I am amazed to find that this book has only two previous 5 star reviews, and that one reviewer found it boring. I write as someone who studied the English Civil War 50 years ago, when Christopher Hill's Marxist view of the conflict seemed to dominate the field and defy contradiction. I have been too busy working in the years in between to return to the subject. Now, I find that Christopher Hill's view is 'old hat' - so much so that he is not even mentioned by Conrad Russell, who takes it as axiomatic that there was nothing in the Marxist analysis, based on a class struggle for which there is no contemporary evidence.
This must be right. The MPs in the House of Commons and the Lords in the Upper House all came from the same class - they were all country gentlemen, unless they were aristocrats; and there was no clear difference between Royalists and Parliamentarians in terms of class. Nor can any such difference be demonstrated in the counties, or in the towns. The working class was spectacularly absent, and even the bourgeoisie was elusive. The best the Marxists could do was to focus on a certain section of the gentry, said to have bourgeois interests or ambitions; or else on the Levellers and Diggers, who may have been different, but who were certainly not successful, in revolutionary terms.
So what was left, if one was interested in analysis and causes, rather than mere narrative, and 'one damned thing after another'? Conrad Russell showed, to my mind successfully, that a very great deal was left: above all, the fact that Charles I was king of 3 kingdoms, not one; and that since the Reformation, each of the three had arrived at a very different religious settlement - 'Anglican' in England, Calvinist in Scotland, Catholic in Ireland. This presented Charles with intolerable dilemmas, given that he was a devout adherent of the Church of England, who thought that diversity and toleration were anathema, and wanted uniformity - like Louis XIV after him. But he lacked Louis's charisma, judgement, power; and wealth, and the attempt to whip the Scots into line brought him down, especially when a large number of English MPs were either in agreement with the Scots, or hostile to the King's view of Anglicanism, or unwilling to trust him to deal with the Catholic Confederacy in Ireland.
I simplify; and Conrad Russell puts it all so much better.
I am not surprised to learn that his view has become the new orthodoxy, and that the Marxists have left the field. Stylistically, I agree with one adverse critic of this book that Russell is not easy to read. It could even be said that he overcomplicates the question, and thereby gives a rather convoluted answer; but on the other hand, the problem was not exactly simple; and some very strange and misleading answers have been given to it in the past.
As the Eton and Oxford educated son of Bertrand Russell, and great grandson of a prime minister, Conrad Russell (d.2004) had arguably the best possible springboard from which to achieve academic prominence - and this he achieved in spades. Having heard him lecture it is also possible to confirm that he was no slouch in the area of teaching either. To a significant extent therefore Russell's view of the English Civil War became the 'established view' of the conflict, and many have followed it with greater or lesser skill and imagination. Given these facts it is astounding that until now no one has posted anything on 'The Causes of the English Civil War'.
Russell's approach marks a sharp divergence from the themes of the immediate post war period where 'class' - rising, falling, and stagnating gentry, and other social and economic factors, had been the main subjects of research. Instead he acknowledges that 'no group was unanimous' and that there were other ideas afoot. Crucial amongst these was the problem of 'multiple kingdoms'. Unlike the Tudors James and Charles Stuart were Kings of England and Scotland, and, given ongoing strife in Ireland, were potentially atop a polity pulling apart under its own inbuilt instability. This idea would be so widely accepted from the late 1980s to the present that many have come to discard the term 'English' Civil War altogether, preferring 'War of the Three Kingdoms' - or any other contstruction, which accepts that conflict really began in 1640 or 1641 with Scotland or Ireland. Moreover Russell's observations, and championing of the 'difference' and importance of Scotland and Ireland were especially happy from his point of view - because, by good planning or good fortune, they chimed entirely with the political concerns of the 1980s and 1990s. The 'Three Kingdom's' approach thus appeared very apposite and of 'current importance' against devolution, in just the same way as Christopher Hill's concern with Marxism had looked significant against the background of the Cold War. How durable the 'Multiple Kingdoms' idea will remain is open to question: but is does have the significant advantage that it does not depend on anachronism and reduction like the 'class' arguments that it has essentially replaced.
We also need to be aware that Russell's view of the causes of the English Civil War are far more complex and multifaceted than a single issue approach. His book also makes significant observations on the role of religion; the role of law and rights of Kings; on finance, and on the personality of King Charles I. These are vital, since without these additional factors we have no explanation of why the wars started when they did - and in what fashion.
'The Causes of the English Civil War' is thus a highly significant book which encapsulates the major thoughts of a whole generation of scholars, and nearly three decades of Russell's own work. It is, in the terms of internet reviews, a five star volume of the first order. It is well written and engaging. If there is a 'but' it is that it depends too much upon the fashionable issue of devolution - a point which becomes particularly apparent in the conclusions. Another minor caveat is that it lacks a bibliography. Highly Recommended.
In some 40 years of reading on the subject this is, by a considerable distance, the best history book I have ever read, written by a man of singular intelligence. If you have the slightest interest in this period, in history in general, or simply in watching a brilliant mind at work, read this.