Source of book: I own this. My wife found a folio society hardback at a book sale for next to nothing. (This is one reason why I married her…)
George Trevelyan’s monumental work on the Stuart period in England is widely considered to be the definitive history. It checks in at nearly 500 pages of smallish print, and has taken me the better part of three months to read. It was a bit of a slow go, not because it was boring - it wasn’t - but because it packs a lot of information into the space. Also, it assumes the sort of knowledge of important figures and events that (presumably) an educated Englishman would have of his own history. For this American, there were a lot of gaps that I had to fill by reference to other sources.
For those of us who at best got a semester of English history, here is the basic timeline:
Elizabeth I (the last of the Tudors, died without close relatives)
James I (also James IV of Scotland, first of the Stuarts)
First civil war, wherein Charles I gets his head removed. General chaos for a while.
Oliver Cromwell (officially a “Lord Protector” but pretty much a king)
Second civil war, general chaos, until…
James II (Schemes to impose Catholicism back on England.)
William and Mary
This all took around a hundred years, a bunch of fighting at home and wars abroad, and some of the craziest politics one can imagine.
I took a couple of pages of notes while reading this, and then decided that I probably would spend several hours writing about them if I tried to fit everything in. I’ll see if I can hit some highlights, and give the general arc of the book.
From the perspective of a lawyer, a key narrative of this era is the development of several key ideas which continue to shape our own laws.
First is the idea that no man is above the law. I cannot stress enough how important this concept is to our current legal system - here in the United States, in England, and indeed throughout the developed world.
This was not always so. In fact, at the beginning of the Stuart era, the exact opposite was still expected in most situations. Sure, since the Magna Carta, a nobleman had some protection from the caprices of the king, but commoners tended to expect a certain amount of injustice.
I found it hilarious that the author mentions the practice of dueling as an improvement on prior methods of dispute resolution. Two persons would settle their disputes in a fair, if bloody manner, rather than sending armed hooligans to murder the opponent.
It went even further than the mere influence of the powerful, although that was a serious problem. (He who appoints the magistrates tends to get his way.) Beyond the obvious bias was a basic problem with evidence, and burden of proof, in which a person accused often had no way of clearing himself. Witnesses could not be compelled to testify - and since they often found themselves arrested, few bothered.
And then, there was the infamous Star Chamber. Although it was originally conceived as a means of dealing with the first problem: how to convict powerful people, it became a means of political oppression. Secret sessions, with no witnesses, and unlimited power. What could go wrong? It was certainly useful for silencing dissent.
Through the course of the civil wars and the upheaval, some ideas eventually gained hold. I already mentioned equality under the law. The writ of habeas corpus was developed at this time. The concepts of reliable evidence also began in this era. In fact, much of what William Blackstone collected in his Commentaries on the Laws of England dates from the court cases decided in the aftermath of Charles I’s autocratic rule. (Blackstone does tend to whitewash history a bit, trying to make the case that the law as it existed in his time was most just it could be, and had always been that way.)
The book also contains some great legal characters, both good and evil. There were some notably corrupt judges who did great injustice who later got their comeuppance, and others who fought for freedom of speech and thought and the rule of law at great personal risk to themselves. I’ll make particular note of Chief Justice Scroggs, who, at the height of the reprisals against James II’s political allies after his power weakened, kept back the force that would have murdered many. By insisting on proper evidence, he saved many lives. Not only those accused were saved, but many that would have been. Once the court ceased to be an instrument of a lynch mob, the prosecutions tapered off dramatically. In repayment for his heroism, he was accused of all sorts of things from drunkenness to devil worship to - get this - “dancing naked.”
There were huge political changes as well. James I - and indeed nearly all monarchs of his time and before - believed in their own absolute power. The feudal system had tied monarchical power to the land. The king owned all the land, but then traded its use for fighting men and rents. After feudalism came apart, a new justification for the power was found in the “Divine Right of Kings.”
This idea was given the trappings of religious language. God appointed the king as authority, and thus, he answered only to God. In practice, this meant that he answered only to himself.
