Our debts to English history
by Keith Windschuttle  


Published first, the final book of the new eight-volume Penguin History of Britain is titled Hope and Glory: Britain 1900–1990, but its author, Peter Clarke, admits that the period of which he writes has produced only moments of glory. [1] Moreover, the best he can say of the hopes is that not all of them were misguided. He acknowledges that at the end of the twentieth century, many British historians, having seen their country decline from the greatest power in the world, do not believe there is much to celebrate. Although the publisher’s jacket blurb declares that Clarke “challenges this vision” by pointing to a much improved standard of living for the general populace, greater social mobility and an extended democracy, the undisguisable tone of his story of political decline belies the feigned social optimism. Indeed, the cover of the book, a black and white photograph of a slightly out of focus Winston Churchill surveying the rubble of the blitzed House of Commons, renders its title—once so rousing when sung to the strains of Elgar— ironic. Since the book was written, the plebiscites for the devolution of Scotland and Wales have set in place a process which, if it continues, means that what was once known as Great Britain will dwindle to nothing more than the European state of England.

Given this prospect, Penguin Books might seem to be indulging in patriotic nostalgia rather than publishing acumen in bringing out yet another historical series on a country that has been so often, and so well, served by the genre. There have been so many multi-volume histories of England published in the last fifty years that it may well appear there is little left worth saying. The most monumental was the fifteen volumes from Oxford published between the 1930s and 1960s, but other firms were also prominent. Penguin produced an eight-volume set under its Pelican label in the 1950s, Nelson had an eight-volume series in the 1960s, and Cambridge published a three-volume social history as recently as 1990. And yet, on the strength of the two volumes released so far, not only is the new Penguin series justified but it should be positively welcomed. This is partly because one of these volumes is such a brilliant job in itself, but it is largely because, at a time when the Western world is awash with damning intellectual indictments, both books provide popularly accessible accounts of why the history of England has had such a defining and enduring influence on Western culture and politics: in short, why England has been so important to the development of civilized values in the world at large.

Before going into this, though, it is worth emphasizing just how difficult a task this kind of writing is for its authors. Books like this are written not as demonstrations of scholarship and originality for the benefit of other historians but as products aimed at the popular market, or what the book trade thinks of as the intelligent generalist reader. This kind of writing requires academically trained authors to pull off several infrequently attempted feats: to condense the state of research in their territory to a readable tome, to write for newcomers who need to have the basics of the field patiently explained to them, to grip these readers with a good story, and to say something of significance about the human condition within the chosen parameters of time and space.

These are important functions for historians because it is when they address themselves to a popular audience that they have the broadest impact on their culture. On the whole, English history has been served well by these series, which have often attracted the best practitioners of each age and have produced some scholarly celebrities, notably David Hume in the eighteenth century and T. B. Macaulay in the nineteenth. The twentieth century’s star performer is A. J. P. Taylor, whose English History 1914–1945, the last of the Oxford volumes, remains a masterly narrative about that most difficult of periods, his own times. The new Penguin series editor, David Cannadine, gave Peter Clarke of Cambridge University the unenviable task of following Taylor. Clarke’s book is well-researched and readable but suffers from two failings: the notion that a rising standard of living and increased longevity can somehow define British history in this period (when every other Western nation enjoyed much the same increases) and his tendency to judge postwar British politicians on the ahistorical grounds of their support for his own pro-European Union prejudices.

The second of the volumes released so far is the one that deserves the most attention. This is the Harvard historian Mark Kishlansky’s contribution, A Monarchy Transformed: Britain 1603–1714. Kishlansky covers the reign of the Stuart dynasty which largely prevailed, despite two revolutions which removed their crowns, from the proclamation of James I in 1603 to the death of Queen Anne in 1714. His book is a great read, fast-paced, dramatic, full of characters who spring animatedly to life as they take their place in the historic procession. Above all, it is Kishlansky’s definition of his project as essentially a political history—or to be more precise, a constitutional history—that deserves respect. For he has stood firmly against prevailing academic fashions, has refused to pander to the current predilections of the book-reviewing industry, and has even put a slant on his work different from that intended by the series editor. Kishlansky’s brief was, as the series title indicates, to contribute to a history of Britain but, as he confesses in his preface, his is much more a history of England than of developments in Scotland, Wales, or Ireland.[2]

Apart from the opening survey chapter of Britain at the start of the seventeenth century, Kishlansky has entirely omitted what most authors aiming at a contemporary popular audience would assume to be the obligatory topics of social, economic, and women’s history. This is partly, he explains, because his publishers have let him off the hook by planning an as yet unannounced series devoted to discussion of that kind. Nonetheless, there would still have been plenty of scope in the major political developments of the period for a more politically correct historian to round up the usual suspects.

For instance, unlike some other recent books on the political culture of Stuart England, Kishlansky’s does nothing to curry favor with feminist reviewers or their allies. He does use the term “patriarchy” since it was current at the time in debates about royal power, but notions of “gender roles,” victimhood, and other conspicuously anachronistic but now almost ubiquitous feminist conceptual paraphernalia are thankfully absent. Or, since we now know that James I was a homosexual pederast and that his son, Charles I, had also dabbled in homosexual relations, Kishlansky might have given a sop to the gay market and introduced some Foucault-type speculation about the “multidimensional sexuality” of the premodern era. Instead, he reveals how such behavior scandalized royal courtiers and was turned to their own purposes by competing court factions.

