territory are generally achieved through baronial feuds, not through submission to a monarchy. Even Geoffrey Elton, who admittedly has dominated a much larger period for a much longer time, from the outset created controversy rather than orthodoxy. Russell has achieved his hegemony by not seeking it. The instinct of historians for confrontation has been disarmed by his intellectual ecumenicalism, by his distaste for entrenched positions, his readiness to modify his findings in the light of fresh evidence or reflection, his generosity to his younger critics: in other words, by his transparent determination to get things right. Those who have heard him lecture – who have witnessed his intensity of intellectual concentration, his unsurpassed mastery of archival evidence, and a memory that reproduces it with the alacrity and accuracy of a photocopying machine – will understand the magnetic authority of his findings. In the last five years or so, it is true, ‘revisionism’, the term popularly given to his position, has begun to go out of fashion –though it is also true, as these books show, that Russell’s own revisionism has been substantially qualified. Yet his critics remain under his spell. If their answers are different from his, their questions and their techniques are the same.

Can such a hegemony, and the relative interpretative calm it has brought, be altogether healthy? The constitutional and religious conflicts of the earlier 17th century have aroused passions and divisions since they occurred. The last generation of historians was convulsed by the problem of the relationship between the civil war and long-term class conflicts, a controversy which has been as fertile as it has come to seem misconceived. Now, if fur ever flies, it is over the question where the Earl of Northumberland was on 31 July 1647. The ‘revision’ of political history has put paid to the notion that the civil war was fought between classes. It has other negative achievements to its credit too, notably in exposing the simplification and exaggeration by earlier historians of the Parliamentary conlicts of the years 1604-1629. But when we ask what positive arguments revisionism has built instead, we notice a contraction of ambition. Even Russell’s critics sometimes seem content to register negatives against his negatives. Thus it is not true that the constitutional and legal conflicts of the 1620s were not inflammatory.

Hitherto Russell has written mainly on the Parliaments of the 1620s. Arguing that historians of that subject have been swayed by hindsight, that they have misunderstood Parliamentary debates by looking for the origins of the civil wars in them, he has begged the question where the origins of civil war should be sought instead. In these two books he addresses that question. Though the short book (The Causes of the English Civil War) was published before the long one (The Fall of the British Monarchies 1637-1642), it was written after it. The short book is an ‘extended conclusion’ to the large one. Before we write about ‘causes’ we must first identify the effects. The long book describes the phenomenon to be explained, and the short book explains it.

Russell lines up his causes and effects with the conviction of a mathematician drawing up equations. Historians have got into muddles about the causes of the civil war, he thinks, because they are muddled about the effects. Instead of answering one question – Why was there a civil war? – we need to untangle the sequence of events that culminated in the outbreak of war, and answer seven questions to explain seven developments, each of which was dependent on the one before. So we have to ask why the Bishops’ Wars broke out in 1639; why the Scots won them; why the King and his English critics failed to reach a pre-war settlement; why the King failed to dissolve or prorogue the Long Parliament; why Englishmen took sides in 1642; why negotiation failed in the same year; why the majesty of Charles I became so diminished that men were ready to fight him. Once these seven effects have been identified, it ‘becomes possible to match cause to effect’ with ‘precision’.

Though the world hears more about Russell’s social than about his intellectual ancestry, these books remind us that he is the son of a mathematician and philosopher. Penetrative as his identification of his seven effects is, their choice is inevitably the product of interpretative selection. Can living experience, past or present, be confined within the language of causes and effects? Let us say that an accountant in Walthamstow is one day late for work. What are the ‘causes’ of his lateness? We find what we take to be convincing evidence that he was late because he missed his bus; that he missed his bus because he overslept; that he overslept because, as kept happening lately, he woke in the night, consumed with worry about his mortgage. What in turn were the ‘causes’ of his anxiety? Do we trace them through the labyrinth of decisions and accidents that got this normally prudent man into debt, and allocate a proportion of significance to a recent increase in interest rates, a proportion to his wife’s victory in getting him to buy a new carpet, another to the unexpected failure of his maiden aunt, when she died last year, to leave him a penny? Or do we explore the recesses of his psyche, or the history of his private relationships, to discover what made him such a worrier and a bad sleeper?