As the author puts it about Charles I:
He tried the situation solely by the touchstone of his own honour. This honour, as he conceived, lay not in the strict observation of his faith as a man, still less in the fulfilment of his duties as a King, but in the exaction of all to which, as King or as man, he felt himself entitled. Faithful and just only to the very few who won his personal affection, he pursued through long years this ideal of a selfish honour, utterly regardless of the rights, the wishes, or the resisting force of those with whom he dealt; till at the end of his life, surprised and indignant to the last, he was brought face to face with the failure that is almost invariably the lot of one who judges others solely by their relation to himself.
Charles wasn’t exactly religious in the sense of thinking religion had anything to restrain his own actions. However, there were others who explicitly used religion to justify the Divine Right. Coincidentally, taking this stance also furthered their political power at the time. I was particularly struck by this quote from Manwaring [a High Churchman]:
If any king shall command that which stand not in any opposition to the original laws of God, nature, nations, and the Gospel (though it not be correspondent in every circumstance to laws national and municipal), no subject may, without hazard of his own damnation in the rebelling against God, question or disobey the will and pleasure of his sovereign.
Yes, the king was above the law - and following the law rather than the king - or even questioning the king's pleasure - sent one to hell. I probably sound like a broken record on this issue, but this is exactly the teaching of Bill Gothard, Douglas Phillips, Jonathan Lindvall, the Pearls - and many more mainstream preachers - on the nature of “authority.” Except they don’t apply it to government, but to church leaders and fathers and especially husbands. (This applies to adult children too, in case you wondered.) It’s the Divine Right of Fathers and Husbands and Cult Leaders. And yes, damnation comes into the discussion really fast.
During this time in history, the concept of separation of church and state, of religion and politics, had not yet really arisen. Nearly everyone - and I do mean all of the different factions - believed that it was right, just, and necessary to use political and military force to destroy competing creeds. The king believed it. Parliament believed it, regardless of who controlled it. The Puritans believed it. The Scottish Presbyterians believed it. Even most of the dissenting sects believed it.
The Quakers and Mennonites believed in non-resistance, so they (and similar fringe groups) were probably the only exceptions - and they never got a whiff of political power.
What struck me about all of this was that everything was all mixed up together. Sure, religion was a significant factor in all of the wars. (Fear of the Pope motivated many different parties. That was probably the biggest fear in England in this period.) However, other considerations were always mixed in, and these were also vitally important to the different interests. There were several class divides. Racial divides. Economic divides. The large landowners against the small landowners. Those with longstanding titles against those who were given titles for serving the king in battle. The rural towns against the cities. The Scottish against the English. The English against the French. Or the Dutch, depending on the year. The merchant and banking wealth against the land wealth. And of course, the Presbyterians against the Anglicans against the Catholics against the Puritans against the Nonconformists against the “Free thinkers.” (“Atheist” was about as bad an insult as possible, so doubters had to go with what they could. Then as now, the Puritans considered anyone who disagreed with them on any point to be an atheist.)
The alliances kept shifting throughout. This was another fascinating thing to me. The Puritans banded with the Scottish Presbyterians because they agreed in a dislike of the Anglican church, but also because the Scots had an army, which the Puritans didn’t have. As soon as the combination started to succeed, the Puritans and Presbyterians commenced tearing each other to pieces.
One other interesting fact that I did not know was that the Unitarians actually came from a Puritan movement. Who knew?
I was also reminded of how serious the dispute was at that time between the Calvinists and the Arminians. As in deadly serious. The dispute over predestination took on political overtones, with the accusation that believing in free will would lead to a despot king while a belief in predestination would usher in the utopia of rule by a godly parliament. At least that is what the Puritan/Presbyterian alliance claimed. In the actual event, England ended up with a limited monarchy, and Arminian Anglicanism.
