Andrew Stone looks at a new history of the origins of the English Civil Wars, finding an engaging account of the class character of the process which ultimately saw Charles I executed.
Michael Sturza, The London Revolution 1640-1643: Class Struggles in 17th Century England (The Mad Duck Coalition, 2022) 256pp, $20.00.
London may not have the same revolutionary reputation of Paris or St Petersburg, but in this new account of the outbreak of the English Civil Wars, The London Revolution, Michael Sturza reminds us of its radical heritage. Those deluging us with myths about uncritical British deference to the monarchy in this Jubilee year should remember that in 1649 these battles between King and Parliament concluded with King Charles I’s trial and decapitation.
Retrieving the English Revolution from under the detritus of revisionist historiography, Sturza provides a convincing Marxist polemic underscored by a confident grasp of detail. His starting point is to acknowledge a debt to Christopher Hill, whose pioneering 1940 work The English Revolution 1640 initially established the case for the conflict as one between social classes, as opposed to one based primarily on religion – though it was often articulated by its protagonists in those terms. He argued that this was a bourgeois revolution, one led by a progressive section of the gentry (the landowning class below the nobility) against the reactionary feudal legacy that dominated the court and neutered parliament (which in the early modern period played a largely secondary and sometimes infrequent legislative role, and could be dismissed at the monarch’s pleasure, as it was by Charles between 1629 and 1640).
While Hill was right to give primacy to social and economic causes, Sturza argues, he found it hard to defend this version of it. Revisionists were able to point to a large swathe of the gentry who supported Charles and his pretensions to an absolutist version of monarchy. This was far beyond the ‘feudal remnants’ that Hill, inspired by RH Tawney, saw as the exceptions to a general trend. Indeed, if they had been so inconsequential then the civil wars would have been very short-lived.
As a result of such critiques, Hill began to retreat towards a much less strident view, arguing by 1980 that “the phrase [bourgeois revolution] in Marxist usage does not mean a revolution made by or consciously willed by the bourgeoisie…”[i] He maintained instead somewhat vaguely that social contradictions led to a breakdown of the old society that ultimately the bourgeoisie were the beneficiaries of. That it was a bourgeois revolution in its results, if not its agency.
Sturza follows a slightly later generation of Marxists, including Perry Anderson and Brian Manning, in seeking to refocus Hill’s initial insights. Firstly, Sturza argues that to find the revolutionary bourgeoisie we must be less fixated on the landed gentry who, even in their more radical aspects, represented a contradictory social position. Instead, we should be more aware of the leading role of the free-trading bourgeois Atlantic merchants, among whom parliamentary leaders John Pym and John Hampden were two notables. One of their foremost complaints was the stifling of their exploits by royal-sanctioned monopolies. For example, the Duke of Buckingham, James I’s lover and his son’s leading courtier, was one beneficiary of this system, and was assassinated to widespread popular acclaim in 1628.
Secondly, Sturza shows that this capitalistic Puritan leadership required mass participation from below – that ‘petty bourgeois artisan craftworkers, shopkeepers, early manufacturers, domestic traders and mariners…provided the horsepower of the revolution.’(xv) So while he certainly doesn’t ignore the manoeuvres of parliament (which Charles was forced to recall after twice provoking war with his Scottish kingdom while trying to assert religious uniformity) Sturza sees it as a site of conflict profoundly affected by the political and physical battles being waged on London’s streets.
A short review cannot do justice to the narrative of this developing street movement, but some key features are particularly worthy of note. For one, the breakdown of censorship in spring 1640 was both the result of and quickened the popular movement against absolutism and episcopacy (rule by bishops). Historians are lucky to have extensive archives of the explosion of pamphlets produced as a result, which provide ample evidence of the audience for a radical rethinking of society.
This radical literature fed into the growth of petitioning, not as a tame alternative to confrontational protests, as they can sometimes be today, but as a complement to it. Collecting signatures involved street meetings and political arguments, often from far beyond the official ‘political nation’ of the roughly 25% of adult men entitled to vote. Presenting them was generally a rowdy and intimidating affair, with large crowds of apprentices to the forefront. Women also began to take a visible and active role. Part of the outrage felt by the Royalists at John Pym’s Grand Remonstrance, a manifesto of complaints and demands narrowly passed in the Commons in November 1641, was that it was published for ‘the mob’ to read, the perceived insult of which occasioned the last time that swords were drawn in parliament.
What is often missed in orthodox accounts of the unfolding of the civil wars is the level of mobilisation that followed in what Sturza calls ‘the December days’. This was when Charles appointed a violent reactionary, Colonel Thomas Lunsford, as Lieutenant of the Tower of London and gathered armed men at Whitehall and Westminster Abbey. In response the streets were filled with armed citizens, parliamentary leaders were protected from the King’s attempt to arrest them, the gates of the city were closed, and a Committee of Public Safety elected.
Sturza carefully delineates the tensions at the heart of the parliamentary alliance, and the methods used by Pym and other leaders to keep both conciliators, such as the Earl of Essex, and radical popular forces on board. He recognises that there was a degree of alternative leadership ‘from below’, though readers would benefit from consulting The Leveller Revolution by John Rees to explore this further. While it is certainly true that this democratic movement only fully crystallised in the New Model Army created by parliament in 1645 to win the civil war, Rees adds depth to our understanding of the extent to which the radical networks were built within the civilian movement in the preceding years.
While The London Revolution is a work of synthesis rather than original research, it is one of the most impressive and readable exemplars of its kind in recent years. It provides an accessible introduction to the interested general reader, while its historiographical polemic poses difficult questions for revisionist academics set on denying the social roots and processes of the English revolution.
[i] Christopher Hill, ‘A Bourgeois Revolution?’ in Three British Revolutions:1641, 1688, 1766, ed JGA Pocock (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1980), 110.