So, you know all about the causes of and lead up to the English Civil War? John Pym was leader of the Parliamentarian party, it was all about taxation or religious tolerance… Everyone knows that, yes? Perhaps not? Willing to be shown different? Have your preconceptions shown to be gross simplifications and that there was a far more complex and fragmented power struggle going on beneath the scenes managed by people of whom you’ve never heard? Yes? Then consider reading ‘The Noble Revolt’ by John Adamson.
My favourite history books are ones that challenge my preconceptions, that tell me something original and can evidence their argument, that overturn lazy assumptions, and that show us convincingly how things came to be, and which paint a good portrait of the actors involved. They are rare, few find something new or original to say. I have long been fascinated by the Civil Wars and indeed the Reformation that led up to them and have a lot of books on the period, and most are very much on a theme. Then I came across John Adamson’s ‘The Noble Revolt’ and that blew my mind and showed me that the events in the run up to the Civil War were far deeper, more complex than I previously released, with an amazing array of characters who seemingly were minor characters in the conventional histories but whom Adamson shows convincingly to have been the prime movers in what happened.
Adamson is a Fellow of Peterhouse College Cambridge, and specialist in the period. By all accounts he’s a bit of an odd one, not unusual for Peterhouse, and this book a serious heavy weight history and very detailed, thorough and challenging. Light weight it isn’t at over 700 ages including index, but it’s enthralling because it digs deeper than any other book on the issue, and the narrative it develops is compelling.
His thesis is that a small group, or really a coalition of two smaller groups, of English aristocrats, Puritan by leaning, worked together to restore Parliament during Charles Stuart’s decade of personal rule in the 1630s when most thought the idea of Parliament was dying, and that they exploited the crisis caused by the Scottish Prayer Book Revolt of 1639 to force Charles I to call another Parliament and that they managed this Parliament to effect a constitutional coup in 1641, something Charles accepted with ill grace and immediately set about subverting. The illness and death of the Duke of Bedford, the leader of the more moderate group, allowed Charles to regain lost ground and then the Irish Revolt made the stakes existential as both the emerging Royalist and Parliamentary parties struggled for control of the army being assembled to suppress the Irish, fearing the other side really wanted to use it against themselves.
Adamson is very strong on laying out all the steps of the plotting and political manoeuvres of the main players in minute detail, demonstrating just how complex a process it was, how unstable, and the fear that instability engendered in the various parties, The research into reconciling all the various accounts, many being personal journals, is immense and above all it gives a sense of the pressures on those involved as the crisis escalated and how people became frightened of the price of defeat. The situation became increasingly febrile, and it was not too long before the Parliamentarians’ main motive was the fear of their personal safety – when trial and execution for treason is the consequence of defeat – one can see why they would go all the way until Civil War broke out.
Charles’ stupidity and purblind arrogance meant that, unlike his son Charles II, he did not know how to compromise, how to quit while he was ahead, how to de-escalate. War broke out in the end because of the fear for their personal safety of the Parliamentarians, who had after all been conspiring with the Scots rebels, and because of Charles’ stupid arrogance and incompetence.. When Oliver Cromwell later called Charles I ‘that man of blood’ he was quite correct – Charles’ policies in the 1630s led to revolutions in Scotland, Ireland and ultimately a long civil war in England in which it’s thought that 10% of the population died. In 1641, even early 1642, no one wanted or expected civil war but Charles’ stubborn stupidity brought one about just as the same qualities in his younger son James II led to the Glorious Revolution.
The detail of the politics is superb, but it is the picture that emerges is revelatory and unexpected. It was the nobles opposed to Charles’ policies who were the prime movers of the resistance. There were two loose groupings of them:
- Those who we may term the ‘moderates’ led by the Duke of Bedford, of the greatest landowners and aristocrats in the country. Associated with Bedford was Algernon Percy. Earl of Northumberland, another of the leading nobles of the day, and John Pym, who was actually Bedford’s business agent and the leader of his grouping in the House of Commons. Pym worked for Bedford and was not the real leader of the Parliamentarian party which in some respects was stronger in the House of Lords than in the House of Commons. This grouping were all convinced Protestants, but not arguably conviction Puritans, and were as much motivated by Charles’ anti- constitutional policies as by his religious ones.