Through all of this dispute and bloodshed, a new idea emerged: freedom of conscience and religion. Initially, none of the major parties wanted this or considered it remotely desirable. They all wanted to win, and then destroy those who disagreed. Even as late as 1688, right before the “Glorious Revolution” wherein William and Mary came over from Holland to take the throne, a popular (Tory) political ballad ran thus:
From freedom of conscience and Whig toleration,
Forever, good Heaven, deliver us!
Again, the author continually notes the connection of the religious and the political. How to placate the other major parties? Let’s persecute the Nonconformists! It worked really well!
I will admit that I have a bit of a personal connection that makes me feel great sympathy for dissenting religious groups. My ancestors - on both sides of my family - were Mennonites. (The modern groups that resemble the Amish are descended from the originals. However, they were originally closer to how we view the Quakers - opposed to military service, not modern technology.) They lived in Germany until they were chased out. They settled briefly in Russia, before being evicted there as well. The United States in the 1890s finally accepted them.
The Mennonites were - for obvious reasons - early proponents of freedom of thought and conscience. Nothing like being hated and persecuted by everyone else.
This is why I fear the prospect of a theocracy. We humans never have pure motives. The religious, if it gains power, will always be tainted by the political. The racial. The economic. The class warfare. These issues will not disappear in a theocracy. They will just be given the force of divine sanction. The Divine Right of ____________.
So, out of the battle for supremacy, two amazing things happened. First, it became a matter of assumption that the power of the king should be greatly limited, and that Parliament should have the primary duty of governance. Second, that religious toleration and freedom of conscience should be granted. (Freedom of speech would come later - and come first in the United States before spreading to England.)
Trevelyan definitely emphasizes this progression. His big theme, in fact, is the development of political and religious liberty during this period.
I’ll mention briefly the impact this period had on the United States. During the reign of Charles I, the Puritans were severely persecuted, partially as a way the semi-secretly Catholic king could appease the Anglicans in Parliament. Many fled to the colonies, and became the primary settlors of New England. For the most part, a corresponding exodus of the Cavaliers and Catholics did not occur during Cromwell’s reign. This was mostly due to the fact that these groups were more likely to be landowners, and thus less likely to leave all and emigrate. Those that did largely settled in the southern colonies, were often Scottish and thus not tied to the more valuable land, and brought their affection for class-based aristocracy with them. The need for an underclass was aptly filled by the slave trade. This also seems to have set the stage for the future “Unitarian versus Presbyterian” divide that drove the religious debates about slavery two hundred years later. Who knew? (And again, note the shifting alliances. At one point, the Puritans defended slavery, but then economic concerns shifted, and the intellectual descendents of the Puritans - the “Unitarians” as the North was called, even though not that many were Unitarian - began to oppose slavery and band together with the emerging Evangelical movement.)
Later, the debates about freedom of conscience would be crucial in the founding of our nation, as the freedoms of speech, association, press, and religion would be incorporated into the Constitution. And yes, habeas corpus and the impeachment process would also find there way in.
I will also note that this book gave me new appreciation for Oliver Cromwell. Far from being just a “good Puritan,” he was a brilliant politician, caught between an increasingly powerful army, the Scots eager to force England into Presbyterianism, Puritans bent on bloody revenge for years of persecution, and the Anglican and Cavalier parties who needed only the fear of violent reprisal to restart the hostilities. When he died, it took very little time for everything to fall apart to the point where England was ready to vomit the Puritans out and turned to the questionable Charles II to make everything better.
I’ll end with a quote about the conditions for a “noble revolution.” Trevelyan has an interesting point about the difference between the results of the English revolution of this period (and perhaps of our own American Revolution) and that of the French. I might also add the October Revolution (which postdated this book) to the revolutions which failed to produce good because of the lack of the necessary conditions.
Revolution is the historian’s touchstone, but which to try the quality of a race or age. It may succeed or fail, pass or stay; but it will in any case reveal the worth or vileness of the soil whence it springs. That most rare of human events, a revolution loftily enacting lofty ideals, can only occur in a State where wealth is well distributed, classes fairly balanced and kindly related, the common intellectual food wholesome, the imagination alive and the moral standard high. It is seldom that these conditions are fulfilled; it is yet more seldom that the politics of so fortunate an era demand a revolution.
