Skip to content

Response to Review no. 822

I would like to express my gratitude to Sarah Mortimer for her considered reflections on my book, and am pleased that its central ambition, to emphasise the centrality of religion to political thinking in early modern Britain, seems to have been successfully achieved. For the most part I am happy to let the reader ponder the critical points that Dr Mortimer makes. Most of them relate to deliberate decisions and choices that I made in constructing the book, and naturally the result is that the book does some things better than others. The critical reader might well feel that I should have done things that I deliberately chose not to do, but that is, I suppose, the nature of the interaction between authors, books and readers. Nonetheless there are four points made by Dr Mortimer that I would like to comment on.

1. Consensus: ‘For Burgess, early modern arguments were conducted within a broadly shared framework…’. I suppose this is so, though the claim always risks becoming a meaningless truism. However, I did not (on this occasion) go out of my way to emphasise agreement and consensus over conflict; nor was I particularly concerned to labour the claim here attributed to me. I must confess – it is one of the pleasures of ‘Reviews in History’ that it allows authors the dubious privilege of self-reflection – that I have always felt that critics of my work have misrepresented me on this point, and it might be worth explaining why, as the explanation has some relevance to the next point of Dr Mortimer’s with which I will engage. In The Politics of the Ancient Constitution (1) I tried to explore the co-existence of conflict and consensus, as well as the nature of ideological conflict itself. In using the phrase ‘the Jacobean consensus’ I was, perhaps, unintentionally misleading, for my purpose was not to recreate a world without disagreement, but rather to suggest a world in which disagreements need not be destabilising. Disagreement, sometimes very severe disagreement, is a fundamental feature of many complex polities, even quite stable ones; and I have always been (and remain) wary of assuming that ideological conflict is evidence of a world on the edge of revolution. Most complex polities exhibit both conflict and consensus (especially broad agreement on certain values), and what has fascinated me is the interrelationship between them. In talking of a Jacobean consensus I intended to reconstruct an ideological system in which differences were contained and (by and large) successfully mediated – for a time, until circumstances and shifts in policy made this impossible. Critics of my work often suggest a blindness to conflict and disagreement, but for the most part I find the evidence they point to unsurprising and unchallenging. Of course there was disagreement, but what did it amount to? One point that has always seemed crucial to me – and it is relevant to Dr Mortimer’s comments on this point – is that destabilising conflict often arises from shared values as much as from passing ideological dispute. Disputes can be, in the end, froth; challenges to fundamental values divide more deeply – as was, perhaps, the case with the divisions of the early 1640s. In emphasising agreement, I do not consider myself to be removing the potential for conflict. At bottom, my discomfort with accounts of ideological polarisation as part of a high road to civil war lies in a feeling that neither ideological patterns nor the relationship between ideas and political practices is as simple as this suggests.

2.The 1620s: Dr Mortimer argues that the book neglects to provide a detailed account of the 1620s, a period of ideological polarisation (patriots and royalists, in Filmer’s terms); and so leaves the reader ‘wondering how a civil war could possibly have occurred’. Much of this is, of course, deliberate. While The Politics of the Ancient Constitution did precisely this, albeit in ways now a little dated; I was concerned to focus the present account around ‘canonical’ works and to avoid much detailed engagement with parliamentary debate and political argument at that sort of level. It certainly is not the intention of the book to explain the occurrence of the civil war. Indeed, it would have been a mistake to make such an attempt, as a history of political thought could never in itself provide an adequate explanation. No doubt these decisions are contestable; but I would like to say a little more about one of Dr Mortimer’s subsidiary points, namely that I do not ‘explain why Charles’s policies might have aroused such passionate opposition’. It was not my purpose to do so. But an explanation of just this was part of my first book, and it draws attention to another aspect of that book often misrepresented. The Politics of the Ancient Constitution was as much an account of the collapse of consensus in the face of Charles’s policies as it was an account of the Jacobean ‘consensus’ itself. The word ‘Jacobean’ was important to the account: a good number of my critics have pointed to evidence from the later 1620s or 1630s to indicate that my emphasis on consensus must be wrong. But in most cases the framework of my account can readily accommodate this evidence. The book, in fact, was an attempt to explore – and I would be the first to acknowledge that some parts of the exploration were more rewarding than others – how the most damaging and destabilising of conflict arose from challenges to agreed values. We have learnt a lot more about the 1620s and 1630s since I wrote that account, and it now needs to be modified in various ways; but I would stand by much of the framework. I have come, too, to think that the contrast sometimes drawn between ‘revisionist’ and ‘post-revisionist’ accounts of this period (to which Dr Mortimer alludes) is unhelpful, if not altogether illusionary. If those labels are taken to allude in this context to accounts that stress, on the one hand the binding force of ideological agreement, and on the other the divisiveness of conflict over policies, then both are needed, as are accounts of the interplay between them.

I must say, though, that these seem to me matters much more incidental to the present book than to some of my previous work. It may be that British Political Thought at times implies that it was the divisiveness of religion that propelled people, who might otherwise have been able to accommodate their differences over law and constitution, into irreconcilable conflict. But that would be too simple a reading, I think, and the book tries to avoid mounting such claims too directly, focusing instead on reconstructing patterns of public discourse, and inviting the reader to weigh their significance.

3. Insularity. I share Dr Mortimer’s wish that my book does not serve to encourage an insular approach to British political thought. Her concerns seem to relate primarily to the point already discussed, the absence of a full engagement with the disputes over foreign policy initiated by the Palatinate crisis. But, on the whole, that is not the sort of context with which the book works. Looked at another way, the book’s account of the subject is not, I hope, especially insular. It endeavours throughout to recognise that British political thought was also European political thought, and the reader will find material – sometimes reasonably substantial, sometimes piecemeal – on the impact of humanism and Erasmianism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, Machiavelli Bodinian sovereignty theory and so on. Certainly much more could and should be made of the British receptivity to European ideas (and vice versa – something the book does not touch on); but I do not think that my account ignores this dimension of the subject, especially in its first half, even if it is not a central focus of it.

4.Political thought: ‘a work designed to fit into a modern conception of political thought’. This is an important point. One might ask, of course, is there any other conception? I’m not sure that early modern Scottish or English writers possessed an understanding of ‘political thought’ that matches what we mean by that label. As a result, as Dr Mortimer notes, an account of the history of political thought, as I have written it, is less an intellectual history and more an assemblage of moments in many different intellectual histories, including intellectual histories that would have made sense to contemporaries (theology, law, philosophy). I’m not sure that all of Dr Mortimer’s comments on this point really do follow from her starting point; but it is true that the book’s main purpose is to focus on writers who are today studied as ‘political thinkers’. At bottom, the book is intended to provide relatively complex, historically-defensible accounts of such thinkers, accounts accessible to advanced undergraduate or postgraduate students; and that intention has done most to shape its contents.


  1. Glenn Burgess, The Politics of the Ancient Constitution: an Introduction to English Political Thought, 1603–1642 (Basingstoke, 1992).Back to (1)