Ancestors were not a rowdy lot after all

The English Civil War - Power and Protest in England 1525-1640. First edition
March 2, 2001

Each of these complementary volumes embodies a different concept of the textbook. The first, Alison Wall's Power and Protest in England 1525-1640 , is a short thematic treatment by a single author. The second brings together a substantial collection of readings on the English civil war contextualised by the editor, Peter Gaunt. Both books engage openly in debate, controversy and problem solving but shun neat, one-dimensional, cut-and-dried answers and point the student in the direction of further reading. Both are clearly the fruit of undergraduate teaching.

Wall's study of the social and political foundations of authority under the Tudors and early Stuarts draws extensively on local records in county record offices. The use of grassroots evidence is one of this book's strengths. The problems in negotiating a relatively long timespan, however, are not always comfortably overcome. The author tends to jump around chronologically and occasionally the examples cited are undated. In ten short chapters, Wall shows how, for the most part, succeeding monarchs, noblemen, gentry, urban oligarchies and humble parish officers in the 16th and early 17th centuries joined together in the common cause of keeping society and the ship of state afloat. Persuasion and thinly veiled forms of social control were more important than coercion, and indeed had to be, in circumstances that precluded the creation of an absolutist regime. It entailed lots of hard work on the part of the governing classes (not least from justices of the peace and parish constables), and skilful, unremitting propaganda exerted through ritual and display, the printed word, and the use of the pulpit. By and large, however, the religious dimensions of the stability depicted in this book are seriously understated and virtually nothing is said about the social role of education.

Family and community values also played a significant part as stabilising influences in society at large. In opposition to those who have argued otherwise, Wall insists that England was not inhabited in the early modern period by an "ungovernable people". Dissent and gender-inspired challenges to authority were relatively uncommon, riots were rare, rebellion was even more exceptional; common interests were recognised, deference could generally be relied on. Upheavals such as the Pilgrimage of Grace, the northern rebellion of 1659, Essex's revolt of 1601 and the Midland revolt of 1607 stand out as isolated, short-lived aberrations. Statistics clinch the argument: "Over the 115 years, out of a total of perhaps 15 million who reached adulthood, fewer than 50,000 ever actively rebelled." Though the civil war remains outside this book, the general logic of Wall's argument largely makes that conflict inconceivable except in terms of Charles I's miscalculations and inept mismanagement of the security he inherited.

Gaunt's volume, devoted to the civil war, brings out the complexities, cross-currents and different interpretations of that crisis. He collects 14 of "the most influential articles" on this period -the three he includes from History Today probably do not merit such distinction -and surrounds them with a general overview and lengthy introductions (nearly 60 pages in all) to each of the book's four sub-sections devoted to historians' approaches and to the causes, course and consequences of the war. The earliest of the articles belongs to 1972 and the most recent appeared in 1994. Four of them date from the 1970s, eight from the 1980s and two from the 1990s. None was inaccessible in its original form but having them packaged together will be useful to students, and some of the essays will deservedly become better known through their recycling here.

Like any selection of material, Gaunt's is a subjective one - hardly "The Essential Readings" of which the series boasts - and some prominent writers are excluded: Clive Holmes, Anne Hughes, Mark Kishlansky and Kevin Sharpe. Conrad Russell, by contrast, is probably over-represented.

But in general, the menu is well balanced. Gaunt is a helpful and reliable guide to the shifting centres of interest in this field, to the historiographical swings against Whig and Marxist interpretations, the growing stress on the British dimensions of conflict, the reassessment of contributory religious factors and to the emergence of "Revisionism" and the later revolt against its perceived narrowness. Recognition of the sheer scale of the military impact of the civil war comes across strongly. On the other hand, neutrals and neutralism are far from neglected. The Clubmen's movement receives its due. Local approaches to civil war history get a high profile. (Interestingly, the book is framed at the beginning and end by apt quotations from the memoirs of the inconsolable Royalist Sir John Oglander of Nunwell in the Isle of Wight.) The importance of Christopher Hill's work -often passed over these days -is recognised; Hill's essay is rightly described as being "by some way the broadest and in some ways the richest in this selection".

Both these textbooks are useful additions to the current stock and both are provocative. Gaunt's selected readings expose some of the different interpretative strategies and disagreements among historians of the civil war period. Wall's depiction of the fundamental stability of early modern England will not convince everyone, and at the very least will make readers ponder whether that stability was secure or precariously fragile.

R. C. Richardson is head of research, graduate centre, King Alfred's College, Winchester.

The English Civil War: The Essential Readings. First edition

ISBN - 0 631 20808 9 and 20809 7
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £55.00 and £15.99
Pages - 360

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