Links, Quickly

An Early Modern Gardener.
An Early Modern Gardener.

We’ve only very recently been saying that we really must make it out to Kenilworth Castle.  The Gentleman Administrator, with a link to more in the comments, has sealed the deal – although, alas, can any garden look good in the grey rain of a turning October? I remember going to Kenilworth years ago as a child and watching some Napoleonic re-enactments (I don’t know); the castle itself has paled in the memory next to the recollection of how heavy a Rifleman’s backpack was.

Meanwhile, like every other blogger with an interest in the early modern period, I am glued to the Eastern Association. Rich, attractive and wonderfully written, it’s a bit special. I like, too, that it is not instantly accessible – you have to work, not too hard but a little, to understand it fully. Add it to your blogroll wotsit, even if you couldn’t give a monkey’s about Charles and Olly.

That is all.


The Terms And Losing Them

Charles I

How and why do the powerful lose control of their own public image? In part, of course, it is a matter of the relative strength of their opponents – the strength of their internal debate, and the techniques they adopt for widening its participatory audience. But it’s also clearly a failing of the figure who is losing the control. I’d argue in large part – and so, too, might Drew Westen – that it’s a failing of language, an inability for whatever reason to couch policies and proposals in a mutually understood, shared public dialect.

In his essay Duke, Prince and King (collected in his own The Royal Image), Thomas N. Corns argues that it was not the theory of the Divine Right of Kings that did for Charles I per se. Following Somerville, he presents the issue as far more complex than a tug of war between those on the one hand who believed in Divine sanction and those who didn’t. The nuances of Divine Right involved the directness of that sanction, whether it flowed through parliament or was altered by ancient custom, whether it was bestowed squarely upon Charles or was a matter negotiated by the constitutional settlement. In this atmosphere, it was not the issue which was Charles’s problem – but his ability to frame it.

All this naturally feeds into John Adamson’s thesis that 1640-42 saw a noble revolt engulf Parliament and England, a revolt essentially in defense of perceived ancient customs to which Charles was unable to pay lip service. That is, the king simply couldn’t speak in terms his people (his court) were willing to accept, much less understand or agree with. Corns quotes Burgess’s The Ancient Constitution: “Charles came across as an absolutist (whatever his intentions) because he insisted on ignoring the rules for the usage of languages of divine right and absolute prerogative … Charles’s statements sounded foreign to his subjects.” In short, he lost control of the debate, and his opponents discussed the matter instead: “Divine sanction, once problematized within a parliamentary context, and subject to debate at both a practical and a theoretical concept, inevitably emerged as a weakened concept.” It was not good enough to dictate; Charles needed more effective dialogue.

Fascinating stuff in and of itself, of course, and not to be stretched over an ill-fitting present. This is all offered, therefore, without such comment.

Pithy History

Here’s my point: Early modern stuff matters. Books matter. The humanities matter. In a time when money is scarce and stupid ideas about universities and the humanities are flying about like nobody’s business, we should be speaking up and making the case for the value of reading and teaching and thinking.

Why Bother?
Why Bother?

Sarah at the very fab Wynken de Worde just recently posted the above in an inspiring reflection to mark the occassion of her blog’s first birthday. It’s already inspired at least one new blog which is worth following straight off the bat. We’ve been neglecting the history posts for a couple of weeks,  but Thursday was once the day for them so here’s an attempt at making an effort.

Sarah’s point that early modernists should be making their history matter is a pertinent one, and you might remember me going on about the dangers of inconclusiveness before now. It’s just as dangerous, of course, to feel the need to force relevance upon historical study: no one moment in time can be a perfect allegory for another. History doesn’t and shouldn’t work like that. But, by the same token, in my own particular area of interest it seems sad to insist that, as Blair Worden recently did, “The only lessons to be drawn from it are to do with the consequences of destructive enthusiasm.” I like Sarah’s distinction between academic writing and blogging: you can get away, perhaps, with a bit more immediacy in a blog than you might in the properly cautious fields of academe (and there’s some interesting discussion of the relationship between the two in the comments at Wynken de Worde).

