Revolt of the Provinces

by Nick

Gavin Robinson has started posting a series of pieces on the historiography of the English Civil Wars over at Investigations of a Dog. They’re based on his slog through the literature as he writes up some research on the experiences of war in Essex between 1642-5. The first post is on John Morrill’s Revolt of the Provinces of 1976 – recently re-issued in an editorialised version entitled Revolt in the Provinces. I’ve actually just finished reading the original after picking up a cheap copy in a second-hand bookshop in Colwyn Bay, and had planned to post something about it. The bad news was that I went to WordPress to start writing and found Gavin had beaten me to it! But the good news is that there should be an interesting series of posts to look forward to by him.

So rather than write my own unconnected post, I thought I’d pick up on a few of the points Gavin raises with my own thoughts.

First of all, allegiance. Morrill lays a heavy stress on the contingency and chance behind it. This particular sentence, I think, still has strong resonance:

In 1642, men had been forced to make up their minds between two parties both of which represented essential elements in their fundamental political cosmology. Conflicting allegiances, further cross-cut by local connection and patronage, had led to commitments entered into without certainty, without conviction. Men took commissions in order to give themselves authority to protect their communities and their conception of the world from external attack and internal disintegration (p. 89).

My own, admittedly limited, reading of the evidence, would lead me to support this. But the problem for the historian here is what allegiance even means – I’ll be checking out Gavin’s recommendation of an article on the concept by Rachel Weil in History Workshop Journal. Intuitively, we could also hypothesise that some men (and remember Morrill doesn’t mention women, and his men are mostly the local gentry) took sides for even more contingent, even expedient reasons – because of fear, because of local pressure, because there was no better side to ally with. Voices like these are often lost to us – pressure at the time or subsequently means they simply may not be recorded (not to mention the issues over mapping allegiance of those who don’t leave handy documentary summaries of their beliefs). Morrill found only one still small voice ready to admit not just trimming, but positively isolationist views. Here is what the midlands rector in question wrote in his parish register:

When an uncivil war was being waged most fiercely between King and Parliament throughout the greater part of England, I lived well because I lay low (pp. 89-90).

And yet this voice is surely not unique. The question is how we discover whether there were others like him.

I was also interested by Gavin’s point about more work being needed to be done about the extent to which Parliament’s structures (locally and nationally) helped/hindered it in winning the wars compared to the king’s equivalents. I’m sure he’s right that there is an awful lot of scope to dig beneath the surface. In recent writings on the seventeenth century, history of administration often comes off poorly compared to what are perceived to be more “sexy” siblings such as high politics or cultural history. We recently had Gerald Aylmer’s last in a trilogy of books on the seventeenth century – completed just before he died – but it reads very empirically, with a heavy emphasis on prosopography and tied more to his previous works than to new developments in the study of bureaucracies. I’d be interested to see some more on this, particularly on how developments in the 1640s do or don’t bleed into the developments of the 1650s and 1660s.

Gavin mentions Morrill’s hints that English provincial perceptions of the Irish catholic threat might be different from, and more important than, what was really happening in Ireland. As an aside, worth mentioning that Morrill is now running a special subject at Cambridge on the Irish rebellion and its contemporary legacy. I can’t wait to see if this results in a book or further research.