AAL Book Report: Causes of the English Revolution 1529-1642, Lawrence Stone

Partway through reading this book, it occurred to me that reading a heavy-duty academic historical analysis of the causes of the English Revolution might not be the brightest idea for someone who hasn’t yet gotten a firm grasp on, oh, the chronology of the English Revolution.

I made it through, though, in large part because of the organization and focus of this book. Stone divides his causes up into three (admittedly fuzzy) categories of preconditions, precipitants, and triggers, each operating on a successively shorter time scale. The preconditions occupied the bulk of that essay (there are four essays in here, but the titular one is huge), and the preconditions, in his view, ran from about 1529 to 1629. In other words, from the Reformation in England and Henry VIII’s seizure of Church property to the dissolution of Parliament and beginning of Personal Rule/the Eleven Years’ Tyranny. That latter term is a new one by me — see the above statement about not really knowing the seventeenth century yet — but the Tudor parts of the preconditions, I can deal with just fine. So when Stone talked about how the redistribution of Church property changed the balance of economic and political power among the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the gentry, or how early Elizabethan neglect of the episcopacy led to a loss of status for Anglican bishops, I can follow him well enough. And I can definitely see how the policies that kept Elizabeth afloat left James in a nigh-untenable position.

The precipitants and the triggers, respectively, he links to the periods 1629-1639 and 1640-1642. That is to say, he’s looking at long-range, middle-range, and short-range causes. And writing from a perspective shortly after sociology apparently rammed into history at high speed, so he’s attempting the admittedly difficult hat trick of bringing in causes from Parliament and the monarchy and the merchants in London and the Puritans everywhere and the Church and the wars England was fighting and social mobility and anything else you can think of. The result? Is a hella dense book. (And regrettably saturated with the passive voice.) But a good one nonetheless, that goes a long way toward making sure I don’t leap straight from 1590 to 1640 or whenever AAL will start, without thinking through the intervening decades.


If the structural difficulty with MNC was deciding what year to place it in (since the changeover of interesting historical personnel was so high in the decade to either side), the structural difficulty here is how not to smear this book across forty years or more, to the point where it gets way too distant and boring. There are two ways I can see to do that. One is to turn it into the sort of 300,000-word historical brick that comes with free complimentary LOLcat caption saying “I R SERIOUS BOOK” . . . but that, alas, is not what we’re after here.

The other, of course, is to give up on covering everything happening in that forty years, and to find the perfect turning moments to show more closely. (And probably to pull in the edges. But I honestly don’t think I can reduce this to less than twenty-six years — from the reconvening of Parliament in 1640 to the Great Fire in 1666.) Picking the turning moments, naturally, is far easier said than done.

But the next step in that is probably, y’know, learning what went on in the seventeenth century. It isn’t a good sign when I’m reading this book going, “what happened in 1640? What are you talking about? Huh? The government collapsed? What the hell?”

Time to go find myself a more basic chronological history. Any suggestions?

0 Responses to “AAL Book Report: Causes of the English Revolution 1529-1642, Lawrence Stone”

  1. sartorias

    If that’s the one I remember, I read it but didn’t keep it. Solid word on economics, etc, but not nearly enough on personalities, and in the early 1600s, personalities were just as vital to what happened as Elizabeth Tudor was in wrenching success out of disaster during her time.

    If James hadn’t been gay, things would have been different, because he would not have fallen for his pretty stableboy Villiers, and if Buckingham hadn’t happened, Charles I would have had a vastly different growing up. Add in Puritans (Pym and Cromwell) and Strafford and Laud, and you’ve got some personalities on the order of the Tudor biggies.

    BTW some of James’ love notes to Buckingham are killer.

    • Marie Brennan

      Yeah, one of those love notes got quoted in here. You’re definitely right about the economic focus, though in his postscript from more than a decade later Stone says he really ought to have put more emphasis on Charles’ apocalyptic stupidity and stubbornness.

      Personalities are the other reason I need a more chronological account of the period — those tend, in my experience, to give more weight to the people involved. This book was much more abstract in its purpose.

