Causes, Conflicts, Consequences – Historical Debate

Time Title Content
[00.58] Changing Historical Interpretations The debate on the origins and causes of the civil war which broke out in England and Wales in late summer 1642 is one of the great historical controversies, has rumbled on since the Civil War began and has generated huge and, at times, bitter controversy. Historical interpretations have changed markedly over the generations and the lines advanced often tell us more about the intellectual climate in which different historians were working than they do about the origins of the English Civil War.
[01.33] Contemporary interpretations In July 1642 the MP, lawyer and, when it came to war, Parliamentarian Bulstrode Whitelocke spoke in the House of Commons. In an oft quoted passage, Whitelocke confessed himself perplexed by how things had come to war: 
It is strange to note how we have insensibly slid into the beginning of a civil war by one unexpected accident after another, as waves of the sea which have brought us thus far”.
Whitelocke could not discern a clear path of causation which had led the nation to the brink of Civil War, and he fell back on an image of an irresistible slide to war brought about by a succession of unexpected and apparently unconnected accidents as incoherent as waves crashing on the seashore.
[02.18] His near contemporary, Edward Hyde MP, who became a Royalist in the Civil War and was later created Earl of Clarendon, expressed similar views when he somewhat later tried to analyse the origins and causes of the war, writing about a “General combination and universal apostasy in the whole nation”, which led to “total and prodigious alteration and confusion”.  He talked about passages, accidents and actions by which the seed plots of civil war were created. 
[2.54] Tempting as it might be to follow Whitelocke and Clarendon in ascribing the origins of the Civil War to a mixture of indolence, unspecified sinfulness, God’s displeasure, random, unconnected accidents and to just ‘one-damn-thing-after-another’ school of thought, academic historians seek and often claim to find deeper, more rational, more coherent causes of the Civil War.
[03.17] Unlike Whitelocke, are we able to detect any clear patterns or coherent sequence that led to the outbreak of the Civil War?  Previous generations of historians would certainly have answered that question in the affirmative. 
[03.34] Whig Interpretations Since academic and source-based historical writings and interpretations emerged in the mid-19th Century, one particular line has generally dominated historians’ approach to interpreting the origins and causes of the English Civil War.  During the Victorian and Edwardian period that approach has been labelled the Whig Approach to History, interpreting English and British history as a long term and fairly linear movement towards a mixed and balanced constitution, broad religious liberty and general liberal values and systems.   For Whig historians, the Civil War was a culmination of two long-term power struggles; the first between a Crown and aristocracy which wished to hold onto power, and a House of Commons which sought to gain a larger stake in the running of the country, and the second between the established Church of England, overseen by the Monarch as Supreme Governor, and an increasingly strong group of Puritans working inside or outside that church who sought fundamental change to the practice and the structure of religion.  Those forces led to war during the 1640s. 
[04.52]] Marxist Interpretations After the First World War and on through the middle decades of the 20th Century that interpretation was largely ignored or briskly dismissed as irrelevant and a new line, often labelled ‘Marxist’, began to dominate.  It focused on long term changes in the social and economic potency of major groups within society, with a declining Crown and aristocracy meeting a growing challenge from a rising middle class or bourgeoisie who, in ways not always so clearly demonstrated by those historians, sought political standing commensurate with their rising socio-economic status, and when they met resistance, they flexed their military muscles.  The Civil War was thus a class war, or a bourgeois revolution. 
[5.46] However, by the 1960s a substantial body of research was discrediting that interpretation. It showed that no class-based or socio-economic distinction could be drawn between the two sides, that no plausible class-based or socio-economic feature united everyone on either side when Parliamentarians and Royalists divided in 1642. 
[06.10] Revisionists As the Marxist interpretation crumbled and with the somewhat battered remains of the old Whig interpretation still dotted the horizon and attracting some support, during the 1970s a new group of historians, who were often labelled Revisionists, returned to political and constitutional causation, including the running of the State Church, but turned the old Whig line largely on its head, suggesting that the early Stuart period was marked by harmony, consensus, good government and wide acceptance of the power of the Crown. 
