'The noble revolt' by John Adamson

by Jamie Johnston

The remarkable story, masterfully told, of the English revolution that almost was.
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Boys and girls, let's talk about King Charles I and the English Civil War. No, seriously, bear with me for a couple of paragraphs. It's worth it.

Here's what we all remember from school about this bit of history:

King Charles had long curly hair and a pointy beard and sat on a horse. He disagreed with Parliament about something called Ship Money and so they had a war about it. The people who fought for the king were cavaliers and had cool hats and cloaks and moustaches and were Catholics and a bit like musketeers but less French; the ones who fought against the king were roundheads and were Puritan and boring and were led by Oliver Cromwell who had a wart on his chin. Cromwell won and cut off the king's head in Whitehall. Then there was a Commonwealth, which Cromwell was in charge of, and he banned Christmas. The end.

Here's what we learn from John Adamson's The noble revolt (1):

In the space of eighteen months, between the summer of 1640 and the winter of 1641, England came within a hair's breadth of being transformed from an absolute monarchy to a quasi-republic more democratic in some ways than the United Kingdom is even today. It was done with almost no bloodshed, and it was done by a group of barely two dozen men.

The noble revolt is not only the best history book I've read in a long time, it's actually one of the best books of any kind I've read (2) in a long time. Adamson has achieved the almost incredible feat of writing a work of serious original historical scholarship that reads like a novel; so much so that I have no hesitation in recommending it to you even if you would never normally consider reading a book about early modern English political history. If you like historical novels, or have an interest in current British constitutional law or politics, or have enjoyed The west wing or Milk or A very British coup or even Dune, you should really think about reading this.

It helps that the story is in itself both compelling and new. It hasn't featured in any notable work of fiction or in any popular history books or documentaries that might have intruded on the consciousness of the non-specialist, so basically unless you've studied this period since you left school you do not know this story. And for that reason, ridiculous though it may seem given that this is a book about things that have actually happened in the actual past and can easily be googled, I'm going to be very careful to avoid spoilers. I've sketched the main point of the plot above: it's the story of a small group of English noblemen (led by the Earls of Bedford and Warwick) and their commoner allies (including such possibly recognizable names as John Pym, Denzel Holles, and John Hampden) who, motivated by a mixture of personal frustration and a substantial amount of radical political idealism, seize the opportunity of King Charles' temporary military and financial weakness to force him to summon a parliament after eleven years of direct rule. Over the following a year and half, through a nail-biting series of advances and setbacks, this group (which came to be referred to as the 'Junto') use the dual leverage of Parliament's control of taxation and a threat of force from a sympathetic Scottish army to extort concessions from the king and build up both the constitutional powers of the English parliament and the de facto power of their own group, which comes to resemble a sort of rival republican government within an obstensibly monarchical English state.

That last bit is one of the things that make the story most interesting, because it adds both moral complexity and a strong element of personal drama. For, as soon as it begins, the Junto's project of constitutional reform becomes not only an idealistic political programme but a personal matter of life and death for its members. Their partial seizure of power enrages a notoriously unforgiving and vengeful king, and their arguably treasonous method of seizing it gives the king a ready excuse to have them impeached and executed the moment he can regain enough public support and financial and military autonomy to do so. Thus fear and self-preservation compel the Junto to ever greater arrogations of power to itself, lest the king find a way to undermine it before the programme of proto-democratic quasi-republican constitutional reform is completed. And hence the moral complexity: on the one hand, the Junto concentrates huge military and financial power in the hands of its own members, cynically manipulates parliamentary procedure, conspires with foreign powers, alternately panders to anti-Catholic fervour and kicks popular demands for religious reform into the long grass, and (probably) even incites rioting, mutiny, and public disorder; on the other hand, all this is done because their idealistic and admirable project, once begun, must urgently be completed by hook or by crook before the king has a chance to move against them, otherwise all their achievements will be undone and they themselves will very probably be killed. Meanwhile, the unpredictable and enigmatic Charles pursues a double strategy, both trying to lawfully regain public support and parliamentary power and at the same time plotting a series of counter-coups to overthrow by force the people he has been maneouvred into appointing as his own ministers. The reader's ambivalence is heightened by the very fact that all this is happening at a turning-point in constitutional history, in an England which is neither so democratic that constitutional reform can be achieved peacefully and lawfully nor so autocratic that one can feel entirely comfortable with the Junto's corner-cutting and domineering abuse of the political process to achieve that reform.