And even if we exhaust these approaches, may we not be addressing the problem from the wrong angle? For it could be, not that the accountant was late for his bus, but that his bus, for once, was early. If so, we shall have to find out about the state of the traffic and perhaps about the personality, and therefore the personal history, of the bus-driver. Yet even when we have done that, will we have done more than scrape the surface of the problem? For a man to miss a bus on his way to work, after all, there has to be a bus for him to catch and a place of work for him to reach. To know the causes of the existence of buses and of accountancy firms we would need, to begin with, a command of the social, economic and technological history of the past two or three centuries. To understand that history we would eventually be driven back to explain the existence of the universe and of mankind. For practical purposes, of course, we would be happy with a more modest scale of explanation. The accountant’s employers would scarcely have probed beyond the missing of the bus, or at most beyond the insomnia. But if we want to bring mathematical ‘precision’ to the explanation of a historical event we shall find no logical point at which to seal the problem.

Nearly twenty years ago, just before the tide of historical fashion turned against him, Lawrence Stone wrote a supremely confident short book called The Causes of the English Revolution. It argued, in up-to-date sociological jargon, more or less everything against which Russell’s writing has been a reaction. The bold innocence of Russell’s treatment of causation is ironically akin to Stone’s. Both writers have striven to crack, and thus to finish off, the problem of causation. Stone through the methods and language of social science, Russell through mathematical precision. In Russell’s view, the hunt for the causes of the civil war has been a distraction from – and has sometimes imposed distortion upon – more important 17th-century developments. He aims to climb Everest and ‘get back to real mountaineering’. Yet it is the positing of artificial logical problems, not the historical drama itself, that has got in the way.

For all its strangeness of conception, The Causes of the English Civil War is a remarkable book. Tightly and powerfully argued, compellingly lucid, it sustains its argumentative edge through every sentence. The Fall of the British Monarchies, alas, is much less successful. It is indeed a serious disappointment. Its insights, though as sharp and scholarly as one would expect, do not cohere. Part of the trouble is the professional introversion that has become a hallmark of revisionism. Dedicated to the members of a research seminar, the book reads as if it was written for them. At all events it was written for readers who do not need to be told or reminded who Nehemiah Wallington (a Puritan artisan) was, and who will nod sagely when told that there was ‘of course’ a group on Charles I’s Privy Council in favour of a certain policy. Even The Causes of the English Civil War, mostly a much more accessible work, assumes that its readers will find the MP Sir John Culpepper’s remarks on monopolies in November 1640 ‘too well known to need quoting’. Any prospect of a rounded or balanced discussion of the ‘fall of the British monarchies’ is jettisoned by the decision to omit themes which have been or are being studied by other historians. Russell’s prose, which in the short book is so sprightly, is here often tired or hurried or congested. Truth, of course, is independent of the size of the audience to which, and of the accessibility of the prose in which, it is expressed. Unfortunately, writing for a specialised readership can impair an author’s sense of proportion. Russell’s strength has never lain in explaining why one piece of information matters more than another.

The preface to The Fall of the British Monarchies, perhaps inadvertently, allows the reader to infer that it will replace, for the five years preceding the civil war, the standard chronology by the great Victorian historian S.R.Gardiner. Gardiner, as his contemporaries complained, was not a natural writer of narrative history, but at least he understood the principles of the craft. Russell’s call for a return to l’histoire événementielle is wholly warrantable. We cannot hope to explain men’s actions or beliefs unless we know the pressures under which they committed or expressed them. That is the challenge to the writer of political narrative – and one to which Russell is here unequal. The extraordinary intellectual pressure behind his writing, which does communicate itself to the reader and can propel him forward, is nonetheless too inwardly directed. Ideas which are plainly verdant in his own mind take on a desiccated form in print. We miss the imaginative re-creation of events and of the public mood which they generated. We miss too the framing and the signposting that are essential to the reader’s understanding or at least to his attention.

