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.

Dr Sharpe’s description of Ship Money as ‘perhaps the most successful extraordinary tax in Early Modern (perhaps in modern) British history’ involves the same sort of hyperbole as the Earl of Northampton’s claim, in 1610, that James I was ‘free from banqueting and surfeiting’. This sort of language gives hostages to fortune, and Sharpe’s claim has already been refuted in Dr Alison Gill’s thesis on the collection of Ship Money, which supersedes the collection figures on which his conclusion is based. Much of what this book has to say on Ship Money is good and valuable, but it would have been more persuasive if it had been toned down. The same applies to the argument that English influence in European politics during the 1630s was greater than it is thought to have been. This undoubtedly contains some truth, since Continental powers never knew for certain that Charles would not risk war. Yet this is a limited truth, and it should not be pushed too far.

The Personal Rule of Charles I could have been written as a political narrative, which is still much needed for the 1630s, or as a long interpretative essay held together by an argument. The attempt at comprehensive coverage has prevented the book from acquiring a structure of either kind, and has at the same time made it very long and deprived the author of space to develop his case. Some stories are repeated several times and routine cutting of parentheses and asides would have saved fifty pages or more. There are a number of places where the use of evidence is questionable. It is doubtful whether the East Anglian churches that had been encroached on by the sea are evidence of neglect. His examples are not always what they seem. He argues, for example, that ‘even among families known for their support of puritanism,’ attachment to predestination may not have been as strong as it seemed. The point is worth arguing, and Dr Sharpe gives us three examples. The first is the Earl of Huntingdon, though he does not tell us which Earl. Since, as he has stressed elsewhere, successive Earls held very different religious positions, this omission is unfortunate. The second is Lord Herbert of Cherbury, who, as Dr Jacqueline Eales has demonstrated, was an Arminian. The third looks the most interesting: the churchwardens of St Andrew’s Norwich presented their vicar for denying that Christ died for all men. It is only several hundred pages later that Dr Sharpe reveals that Bishop Wren was threatening churchwardens if they failed to present any breaches of Charles’s declaration against controversial preaching. He tells of a vicar who sexually assaulted a female parishioner (called Mrs Prettie), and says that such men were ‘quite probably, popular down-to-earth figures in the local community’. One shudders to think how a feminist reviewer might reply to this.

Remarks from some quarters are better evidence than remarks from others, and Dr Sharpe is too ready to rely on statements which deserve Mandy Rice-Davies’s famous reply. The question of how far Charles’s social policies were designed for the public good, and how far they were simply designed to make money is an interesting one. Yet it will not do to claim that patents of monopoly were concerned with maintaining quality because they say so. It is difficult to believe that ‘Justice Finch’s claim that the forest laws were implemented “without the least distaste or disaffection or complaint or clamour of his people”, and the King’s own expressed belief that the forest laws were for the benefit of his subjects as well as himself should not be read as disingenuous’. Laud’s claim to ‘have resolved in handling matters of religion to leave all gall out of my ink’ is not useful evidence in an attempt to argue for his mildness in religious controversy. The testimony of one of the Aberdeen doctors, later condemned for heresy by the General Assembly, is not good evidence of Laud’s impartiality in preventing discussion of predestination. A clergyman spared deprivation by Bishop Wren, writing to him about ‘your Lordship’s former gentleness’ (my italics) is too ex parte a witness to add weight to an argument for Wren’s moderation.

Most differences between us are matters of emphasis, but our disagreement on matters of religion seems to leave us no more able to understand each other than Charles and Pym were. Dr Sharpe believes in the existence of two groups called ‘Puritans’ and ‘Anglicans’, and believes I have played down differences between them. I see very considerable differences, but not between Puritans and Anglicans. I see differences existing between rival claimants to the heart of the Church of England itself, as a contest, not between ins and outs, but between rival orthodoxies. For Dr Sharpe, there is only one orthodoxy, residing in ‘what was intended as a common mode of worship’. His picture of orthodoxy exactly conforms to the full detail of worship established in 1559, which he thinks was threatened during James’s reign by a ‘Calvinist takeover’. He refers, in a revealing passage, to ‘the harmony and peace of the Church which had been the achievement of the 1559 settlement’.

