Humpty Dumpty Shattered

The English Revolution of 1642-1660 heralded the demise of a basic form of social organization that had predominated for ten thousand years. The destabilizing forces unleashed by this tumult intermingled with economic changes that had been occurring in the English countryside since 1400 to forge the scaffolding of the first modern state in world history. The Stuart Restoration sought to abrogate this transformation. It failed irrevocably. The Stuarts’ perennially doomed attempts to foist an absolutist monarchy upon the English people could not withstand the winds of social change.  Thus their post-Civil War reign cannot assume any pretense toward historical continuity, except insofar as it perpetuated the Stuart capacity for misrule.

Agricultural changes during the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries enabled England to transcend the demographic and political laws that had governed human society since the Neolithic Revolution. With the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to sedentary agriculture between 12,000 and 7,000 BCE came the stratification of humans into three categories: (1) aristocrats who fought, (2) priests, scribes, and intellectuals who prayed, and (3) peasants who produced for their own consumption. The aristocratic monopolization of power allowed the first two estates to live off the small surplus generated by the labor of the third, which constituted the overwhelming majority of the population. Prior to the 1400s, English manorial farming, as a manifestation of European feudalism, had conformed to this hierarchy, with peasants and serfs working on the “demesnes” of lords who owed their fealty to a monarch (Monod, p. 19).

This would change during and after the Black Death of 1348-1350. The plague’s apocalyptic mortality rates created a shortage of labor, imbuing serfs with greater bargaining power. Gradually, the institution of serfdom would die out and lords would begin selling their land to former peasants. The enterprising peasants (henceforth tenant farmers) entering into contracts with their erstwhile masters would subsequently hire out their fellows as wage laborers. Now the aristocracy and land-owning gentry would hold their land as absolute private property. The tenant farmers, employing farming methods imported from Holland such as alternate husbandry and irrigation channels, would seek to administer the lords’ land profitably, producing for a market which had not existed prior to this agricultural reorganization (Monod, p. 20). The momentous implications of this transition cannot be overstated. They amounted to nothing less than the emergence of protocapitalism. The profit motive dictated that tenant farmers cut labor costs via the continuous search for and adoption of new technologies. In seeking to capture a sustainable share of the market with competitive prices, aspiring entrepreneurs found themselves running furiously just to stay in place. Thus the Dutch Republic and its English neighbor were the first nations to escape the Malthusian cycle that had bedeviled human society since the advent of sedentary agriculture. The self-sustaining growth derived from this competitive economic atmosphere continues to this day. Even though historians would come to distinguish James II’s regime from that of his Williamite successor by the latter’s facilitation of trade and commerce, even James’s court was not wholly ignorant of the benefits to be derived from these economic developments, as a memo of 1685 attests (Pincus, pp. 55-56).

These drastic changes culminated with the creation during and immediately after the Civil War of a “public sphere” that encompassed those previously without access to the Court or the Parliament. Whatever his faults, Cromwell was no strategic dunce. Charles I’s monopolization of the legitimate means of violence necessitated an appeal to those elements of society who had not enjoyed political agency prior to the upheaval of the mid-seventeenth century. Artisans and the progeny of England’s serfs filled the ranks of Cromwell’s New Model Army, creating a self-perpetuating atmosphere of religious and political radicalism. The democratizing influence of this broad-based politicization is evident in An agreement of the free people of England, published by John Lilburne and his Leveler cohorts during their imprisonment in the Tower of London in May of 1649. The address contains, among other radical measures, an appeal for universal manhood suffrage. When one considers as Simon Schama does proposals such as this alongside the disestablishment of the Anglican Church and the liquidation of the House of Lords during Cromwell’s Commonwealth and Protectorate, one can well understand the sense of disorientation that inspired the absolutist work of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. Accompanying this social chaos was a critical change in English social customs. Steve Pincus elucidates in his article “Coffee Politicians Does Create” the ethos that undergirded the coffeehouses which began to spring up all over England and its colonial holdings after 1650. The proliferation of pamphlets, newspapers, and political discourse which took place across socioeconomic boundaries in these establishments facilitated the emergence of “public opinion,” a fickle mistress to which kings and parliamentarians had not appealed prior to the Revolution, prompting one of Charles II’s advisors to warn him that virtually all Englishmen now professed some interest in statesmanship.

