Conviction on the High Seas

Blair Worden

  • Protestantism and Patriotism: Ideologies and the Making of English Foreign Policy 1650-68 by Steven Pincus
    Cambridge, 506 pp, £45.00, May 1996, ISBN 0 521 43487 4

To contemporaries, the three Anglo-Dutch naval wars that were fought in the third quarter of the 17th century were epic encounters on which the fate of Europe depended: modern equivalents of Rome’s wars with Carthage or of the Battle of Actium. The size and prowess of the fleets drew astonishment across the continent. So did the thunderous battles, whose scale and drama can still be sensed in the paintings of the Van de Veldes.

Yet the wars seem inexplicable within conventional accounts of 17th-century political motive and conduct. From the 1570s, English advocates of a Protestant foreign policy had applauded the Netherlanders’ struggle for independence from Spain and viewed them as necessary allies against the international Catholic menace. In the 1640s, the Parliament which fought against Charles I condemned his indifference to the Dutch plight. In 1648-9, both countries renounced their foreign rulers, the Dutch finally breaking free from what they held to be the Popish tyranny of Spanish rule, the English Parliament repudiating what it held to be the Popish tyranny of the house of Stuart. To the common interest of Protestantism was thus added the common interest of patriotic republicanism. What could be more natural than that the two new republics, both of them imperilled by the great Catholic monarchies of Spain and France, should make common cause?

Early in 1651 an English embassy to the Hague seemed likely to seal such an alliance. Yet the negotiations ended in acrimony, and the following year the two republics went to war. Since that war seems to make neither religious nor political sense, historians have turned to economics to explain it. For if the English and Dutch had long been Protestant friends, they had also, for almost as long, been commercial enemies. The Dutch economic miracle of the earlier 17th century – the wealth of Amsterdam, the advances in ship design, the expansion of the maritime carrying-trade between the Baltic and the Mediterranean, the exploitation of new markets overseas and especially in the East Indies – threatened England’s economic security. Alongside the friendly images of Dutch Protestantism there grew up hostile ones of Dutch commercial greed and ruthlessness.

That the English Parliament of 1652, whose members had devoted their careers to their Protestant ideals, and risked their lives for them, should suddenly have elevated economic arguments above the imperatives of religion, politics and diplomacy has always seemed odd. The historians least troubled by that scenario have been the Marxists. To them the execution of Charles I was a bourgeois revolution: it brought new bourgeois interests to power in the City of London and enabled bourgeois pressure groups to persuade the infant Commonwealth to fight an economic war. The primacy of economics, on this view, was confirmed after the Restoration, when the monarchy, while reversing the changes brought about by the political and religious ideals of the Interregnum, persisted with the anti-Dutch policy of the Commonwealth. Thus the Navigation Act, which Parliament had passed against the Dutch in October 1651, was re-enacted by the Crown in 1660. In the Marxist view, the war of 1652-4, which the English happened to fight under a radically Protestant republic, was the first of three conflicts, of which the other two, the wars of 1665-7 and 1672-4, happened to be fought under an Anglican monarchy.

Steven Pincus’s Protestantism and Patriotism torpedoes that argument and, along with it, the entire historiography of the Anglo-Dutch wars. His subject is the first two of the three wars. They were fought, he maintains, not for economic but for ideological purposes, and at some economic cost. Pincus’s starting-point is the basic division within the Dutch polity, which ran parallel to that within England. In the seven provinces of the new Dutch federation, the focus of division was the monarchical ambition of the house of Orange: in England it was that of the Stuarts, who had been allied to the Orange family since the marriage of Charles’s daughter Mary to the second William of Orange in 1641. William’s death in November 1650, which made possible two decades of republican rule in the Netherlands, was as large an event in Dutch politics as the execution of his father-in-law the previous year had been in English politics. But while it brought republicanism to the centre of Dutch power, it gave it no regional or popular base. Dutch public sentiment remained largely Orangist.