This sounds like belief in a golden age, and it is certainly a picture which would have been unrecognisable to the bishops who took office in 1559. The 1559 Prayer Book was a little like the Highway Code: it was recognised as a touchstone of orthodoxy, but those who used the confession and absolution set out in the visitation of the sick may have been as rare as those who make hand signals when turning left as required in the Highway Code. For many people, orthodoxy in the Church was what they saw done by its leaders, and from the very beginning this was very different from what was in the Book of Common Prayer. People living under Charles were therefore entitled to believe the Church had changed when they saw that, as Dr Sharpe admits, what was actually done in it was changed. There was a long tradition in the Church, going back to Jewel and Grindal, of reluctant acceptance of its discipline because of attachment to its doctrine. Going as near as it did to the heart of the Church, such an attitude could well be regarded as an orthodoxy. When the doctrine itself was expounded, in Charles’s reign, in a way unacceptable to these people, it was inevitable that they should feel cheated.

In denying the intensity of hostility to the religion enforced by Charles and Laud, Dr Sharpe has set himself a very difficult task to explain the collapse of the regime and the onset of civil war. He is right that in 1640 disputes were not beyond all resolution, but he must explain why they were not resolved. Here he has fallen back on the Scots as diabolus ex machina. He is right about the effectiveness of Scottish propaganda, and his discussion of this subject is valuable and full of new information. He is also right about the shock of defeat in 1640 and the effect it had on English political thinking. In his phrase, ‘the anxiety and tension of war, and still more defeat, had begun to set a match to the tinder of propaganda to ignite the fire of antipopery.’

This is persuasive, but he needs to explain why and among whom this was so. What happened in 1640 was that a substantial number of Englishmen, a minority no doubt, but a minority large enough to have a significant influence on events, reacted to a foreign invasion by supporting the enemy against their own government. This is a very remarkable event, and on Dr Sharpe’s premises, it is hard to see why it should have occurred. Turning on one’s own government in time of defeat is common enough, but siding with the enemy is rather less so. Indeed, there was no parallel in English history since the French invasion against King John in 1216.

Before explaining why people reacted in this way, we should consider who reacted in this way. The answer, clearly, is the group around the Twelve Peers: Saye, Warwick, Pym, Hampden, St John, Cotworthy and their allies, supported by such people as Sir Robert Harley and Sir Robert Cooke, and on a lower level, by men like Robert Woodforde. These are the people whose concern with the issue of Arminianism is most plain and clearly documented. These are the people for whom the Scots’ Calvinism made it possible to achieve a common cause, and whose efforts ultimately led to the drawing up of the Westminster Confession. Even if it had influenced no one else, the issue of Arminianism would deserve a vital place in the story.

Dr Sharpe argues against the influence of religion in the coming of the Civil War on the ground that ‘not all Anglicans were Royalists.’ This is the wrong question. If the concept of an ‘Anglican’ is allowed, it is doubtful whether there was a member of the Long Parliament who would not have claimed to be an ‘Anglican’. Even Sir John Wray, who may well have been a Presbyterian, as Dr Sharpe suggests, could identify the Church of England with a creed of continuing reformation and claim that he was a more loyal member of it than Laud. What divided members of the Long Parliament in 1642 was what sort of Church of England they believed in. Those who, like Dr Richard Holdsworth, were Calvinist episcopalians, had to choose between one half of their beliefs and the other, and it is not surprising that they did not all choose the same way.

If we take the religious passion away, it is hard to see what Dr Sharpe is putting in its place. He resists Dr Johann Sommerville’s attempt to take us back to constitutional themes, and to see Charles as a proponent of absolutism. If he is right about this, and there are good reasons for believing that he is, he is left with little more than the paranoia resulting from defeat. He is right that that is a very powerful emotion, and he is right that it gave rise to two rival myths, which further widened division. One myth was that the problem was caused by popery, and led to arguments for further reformation. The other saw the problem arising from separatists, and tended to see social insubordination as the great danger. Dr Sharpe has not attempted to explain why some people chose one of these myths, and others chose the other. These choices appear to follow from people’s previous religious positions, and to provide another way in which religion helped to divide the country. If it was not religion which fuelled these choices, what was it? At times one wonders whether Dr Sharpe agrees with Sir James Douglas that ‘some supernatural disposition makes their people incensed without any reason’. Yet such an explanation is not open to historians in our professional capacity. Dr Sharpe has written a very valuable account of Charles’s personal rule, but it is one which risks making the Civil War inexplicable.