Returning to the Seventeenth Century
Essays Society History

Returning to the Seventeenth Century

Eamonn Bellin

Dates are the grammar of history. Mastering them is essential for communicating ideas, organizing topical vocabulary, and distinguishing the language of one scholarly approach from its peers. This does not, however, mean that dates are an unalloyed good for historical study. Indeed, they are often an impediment. As grammar creates rules, so too do dates. In history as in language, once a rule is established, most are loath to break it. To do so is unedifying, an exposure of ignorance, and ground for ridicule. Dates function this way most prominently in their role as demarcations, thematically periodizing spaces in time as respectively connected and divided. 1492, accordingly, is the dividing line between pre- and post-Columbian America. 1901, likewise, is the frontier between a Victorian and Edwardian Great Britain (and more obviously between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries).

Some dates are more powerful still, almost talismanic. They do not only divide an age but define it, with every moment prior understood as a cause and every moment thereafter received as a consequence. 1914 has such force in the history of diplomacy, as does 1933 in the history of modern Germany. Sometimes these dates deserve their importance, yet the immensity of their influence demands a careful and continuous evaluation of their status. Otherwise, a serious distortion occurs, one liable to misconstrue key moments and motivations within a wide swath of time. There are likely many such chimeras waiting to be exposed and corrected. But I will confine myself here to just one: the Glorious Revolution of 1688–1689. It has long misrepresented the seventeenth-century experience of Ireland and Great Britain, and has ossified incomplete and archaic conventions into popular historical beliefs.

Put briefly, the Glorious Revolution involved a coup d’etat whereby the Protestant Dutch Stadtholder William of Orange forcibly replaced his Catholic father-in-law James II as King of England, done at the behest of a cabal of Protestant grandees (a bit pompously remembered as “the Immortal Seven”). Before legitimizing William’s usurpation, the English Parliament enjoined King William and Queen Mary to assent to a “Declaration of Right,” in which thirteen articles constrained the powers of the crown and asserted the legislative independence of Parliament. The rest is history, which is where the controversy truly begins.

The Glorious Revolution functions in the conventional telling of history to bring about an elision of Protestantism with Parliamentary primacy, to associate “Papism'' with despotism, and to meanwhile paint the “Celtic Fringe” of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales as a realm of a rude and treacherous tribalism (or a romantically doomed tribalism for those who enjoy Walter Scott). The events of 1688–89 have long served as the focal point of modern British history, reinterpreting the past and predetermining the future through the cuts of its prism. However, to confirm Herbert Butterfield’s warning against “the study of the past with direct and perpetual reference to the present,” telescoping events through the Glorious Revolution and the ideals it evokes results in serious incongruities for the historical record.[1]

Three examples are instructive. Oliver Cromwell—who failed to establish a durable constitution for the three kingdoms he conquered, purged and cowed parliamentary dissent, and ruled through a nepotistic military junta—has been for centuries celebrated as a hero of self-government and a precursor to Parliament’s triumph over regal pretensions in 1688. For Carlyle he was the “God-like Oliver,” divinely ordained to rescue England.[2] In contrast, James II—who sought to extend toleration to Catholics and Protestant Nonconformists alike without injuring the rights of state churches in England or Scotland—is conventionally condemned as a quixotic bigot intent on reversing the Reformation. The Irish Catholics—having been reduced from owning a quarter to less than a twentieth of Ireland’s land in between the Cromwellian and the Williamite conquests, uprooted from their traditions and stripped of their civil rights—were long vilified as the stinging drones of despotism, perpetually preparing to raise an army under some aspiring tyrant—Charles I, James II, or some assorted French and Spanish kings—to overwhelm liberty and Protestantism (the two being deemed inseparable).

Owing to the strictures of Glorious Revolution historiography, it seems necessary to consecrate Cromwell because his deeds materially diminished the power of the throne, just as the Declaration of Right would formally restrict regal authority. It seems equally necessary to condemn James II and the Irish Catholics because they stood to lose from the settlement of 1688 and so naturally resisted it. Such brief examples from a long catalogue of misconstructions show how historians, as John Derry comments, “produce an oversimplified abridgement primarily geared to the demands of [their] own age.”[3]

Likewise in form, but more important still in consequence, any discussion of religious or ethnic conflict during the many wars of the seventeenth-century British Isles is subsumed within the dominant theme of a Protestant Parliament asserting independence against a crypto-Catholic (or openly Catholic) monarchy. The Glorious Revolution thus underpins a “constitutionalist” view of the seventeenth century, whereby each event is measured and organized according to its incremental advancement of those principles ultimately enshrined in the Declaration of Right. Such historical archaeology presupposes that every artifact uncovered serves a purpose similar to that of the contemporary instrument it most resembles.