In particular, he eschews the “history from below” approach that has been so prominent in recent decades in analyses of the most dramatic events of the era. In 1642 the English Parliament usurped the authority of Charles I and raised its own army under Oliver Cromwell to defeat both an invasion from Scotland and the attempts by the king and his supporters to restore his position. In 1649 the Parliament ordered the execution of the then captive king. These events have often been explained as a popular uprising of either a religious kind (the “Puritan Revolution”) or as an expression of the class conflict predicted by Marxist theory (the “bourgeois revolution”). In the hands of the most influential of these interpreters, the Marxist historian Christopher Hill, both religious and political themes are combined and Puritanism is explained as the ideological expression of the nascent bourgeoisie.

Moreover, the adherents of the theory that history is moving by stages toward an egalitarian utopia have also discovered the origins of proletarian democracy and the “general will” in the debates about government conducted in Putney Church in 1647 among the coalition of Presbyterian dissidents and political radicals known as the Levellers. In the sect called the Diggers, founded by the anti-Christian mystic Gerard Winstanley, who demanded an end to wage labour and private property, such historians have seen prototype Communists. From this romantic perspective, the events of 1642–49 amount to the English precursor of both the French and Russian revolutions and are seen as proof that political revolution is a necessary part of the transition to “bourgeois democracy” and modern society.

Kishlansky stands firm against all this. Though he does use the phrase “English Revolution” to describe the events of the 1640s, his title, A Monarchy Transformed, sums up his assessment of the real meaning of the century. From an intermittent assembly summoned on specific occasions (namely when the king wanted to amass additional funds to conduct foreign wars), the English Parliament finally emerged as the principal organ of royal government. From a country teetering on the edge of absolutism (to which many of its continental peers were to succumb), England endured a series of conflicts that eventually produced a constitutional monarchy under which subjects were guaranteed liberty of person, property, and conscience.

Despite the many claims made in the 1990s by the historically uneducated that it was the French and German philosophers of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment who invented the modern notion of liberty—a view expressed perhaps most influentially by Francis Fukuyama—Kishlansky does an impressive job of reasserting the claims of the real source, the English Parliamentarians of the seventeenth century. In 1688, when it presented William and Mary with the crown, Parliament drew up a Declaration of Rights. This was converted in the following year to the Bill of Rights. Kishlansky says that although this Bill was declarative only —enunciating what already existed—“it uniformly declared for people and Parliament against the crown. . . . The people had the right to bear arms, to hold free elections, and to have frequent parliaments in which members could speak openly. They were not to be subject to excessive bail, exorbitant fines, or cruel and unusual punishment.” The king lost his prerogative in judicial matters and was deprived of the ability to raise money outside Parliament. The Bill of Rights also had the appearance of a contract and implied that William III and his successors were constitutional mon- archs.

Kishlansky traces the genesis of these developments in a most illuminating fashion. He shows that in virtually every case it was political conflict and political interests that produced them, not the ideas of intellectuals. Indeed, he shows that the history of ideas in this period always came second to politics. This was true of the notion that government was a contract between the king and the people, a view that received its quintessential expression in the second of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. This was published in 1690, some ten years after the celebrated debate in the House of Commons in which the Whig majority had championed the contract relationship against Tory support for the divine right of kings. .

It was also true of the anti-authoritarian radicalism of the 1640s. For instance, when the Long Parliament began sitting in 1640, there was not one of its members who questioned the hierarchical nature of English government or that monarchy was divinely ordained. After the outbreak of the first civil war in 1642, however, attitudes changed dramatically with a tax revolt in London, dissension in the army, and the rise of Presbyterian dissent. But Kishlansky emphasizes: “the war created radicalism; radicalism did not create the war.” Puritanism and religious millenarianism reached their peak of excitement in 1649 but this was after, and largely fueled by, the execution of the King. “For many, dethroning the King and defrocking the bishops fulfilled ancient prophecies. The Revolution would usher in a new Jerusalem; the nation would be governed by saints, God’s own minority through which he would uproot the corruption of this world.” And rather than revolution originating in any seething discontent of the populace or their yearning to overthrow existing institutions, Kishlansky shows that the chief actors were primarily concerned with the preservation of their inherited customs and traditions:

In truth, it had never occurred to the leaders of the Army or of the Rump to turn the world upside down, to institute a thoroughgoing social and political revolution. Beyond religion, their quarrel with the King had been to compel him to abide by the settled laws of the nation—those that protected patriarchy, hierarchy and property.

Kishlansky’s book is a model not only of interpretation but also of presentation. The way he structures his chapters is bound to set an example that many historians who want to appeal to a popular audience will follow. He starts each chapter with a cinematic narrative of the details of one dramatic event: for instance, the Gunpowder Plot of Guy Fawkes, the execution of Charles I, the great fire of London in 1666. The rest of each chapter both explains the significance of the event and moves the whole story forward. The device works perfectly in terms of both structure and drama.