Pincus argues that it was the weaknesses of Dutch republicanism, not economic differences, that led to the failure of the negotiations between the two republics in 1651. A revolt of Dutch public opinion against the prospect of a republican alliance prevented the Dutch negotiators from concluding it. It also revealed to the English that the Netherlanders were neither good Protestants nor good republicans. Instead, like the English Royalists, they subscribed to that tyrannical and Anti-Christian interest which England’s radical Protestants wished to extirpate throughout Europe. Until now the charges of base materialism which had been levelled at the Dutch as economic rivals had conflicted with their virtuous Protestant credentials. Now Dutch greed seemed logically to go with Dutch irreligion.

It was against the Orange – and thus the Stuart – interest that the English went to war in 1652. The refusal of that ardent Orangist, Admiral van Tromp, to strike sail to English ships in the Channel, the episode which sparked the war, was an assertion not only of patriotic but of monarchical sentiment. Van Tromp objected to acknowledging the maritime sovereignty of a republican regime. Critical at the beginning of the war, the issue of monarchy was no less so at its end. Cromwell’s insistence, in negotiating the Treaty of Westminster in 1654, on a clause excluding the Orange house from any significant influence in Dutch politics has hitherto seemed wilful. In Pincus’s account it makes sense as the fulfilment of a central war aim.

If Cromwell and the English republic were anxious to keep out the Orange interest in the 1650s, Charles II was no less eager to restore it in the 1660s. His own rule would never be secure, he believed, so long as the Netherlands were controlled by the republican party of John de Witt, which was aiding and comforting the Puritan opposition in England. The war of 1665-7 ended in insult to the English, when the Dutch were allowed to sail up the Medway and burn ships docked at Chatham. Had the war been essentially economic, Pincus observes, the Dutch would have insisted, in the negotiations that ended it, on economic gains commensurate with their victory. In fact their economic terms were mild. The key result of the negotiations, and the measure of Charles’s defeat, was the continuing exclusion of the Orange interest.

At every stage of the relations explored by Pincus, economic motives prove an inadequate or misleading explanation. Merchants, who normally prefer peace to war, had no reason to reverse that priority. As the merchant communities had known they would be, the wan were disastrous to commerce. They severely disrupted the coastal, Baltic and Mediterranean trades. Taxes and coal prices soared. The state, far from being controlled by trading interests, overruled them. It was more inclined to commandeer merchant ships for the Navy than to supply convoys for merchant fleets. In 1665, Sir George Ayscue spoke for the Navy Board: ‘the war and trade’ cannot ‘be supported together, and therefore trade must stand still to make way to that.’ There were indeed rich merchants, a number of them in the East India and Levant Companies, who favoured the second war, but not for economic reasons. They supported its political goals and were willing to pay an economic price, both personal and national, to help secure them.

Such sacrifices are intelligible, Pincus indicates, once we grasp the ideological fervour behind the wars. In the early 1640s, the animating ideology was a synthesis of secular and messianic republicanism: the search for a new Roman republic merged with the millenarian expectation of the Fifth Monarchy, when the reign of Christ would supplant the rule of earthly kings. In 1653, after the dissolution of the Rump Parliament which had begun the war, the struggle was continued by Barebone’s Parliament, the radical ‘assembly of saints’ with which Cromwell replaced it. Thus by the 1650s a war against fellow Protestants could be a war of religion no less than one against Catholics. As the Puritan cause fragmented, Antichrist, hitherto principally equated with the Papacy, acquired Protestant credentials. To the Fifth Monarchists and their allies, the Dutch were as godless as Papists. Like the principal opponents of reform within the Puritan Revolution, the Dutch were ‘Presbyterians’ – the charge which, from the opposite political direction, Royalists would level at them in the 1660s. Their defeat, the ‘saints’ believed, would begin the English and Protestant conquest of Europe, which would culminate in the destruction of Rome. The Cromwellians, who expelled Barebone’s Parliament in December 1653 and then lowered the ideological temperature, were less extreme in their chiliasm. They were nonetheless convinced that the Netherlanders’ materialism and their Orangist sympathies were affronts to divine providence, which it was England’s godly duty to punish.

