Among Hugh Trevor-Roper’s historical interests it is the Early Modern period, from the late Renaissance to the Baroque, that has claimed his most distinctive literary form, the long essay. He is our finest practitioner of the genre since Macaulay – who wrote when the economics of publishing were friendlier to it. Twenty years ago the essays collected in Trevor-Roper’s Religion, the Reformation and Social Change examined the ideological crisis of the Thirty Years War and of the political revolutions which followed it. Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans, which contains five essays of an average length of about 25,000 words, is in effect a sequel to that volume. It differs from it in containing essays only on Britain, but British history – particularly British intellectual history – is placed no less insistently than before in its European context.
Although the essays have grown out of lectures or shorter publications, all of them are substantially new. The first, which Trevor-Roper concedes to be ‘somewhat peripheral to the main theme of the volume’, is a detective piece, unmistakably by the biographer of Sir Edmund Backhouse, and concerned with a character no less shadowy and bizarre, the atomist Nicholas Hill. A rogue Catholic and a disciple of Giordano Bruno, Hill seems to have promoted a little-known rebellion on the death of Queen Elizabeth, a doomed and farcical adventure apparently intended to establish, on the unpromising soil of Lundy Island, a Utopian republic akin to that planned by his contemporary Tommaso Campanella in southern Italy. The concluding essay, on the relationship of Milton’s writings to the Puritan Revolution and on the unique synthesis of Classical and Puritan influences within his mind, also stands apart, although at a shorter distance. For while that revolution, and its origins, are a central preoccupation of the volume, Milton himself remains, as Trevor-Roper says, ‘a law to himself’.
It is the three essays in between that are most closely connected. They describe three different responses to the ‘Pyrrhonist crisis’ of the earlier 17th century, when the new philosophy called all in doubt, and when the destruction and bitterness of religious war created fresh polarisations and fresh despair. From the title of the book, one might expect the Roman Catholic response – the assertion of infallibility (‘the simplest for indolent minds’) – to be one of the three, but on this occasion Trevor-Roper lets the Catholics off relatively lightly. Instead we are shown two Anglican responses and, placed between them, one Puritan one. First there is Laudianism, the new-fangled High Churchmanship which was awarded political ascendancy by Charles I. Then, opposed to it, there is the old-fashioned Calvinism of that doyen of Puritan scholars, the Archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher. Although the first system was less dogmatic than the second, both of them closed their adherents’ minds. Between them lay the third, altogether healthier response: the sceptical, rational Anglicanism of the Great Tew Circle, of Clarendon and his friends, men of ‘robust common sense’ who ‘dared to tread the via media in its most perilous terrain, not merely in the narrow defile between the high, enclosing walls of opposing bigotries but along the precipitous, crumbling ledge between faith and reason’.
That passage concludes one of the most important essays that Trevor-Roper has written, in which the philosophical premises of his work receive profound and moving expression. Even so, the passage begs questions which often trouble the reader of his Early Modern studies. Where lay the dividing line between ‘bigotry’ and ‘faith’, and that between ‘faith’ and ‘reason’? Trevor-Roper’s own rationalism is closer to the 18th than to the 17th-century variety, his preoccupation with Europe’s and England’s religious wars that of a devotee of the Enlightenment who is at once fascinated and appalled by an age of unreason. He mocks superstition as incisively as anyone since Gibbon, the Puritans as wittily as Hume, the egotistical faith of Milton as delectably as Dr Johnson. (How did Macaulay come to decide that Milton was not an egotist?) Trevor-Roper’s indictments offer fundamental challenges to historians who approach those subjects with different preconceptions or who suppose themselves to have no preconceptions at all. Yet his Enlightened perspective has this disadvantage, that it can make him more alert to the similarities between his 17th-century and his 18th-century heroes than to the differences.
This book is, however, no mere rehearsal of 18th-century preferences. Joined to them are the gains of 20th-century experience and of 20th-century scholarship. Trevor-Roper, in whose work the experiences which separate one generation from another are so recurrent a theme, is influenced by the parallels between the 17th-century religious wars and the period in which he grew up: between the political and ideological polarisations of the 1620s and those of the 1930s, and between the apocalyptic Protestantism and post-Tridentine Catholicism of the 17th century and the competing totalitarian faiths of the 20th. The parallels are never pressed, for like all historical parallels they fade before that uniqueness of each historical context which, he insists, must be recreated before general lessons can be drawn from the past. Nevertheless the assumption that general lessons can and should be drawn from it is one of the features that clearly distinguish him from the succeeding generation. How could anyone who lived through the experience of Hitler doubt that the student of history must be morally engaged?