It's also the liminal nature of the historical moment that makes the Junto's project such a sympathetic and exciting one: in previous centuries small groups of nobles revolted in order to replace one king with another, and peasants revolted in protest against 'the system' but with no clear or coherent alternative in mind; now, for the first time in English history, nobles and commoners collaborate to effect permanent changes to the constitution. And it's worth stressing how radical some of these changes are: they include the abolition of all taxes not authorized by Parliament (a principle that underpins the power of virtually every legislature in the modern world); a maximum three-year parliamentary term (two years shorter than today's limit); a mechanism for initiating a parliamentary election even if the monarch refuses to do so (which does not exist in the UK today); the removal of the Lords Spiritual from the House of Lords (which has still not been done); parliamentary control of the armed forces (which does not exist in the UK today: before 2003 no modern British government had even voluntarily consulted Parliament about whether to declare war); and a parliamentary power to veto the appointment of any member of the government (which today not only does not exist but is virtually unthinkable). It's simply astonishing to think that these reforms were real possibilities - indeed, some of them were actually enacted - over 350 years ago, more than 100 years before the American and French revolutions.

Adamson's writing is so skilful that virtually none of what I've just said is, or needs to be, actually said in the book. He doesn't pontificate on Grand Themes or explain the Historical Importance of the events he recounts; nor does he ever really Step Back to make sweeping comments about the Dilemmas and Forces shaping the Junto's actions. But all this, and much more, emerges powerfully from a simple, direct, and detailed narrative of the events of 1640 and 1641. Nor does he ever really explicitly set out his two central arguments; for this is no mere retelling of an established story but actually a fairly revisionist account based on the controversial contentions that, first, the events of 1640 to 1642 were not the result of mass popular discontent or deep schisms in the English population but were driven by the conscious actions of a small group of noblemen, and, secondly, that the anti-monarchist (or, more accurately, the anti-absolute-monarchist) movement in those years was not a side-effect of anti-Catholic Puritanism but the very core of a new political theory that placed the source of legitimate political authority not in the monarch but in the people. (The book's title expresses both these arguments, the former in the literal sense that the revolt was spearheaded by members of the nobility and the latter in the metaphorical sense that the revolt was undertaken for 'noble' idealistic reasons.) But, again, these arguments are allowed simply to reveal themselves through the narrative. A revisionist history has perhaps never spent so little time openly stating its case or engaging with the theories and theorists it seeks to refute. Nor, while allowing his sympathy and admiration for the goals, if not the methods, of the Junto to show through the narrative, does Adamson appear partisan or shrink from setting out the facts on every side. In fact, nothing - not big themes, not historiographical controversy, not personal comment or bias - is allowed to get in the way of the story.