Though the Stuart monarchy did seek to augment its quest for absolute authority within the English state via the engine of the market economy, it for the most part remained deaf to these social and economic changes. Its Restoration in 1660 proved to be nothing more than a sentimental and vacuous reaction to the chaos of the mid-seventeenth century. Without the benefit of hindsight, appearances might have belied this reality. Not only did Charles II and his Convention Parliament reestablish the Anglican Church and the House of Lords; they also issued an Act of Oblivion, by which Charles II’s reign was retroactively extended to the moment his father’s head left his father’s body,[1] thus declaring in one fell swoop the upheaval of the 1640s and 50s an unmemorable aberration (cf. End Note). The Parliament that would rule from 1662 until the Exclusion Crisis of 1679-1681 remained heavily Royalist. Disdaining to impose any comprehensive settlement upon the restored Charles II, this Parliament conceived of itself as an advisory body to the monarchy, which retained the supreme executive power it had enjoyed under James I. The outlook which animated their hold on power was perhaps best articulated by Roger L’Estrange, John Locke’s foremost philosophical antagonist, who assiduously flooded newspapers and pamphlets with Royalist propaganda (Pincus, pp. 139-147). His work pilloried opponents of the regime, predominantly Protestant “Nonconformists,” as anarchists and king killers, harking back to the chaos that greeted Cromwell’s rise.

Yet this window-dressing could not negate the traumatic experience of the Revolution and its concomitant social transformations. Widespread outrage accompanied Charles II’s Declaration of Indulgence, a latitudinarian proclamation which Anglican loyalists interpreted as a subterfuge on behalf of English Catholics. The Test Act of 1673, which reaffirmed the Anglican monopoly on religious and political offices, found support among parliamentarians and their constituents whose fear of “Jesuitical dogs” found vent in the press (Monod, pp. 61-67). Louis XIV’s 1673 Treaty with Dover, containing as it did a provision for a financial stipend toward Charles II, epitomized the late Stuart attempt to capitalize upon the economic modernization that had occurred before and during the Revolution. Ditto for the creation of the Royal African Company. With the monarchy no longer dependent upon the land taxes raised by a recalcitrant Parliament, Charles II continually sought forms of wealth that would grant the monarchy independence from the pettifogging gentry. The stipulation that Charles II would eventually profess his Catholicism openly, while withheld from the Treaty’s public unveiling, engendered suspicion about the king’s loyalty to Anglicanism. The suspicions would mature during the Popish Plot, during which Titus Oates’ baseless claims of a Catholic assassination plot proliferated easily due to the seventeenth-century revolution in print and culture. The Stuart ideal of a king independent of parliament governing a religiously homogenous nation had become incompatible with the prevailing political climate.

“Stuart” and “continuity” are terms which have little agreement. While the necessary but not sufficient causes of England’s emergence as a modern state during the second half of the seventeenth century had been building for two centuries prior to James I’s ascension, the period during which they ruled and, more importantly, the manner in which they ruled unleashed the pent-up social forces that would dash forever their hopes of erecting an absolutist monarchy à la Louis XIV in France. In this sense, the Restoration of 1660 was a fruitless attempt to salvage a conception of English society made obsolete by economic, political, and social change. Parliamentary democracy, not absolutism, would point the way forward for the English state.


[1] A digression: When Lord Randolph Churchill received word that his son Winston excelled at History, he asked the future prime minister to explain the Grand Remonstrance between Crown and Parliament. Gainsaying the legislative minutiae of the aforesaid, Churchill responded that Parliament had cut off the king’s head, explaining years later that “that seemed to be the grandest remonstrance of all” (cf. William Manchester’s The Last Lion, Volume I).

 

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