Saturday, 26 June 2010

The Civil Wars of England-John Kenyon - Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988 - xvi + 272pp

“ A Civil War is not only the conflict of opposing principles but the shock of material forces.”

Sir Charles Firth.

The causes of the Civil war have been fought over by historians for centuries. This fight sometimes resembles the real war of nearly four hundred years ago.

Kenyon’s book, which is one of the better military histories does confine itself to a straightforward, matter of fact description of the civil war.

According to Christopher Hill Kenyon’s narrative was of an “ orthodox Tawneyite: towns and cities 'solidly for Parliament', so much so that in 1643 Charles I insisted that he 'dared not trust his person inside any closed town'; the clothing areas were 'aggressively parliamentarian', Birmingham 'a solidly parliamentarian industrial town'. Kenyon grasps the fact which 'revisionist' historians ignore, that before 1642 social revolution was always potentially present”[1].

Hill also recognised that Kenyon’s book while being a military history of the civil war, was an excellent piece of history, with a deep understanding of the politics and economics of the conflict which combined well with his military understanding.

The book is a cracking read and moves along at the pace of a novel. It is methodically researched as to be expected of a historian of Kenyon’s calibre. He had a “scholarly attention to detail and ability to extract every nuance from his sources. He distrusted fads and was sceptical of theories not fully backed by historical fact”.  It is not for nothing he was described as “one of Britain's leading scholars of 17th-century English history”,

Kenyon is this book did not believe that the Great Rebellion as he calls it sprung from nowhere the quote in the introduction from Sir Charles Firth was not a throwaway line, “ A Civil War is not only the conflict of opposing principles but the shock of material forces.”This belief underpins the book.

Another belief put forward by Kenyon was that the war was the product of long-term economic, social and political trends. His quote from James Harrington, “the dissolution of this government caused the war, not the war the dissolution of this government”[2]  is confirmation of this.

As the writer and historian Gaby Mahlberg wrote in her blog of Harrington “ ‘Good laws’, Harrington believed, could give the country stability, and these laws had to be infallible, so that bad men would not be able to corrupt the state. Harrington never saw his dream come true. The Restoration of the Stuarts in 1660 meant a return of many of the old problems. But his ideas of mixed government and a balance of power remained influential in the writings of the Neo-Harringtonians of the later 17th and early 18th century. They influenced both the American and French Revolutions, while his materialist theory of political change would also strike a chord with Marxists and modern economic and political thinkers”[3]. There is no doubt that his writings struck a chord with Kenyon.

High Tide of Revisionism

Kenyon’s book appeared when writing about the Civil War was an extremely hazardous occupation. During the high tide of revisionism anyone writing Whig or Marxist history, Tawney was included in the Marxist camp was met by the revisionist attack dogs.

From a historiographical standpoint, Kenyon sought to position himself between the two camps. Kenyon tried to place his book within the context of the civil war being a product of a general European Crisis of the 17th Century. This view tends to cut across the mainly nationalist English view of the civil war. (See Eric Hobsbawm-The General Crisis of the European Economy Past and Present No 5 May 1954 pp 33-53).

His use of class terms such as “Working Class and “Ruling Class” brings to mind Robert Ashton’s view that “the idea of religious, political and constitutional issues as an ideological superstructure based on foundations of material and class interests has been influential far beyond the ranks of Marxist historians. It has indeed been adopted, in part at least and with a radically different emphasis, by some of their more formidable and determined opponents. The following passage from a celebrated article by Professor Trevor-Roper may serve to remind us that anti-Marxist history is not necessarily history which plays down the crucial importance of material factors and class interest".

Hugh Trevor Roper, “Hit by the price revolution, slow to redeem their losses by ‘good husbandry’, left in the provinces of which, they complained, the hated metropolis had drained the wealth and vitality, taxed to maintain ‘the expenses of a court so vast and unlimited by the old good rules of economy’, the English mere gentry felt themselves to be depressed, declining class, and, grumbling, consoled and –or armed them with religious dissent. Against a protestant court some of them struck under the banner of recusancy; against a ‘popish’ court others struck again, under the banner of puritanism”.

Not all historians agreed with Hill’s assertion that Kenyon was a Tawneyite or for that matter Ashton’s analysis. John Morrill for one believed that Kenyon was closer to the revisionists than he was to Tawney. He made this very clear in his obituary for the Proceedings of the British Academy (Volume 101 (1999), pages 441-461).

Morrill believed Kenyon showed a “fundamental disapproval of model-builders and systematisers. He had no time for social determinism as a tool of the historian for explaining the past or of social engineering as a tool of the politician in effecting the future”. In fact, Morrill believed that Kenyon was a consistent revisionist from his early days up until he died.

One thing is clear a reading of Kenyon’s article Revisionism and Post Revisionism in Early Stuart History[4] he did not consider himself either a revisionist or post-revisionist.

Kenyon’s book is an excellent military history of the civil war that combines an excellent military narrative with an excellent political analysis of the war.