It was the Second World War that shaped the best British historians of Trevor-Roper’s generation, by liberating them from the cloisters and giving them practical experience, or at least a practical awareness, of the making of history. In Trevor-Roper’s mind there is no veil – as there often is in the minds of a younger, less exposed generation – to separate the present from the past, for history is a continuous process in which the past has the immediacy of the present, while the present, which has grown out of the past, can be better understood by analogy and contrast with it.
Analogy and contrast – not merely between past and present but between different regions of the past – figure so frequently in his work because to him the study of history is properly inseparable, as it was to the historians of the Enlightenment, from philosophy, and because the proper basis of historical philosophy is comparison. Like Gibbon’s mind, even in imitation of it, Trevor-Roper’s ranges continually from one period to another, finding and testing resemblances, sifting the significant from the ephemeral.
Trevor-Roper, while receptive and generous to youthful scholarship when he finds it, is not at ease in the world of modern research. He laments the imprisonment of historical study within self-enclosed and necessarily un-comparative specialisms. Because historical study can never be ‘value-free’, he is on distant terms with the moral agnosticism, or moral abstention, of the doctoral belt. Because historical study can only have worth, and retain a sense of reality and proportion, if it is communicated to laymen and answerable to them, he has no sympathy for historians’ mounting professional self-consciousness. And because the quality of historical thought is inseparable from the quality of its expression, he scorns the perspiring prose of the ‘learned parish magazines’.
Have his distastes obscured from him some of the scholarly achievements of the past twenty years and the exercises in historical revision which have been based on them? Certainly those decades have witnessed a process of disengagement on his part. When he wrote Religion, the Reformation and Social Change he was a chief setter of the historiographical agenda, who stood at the centre of the most fertile arguments about the Early Modern period. While others chased the problems he had raised earlier – the declining gentry, the relationship of ‘Court’ to ‘Country’ – he was opening new ones: the ‘general crisis of the 17th century’, the relationship of witchcraft prosecutions and of millenarianism to that crisis, the relationship of England’s civil wars to the simultaneous conflicts in Scotland and Ireland, the continuity of ideas which links Renaissance Humanism with the Enlightenment. His perceptions, in the hands of the succeeding generation, have been put to uses which must have surprised him. Can he have imagined, when his emphasis upon the backwoods mentality of the 17th-century gentry directed researchers into the counties, and when he underlined the apocalyptic element in Puritan thought, that the mentalities of provincialism and millenarianism would come to be described, not merely without a breath of Enlightened scepticism, but with admiration?
Whatever the reasons, the great controversialist has withdrawn to the solitude of his study. Never having belonged to a historical school or sought to found one, he writes as if ever more convinced that historical wisdom lies not in the pooling of research but in the cultivation of the individual mind: a mind which needs the confidence to ignore or defy the tastes and preoccupations of the mainstream. His learning, although as formidable as ever in its breadth, has become increasingly unconventional in its content. The prose has become less assertive and more meditative, the luxuriant foliage of Religion, the Reformation and Social Change yielding to an autumnal spareness (save perhaps in the essay on Milton, who seems on occasion to exert a contrary, Ciceronian spell). The sentences have become shorter, or seem so, while the concern for clarity and precision has produced an ever more patient manner of explanation. But some things have not changed. In its suppleness and elegance, in its effortless Latinity, in its tonal variety and in the breathtaking ease and range of its vocabulary, Trevor-Roper’s prose remains peerless in contemporary historical writing. Yet, while there is none of Macaulay’s nail-banging, Trevor-Roper’s delight in the possibilities of language is kept as firmly as Macaulay’s was in the service of the exact and the concrete. There is even, in this volume, a novel frequency of colloquialism. To the democratic casualness of the modern academic manner there is, however, no hint of concession.
