Tudor and Stuart historians have got back into the habit of writing very big books. Thus in the past two years, Kevin Sharpe’s The Personal Rule of Charles I took a thousand pages to present an apologia for Charles I’s Personal Rule, Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars took over six hundred pages to lament the overthrow of mediaeval English piety, and Conrad Russell almost six hundred pages to chronicle The Fall of the British Monarchies 1637–1642. Now Robert Brenner has joined in with his 734 pages on Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders 1550–1653. It is, for the most part, an enjoyable and challenging read. It is a book which explicitly seeks to challenge the ‘revisionist’ historiography of the past twenty years. I am identified throughout the book as a leading revisionist and it was generous of the editor of this journal to invite me to offer my response to a book which politely and fairly seeks to undermine much of what I have published. Readers should be aware that I am parti pris.

Nonetheless, let me say emphatically at the outset that I think this is a very welcome and a very rewarding book. There is a great deal to be learnt from it—about the transformation of England’s overseas trade, about the role of the elite of London in the making and outcome of the English civil wars and the making and shaping of the English Revolution. I have had to think very long and hard about what I can and cannot agree with and my own thinking on a host of issues has been refined as a result. I disagree with Brenner’s claims to have refurbished and relaunched a Marxist social interpretation of the ‘Revolution’, and I am convinced that there are demonstrable flaws in the way the whole book is conceptualized. These flaws are sufficiently serious as to leave us with a book consisting of a host of splintered insights rather than a convincing new social interpretation of the English Revolution.

The book falls into two unequal parts. The first 637 pages offer a tripartite narrative and analysis of the socio-political transformation of English commerce in the century before the civil wars, the role of selected groups of London merchants in the growing political turmoil of 1620–42, and then of their role in the decade of war and revolution which culminated in the overthrow of monarchy, House of Lords, and the confessional state. It ends—for puzzling and contestable reasons—with the fall of the Rump Parliament in 1653. There then follows an eighty-page ‘Postscript’ (sic) whose stated purpose is to sketch out what sort of social interpretation of the Revolution the first part of the book makes possible.

It must be frankly faced that the book falls into two parts for both good and bad reasons. The first 637 pages read like a book written twenty years ago—and the footnotes (with references to PhD theses long since published and a paucity of references to standard works published since the mid 1970s) indicate that this is so. The manuscript has been overhauled where recent work directly impinges upon it—as by repeated references to Robert Ashton’s The City and the Court 1603–43 (Cambridge 1979)—but the mindset and conceptualization remain very close to that evident in Brenner’s article on ‘The Civil War Politics of London’s Merchant Community’ published in Past and Present no. 58 (1973). This was three years before the publication of works by Conrad Russell, Kevin Sharpe, Anthony Fletcher, Mark Kishlansky and myself, which have been generally recognized as the kernel of revisionism. In the meantime, major work on London in this period has been published by Ian Archer, Keith Lindley, Stephen Rappaport and others, of which Brenner’s work remains innocent. If his Postscript is—in addition to being an attempt to create a new model for a social interpretation of the English Revolution—a historiographical review of much of the best work of the past twenty years, it must be confessed that it creates a good deal of structural difficulty for the book as a whole. A pre-revisionist base has to take the weight of a post-revisionist superstructure as we move from the detailed account of the political culture of London’s overseas merchant community to the model-building exercise at the end.

Brenner has written an unfashionable book in that the great majority of historians have turned their backs on social-determinist interpretations (what Brenner less accurately calls social interpretation) of the crisis in mid seventeenth-century England. Brenner accepts the ‘failure of traditional social interpretation to explain the political conflicts of the seventeenth century’, but his robust rejoinder and starting point is that the failure of particular previous social interpretations does not mean ‘that these conflicts are without social foundations, let alone that they have no basis in systematic political and ideological differences.’