Lost in this constitutionalist tradition are the prevailing concerns of the times it professes to study—above all, the concern of religion. Disputes over liturgy and episcopacy provoked Scottish Presybterian Covenanters to rise in arms against King Charles I, just as fears of Lord Strafford’s perceived overtures to Irish Catholics along with Archbishop Laud’s repression of Nonconformists mobilized English Parliamentary opinion against Charles a few years later. Similarly, Whig conspirators in 1688 overlooked the superior claims of scores of Stuarts to the throne in order to elevate the stoutly Protestant William. Guy Fawkes, whose name evokes radical resistance to overbearing authority to this day, was a Catholic who plotted to blow up the House of Lords, start a popular revolt led by Robert Catesby, and restore a Catholic monarch to the throne. This actual conspiracy, albeit strategically half-baked and half-handedly executed, spurred not only the still common practice of burning Fawkes’s effigy on Guy Fawkes Day, but fostered further paranoid conspiracy theories about Catholic reaction. From 1678 to 1681, for example, courts of law were used by Titus Oates (among others) to “prosecute” a supposedly vast network of Catholics conspiring to overthrow Protestantism by replacing Charles II with his brother, the Duke of York (and future James II). Called "The Popish Plot," at least 22 men were executed until Oates's fiction was revealed, while the Exclusion Bill Crisis forced Charles II to close the Houses of Parliament. Institutions of government, in reality as well as in the imagination, were instruments in the pursuit of religious objectives for every major party in the seventeenth century’s religiously-tinged crises. Yet Glorious Revolution historiography would have this relationship inverted, making religion an instrument of politics.

Also neglected in the prevailing tradition are key structuring factors of the seventeenth century, chiefly, the political polycentrism of the British Isles (Ireland included). The Isles were then a unity only geographically, otherwise they were three kingdoms, four nations, and at least four faiths in the most simplified reckoning (Anglicans, Scottish Presbyterians, Catholics, as well as Nonconformists of many persuasions). The shifting alignment of parties within and between these kingdoms and faiths was often of deciding importance for the whole. Charles I was crushed by an alliance of the English New Model Army and the Scottish Covenanters, whereas the Scottish “Free Presbyterians” escaping from the intolerance of Scotland’s state church were invaluable as settlers in England’s colonization of Catholic Ireland. A history centered on the Glorious Revolution, however, is rigidly focused on just one kingdom: England. And even within England, it accounts for but one dynamic, between King and Parliament.

The greatest exponent of the Glorious Revolution school is Thomas Babington Macaulay, who, to indulge a needless claim, is also the greatest historian in the British Isles’s collective history (Gibbon’s partisans may demur). As a statesman as well as a baron, Macaulay’s The History of England From the Accession of James II perfectly crystallizes the prejudices of his tradition.[4] Its title, its subject, and its scope are explicable only within the tradition’s terms. The work’s very name betrays Macaulay’s relative indifference to developments elsewhere in the Isles, and of the effect they could possibly have on affairs in England. A history of England could plausibly extend from Alfred the Great to Macaulay’s own times. Were a less magisterial work to be attempted, the Battle of Hastings, the signing of the Magna Carta, the despoliation of the monasteries, or Walpole’s premiership would all seem like worthy landmarks to center a work upon. Yet, Macaulay instead delimits his scope to a mere fifteen years at the end of the seventeenth century. Beginning in 1685, the climax of Macaulay’s chronicle is the “Glorious” and “Bloodless” Revolution of King William and Queen Mary, concomitant with the rise of Parliament to legislative maturity and to supremacy over the royal prerogative, as enshrined in the Declaration of Right (1689) and the Act of Settlement (1701).

Macaulay’s work is masterly. It is also a multivolume museum piece. Completed a few years before his death in 1859, The History of England finely expresses the conditions from which it was drawn. Principal among these conditions was the unitary structure of the British state. 1859 is almost equidistant to 1801 and 1922, the beginning and end of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Whereas the seventeenth-century Isles featured three kingdoms and three parliaments, its nineteenth-century successor was governed from the imperial parliament at Westminster alone. Moreover, Westminster in the mid-Victorian age had no competitors on the continent and few threats internal or external to its legitimacy and stability. Chartists and Cobdenites compare poorly with Covenanters and Cromwellians. The same could not be said of any of the insular political authorities in the seventeenth century, all of whom mutually influenced and menaced one another, and were in turn agitated by powerful intervening forces from Europe. Likewise, while religious prejudice was powerfully placed in Victorian society, nineteenth-century parliaments nonetheless ratified Catholic Emancipation, endowed and extended the Maynooth Seminary Grant, disestablished the Church of Ireland, abolished arcane Anglican privileges in universities, and opened Parliament to Jewish MPs. Even a modicum of this ecumenical spirit was enough for James II to lose his throne.

