Risen from the dunghill


September 22, 1995

In 1978 Robert Ashton published his well-known anti-Marxist account of the period 1603-49. It concentrated on the conservative attitudes and instincts of the time and the long-maintained moderation of the king's opponents - Cromwell included - even after the armed negotiation of civil war had started in 1642. The two final chapters of that book addressed the shifting scene after 1646 and the second civil war of 1648. Ashton's new book - a densely detailed, painstaking monograph - applies the microscope to that same period (1646-48) but focuses it in a way which is heavily reminiscent of the stance adopted in 1978. In this top level history conservatism and counter revolution occupy the centre of the stage; radicalism and the road to regicide and republicanism receive short shrift. A quotation from a sermon by the Presbyterian clergyman Edmund Calamy in 1647 - printed in capitals - jumps from the page and reinforces the general disposition of this study. "WE LIVE NOW IN RISING TIMES," he thundered, "WHEREIN MEN RAISED UP FROM THE DUNGHILL DOE GOVERN THE KINGDOME ALMOST."

The book's title and subtitle, it has to be said, are misleading in two respects. The term, "Counter Revolution", as Ashton himself admits, "is something of an anachronism". Its protagonists "would have seen themselves as the champions of Parliament's original war aims of 1642. This position they saw as being under threat from a disobedient and rebellious army." Nor is the book in any substantial way about the second civil war itself. This study deals overwhelmingly with the politics of the period between two civil wars (1646-48), the emergence of new issues, and the re-grouping of forces which made possible the outbreak of renewed fighting. Though extremely long, therefore, this book is the first instalment of Ashton's project; a second, no less weighty, volume is likely to emerge from the author's card index.

Counter Revolution is impeccably researched and offers a combination of themes and multi-linear narrative. It is rich in local and biographical details and telling incidents and quotations are deployed to good effect. Lesser-known figures such as David Jenkins, the Royalist theorist and former judge from Wales, come into prominence, as does Colonel Michael Hudson whose grim death at Woodcroft House in Northamptonshire in 1648 is amply recorded. More famous figures such as the inveterate and noisy controversialist William Prynne can hardly be kept out. Pithy judgements abound in respect of others. Sir Simonds D'Ewes is rapidly dispatched as "that crashing Presbyterian bore", Colonel John Poyer, in revolt in Pembroke in 1648, "behaved like a cross between a warlord and a robber baron". Dramatic, harrowing episodes such as the siege of Colchester and the consequent execution of its defenders, Lucas and Lisle, are properly considered. (Here Ashton draws heavily on the work of the late Brian Lyndon.) Paradoxes surrounding the survival and use of the Anglican prayer book - even on occasions by eminent Presbyterian clergymen like Stephen Marshall - are highlighted. And here and there this ultra-cautious author actually indulges in speculation: did Oliver Cromwell contrive Charles I's abrupt departure from Hampton Court in November 1647?

Ashton explores the complex, duplicitous negotiations of Charles I with the Scots, Presbyterians, Independents, and the army, and brings out clearly the king's vacillations, inconsistencies, inconstancy, and false sense of his negotiating position. "You cannot be without me," he blithely insisted to the army grandees in July 1647. "You will fall to ruin if I do not sustain you." It is not surprising that he got the worst of all possible worlds. Other principal themes in Ashton's narrative are the army's place in politics and the reactions provoked by it, and the linked processes of the survival of Anglicanism and the resurgence of Royalism in its various forms. Contemporary responses to the puritan ascendancy in England in the 1640s are carefully assessed; hostility to the prohibition of the celebration of Christmas, it seems, counted for more than resistance to sabbatarianism. Ashton usefully develops what Valerie Pearl and other historians have written about the role of London and different segments of the London community in politics and religion.

There are some elements here, of course, of what one hopes will be Ashton's next book on the course of the second civil war and clear indications of his verdict on the failure of counter revolution. The inability to weld together in an effective military way the three principal counter- revolutionary components - Royalists, Parliamentary Presbyterians and Scots - was undoubtedly the major cause of defeat. Synchronisation eluded them; the Scottish invasion came too late. Moreover, revolts in England and Wales were sporadic, localised and uncoordinated (even in neighbouring counties). "Grandiose plans for the combined Kent and Essex force to march north . . . really belonged to the realm of fantasy."

Ashton's book - not always easy to digest because of all its detail and its split narratives which sometimes separate by hundreds of pages different stages in the same story - is a much needed study of shifting political ground, changing expectations, incompatibilities, and ultimately failure.

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

Counter-Revolution: The Second Civil War and its Origins, 1646-48

Author - Robert Ashton
ISBN - 0 300 06114 5
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 480

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs

Freelance CII Tutor

Bpp Education Group

Marking Administrator

Bpp Education Group

Catering Assistant, Chef

University College Birmingham

Banking Coach

Bpp Education Group

Customer Sales Executive

Bpp Education Group