The English Revolution 1640

The English Revolution 1640 by Christopher Hill is available to read online, and that is how I read most of it before I bought the book secondhand. It’s a slim book and an easy read.

What It Argues

In a nutshell, the book argues that the monarchy, the landed gentry, the church, the big capitalists, the little capitalists, the merchants, the peasantry, the urban masses, the army – all had their positions to protect and advance, and their shifting allegiances in a changing world.

Capitalists were making money overseas and as pirates on the high seas. Those who bought land following the destruction of the churches under Henry VIII wanted rack rents from their tenants.

They weren’t interested in the feudal relationships that had kept the feudal landlords living like lords. The new breed of landlord did want tenants with their feudal copyhold entitlement to remain on the land: they wanted money rent.

Capitalists wanted workers. Tenants weren’t safe from being evicted from their land or unable to pay rack rents and were moving away to the towns to work in capitalist ventures.

The towns were bound by guilds that prevented the opening up of competition. Acts of Parliament prohibited those less well off from entering guilds – Parliament being the King’s parliament made of the King’s friends.

But things were changing, the makeup of Parliament was changing. And the capitalists had other means to circumvent the King.

They established businesses outside the towns, free of the restrictions.

Prices rose, and the feudal order collapsed because it was too expensive to maintain.

Meanwhile, attitudes changed because the Church was no longer the favoured or only route for disseminating truth and propaganda.

Civil War

The result was civil war, the establishment of a republic, and eventually a change in the relationship of a changed parliament that brought back the monarchy stripped back to do its bidding.

What didn’t happen? The mass of the population were not able to take power. They tried but they failed.

Beyond that, that economic changes and the march of history rarely favour those trying to stop change.

I think the look in the face of Charles II in this c.1678 terracotta bust attributed to John Bushnell says it all. He was brought back on condition that he knew his place and kept out of politics. (The bust is in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.)

Bust of Charles II, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Quotes From The English Revolution 1640.

The English Revolution of 1640-60 was a great social movement like the French Revolution of 1789. The state power protecting an old order that was essentially feudal was violently overthrown, power passed into the hands of a new class, and so the freer development of capitalism was made possible. The Civil War was a class war, in which the despotism of Charles I was defended by the reactionary forces of the established Church and conservative landlords. Parliament beat the King because it could appeal to the enthusiastic support of the trading and industrial classes in town and countryside, to the yeomen and progressive gentry, and to wider masses of the population whenever they were able by free discussion to understand what the struggle was really about.

Ever since then orthodox historians have done their utmost to stress the “continuity” of English history, to minimise the revolutionary breaks, to pretend that the “interregnum” (the word itself shows what they are trying to do) was an unfortunate accident, that in 1660 we returned to the old Constitution normally developing, that 1688 merely corrected the aberrations of a deranged King. Whereas, in fact, the period 1640-60 saw the destruction of one kind of state and the introduction of a new political structure within which capitalism could freely develop. For tactical reasons, the ruling class in 1660 pretended that they were merely restoring the old forms of the Constitution. But they intended by that restoration to give sanctity and social stamp to a new social order. The important thing is that the social order was new and would not have been won without revolution.

Update December 2019

I have now watched the BBC programmes, the three episodes of the first series on Charles I.

The series emphasises that Charles’ wife was French and a Catholic.

It said that Puritans in the Commons feared she was turning the king back to Catholicism. And that the King was circumventing the proper function of Parliament by using the Royal Prerogative to tax without the authority of Parliament and to punish without trial. To the Puritan Junto in the Commons, the King was an autocrat who has to be tamed.

The King was not a consensus politician. To him, Parliament was an obstacle he must ride over to get his way. There was not attempt to bridge the gap and there were many ‘final straws’, but one that stung the most was the King’s attempt to foist a new prayer book in standard form on all subjects.

To the Scots; to the liberal-minded Londoners, and to the Puritans, the King’s prayer book was a Catholic mass by another name. All they needed was to get their Bills through both Houses Of Parliament. And that’s where plague stepped in to lend a hand to the course of history.

The King demanded that his Royalist landowning hangers-on support him by attending the Commons to vote down the Puritan Bills.

The key was the Great Remonstrance, a list of complaints about the King’s behaviour, carefully worded so as not to impugn the King himself, for that would be treason. First the Commons voted to put the Great Remonstrance to the King. Then they voted to publicise the Great Remonstrance, with the result that the London was up in arms.

Traditionally, the King could count on the Royalists and the bishops in the House of Lords to defeat contentious Bills.

But the Royalists didn’t want to risk exposure to plague and did not come to London in the numbers needed.

And the bishops were warned off by an angry young London populace. So the Bills passed and the power in the country shifted away from the Crown.

With the King in open opposition to the Puritans and the junto, the breakdown in communication ushered in the civil war that ended with the abolition of the monarchy.

Reconciling The Book and The TV Programmes

It is hard to reconcile the TV programmes and the book. It is almost as though they are looking at different events. The TV programmes look at the personalities and hardly look at the surrounding changes in the social order in Britain brought about by economic changes. I can’t say which gives a better picture of reality as it was lived.