It's a story told with great craftsmanship that would do credit to a professional novelist. The book begins in medias res with the vivid scene of a pre-dawn emergency meeting of the king's Privy Council, focusing on the view-point character of the Earl of Northumberland and featuring visual descriptions of places and people and even an account of the meeting itself that comes close to being a dialogue in direct speech; flash-backs give the reader just enough context to understand the scene without being distracted from it, and the while Adamson stays firmly within the bounds of sober, unsensational historical style. Even the opening sentence, though too restrained and matter-of-fact to make a really thrilling beginning for a novel, is a great hook: 'The meeting's unconventional hour was itself an intimation of crisis.' From this opening scene, Adamson patiently and deftly unfolds a narrative that stretches over more than 500 pages (in paperback) and yet seems to move at a brisk pace from beginning to end. The plot takes in events in London, Edinburgh, Ireland, and the English counties, and much of the time involves several independent chains of events running in parallel; but, though this necessitates a certain amount of topic-switching and doubling back to cover the same period from a different angle, there is enough recapping to avoid disorientation but not so much as to be obtrusive or make the reader feel that time is being wasted with repetition. Likewise the smooth and stylish prose does not distract either by being showy or by being inelegant, and even the grumpiest pedant will find little in the language to complain about. The focus of the storytelling is largely on day-to-day events, but zooms out when necessary to give a bit of perspective; historical background is given sparingly and only at the exact moment when it becomes necessary to understand what's going on; and foreshadowing is used to highlight events whose significance we might otherwise miss as well as to create suspense and to tie the narrative together along its considerable span. After the book's strikingly novelistic prologue Adamson reins himself in a bit from using the more distinctive tools of fiction-writers, but the few he does allow himself are equally effective. Perhaps most noticeable are the chapter-breaks: almost every chapter ends on a cliff-hanger (the prologue, for instance, ends with, 'The raids began the next day'), and two breaks stand out in my memory as being particularly dramatic in different ways. Chapter 12, which provides a somewhat reflective pause and step back while tying up various constitutional loose ends, appears to be drawing to a natural and sedate finish until its final paragraph, in which news arrives in London of an attempted murder that promises to upset the whole apple-cart. But Adamson's conscious creation of drama is clearest in the way he handles the move from chapter 9 to chapter 10. The end of 9 is in fact not much of a cliff-hanger at all, and nor does 10 start very momentously. Somewhat before the end of chapter 9, however, we learn of an inflammatory anonymous pamphlet that causes serious irritation to the Junto's leader at a crucial tactical moment, though in the end it doesn't derail his plans and drops away from view; but in fact Adamson has deliberately witheld from us the identity of the pamphlet's author, which he drops like a bomb on the second page of chapter 10, sending the story spinning off in a new and much more dangerous and nerve-wracking direction.

Similarly, an ensemble cast of A suitable boy proportions is superbly handled, with the principal characters emerging as real and distinct personalities and with, again, just enough recapping that I only once or twice found myself unable to remember who somebody was. (The reader is helped a lot on this score by being able to look up portraits of most of the major players in the 24 pages of lovely colour plates. Be warned, though: the captions contain spoliers!) Handicapped in not being able to use the novelist's key tools of character-revelation, namely dialogue and eavesdropping on a character's thoughts, Adamson never resorts to the historian's standard alternative of simply stopping the narrative to give the reader a ready-made sketch of someone's personality; yet through the occasional deployment of choice adjectives and the careful presentation of their inferred goals, known writings, and above all their actions, a number of characters emerge very clearly from the pages, to the point where the reader even feels rather sad for the death of one of them. In particular, the depiction of the 'villain' of the piece, King Charles, is utterly convincing, and serves to emphasize how great an impact his particular personality had on the course of events. The author's narrative voice is also supplemented throughout the book by quotations from a number of commentators who do not really appear as active characters in the story but are allowed to speak directly to the reader with well informed and insightful judgments about events they personally witnessed. One of the most frequent is the Venetian ambassador Giovanni Giustinian, who seems to have had an extremely effective intelligence network reporting to him and who also has a useful perspective on the Junto's quasi-republican programme since Venice was at that time almost the only European state with a constitution at all resembling what the Junto was trying to create in England. Another commentator, refreshingly, is a woman: the 'politically astute' Lucy Hay, Countess of Carlisle (and sister of Northumberland, whom we met in the prologue), who from her letters seems to have been both very well briefed and very willing to express her opinions (she calls a speech by Lord Finch, delivered on behalf of the king, 'the worse speetch... that ever wase mayd' (3)); alas, we hear relatively little from her, and she is one of a very few women who appear as people in their own right in the book (the only major one is Queen Henriette Marie, who was clearly very influential and is known to have made several decisive interventions but whose thoughts and actions are by and large rather opaque because of a lack of direct evidence).