Gardiner, even after dispensing with the long sketch of English history with which his own work had originally opened, still thought it right to start with the sentence: ‘The first eight centuries of English history were centuries of national consolidation.’ Russell had no reason to go anything like so far, but the reader – or at least a reader outside the Institute of Historical Research – might have settled for an opening page midway in character between Gardiner’s and Russell’s, which begins in medias res and tells us, for no obvious reason, that a visit to the New World by the steward of Lord Brooke cost £32 4s. 9d. A pivotal moment in Russell’s story is clearly the assemblage of the Long Parliament on 3 November 1640. Russell’s chapter on ‘The Long Parliament: The Opening Months’ begins: ‘ln the archival history of England, 3 November 1640 is a date of major significance.’ So that’s why it’s important?

If one of Russell’s books works much better than the other, the two do complement each other’s findings. The surprise is the compatibility of most of those findings with the common ground of the controversies that raged a quarter of a century and more ago. Far from repudiating, as revisionists are expected to do, the search for broad explanations of the civil war, Russell – like Stone before him – locates ‘long-term causes of instability’. There were three of them: ‘the problem of multiple kingdoms, the problem of religious division, and the breakdown of a financial and political system in the face of inflation and the cost of war’. On each of these subjects Russell says striking things, but the themes are traditional enough.

It is, surprisingly, on the first of them, where he seems most conscious of originality, that the results are least satisfying. ‘The problem of multiple kingdoms’ was a difficulty bound to face any dynasty that was obliged, as the Stuarts were, to govern the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. It was a problem, Russell perceptively reminds us, akin to that of other European monarchies, especially the Spanish, where dynastic unions had followed a different pace or logic from the formation of national identities. In Ireland the challenge to England’s rulers was not new, but the Reformation and the subsequent colonisation had changed and enlarged it. The union of the English and Scottish Crowns in 1603 had profoundly affected the politics of both countries. In one sense the union was, or should have been, a long-term source of stability for the English. It resolved the succession problem that had plagued the Tudors, and ended the danger of alliances between Scotland and England’s enemies on the Continent. But now, as Russell dexterously explains, what the Crown did in England or Scotland was closely watched as a guide to its intentions in the other country. The Causes of the English Civil War traces exciting if tenuous connections between the Scottish and the English dimensions of the ecclesiastic policies of James I, both of them, Russell suggests, shaped largely by the King’s wish for a solution – an eirenic Calvinist episcopalianism – that would be acceptable in both kingdoms. No less stimulating, if no less tenuous, is the thesis that Charles I had a ‘policy of British uniformity’ in church and state, a policy visible at the outset of the reign in a plan for a ‘Union of Arms’ between England and Ireland that would have been akin to the military union pursued in the Spanish kingdoms around the same time.

Russell’s complaints about the Anglocentricity of English historians are incontestably justifiable, even if the readiness with which they have been accepted in recent years may owe as much to liberal unease about the history of England’s relations with its neighbours as to the justice of his charge – and even if English historians would stand a better chance of broadening their approaches if Scottish and Irish historians would write more good books about the histories of their own countries. Yet an alertness to the Scottish and Irish dimensions of the English civil wars is hardly new. The narratives of Gardiner and of C.V. Wedgwood, and the essays of Hugh Trevor-Roper on the civil wars, were written by historians quite as alive as Russell to ‘the problem of multiple kingdoms’, even if they felt no need for a ponderous term to describe it. Their main concern, it is true, was the history of England, not the history of Britain. They used Scottish and Irish events to explain English ones. But if that approach was essentially Anglocentric, then so, as he concedes, is Russell’s own. Though his titles confusingly indicate that the short book is about ‘English’ history and the long one about ‘British’ history, The Fall of the British Monarchies proves to be ‘a book which is designed to tell the story leading up to the outbreak of the English civil war’ – and in which it is consequently ‘not necessary’ to relate the history of the Prayer Book troubles in Scotland. In the years 1639-42 ‘there was,’ as Russell says, ‘a constant billiard-board effect of each of the [three] kingdoms on the affairs of the others.’ To re-create the movement of the billiard balls – to take as one’s subject the descent not of one kingdom into war but of three – would be an exacting but exciting task. It remains unattempted.