After 1660 the prevailing ideology was Royalist and Anglican. The evidence of Puritan conspiracy in and around 1663, and the fears of renewed civil war that it provoked, rallied most of the nation behind the Restoration settlement. The Government suppressed Puritans at home and made war on their Dutch allies. That congruence of domestic and foreign policy gave the new ideology a powerful hold, but a short-lived one. It is to its collapse that Pincus attributes England’s defeat in the second Dutch war. He maintains that the English lost not, as other historians have supposed, because the war had given the Dutch the upper hand economically but because it had divided the English Government from its people. The regime’s problems derived partly from its corrupt and inefficient handling of the war, but beneath that evil there lay a deeper problem: the collapse of public will. The turning-point was the entry of France into the war on the Dutch side. Until that point, government and people had joined in identifying the Dutch as England’s principal enemy. Now French absolutism and Popery, which a number of Charles’s advisers seemed eager to import into England, appeared to be the larger threat. Another change in public perception weakened the Government’s hand as the war destroyed the identification of Puritanism with rebellion. The bulk of the Nonconformist community, far from hoping for a Dutch victory, put patriotism first and disowned the Dutch cause.

Pincus’s thesis, which draws on a prodigious range and depth of scholarship, is strikingly original, boldly conceived and powerfully argued. If he is even half-right, the implications for the study of Early Modern English history are fundamental. I think he is more than half-right. There are, nonetheless, problems. His method of argument is cumulative: example is energetically piled on example, quotation on quotation. A technique which, in less gifted hands, could pall, is here vivid and compelling. Even so, there are times when his enthusiasm carries him past difficulties at which he might have paused.

For one thing, economics will not quite go away. In particular, the Navigation Act is hard to understand within Pincus’s framework. The Act of 1651 was a basic challenge to the Dutch maritime trade, cutting out the Dutch middleman by requiring that imports be brought directly into England, either in English ships or in ships from their country of origin. To Pincus, the measure was a minor irritant in Anglo-Dutch relations. The English, he notes, enforced it imperfectly and were willing to surrender its principle to win political concessions from the Dutch. Its passage should be explained, he suggests, as an improvised response to the deadness of trade in 1651, not as a novel or ambitious assertion of state power. There is indeed a strong element of improvisation in all the legislation of the Commonwealth, a regime acting under the pressure of grave and daunting events. The Act was nonetheless a measure of impressive boldness and no isolated step. We do not need to invoke anachronistic conceptions of mercantilism to portray it as the most far-reaching of a series of decisions taken in 1650-1 as a result of hard thinking about England’s national and international economic condition.

Like David Katz, whose study of Cromwell’s proposal of 1655 to readmit the Jews to England argued that that scheme owed nothing to economic calculation and everything to millenarian belief, Pincus is sometimes willing to discount economic motivation altogether. At other moments he offers a more complex picture, presenting economic argument as the subordinate or even equal partner of ideology. He is readiest to acknowledge the presence of economic thinking when it is defensive, concerned not with the expansion of England’s wealth or power but with its preservation. What the English feared from the Dutch, he thinks, was not competition but elimination. The Dutch, it seemed to the English, were seeking to establish, through commercial means, the universal dominion which first the Spanish and then the French monarchy aspired to attain by territorial conquest. The English contrasted Dutch ambition with their own limited aim, which was to confine the Dutch ‘within the limits of good neighbourhood’. Yet the Dutch were quite as frightened of English aspirations as the English were of Dutch ones. The Venetian Ambassador, who thought that the two nations were fighting to decide to which of them ‘the empire of the seas shall belong’, may have overestimated the confidence of both sides, but the even-handedness of his judgment is more persuasive than the English posture of righteous defensiveness. Here as elsewhere Pincus’s decision to base so much of his account of Dutch politics on English sources can cause imbalance.

Problems are intermittently raised, too, by the ideological explanations which Pincus prefers to economic ones. He breaks new ground in bringing the classical and chiliastic elements of the republicanism of the 1650s together. But the people whom he (inelegantly) calls ‘the apocalyptics’ are a broad church. So are his republicans, including as they do Oliver Cromwell (who, though against Charles I, was not against kingship) and his cousin and ally Oliver St John. In 1651, these men are to be found arguing for the restoration of some form of monarchy and discounting the pleas of army officers that ‘this as well as other nations’ should ‘be governed in the way of a republic’. There is a certain looseness, too, in Pincus’s delineation of the ‘Anglican royalist consensus’ that favoured the second Dutch war.

