Friday, March 09, 2012

At The Birth Of Modern Revolutions- Professor Ashton’s “Civil War In England: Conservatism and Revolution 1603-1649”

Click on the headline to link to a Wikipedia entry for the 17th century English Revolution as background for this review.

Book Review

The Civil War In England:Conservatism and Revolution-1603-1649, Robert Ashton, W.W. Norton&Co., 1978

No question for the modern radical movement the French Revolution of the 18th century is more important as a source of historical examples than the subject of the book, The Civil War In England:Conservatism and Revolution- 1603-1649, under review. However, equally true, and especially for those of us readers in America, particularly New England, the mid-17th century English holds many important examples and lessons. Those lessons center on the various plebeian movements, religious and secular, Levellers, Diggers, shakers, quakers, ranters and chanters, and the like. And the preeminent authority in the field on those matters was the valuable work of Professor Christopher Hill. Also kudos to Professors Brailsford, Tawney and, grudgingly to Professor Trevor-Roper.

Those movements, however, while historically important for later movements, were other than for a brief period, and under trying circumstances, not decisive to the events that drove the English revolution. And that premise, while probably not palatable to Professor Hill, as Professor Ashton acknowledged, is what drives the narrative here, the very fluent and smooth-running narrative of this book. Professor Ashton traces some general trends from the rise of the House of Stuart in England under James I in 1603 to the execution of his son, Charles I, in 1649. Some of those trends included the intensified struggle between Parliament and the royal line to control the political terrain. Other trends like the shifting relationship between “court and country,” the escalation of foreign entanglements (especially the continental wars and the relations with the Scots), the ever present issue of religious toleration and state church authority, the conflicting attempts to extend the authority of the central government (royal or parliamentary, as the case may be), and an analysis of the issues that divided English society up to the start of the civil war get full coverage.

For my money though the real value of Professor Ashton’s book is the period of actual civil conflict, arms in hand, from roughly 1642 to that fatal 1649 date. He does an excellent of analysis of the conflicts between the various social, parliamentary and religious factions (sometimes one and the same personnel), the shifting of the factions over time as new and thorny issues of governmental authority arose, the rise and fall of King Charles’ fortunes, and other details that make this a smooth flowing and informative narrative. The highlights are the various faction fights over how and when to treat with the king, his perfidious (and self-defeating) policies and the almost fatalistic drive to the execution. Moreover the section of the relationship between the various factions in the New Model Army (and their civilian Leveller supporters) provided some useful information not previously known to this reviewer.

As usual with an academic specialty book there are plenty of propositions presented that are subject to scholarly challenge as well as subjects, for example, the weight of New Model Army chaplains (many itinerant) and their followers in the political struggles from 1647 to the execution that can be expanded on. An extensive bibliography and many pages of useful footnotes will also aid in those efforts.

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