The English Civil War is a problematical object in the country’s history, its republican settlement undone by the installation of Charles II, and yet to be recovered. Scholarly opinion about the conflict has of course shifted markedly, in line with broader trends. In 1965, Lawrence Stone could introduce a course reader comprising the likes of Tawney, Hill and Trevor-Roper with the observation that even ‘historians and politicians of a strongly anti-Marxist cast of mind’ had come to accept ‘that there must be a direct relationship between social structure and political institutions’, the former tending to dictate the latter. Perhaps he overstated; certainly the consensus did not stick. From the late seventies to the early nineties, a liberal or right-inclined revisionism dismantled the old social interpretation, substituting for long-term factors the ricocheting outcomes of religious and nationalist strife. More than a decade later, what remains is a fragmented and chaotic corpus. The latest compilation, edited by John Adamson of Peterhouse, Cambridge—The English Civil War: Conflict and Contexts (2009)—includes a medley of themes: royalist factionalism, the New Model Army, print culture and the emergent public sphere. Had space permitted, Adamson sighs, he might have included a piece on the ‘economic and social dimensions’ of the conflict. To do so is no longer de rigueur.
Adamson, once a collaborator of the late revisionist doyen Conrad Russell, has embarked on the production of the most comprehensive political narrative of the Civil War since Gardiner’s History over a century ago. The Noble Revolt is the first of an intended series. It runs from Charles I’s peremptory dissolution of the Short Parliament in May 1640, through his fraught dealings with its longer-lived successor, to his flight from London in January 1642, nine months before the first battle at Edgehill. What is most striking is the emphasis it gives to Lords over Commons-men in the parliamentary cause. Adamson wishes to counter Whiggish and Marxist renderings of the aristocracy as—in his words—‘a decaying and largely powerless element of the ancien régime that was about to be swept away by the rising tide of bourgeois radicalism’. The gentry, on the other hand, he allows to expire from neglect. The overall result is to imbue the Civil War with the spirit—if not the form—of baronial rebellions of old. Lauded in the conservative press, Adamson seems the rising hope of stern, unbending Tories. He has a good eye for court ceremonial; a glass equivalent for matters economic or social. Yet the implications of his account are not entirely retrogressive.
The book’s title refers to a noble-led conspiracy which Adamson contends could easily have precipitated a premature conflict of lesser scope. He describes how a small band of rebellious mps exploited uprisings in Scotland and then in Ireland to force the King into surrendering his prerogative powers. The guiding spirits in the dominant bicameral grouping—the ‘Junto’—were not John Pym or John Hampden, but their aristocratic patrons: Robert Rich, 2nd Earl of Warwick, a puritanical landowner with interests in anti-Spanish privateering, colonization and plantation development in the Caribbean and Americas, well-connected through business partners in the City with London radicals; and Francis Russell, 4th Earl of Bedford, a court insider and massively wealthy developer, responsible for land reclamation projects in several counties and the remodelling of Covent Garden. The former was the more extreme of the two, apparently pushing for de facto republicanism in the shape of aristocratic oligarchy, levering into office his extended family—his brother Holland, cousin Essex, son-in-law Mandeville. Adamson aptly characterizes the Junto as ‘one of the most inbred cousinly cartels in post-Conquest history’.
Each chapter of The Noble Revolt, covering a period of two or three months, is filled with Junto conspiracy and self-destructive royalist counter-plot. Adamson opens in the thick of events, with the early-morning Privy Council meeting in May 1640 where Charles announced his intention to be rid of Parliament after its failure to grant funds for a renewal of hostilities against the Scots. This took place on the same day that the King ordered the search and arrest—but not imprisonment—of several Westminster dissidents for alleged collusion with the enemy. His suspicions, meeting no proof, were not without foundation. Adamson traces the correspondence in which Warwick and Bedford illicitly invited their Covenanter friends north of the border to mount an incursion. They were going to force the King to deal. It seems that the Scottish rebel army, together with potentially mutinous royal regiments, gave Warwick, Bedford and the other signatories to the Petition of the Twelve Peers an early military option. Adamson notes that ‘for the first time since the rebellion against Richard III in 1485, there were rival parties, each with large-scale military resources on which to call, on foot on English soil’. Had Charles not given ground, it may well have come to blows. Here The Noble Revolt finds a way to skirt Conrad Russell’s argument that the redoubtable stability of English society, slow to break, for a long time precluded a resort to arms—without having to divert attention to any sort of ferment in the counties. Adamson stresses that:
Such a conflict did not actually require that rival forces, ideologically opposed, be armed and arrayed in every county of England. At its most minimal, all that a civil war needed were two rival parties of fellow Englishmen, each with recourse to a substantial force of armed men, and each with the willingness to resort to violence in order to achieve their political ends. In these very specific terms, England does appear to have been poised for, or perilously close to, a civil war in the late summer of 1640.
The Long Parliament opened in November that year, and it features from the third chapter of The Noble Revolt to its conclusion. Adamson follows its proceedings primarily for evidence of Junto manoeuvre, recording how they exploited poorly attended and somnolent sessions to push through contentious measures. They quickly took control of treaty negotiations with the Scots, cut off revenue supplies to the King, and impeached the Earl of Strafford—the ‘great incendiary’ and principal exponent of prerogative rule in his capacity as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Adamson gives a clear account of the negotiations that followed. He infers that the King and Junto had reached a deal: the dissidents would mothball proposals for ‘root-and-branch’ reform of the English Church. In return, Charles would give his assent to legislation for triennial meetings of Parliament—a barrier to perpetual Personal Rule. The Root-and-Branch Debate of 7–8 February, in which Gardiner and Russell discerned a ‘party line-up’ of future royalists and parliamentarians, is here a more subtle affair: voting to send evangelical petitions to a committee for consideration did not necessarily indicate support for the abolition of bishops. The committee was pro-episcopalian and staffed by Junto placemen. It would simply cherry-pick the more palatable proposals. With the Triennial Bill only a week from being presented to the King, the intention of Pym and Hampden—both lying low during the Debate—was not to pursue root-and-branch, but to bury it. Having the previous month secured control of prerogative revenue for Parliament, it seemed the Junto had ‘bartered away’ their Scottish brethren for another element of royal power. Adamson sonorously concludes that ‘perhaps not since King John had yielded to his barons at Runnymede had any English king conceded so large a diminution in his powers as sovereign’.
The Noble Revolt does not quite echo Trevelyan’s fanciful claim that the trial of Strafford beginning in March 1641 was ‘unsurpassed for historical and human interest in the political annals of any time or land’. Yet it gives a full three chapters to the affair, a 1,000-capacity public performance in Westminster Hall. As is his wont, Adamson pays the strictest attention to stage design—the novel inclusion of Commons-men in the court, seated atop the serried ranks of peers; Charles banished from his throne and half-hidden by a screen. ‘Here was Leviathan’, Adamson observes,