Book Review: 'Rebellion' By Peter AckroydHistorian Peter Ackroyd's new book surveys the history of England from the end of the Tudor era to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 — almost a century of war, debate and transformation.
The 17th century was one of the most radical periods in all of English history. It was an era of enormous change, upheaval and debate, and extreme violence, which saw the evolution of the modern British state as we know it today.
But the transition from a haphazard kingdom ruled by inconsistent medieval ideas to a modern, secular, efficient bureaucratic state wasn't easy. In 1603, when King James I united the crowns of England and Scotland, the House of Commons began debating what kind of union was actually being proposed: Was it economic, constitutional — or one where a tyrant ruled with an iron fist?
By the time James' son Charles I came to the throne in 1625, tensions between Parliament and the king were increasing — they finally boiled over 15 years later, in April of 1640, when the distinguished parliamentarian John Pym spoke in the Commons about a theory of government that favored egalitarian values for members of the Commons, rather than the infallible divine right of kings.
Three weeks later, the king, fearing that his powers were being eroded, dissolved what became known as the "Short Parliament." Parliament thus became a national forum of debate, where none had previously existed.
Rebellion takes us through the key phases that followed: from the onset of war through the execution of Charles I, Cromwell's Commonwealth, the Restoration of Charles II and finally the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw the overthrow of the Catholic James II in favor of the Protestant William and Mary, and marked the beginnings of parliamentary democracy.
While Ackroyd is clearly a conservative historian who strongly believes in the values that come with a stable monarchy, he still writes objectively and with enormous empathy, particularly about the Civil War, which he describes as a hellish, strategically disorganized nightmare, won by the parliamentarians merely by chance.
It's clear, reading Rebellion, that if a Britain that encouraged scientific and rational values finally emerged from this epoch of history, it was only because the journey there was so barbaric. Oliver Cromwell, who became Lord Protector, believed he was God's chosen servant — and yet, as Ackroyd points out, he justified a 1649 massacre of officers and civilians at Drogheda, Ireland, by writing, "I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches."
But Ackroyd expands his survey beyond war and politics, including the work of William Shakespeare, John Donne, Andrew Marvell, John Milton and Thomas Hobbes, and pointing out how immensely important their words were in helping to shape the era's rapid political changes.
Milton, Ackroyd explains, was a born republican, averse to authority — and his denunciations of Charles I stirred up anti-royalist feeling across London. Meanwhile, Hobbes was arguing in Leviathan that justice and truth were to be determined by civil authority rather than individual choice.
This strong emphasis on the importance of culture and ideas is what makes Ackroyd's magnificent historical volume such an exhilarating experience.
Readers will come away from this book with an appreciation of how and why the cataclysmic events of 17th century England shaped world history for the next two centuries. As the king's power diminished, a commercial and mercantile state emerged. Capitalist values began to replace religious ones. And Britain began expanding her empire vigorously during the 18th century, bringing about a revolution in global commerce.
For all its flaws, the form of government that emerged from this century inspired many countries beyond Britain as they sought to implement a stable and vibrant democratic state, with modernity beckoning in the distance.
J.P. O'Malley is a freelance journalist based in London who writes mainly on books. Follow him on Twitter:@johnpaulomallez.