So Trevor Roper’s position in historical studies has become, in the strict sense of the word, eccentric. The profession’s difficulty in placing him is reflected in the remark of a Cambridge historian on learning that Peterhouse had chosen Trevor-Roper as its Master: ‘The fools! They think they have elected a Tory, but of course they have elected a Whig.’ Today’s young historians, while for the most part politically Whig (or SDP, or at least bien-pensant), nonetheless regard the inherited version of English history as a conspiracy wrought by a long line of Whig (and Protestant) writers. Products of a period of national decline, they are puzzled by the idea of progress and unimpressed by the evolution and the uniqueness of Britain’s institutions.
Trevor-Roper has his own evident reservations about the Whig tradition, which he has the advantage over most historians of having studied. He is alive to the strands both of self-congratulation and of manufacture within Whig historiography, dissents from its element of determinism (as from all determinism), and displays as much of a Tory sense of the need to defend institutions as of a Whig appetite for reforming them. In essence, however, a Whig he is. The opening statement of Religion, the Reformation and Social Change – ‘If we look at the 300 years of European history from 1500 to 1800, we can describe it, in general, as a period of progress’ – evidently struck him as so obviously true as scarcely to require definition. And implicit in his writings on 17th-century England is the belief that 1640 and 1688 were critical moments in the survival of our political liberties and in the emergence of our constitutional pluralism.
Trevor-Roper’s conception of progress extends to intellectual as well as to political history. In this volume it extends, in particular, to Arminianism. Arminianism was the movement within the Church of England which, in the earlier 17th century, challenged the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. Calvin’s teachings seemed to the Arminians to make God into a tyrant. The Arminians also challenged the scheme of history which Puritans derived from Biblical prophecy and which identified the Pope as Antichrist. Instead, Arminians reasserted the place of natural reason in religion. To Trevor-Roper, Arminianism was thus an instrument of intellectual liberation and advance. That was the standard Victorian view. It has become necessary to reassert it, and to reformulate it on fresh scholarly foundations, because in recent decades some powerful historians have located the progressive force of 17th-century English religion not in Arminianism but in its rival movement, Puritanism, which has been credited with such intellectual achievements as the Scientific Revolution and the emergence of a modern historical philosophy. In that interpretation, Arminianism, the servant of the reactionary Caroline regime, was itself a reactionary movement, which, perhaps inevitably, collapsed with its political master.
It requires little reflection to see the force of Trevor-Roper’s position. For the collapse of Arminianism in 1640-2 was a temporary one. The political party with which it had become associated did indeed permanently fall, and, in consequence of that political defeat, Arminian doctrine would be vigorously proscribed during the two decades of Puritan rule. But in the later part of the century, when the doctrinal controversy had lost its political sting, Arminianism resumed its earlier role. As under James I, so after the Restoration, it softened the rigours of the Calvinist scheme of salvation, and reined the appetite of intellectuals for abstruse points of divinity. The emergence of empiricism – as of the principle of religious toleration – during the age of science accompanied not the rise of Puritanism but its erosion. How, after all, could Puritan fundamentalism be a spur to empirical observation? Puritans were keener on observing their own souls than on recording the world outside them. How could Puritan providentialism, ever ascribing natural phenomena to divine intervention, assist the understanding of the natural world and of the universe? And as Trevor-Roper asks, what was progressive about the scholarship of the Puritan Archbishop Ussher, whose massive labours reached their summit with the discovery that the Creation had occurred on Sunday, 23 October 4004 BC, after the machinery had been set in motion on the 22nd, around 6 p.m.? The discovery was based, as Ussher and his followers believed, on objective scholarship – and yet it happened to fit conveniently the pre-existent Puritan system of the millennium.