- Those who might be termed the ‘radicals’ with whom the likes of Cromwell were associated, including the Earl of Essex (the most popular army leader of the pre-war period), the Earl of Warwick (Lord High Admiral who brought over most of the navy to the side of Parliament at the outbreak of civil war), the Earl of Machester and Lord Saye-and-Sele among others. These figures were more closely associated with the Puritans and all had strong Calvinist leanings, and were adamantly opposed to Charles’ religious policies which they saw as crypto-Catholic. Cromwell later said the war had been caused above all by Charles’ attempt to reverse the Jacobean Calvinist nature of the church of England – this might be representative of what this group thought the war was about.
Both groupings were united in the 1630s against Charles’ personal rule, but there were strains between and within them. Bedford however, clearly a capable politician, was able to hold them together as they effected the Parliamentary coup to overturn the personal rule and imprison Charles’ two leading ministers, the Earl of Strafford, his ‘enforcer’ who was widely hated, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, who was hated by Anglican traditionalists and Puritans alike. Bedford became in effect Charles’ unofficial Prime Minister and his government started to dismantle the machinery of the personal rule while executing the dangerous Strafford under Act of Attainder.
Charles’ power was spiked only temporarily because Bedford died in May and the Parliamentary party started to fragment, with some fearing that the ‘revolution’ might go too far rather than just restore the Jacobean settlement. Bedford’s loss as the only man able to hold the Parliamentary collation together and the subsequent outbreak of a major Catholic revolt in Ireland inspired by the Papacy, destabilised the situation completely and enabled Charles to stage a comeback. With a Scottish army occupying Northern England and the Parliamentary government paying for it, they began to lose popularity and those like Warwick who had been quietly working with the Scots began to fear for their necks. At that point the momentum to civil war became near unstoppable.
The book is beautifully produced, with comprehensive footnotes, index and maps, but most of all for me it renders comprehensible for the general reader the myriad complexities of the political causes and manoeuvres of the English civil war and its offshoots the Scottish rebellion/civil war and the Irish revolt/civil war.
Initially it’s a shock to find that the likes of Pym and Hampden were really the ciphers in the House of Commons of great magnates in the Lords, but it rings true. At the end of the day, even England was still a country utterly dominated by the aristocracy, they controlled most of the land and the wealth, but subsequent political historians, among them the highly influential Marxist historian Christopher Hill, used to the House of Commons being the dominant political body in the country, have over emphasised the likes of Pym and Hampden, important though they were, and almost airbrushed the pivotal role of the great magnates. Ultimately, the revolution happened because England’s ruling elite split between ‘Court’ and ‘Country’ factions, religion acting as a major driver as well. Revolutions, especially successful ones, are generally those caused by a split in the ruling class, and Adamson shows that the English Revolution was little different.
Criticisms? Perhaps more focus on the issues with the Church of England which were highly radicalising for many people, even among the great nobility, but today’s secular academics struggle to understand the central import of religion and theology in the lives of educated men in the 17th century. Another might be the lack of focus on the latent potential revolutionary forces among the emerging merchant and artisanal classes. The likes of the Levellers didn’t emerge from nowhere, but from Puritanism with its idea of an unmediated relationship between the individual soul, of whatever station in society, and God. In some ways, the Civil War and the Revolution which accompanied it was the inevitable consequence of the success of the Reformation in England and the translation of the Bible into the vernacular.
It’s a brilliant book, by far the best I have read on the lead up to the Civil War and I recommend it to the House.
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© JD de Pavilly 2021
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