Diggers, Quakers, movers, shakers

Britain in Revolution
September 12, 2003

An insightful article earlier this year in The THES on leading senior citizens of academic life in the UK reserved some of its highest praise for 85-year-old Austin Woolrych, long since retired as professor of history at Lancaster University but as creatively active as ever. In works such as Commonwealth to Protectorate, Soldiers and Statesmen and The General Council of the Army and its Debates 1647-1648 , Woolrych demonstrated his commanding presence in this crowded field. A Festschrift in 1998 paid him a well-deserved tribute.

This most recent book by Woolrych has many of the hallmarks of its predecessors. It is deeply learned, tightly constructed, expertly orchestrated and elegantly written. But, unlike his other writings, this is principally a narrative survey aimed squarely at the general reader and not at fellow specialists or students. It is not a textbook. With this in mind, there are few footnotes and the guidance on further reading is kept to a minimum. There are some effective and well-chosen illustrations (an unfortunate publisher's misprint locates the illustration on the cover to the 15th rather than the 17th century). How many general readers will be sufficiently enthused to work their way through a volume of more than 800 pages remains to be seen. But the price is extraordinarily attractive and as a History Book Club selection it was offered even more cheaply.

Woolrych provides a chronological treatment of the years 1625 to 1660 and so follows in the footsteps of earlier giants in the field such as S. R. Gardiner and Sir Charles Firth, frequently referred to here and occasionally corrected. His control of the narrative flow never falters and the style is constantly engaging. Modestly describing himself as a "storyteller" Woolrych states at different points in the book that he is offering "a story" or "the story" of events. The first is more realistic, of course, than the second, which, though it might be seen as implying completeness in fact begs all kinds of questions about whose story is being told. Narrative history, however, as this book superbly demonstrates, need not become a dry and lifeless chronicle. Woolrych carefully positions himself as one set apart from Whig, Marxist and revisionist historians.

Time and again his subjectivity is revealed. (For an example, see what he says about the desecration by a motorway of the Naseby battle site.) He is constantly intervening not only to control the overall shape and texture of the narrative, but to underline what is most important. Readers will be left in no doubt about what the writer sees as the major climacterics of these years. On the other hand, just occasionally the sense of proportion falters. Do the Diggers - proto-communists of the late 1640s - and the hyperactive Quakers of 1659 really merit only the same or less space than the legal dispute over the Lilburne family's coalmine in County Durham or the merchant George Cony's resistance to import duties on silk?

Always informative and often illuminating, Woolrych is good on the complexities of parliamentary politics, on religious and political allegiances, and on the plural forms of radicalism. Long renowned as a military historian, his presentation of the civil war is a masterpiece of compression, equally effective in its depiction of the organisation of the war effort, the composition of the rival armies, campaigning and battle tactics, and the impact of war on economy and society. His account of the "bandwagon syndrome" of the Restoration repays a careful reading. His presentations of key figures - Charles I, Archbishop Laud, Thomas Wentworth, Oliver Cromwell, George Monck, Charles II and others - always throw clear shafts of light on their subjects and invariably give the impression that the final verdicts have not simply been intruded but have emerged only as a result of long reflection. The picture of Cromwell presented here provides the clearest example. His striking abilities as a military commander are underlined; even the circumstances surrounding the fall of Drogheda and Wexford in the Irish campaigns are not allowed to detract from the assessment. Woolrych here, as in some of his earlier writings, views "military dictator" as a label wholly inappropriate to describe England's Lord Protector. The size of the standing army in the 1650s was small by continental standards. Cromwell's commitment to Parliament is underlined, as is his willingness to extend religious toleration to limits that went beyond those contemplated by most of his contemporaries. Moreover, so often clemency was a feature of the way he handled critics and opponents of his regime. Cromwell was not relentlessly driven by political ambition. He did not aim at a monarchical title for himself and his descendants. His sights were set on a firmly grounded constitution, not the crown.

Woolrych's title for his book is carefully chosen. "English Revolution", in his view, is not altogether adequate to describe what happened in the mid-17th century; events in the rest of Charles I's multiple kingdom have to be recognised as active ingredients shaping the course of history. That said, however, there is far less here on Scotland and Ireland than on England. At the end of the book he makes no bones about the fact that the Restoration was "an English transaction". A brief but systematic final stocktaking rehearses the overall gains and losses. The experience of defeat, as Christopher Hill showed, was felt differently by different groups in different places. That Woolrych locates "the most comprehensive losers" in Ireland will come as no surprise.

R. C. Richardson is professor of history, King Alfred's College.

Britain in Revolution: 1625-1660

Author - Austin Woolrych
ISBN - 0 19 820081 1
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 814

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