The nineteenth century was also an age of legislative innovation. Most celebrated among these was the Great Reform Act of 1832. This storied law, however, is crowded by notable company: the Repeal of the Corn Laws and the Test Act, the abolition of the slave trade, the modernizing Bank Charter Act, the rather less successful New Poor Laws, a myriad of Factory Acts and Land Acts, the pathbreaking budgets of Pitt, Peel, and Gladstone, and, of course, two additional electoral reform laws in 1867 and 1885. Enveloped in this milieu, Macaulay was understandably interested in the constitutional progress that undoubtedly took place across the seventeenth century, transforming the authoritarian Tudor monarchy into a constitutional regime dominated by an (exceedingly narrowly) elected legislature. He was also understandably less interested in questions that seemed settled in his own time: the scope of Westminster’s writ, intra-Isles political interactions, religion’s place in politics, and the Isles’s entanglements with Europe. Unlike some of his tradition, Macaulay does not neglect these themes outright, but neither does he truly achieve a sympathetic understanding with them beyond the confines of King versus Parliament. Such an understanding would be heretical to the creed of the Glorious Revolution.

Pace Butterfield, why should history service any demands besides those of one’s contemporaries? To problematize Derry’s admonition, why not have greater concern for the age in which the historian writes than for the age of which the historian writes?[5] Are we not answerable to our own times, to say nothing of being influenced by them? The conventional retort would be an ode to the impartiality of scholarly enterprise: the past existed on its own terms and must therefore be understood by them if we desire learning over illusion. This aim is noble and rightly demands deference. Nonetheless, the relevance of such scholarship to the worries and uncertainties of the present can feel about as distant as the relevance of theoretical physics to automobile repair. Some allowance, judicious in its claims and receptive to the criticism of pure scholarship, must be made for historical application to the present. However, worse than a historical tradition bowing to the demands of one’s own age is a historical tradition that obscures them and legitimates a political order that does so as well. This is true of Glorious Revolution historiography and why its hold over the seventeenth century must be retracted for the benefit of present society.

There is much that the contemporary United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and other nations as well, can learn with profit from the seventeenth-century Isles. This was an age of competing fanaticisms, of challenged authorities, changing allegiances, shifting boundaries, and colliding communities. It was an age very much like the present, but very much unlike mid-Victorian England, or at least mid-Victorian England as Macaulay understood it. A monocausal account of linear progress that privileges one community and one process of change has little bearing on the seventeenth century or the twenty-first. That such an account remains preeminent testifies to the inertia of most popular conventions and the influence of elite opinions which continue to draw benefits from it. The assertion of parliamentary liberty against regal despotism, for instance, pairs nicely with Conservative Party slogans to reclaim British sovereignty from an imperious Brussels. A historical tradition that largely excludes the “Celtic Fringe” from the English story is similarly comforting when England’s interests are increasingly seen to differ from the rest of the United Kingdom.

The centrality of the Glorious Revolution and the tradition that upholds it have long been under assault. Yet even the most percipient and imaginative of revisionists can be ensnared by their own unexamined assumptions. Take Christopher Hill and his history of the mid-century wars between and within the kingdoms, tellingly titled English Revolution.[6] Nonetheless, the devolution of power to regional parliaments at the turn of this century coincided with a devolution of scholarship, bringing hitherto neglected Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and Northern English histories from the periphery to the center of study. Such changes are not in themselves a panacea. What they promise, however, is an understanding of the seventeenth century more truthful to its times, and more useful to our own.

  1. Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1965), 11. ↩︎

  2. Thomas Carlyle, Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches: With Elucidations (London: Chapman and Hall, 1845). ↩︎

  3. John Derry, “Herbert Butterfield,” in The Historian At Work, ed. John Cannon (London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1980): 171-187, 174.* ↩︎

  4. Thomas Babbington Macaulay, The History of England from the Accession of James II, 5 vols. (1848). ↩︎

  5. John Derry, “Herbert Butterfield,” ibid; also quoted in Norman Davies, The Isles: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 637-638. ↩︎

  6. Christopher Hill, The English Revolution, 1640: An Essay (1940), 3rd edition (London: Lawrence & Wishart, Ltm., 1955). ↩︎

Featured image: The Man-of-War Brielle on the River Maas off Rotterdam painting (1689) by Ludolf Bakhuizen via Wikimedia Commons.

Eamonn Bellin is a graduate from George Washington University and the Academic Programs and Editorial Associate at The Alexander Hamilton Society, located in Washington, D.C.