Trevor-Roper’s dislike of Puritanism, never more open than in this volume, is voiced with an irony not invariably grave or even invariably temperate. That influential Puritan, the Cambridge don Samuel Ward, whose career has received respectful treatment from historians, is here portrayed as a ‘guzzling’, ‘moping pluralist’, the introspective musings of his diary paraphrased with an unaccustomed want of sympathy: ‘Was he of the Elect? Could he be in a state of grace? Or had he eaten too much at dinner last night – had he tucked too freely into those plums, damsons, walnuts, cheese, to which he was so partial?’ Trevor-Roper’s charge against the Puritans is that of his hero Clarendon: the accusation of dishonesty and hypocrisy. First, there was the political dishonesty of the ‘great contrivers’ of 1640-2, who, though knowing full well that Archbishop Laud was not a Papist, used the smear of Popery to give respectable cover to their radical political programme and to win lower-class support for it. We might suggest that the Parliamentary leaders – whose rhetoric may in any case have been more concerned to rally their backbenchers than to dupe the commonalty – were more persuaded by their own propaganda than Trevor-Roper allows, but if so they can still be charged with irresponsible and dangerous self-deception. Secondly, there was intellectual dishonesty. By the 1630s the Puritan intellectual system – a synthesis of Calvinist dogma and German historicism – was ‘out of date’ and ‘obsolete’. How outward-looking, and how honest with himself, was any man who still needed to believe that the Pope was Antichrist?
Thus it is the Puritans, not the Arminians, who had become the ‘reactionary’ party. But Trevor-Roper proposes no crude reversal of roles. For Arminianism, like Puritanism, was a ‘synthesis’, and Trevor-Roper separates its constituent parts. Before the 1620s, in the generation of Lancelot Andrewes and Bishop Overall, Arminianism was not a political movement. It was an academic movement, its battles fought primarily within the Church and the universities. Heirs of Erasmus and of Hooker, allies of Hugo Grotius, the Arminians were international in outlook, in contrast to the insularity of the Puritans. They longed to restore the union of Christendom and to end its fratricidal wars and controversies. They were ‘rational’, ‘liberal’ and – a word for which Trevor-Roper perhaps reaches too easily – ‘civilised’. The ‘tragedy’ of Arminianism was that in the 1620s, under the leadership first of Richard Neile and then more decisively of William Laud, it was annexed to Charles I’s programme of political ‘absolutism’. Trevor-Roper does not describe the precise content of that programme. If it existed, then the constitutional objectives of the Puritan ‘contrivers’ were surely genuine enough, however distasteful the hypocrisy which may have cloaked them. But Trevor-Roper’s principal point, the acquisition by Arminianism of a political face under Laud, is clearly established. He rejects the current belief that the basic cause of the Civil War was religious. If Arminianism caused the Civil War, it was only because it had been politicised. It was not Arminianism that brought down Charles I, but Charles I who brought down Arminianism.
Within the realm of ideas, Trevor-Roper maintains, Laud was not an illiberal figure. He was a friend to ‘reason’, an opponent of barren doctrinal controversy. We might add that although he persecuted Puritans, he was concerned only to secure their outward conformity: a position arguably more tolerant than that of his enemy Oliver Cromwell, who, while indifferent to outward conformity, wanted proof of men’s inward orthodoxy. In any case, how Laudian was Laud? Trevor-Roper indicates that the discrediting of Laud’s ecclesiastical policies followed less from his own implementation of them than from their exaggeration by his clerical lieutenants, not least John Cosin at Peterhouse, a college where Laudianism ‘had run riot’ (and on which Trevor-Roper bestows the benefit of his analogical instinct, for it ‘was then, as now, a very small college’, where ‘conversation at the high table may not have been very agreeable’). It is the misfortune of Charles Carlton’s Archbishop William Laud, a pleasant and scholarly but conventional biography, to appear just when Laud’s relation to Laudianism is being freshly examined.
Trevor-Roper’s essay on the Laudian programme should be the starting-point for any student of the subject. The reader’s difficulty is to pin down the connection between the annexation of Arminianism by the state and the development within Arminianism of the High Churchmanship and the clericalism with which Laud’s name is properly associated, and which, Trevor-Roper seems sometimes ready to allow, were in themselves enough to make him hated. The clericalism is traced back to Bancroft, under whom it had indeed been less widely contentious, if also less far-reaching. But what of the sacerdotalism and the ceremonialism? Trevor-Roper explains the logical connection between the Arminians’ belief in free will and their emphasis, which under Laud was so detested, on the altar. But when and by when was the connection established? Unless it can be shown to have existed, uncontentiously, before Laud, then the hostility to him may continue to look as much religious as political – as may the causes of the Civil War. Nicholas Tyacke’s Anti-Calvinists, a study of English Arminianism which at last brings into print one of the most distinguished and most fertile dissertations to have been produced by the doctoral belt – and which in general complements Trevor-Roper’s argument – is likewise surprisingly gingerly about the introduction of sacerdotalism.
