Was there a social or economic content to the political movements in the English Revolution

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Last updated: April 13, 2019

The importance of the social context of the English Civil War is a much debated subject in the historiography of the early modern period.

There is little doubt that the period as a whole saw momentous changes in society, but the question remains as to whether these social developments contributed in any way, great or small, to the divisions that led to the English Revolution. Few historians today would suggest that political or constitutional history can be studied in a ‘social vacuum’1, but how far can economic or social factors be used to explain the causes of the English Civil War?Among the first to ascribe social content to the historiography of the English Civil War were Marx and Engels, the latter creating a full-blown account pinning the English Revolution to the Marxist framework. The nobles and gentry became ‘bourgeois landlords’ and the civil war was a ‘bourgeois revolution’, which stemmed from the tensions created by the emergence of capitalism in a feudal society.

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The revolution was a straightforward conflict between the rising bourgeoisie and the declining feudal classes, and created a state in which the transformation from feudalism to capitalism could take place. The idea that the supporters of Parliament in this period were a rising ‘class’ of progressive-minded capitalists, while the supporters of the King were old-fashioned and declining members of the feudal system is one that continued in the arguments even of non-Marxist historians. R. H.Tawney expounded the view that due to differences in adaptability to rising prices, new agricultural techniques and commercial methods, the old-fashioned aristocracy, the crown and the peers, declined in wealth at the same time as the gentry prospered2.

He backed up his theory by counting manors; noting the fall in manorial holdings of the aristocracy compared with the gentry between the mid sixteenth century and 1640, and the shift in size of these holdings from large to medium landowners.This idea has received much criticism, with many denying that the gentry had risen at all; J. P. Cooper wrote an article discrediting the practice of counting manors as evidence indicating social mobility3. H. R. Trevor-Roper4 developed an almost diametrically opposing interpretation; he argued that the ‘mere gentry’ actually declined in this period, instead of the aristocracy, because of unfavourable economic conditions such as inflation.Trevor-Roper’s argument is that the Civil War came as the declining ‘mere gentry’ rebelled against the court system, in order to gain a “share of the spoils”5, while Tawney sees the origins of the revolution in the rising gentry attempting to attain new power in the political structure to correspond to their new economic power, against the opposition of the king and the aristocracy.

These ideas lead to an interpretation of the political movements in the English Revolution as almost exclusively based on economic motivations. Allegiance to either Parliament or King is determined by some notion of ‘class’.In his Reappraisals in History6, J. H. Hexter criticises Tawney as ‘too Marxist’ and Trevor-Roper as too obsessed with these economic motivations at the expense of political motivations.

He draws attention to the fact that the gentry described by the two historians do not feature largely in the affairs of Parliament in the years before the Civil War, and those that did sit in the House of Commons “neither talked nor acted like would-be rulers of the realm”7. In other words, they did not seek the power that Tawney and Trevor-Roper suggest.Furthermore, Perez Zagorin disputes the accuracy of using the idea of class when dealing with the social system in which the English Revolution occurred8. He argues that the system, “of [which] the ruling principle was honour and the dignity attached to way of life”9, was based on status, which was much less to do with one’s economic standing than the arguments of Tawney and Trevor-Roper might suggest, and terms like ‘peers’ and ‘gentry’ have no economic basis; certain members within these groups may have risen while others declined.This point, however, does not preclude the political movements in question from having their basis in these social statuses, even if not in economic classes. Indeed, the line of reasoning that there is no case for treating the peers as a separate economic group from the gentry, but that it is more accurate to interpret them as one landed aristocracy10 has been much used to criticise Laurence Stone’s thesis of a crisis of the aristocracy11.He suggested that between 1558 and 1641 the aristocracy (which for Stone meant the peerage) suffered a loss of independent military power, and that this shift in power relative to that of the gentry was more important than any rise or fall in the wealth of either of the two groups (if they are two distinct groups) in contributing to the Civil War, in that this decline in the power and authority of the peerage left the King, when adopting unpopular constitutional and religious policies, more vulnerable.

However, if this theory has any truth, it still assumes that the ideology of the political movements of the English Revolution was based on social ‘class’ or ‘status’ lines rather than political ideas, i. e. that there was a definite division between the aristocracy as supporters of the King and the gentry as supporters of Parliament. All the theories so far also run into the problem that, even if the peers and the gentry can be seen as two separate groups, they both featured prominently on both the King’s and Parliament’s side in the Civil War12.

With this in mind it seems difficult to subscribe to a theory which links political division with economic and social division. Instead, it seems wiser to endorse theories espoused by those such as Hexter and Zagorin, who propose that the tensions within society which led to political breakdown in 1640 and the Revolution were more traditional forms of conflict; religious conflict between Anglicans and Puritans, and political conflict between the ‘Court’ – the central government – and the ‘Country’ – the local elites.Zagorin insists that the English Civil War was no kind of class struggle as described by Engels or Tawney, but that “The fundamental cleavage of the decades before the civil war was that which opened within the dominant class between the crown and its adherents on the one side, and its opponents on the other” [original emphasis]. The two sides formed vertically, dividing both the peerage and the gentry, rather than laterally between the strata of society. 3 Zagorin adds that it was the religious dispute that polarised around this split which disposed men towards one side or the other. As Stone perceptively points out, while “some historians see the breakdown of 1640 and the war of 1642 as the product merely of a series of political blunders by those in power”14, it is likely that the social trends which preceded the civil war were, if not a significant cause of the conflict, certainly pre-conditions which made it possible.As with all things, the origins of the conflict are varied and complex, and if the political movements and divisions which led to the English Revolution had any social or economic content, it can only be seen alongside the other significant issues; changing ideals and ideologies, both political and religious.

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