Correspondence-Chris Thompson

Two days ago, I watched a discussion between Ann Hughes, John Rees and Edward Vallance chaired by the Labour M.P., John McDonnell. The origin, course, consequences and significance of the English Civil Wars of the 1640s (with some references to events in Scotland and Ireland) were discussed. Much of the discussion was fairly standard in nature, e.g. about the way in which economic and social explanations have gone out of fashion; about the religious and political quarrels, the disputes about the respective rights of the King and his subjects, about cultural changes and the spread of literacy, etc., before the participants moved on to analyse the crisis of 1641-1642, the role of demonstrations in forcing Charles I to leave London in January, 1642, the early military clashes at Brentford and Turnham Green, and the development of the New Model Army and its victories by 1646 and again in the second Civil War of 1648.

The discussion then moved on to consider the rise of radical groups like the Levellers in the City of London, the trial and execution of the King in January, 1649 and the demands of the Diggers for the redistribution of property and communal living. Finally, the three historians and the M.P. reflected on the longer term achievement of some of the demands of radicals of the 1640s and 1650s in the subsequent centuries.

There was and is something very odd about this approach. First of all, if antecedent developments made the conflicts of the 1640s and 1650s likely, logically comparable factors ought to have made the Restoration of the monarchy, the House of Lords and the Church of England in 1660 possible. But this matter was never discussed. Secondly, it really is not possible to treat the Levellers or the New Model Army or the post-Pride’s Purge House of Commons as representative of the ‘people’ of England.

They were very small minorities. All the post-1646 regimes rested on military force: they lacked consent  and never secured it. Finally, there is the matter of the greatly improved position of the larger landowners, whether gentry or peers, in the decades running up to 1640 and the networks of tenants, allies, friends, supporters upon which they were able to call during the 1640s and 1650s – the early modern equivalent of medieval affinities. Neither the Caroline regime nor its successors were able to dispense with or do without these networks. When Oliver Cromwell died in 1658, deep-seated attachments to the monarchy, to the peerage, to the Church of England, to long-established constitutional arrangements were too much for the heirs of 1649. This discussion was fundamentally flawed, and I remain unconvinced about the events of this period as a ‘revolution’ comparable to those of France in 1789 or Russia in 1917.

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