How was it that Arminianism, brought down by its association with Laud and his king, recuperated to such effect after the revolution which had seemed to destroy it? Trevor-Roper’s answer may prove the seminal feature of his book. He finds it in the north Oxfordshire home of Lord Falkland during the 1630s, where there met, as Aubrey said, ‘all the excellent of that peacable time’. The Great Tew circle can be studied from more than one angle. It can be seen as a literary group, a gathering of writers and poets. It can be viewed as a source of political ideas, as it is in Richard Tuck’s Natural Rights Theories (1979). Trevor-Roper’s principal interest is in the religious philosophy which united Clarendon, John Hales, William Chillingworth and the future bishops Sheldon, Hammond, Morley and Earle. In the 1630s the Laudians may have distorted Arminianism, but they did not monopolise it. Among the men of Great Tew, all of them young, there survived the rational, tolerant, ecumenical tradition of Erasmus and Hooker and Grotius. The philosophy of the circle, although formed in relaxed and convivial surroundings, would acquire, when its members reached maturity, a grave and enduring destiny. When the Church of England was destroyed by the revolution and its members persecuted or exiled, the circle, though geographically scattered, retained its coherence and remained true to its ideals. But for its resilience, the Church’s destruction might have been permanent, for after 1649 there were influential advisers of Charles II who urged him to regain his throne on Presbyterian or Catholic rather than Anglican terms. It was the fortitude of the survivors of Great Tew in the dark decade of the 1650s, when their ‘Grotianism’ was reaffirmed, and their success in capturing key positions in the Church in the 1660s, that ensured the eventual triumph of Arminianism – and which helped make the Church of the Restoration much more palatable to the nation, and therefore much more durable, than Laud’s had been.
The essence of Trevor-Roper’s thesis is detachable from the element within it which can be called Whig. Against its Whiggism a question-mark nonetheless remains. It is not least for its place on the path of intellectual progress that he admires the Great Tew circle. That progress is a process of emancipation. But emancipation from what? From ‘bigotry’ – or from ‘faith’? Clarendon and his friends are seen as a progressive force more because of what they did not believe than because of what they did. Yet their rationalism, their tolerance and their ecumenicalism were after all designed to rescue the Christian faith, not to assist its dissolution. The group may have pointed towards the Enlightenment, but they would not have liked it. It is the congeniality of their cast of mind, rather than the logic which expressed it, that principally attracts Trevor-Roper. His emphasis upon their willingness to follow reason as ‘the only guide in those areas where direct revelation is not available’, and upon the extent to which they equated belief with the acceptance of ‘probability’, draws attention to points of high significance. Yet a core of faith persisted, which reason was equipped neither to construct nor to defend. The tolerance born of Clarendon’s ‘scepticism’ did not extend to Sir George Savile, whom he condemned for even ‘doubting’ the existence of God.
We are told that Clarendon, ‘like Gibbon’, paid ‘lip-service’ to providence as a historical force. Yet not quite like Gibbon, surely. Clarendon was indeed shocked by the crude, self-serving providentialism of the Puritans, but his own treatment of the subject is troubled, inconsistent and far from indifferent. Richard Ollard’s full and affectionate (if too decoratively written) study of Clarendon and his Friends, which is much indebted to Trevor-Roper’s earlier account of Clarendon and which has no religious axe to grind, nonetheless recognises the dependence of Clarendon’s thinking on his discernment of a divine pattern in the events around him. Clarendon’s piety and devotion, which sustained him in adversity and which are amply reflected in his essays and ‘contemplations’, may have been the more conventional and less creative side to his belief, but his philosophy is not separable from them. Was not the ‘Puritan’ streak in him capable of surprisingly old-fashioned expression? In the long and remarkable treatise of his old age, Religion and Policy, we find, it is true, the eloquent persistence of the ecumenicalism of Great Tew. Yet alongside it there runs an obsession with the evils and the conspiracies of Popery which, by its exaggerations, weakens his argument, and which reminds us of Puritanism not merely by its tone but by its substance.
