The Crises of the Stuart Century: Wrap Up

If you need to catch up, my posts about the Crises of the Stuart Century were:

 Yep, that pretty much covers it.

Yep, that pretty much covers it.

So why am I going on about the various political conflicts during the seventeenth century? Well a number of reasons, and it might be useful to go through them, so you understand what I'm about, as well as how what I'm about influences my work.

  1. It's interesting. Now, this is largely subjective. Usually, when people talk about why they don't like history, they mention "memorizing dates". People learn sports stats, the details of who wrote a favorite song and under what circumstances, or how to roast a goose. To think productively about something, you have to know something about it. Yes, I know this is probably an unpopular and even problematic attitude nowadays. Nevertheless, it remains true.I happen to enjoy learning about the actions and misbehaviors of influential or interesting people of the past, and the characters of 17th century England were certainly interesting. To celebrate, I just put on Edward German's "Nell Gwyn Overture", a cute piece of incidental music from 1900. Let not poor Nelly starve--if she could have gotten royalties from her future fame, Charles would not have had to make this plea to his brother James on his deathbed.

  2. It tells us a lot about the origins of our political system. Yeah, I know. That sounds a bit too wholesome and improving. Still, it really is fascinating to try to inhabit the mental world of people who don't know that someday there will be filibusters and primaries. Now, yes, a narrative of steady progress toward freedom is not tenable. But still, it is startling how every attempt to reassert Royal prerogative was successfully opposed, sometimes with violence, sometimes with Parliamentary maneuverings. People recognized rights, and defended them. Reading their arguments, seeing their positions, and understanding their ambitions, shows us what is functional in a political system, and what isn't.

  3. It reflects our own time, sometimes in disturbing ways. This is what struck me the most as I read the book. The Stuart century starts with a fairly ordinary royal administration under James I. Then it falls apart into brutal civil war and ends in a military dictatorship. The large-scale collapse of civil government, leading the widespread violence and death, in a country not threatened from outside, is quite disturbing, though it did come in the middle of a century that seemed devoted to senseless ideologically and theologically driven violence. In England ideology and interest overwhelmed a sense of common nationhood. And, after all that, no one had a working government model to replace the one that had been destroyed. A military dictatorship ensued, but only because they had a supernaturally skilled military and political leader, Oliver Cromwell, to be military dictator. And he never came up with a system that would go of itself. Once he died, they had no choice but to return to the royal system they had so violently destroyed.

But once you've killed a King, and run things pretty successfully without one for awhile, can a King ever feel completely secure? The body politic under Charles II was disordered, violent, moody, and more than a little deranged. And their King and his brother, the heir, were both in the pay of the King of France. Patriotism doesn't pay the bills after all. So vast conspiracy theories convulsed the nation, leading to riots and executions. Our petty Vince Fosters and Seth Riches have nothing on Edmund Berry Godfrey lying in a ditch on Primrose hill, impaled on his own sword, or the attempted assassination of both the King and his successor.

When the next crisis came, a major part of the ruling clique invited a foreigner to come in and replace their legal monarch, and then just brazened it out: "I really don't get what you're going on about". We call this coup the Glorious Revolution, and, in fact, its somewhat low origins do not prevent this new period from being the fount of much of our thinking on the legitimacy of democratic government.

Then, safe at last, everyone, or at least everyone with the leisure to indulge themselves, sank into childish and vicious party rivalries over issues of little ultimate significance. That's the happy ending!

The Hobbes metric

Thomas Hobbes lived from 1588 (when his mother was supposedly frightened into labor by news of the approach of the Armada) to 1679. Someone similarly long lived born in 1625, the year Charles I became King, would have lived to 1716, two years into the reign of George I, the first Hanoverian monarch. King Charles would have been executed when they were 24, Cromwell become Lord Protector when they were 28, Charles II King when they were 36, and the Glorious Revolution when they were 63. Someone who lived in interesting times.

Do you think you'll see anything like that amount of political change over your life?

For all its flaws, our system has been remarkably stable. What are the chances that that will continue?