Consider England in the 17th century. Elizabethan and Jacobean literature leaves us in no doubt that there was a social crisis at the beginning of the century. Hamlet's times were out of joint; King Lear recognised that he had given too little thought to his poorer subjects' hardships; Coriolanus discussed how to handle starving rebels - whether to bash them down or fool them with smooth words.

Conrad Russell, whose article on the English Civil War was published in the Independent on 18 August, used to argue that the war resulted from a series of accidents, which were the consequences of the personal peculiarities of powerful individuals. He still takes too short-sighted a view of the social and economic causes and consequences of the greatest revolution in our history.

In the two generations before 1640, England was in dire economic straits. For the poorer classes these were, by general consent, the worst times in English history. The enclosure of common lands led to evictions, unemployment, vagabondage. Bad harvests meant widespread starvation. The depression in England's principal industry, the manufacture of cloth, had similar effects: foreign ambassadors were already predicting social revolution in the 1620s.

Russell believes that a consensus existed among the ruling class because in their public speeches men professed loyalty to the sovereign. This is reminiscent of the loyalty that Conservative MPs demonstrated to Margaret Thatcher. In both cases, verbal professions were shown to be hollow when the crunch came. A respectable 17th-century conservative, Sir Simonds D'Ewes, spoke of revolution as 'hoped for' - but that was in his private diary, which he prudently kept in cipher.

England's economic crisis was not unique. It coincided with the Thirty Years' War in Germany. It looked as though the Catholic powers, led by Spain, were going to destroy continental Protestantism: England's turn would come next. Her Protestant national independence was at stake. Worse, in Germany, Church lands seized at the Reformation were being repossessed. Many English gentlemen had acquired or inherited former monastic lands: they formed a strong 'Protestant' vested interest.

Spain also sought to monopolise America, whose wealth dazzled Englishmen, from the Elizabethan sea dogs to the adventurers of the Providence Island Company in the 1630s. The company's treasurer, John Pym, was later leader of the opposition in the Long Parliament, and one of the five MPs whom Charles I tried to arrest in 1642.

So there were religious and economic reasons for being anti-Spanish. But James I and Charles I wanted peace with Spain - not least because war would mean becoming dependent on Parliament for taxes. The failure of the Commons to vote taxes was not due to 'a low-taxation philosophy': more simply, it did not trust the king to fight the right enemy. For example, Charles used taxpayers' money to help the Catholic king of France to suppress the Protestants at La Rochelle in 1627-28. In 1629, Charles dissolved Parliament altogether. He ruled without it for the next 11 years, continuing to work for an alliance with Spain.

Governments - like ours today - had no policy for overcoming the depression. Merchants and many gentlemen wanted an aggressive foreign policy that would open up America and the Far East to English plunder-trade; kings did not think the furtherance of trade an important part of their duty.

Russell rightly emphasises the significance of Scotland and Ireland in widening the breach between King and Parliament. Here, too, religion and economics were mixed up. In Scotland, Charles returned secularised lands to the Church, as well as, in 1637, imposing changes in the Prayer Book - which led to riots in Edinburgh because they were seen as popery. In Ireland, with its overwhelming Catholic majority, the Lord Deputy, the Earl of Strafford, was believed to be building up a papist army to subjugate the kingdom.

The King's powerlessness was revealed in 1640, when he was forced to call a Parliament in England to raise money for war against the rebellious Scots. In 1641, Irish Catholics seized the opportunity to revolt. By August 1642, Charles was raising his standard at Nottingham, declaring war on Parliament.

Protestant Englishmen saw a world conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism in which their kings' allegiance to Protestantism seemed uncertain. Charles was notoriously under the influence of his French queen, Henrietta Maria, an ardent and successful proselytiser. His most powerful minister was William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was imposing 'Catholic' ceremonies on the English as well as the Scottish Church. The Irish rebels claimed - probably falsely - to have the King's support. When Charles's correspondence was seized after his defeat by the Parliamentarians at the battle of Naseby in 1645, it revealed that he had been negotiating for Irish Catholic intervention.

So there were not only deep social rifts between rich and poor, but also strong feelings among the rich that the king could not be trusted to defend English interests. England, said the Venetian ambassador in 1640, 'has become a nation useless . . . and of no consideration'.

Turn now to the end of the century. England's food problems had been solved. From a corn-importing country she had become a corn exporter. The poor no longer starved in time of famine, as they did in France and Scotland. The abolition of feudal tenures in 1645, confirmed in 1660, had made possible a rapid development of capitalist agriculture. The Navigation Act of 1651, for which merchants had clamoured since the 1620s, gave them a monopoly of trade with the British Empire. In the 1650s, Robert Blake's fleet, the strongest in the world, cleared the Mediterranean of pirates; Cromwell launched the first state-sponsored attack on Spanish America.

This new foreign policy continued after 1660. Charles II's marriage to a Portuguese princess was 'a virtual condition of his restoration'. It confirmed the continuity of an aggressive anti-Spanish commercial and colonial policy. By the end of the century England, from being 'of no consideration', was on the way to becoming top nation.

This transformation is not what Russell calls a 'Marxist myth'. Marxists are not alone in thinking that effects have causes. A powerful navy - the key to England's sudden rise - was possible only because taxpayers were now confident that governments would pursue policies that they wanted.

Contempories knew what was at stake. In the 1640s both Cardinal Mazarin, ruler of France, and Philip IV, King of Spain, independently told their diplomatic representatives that it was essential for monarchy to be retained in England, even if the monarch was hostile to them; a republic would menace their interests because it would be financially so much more powerful.

England after 1660, the French ambassador had to explain to Louis XIV, looked like a monarchy but was in effect a republic. The instruments of royal despotism - Star Chamber, Court of High Commission - were not restored.

Men of the 1660s professed great personal loyalty to the monarchy, as their forebears had done in the 1620s; but times had changed and everybody knew it. The ultimate guarantee was the memory of regicide. Charles II admitted that he did not want to go on his travels again; James, a stupider man, travelled - and 1688 confirmed the sovereignty of Parliament.

Parliament's victory in the Civil War had been won by arming the lower orders to fight against the old regime; and in the 1640s they began to put forward social and political demands of their own - Levellers for a democratic republic, Diggers for a Communist society, many others for religious and sexual freedom.

Fear lest the revolution should be pushed too far towards democracy led the men who had defeated Charles I to recall his son in 1660. But he knew, and they knew, that each was dependent on the other. As Russell observes, the Americans and the French celebrate their great revolutions; England's rulers bashed up theirs, although it was the model to which American and French revolutionaries looked back. There is no justification for suppressing its memory today.

The writer is a former Master of Balliol College, Oxford, as well as the author of 'The English Revolution 1640' and many other works on the period.


Due to an error in transmission, there was a mistake in yesterday's article by Christopher Hill on the English Civil War. We apologise for this error. The offending sentence should have read: As Russell observes, the Americans and the French celebrate their great revolutions; England's rulers hushed up theirs, although it was the model to which American and French revolutionaries looked back.

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