Since the 1960s, social historians have made enormous efforts to expand the range of history beyond the familiar cast of monarchs, courtiers and parliamentarians to recover the lives of the lower orders. ‘History from below’ has complicated and enriched the national story: witches and wet nurses, Ranters and Muggletonians, autodidacts, knitters and servants have all emerged from the shadows of neglect and condescension. In the midst of this historical revolution the career of the parliamentary historian Conrad Russell, whose first book was published in 1971 and who died in 2004, seemed like a fantastical conceit on the unfashionable notion of ‘history from above’.
Certainly, the bald facts of the case suggest a throwback to an era when leisured gentlemen in oak-panelled libraries composed grand Whig narratives of the triumph of English liberty: not only would Russell inherit an earldom, but his ancestors had played a central role in the political history of England. Conrad was the son of Bertrand Russell by his troubled third marriage, and had an understandably fraught upbringing, but it is his sociological rather than psychological baggage as a Russell which invites legitimate historiographical prurience. On succeeding his half-brother as the 5th Earl Russell he became active in the House of Lords as a spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, the distant lineal successors of the Whigs, the party his own forebears had founded. Yet, oddly enough, Russell, who happily celebrated the history of the Whigs and their descendants in An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Liberalism, was the very opposite of a Whig historian. Indeed, his overt Whig pieties were combined with a pronounced anti-Whig revisionism in his specialist interest, the origins of what used to be called the English Civil Wars.
A chain-smoker in an ill-fitting suit, who carried his voluminous notes around in supermarket carrier bags, the 5th Earl Russell defied most conventional stereotypes of the aristocrat. But he possessed a keen awareness of his dynastic heritage: it determined both his sense of political obligation and his interpretation of English history. The story of the Russells was inextricably interwoven with the history of Whiggery and Liberalism, and after some early flirtations with the Labour Party, he maintained that family tradition. Yet when he peered back beyond the Glorious Revolution to the Civil War era, the picture became decidedly blurred, and Whiggery seemed to peter out. What was the connection between the two major upheavals of England’s so-called ‘century of revolutions’? How far was the Glorious Revolution of 1688 a consolidation of the gains of the chaotic English Revolution of the 1640s?
The history of the Russells seemed to locate the origins of Whiggism almost precisely around 1679. Before then – and certainly in the Civil War era – the family’s politics were much harder to parse. One of Russell’s final – and most revealing – pieces was his long essay in the DNB on Francis Russell, 4th Earl of Bedford, a leading early Stuart politician, who died in 1641. Given the ‘eclectic’ character of Bedford’s religious preferences, which are best characterised as Calvinist Episcopalian, and the amphibious nature of his associations with both Royalists and Parliamentarians, Russell concluded that his ancestor’s career provided ‘absolutely no clue to what side he would have taken if he had lived to take sides in the Civil War’. As if to reinforce the point, he noted that Francis Russell’s heir, the 5th Earl of Bedford, switched sides twice during the wars. It was impossible, even when tracing the history of his own family, to construct a narrative of Whig continuity which connected both English revolutions of the 17th century.
Rather, the proper history of the Whigs began only with the Exclusion Crisis of 1679, the attempt to exclude Charles II’s Roman Catholic heir presumptive, James, Duke of York, from the throne. In the political dramas of the 1680s the Russell dynasty produced two of the iconic figures of English Whig mythology: the Whig martyr William, Lord Russell, and one of the Immortal Seven who in 1688 invited William of Orange to rescue England from popery and arbitrary rule. William, Lord Russell, the heir of the 5th earl of Bedford, was executed in 1683 for his involvement in the Rye House Plot, an attempt to assassinate the crypto-Catholic Charles II and his openly Catholic brother. In the aftermath of the plot the disloyally Whiggish Russells were proscribed from high office. One of the pariahs, Edward Russell, a discarded senior naval officer and grandson of the 4th Earl, was among the seven aristocrats who signed the invitation to William of Orange in 1688. In the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution, Russell became William III’s admiral of the fleet. A century and a half later, the Russells also gave Britain its last Whig prime minister, Conrad’s great-grandfather, Lord John Russell, later the first Earl Russell, who governed as a Whig from 1846 to 1852 and afterwards as a Liberal.