Pincus’s insistence on ideological motive recovers the passion and urgency of political debate, from which the study of diplomatic history is too often separated. What it sometimes misses is the correspondence of ideological conviction to strategic need. This is partly a problem of method, of a kind familiar in books that have grown out of doctoral theses. By taking much knowledge for granted, Pincus may obscure essentials not only from his readers but from himself. Anglo-Dutch relations are described largely on their own, with insufficient reference to the larger diplomatic map or to those broader considerations of international security to which any regime, whatever its complexion, would have had to give weight. The affairs of Catholic France and Spain tend to figure only when those countries directly involve themselves in Dutch developments. It is a pity, too, that Pincus passes silently over the tense Anglo-Dutch relations of the years 1654-60 and the struggles between the two countries for superiority in the Baltic during those years.

The implications of Pincus’s argument nonetheless go well beyond his book’s subject-matter. First, he makes foreign policy seem as important and interesting as it was. After a generation of neglect, historians are beginning to remember the prominence of diplomatic questions in domestic politics and the interaction of the two sets of issues. But Pincus does much more than restore a lost emphasis. He shows, for the first time, how widespread was the public knowledge of, and how intense the public interest in, the political issues of the 1650s and 1660s, both national and international. Other historians, particularly Tom Cogswell and Richard Cust, have performed a comparable service for the earlier part of the century, but in Pincus’s period the evidence of the public appetite for political news and debate is greater. The appetite itself may have been greater, too, thanks to the breakdown of censorship in the civil wars and the mobilisation of public opinion during and after them.

Here as elsewhere, however, Pincus perhaps overstates his case. There are two grounds for doubt. First, it is much easier, as he acknowledges, to discover what people were instructed or urged to think than what they thought. Secondly, the points of contact between public opinion – a mutable or even fickle public opinion, it would seem – and government action are elusive. Can popular sentiment really be said to have ‘pushed’ the Rump into war in 1652 and then to have ‘placed intense pressure’ on Cromwell to make peace two years later? On other matters the Rump’s rule was a consistent defiance of public opinion. In any case, how broad was the opinion for which apocalyptic republicanism spoke? That sentiment was prominent in the Navy and in the radical churches, but can it have been, on its own, an irresistible political force? Pincus’s argument rests on the premise that in the Netherlands the popular sentiment of the early 1650s was monarchist, whereas in England it was republican. Yet it might be easier to demonstrate the prominence of popular Royalism than of popular republicanism in the England of those years. In 1654 what produced the peace was surely not public opinion but the military coup that enabled Cromwell to end the war. Even so, behind Pincus’s overstatements there lies a major advance. He puts an end to the days when diplomatic history could be studied solely in terms of high politics or of the Namierite manoeuvres of grandees.

Pincus’s picture of an animated political community is in one sense a reaction against the self-styled revisionism of recent decades, which has had more to say about consensus than about conflict, more about intrigue than about issues. His version, where beliefs and passions count for almost everything, makes it much easier to understand why men took such huge political risks and were willing to fight wars and carry through revolutions. Yet in a larger respect Pincus continues the revisionist programme. A quarter of a century ago politics were regarded as the mere surface of history, as being of trivial significance beside questions of social or mental structure. The writing of narrative was held to be a refuge for mindlessness. Here in company with the revisionists, who reacted against those judgments, Pincus insists on the primacy of politics. He knows that statements made by the politicians or political commentators of the past can be properly understood and weighed only once their chronological contexts have been recreated. His sense of the shifts of political mood, pressure and language is masterly.

This book has defects of presentation that will not surprise readers of the series, ‘Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History’, to which it belongs. It is under-edited and has too many slips which copy-editing or proof-reading should have prevented. Readers irritated by those failings should not be deterred by them. Most first books by professional historians are content to amplify or modify existing hypotheses. Only very rarely does a debut transform a historiographical landscape. Protestantism and Patriotism is a major achievement.