Not the main act but a prelude to drama

The Noble Revolt
July 20, 2007

The author of this hefty tome - the central chapters of which deal with the impeachment, trial and execution of the Earl of Strafford, Charles I's hated first minister, in 1641 - has his own personal and uncomfortable experience of "impeachment". In the early 1990s John Adamson found himself at the centre of a major historical controversy about his bold re-interpretation of the English Civil War as the "last baronial revolt". Mark Kishlansky of Harvard University led the attack, accusing Adamson of slipshod work, misleading handling of the evidence and weakly supported conclusions. The dispute spilled out from the academic journals in which it had originated to the newspaper press and many of the big names of the historical profession at that time - Conrad Russell, Lawrence Stone and Hugh Trevor-Roper among them - weighed in on one side or the other.

Adamson's career appeared to be on the line as the "impeachment" coincided with the renewal of his Cambridge fellowship. The whole business threw into stark relief how divisive a subject England's blood-drenched mid 17th-century upheavals remained and how, at a moment's notice, the swords could still be drawn.

Wounded, certainly, Adamson survived and lived to see another day. This massive book is his long-awaited response to his critics. It is a heavyweight in every respect, with nearly 750 pages (including 200 pages of notes), an index that runs to almost 30 pages, and it registers one-and-a-half kilos on the scales.

n many ways, Adamson has been extremely well served by his publishers. For a book of this length it is an astonishingly good bargain. It is lavishly illustrated with a series of very helpful maps and plans, not the least of whose benefits is to reveal precisely the close proximity in which some of the chief protagonists in Adamson's story lived in the London of the early 1640s. The chosen method of presentation is narrative, and it proceeds at a stately pace. Revisionist historians, especially Russell, get short shrift here, and S. R. Gardiner's classic account of this period is corrected at various points in the light of new research. But there are no footnotes (apart from a succession of asterisked explanatory glosses on the text), only endnotes, which produces an unfortunate separation of narrative and argument from the foundations on which they rest. Nor is there a consolidated bibliography of primary and secondary sources. The task of checking or following up any statement made in the text is therefore rendered more difficult and time consuming. It was surely ill-judged to "package" the book thus.

The chronological span of the volume covers only the months between May 1640 and January 10, 1642, the date of the king's departure from London. Within this very tightly defined period the book focuses on the Bedford-Warwick coalition of peers, their allies/clients in the House of Commons such as John Pym, Oliver St John and Harbottle Grimston, and their London clergymen spokesmen, Simeon Ashe, Jeremiah Burroughs and Edmund Calamy.

What unfolds here is a complex picture of the shifting factions of high politics, the endless double dealing that went on, the appeals to medieval precedent, and the junta's bids to strengthen its own power base and to weaken that of the king. The coalition's key role in inviting the Scots army into England, in pressuring for the return of Parliament, in orchestrating petitions to Parliament, and in toppling the Earl of Strafford is carefully exposed. Charles I was perhaps not far off the mark in claiming that his stern noble critics wanted to reduce his position to that of a doge of Venice.

But a brief summary makes the story seem far more clear-cut than it actually was. The Bedford-Warwick coalition, as Adamson himself recognises, was not only fluid at the edges but far from solid even at the centre, as Strafford's trial demonstrated. At most, the cast list of Adamson's book represents only a minority of the English nobility of the time.

The book's title and subtitle are, therefore, both highly misleading. The events documented in this book did not lead to the overthrow of Charles I. As Adamson himself now concedes, what happened in the 1640s "was no mere barons' war" and the "baronial context" was one of several that coalesced at the time. "Nor was it a revolt of the nobility, or even the major part of the nobility, acting alone".

A book that covers this time span usefully highlights the volatility and dangers of the early years of the troubled 1640s but has no place for the divisive role of the Earl of Essex as Parliamentary commander after the outbreak of civil war, the creation of the Royalist party, the significance of the New Model Army, the military defeat and eventual elimination of the King, and the abolition of the House of Lords.

Historians of the French Revolution have long recognised that a revolt of the nobility in France paved the way for what followed there. Adamson's "noble revolt" was in many respects a similar curtain-raiser to a drama that was only later improvised and played out in England.

R. C. Richardson is professor of history at Winchester University.

The Noble Revolt: The Overthrow of Charles I

Author - John Adamson
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Pages - 768
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 9780297842620

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