David Cressy’s England on Edge

Seeing as there was some discussion of David Underdown’s H-Albion review of this book on the strand and on various blogs, I thought I would post my H-Ideas review of the same book on-line for those who are not subscribers to that strand.


Published by H-Ideas@h-net.msu.edu (January 2008)

David Cressy, _England on Edge: Crisis and Authority, 1640-1642¬_,
Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, 2006. xiv + 446 pp.
Illustrations, maps, notes, index. $45.00 (cloth) ISBN 0-1992-8090-8

Reviewed for H-Ideas by Ted Vallance, School of History, University of
Liverpool, UK

The Revolution Before the Revolution

David Cressy’s new book revisits that historical conundrum – ‘What was
the English Revolution?’ Cressy’s take is to return to the
pre-revisionist work of Christopher Hill, Perez Zagorin and Hugh
Trevor-Roper in suggesting that the revolution process had already begun
before the official outbreak of hostilities in 1642. As with all of
Cressy’s published output it is meticulously researched (the book is
based upon sources from over forty different libraries and archives) and
immensely readable. The range of primary material consulted ensures that
Cressy’s analysis of the familiar events of 1640-1642 remains fresh,
with much light shed on under-explored moments (the increasing use of
the term ‘revolution’ itself in political discourse, the assault on
Lambeth Palace and the King’s departure from London following the failed
attempt to arrest the five members, to name just a few examples).
However, the book’s great weakness lies in the fact that despite the
wealth of material Cressy has uncovered to support his argument, at the
end of more than four hundred pages it still remains unclear what this
“revolution before the Revolution” (p. 426) amounted to.

The book begins by tackling the impact of the mobilisation and
disbandment of the army raised to defeat the Scottish Covenanters –
looking at the role of demobilised soldiers in both increasing agitation
against the Caroline regime and also, largely via the officer ranks,
contributing to the development of a Cavalier movement in defence of the
King.[1] It then moves on to a discussion of the controversy over the
Church, giving a good overview of the emergence and dominance of
Laudianism before moving on to describe its overthrow in the years 1640
to 1642, a process which itself which gave rise to new religious fears,
as puritan critics of Laudianism in turn became concerned with the
emergence of radical sects and conservatives themselves re-grouped
around a Jacobean vision of an episcopal church. Cressy agrees with much
recent historiography in seeing popular political and religious unrest
as being stimulated by oral, manuscript and, in particular, printed
media. As he illustrates with many vivid examples, printed pamphlets
presented authority figures, especially Laudian bishops, in an
increasingly satirical, not to say scatological, light. The welter of
critical material, whether broadsheets, ‘railing rhymes’ or mass
petitions, as Cressy convincingly shows, created a sense of the ‘world
turn’d upside down’ long before the emergence of groups like the
Levellers and Diggers in the late 1640s. The book’s final, highly
evocative section, covers the crisis of the winter of 1641-1642, as
Charles made a final attempt to stifle the Parliamentary opposition only
to be hounded by angry crowds out of his own capitol, forced to steal
out of London, like his son James 46 years later, accompanied only by a
handful of followers.

Though there is much of value in the book, it none the less fails to
offer the major re-conceptualising of the English Revolution that the
introduction promises. The highly engaging description of the lead up to
war is followed by a conclusion that resorts to bullet-points in order
to summarise the argument of the previous four-hundred pages (and one of
these points – about the re-structuring of relations between the
different parts of the British Isles – is not discussed in-depth in the
rest of the book which, as the title suggests, is heavily focused on
England). There is a sense here of a book that sits somewhat uneasily
between two stools, attempting, on the one narrative account of the years 1640-1642 and on the other, to offer an
analytic treatment of the breakdown of the Caroline government in Church
and State and its social, political and religious consequences. This is
reflected in the presentation of the book as well. There are copious
footnotes, yet the discussion of the current historiography of the 1640s
is, in many places, foreshortened. There is a timeline, maps, tables and
illustrations that students will find helpful, but no bibliography.
Crucially, Cressy’s focus on 1640-1642 means that he implicitly
presents, somewhat implausibly, all important political and religious
developments as occurring or originating in these two years. Hence, the
soldiers sent to fight the covenanting forces only ‘discover’ religion
in the summer of 1640 (p. 91) and, we are told, puritans during the
1630s had ‘become silent and subdued’ (p. 144), whereas other scholars,
namely Andrew Foster, have convincingly argued that the Personal Rule
was a period of religious polarisation and radicalisation.

In attempting to address both popular and academic audiences, Cressy
fails to exploit his material as well as he might. Few would disagree
with the revolutionary impact Cressy sees in the explosion of popular
print, but his analysis of these works is unsophisticated compared to
recent work by Jason Peacey, Joad Raymond and others. The same could be
said of his discussion of radical religion and heresiography, arguably
better handled in new works by Ann Hughes and David Como. Indeed, the
greatest problem here is that though Cressy devotes most space to
discussing popular politics, as opposed to events within Westminster, he
doesn’t engage with the sophisticated methodological frameworks that are
now being applied to this material (most notably in John Walter’s work).
So, though we are given a vivid impression of the unrest developing
within English parishes, towns and cities, we gain little sense of what
motivated iconoclasts, rioters and seditious talk, how we should
understand popular behaviour and, even more importantly, how popular
action was integrated into the bigger political picture. Indeed, at
points, Cressy consciously retreats from analysis, as when referring to
assaults on the physical fabric of churches: ‘It is impossible to
quantify such incidents or fully to explain their background.’ (p.208).
While Cressy may feel that shifting the focus away from Westminster
represents a fresh approach to the politics of 1640-1642, it also leaves
the reader with the impression that this was a completely unwilled and
uncoordinated revolution, leading to a ‘war that nobody wanted, but
nobody knew how to avoid’ (p.420). This seems to return to the
revisionist agenda that Cressy initially sets out to challenge (even,
perhaps, a return to the popular, romantic picture of, in Sir William
Waller’s words, a ‘war without an enemy’). This is an exciting,
enjoyable read that is great to dip into, but what we are left with is a
book, the sum of whose excellent parts does not add up to a convincing

[1] But see also H. Langeluddecke, ‘Law and Order in Seventeenth-Century
England: The Organisation of Local Administration during the Personal
Rule of Charles I’, Law and History Review, 15, 1 (1997), pp. 49-76;
idem., ‘ “The Chiefest Strength and Glory of This Kingdom”: Arming and
Training the “Perfect Militia” in the 1630s, English Historical Review,
118 (2003), `pp. 1264-1303.

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Published in: on January 7, 2008 at 6:54 pm  Comments (1)  
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