I spent part of yesterday morning watching and listening in to Ann Hughes’s comments on the transformation of county studies in the period up to and including the English Civil War during the course of her academic career. She had been an undergraduate and then a postgraduate at Liverpool University where she completed a doctoral thesis on Warwickshire before moving on to the Open University, to Manchester university and then to Keele University where she occupied a professorial chair until her retirement. In the course of her talk, she paid tribute to the influence of the late Brian Quintrell and reflected on the evolution of county studies since the 1960s.
Early work tended to be focused on the role of the gentry within counties, work that illuminated the lives of the gentry as a landed elite and which contributed to understanding the administrative, constitutional and political activities of local governors within such a framework. J.T.Cliffe’s work on the Yorkshire gentry was a good example of the first kind and Tom Barnes’s study of Somerset between 1625 and 1642 exemplified the second. Her slightly older contemporary, Robin Silcock (like Brian Quintrell’s unpublished study of Essex) evaluated the record of King Charles I’s period of personal rule and how this contributed to the causes of the English Civil War.
Hughes herself was less influenced by localist approaches emphasising the introspection of county communities and the importance of local interests reacting to central pressures. Alan Everitt’s work on Kent was of this kind but rather less important to her than David Underdown’s study of Pride’s Purge. She did not believe that a rigid central-local analysis was helpful and, in any case, there were areas within counties where the focus would not necessarily be on the gentry. The work of John Walter and others on popular politics and culture suggested interaction between different social groups. These contrasting approaches, she believed had resulted in a victory for her contemporaries amongst historians as the collection published by Jackie Eales and Andrew Hopper in 2012 showed.
The focus of county studies had now changed. There was more attention now to the consequences of the civil war, on, for example, casualties, on memories, and on trauma as the work of David Appleby and Andrew Hopper at Leicester showed. She did, however, have some doubts about the level of casualties in the period and thought that the exhilaration and excitement of a radicalised revolution needed to be taken into account. Like other historians too, she had move on beyond 1660. There had been important work by Simon Osborne on popular politics in the midland counties, on cultural differences – most importantly by Mark Stoyle under the inspiration of Underdown, on communications, personal relationships and religion. Peter Lake’s works on Northamptonshire with Isaac Stephens and, later with Richard Cust, on Cheshire testified to this change and to an interest in micro-history.
But the most stimulating way in her view of looking at the Civil war lay in the notion of state formation: this had been little noticed in the 1970s and 1980s but Michael Braddick’s work had brought it to wider attention. State formation had been driven by internal conflicts rather than by foreign wars. This had occurred at a time of political fragmentation and was recorded in the growth of self-conscious documentation. Warwickshire was particularly well-documented at county, city and parish level as local communities responded to the demand of central authority, i.e. of Parliament. Their accounts and reports were shaped by local concerns nonetheless as the bills from one of Coventry’s parishes showed.
She was now looking at the ambiguities of the wartime English state where the records illustrated the cost to local inhabitants of free quarter for soldiers, of damage to the environment, e.g. in the loss of trees, and how narratives of the conflict would be made richer. Individuals’ senses of identity had been affected as the experiences of George Medley, gardener, civilian and soldier, showed: he had been employed as a gardener before becoming a relatively well-paid soldier. Ann Hughes was now involved in working with Andrew Hopper on the Greville family accounts and on the evidence they provided for consumption and household links.
In answer to questions, Ann Hughes elaborated on some of the points she had made earlier. She was now working on the Gell family of Hopton in Derbyshire and the archive of sermon notes they had kept over three generations. A book, moreover, on the career of the 2nd Lord Brooke would, in her view, be extremely useful. As far as Alan Everitt’s work was concerned, his assessment on the politics of Kent reflected the view of the centre: he had too readily considered the county as cohesive and had been unable to accept that the late-1648 petition demanding justice against the King was genuine. In fact, as Jackie Eales had shown, it was associated with a radical group in the county. William Dugdale’s work on Warwickshire was, however interesting and multi-faceted it proved to be, the partisan account of a Tory Royalist looking back at the events of the Civil War. Her conclusion was that, in the 1640s and 1650s, roles could be blurred and identities become fragmented.
I found this talk very interesting and certainly concur in thinking that Brian Quintrell was a much under-recognised and important figure in early modern historiography. In one sense, studies of counties initially grew out of the ancient controversy over the fortunes of the gentry as an arena in which competing hypotheses could be tested as the studies by Joyce Mouseley, Gordon Blackwood and others showed. Like Ann Hughes, I found Alan Everitt’s 1968 study of Kent as an illustration of provincial insularity and localism improbable: no such phenomenon could be found in medieval Kent. But it did have some appeal and, to a degree, influenced the study of the Eastern Association by Clive Holmes: John Morrill’s study of Cheshire was, in part, a response to it. Where I differ from her analysis can be found in two unmentioned gaps in her analysis. It did not touch upon the collapse of the ‘good old cause’ by 1660, on the divisions that grew between the military victors themselves and on the failure of post-1646 regimes to secure widespread consent to their rule. More important still is the point that the post-1660 Stuart regimes were not, in my view, effectively engaged in state formation: they were fiscally and militarily weak by comparison with France or even with the Dutch, a weakness only remedied after 1688/1689. She is, of course, entitled to express her view as, indeed, am I.
Christopher Thompson email@example.com