To whit, I was struck today, on looking through some notes, by David Norbrook’s description of the trial and execution of Charles I: “The king had been brought down from the eminence of his mysteries of state and forced to engage with his people.” [Writing the English Republic, pg. 199] The blogger in me can’t help but see present-day parallels. Such superficial similarities with the latest headlines, of course, are not what make history important. But to ignore them entirely might not help in making the case it is. One pithy way, maybe, in which the blog can help the historian.

In Defense of ‘Arcadia’

Happier Days for Phil
Happier Days for Phil

Last week I wrote about the use of the work of John Adamson in Adam Nicolson’s Arcadia, and suggested he went too far – or didn’t qualify his terms properly – in applying Adamson’s view of the Long Parliament to the civil wars as a whole. In Nicolson’s defense, he later in the book offers this:

The world had changed and the central place in the workings of England the Pembrokes had occupied for so long was no longer available to them. The England they had known was now broken. Their conservative revolt against the crown has in turn released huge revolutionary energies in the country which had swept away their old dreams of a renewed and potent nobility. England, infused with these dreams of radical and universal freedom, was now for ten years to be subjected to a brutal military dictatorship which that threat of freedom had summoned from the Republican authorities.

We can tell where the fifth Baron Carnock stands on the Protectorate, at least. But he also allows in the passage above for the fact that the war was ultimately not a fight between royalist innovations and parliamentarian ancient rights – although, by the same token, he by implication places this shift later than most historians might. What Conrad Russell refers to (in Fall of British Monarchies, pg. 472) as “a sort of aristocratic conciliarism which would enable the peers and great officers to continue government in the king’s name unless or until he came to his senses” was surely done away with the moment war was declared; it was war, not Interregnum, which broke Pembroke’s England.

Still, it remains the case that Nicolson understands that Adamson’s work does not define the process and conclusion of the wars so much as its build-up. This awareness (and resulting ambivalence) makes Arcadia all the richer.

Nicolson and Adamson: Fair Use in Arcadia

Philip Herbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke
Philip Herbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke

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.

Tenting On The Old Campground

Obviously A Cavalier...
Obviously A Cavalier...

The Historic Present had a post at the beginning of the month in which Lori Stokes linked the American Revolution to the English Civil Wars: essentially, the post argued that the event of a Puritan government in England, far from pleasing their co-religionists in the colonies, instead offended both their own puritanism and their sense of independence. (The Protectorate oversaw, after all, a significant strengthening of colonial government.) This exacerbated social tensions within the colonies, and by the Restoration America knew only conflict with England. This theory doesn’t quite explain why the breach was yet a hundred years off, but it goes some way I think to indicating the moment at which colonial society and culture began to separate more prominently from the mother country’s.

It also reminded me of Kevin Phillips’s The Cousins’ Wars, the thesis of which is that shared strands run right through the English Civil Wars, out the other side of the Revolution, and into the American Civil War of 1861-5. I was sold the volume in the bookstore on the site of the battlefield of Shiloh (I assume based largely on the fact that I was English), and didn’t expect a greal deal from it, despite its size. Yet I still regularly think about its central arguments, even though I rarely see it referred to by anyone else. The book’s premise is certainly contentious and historically difficult (Phillips is a political analyst, not a historian). Yet I’ve aways been guiltily attracted to its neatness.

The grand framework of The Cousins’ Wars [can be stated as …]: putting a new political religious, and war-based perspective around the dual emergence of America and Great Britain. This framework, in turn, yields the following thesis: that from the seventeenth century, the English-speaking peoples on both continents defined themselves by wars that upheld, at least for a while, a guiding political culture of Low Church, Calvinistic Protestantism, commerically adept, militantly expansionist, and highly convinced, in Old World, New World, or both, that it represented a chosen people ad manifest destiny. In the full, three-century context, Cavaliers, aristocrats, and bishops pretty much lost and Puritans, Yankees, self-made entrepeneurs, Anglo-Saxon nationalists, and expansionists had the edge, especially in America. [pp xiv-xv]

Though the book admits its martial focus, I think it still conflates an awful lot of historical patterns and movements in this grand design: can Anglo-Saxon nationalism really be usefully identified in the politics of 1640-60, and is it useful to think of the Union Army as fighting for Calvinistic Protestantism? (The fierce Christianity of Stonewall Jackson, a general for the Confederacy, shares far more with Cromwell than would Ulysses S. Grant’s, after all.) Yet Phillips does some good work in tracing ethnocultural links between England and America which can inform the historian tempted to make links.

