chapter  44
Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution (Christopher Hill, 1912–2003)
Pages 5

Born into a prosperous middle class family in York, Hill attended well-known St. Peter’s School. While studying there, his intellectual talent came to the attention of faculty at Balliol College at Oxford University. He went to Oxford and in 1932 took a degree with first class honors. While at Balliol, he was converted to Marxism. In 1935 he went to the Soviet Union, learned Russian, and studied Soviet historiography. On returning he accepted a position at Cardiff University. When war broke out in 1940, he became a private in the British army and was later commissioned as an officer. About that time he began to publish articles about seventeenth-century England. In 1946 he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in the

company of other notable historians like E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawn. British Marxist historians formed the Communist Party Historians Group. After the abortive Hungarian Revolution in 1956, Hill pulled out of the Communist Party, which he found too undemocratic, but retained his Marxist leanings with qualifications. Marxism in its pure form is deterministic. As a result of class struggle, sparked and driven by what social group controls economic life, a direction is set in history that unfolds toward a definite end. The final outcome, a classless society, is inevitable. Hill was uncomfortable with determinism and preferred a compromise. The rigidity of dialectical materialism as a law (thesis, antithesis,

synthesis) governing historical change was abandoned or soft pedaled while the role of class relations and economic forces in historical change was retained, with more elbow room for subjectivity and choice. From this perspective, ideas are not merely superstructure rationalizing and justifying a mode of production: “ … a sociological approach to intellectual history carries its own risks. Marx himself did not fall into the error of thinking men’s ideas were merely a pale reflection of their economic needs, with no history of their own” (3). On the other hand, as Hill stresses, Marx was right that ideas are not solely a result of their internal logic nor do they appear and function in a social-economic vacuum. Hill’s “English Revolution” is the period of civil war, execution of

Charles I, and the Commonwealth under Cromwell from 1640 to 1660, not the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when the Stuart king James II was replaced peacefully and a constitutional monarchy was established. Prominent changes brought about by the first Revolution were less power for the King and more for Parliament, an imperialist

foreign policy, growth of economic liberalism, more equitable taxation, a surge of religious toleration, and “the triumph of modern science” (132). Hill’s erudition and scholarly apparatus are imposing. Pages are

heavy with names, events, books, and ideas supported by notes that may occupy a half or a third of a page. Rather than digging in archives, his sources are printed works from the Bodleian and other libraries. It seems there is no book, pamphlet, or treatise from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries he overlooked. His style is disarmingly casual amidst dense thickets of exposition, analysis, and references. The search for ideas that underlay the first English Revolution reaches from cellar to attic as obscure people in religion, law, literature, and other pursuits share the stage with celebrated writers, scientists, and thinkers. What is the issue? “The problem I want to discuss is so obvious

that we are apt to overlook it. For as long as history recorded there had been kings, lords, and bishops in England … Yet, within less than a decade, successful war was levied against King; bishops and the House of Lords were abolished; and Charles I was executed in the name of his people. How did men get the nerve to do such unheard of things … Medieval kings in plenty had been assassinated … but the sanctity that hedged in a king had never before been publically breached” (5). The ideas in men’s heads are part of the explanation: “The history of ideas necessarily deals with trends to which there are individual exceptions. I shall argue that on the whole the ideas of the scientists favoured the Puritan and Parliamentarian cause” (4-5). A revolutionary climate of opinion emerged from several quarters.

A source of irreverence for authority was men who “subverted the doctrine of degree by preaching the equality of man and advocating a career open to talents” (267). Individual virtue was held to trump birth and inheritance, a legacy of the Renaissance. It was such virtuousness that permeated the New Model Army of the Puritans. A second kind of resistance was “feudal doctrines of contract” influenced by “new commercial and legal ideas” (268). The agent of that influence was “Puritan contract theology,” which held that contracts were sacred and not to be violated, a blow aimed at royal interference with business. A third was the notion widely shared that the world was about to end, which was indirectly “a stimulus to direct revolutionary action … ” (269). Outside of England the major influence was the nearby example of Dutch prosperity, enlightened government, and freedom of inquiry.