If his own family history helped to bring into focus the indeterminacy of political commitments on the eve of the Civil War, it was his encyclopedic grasp of parliamentary history which enabled Russell to see that there was something wrong with the classic accounts of early Stuart history. Whig history depicted the rise of Parliament, and in particular the ‘winning of the initiative’ by the early 17th-century House of Commons in a series of conflicts with the monarchy. The story also had a Marxist version, where the rise of the Commons was equated with the ascent of the bourgeoisie. Even sceptical conservative dissenters from the Whig and Marxist interpretations accepted a conflict model of politics, based on the differences between court and country.
From early in his career, Russell took a contradictory line, aware that the main trend in early modern Europe was not the rise of parliaments, but their decline and extinction with the rise of fiscal-military absolutisms. Significantly, his first book, a survey of the 16th and early 17th centuries, was entitled The Crisis of Parliaments. However, it was ‘Parliamentary History in Perspective’, a stunning article published in 1976, and his monograph, Parliaments and English Politics 1621-29 (1979), a thrilling book despite its stodgy title, that broke the mould of early Stuart historiography. Russell showed that an early modern parliament was not so much a branch of the constitution with its own institutional interests and imperatives as an ‘ad hoc gathering’. Nor could he detect any clearly defined sides to constitutional conflict between executive and legislature or to cultural divisions between supporters of court and country: the same men, Russell showed, found themselves at different times on both wings of these purported divides. Members who sat for short periods in the House of Commons would later return home, where they served the executive as lord lieutenants, say, or justices of the peace, or stewards of the crown manors. Not that these multiple roles were perceived by contemporaries to create any significant dilemmas for individuals. Indeed, these MPs were not trying to gain greater national responsibilities, but to evade them. Inflation and increased costs in wartime associated with the need for a more professional organisation of armies had eroded the value of the traditional form of parliamentary taxation, the subsidy. But instead of engaging in realistic negotiations with the crown and its anxious treasurers, parliamentarians preferred for the most part to look after the interest of their own localities, and that meant resisting the burden of effective taxation, if indeed MPs really understood the financial situation, which is doubtful.
Russell was the pre-eminent member of a variegated school of early modern revisionists, though indebted to the work on localism of John Morrill and the insight of Nicholas Tyacke that it was not Puritanism but Arminianism which was the radically disruptive religious innovation of the early 17th century. The revisionists have been accused of draining history of constitutional meaning and of substituting short-term contingency for patterns of long-term causation, but it’s not clear that Russell ever fell wholly into this trap. He was never one to stand his ground in the face of persuasive evidence, even when presented by the most junior colleagues or postgraduates, and was constantly redefining his position in the light of the work of other historians. By the time of his twin books The Causes of the English Civil War (1990) and The Fall of the British Monarchies 1637-42 (1991), Russell had concluded that there were indeed three basic long-term causes of the Civil Wars, though it had required their fateful conjunction to bring about the collapse of the regime. In his earlier works he had pointed to the breakdown of the fiscal system as a source of instability. The other structural issues were religious strife and the problem – common to many early modern monarchies across Europe – of governing multiple kingdoms, in the case of the Stuarts from 1603 the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland, each with its own legislature, established church and variety of religious troubles. It was Charles I’s attempt to impose Anglican uniformity on Scotland in 1637, and the subsequent wars with the Scots in 1639-40, that had brought into combustible combination these separate and otherwise containable strains of instability.