The historiography of the English Civil War in particular is notoriously hot-tempered, and historians of the period currently seem locked in to a holding pattern of preaching caution and ambivalence: make no conclusions and suspect frameworks to be generalisations-by-stealth. Phillips’s work is at times guilty of making assertions which sit uncomfortably with this carefulness. Nevertheless, it remains a nourishing and informative – if not finally convincing – argument, and is worthy of more attention … and perhaps more studied research.

“Thy Wars Brought Nothing About”

Blair Wordens English Civil Wars

I had a teacher at school who would insist that narrative history was the finest art known to civilized man, and the only truly commendable form of historical writing. He certainly had good taste: he passed me his copy of Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, but also recommended Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and most of all James McPherson’s superlative single-volume history of the American Civil War, The Battle Cry of Freedom. (It was surpassed, he said, only by Shelby Foote’s towering three-volume history. I’ve never managed to wade through that, though, so alas cannot yet pass judgement.)

Though I might part company with him on the virtues (or lack thereof) of analytical history, there is no doubt in my mind that he was onto something about the artistic skill involved in writing narrative: a good narrative is of very difficult to draw from disparate primary sources and disputed secondary texts without over-simplification or straight-out error. I’ve been thinking about this in relation to Blair Worden’s The English Civil Wars, published this year and, as discussed previously on this blog, reviewed favourably by another recent narrativist, Michael Braddick.

Worden’s text gives itself a shorter space in which to cover 20 years of one of the most complicated periods of English history than John Adamson gave over to the footnotes of his Noble Revolt, a book which covers merely the period’s first two. Inevitably, it is very short on detail, and Worden is noticeably constrained by space in his section on the 1650s, the weakest section of his book. Astoundingly, though, he is extremely good on the war’s origins and on the moves towards Restoration; he also gives a very commendable broad brush outline of the wars themselves, which whilst lacking much new for the specialist achieves brilliantly his aim of providing, at last, a new, concise and readable introduction for the outsider.

Diana Purkisss The English Civil War

The book’s success in dextrously handling difficult subjects without doing them a disservice brings to mind, very unfavourably, Diane Purkiss’s The English Civil War: A People’s History, which covers just half of Worden’s ground in more than twice the space – and does so without achieving either greater depth or clarity. Worden’s work is masterful, and if he is modish in his conclusion that the wars achieved nothing, he somehow manages to squeeze enough context in the book for it to be an honest introduction to the scholarship. As a very small example of the grace of Worden’s narrative art, his couple of sentences on Milton’s responses to the regicide are both more accurate and more compelling than Purkiss’s confused and conventional effort: “As the title implied, Milton [in Eikonoklastes] was eager to align Charles’s death with the iconoclasm that for some had been the whole point of the war. But the moment was over by the time it was printed, and new winds were blowing.” [pg. 562]

Worden’s account, on the other hand, neither resorts to cliché nor suffers from a ‘my print run is larger than yours’ tunnel vision, and always makes clear where he is making his own argument and where he is summarising others’. Narrative history is an art which does not allow the poet’s license; my old teacher would have approved.

One Man Wise Enough to Gouerne All Us

Demystification in Action
Demystification in Action

Recently on Newsnight Review, Ian Hislop and Michael Portillo clashed over the British tendency towards belittling politicians (alas the clip online ends before they get there): Americans, Portillo argued, were happier to see their representatives as at the very least human beings trying to do their best, whilst the Brits, conveniently personified by Hislop, were happier to rubbish the very idea that politicians might have anything but the most venal of motivations. Portillo, like many pols before him, opined that this sort of approach corrupted the political process – that such cynicism debased the very values that hold a democratic society together.