With his handling of both plot and character, with his use of surprise and misdirection, and with his frequent deployment of eye-witness evidence and preference for 'viewpoint' rather than 'omniscient' narration, Adamson achieves that thing that is crucial for a gripping narrative and is also so valuable, and so rare, in a historical account: a real sense of what it was like to be living in the midst of events with no certain knowledge of what was going to happen next. In this sense he is an anti-Whig and anti-Marxist historian: he resists the tendencies of some to see events as inevitable, to notice only those indicators pointing towards what did eventually happen and ignore those that point to other possible outcomes, and to explain everything by reference to large and nebulous social or economic developments. In this respect one may agree or disagree with his historiographial approach (I tend to agree with it), but it's an approach that undeniably makes him a compelling storyteller. It is impossible, of course, to read this book without knowing that it will all, one way or another, end in civil war, but Adamson nonetheless manages to make the reader feel, at any given moment, that nothing is certain, anything could happen, and everything is at hazard. He tells a story of unexpected consequences and poor but well-intentioned judgments; he convincingly recreates the complex motives of fear and hope, self-promotion and self-preservation, idealism and pettiness, bitterness and magnanimity that drive people to desperate endeavours or puzzling U-turns; there are dramatic set-pieces and small enlightening and enlivening incidents; there's murder and intrigue and breathtaking stupidity, back-room dealing and back-stabbing and divided loyalties, and everywhere the sense of real people doing things that really matter; and it all adds up to both a riveting political thriller and an eye-opening account of a moment in history when many of England's most basic constitutional and political principles were up for grabs and things could have taken a very different turn with very far-reaching results.

The west wing both quoted and sought to illustrate Margaret Mead's advice, 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.' I suspect John Adamson is also a believer in that idea: certainly The noble revolt is a powerful and gripping demonstration of it, and one I urge you to read if you have even the slightest suspicion that you might enjoy it.




Notes

1 · Published in hardback by Weidenfeld & Nicholas, 2007; paperback by Phoenix, 2009.

2 · By 'read' I mean 'finished reading'; I couldn't make the claim quite so boldly if I included things I'm reading at the moment because I'm currently in the middle of reading some pretty awesome books for TeXt Factor.

3 · Page 94 in the paperback edition.
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Comments (go to latest)
Jamie Johnston at 16:39 on 2010-05-10
Also the cover is cool. #JudgingBooksByTheirCovers
Wardog at 17:12 on 2010-05-10
This sounds amazing!

Srs history scares me but I may make an exception for this...
Jamie Johnston at 19:50 on 2010-08-22
Oh, folks, I keep forgetting to say, my copy of this has come back from the last person I lent it to, so let me know if

1: you're in book-borrowing range of London
and
2: you think you're someone I'd be happy to lend books to
and
3: you'd like to borrow this book.
Robinson L at 20:15 on 2010-12-18
Hey, that does sound really cool. Thanks for the recommendation, Jamie.

In this sense he is an anti-Whig and anti-Marxist historian: he resists the tendencies of some to see events as inevitable, to notice only those indicators pointing towards what did eventually happen and ignore those that point to other possible outcomes, and to explain everything by reference to large and nebulous social or economic developments.

It actually sounds very similar to something which came up in my recent feminist studies class. Can't find the quote, but I think it was from Claire Colebrook, a Deleuzian feminist.

Mind you, I suspect most of the Marxists I know – feminist and otherwise – would vigorously argue that stressing “indicators … that point to other possible outcomes” or failing to depict history as being entirely determined by social and economic forces is not inherently anti-Marxist.

The west wing both quoted and sought to illustrate Margaret Mead's advice, 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.'