Russell’s arrival in the House of Lords after the death of his half-brother in 1987 changed the focus of his commitments. Henceforth, he combined teaching at King’s College London, to which he moved in 1990, with his duties in the Lords, and students were happy to make the detour to the Palace of Westminster for tutorials when parliamentary business was pressing. As the Liberal Democrat spokesman on social security, he brought historical depth to his portfolio, tracing the English commitment to welfare back beyond Beveridge to the Elizabethan Poor Law. His publishing activities changed too. His last books were polemical tracts, even if measured and sophisticated contributions to the genre: Academic Freedom (1993) and An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Liberalism (1999). A deep immersion in late medieval history underpinned many of the insights he brought to the study of the early modern period and led him to see that the privileges of academics, descending as they did from the universities of the Middle Ages, were at least ‘quasi-ecclesiastical’, had required ‘an extra-territorial pope’ as their ‘guarantor’, and had been vulnerable to the depredations of anticlerical politicians ever since the Reformation. Conservative university reformers featured in an unflattering genealogy as the direct heirs of those 16th-century Erastian statesmen whose goal had been the subordination of the ecclesiastical realm to the temporal authority of the state. Yet Russell’s emphasis on the clerical roots of academic freedom provided equally uncomfortable reading for a modern secularist intelligentsia.
Parliamentary business and his short book on liberalism prevented Russell from publishing the Trevelyan Lectures which he delivered at Cambridge in 1995 on the early Jacobean Parliaments. Richard Cust and Andrew Thrush calculate from internal evidence that the text now edited by them was written in the late 1990s. An expanded version of the lectures, now incorporating several additional chapters, King James VI and I and His English Parliaments complements Russell’s earlier classic on the Parliaments of the 1620s, and extends many of its themes back to the parliamentary sessions of 1604-10 and the Addled Parliament of 1614. The sections dealing with the consequences of the military revolution for the public finances reinforce his earlier arguments about the normal trajectory of institutional change in early modern Europe. By the first decade of the 17th century the House of Commons was already an ‘obsolete survival’. Moreover, an obtuseness about the facts of fiscal life was characteristic of the Jacobean country member. ‘Even the prospect of extinction,’ Russell notes, ‘does not seem to have frightened the Commons as much as the prospect of voting the sort of taxes which would have made the crown financially viable.’
The book confirms that Russell, who had more regard to historical accuracy than to his own reputation, remained to the end open-minded, daring and imaginative. He was never restricted to revisionism as doctrine, and throughout the latter half of his career he changed his mind in significant ways while still conserving the broad message of his earlier anti-Whig interpretation of history. In this final book he makes the surprising discovery that there were, after all, high constitutional issues in the early Stuart period; it’s just that they weren’t where the Whig historians had traditionally located them. Historians had paid too much attention to the domestic tensions between monarchy and Parliament at the expense of the cross-cultural misapprehensions which had dogged the accession of an experienced – indeed, an all too experienced – king of Scotland to the English crown in 1603.
It was James himself – a Scotch dominie manqué, and perhaps the only genuine intellectual ever to hold the crown of either country – who brought subterranean issues of constitutional principle to the surface of politics. For a start, as Russell notes, James was hypersensitive to the destabilising potential inherent in every minor peculiarity of the English political and legal system. Whereas English-born monarchs took the English polity for granted, James viewed its distinctively un-Scottish features with the uncomprehending fascination of a Martian. Confronted with English procedures and institutions, he tried to work out the mechanics of their operation, an innocent enough pastime in itself, but the new king also possessed an incisive capacity to determine, or so he thought, the first principles on which institutions rested, and carried from his time in Scotland a paranoia about any claim of authority independent of the monarchy. Such pretensions reminded him of the theories of Andrew Melville, a plain-speaking Scots Presbyterian churchman, who contended that church and state were two parallel kingdoms, each sovereign over its own spiritual or temporal realm. ‘Sirrah,’ Melville had informed his monarch, ‘ye are God’s silly vassal; there are two kings and two kingdoms in Scotland: there is King James, the head of this commonwealth; and there is Christ Jesus, the king of the church, whose subject James the Sixth is, and of whose kingdom, he is not a king, nor a lord, nor a head, but a member.’ Thereafter, any hint of autonomous power, however seemingly technical or far removed from aggressive anti-Erastian churchmanship, was capable of triggering a royal panic attack.