If ‘the problem of multiple kingdoms’ goes back to 1603, ‘the problem of religious division’ goes back at least as far as 1559. The Church of England, that eccentric hybrid of Calvinist doctrine and episcopalian discipline, was ‘a church designed by a committee’. Within it, well before the rise of Archbishop Laud and of Arminianism, there were ‘two churches struggling to get out’. In effect, there were Anglicans and Puritans. Though the history of religious belief and sensibility is not the area where Russell seems most comfortable, he delineates with fresh and telling detail the fundamental divisions – over set forms of worship, the sacraments, sabbatarianism, the allowance of a role for the senses in worship – which James I contrived to contain but which his successor inflamed.

Even historians who have been sceptical about revisionism might hesitate to follow Russell so far in his retreat from it. The broad base of the Elizabethan settlement, which in the later 16th century helped to spare England the religious wars that plagued the Continent, was arguably a long-term source of stability rather than instability. Still, once the Jacobean middle way had been abandoned, the divisions obviously became explosive. In effect Russell endorses John Morrill’s claim that the civil wars were England’s own ‘wars of religion’, though he insists that religion became the divisive issue in 1642, not because it necessarily mattered more to people than anything else, but because it was the issue on which Charles would not budge. It was the issue on which the King’s ‘conscience’, to which he was always as deferential as the most zealous of his Puritan opponents were to theirs, allowed him least flexibility. Charles felt ‘a very profound incomprehension and distaste’ for the language of ‘further reformation’ spoken by the self-styled ‘godly’ members of the House of Commons. Puritan radicalism, fortified by the King’s intransigence, proved a much stronger incentive to fight for Parliament than the constitutional issues of 1640-2.

Yet that was not, Russell suggests, because the constitutional issues were unimportant or subordinate. Again offering major concessions to older views, he acknowledges that there were profound anxieties about the survival of Parliament and about the principle of taxation by consent. But the people to whom those were the paramount issues were people to whom the paramount principle was the rule of law. In 1640-2 it was not clear to them that the King offered a graver threat to the rule of law than did the ‘godly’ and the Scots with whom they had formed perhaps treasonable alliances. With conspicuous exceptions such as John Selden and the republican Henry Marten, the MPs who put secular anxieties before religious ones were more likely to fight for the King than for Parliament. Members preoccupied with ‘further reformation’, though in 1642 ready to fight the King to get their way, had earlier been willing – as the Dissenters would be after 1660 – to yield constitutional principles to the Crown in return for religious gains.

It is on the third of his long-term causes of instability, the breakdown of the financial system and of the political system with which it was intertwined, that Russell is at his most formidable. He is marvellously acute about the anachronisms of the fiscal system and the problems and the hostility they created: about the burden of rates, about the decline of the armaments industry, about the contrast between the pre-war system and the modernised one that grew up after 1660. Yet if he deepens the familiar picture, the picture itself remains traditional. The ‘resentment felt against courtiers or officials’ who milked the system is not news. Here again his withdrawal from revisionism seems more extensive than his evidence requires. The ‘causes’ of ‘the run-down of England’s military power’ lay ‘so deep in the structure of English society’ that any king would have been constrained by it. Yet was England’s military impotence inevitable? It is true that, in an age when Continental warfare became rapidly more expensive, England’s low levels of population and taxation were a serious disadvantage. Yet what may have been lacking is not the scope to fight effectively, but the will. While Charles I extricated England from the Thirty Years War, Gustavus Adolphus led the poor and backward country of Sweden into it, and in the process made himself the powerful king of a mighty and prosperous nation. Had Prince Henry, Charles I’s elder brother, lived to succeed their father, and pursued the vigorous and uncompromising Protestant foreign policy which he was believed to have favoured, might he not have achieved an increase in the resources of the state proportionately no less marked than that brought by the two great wars of the 20th century – or than that acquired by Charles I’s conquerors in the civil wars? If the foreign policies of the 1620s broke down upon fiscal inadequacy, may not that failure have owed less to the system than to the unpopularity of the policies and of the men who formed them?

