The slumbering hatreds of the English: The Civil War was fought not for religious liberty, but between rival groups of persecutors. It still resonates today, and we resist its message at our peril, says the historian and politician Conrad Russell

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Three hundred and fifty years ago this week, King Charles I raised his standard at Nottingham, and the English Civil War was legally begun. When the French or the Americans celebrate their revolutions, they are invoking myths that still have great force in their political lives. By contrast, the English Civil War has no generally recognised symbolism, and very few resonances for most English people. Is this because our national culture has collapsed, or because it is only now that the Civil War is receiving serious historical study?

It is certainly true that we no longer have a single culture. When W C Sellar and R J Yeatman published 1066 and All That before the Second World War, they were able to begin with the confident words: 'All the history you can remember is in this little book.' No one could write such a book now: we do not have any body of historical knowledge common enough to be satirised. For good or ill, that change is irreversible.

Twenty years ago there did still exist two widely received myths about the Civil War. One, the high Victorian, is neatly captured in the pictures displayed at Parliament in the corridor between the Peers' Lobby and the Central Lobby. It sees the Civil War as a vital stage in the growth of civil and religious liberty.

Whig pictures, on one side, show such famous scenes as the departure of the Pilgrim Fathers (1620), Charles I's attempt to arrest the Five Members (1642), and the later execution of William, Lord Russell. They remind us of the threat posed by lawless despotism.

On the other side, Tory pictures show such scenes as the storming of the Catholic garrison of Basing House by Cromwell (1645) and the expulsion of Oxford Fellows from their colleges for refusing to take the Covenant, which imposed Prebyterianism on England (circa 1647). They remind us of the dangers of unbridled religious enthusiasm, and of departing from the lawful order.

Together, these Whig and Tory views led to a belief in the balanced British constitution, and to the optimism of the historian S R Gardiner, who wrote in 1893 that 'the Parliament of England was the noblest monument ever reared by mortal man'. Not even the most devoted lover of Parliament would repeat that remark today.

The second myth was built by the Socialist historian R H Tawney and his successors out of materials supplied by Marx. They saw the Civil War as England's 'bourgeois revolution', opening the way to free markets, colonies and capitalism. Today, when it is commonly believed that Marx's class-based, economically determined scheme was a colossal wrong turning in the West's intellectual history, this view also fails to command general enthusiasm.

For historians today, the strongest case against the 'civil and religious liberty' myth is that most Parliamentarians had even less sympathy for religious toleration than Charles I: they merely wished to persecute different people. Moreover, the Parliamentarians never argued the impossible case for reposing permanent power in a temporary body. They did not want Parliamentary sovereignty: like their medieval predecessors, they wanted the King to take the advice of his Council.

A politician might prefer to explain the decline of the Victorian myth as the result of declining respect for Parliament in our own times. The Victorian myth claimed that England was somehow different from the Continent, and that Parliaments expressed this mysterious Englishness. Entry to the European Community was bound to put this belief under pressure. When Enoch Powell and Peter Shore expressed it during the referendum campaign on EC membership in 1975, it sounded old and tired, and they lost. And last month, when Norman Tebbit said Maastricht was contrary to 'a thousand years of British Parliamentary history', he was forgetting about the Scots, and was two and a half centuries premature for England.

Similarly, historians can cite a massive body of work against the Marxist interpretation of the English Civil War. They can prove that Tawney was wrong to call the gentry 'bons bourgeois' and that there was no 'bourgeois revolution'. They can add that Marx wrongly imposed a framework taken from political history on our economic history. The two great upheavals in English economic history were the Black Death and the Industrial Revolution, neither of which occurred in the period of the Civil War. There was no 'transition from feudalism to capitalism' in the early modern period, and since it did not happen, it does not explain anything.

A politician with an eye to the present might explain how the Marxist myth has gone out of fashion by pointing to the 'unmaking of the English working class', illustrated by the declining proportion shown as 'working class' in the Registrar General's statistics. A country with a disappearing proletariat, by this argument, has no interest in anticipating a proletarian revolution.

Yet though these two Civil War myths were neither true nor interesting, they were at least intelligible. They had the broadbrush strokes essential to any myth that is to have popular appeal. And, among people who were educated some time ago, they still rather feebly hold the field.

Perhaps the truth about the Civil War is too complicated to be exciting. The task of composing new explanations is delayed both by the shortage of young historians and by the sharply diminished belief in the ideal of 'revolution'. Today, few of us identify with Wordsworth's 'Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive'. We prefer Lord Peter Wimsey's view that a principle has no claim to the name until it has killed somebody.

Most historians today prefer such specialised subjects as Platonism in Charles I's court entertainments, or the treatment of single parents in Wiltshire to more ambitious studies of the period. Behind that change, it is tempting to see our own age's declining faith in politics.

Yet there are explanations for the Civil War that still resonate, if we wish to hear them. First, the case that Charles I should take the advice of his Council had a genuine constitutional basis. It had nothing to do with representation or democracy, and little to do with Parliament: but it goes to the heart of the timeless view that power must be controlled. It is the same case that Sir Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson argued against Margaret Thatcher, and there will never be a time when it is irrelevant.

Second, it is now commonly argued that a major cause of the Civil War was the failure to work out the relationship between the constituent kingdoms of Britain; and that it was the Scottish claim to determine what was done in London that split England down the middle. The English of 1642, just like Norman Tebbit, preferred not to think about this problem: they wanted to believe they were the only pebbles on the British beach. If the English could overcome this historic tendency, they would be better prepared for the world in which they live.

Third, the issue of money and taxation has a message for our own times. In the 17th century parliaments kept kings short of money. It is now argued that they did so not to secure redress of grievances, but because they held what has been called a 'low-taxation philosophy'. They did not believe that kings needed as much revenue as was the case. The result was a persistent failure by government to meet people's expectations of what it could achieve, ending, in 1640, with political collapse. At present, this is not a message the public wants to hear, but in another 20 years - who knows?

Fourth, and perhaps most important, the Civil War was a last, disastrous attempt to force a single religion on England. It was not fought for religious liberty, but between rival groups of persecutors. Both groups failed, because the other side was too strong to be rooted out.

The English resist this message today, because they are so determined to prove that they are 'tolerant'. Finding that their ancestors believed in religious persecution, they sometimes react like the eminent Victorian who dedicated a work on Anglo-Saxon England to the Queen, with an apology that there had once been slaves in England.

Yet if in place of 'single religion' we read 'single culture', we have a message very necessary for our own times. However sad the disappearance of a single culture may be, the authority of the state cannot revive it.

The author is Professor of British History at King's College, London. His books include 'The Crisis of Parliaments 1509-1660' (1971) and 'The Causes of the English Civil War' (1990). He sits in the House of Lords as a Liberal Democrat.

(Graphic omitted)

Comments