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Customer Review

15 March 2012
This short book occupies a pivotal position in English historiography. Gerald Aylmer (1926 - 2000) studied history at Balliol College, Oxford, under Christopher Hill (1912-2003), who had proposed, as early as 1940, that there had been an `English Revolution', and continued to argue this in a long series of books until his retirement. For a time, Hill, who was a Marxist, succeeded in establishing a new orthodoxy, replacing the Clarendon's idea that what we experienced was a `Great Rebellion', and Samuel Rawson Gardiner's idea there was a `Puritan Revolution' as well as making G.M.Trevelyan's more gradualist account seem naïve. In time, Hill's ideas came under sustained attack, from Conrad Russell (1937-2004) and others, and by the end of the 20th century, they were largely discredited.

This book was written in the 1980s. Aylmer answers the central question - Rebellion or Revolution? - in a short passage at the end. Along the way he narrates and explains a great deal. I had no idea just how complicated the politics of the Civil Wars and Interregnum was, despite having read many accounts in the last 50 years. Who remembers that the Rump was dissolved, and resurrected, not once but twice; and that Richard Cromwell resigned shortly after he succeeded his father, and there was a further interval between anyone suggested the Restoration; and that there were so many splits in the Army?

Anyone who greets the prospect of revolution cheerfully should take note of what happened, and what did not happen, between 1640 and 1660 in England. Despite the almost total unanimity of the opposition to Charles I in 1640, it proved impossible to establish anything like a consensus (in politics or religion) after the Parliamentary victory in 1646. The Parliament gave way to the Army; the Commonwealth gave way to the Protectorate; the Levellers, Diggers, Ranters and Quakers had their day and went away. There were no less than three unsuccessful attempts to convene a new Parliament; but in the end the Rump came back, to be followed by the Convention Parliament and then a full red-blooded Cavalier Parliament. In the meantime, Cromwell had tried numerous experiments, including direct military rule through his Major-Generals; but the Army split once he was gone.

There were executions, atrocities, purges and numerous acts of pettiness and revenge; and yet, what comes across to me is the inherent `civility' of the English people. In the main, the victorious Parliamentarians did not pursue their enemies with anything like the animosity demonstrated by the French or Russian Revolutionaries after 1789 and 1917. There is hope for us yet, I feel.

This is an excellent book. I would recommend it to any reader - student, the general reader and retired old buffers alike.
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