However the story of the origins of the civil war is told, its teller has always to come back to the personal defects of Charles I. Only the most blinkered of determinists would maintain that the war would have been likely to occur under a prudent king. It is characteristic of Russell, and greatly to his credit, that Charles’s failings, on which he places heavy weight, have never become in his hands the simple explanation which would conveniently accord with the revisionist scheme of things. Charles was ‘not, in fact, nearly as duplicitous as he is sometimes taken to be’, ‘not, as we often like to think, surrounded only by yes-men‘, ‘not ... unable to take advice from those who disagreed with him’ – though, when he did, he tended to follow two incompatible policies at once, his and theirs. As a leader of his party – as distinct from his nation – he showed ‘considerable skill’.

Even so, ‘whatever his virtues’, ‘it seems clear enough’ that ‘he was unfit to be king.’ Russell conveys the profound irritation and mistrust which the King could provoke, the lack of warmth towards him among his closest advisers, above all his incomprehension of and aversion to the ordinary rules of political management. The crisis of 1639-42 is thus, at one level, a re-run of the great crises of Medieval politics, when the barons had had to decide what to do with an impossible king. One of Russell’s leading strengths is his understanding of the ways in which 17th-century politicians thought and spoke as Medieval politicians had done. He compares 1641 with 1216, 1261 and 1397 – the difference being that those earlier crises had produced settlements, even though the settlements had not stuck. To Russell the puzzle is why no settlement was reached in the opening year of the Long Parliament.

One difference, we might suspect, is the new resilience of Parliament. For Russell, however, the crisis of 1641 has less to do with the modern powers of parliament than with a characteristically Medieval failure of counsel. What drove Charles into war was the alienation less of the nation which Parliament represented than of the councillors and peers who were the nation’s natural conciliators. Russell is alert to the extent of sentiment in the country hostile to the Court. He acknowledges the popular hostility to ship money and the extent of radical Puritanism in the towns. But ‘the English civil war did not begin with a great uprising in the country: it began with a breakdown of government at the centre.’ In 1642 both Charles I and his leading Parliamentary opponent, John Pym, found it hard to persuade the country to mobilise for war.

Yet, as the studies of Derek Hirst and Anthony Fletcher and others have demonstrated, it is artificial to divorce opinion in Parliament from opinion at large. Russell’s inability to recreate the public mood of the pre-war years narrows the scope, and so impairs the plausibility, of his argument. His handling of the antiquarian dimension of politics, for all its logical insight, seems likewise short of imagination. He sees that Medieval precedents allowed MPs to move against the Caroline regime in the conviction that they were acting within the law. He establishes that they were much readier to cite ancient practice than to resort to abstract – and superficially bolder – arguments of contract and resistance theory. Yet the hints, found by Russell, that in 1641-2 leading MPs wanted to follow Medieval precedents for deposing the King, or at least of handing effective power to a Custos Regni or Protector or Justiciar or Steward, show how liberating a force antiquarianism could be. The fact that the Parliamentarians of 1642 were ready to claim a right to deprive Charles of his veto is a further reminder how far they had broken through the constraints previously imposed on adventurous political thought by divine-right theory and by the sanctions of obedience. What is lacking from these wonderfully intelligent and profoundly scholarly books is the technique of storytelling that would bring such beliefs and feelings to life and enable us to enter into them.