Adam Nicolson’s lucidly written Arcadia is not a book about the English civil war. It is a portrait of the Earls of Pembroke between 1520 and 1640, and of their fascination with and enactment of the Arcadian dream, which Nicolson characterises as a pastoral “ideal of a perfect world.” [pg. 5] Yet the upheavals of the 1640s are dangled explicitly as the Ragnarök of this utopian fantasy. “The civil war,” Nicolson writes, “which in part at least can be seen as a war between the royalist forces of that growing state and the parliamentary defenders of the ancient constitution, had broken this world.” [pg. 8]
Naturally, that sentence stopped me short – the war, a conflict between a statist bureaucracy and stalwart defenders of constitutional custom? I’m not sure this is at all a helpful characterisation of a conflict which after all worked out what it was being fought for as it went along. But it does seem closer as a summary of how John Adamson sees the struggles in the Long Parliament between 1640-42, which in The Noble Revolt, are seen to be “about the very systems under which the peoples of the Stuart kingdoms would live and pray for generations to come.” [pg. 519] Flicking to Nicolson’s bibliography, Adamson is the most cited historian of any of the periods through which Arcadia passes. Central to Nicolson’s thesis is the contention that Arcadianism represented in large part a fusing of the Renaissance and the medieval; Adamson’s work gives him a convenient nemesis. But is this a fair use of the The Noble Revolt et al?
Certainly, Adamson depicts the Pembroke of his period as at least in part motivated to join the anti-royal prerogative Junto as a result of foreign policy leanings, being as he was one of the leaders of the “pro-French, pro-Elector Palatine party of the early 1630s.” [pg. 151] This is not quite painting Pembroke as a doubty defender of the ancient constitution, but as a deeply partisan parliamentarian with an axe to grind. At the same time, Pembroke’s allegiance is truly sealed in the crisis of May 1641 and the Tower Plot, when Pembroke turned wholly against Charles’s over-weening Lord Lieutanent of Ireland, the Earl of Strafford. It is possible to see in this a defense of the governing class of the old nobility against a statist commoner, although, in keeping with Adamson’s new moderation that the baronial context of the civil wars was just one of many, surely this motivation was only one element of Pembroke’s decision to cross the aisle.
Pembroke’s support of Strafford’s execution leads directly to his fall, which is one of the more moving sections in The Noble Revolt, and no doubt a strong influence on Nicolson’s reading: “The humbling of the Earl of Pembroke, however, served as a warning to them all. No amount of dutiful past service to the Crown would assuage the king’s anger against those he believed had betrayed him in the various crises of 1640 and 1641.” [pg. 451] This is where Nicolson steps in: Charles here betrays “the sense of mutuality” Nicolson sees as central to the way in which the Pembrokes saw the world [pg. 34]; “Arcadian ideas were ranged on the side of parliament and the ancient constitution against a king and his ministers who had broken the age-old bonds of love and duty.” [pg. 27] Again, I’m not convinced by this conflation of Adamson’s noble revolt of 1640-42, and the far broader and much less easily characterised coalition which would become the parliamentary side in the civil war, and yet it is clear from what sources Nicolson is drawing.
We await, perhaps, The War of the Realms to iron out these differences; but if Nicolson has not quite been precise enough in his application of Adamson’s ideas of baronial revolt, with just a little awareness they nevertheless seem to fit Arcadia‘s other, rather different, narrative – surely a key test of any Big Idea. Diane Purkiss take note.