According to Russell, the new king found the Melvillian disease to be endemic in English institutions, not least in the law courts. ‘So long as his bishops were “my bishops”, his judges were “my judges” and his parliament was “my parliament”’, he was happy to engage in lengthy, good-natured debate with them; but he was allergic to any suggestion that they enjoyed a standing separate from the ultimate will of the crown. Melville provided the unexpected key to understanding why James was so alarmed by the independence of the judiciary and ‘a precedent-based system’ of common law quite distinct from the royal will. Parliaments, James reasoned, were his own creatures: to be summoned, prorogued and dissolved by order of the monarch. Sir Edward Coke’s judgment that the common law could ‘control acts of Parliament and sometimes adjudge them to be utterly void’ was particularly shocking, because judicial review, as James saw it, was a usurpation on the laws made by the king’s parliament. The main ideological battles of the Jacobean era, it transpires, took place not in Parliament, but in the law courts.
James rode other hobby-horses sired in his northern kingdom, not least the project of fuller Anglo-Scottish integration. The border regions had witnessed three centuries of destructive warfare between the English and the Scots, but James’s accession to the English throne in 1603 seemed a providential opportunity to bring an enduring peace to what would become the ‘middle shires’ of a new British state. This required a proper union of the two realms. The Union of the Crowns, the term commonly used to describe the accidental conjunction of 1603, is something of a misnomer, for there was no British crown: James VI and I, as the twin royal numerals suggest, just happened to be king of two separate kingdoms, England (of which Ireland, significantly, was a dependency) and Scotland. James had grandiose, if sensible, ambitions to make this personal union more permanent and thereby caused considerable consternation on both sides of the border. The Scots were aghast at the notion that their country would be swallowed up, like Wales, in a Greater England; on the other side of the border, the English opposed the alternative to this, some kind of merger of the ancient kingdoms in a new realm of Britain. Names mattered. ‘Being English we cannot be Britaynes,’ Sir Edwin Sandys proclaimed. This was not simply on account of a crude Scotophobia, though there was plenty of that in the early Jacobean era. Russell argues that James’s proposals for union raised thorny constitutional issues – ‘big theoretical questions’ – which would have remained dormant, except that the king himself had brought them up. Were England and Scotland to be united and a new kingdom of Britain created, English commentators feared that it would extinguish the ancient constitution and usher in a state of affairs tantamount to a royal ‘conquest’ of the country. Furthermore, in a loose confederal arrangement the English Parliament would be ‘downgraded to the status of one of the French provincial estates’. James endured a forced ‘retreat’ from his grand ambitions; but even a set of watered-down recommendations would prove unacceptable to the Commons. Russell describes the ‘rejection’ of James’s scheme of union in 1607 as ‘perhaps the most humiliating rebuff suffered by a Stuart king from the House of Commons at any time before the refusal of supply against an invading army in May 1640’.
In recent decades the ‘new British history’ – first summoned into being by J.G.A. Pocock – has transformed our understanding of the English past. You can’t understand England without appreciating how the interactions of the four nations influenced the course of its history. Historians have sometimes paid less attention to the invidious hierarchy of differences which marked England’s various relations with Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Russell notes that England had united with Wales in the 16th century by annexing the principality and according it representation in the English Parliament. Ireland had institutions of its own, but, as a dependent kingdom, posed no existential threat to the English kingdom. However, union with an independent kingdom of Scotland threatened to undermine England’s sovereign sense of self. Constitutionally, the Anglo-Scottish connection was of a markedly different character from either the Anglo-Welsh or even the Anglo-Irish relationship. Seventeenth-century Englishmen, indebted to a unitary conception of the state, could not find a way to accommodate the ‘inconvenient fact of Scottish sovereignty’. The second Anglo-Scottish Union in 1707 provided a workable compromise. Nevertheless, the English remained oblivious – some of them wilfully so – of the fact that post-1707 Britain was a new state born of an international treaty between sovereign kingdoms. The blinkers were still on when Russell was writing in the late 1990s, and, devolution notwithstanding, it still seems fair to conclude, as he did then, that ‘Britain has not yet risen to the intellectual challenge of 1603.’