The book begins with an account of ‘the transformation of English commerce and of the London Merchant community, 1550–1650’. This can be warmly welcomed. It presents an account that is broadly persuasive and builds effectively on the work of others. The ‘traditional’ interpretation viewed the hectic search for new markets in this period as a response to the shrinking market for English broadcloth, upon which English trade in the first half of the sixteenth century was dangerously dependent (cloth exports accounted for 90 per cent of all exports, most of them to northern Europe and most exported via London). Brenner argues that the real engine of commercial reorientation was a boom that was import- and re-export-led as raw materials, silks and spices were brought in from Asia and the eastern Mediterranean, and he suggests that it was led by different men with rather different values from those of the staid and conservative Merchant Adventurers. It was, Brenner argues, an overlapping group of men in the East India and Levant Companies who came increasingly to dominate the commercial wealth and government of the City of London and who became the prime concessionaires of a range of Crown commercial and non-commercial monopolies. Even more important, however, is Brenner’s identification of a third, largely distinct group of independent merchants (the ‘colonial-interloper’ group), initially small traders and sea captains who dominated the transatlantic routes. These men did not look to the Crown for the authority to regulate and restrict access to their markets and increasingly, as their wealth grew, they sought to break down the cartels by which the Levant/East Indies men maintained their profits. This drove the latter more and more into the arms of Charles I, while the former (whose trade made them natural allies of those peers and gentry (mostly puritan peers and gentry) who were investing in New World colonization, became natural leaders of resistance to the King. This is a major historical recovery. As Robert Ashton wrote in his review of the book in the English Historical Review, ‘emphasis on the role of the independent merchants is Professor Brenner’s most signal and indisputable individual contribution to the historiography of both commercial reorientation and political revolution.’ It is a signal but also a partial recovery because it looks at the relative prosperity and relative power within London of the three groups of overseas merchants. It does not acknowledge that there were other extremely wealthy non-merchant groups in London whose position relative to all merchant groups is also shifting over time. We learn, for example, that in the period 1555–70, 25 of 38 aldermen were overseas traders, 17 of them Merchant Adventurers; in the period 1600–25, 70 of 140 aldermen were overseas traders, 30 of whom were exclusively Merchant Adventurers, ten or so Levant/East India men. There was then a large swing from Adventurers to Levant/ East India men (figures not provided in the same form). But—and this is not noticed—the long-term trend was away from overseas merchants of all sorts. The greatest single explosion of wealth and political power in London in this period was almost certainly amongst those who combined manufacture or wholesaling with the rapidly expanding coastal and inland trades. Furthermore, while the aldermen were at the apex of the government of early Stuart London, there were many other layers, and no evidence is offered that there was a similar shift of power between the different merchant groups in the common council. Indeed the straws blowing in the wind suggest that the most important single shift was away from those primarily concerned with external trade. We shall return to this later.

Having established the tripartite division of the overseas merchant community and the tensions between them, Brenner moves on to a detailed study of the relations of each of his groups with the Crown in the decades before the civil war. Here his historical task is to demonstrate the different role played by each group in the political crisis leading up to the outbreak of the English civil war. Unfortunately, since his conceptualization was formed and first published, Robert Ashton has published a major alternative interpretation from the same evidence, and despite some effective sniping at Ashton in the footnotes, Brenner’s overall account cannot just be taken as proven. I have not read much of the evidence that both draw upon, and therefore cannot offer a firm judgement between them; but there are many grounds for suspecting that Ashton has the better of the argument. These arise principally from Brenner’s very narrow conception of the economic, social and cultural worlds of the men who make up his three merchant groups. His account filters out of the life histories of his subjects their overseas trading interests and their relations with the Crown in respect simply of commercial regulation. To this is added the role of the overseas merchant community as tax farmers. It is then easy to show how—despite some very stormy episodes as in the late 1620s—the mutual dependence of the Crown and the regulated companies meant that they had to find ways of working together and that they did so. Meanwhile the unregulated colonial/interloper merchants, with little to tie them to the Crown and much to chafe at in the Crown’s foreign, commercial and fiscal policy, drew ever closer to a circle of peers and gentry with colonial interests in a determination to bring an end one way or another to the misgovernment represented by the Personal Rule.