Royal Panic Attack

Colin Kidd

Since the 1960s, social historians have made enormous efforts to expand the range of history beyond the familiar cast of monarchs, courtiers and parliamentarians to recover the lives of the lower orders. ‘History from below’ has complicated and enriched the national story: witches and wet nurses, Ranters and Muggletonians, autodidacts, knitters and servants have all emerged from the shadows of neglect and condescension. In the midst of this historical revolution the career of the parliamentary historian Conrad Russell, whose first book was published in 1971 and who died in 2004, seemed like a fantastical conceit on the unfashionable notion of ‘history from above’.

Certainly, the bald facts of the case suggest a throwback to an era when leisured gentlemen in oak-panelled libraries composed grand Whig narratives of the triumph of English liberty: not only would Russell inherit an earldom, but his ancestors had played a central role in the political history of England. Conrad was the son of Bertrand Russell by his troubled third marriage, and had an understandably fraught upbringing, but it is his sociological rather than psychological baggage as a Russell which invites legitimate historiographical prurience. On succeeding his half-brother as the 5th Earl Russell he became active in the House of Lords as a spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, the distant lineal successors of the Whigs, the party his own forebears had founded. Yet, oddly enough, Russell, who happily celebrated the history of the Whigs and their descendants in An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Liberalism, was the very opposite of a Whig historian. Indeed, his overt Whig pieties were combined with a pronounced anti-Whig revisionism in his specialist interest, the origins of what used to be called the English Civil Wars.

A chain-smoker in an ill-fitting suit, who carried his voluminous notes around in supermarket carrier bags, the 5th Earl Russell defied most conventional stereotypes of the aristocrat. But he possessed a keen awareness of his dynastic heritage: it determined both his sense of political obligation and his interpretation of English history. The story of the Russells was inextricably interwoven with the history of Whiggery and Liberalism, and after some early flirtations with the Labour Party, he maintained that family tradition. Yet when he peered back beyond the Glorious Revolution to the Civil War era, the picture became decidedly blurred, and Whiggery seemed to peter out. What was the connection between the two major upheavals of England’s so-called ‘century of revolutions’? How far was the Glorious Revolution of 1688 a consolidation of the gains of the chaotic English Revolution of the 1640s?

The history of the Russells seemed to locate the origins of Whiggism almost precisely around 1679. Before then – and certainly in the Civil War era – the family’s politics were much harder to parse. One of Russell’s final – and most revealing – pieces was his long essay in the DNB on Francis Russell, 4th Earl of Bedford, a leading early Stuart politician, who died in 1641. Given the ‘eclectic’ character of Bedford’s religious preferences, which are best characterised as Calvinist Episcopalian, and the amphibious nature of his associations with both Royalists and Parliamentarians, Russell concluded that his ancestor’s career provided ‘absolutely no clue to what side he would have taken if he had lived to take sides in the Civil War’. As if to reinforce the point, he noted that Francis Russell’s heir, the 5th Earl of Bedford, switched sides twice during the wars. It was impossible, even when tracing the history of his own family, to construct a narrative of Whig continuity which connected both English revolutions of the 17th century.

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