The Noble Revolt

by Nick

So, my first post. I haven’t actually started the Masters yet – that has to wait until October – but I thought I’d get into the habit of forcing myself to write, and to collect my thoughts. I’m going to start with a review of John Adamson’s recent book on the politics of the build-up to the English Civil War between 1640 and 1642, The Noble Revolt , which I have just finished re-reading.

I mention the fact that I have re-read it because this is not a small book, and it takes quite some time to absorb in full. The footnotes alone take up 191 pages, which should alert you to the fact that it gives an incredibly detailed coverage of the two years on which it focuses. The book is in many ways a prequel to Adamson’s PhD thesis on the role of the English peerage in politics between 1645 and 1649 (when the House of Lords was abolished). In his thesis, Adamson argued that the nobility’s role in civil war politics had previously been neglected, both by Whiggish historians concerned with seeing the conflict as the high road to nineteenth century democracy, and by Marxists presenting the period as one of class struggle. In particular, Adamson focused on the emergence of two groups amongst the peerage, each of which cooperated with their comrades in the Commons – a moderate, later Presbyterian group that was keen by the late 1640s to reinstall the king with only mild limits on his authority, and a more extreme group (the Independents). This split between Presbyterians and Independents had been established before Adamson’s thesis, notably by David Underdown in Pride’s Purge , but the centrality of the peerage had not been suitably brought out.

Adamson’s wider thesis was criticised in the early 1990s in a debate with Mark Kishlansky over whether Viscount Saye and Sele had had a hand in drafting the Heads of Proposals, rather than just Cromwell and Ireton as had been previously believed. The general consensus seems to be that Adamson’s evidence doesn’t prove this, but Adamson’s blistering response to Kishlansky’s original critique in the Historical Journal is still worth reading. The unfortunate thing about the debate was that it tended to damn the rest of Adamson’s much wider thesis; unfairly, in my view.

The Noble Revolt is a rehabilitation of that thesis, stretching Adamson’s arguments back into the early 1640s. He argues that Pym’s centrality in the move towards war has been overstated, and that instead we should look to a network of godly Puritan nobles, centred around Bedford and Warwick, excluded from power during the 1630s and anxious at the direction in religious and political policies were heading. Adamson is at pains to emphasise that it was a case of bicameral cooperation, rather than the Lords commanding the Commons; but he does make the point that it was the great houses of the English nobility who possessed the political and, importantly, military clout to take things to war. What follows is a case of gambles alternately paying off then failing and pushing factions further away from their opponents. In particular, Adamson draws out the role of the Scots, not as an invading army but as mercenaries invited to invade by the Warwick-Bedford faction. If the invasion failed or the plot was discovered, this was treason; and so the stakes in negotiations with the king could not have been higher. Adamson presents his evidence through painstaking analysis of letters, newssheets and other contemporary sources. His reconstruction of the Warwick-Bedford axis, and the factions within it, is highly convincing. Kishlansky has argued in the past that kinship connections do not necessarily make for political connections. However, the weight of familial, spiritual, political and financial connections – handily combined in involvement in the Providence Island Company for many within the group – are such that it is hard to refute Adamson’s reconstruction.

And there are some standout moments in that reconstruction. There is a shrewd look at the authorship of a pamphlet which leads him to conclude that it was authored by Oliver St John. There is the set of annotations on a document hand-written by Charles I and handed to Will Morray that Adamson discovered in a barn belonging to a distant descendant. The analysis of the factional politics over Strafford’s execution, as different parts of the group blew alternately hot and cold depending on relationships with the Scots, is outstanding – as is the atmospheric account of the trial itself (where one suspects Adamson sympathises with Strafford, lucid and calm again the bumbling and tongue-tied Pym).

However, there are some moments where Adamson over-reaches himself. His account of the previous historiography of the origins of the war focuses really only on Conrad Russell. There is no coverage of other historians from a wide range of theoretical or argumentative backgrounds. This extends through the book’s epilogue, where Adamson is keen to debunk Whigs and revisionists alike by finding a third way on explaining the origins of the war – but can coverage of only 1640-1642 cover enough of the origins of the war to adequately explain them? I don’t believe it can. What it can do is explain the move in Westminster and Edinburgh politics towards war; but it doesn’t explain the longer-term preconditions that allowed such a move to happen, nor does it cover the background to development of party and ideology in the aftermath of war breaking out. And Adamson’s argument that it was not a war of religion, but a war based on cold-blooded political concerns may be right, but doesn’t sit well with his other point that (rightly) religion cannot be separated from politics during this period. There is also the odd assertion where his evidence doesn’t quite do what he wants it to. Charles I’s complaint that he would be turned into a doge of Venice, and the existence of quotes from republican authors in Bedford’s commonplace book, doesn’t quite add up to a determined intellectual programme of "Venetianisation" of the English state. If anything I think that Adamson’s arguments of contingency and short-term political calculation apply here too, and that there was less of a coherent programme of political thought behind the Warwick-Bedford axis than he perhaps argues.

What takes the book beyond its arguments is the quality of the writing. Chapters start and end with some fantastic set-pieces – for example, Charles fleeing Whitehall in January 1642:

"From the cabin at the stern of the barge, Charles caught a glimpse of the gilded weather-vanes of Whitehall Palace before the boat turned westwards, past the Abbey, and under the great east window of St Stephen’s Chapel – the Commons’ chamber, and the scene of his most recent political debacle. It would be seven years before Charles saw his palace again".

We all know – but Adamson leaves unsaid – the reason why Charles would return. And this extract also gives a glimpse into Adamson’s excellent sense of London’s geography, both physical and political. The geographical networks of godly aristocrats, going from one great house to another or holed up in the chamber, are brought out superbly. London comes alive in the book as we realise how small and yet how divided it could be between the rival factions. There are superb passages on the indefensability of Whitehall, on the physical layout of Strafford’s trial, and on the scenes in Whitehall yards as crowds of apprentices jostled with each other.

The critical response to the book so far has been pretty good, although some reviews have been of higher quality than others. The Times was very positive without particularly engaging in the book’s arguments. Diane Purkiss’s review in the Financial Times probably owes more to Adamson’s own review of Purkiss’s recent book . The Spectator and the Telegraph were more considered. By far the best was Blair Worden’s lengthy meditation on the book in the London Review of Books – subscribers only, unfortunately, but it contained a fascinating insight into Worden’s work on Hugh Trevor-Roper’s papers and a book on the English Civil War that he never finished, but which covered similar ground to Adamson. It was also the only review so far to engage with the book’s arguments in a genuinely critical way.

As a final word, if you are interested in a summary by Adamson himself of his arguments, there is a recording of a reading he gave at the Hay festival available on the Guardian’s site . It costs a pound to buy but it is worth downloading.