A quick note on the Puritans:
Regular readers will know that I am not much of a fan of the Puritans, for both theological and moral reasons, although I grant their progressive views on domestic violence.
Trevelyan has some great points to make about the Puritans. First, he draws a great contrast between the Quakers and the Puritans. I think this question still exists today. (See below.)
Quakerism correct the worst faults of those Puritan sects out of whose midst it grew...Instead of the military spirit, he [George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends] proclaimed the wickedness of all war. Instead of the reliance on force, he enjoined martyrdom. Instead of the suppression of vice, the influence of example. In place of the religion of gloom and reprobation, he opened the inner well-springs of constant joy. In place of the hell waiting the sinner in the next world, he taught men to unfold the heaven that each carried hidden within himself on earth. From the Bible which the Puritan had made the sole authority, he appealed, not back to the Church, but forward to the individual. The doctrine of ‘inner light’ - that inspiration comes from within each man, not from without - was the centre of his system. The individual interpretation of the Bible had long been preparing the way for this idea. The ‘inner light’ was at once the outcome and the countercheck of the Puritan Bible-worship.
What the Quakers referred to as the “inner light” we would no perhaps describe as a combination of conscience, rational thought, and the relationship with the Holy Spirit. I think the relevance of this quote ties in with another note by the author about the lack of a philanthropic spirit during this time. Everyone was awfully quick to kill and torture others. (The lawyer in me notes that petty theft was a felony - which meant hanging.) Trevelyan rightly notes that it was not until the Enlightenment and the rise of rationalism that humanitarian concerns really became a part of our intellectual fabric. As he says, “It must be allowed that religion was then associated with the rack, the stake, the burning town, the massacre of women and children, the hate that never dies, the wrongs that can never be avenged.”
Trevelyan then opines that the “second Puritanism” was the Evangelical movement in the 1800s. He notes that it was a weak imitation of the first in some ways, but that it had one great merit: it’s humanitarian activity. And this truly is its glory. It was this movement that reformed the prisons, ended the slave trade - and slavery - gained women’s suffrage and fought violence against women, ended child labor, and so on.
For in the interval the Rationalist movement had shaken the persecutor’s sword from the hand of Faith, and Religion had been to school with her rival, Reason. From Cromwell to Wilberforce the road lay through Voltaire.
And indeed this is true. The two tie together today, when we are in the midst of a third wave of Puritanism within American Christian culture. The “neo-Calvinists,” “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movements have a strong Puritan resemblance - as does the Christian Patriarchy movement, which has become the dominant force in homeschooling circles. Alas, I do not see a philanthropic spirit in this wave, but the desire to return to the suppression of vice, the quest for power and force, a worship of the Bible (or at least certain interpretations - particularly of authority and gender roles), and a willingness to see those who disagree as subhuman. (Again, I need to do posts on Theonomy, Gender Roles, and class warfare in Christianity.) And, one must not forget, their demonization of the Enlightenment as the cause of all evil.
Note on the literary results of the Age of the Stuarts:
Some truly amazing writing came out of this era. And, unsurprisingly, it was not universally well received.
First in time is John Milton, best known for Paradise Lost. Milton married a 16 year old (he was 35, and by all accounts a difficult man) who soon deserted him, returning several years later. During the interregnum, the first civil war broke out. Milton wrote some pamphlets urging the legalization of divorce - and no-fault divorce at that - which were not well received by the authorities, who threatened to ban them. On a (mostly) unrelated note, the Puritan parliament passed a law forbidding the publishing of any book or pamphlet not expressly approved in advance by them. (This was not aimed at Milton, but at hostile political speech.) Milton defied the law by writing and publishing Areopagitica, an eloquent defence of freedom of thought, conscience, and speech. I read that pamphlet for Banned Books Week a couple of years ago.
As unpopular with the Puritans as he was, Milton wasn’t beloved by the Anglicans or Cavaliers either, although his fame largely kept him out of serious trouble for writing against the powers that were, on all sides of the debate.
