What caused the English Civil War is a question which had already begun to exercise historians while powder smoke still lingered on the battlefields, and which exercises them still. The debate has been long, acrimonious, and fascinating--and indeed its duration has sometimes been an embarrassment to historians (Marc Bloch's reprimand that they would get more done if `they spent less time compiling honour rolls and more time writing notebooks' comes to mind). That embarrassment may be coming to an end. Certainly, whatever developments may yet take place in this field, the engagement with archival sources that historians have undertaken in the last 30-odd years can only mean that we are getting closer to the truth. John Adamson's new book is a product of this engagement, and directs the reader's attention to hitherto under-explored aspects of the Civil War.
Before looking at the argument of Noble Revolt, the book merits some general comments. For a start, it is compulsively readable: dramatic set-pieces evoke a vivid sense of place to rival and surpass the work of Simon Schama or Mark Kishlansky. The pathos of the description of Strafford's trial and execution recalls Carlyle. So, given the size of the tome (c.200 pages of endnotes make the volume deceptively large), the chances are that your arms will give in long before your brain. These set-pieces enliven a grand-narrative which fluidly synthesises description and analysis without recourse to the rather wooden thematic chapters on `social conditions' etc. sometimes found interspersed in books which attempt a narrative approach. Perhaps the best thing about this is that events simply make sense when presented in their real chronological and geographical location. And while the work will surely mean more to someone familiar with the debate, it does stand alone--partly because it is so easy to read. When historians are mentioned (principally Russell, Gardiner, and in the epilogue the `revisionist' school as a whole) quotations are liberally provided. In other (rather modish) words, it's accessible.
The thesis which Adamson advances here, and which has been the basis of his academic career, is that it is helpful to think of the English Civil War as a `baronial revolt'. It is stated more circumspectly than hitherto in Noble Revolt, which may disappoint those seeking the radically contrarian--but it is probably better that when Adamson disclaims that the `baronial context' of the revolt was `but one of many' we should feel not that he's overstating the case but rather the opposite. That you will probably think the latter rather than the former is indeed a testament to the book's success.
The general argument is that the central importance of the nobility in precipitating the English Civil War has been overlooked by historians (who have often searched for the motor of events in the actions of the lower classes). A group of `godly' noblemen of Puritan leanings were profoundly dissatisfied with the government of Charles I, which both denied them a role in the administration which they felt they deserved (favouring rather the low-born but efficient, like Strafford and Laud) and advanced a religious doctrine which they abhorred. The Scottish Crisis of 1637 gave these noblemen the chance they had been waiting for--and it came just in time, for peers like Saye and Brooke had been seriously considering emigrating to Connecticut (which gives some impression of their depth of feeling). A group of seven peers invited the Scots to invade, committing treason in the process, and thereafter embarked on a `prolonged, ruthless and at times breathtakingly successful campaign against the royal prerogative'--for the king had to be limited if they were to preserve their constitutional innovations and indeed their personal safety.
This Junto in the Lords was intimately connected with the Junto in the Commons which is portrayed in many accounts as the driving force behind demands for reform. Adamson has retreated a little from his claims that MPs like Pym and St John were simply the `men of business' of aristocratic puppet-masters, and the importance of the Commons is not neglected; the actions of individuals are explained as such rather than forced into a predetermined mould whereby nobles lead or vice versa. For instance, St John's role in ensuring the failure of a Bedfordian compromise which would have saved Strafford's life in return for royal concessions is catalogued in detail--and the fact that Bedford himself was one of St John's patrons is not ignored. And it is striking how such MPs were often intimately involved in circles of patronage, religion and business headed by noblemen--even family connections appear with a frequency which should perhaps be less surprising. Interesting light is shone on the role of organisations like the Providence Island Company and the Honourable Artillery Company as centres where opposition to Charles fermented. Adamson marshals compelling evidence to support his thesis.
An important question with which Noble Revolt wrestles is whether this was a conflict of religion or politics. Adamson's general conclusion seems to be that it was both, and indeed that it is misleading to try to separate the two. But he also counsels against ignoring politics. Contrary to `revisionist' doxa, he suggests that the rebels did have a constitutional agenda of some sort, and that the changes were intended to be permanent, rather than mere temporary expedients designed to shackle an insupportable king. To support this argument he describes how the Junto repeatedly `blew hot and cold' on matters of religion, sometimes advocating root and branch reform as a gesture to sweeten their Scottish allies; sometimes renouncing iconoclastic legislation when it seemed to be generating too much hostility to Parliament throughout the nation. But this all becomes rather complicated if one considers that arguably the Junto was ultimately motivated by religion: so religion played second fiddle to political manoeuvring, but the Junto's political goals were determined by religion. The question of quite what was causing what is imposing, and may even been impossible to answer; perhaps the best solution is to simply restate the inseparability of religion and politics. But I don't think Adamson is really satisfied with this.
In any case, it is pleasing that he has to wrestle with this question: for all Adamson's dominance of the field, there is nothing glib about Noble Revolt; none of the self-satisfaction of Lawrence Stone or Christopher Hill. Parallels with Schama's Citizens again occur: this narrative, like Citizens, rehabilitates the importance of individuals and events and contingency rather than reducing the Civil War to the product of the interplay of clearly delineated factors. As my tone has probably revealed, I have a great deal of sympathy with this approach. Often `factor-history' with its exclusive preoccupation with the impersonal seems simply too easy; too removed what we know to be the realities of life. If `revisionism' challenged this approach, Adamson's narrative has buried it a good six feet deep.
For my own part, I find exposure to scholarship immoderately pleasing, and I'm sure that `serious' history of this sort will exhilarate the uninitiated, and impress the rest. It will certainly entertain you. It may well adsorb you. And it will make you think afresh about exactly what the Civil War was and why it happened. Your conclusions may be surprising.