David Underdown

by Nick

I found out earlier in the week that David Underdown, the distinguished historian of seventeenth-century England, had died. There is a moving obituary by Mark Kishlansky over at the NACBS blog.

I’ve got a few books by Underdown on my bookshelves, and over the years a number of them have been texts I’ve returned to again and again. Here are three that have made a particularly big impact on me.

The first book by Underdown I ever read was Pride’s Purge: politics in the Puritan Revolution. It was probably in about 1999, when I was doing a course on early modern politics in the first year of my undergraduate degree. It was a staple of reading lists then, as it had been in the 1970s and 1980s and still is now. I was still drawing on it for essays I wrote earlier this year. Most academic libraries will probably have multiple well-thumbed copies. For a book on civil war politics to have survived so long without significant challenge is a testament to the depth of research that went into it. In Pride’s Purge, Underdown skilfully unpicked the twists and turns of political factions during the late 1640s and  reconstituted them as a gripping narrative of events leading up to the purge of the Long Parliament and the execution of Charles I.

Around 2004, a few years after I graduated, I came across a second-hand copy of Fire from heaven: life in an English town in the seventeenth century. I think it may even have been in a bookshop in Dorchester, the subject of the book, although something tells me I may have invented this. Wherever I got it, I remember starting reading and being unable to put it down. Underdown tells the story of Dorchester in the aftermath of a catastrophic fire in 1613. The fire gave John White, a godly puritan preacher, the chance to remodel the town’s spiritual life. Much of the book is the story of White and his supporters’ struggle against the less puritan elements of the town’s population. Like Pride’s Purge, it was based on complete mastery of the relevant archives. More importantly, though, Underdown was able to revive the ghosts of seventeenth-century Dorchester and make them come alive on the page. Characters like Matthew Chubb or William Whiteway become as real as one’s neighbours today when reading it. Fire from heaven is the book I try to foist on friends who wonder why I bother with the early modern period and whether there’s anything of interest within it.

Finally, there is Revel, riot, and rebellion: popular politics and culture in England, 1603-1660. I had never read this before I started my Masters, but did so in my first term for an essay I was writing on popular politics. It completely changed the way I thought about the period. I came to my postgraduate degree with a very high political definition of what politics was. Underdown’s book vastly expanded my definition of what counted as ‘political’. He was one of the first historians of the civil wars to start the job of recombining political history with social history, after the two had gone their separate ways during the 1960s and 1970s in the aftermath of the great debates over whether the social condition of the gentry was responsible for political allegiance. After its publication, Revel, riot and rebellion drew some criticism for what a number thought was an overly schematic and deterministic model of political allegiance. It’s true that Underdown’s arguments about regional ecologies driving political allegiance don’t hold true across parts of England. But looking back, Underdown was in the vanguard of historians’ attempts to marry an analysis of popular political ideology with an understanding of the cultural drivers behind it. It’s a very rewarding book which arguably set the tone for the next twenty years’ worth of studies of popular politics during the civil wars.

So as I said at the start, Underdown’s work has had a huge impact on me. There are other books I could have posted about, but these are the big three. If you’ve never read anything by him, find a second-hand copy of Fire from heaven and go forward from there. You won’t regret it.