Revolutionary England, 1642-1702

Sarah Covington

in Renaissance and Reformation

ISBN: 9780195399301
Published online May 2010 | | DOI:
Revolutionary England, 1642-1702

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  • Modern History (1700 to 1945)
  • Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy


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The 17th century is one of the most important periods in England’s history, eliciting highly charged and often ideologically driven debates among scholars. The story of England, as it was told during the 19th century, was central in defining British identity and creating a national myth, known as Whig history, of triumphant progress toward liberty. Not surprisingly, the 20th century revised this history in accordance with contemporary ideologies that included communism, while the 1970s witnessed a further revisionist turn when Conrad Russell, most notably, asserted the contingent nature of the causes leading to the war, in response to the traditional position that emphasized long-term events originating in a division between the crown and an oppositional parliament. This position has, unsurprisingly, been amended in recent years. Meanwhile, another shift has extended the midcentury upheavals to include the “Three Kingdoms” approach, which decenters England in its readings and incorporates Scotland and Ireland into the larger turmoil. But the 17th century was not simply about the Civil War and Interregnum dominated by Cromwell; the Restoration itself was also determined by the events that preceded it, with continuities as well as the more obvious cultural and political shifts blurring the demarcating historical line. And in some respects, the revolution of 1688 served as a culminating answer to the questions raised but never fully resolved by issues earlier in the century. Whether the revolution of 1688 was truly significant or not—and it was certainly once thought to be the crowning achievement of liberty and rights—has itself provoked debate, with James II’s “absolutism” or William III’s victory convincingly modified by historians. So many debates abound, and so many figures are subject to different readings, that it is difficult to fix this period into any stable meaning without lending it heavy qualifications. As a result, it is revealing that an increasingly common subgenre in the field consists of books solely devoted not to the history of these revolutionary years, but to the debates about it—just as the names of historians such as Gardiner, Hill, Stone, or Russell have become inextricably a part of the historical narrative as well. Such debates will continue as long as the 17th century resists clear interpretation—a testament to the dramatic complexity of the time, and to the historians who continue to interpret it.

Article.  12522 words. 

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy

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