Draining the Whig bathwater

Conrad Russell

  • The Personal Rule of Charles I by Kevin Sharpe
    Yale, 983 pp, £40.00, November 1992, ISBN 0 300 05688 5

This is a big book, not only in the sense that it runs to 954 pages, but also in that it contains a prodigious amount of work. All the familiar sources are here, but Dr Sharpe also draws on many manuscript collections which are less familiar because they are newly available or in remote places. He gives us many valuable ‘unconsidered trifles’. I will not soon forget the man protesting against militia rates who believed England was at peace in 1626, when it was at war with both France and Spain. The picture of Charles behaving with a gravity that spoiled the conversation at Henrietta Maria’s private supper parties, brings the couple alive. The proclamation enjoining men to keep their urine for a year for the making of saltpetre captures the impracticality which was characteristic of Charles, and government ministers of any generation will recognise the gentleman in 1640 who hoped that a Parliament would do something to stop so many sparrows eating his grain.

It is in the methods of interpretation of evidence, rather than in the evidence itself, however, that this book has new things to say. Through the Seventies, many historians, including both Dr Sharpe and myself, were moving away from the Whig picture of English history in which Charles and his regime appeared simply as a roadblock on the way to the future. Familiar evidence, on rereading, came to have a very different appearance from that previously credited to it. Dr Sharpe has carried this process further than any. Instead of finding the first two Stuarts ‘rulers about whom it is difficult to write with moderation’, as one historian once described them, Dr Sharpe comes to find it difficult to write about Charles without moderation. Instead of thinking, like Dr Richard Cust, that revision has tended to throw out the baby with the bathwater, he thinks that there are large quantities of Whig bathwater still to be drained.

Many of Dr Sharpe’s arguments will be engaged by historians for some time to come. He does not agree with Cust that Charles was committed to ‘new counsels’ by 1626, believing he had more commitment to traditional methods of government than he is often credited with. He ascribes Charles’s financial levies to ‘immediate emergency’, rather than as a permanent alternative to Parliamentary supply. There is much debate still to come on this issue. Dr Sharpe rightly stresses that Charles’s court was a heterogeneous place, and in no way ideologically uniform. He is right to ask us to look again at such figures as Cottington, Weston and Windebank. For too long, the tendency has been to follow the Victorians in seeing those who did not share strong Protestant sympathies in religion and foreign policy as un-English. It is time the balance was redressed, though his praise for Windebank at times recalls Professor Trevor-Roper’s remark about historians who judge a minister’s ability by the number of letters he writes.

Though Dr Sharpe has a case to make, he is not always sensitive to the evidence against which he must argue. The result is that he is less able to argue his case effectively than he might otherwise have been. For example, he claims, without much supporting argument, that Cust too readily assumes that non-payment of the Forced Loan was evidence of principled opposition. How far non-payment of any tax is evidence of principled opposition is a heartbreakingly difficult question. Cust knows this very well, but there is very little evidence that Dr Sharpe knows it too.

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