Yeah, that's one of my mother's favorite quotes, and Arundhati Roy also used it in an interview about six years ago. The key word in there for me is “citizens,” which strongly implies ordinary, everyday people to my mind (that's certainly the sense in which Roy used the phrase). Whereas the “thoughtful, committed citizens” in both The Noble Revolt and The West Wing are already part of the political elite, which implies to me that small groups of thoughtful, committed citizens without large amounts of political capital cannot change the world. Which is a pretty depressing thought, if you ask me.

This is just a side note, though. It still sounds like a great book, and I'll very probably look into it at some point.
Jamie Johnston at 23:48 on 2010-12-28
I hope you enjoy it!

As to Marxist historiography, yes, I was being a bit sweeping, although I did say 'tendencies' to soften the blow. But are the Marxists you know followers of the Marxist school of historiography, or are they Marxists by virtue of their political and economic ideas? Because one can be a Marxist historian without being a Marxist in the broader sense, and vice versá.

Yes, The West Wing's use of that quotation does perhaps ring a little hollow. Although aruably they're a small group of citizens who change the world by the execution of a plan that involves becoming part of the political elite. Whether they were 'already' part of it depends on what moment you nominate as the beginning of the world-changing. Most of them weren't part of the political elite when they joined Bartlett's presidential campaign. Although they were privileged in various ways.

As for the Junto, it depends how you look at it. In a strict legal sense there was no such thing as a citizen at the time, just subjects of the Crown. That was one of the concepts the Junto was trying to overturn. But if we define citizens as those people who by virtue of their social / legal status have a share in the running of the state (which is a fair definition, I suggest) then we can still use the term as long as we recognize that the proportion of people living in England who were citizens was much smaller than it is today. The right to vote and stand for Parliament was more restricted. But, having recognized that, the Junto were actually mostly political outsiders. Many, including those who started and led the movement, were noblemen, but don't confuse class privilege and wealth with political insidership. They were out of favour with the king, and he didn't seek or listen to their advice or appoint them to posts at court. The remarkable thing they did was to use, and partly to create for the purpose, institutional mechanisms to force the king to do what they wanted and give them offices against his will. They made themselves into the political elite, but they didn't start off that way. They started with almost no political capital. That's one of the reasons it's impressive.

Finally, to save you from the depressingness of your thought, I'll point out that even if we regard the people in those two examples as members of the political elite, that doesn't, as a matter of logic, have any bearing on whether people who aren't members of the political elite can change the world. Examples of A doing something don't show that B can't do it, they just show that A can. The question is whether there are examples of B doing it.
Robinson L at 15:00 on 2010-12-30
I'm sure I will enjoy it, Jamie.

Oh, sorry, I didn't realize from the article you were talking about Marxist historiography specifically; yes, most of the Marxists I know personally are of the political/economic sort. I suppose I'm not sufficiently familiar with Marxist historiography to make that call.

I'm hampered by never having actually watched The West Wing; I can only talk in general terms and even so I may misrepresent the situation. I suppose you could make that case - however, if one were feeling argumentative, they could counter that in order to become part of the political elite, those committed citizens have to submit to the former's hazing process, and that the “privileged in other ways” part you mention probably factors into whether they're accepted or not.

I'm also unconvinced about the discussion of the definition of “citizen” as regards England of the times. It may fit the letter of Mead's quote, but not the spirit as I have heretofore understood it.

the Junto were actually mostly political outsiders

That I find a more compelling argument. I'll have to read the book to see how well I think it works, but what you describe in the second part of the paragraph sounds much more like what I have in mind when I consider Mead's quote.

I'm not depressed, actually. On the other hand, here in the US at least, we're up to our eyebrows in the narrative of the Great Man as driving force of historical change. That being the case, any book or show which depicts Great Persons such as politicians, aristocrats, religious leaders and so on as primary agents of change without specifically pointing out somewhere "yes, ordinary people can do this, too" is going to wind up perpetuating that mythology. It doesn't depress me, but I do find it irksome.
Rami at 15:55 on 2010-12-30
I'm hampered by never having actually watched The West Wing; I can only talk in general terms

That's easily remedied -- watch it, it's great!
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