The author is also impressive in his ability to bring his characters and scenery to life. He captures the Byzantine quality of the court of James I where the monarch displayed, on the one hand, a rare capacity for intellectual engagement as the author of a celebrated treatise on the divine right of kings, and, on the other hand, a prurience that overturned the established decencies of the royal household:

He doted on his Danish wife, Anne, who had already presented him with three healthy children, and [Sir Henry] Wotton reported that “among his good qualities none shines more brightly than the chasteness of his life.” This report of the king of Scots did not square with observations made of James as king of England. Some Englishmen found his accent impenetrable, his table manners execrable, and his attraction to handsome boys loathsome.

One of the young men fancied by James was Robert Carr, who, upon being appointed Lord Somerset, rose to become the king’s principal advisor and Lord Chamberlain. When another court faction, which included Francis Bacon, opposed Somerset’s relations to the pro-Spanish and Catholic Howard family, its members recruited George Villiers, described by all who saw him as “the handsomest bodied man in England,” as cupbearer at the royal table.

Villiers caught the king’s eye and was soon appointed a gentleman of the bedchamber and, within two years, was made Earl of Buckingham, from which position he not only replaced Somerset but became the most influential official in the kingdom. Though Buckingham was responsible for a series of disastrous military adventures, he retained his favor with both James and James’s son, the future Charles I. In Madrid, during a visit by Charles and the king’s favorite to propose marriage (unsuccessfully) to the Infanta, the Spanish were shocked to discover Buckingham in the presence of the Prince without his breeches on. Another striking portrait drawn by Kishlansky is of Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart dynasty, and younger sister of Mary, wife of William III.

Anne Stuart was only thirty-seven when she acceded to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1702, but she was already an old woman, carried to her coronation in a sedan chair. She had been physically depleted by seventeen pregnancies and psychically debilitated by their futility—not a single child had survived. . . .

Anne was dull, taciturn, stubborn and unattractive. Her conversation was mind-numbing, her taste insipid, her pleasures limited to gambling and dining, losing pounds at one set of tables and gaining them at the other. The Queen had the good fortune to marry below her, for George of Denmark was, if anything, less impressive, and their union was blissful.

In fact, the author’s whole chapter on the reign of Anne is a tour de force, ranging from domestic details such as the Queen’s psychological dependence on Sarah Churchill, to the rise and fall of Sarah’s husband, the military hero Marlborough, and to the culmination of her reign in the establishment of a balance of power in Europe and a maritime supremacy which made Britain the dominant trading power in the Mediterranean and the possessor of a series of colonies and territories in the Americas.

The most famous historical interpretation of the events of the seventeenth century is that of the first two volumes of Macaulay’s History of England, published in 1848. Macaulay was a Whig and regarded his party as the originator and long-term defender of the rights and freedoms won two centuries before. He also thought freedom itself had been gradually unfolding in the ensuing period and would continue to do so. Hence his “Whig interpretation” became synonymous with the concept of progress, an idea that seemed confirmed by the growing prosperity, power, and the extension of democracy of late Victorian and Edwardian England.

The carnage of the First World War, however, and the unemployment of the Great Depression brought into question the idea of ever-increasing progress. The Whig interpretation of history became a convenient straw man, knowingly mocked by intellectuals and held up as a warning to the next few generations of history students of how not to pursue their discipline. Macaulay is still taught today but primarily as a stylist, as an example of how to write narrative, which some traditionalists, and their readers, still prefer to the obliquities of postmodernist discourse. Kishlansky notes that many of Macaulay’s interpretations of the political events have not worn well. The most notable consequences of what the Whigs used to call “the Glorious Revolution of 1688,” for instance, derived not from the liberal principles of William III and his advisors but were reluctantly conceded by the monarch out of necessity. Kishlansky argues the establishment of the institution of parliamentary monarchy arose out of William’s need to call annual parliaments to raise money for the near constant series of foreign wars he conducted during his reign.

But once these concessions have been made, the general drift of Macaulay’s faith in the growth of free institutions remains, at this point in history, hard to deny. Although, as I noted above, Francis Fukuyama is mistaken about the origins of political liberty, his observations about its expansion in recent times are indisputable. The last quarter of the twentieth century has seen not only the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union but also the corresponding demise of dictatorships of the military-authoritarian Right, with new democratic regimes established since 1975 in many countries including Greece, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, South Korea, the Philippines, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Paraguay, Uruguay, and South Africa. The kind of political system that all these countries have embraced has been a liberal democracy of either the monarchical or republican variety, with guarantees of the rights of subjects and citizens, the election of representatives, the protection of property, and the free expression of opinion. In other words, the political principles that the English Parliament originated in the seventeenth century provide the basis of the civilized world today.  

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  1. Hope and Glory: Britain 1900–1990, by Peter Clarke; Penguin, 464 pages, $29.95; $14.95 paper. Go back to the text.
  2. A Monarchy Transformed: Britain 1603–1714, by Mark Kishlansky; Penguin, 400 pages, $29.95; $14.95 paper. Go back to the text.