It is hard to place Kenyon or his work in any category. As one obituary writer said “When he appeared at Christ's in 1954, he cast himself in the role of mocking outsider, offering caustic criticisms from the fringes of college power in the confident and correct expectation that they would mostly be ignored. They were. College meetings would be punctuated by Kenyon's heavy sighs and even heavier disapproving sniffs and brief, dismissive comments, but the college men of affairs went about their efficient business untroubled by these background mutterings”. This a sums up Kenyon perfectly.

[1] The Civil Wars of England--John Kenyon - Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988 - xvi + 272pp-
[2] A History of England, Volume 1: Prehistory to 1714- By Clayton Roberts, F David Roberts, Douglas Bisson

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Oliver Cromwell: Politics and Religion in the English Revolution, 1640-1658, David L. Smith ( Cambridge Topics in History series, Cambridge University Press, 1991), 120pp., £4.95 paper, ISBN 0 521 388961.

" Do not trust to the cheering, for those very persons would shout as much if you and I were going to be hanged'. Oliver Cromwell.

David L. Smith is a historian of some merit. He is an expert on the Early Modern period of British history. He is particularly interested in the political, constitutional, legal and religious history in the Stuart period.

He is the author or co-author of eight books and the editor of four others. David L Smith’s book on Oliver Cromwell from the Cambridge University Press Topics in History provides us with an excellent introduction to Oliver Cromwell and his place in history. It is not an orthodox biography of Cromwell but a guide to study. It works both for A Level students, those taking degrees or the general public.

A significant amount of scholarship published on Cromwell and the English Revolution, in general, have prompted some university examination boards to reflect this at the Advanced level.

It is hoped that this publication is the start of more less expensive resources being made available to teachers and students alike. After all, it is not that cheap to study the 17th century or any other time for that matter.

Smith ‘s book has managed to combine a  high academic with a relatively small price. The book shows a significant objectivity towards its subject. The book neither favours or criticises Cromwell.  Smith does not pad the book out with long winded explanations of events or Cromwell’s action. He provides the academic or general reader with strong notes to carry out further studies. The book appears when there is a significant re-evaluation of Cromwell and his place in the English Revolution.

Despite having only a hundred and twenty words to play with Smith has made excellent use a wide variety of primary sources. Smith’s book is a useful tool in navigating the choppy water that is the English Revolution. 

The book has been well received with Irene Carrier saying “It is a masterly selection from a bewildering profusion of Cromwellian material. It provides a cogent overview of staunchly held opinions and interpretations. A hint of a rather mechanical thesis, antithesis, synthesis approach in the Introduction is occasionally intrusive. Again, the British dimension merits fuller cover age, both during the 1640s and the Protectorate. After all, Cromwell was 'Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland'. Limitations apart, this book is lively, provocative and an essential stimulus for Advanced level students”.[1]

[1] Oliver Cromwell: Politics and Religion in the English Revolution, 16401658, (Cambridge Topics in History series) by David L. Smith Review by: Irene Carrier Source: Teaching History, No. 67 (April 1992), p. 38

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

The Rise of the New Model Army Paperback – 12 Jan 2008 Mark Kishlansky- Cambridge University Press; Reprint edition ISBN-10: 0521273773

They lived, they suffered, they died. Thomas Hardy

This version of Mark Kishlanksy’s The Rise of the New Model Army in paperback form is a meticulously-researched but highly controversial study of the rise of the New Model Army. Kishlansky challenges the fundamental assumptions upon which all previous interpretations of the New Model Army have been based.

It is Kishlanksy’s contention in the run up to the formation of the New Model Army to be more precise the years 1643–6, Parliament far from being in conflict operated as “model of consensus”.

So, for him, the New Model Army was not a direct result of Cromwell’s attempt to prosecute a far more aggressive and radical war against the King, and by radical I mean Leveller influenced. For Kishlansky radicalism hardly existed and the army was a by product of Consensus and compromise.

It was only after this consensus broke down did the army develop a political voice and become radicalised. The historian Ivan Roots is critical of Kishlansky’s attitude towards the army when he wrote “The New Model Army, 'departing little from the armies it replaced', is seen as a child of compromise. Not until the spectre of defeat was lifted in 1646 did 'adversary politics' seriously disturb Westminster internally, encouraging outside pressures. Factious now, Parliament failed to comprehend genuine professional grievances – arrears of pay and whatever – and by denying the right to petition politicised the Army, equating national liberties with soldiers' rights, making it seem more radical than it really was. (To all this the Levellers were irrelevant.) Stung in its honour the Army, reluctant but in good order, entered London in August 1647 to restore 'a free and lawful parliament' against internal and external 'faction and interest'. At this point, the story breaks off – on the brink of a revolution as yet undefined”.[1]

Kishlansky in the book discounts the belief that the army had a relatively worked out perspective and was beginning to act as a political force. He believed that  “From disparate and inchoate ideas the army formed its self –justification, and the process by which this happened, as do so many others of similar circumstances, remain mysterious”. The dictionary definition of inchoate used for our purpose is: not organised; lacking order, this is not correct.

It is clear the army had some form of collective ideology. The actions it took before and after Putney proved this. This is perhaps why Kishlansky stops short of discussing the Putney debates in his book.The Levellers persistent agitation had turned the New Model Army into a potent military and political force that had to be recognised.