  2. d_c_m

    One is to turn it into the sort of 300,000-word historical brick that comes with free complimentary LOLcat caption saying “I R SERIOUS BOOK” . . . but that, alas, is not what we’re after here.
    It is a good thing I wasn’t eating or drinking when I read that line because I am still giggling from it an hour later. 🙂

  3. fjm

    Oddly, there aren’t any great chronologies of the period, but I do recommend Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down.

    • Marie Brennan

      That’s on my list of books to get, yeah.

      Weird that there aren’t any good straightforward descriptive histories. <sigh> I’m really going to be stuck mediating between Wikipedia and Ph.D.-level history, aren’t I?

  4. shui_long

    The Oxford Illustrated History of Tudor & Stuart Britain, ed. John Morrill (1994), might be useful – it’s a serious general history, including a chronology and list of further reading.
    (From which,
    The Emergence of a Nation State, 1529-1660, A G R Smith (1984)
    The Stuart Age: a History of England, 1603-1714, B Coward (1980)
    The Age of Milton: Backgrounds to Seventeenth Century Literature, C A Patrides & R B Waddington (1980)
    Stuart England,A B Worden (1986)
    could be relevant general works.)

    The applicable volume in the Oxford History of England (The Early Stuarts, 1603-1660, Godfrey Davies (1937)) is a bit dated, and the period hasn’t yet been covered in the New Oxford History.

    • Marie Brennan

      Muchas gracias! I just came across a reference to the Coward, which is bloody expensive to buy, but I’m sure it’s in the university library. I think I may start there — that, and the Oxford History. It may be dated, but honestly, I don’t so much need cutting-edge research as a sense of what happened.

      • shui_long

        You should be able to pick up several of those books very reasonably on ABEBooks.com — they’ve got secondhand copies of Coward The Stuart Age listed for about $5, including postage.

        I would agree on the recommendation for Mark Kishlansky, A Monarchy Transformed — I’d forgotten I had that, as it was on the overflow pile in the corner…. very readable, not so much for blow-by-blow chronology as for giving a good overview of the period.

        Kishlansky recommends C H Firth, Oliver Cromwell and the Rule of the Puritans in England (1900) as “still the best biography”, or B Coward, Oliver Cromwell (1991) as “up to date, but bloodless”.

  5. cheshyre

    Sounds like you may want Mark Kishlansky’s A Monarchy transformed: Britain 1603-1714

    I tend to do history best thru biographies, and at one point I recommended these as the best I’d read about the Stuart monarchs:About James I, with insights into Charles I:Michael B. Young, King James & the history of homosexualityAbout Charles I and Cromwell:Derek Wilson, The King and the gentleman: Charles Stuart and Oliver Cromwell, 1599-1649About Charles II:Stephen Coote, Royal survivor: the life of Charles IIAbout James II, William and Mary, Anne:Maureen Waller, Ungrateful daughters: the Stuart princesses who stole their father’s crown

    • Marie Brennan

      Awesome. If you have a Cromwell one to recommend, I’ll probably have about everything I need on that front.

      • cheshyre

        King and the Gentleman does give Cromwell’s biography in alternating chapters with Charles. [I found it a bit dry, but then I’m more interested in court gossip.]

        • Marie Brennan

          I may not need it anyway; not sure yet. I’ve got a book on him from the Profiles in Power series, and if it’s anything like as good as the one on Elizabeth, I’ll get a great understanding of how he operated as a ruler — which is likely to be more what I need anyway. (But if it’s anything like the one on Elizabeth and I try to read it without knowing more about the major figures of the period, I’m gonna be so lost . . . that series is not written for the faint of brain.)

          • cheshyre

            BTW, I did check and the IU library does have copies of “King James & the History of Homosexuality”

            That book is disappointingly rare, and the few copies which I have seen turn up on ABEbooks (for which I have an alert set) are often expensive.
            [I wish they’d release it as an ebook, already…]

            I really do like that book, so if you can’t get your hands on it, let me know and I can see about loaning you my copy.

  6. auriaephiala

    CV (Cicely Veronica) Wedgwood’s classic books on the English Civil War are very readable and clear: The King’s War, The King’s Peace, Oliver Cromwell, and The Trial of Charles I.

    And there’s also Antonia Fraser’s biography of Cromwell (Cromwell: our chief of men).

Comments are closed.