Demystification must surely be at the heart of the the political urge, though. In his Writing The English Republic, David Norbrook puts it at the centre of what he identifies as the English republican project of the seventeenth century: traditionally, “the state could be presented in mystical, sacramental language as a unified body which it would be sacrilege to tamper with. The mixed constitution paradigm both abandoned the church, traditonally viewed as a buttress of social order,  and brought the monarch down to the level of the other contenders in the political forum.” [pg. 96]

Norbrook’s is a work of literary history, but it is as important – and perceptive – as a work of political analysis. He reassesses many key texts – Milton, Marvell – as well as encouraging renewed interest in more minor writers, like May and Waller. (Interestingly, Waller’s conversion to praising Cromwell as a sort of pseudo-king led him to “become a by-word for shameful flattery” [pg. 326] : the idea of a King Olly was popular neither with republicans nor monarchists.) In so doing, he unearths a narrative counter to the de rigeur suggestion that republicanism developed merely as a response to the regicide.

On the subect of the regicide, Norbrook can’t help but see Eikon Basilike as a kind of victory for the remystifiers: though “the propaganda of the most high-flying royalists,” it “went through sixty editions in England and […] the King became, for admirers, and for many later literary critics, an emblem of a dying order.” [pg. 192]  Norbrook would no doubt agree with James Loxley that the success of the image of the figure of the Martyr King had “restorative effects on […] the poetics which helped craft him.” [The Drawn Sword, pg. 181] So, even as republican poetry strived to find the metre for the new project, royalist poetry regained an external justifier.

Norbrook is smart enough to include newsbooks and broadsides in his review of the literature, but I’ve mostly been thinking about ‘high’ literature’s battle with political mysticism. It’s a fight of a broadly historical interest, but to contend Michael Braddick’s position that the period of the civil wars lacks much in the way of contemporary relevancy, it’s hard not to see the echoes. Note to self: see In The Loop.

An Enduring Power to Fascinate

Returning Fire...
Returning Fire...

In that shameless searchbait of a post in January, I linked to Keith Thomas’s review of Michael Braddick’s God’s Fury, England’s Fire. It was a review most notable for its disappointment at the book’s open-ended conclusion:

After his long, carefully grounded, empirically based narrative, Braddick in his final paragraphs abruptly dissociates himself from the “hubristic pomp” of professional historians who seek a definitive account of the period. Instead he plumps for indeterminacy. “Experiences of these conflicts,” he declares, “were plural, ambiguous, divided and contrasting; their potential meanings equally diverse.” They deserve to be remembered, he tells us in one truly awful concluding sentence, “not for a single voice or consequence, but because they provide many knowledges for our discourse”. His impressive book deserves a less murky conclusion.

In April 10th’s TLS, Braddick himself turns to reviewing, in his case tackling Donagan’s War In England, Worden’s The English Civil Wars, and The English Civil War, a collection of essays edited by John Adamson. Adamson’s major project, of course, is constructing a new narrative of the period (in case you haven’t been paying attention to me or indeed anyone else who’s read it, The Noble Revolt is a work of considerable brilliance); Braddick arugue in his review that this is an effort which proceeds from “revisionist attacks on comfortable verities”, but which seeks, in drawing new narratives together, to do more than deconstruct the faulty assumptions of the past. Worden’s book, too, is a stab at a new, reconstructed version of events.

Braddick seems to respond to Thomas’s criticism, however, in his suggestion that new unifying narratives are reductive: “there are multiple lessons to be learnt from a period of such intense conflict,” he writes. “Perhaps we should be more comfortable with the thought that this is a good enough reason to write about it.” His review contains great praise in particular for Worden, and clearly has great admiration for Adamson, but despite that it seems opposed to their approach. “Narrative synthesis” is not for him.

Eikon Basilike

Charles I, as depicted in the <i>Eikon Basilike</i>
Charles Stuart, King and Martyr

We’re curious. The last week has seen a spike of interest in the subject of Charles I’s execution. Searches galore have sent browsers the way of what in fact amounts to a post about Michael Braddick, and they’re being made some time after the actual anniversary. Oh, the vagaries of the internet-searching public!

You crazy royalist kids might appreciate this impassioned elegy from a poem entitled ‘On The Epiphany’, written for ‘For The King’s Musick’ by William Cartwright and discussed by James Loxley in his book on royalist poetry (eyes right, class):

But as those Wise enrich’d his Stable, You
Great Sovereign, have enrich’d his Temple, too,
The Inn by You hath not the Church beguild’;
The Manger to the Altar’s Reconcil’d;
Since then their Wisdom is by Yours out-gone,
Instead of Three Kings, Fame shall speak of One.

Those cavaliers, eh?