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What is the Legacy of the English Civil War?

Amid the pageantry (and the horrible family intrigue) of the approaching coronation, much will be said about the endurance of the British monarchy through the centuries, and perhaps less about how the first King Charles ended his reign: by having his head chopped off in public while the people cheered or gasped. The first modern revolution, the English one that began in the sixteen-forties, which replaced a monarchy with a republican commonwealth, is not exactly at the forefront of our minds. Think of the American Revolution and you see pop-gun battles and a diorama of eloquent patriots and outwitted redcoats; think of the French Revolution and you see the guillotine and the tricoteuses, but also the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Think of the English Revolution that preceded both by more than a century and you get a confusion of angry Puritans in round hats and likable Cavaliers in feathered ones. Even a debate about nomenclature haunts it: should the struggles, which really spilled over many decades, be called a revolution at all, or were they, rather, a set of civil wars?

According to the “Whig” interpretation of history—as it is called, in tribute to the Victorian historians who believed in it—ours is a windup world, regularly ticking forward, that was always going to favor the emergence of a constitutional monarchy, becoming ever more limited in power as the people grew in education and capacity. And so the core seventeenth-century conflict was a constitutional one, between monarchical absolutism and parliamentary democracy, with the real advance marked by the Glorious Revolution, and the arrival of limited monarchy, in 1688. For the great Marxist historians of the postwar era, most notably Christopher Hill, the main action had to be parsed in class terms: a feudal class in decline, a bourgeois class in ascent—and, amid the tectonic grindings between the two, the heartening, if evanescent, appearance of genuine social radicals. Then came the more empirically minded revisionists, conservative at least as historians, who minimized ideology and saw the civil wars as arising from the inevitable structural difficulties faced by a ruler with too many kingdoms to subdue and too little money to do it with.

The point of Jonathan Healey’s new book, “The Blazing World” (Knopf), is to acknowledge all the complexities of the episode but still to see it as a real revolution of political thought—to recapture a lost moment when a radically democratic commonwealth seemed possible. Such an account, as Healey recognizes, confronts formidable difficulties. For one thing, any neat sorting of radical revolutionaries and conservative loyalists comes apart on closer examination: many of the leading revolutionaries of Oliver Cromwell’s “New Model” Army were highborn; many of the loyalists were common folk who wanted to be free to have a drink on Sunday, celebrate Christmas, and listen to a fiddler in a pub. (All things eventually restricted by the Puritans in power.)

Something like this is always true. Revolutions are won by coalitions and only then seized by fanatics. There were plenty of blue bloods on the sansculottes side of the French one, at least at the beginning, and the American Revolution joined abolitionists with slaveholders. One of the most modern aspects of the English Revolution was Cromwell’s campaign against the Irish Catholics after his ascent to power; estimates of the body count vary wildly, but it is among the first organized genocides on record, resembling the Young Turks’ war against the Armenians. Irish loyalists, forced to take refuge in churches, were burned alive inside them.

Healey, a history don at Oxford, scants none of these things. A New Model social historian, he writes with pace and fire and an unusually sharp sense of character and humor. At one emotional pole, he introduces us to the visionary yet perpetually choleric radical John Lilburne, about whom it was said, in a formula that would apply to many of his spiritual heirs, that “if there were none living but himself John would be against Lilburne, and Lilburne against John.” At the opposite pole, Healey draws from obscurity the mild-mannered polemicist William Walwyn, who wrote pamphlets with such exquisitely delicate titles as “A Whisper in the Ear of Mr Thomas Edward” and “Some Considerations Tending to the Undeceiving of Those, Whose Judgements Are Misinformed.”

For Hill, the clashes of weird seventeenth-century religious beliefs were mere scrapings of butter on the toast of class conflict. If people argue over religion, it is because religion is an extension of power; the squabbles about pulpits are really squabbles about politics. Against this once pervasive view, Healey declares flatly, “The Civil War wasn’t a class struggle. It was a clash of ideologies, as often as not between members of the same class.” Admiring the insurgents, Healey rejects the notion that they were little elves of economic necessity. Their ideas preceded and shaped the way that they perceived their class interests. Indeed, like the “phlegmatic” and “choleric” humors of medieval medicine, “the bourgeoisie” can seem a uselessly encompassing category, including merchants, bankers, preachers, soldiers, professionals, and scientists. Its members were passionate contestants on both sides of the fight, and on some sides no scholar has yet dreamed of.

Healey insists, in short, that what seventeenth-century people seemed to be arguing about is what they were arguing about. When members of the influential Fifth Monarchist sect announced that Charles’s death was a signal of the Apocalypse, they really meant it: they thought the Lord was coming, not the middle classes. 

Read entire article at The New Yorker