History's Heroic Age

Blair Worden revisits Hugh Trevor-Roper’s essay on the radicalism of the Puritan gentry, a typically stylish and ambitious contribution to a fierce controversy.

Blair WordenRead the original article (PDF)

Why, when the shelf lives of historical interpretations have never been so short, should we read a 59-year-old piece on the origins of the Civil War? Hugh Trevor-Roper’s contribution was re-published, together with a parallel one from History Today two years later, in his book of 1957, Historical Essays. It is a book from a vanished age. The ‘essay’, where the style is the man, has long yielded to the ‘article’, where the best that style can hope for is to be unobtrusive.

Trevor-Roper’s argument may look remote, too. It belongs, today’s specialists might tell you, to a heroic but primitive era: heroic in the breadth and ambition of historical interpretation; primitive in methodology and in shallowness of research. Its context was the ‘storm over the gentry’, that gladiatorial contest which, according to Trevor-Roper’s chief adversary Lawrence Stone, ‘brought out the sadist’ in each of the combatants. Was the Civil War, as Stone and his guiding spirit R.H. Tawney asserted, a challenge by the economically ‘rising’ gentry to the Crown and aristocracy? That view found common ground with the Marxist approach of Christopher Hill, to whom the war was England’s bourgeois revolution, the overthrow of an outdated feudal order. In reaction Trevor-Roper portrayed the gentry as a provincial class, radicalised by its exclusion from the power and profits of an ostentatious and extravagant court, of a swelling state bureaucracy and of nouveaux riches in the City of London.

Before the controversy there had not been much life in the study of the war for half a century, since the great late-Victorian historians S.R. Gardiner and C.H. Firth had laid the scholarly foundations on which the debate rested. Since the controversy the Civil War has not ceased to buzz. Has there been a more fertile historiographical contest? The debate generated intensive investigation just when the world of postgraduate studies and doctoral dissertations was starting to expand. The research devoured the hypotheses that had stimulated it. No one now thinks that the gentry, as a class, were either rising or declining, or that landowners divided in the war along sociological lines.

The controversy gripped not only the professionals but a readership outside universities. That was partly because of the range of perspective and the powers of mind and expression of the contestants, qualities in which Trevor-Roper commanded the field. The decades have not dimmed the sense of intellectual edge carried by the debate. Second, it offered an arresting way of thinking about not only the war but all history. Coolly analytical economic interpretations appealed on a ground that now seems their limitation: their remoteness from the explanations of events (in the case of the Civil War, political and religious ones) offered by people who had lived through them. The assertion of posterity’s capacity to understand the past better than its inhabitants had done seemed to mark a fresh interpretative sophistication.

Then, too, there was the attraction in the 1950s of Marxist and neo-Marxist theories of social progress. There was also the reaction against them. Trevor-Roper, who disliked Marxist politics and Marxist determinism, showed that economic history could serve Tory perspectives. What he took from Marxism was its materialist premise. To him, no less than to Christopher Hill, religion was to be explained by facts of wealth and power. Puritanism, for Hill an agency of social advance, was for Trevor-Roper one of social protest. While some of the excluded gentry adopted it, his essay argues, others turned to Catholicism. Thus two faiths opposite in doctrine and practice were given a common explanation of economic disgruntlement. Again Trevor-Roper had a contemporary target, in this case the high profile of Catholic proselytising in the postwar years. Today most historians of the Civil War explore its religious dimension on its own terms. What we have lost is an explanatory framework for it, indeed for much else. Trevor-Roper and his fellow contestants may have thought wrong, but they thought big.

Blair Worden is a visiting professor of history at Oxford. His latest book is God’s Instruments: Political Conduct in the England of Oliver Cromwell (Oxford University Press, 2012).

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