If the problems which confront the historian of forward-looking movements emerge from the essay on Great Tew, the difficulties besetting the identification of backward-looking tendencies are suggested by the essay on Ussher. For while acknowledgment is made of the distinction of the learning which is Ussher’s principal claim to recognition, and of the respect in which it was held by all parties, the tribute cannot be integrated into the argument, which is concerned with Ussher’s limitations. For all its criticism of polarisations, Trevor-Roper’s book is not without polarisations of its own. Yet if the dilemma of the Whig tradition persists in the volume, it can rarely have surfaced in a more sophisticated or more fruitful form. The book supplies, as the very best history books do, a self-sufficient intellectual world. It is a world evoked by the most luminous and the most penetrative intelligence at work on the British past.
Kevin Sharpe’s Criticism and Compliment is dedicated to Trevor-Roper, but departs significantly from his view of royal policy in the 1630s, in which Sharpe finds no evidence of aggressive or absolutist intentions. An enterprising attempt to cross the artificial boundary which the last century has erected between literary and historical inquiry, the book proposes a favourable revaluation of the drama and the masques of Charles I’s court, where Sir William Davenant, Thomas Carew and Aurelian Townshend had replaced Ben Jonson in the royal favour. Sharpe’s starting-point is the falsity of the distinction between ‘Court’ and ‘Country’ which historians have imposed not only on the politics of the Personal Rule but on its culture. He applies to that decade the lesson which literary critics have learned from earlier ones: that praise of the Country and dispraise of the Court were essentially a courtly genre, which thrived not on ideological opposites but on the ambivalence of office-seekers who wanted the fruits of power without cost to their independence. He refutes the image of Charles I’s court as effete, self-enclosed and sycophantic. The literature which it produced has hitherto been judged according to the a priori assumptions implicit in the terms ‘Cavalier drama’ and ‘Cavalier poetry’ that have been employed to describe them: terms which must be meaningless, for before the Civil War there were no Cavaliers. The nation was no more divided in the 1630s than before – and the Court no less so. Courtiers commissioned plays which not merely criticised royal policy but demanded a reform of the very values of the Court.
Sharpe’s thesis, argued with courage and grace, deserves to provoke some substantial rethinking, even if its principal claims do not win acceptance. Yet as Trevor-Roper observed when replying to the critics of his ‘general crisis’ thesis, Court and Country do not have to be separate in order to be divisive. They can divide, not one class of men from another, but every man within himself. It is when the Court breaks down, as after all Charles I’s court did break down, that men perceive the depth of the division and are obliged to make their choices. Sharpe’s readers may need some persuading that the criticisms voiced in the courtly literature of the Personal Rule belong, not, as earlier writers have argued, on its periphery, but at its centre. And is it true that ‘each of our dramatists engaged the fundamental ethical and political questions of his day’? Sharpe’s emphasis on love as political allegory rightly underlines the interplay of the private and the public in the pre-Civil War imagination, and he might well argue that the Platonist debates of courtly entertainments, which, however remote they may seem to us, were no more distant from reality than, say, Puritan providentialism was, would have been taken far more seriously by posterity had Charles happened to avoid or to win the Civil War. Yet the themes which Sharpe recounts seem, both emotionally and artistically, too simple-minded and conventional to warrant the claims he bases on them. Charles I – who would not have been the first absolutist ruler to feel better for some gentle criticism by in-house writers – is unlikely to have trembled on his throne at the news that, in politics as in private life, love is preferable to lust, that reason must prevail over passion, that true praise must differ from flattery.
However we evaluate the literature Sharpe describes, it cannot have done much to equip the King for the severe problems of government which his policies (whether or not they were absolutist) created for him. Sharpe effectively disposes of the notion that the court entertainments pandered to royal megalomania, but not of the worrying thought that the King may have been unable to distinguish the ‘metaphysical world’ which they presented from the real one. The concluding pages of Criticism and Compliment intimate that Charles recognised in the Puritan challenge to his rule the insurrection of the appetite against that sovereignty of reason and of the golden mean of which his writers had educated him to regard himself as the defender. If so, the possibility is open that he helped to cause the Civil War not, as previously supposed, by swallowing literary talk about autocracy, but by swallowing literary talk about moderation.