Past v. Present

Phil Withington

  • God’s Instruments: Political Conduct in the England of Oliver Cromwell by Blair Worden
    Oxford, 421 pp, £35.00, March 2012, ISBN 978 0 19 957049 2

Societies, it is sometimes said, get the politics they deserve. Can the same be said for their history? If contemporary Britain is anything to go by then the short answer is probably yes. Certainly, something happened to British history in general, and the history of 17th-century Britain in particular, when I was growing up. I remember, as a teenager in the 1980s, if not quite lying ‘in awe on the bedroom floor’ (thank you, Morrissey) then sitting up with excitement as the magnitude of the English Revolution, and the range of its possible causes and consequences, were declared, debated and debunked, right before my eyes. Now, as a professional historian with an interest in the politics of 17th-century Britain, I sometimes wonder whether the same thing could happen today. My guess is that it couldn’t. The kind of history that is written – the kind that I write – has changed. So, too, has the place of history in public life and culture.

The historians who grabbed my teenage attention were serious academics confident that the stories they told and vehemently disputed mattered to the present. According to these stories, the English Revolution was an event of seismic proportions, at the epicentre of powerful social, economic and cultural forces which transformed the country from a medieval backwater into ‘the first modern society’. That Parliament should first fight against the king in 1642 and then, seven years later, not simply bring that king to trial but abolish the institution of monarchy was remarkable. That the same royal dynasty should be restored in 1660 only to be forcibly removed in 1688 required explanation. That these political upheavals should coincide with the development of a capitalist economy, the emergence of new social classes, the lash of Reformation, the whip of Renaissance, the prospect of empire – this can’t have been an accident. Which forces caused what, exactly, was up for debate; so, too, were the relative political importance of different social groups and the motivations, real or professed, of individual historical actors. But few historians denied that political revolution was one dimension of a larger set of historical changes which made us what we are today.

These weren’t stories written in the 1980s. They were orthodoxies conceived, for the most part, in the decades before and after the Second World War, and were closely linked to the politics of their respective authors: R.H. Tawney and Christopher Hill on the political left, Lawrence Stone in the Whig centre, and Hugh Trevor-Roper on the right. They were comfortable corroborating their own political predilection with sophisticated historical exposition and, it seems, happy for their opponents to do the same. All agreed on the significance of the events they were explaining, and, like other leading historians, could expect wide public interest in the arguments which ensued.

In the 1980s this consensus position came under severe pressure. All historical periods and events have their revisionists, if only because each generation needs to distinguish itself from the one before. Received orthodoxies are revised, new methodologies proposed, different paradigms adopted: it is a familiar enough phenomenon. This particular manifestation was especially violent and decisive. The harbingers of ‘modern scholarship’ (as Blair Worden described them at the time) self-consciously identified themselves as ‘Revisionists’ and labelled extant interpretations as ‘Whig’ or ‘Marxist’. They then condemned these Whig and Marxist interpretations as ‘teleological’, because they were predicated on explaining outcomes that the historical actors could never have known were going to happen. They derided such work as ‘anachronistic’, because it explained 17th-century behaviour by imposing modern beliefs and values on people in the past. And they denigrated it as ‘reductive’, because it took political thought and action to be determined by social and economic ‘realities’.

What the revisionists offered in return varied. For some it was localism, which meant understanding politics from the localities ‘in’ rather than the metropolis ‘out’. Another emphasis was institutionalism, which meant understanding politics (national and local) through the institutions and procedures that structured it. A third was a kind of cultural relativism, which meant taking the religious professions that accompanied and justified many ‘revolutionary’ acts as real and causal. What all revisionists agreed, however, was that there were no ‘deeper’ causes of the English Revolution (if indeed it could be called a ‘revolution’): just contingencies and events which, almost by accident, disrupted a prevailing political consensus. Similarly, to claim any meaningful relationship between ‘the social’ and ‘the political’ was illusory at best, ideological (as in Marxist or Whig) at worst. It seemed that modern Western democracy and capitalism were not the children of the English Revolution after all.