The second figure was not so lucky. John Bunyan was dirt poor, so he received no favors. He was a Nonconformist (he preferred “Christian”), so was equally hated by Puritan and Anglican. The Puritans threatened him, but he was actually imprisoned by the king’s minions after the Restoration. He served two terms, the first soon after the Restoration, and the other after the edict of toleration was revoked. His crime? Preaching without a license. During these imprisonments, he would write Pilgrim’s Progress, one of the most influential books ever written. I cannot but think that it is not a coincidence that Bunyan skewers all forms of establishment religion. Note that Christian is led to Mr. Legality by Mr. Worldly Wiseman. Bunyan recognized that the road to legalism is just another form of worldliness.
Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe both wrote after the Restoration. Swift was a razor-sharp political satirist, and enlisted his wit for political purposes. Only his protection from the one powerful party he represented kept him alive. In addition to his overtly political writings, Gulliver’s Travels contains some brilliant jabs at the political figures and events of the time.
Defoe also wrote political stuff, but he remains best known for Robinson Crusoe, which was one of the first novels and helped establish both the novel and realistic fiction in general. His other well known book, Moll Flanders, is a picaresque featuring a female protagonist (!) which highlights issues of gender inequality, the prison system, and other social ills of the day. Suffice it to say that I was astonished by some of the modern ideas Defoe expresses in that book. In some respects, the Victorian Era was a retreat from the progressive ideas in this book.
One more for good measure. Defoe also wrote a short poem on the silliness of “racial purity.” Although it is specifically about Englishmen, it rings true today. It could as easily apply to the American “melting pot,” and gives the lie to those who keep talking about “real Americans.”
The True-Born Englishman
Thus from a mixture of all kinds began,
That het’rogeneous thing, an Englishman:
In eager rapes, and furious lust begot,
Betwixt a painted Britain and a Scot.
Whose gend’ring off-spring quickly learn’d to bow,
And yoke their heifers to the Roman plough:
From whence a mongrel half-bred race there came,
With neither name, nor nation, speech nor fame.
In whose hot veins new mixtures quickly ran,
Infus’d betwixt a Saxon and a Dane.
While their rank daughters, to their parents just,
Receiv’d all nations with promiscuous lust.
This nauseous brood directly did contain
The well-extracted blood of Englishmen.
Which medly canton’d in a heptarchy,
A rhapsody of nations to supply,
Among themselves maintain’d eternal wars,
And still the ladies lov’d the conquerors.
The western Angles all the rest subdu’d;
A bloody nation, barbarous and rude:
Who by the tenure of the sword possest
One part of Britain, and subdu’d the rest
And as great things denominate the small,
The conqu’ring part gave title to the whole.
The Scot, Pict, Britain, Roman, Dane, submit,
And with the English-Saxon all unite:
And these the mixture have so close pursu’d,
The very name and memory’s subdu’d:
No Roman now, no Britain does remain;
Wales strove to separate, but strove in vain:
The silent nations undistinguish’d fall,
And Englishman’s the common name for all.
Fate jumbled them together, God knows how;
What e’er they were they’re true-born English now.
The wonder which remains is at our pride,
To value that which all wise men deride.
For Englishmen to boast of generation,
Cancels their knowledge, and lampoons the nation.
A true-born Englishman’s a contradiction,
In speech an irony, in fact a fiction.
A banter made to be a test of fools,
Which those that use it justly ridicules.
A metaphor invented to express
A man a-kin to all the universe.
For as the Scots, as learned men ha’ said,
Throughout the world their wand’ring seed ha’ spread;
So open-handed England, ’tis believ’d,
Has all the gleanings of the world receiv’d.
Some think of England ’twas our Saviour meant,
The Gospel should to all the world be sent:
Since, when the blessed sound did hither reach,
They to all nations might be said to preach.
’Tis well that virtue gives nobility,
How shall we else the want of birth and blood supply?
Since scarce one family is left alive,
Which does not from some foreigner derive.
Three hundred twelve years old and still kicking butt.