Ideas of Civil War in Seventeenth-Century England

Ideas of Civil War in Seventeenth-Century England

By David Armitage

Annals of the Japanese Association for the Study of Puritanism, Vol.4 (2009)

Introduction: Every student of early modern British history is faced with the major question of what to call the crisis of the mid-seventeenth century. The problem is long-standing and goes back almost to the time of the events themselves. As John Adamson has recently noted, ‘after 1600, it was difficult to refer to the events of the mid-century crisis without the very choice of words becoming an implicit declaration of Civil-War allegiance.’ For example, the title of the Earl of Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion (1702-4) clearly signalled his rejection of the rebels’ legitimacy, but not even the most die-hard supporter of the British monarchy would now write about ‘the Rebellion’ or even ‘the Great Rebellion’. It would take the shock of the French Revolution for the term ‘English Revolution’ to be used to describe the mid-century upheavals.

Indeed, it was a Frenchman, Francois Guizot, who in 1826 became the first historian to write about the ‘English Revolution’. As he explained, ‘the analogy of the two revolutions is such that the first [the English] would never have been understood had not the second [the French] taken place’. Different battle-lines opened up in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries between the heirs of the Parliamentarians on the left of the political spectrum and of the Royalists on the right. The greatest English historian of the seventeenth century, Samuel Rawson Gardiner, and later R.H. Tawney, distinguished the world-shaping achievement of the period as the ‘Puritan Revolution’. Though Gardiner did not use that designation in the title of his History of the Great Civil War (1886-91), it did catch on among American historians and literary scholars in the 1930s but ‘had a limited shelf life’ before being generally abandoned in the 1970s.

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