[06.47] Post-Revisionists Civil War broke out during the 1640s because of short-term mistakes they argued:  unexpected occurrences and contingent factors. Their critics, the so-called post- or anti-Revisionists who, by the later 1980s were in turn battering down much of the revisionist line, sometimes joked that the Revisionists had shown how it was impossible for civil war to occur in early Stuart England, and they expressed themselves unconvinced by the supposed absence of any deeper issues, ideals or ideologists in revisionist explanations of the catastrophic civil war, which undeniably did break out in 1642. 
[07.31] ‘The Crisis of Europe’ Thesis Over the past couple of generations, some historians have suggested that we are looking in the wrong place to find the   origins and causes of the Civil War and that we to raise our sights above and beyond England and Wales alone. During the 1960s, during the Interregnum between the Marxist and the Revisionist line, though partly born out of Marxist ideas, some historians explored the idea that for much or most of the seventeenth century, England, and Britain and Ireland as a whole, were caught up in a wider European crisis. That crisis may have been caused by demography or rapid political and religious change, but, whatever the causes, the crisis manifested itself in a series of intra and inter-state wars, rebellions and armed risings, unusually fierce, bitter and numerous, widespread against the continent of Europe and beyond. That general ‘crisis of Europe’ thesis attracted only a modest number of historians and, despite intermittent and recent attempts to revive it, in the main that interpretation soon petered out and was seen as implausible.
[8.50] The ‘British Problem During the 1990s a wider group of historians were attracted to the idea that many of the tensions of the 17th Century in general, and the causes of the mid-Century wars in particular, could be attributed to the tensions inherited in a multiple kingdom in which a single head of state attempted to govern a historically, geographically, ethnically, politically and religiously diverse assemblage of territories, such as those comprising Britain and Ireland.  For a short while during the 1990s, the so-called British Problem enjoyed a hay day.  Again, however, many historians were not convinced that an internal English and Welsh Civil War could be explained by Scottish and Irish developments and by the interplay between the three kingdoms.
[09.44] The Scottish wars of 1639 and 1640 and the Irish Rebellion of 1641 certainly contributed to the timing and the nature of the breakdown in England and in Wales but attempts to explain that English and Welsh breakdown largely or wholly in terms of the so-called British Problem have faded quite rapidly since the Millennium.
[10.06] The ‘Shopping List?’ Thus, we are currently at a difficult, unclear, and complex stage of the debate.  For most of the previous 150 years or more, one major school of history and one major line of interpretation, apparently identifying the key issue that caused the war, commanded the field at any one time, and most new research and writing was either consistent with it or was reacting to it and challenging it.  Currently that is no longer the case, and no single line or factor is dominant.  Most historians working in the field now run together a range of problems and issues.  We might, rather unkindly, call it the ‘shopping list’ approach, though they vary somewhat in the order of importance in which various factors are listed and the weight given to the individual elements.
[11.05] Religion? Thus, in recent years, some historians have privileged religion, arguing that however much Charles I and his various secular policies were disliked, however much people resented paying Ship Money and being cowed by Charles’ law courts, that was not sufficient to drive them to take up arms and to start a civil war. Only when their religion, their church, their faith, their salvation, their very eternal souls seem to be imperilled by the King’s religious policies were they willing and driven to take up arms and to take the huge leap into civil war.  However, not all historians are so convinced by this privileging of religious causation any more than they see the Civil War as fundamentally a war of religion. 
[11.58] A Mixture of Factors Most historians now explain the origins and causes of the Civil War by highlighting a mixture of long, medium and short-term factors, most of them to do with the running of the State and the State Church in England and Wales, though incorporating some wider ideological issues and the difficulties arising from Scotland and Ireland, and all of them shaped and coloured by the contribution of the individual monarchs of the period and greatly exacerbated by the personality, policies and approach of Charles I.
[12.34] In some ways, therefore, significant parts of the Whig interpretation and some elements of the revisionist line still seem to have a life in them, combined with nods in the direction of the British Problem.  Conversely, the so-called Marxist interpretation seems to have gone, and while some recent accounts note the tension caused by demographic expansion or economic downturn, currently historians fight shy of seeing the war as a class conflict or caused by clashes between clear and coherent socio-economic groupings.  If they could but return and view the historical debate today, Whitelocke and Clarendon would doubtless be amazed, but 19th Century Whig historians might just nod sagely, recognising much that was familiar.