When I moved from the bedroom floor to the university library it became clear that revisionism had a younger sibling, ‘post-revisionism’, which tended to be less dismissive of broad explanatory frameworks, more sensitive to tensions and conflicts within pre-revolutionary society, and better attuned to the political power of the new technology of the era, the printing press. It also had less closely related rivals – and these approaches to the past had huge implications for the understanding of 17th-century politics. One was the history of political thought, which considered the great works of political philosophy not as universal statements of genius, but in the context of their own time. As well as recovering the immediate circumstances surrounding the writing of Hobbes’s Leviathan or Locke’s Two Treatises, those who worked in this area aimed to unearth the intellectual traditions, cultural paradigms and shared linguistic resources which had made these books – and by extension all texts – meaningful and explicable. A second approach, which I found especially interesting, was the ‘new social history’. It transpired that it was not only political revisionists who were frustrated with the way historians had been going about their business. A new generation of social historians wanted to use unexploited local and archival records to discover the experiences and life-chances of the vast majority of ordinary people in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The new social history was interested in demography, in family size and structure, in community relations, in literacy and education, in policing and poor relief, in relations between the classes and between the sexes, but it was not especially interested in politics. This may have been a relief for the revisionists, inadvertently confirming them in their belief that the social had little to do with the political. But it made little sense in terms of the English Revolution itself. The old debates about whether the ‘rise of the gentry’ had caused the conflict might have been dated, as might the assumption that radicalism must be class consciousness by other means, but it was certainly not the case that the majority of 17th-century people were detached or excluded from politics. Indeed, research on the way government really worked – in parishes, towns, counties and the metropolis – indicated the opposite. In terms of everyday and voluntary participation in civic institutions it was clear that this was a population much more attuned to its political rights and responsibilities than its modern equivalent. Political consciousness was heightened by the expansion in educational provision during the 16th century, based on a curriculum that brought classical learning, including Greek and Roman political philosophy, into the vernacular. By 1640, on the eve of civil war, the proportion of eligible men in further education was higher than at any time before the mid-20th century. The exchange of political ideas and opinions was further facilitated by the power and reach of the printed word, especially after the relaxation of censorship in 1641. Such was this society’s participatory and civic nature that by the 1990s a number of historians (myself included) had embraced an oxymoron coined by Patrick Collinson to describe the England which witnessed the revolution: a ‘monarchical republic’. While the English were most certainly monarchical subjects, in terms of their political liberties, roles and expectations, they also perceived themselves to be citizens of a ‘commonwealth’.

In retrospect it is not difficult to see that the initial assault on established interpretations of the English Revolution – and its place in our most cherished collective histories – was part of the larger and still barely understood reconfiguration of British cultural, social and political life during the 1970s and 1980s. Tawney, Hill and Trevor-Roper had written about an English past with discernible modern consequences: an industrialised, capitalist, class-based, and patriarchal empire whose tribal political culture was clearly configured into left and right. By the 1990s all of these certainties had either dissipated or been destroyed; and revisionism put the knife in at source. Neither is it too much of a stretch to regard the discovery of the monarchical republic as consistent with the emergence of New Labour. At the very least both were attempts to salvage something from the ideological wreckage of what had gone before. Revisionism also coincided with a change in the relationship between academic and popular history. Tawney, Hill and Trevor-Roper expressly courted contemporary relevance and used their knowledge of the 16th and 17th centuries to speak authoritatively to the present. Revisionism, by trumpeting at once the peculiarities of the past, the arcane skills required for studying it and the dangers of viewing it through the prism of the present, insisted on the opposite. The result was not only a separation between past and present but also a divergence of professional and public history. This divergence was quickened by other factors. The expansion of postgraduate teaching in the 1990s encouraged the proliferation of ever more specialist studies within the revisionist and post-revisionist paradigm. In the meantime TV executives realised that there was an immense public appetite for history. But although the growth of the university sector has encouraged a new historical expertise, it doesn’t seem to meet the needs of the entertainment and heritage industries. Before revisionism the British public could watch serious debate between historical experts. Now they listen to the platitudes of Simon Schama or watch David Starkey astride the gun barrel of a tank pontificating about Henry VIII.

Blair Worden, leading revisionist and elder statesman of 17th-century political history, is on record as worrying that ‘public life has never been less historically conscious or informed.’ To which a justifiable response could be: ‘What did you expect?’ Worden was instrumental in the quest to rid 17th-century history of what he terms ‘anachronism’, ‘sociological explanation’ and its Whig or Marxist legacies. Since the publication of his first book in 1974 he has argued that the regicide of 1649, and the constitutional experiments that followed it, were contingent, unexpected and ultimately ruinous for the parliamentary cause. He has also insisted that what ideological impetus there was came from a source entirely foreign, indeed antithetical, to the 18th-century radicals, 19th-century liberals and 20th-century socialists who have claimed the revolution as their own. This source was early modern Puritanism.