Kishlansky attacks the concept that it is possible to draw wider political conclusions from the debate that took place in the New Model Army. He believed that Ideology inside the army had been exaggerated and misconceived.

He writes  ‘Much has been written about the ideology of the army, but most of it misconceived. A principle reason for this has been historians have assumed that the lowly social origins of many of the officers created a commitment to radical ideology. This is false on both factual and logical grounds. There were men of low birth among the new Model’s officers, and much has been made of Pride the drayman and Hewson the cobbler more still might be made of obscure officers like Spongers and Creamer whose surnames suggest backgrounds in trades and service. The army also contained a Cecil, a Sheffield, and three colonels who were knights. A careful study of the armies social origin, which lends support to the view that they were more traditional in nature (of solid status in rural and urban structures) still does not meet the real objections to existing interpretation- the fallacy of social determinism’.[2]

If we were to accept Kishlanskys assertion that “From 1645 to March 1647 there is almost no evidence of political activity within the New Model Army: for fifteen months the soldiers fought; for eight they waited”.

What is his point? Ideas do take the time to develop, and they do change under the pressure of political and economic changes. There is not a mechanical relationship between economic changes, and their political expression there is a dialectical one.

Kishlansky’s hostility to Marxist historiography is well known and runs through all of his work. He does not believe that class has any bearing on how a person thinks or behaves and rejects ‘the conception that social being determines social consciousnesses. A by-product of this intellectual myopia has led him to downplay the amount of radical literature available to the army. Kishlansky calls for a complete rethink on what ideas did motivate individual soldiers.

Book Reviews

The book has been well received by some high profile historians. Bernard Norling comments which have been echoed by many other reviewers said “ A more fitting title would be "The Efforts of the House of Commons to Govern England, 1640-1647[3]”.

Some commentators have picked up on that Kishlansky stops short of discussing the Putney Debates of 1647. It would appear that he is looking to fit his ideological positions into a highly particular time frame something he has accused other historians particularly  Christopher Hill of doing.

Kishlansky walks a tightrope with this book. It is not easy to combine one's ideological convictions and still produce an objectively written book. Very few historians have managed it. Kishlansky has a habit in this book of letting his conservatism get the better of him.

Christopher Hill and the CPHG

Kishlansky defends his positions like an animal protects her offspring. He has a no holes barred approach to historical work. This approach has led him into many scrapes. He seems to have reserved most his ire for the historians who came out of the Communist Party of Britain. Despite the Stalinisation of the Party, these historians produced a level of work that has not been surpassed.

Despite launching many unprovoked and in some cases disrespectful attacks especially on Christopher Hill, it must be said that the CPHG returned very little fire. Hill’s conception of the revolution and the New Model Army are well known and do not need to repeating here suffice to say as Ann Talbot writes Hill “recognised that revolutions are made by the mass of the population and that for a revolution to take place the consciousness of that mass of people must change since revolutions are not made by a few people at the top although the character of their leadership is crucial at certain points. These achievements were considerable at the time and are of continuing relevance today when historians increasingly reject any serious economic or social analysis and argue that revolutions are nothing but the work of a tiny group of conspirators".[4]

Kishlansky accused Hill of being “ immune to criticism”. An attack that was answered by Alex Calinicos “Well, if the criticism Hill’s work has encountered were all of the quality of Kishlansky’s shabby attack who could blame him for ignoring it? The insinuation that refusing to follow the tide of historiographic fashion is morally equivalent to sending dissidents off to the Gulag Archipelago is typical of a critique which proceeds by insult and innuendo rather than by anything resembling a careful argument.[5]


This book is not without merit, and Kishlansky is a capable writer. It has been pointed out that the book seems to have been hurried and that many mistakes occurred that should not have given the quality of the publishers.

The discounting of sources such as Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, Edmund Ludlow, Bulstrode Whitelocke, and Richard Baxter on account of bias and their supposed unreliability is bizarre, to say the least.

As one writer said, “This strategy enabled Kishlansky to conclude that Cromwell’s New Model Army, far from being the mainspring of revolution, was the product of a politics of consensus and, in its early years, at any rate, lacked any radical consciousness. In the 1980s, the age of Margaret Thatcher, the Levellers, Diggers, and other radical groups, whose seemingly modern doctrines had so fascinated an earlier generation, were consigned to the historiographical sidelines”.

The Rise of the New Model Army book was the by-product of the revisionist domination during the last three decades of English Revolution historiography, and the reader should be aware of that. The American historian Mark Kishlansky embraced the revisionist doctrine fully. While recommending the book the reader should be aware of the Historians politics.

[1] The Rise of the New Model Army -Ivan Roots-History Today
[2] Ideology and Politics in the Parliamentary Armies, 1645–9-Taken from Reactions to the English Civil War 1642–1649-Editors: John Morrill-ISBN: 978-0-333-27566-5
[3] The Rise of the New Model Army by Mark A. Kishlansky Review by: Bernard Norling- The Review of Politics, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Jan. 1981), pp. 139-141