Skip to content

Response to Review no. 467

I would like to thank Professor Stater for reviewing my work. While I respectfully disagree with him on several issues, I find his review valuable because it reveals an apparent difference in our understanding of how early modern English government and society worked.

England, especially in the localities, was run by volunteers who would only be diligent in their duties if they considered themselves participants in the governing process; in G. R. Elton’s terms, if they could not gain access to a point of contact, they would feel alienated from the centre, and the ability of the central administration to impose its will on the localities would greatly diminish. Such an understanding of the workings of the English government casts doubt on Stater’s claim that ‘Charles II knew the lesson of ’41 was not about communication it was about preventing the election of another runaway Parliament’. The lesson of ’41, like all history, was not mono-causal and a number of factors played a role in the outbreak of civil war. Charles I’s lack of communication was certainly one of these factors, for it played a part in his losing the support of his nation. Without such support all Charles could muster from the localities was – at the best –grudging acceptance of his decrees and such grudging acceptance resulted in an army that burnt altar rails but fled from the Scots. I find it hard to imagine how excessive meddling in the elections of the Long Parliament would have aided Charles I in his attempts to suppress the Scottish and Irish rebellions. Perhaps the English would have been unable to organise an effective opposition without a ‘runaway parliament’ but they would also have been unable to gain any support for the king, who would have been left with no real answer to the Scottish army. Indeed, it is only when the Parliament ran away that Charles I began to garner any substantial support.

There are many reasons why Charles I had lost the support of the political nation, but his policies of inaccessibility certainly alienated many and fostered fears of tyranny and Catholicism, as the work of Judith Richards, among others, amply demonstrates. (1) It was such a concern to not repeat his father’s mistake of alienating the nation that convinced the restored monarch to cultivate an aura of accessibility. In fact, Edward Hyde continually reminded Charles II to communicate with his subjects. Such commitment to accessibility was, if anything, magnified by Venner’s failed rebellion. True, as Stater claims, the fifth monarchists caused great fear, but that fear had more effect on the countryside than on the court. It is reasonable to assume that the fear of rebellion, of a return to civil war, influenced electors to pick representatives who were in favor of law and order, of hierarchy and tradition, in short those with Cavalier leanings. Charles II was quite happy with this turn of events, as his reluctance to dissolve the Cavalier Parliament demonstrates, but it appears that he may have realised that the Parliament was an anomaly, that it was a snapshot of public sentiment at a very specific time. In fact, the Cavalier Parliament was probably more royalist than the king and definitely more Anglican than the nation. Charles feared that those not represented by Parliament would feel alienated. To placate them, to make them feel part of the governing process, he used his accessibility. There were times between 1660 and 1676 when Charles turned away from his policies of open access, but such actions were personally rather than politically motivated. Only after the Compton Census was Charles willing to truly abandon his policies of access. While historians doubt the statistical accuracy of the Compton Census, there’s no reason to believe that Charles II did not accept the findings at face value. And the Compton Census revealed to Charles II that non-conformists were a distinct minority of the population. As such he was willing to employ a weapon that was not at his father’s disposal, giving complete control to a party devoted to the Anglican Church and the king, a party that had been created during the English Civil War. It still took considerable efforts on the part of the Royalist Anglicans to convince Charles II of their ability to govern, and only when he was fully convinced of it did he give them complete control of access to his person, only then was he willing to risk alienating the substantial part of the governing nation that were not Tories.

As such I find it hard to accept that Charles’s commitment to being ‘everybody’s king’ was either short lived or half-hearted. It formed an integral part of his policy and was one of his chief political tools.

Nevertheless, Stater’s criticism that my work portrays access as trumping all is somewhat valid. I too fall into the trap of mono-causality. Of course, there were many factors besides access that influenced royal policy, and the influence of royal policy upon society, and it was never my intention to claim that policies of access were the single significant political force during Charles II’s reign. But I feel somewhat justified in my choice of downplaying other factors for three main reasons: the book is about access, it is intended for an audience well versed in the history of Restoration England, and the impact of Charles’s shifting policies of access upon the polity (and even the fact this his policies of access changed over time) was a completely unexplored territory. While I may have on occasion let rhetoric get the best of me, I still maintain that while Charles’s shifting policies of access were not the only factor in Restoration politics (or economics) they played an incredibly significant role.

Notes

1. Judith Richards, ‘His Nowe Majestie and the English Monarchy: The Kingship of Charles I before 1640’, Past & Present, 113 (1986), 70-96. See also Malcolm Smuts, ‘Public ceremony and royal charisma: the English royal entry in London, 1485-1642’, in ed. A. L. Beier, D. Cannadine and J. M. Rosenheim, The First Modern Society: Essays in English History in Honour of Lawrence Stone (Cambridge, 1989), pp. 65-93. David Stevenson makes a similar argument for Charles’s failure to gain support in Scotland, ‘The English Devil of Keeping State: Elite Manners and the Downfall of Charles I in Scotland’, in ed. R. Mason and N. Macdougall, People and Power in Scotland: Essays in Honour of T. C. Smout (Edinburgh, 1992), p. 137.