His new book, God’s Instruments: Political Conduct in the England of Oliver Cromwell, brings together essays written from the early 1980s to the present day and provides a kind of history of the revisionist thread. The first three essays, in which Worden maps out the ‘Puritan dimension’ of revolutionary politics, are classic examples of the revisionist art: neat, learned, incisive and aggressive. The middle of the book, with three essays from the 1990s and early 2000s, loses its way, perhaps because Worden had become more interested in Elizabethan literature. The discussion of revolutionary Oxford is especially long and flabby (it is no coincidence that most academic journals ask for articles of eight thousand words: it is the right length for a historical essay). Chapters 7 and 8 are a return to form, if only because they reveal the arch-revisionist attempting to have his cake and eat it. After spending thirty years insisting that the English Revolution was the graveyard of Puritanism rather than the cradle of parliamentary liberties, we find Worden squaring the circle. Exploiting advances in digital technology, which allow historians to search vast numbers of texts for keywords or phrases, he concludes that two of the ‘unintended consequences of the Puritan revolution’ were intellectual convictions integral to the politics of the future: certitude in both ‘the sovereignty of parliament’ and ‘civil and religious liberties’. Poacher turned gamekeeper indeed.

Worden is clearly sensitive to the problem of grouping together essays written over such a long period: in quintessential Renaissance fashion he blames others, in this case the publisher for printing the volume. Although the introduction tries manfully to justify the selection of essays here it is difficult to get away from the feeling that this is a Best of the B-Sides collection with a scattering of A-Side classics. That said, one feature that comes across very clearly is the notion of ‘the political’ which Worden has consistently, albeit implicitly, deployed over the last thirty years. Even in the later, more ambitious essays his working definition of politics is extremely narrow, conceptually, institutionally and sociologically. One of the most revealing sentences in God’s Instruments comes in the penultimate essay on ‘John Milton: Life and Writing’, where Worden suggests that ‘among the main themes of Milton’s writing before 1649, one subject is conspicuous by its absence: politics.’ This of a man who, over the previous decade, had written in support of the freedom of the press, of liberty of conscience and of the right to divorce, and had published treatises on two subjects which, for contemporaries, were fundamental to the nature of their public life and their political conduct: Of Education and The History of Britain. ‘Politics’ is absent from Milton’s deeply political oeuvre because, for Worden, politics is synonymous with the constitution. For Worden, it is only when Milton began writing explicitly about constitutional matters, and became embroiled in constitutional politicking, that he became a political writer.

This truncated sense of politics points, finally, to something of a paradox. As well as being a leading historian of the English Revolution, Worden is a respected critic of Renaissance literature. As such, he is fully attuned to the way in which a host of languages and concepts with political resonance and uses – many of them derived from the ancient world – became part of the educated ‘imagination’ of 16th and 17th-century England. Yet these traditions of Renaissance humanism are largely ignored by Worden as a basis for political action in the mid-17th century, becoming relevant only with the emergence of Republicanism (with a capital ‘R’) in the 1650s. This is in obvious contrast to his treatment of religious language and concepts, which are endowed with causal power and political significance from the start. Doubtless they explain the behaviour of many important revolutionaries, not least Oliver Cromwell himself. But it’s difficult to see why other cultural factors should be systematically ignored, or why political conduct apparently lacking in religious motivation should be explained away as merely pragmatic or contingent. Renaissance skills and concepts such as prudence, eloquence, persuasion, civility and necessity were quite as central to revolutionary political culture as Reformation notions of providence and conscience. Similarly, in the case of a term such as ‘liberty’ (an extremely important word for Worden), it is difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle Renaissance and Reformation semantics – it’s baffling that in his discussion of ‘Civil and Religious Liberty’ Worden never once indicates the classical provenance and resonance of the word ‘civil’. Yet just as leading Protestants like Martin Luther and John Calvin were accomplished humanists, so it would be challenging to find a prominent Puritan of the revolutionary era who had not experienced a humanist education. This is as true for Cromwell, who enjoyed a quintessential humanist education at Cambridge, as for someone as explicitly classically minded as Milton.

Recovering these dimensions of 17th-century politics in general, and the English Revolution in particular, is one means of widening our sense of the political in such a way as to encompass the assumptions of the people who lived at the time. It also helps us to reconnect the revolution to its contexts and its consequences without jeopardising the cultural relativism on which Worden and other revisionists rightly insist. The Enlightenment did not come from nowhere, or completely accidentally. Such a perspective only takes us one step towards reclaiming the politics of the past for the present – I haven’t mentioned recent work on political mobilisation and association far beyond the streets of Westminster – but it’s a start. This isn’t to denigrate the formative role of religion, which was a profoundly significant feature of the era’s political culture, or to call for the return of the grand historical explanation. It is to suggest that the mid-century troubles were much more than simply a ‘Puritan Revolution’ and that ‘political conduct in the England of Oliver Cromwell’ cannot be reduced to a mixture of spiritual conviction and reflexive pragmatism. Such a conclusion is as deterministic and anachronistic as the narratives Worden was so influential in discrediting; and the tenor of his later essays suggests that he recognises that.