a casahistoria reading list - english 17th & 18th century

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 Reviews of Books on 17th 7 18th century English History


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Malcolm Gaskill: Between Two Worlds

Gaskill makes comprehensive use of personal testimony and primary records to show the relationship between north American settler and the English mother country during the period of early colonisation in the 17th century. This is not a story of independently minded Puritans heading off across the Atlantic to leave early Stuart tyranny behind and build a new world amongst the forests of New England. Rather, Gaskill presents a much more complex situation where not only settlement and economic exploitation but also political and cultural development remained very much dependent on England, an England that was also bound to the life-experiences of the early settlers and increasingly to the business model the new colonies produced. 

The book looks at colonies in their broadest sense. There is a focus on Virginia and New England, paying tribute to the earlier English conquest and settlement of Ireland which offered the earliest (flawed) model for colony building, but the sweep takes in the Caribbean and later spread to the Carolinas and up the Appalachians. Here was embedded English society, given an opportunity to farm and trade through a series of Royal Company Patents, not self governing but administering themselves locally under the umbrella of the English crown, much as an English town or County might have done at the time. The settlements of new England with a higher (but not overwhelming) proportion of Puritan households saw these oligarchic assemblies dominated by those who considered themselves the elect. Further south in Virginia and in the Caribbean, it was the rapidly growing large estate owners who held sway. Just as the 17th century upheavals in England of Civil War, Restoration and 1688 revolution affect attitudes to power at home, Gaskill shows this being tightly followed and reflected in the Americas. Only after 1688 does the divergence which is to lead to revolution in the next century begin to become evident. England becomes more imperialist, more focused on the economic gains of overseas possessions, less inclined to consider the interests and protection of the colonists as a priority. 

Apart from the social and political there are other themes running through the work. The siezure of Indian land is a given, the inevitable Indian wars which do so much to foster the "frontier mentality" of the American are reported by contemporaries in the same violent manner in which Irish rebels were described in the 1640's. Some settlers go native, others try and convert "praying" Indians but for the majority they were a population to be feared, exploited and pushed back for their land. The reality of colonial life in mid century is well treated in Chapter 14. 

One of the chapters looks at the cultural isolation felt by many of the settlers (not uncommon even today as expatriates with internet, skype will agree with). England is always "home", many attempted to create their idea of an English idyll in an alien environment, with mutant twists. Where estate owners in the south could not get landless labourers to help achieve this as they might have done on an English estate, they ship in Africans in ever increasing numbers. 

Gaskill is a specialist on 17th century witchcraft, so it may not be a surprise that the climax of the work is the Salem witch trials of 1692-3. For Gaskill the almost immediate reversal of the trials and discrediting of the Puritan testimonies represents the collapse of the Puritan stranglehold on the mood of the northern colonies. Dominant in setting the initial culture of New England, like their counterparts in England the latter part of the century sees this being discredited and replaced by particularist pragmatism. It is this change he argues that does so much to force a parting of ways between London and the northern colonies. 

Apparently the work is based on a course presented by the author. It may be easier for the more general reader if chapter headings were less literary and obscure and perhaps given titles more immediately relevant to their content akin to seminar meetings. This would allow for easier selection of reading for students unable to read all the book. The wealth of contemporary evidence whilst clearly forming the structure of the argument can be overwhelming and the point in hand (as well as attention) can easily be lost to the multitude of characters and places presented to the reader. 

Between Two Worlds is a worthwhile read. Students of the period perhaps will use it best with careful reading of the excellent Epilogue to help search out key themes and then make judicious use of the Index to follow their development.

June ’15 (****)


Don Jordan & Michael Walsh: The King's Revenge

This is a book on an area that has not received much modern attention (although just like buses, you wait for ages then two come along at once: in the last couple of months another work has appeared on this very topic - Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I by Charles Spencer. How depressing must that be to the writer of the second one....). It tells a good story though: the tale of how Charles I came to be tried and executed and how after the restoration of his son Charles II, tables were turned and the regicides became the hunted themselves.

Don Jordan and Michael Walsh have a background in documentary journalism rather than academic history and this perhaps contributes to the fact that the work is accessible and reads well. The background to the execution of Charles is dealt with briefly but clearly and the narrative of the trial and execution reads well. Where the book is most valuable is in describing the period of chaos, treachery and political wheeler-dealing that followed the death of Oliver Cromwell and the failure of his son Richard. Normally this receives limited focus as standard works (and exam courses) move swiftly to the Restoration of Charles II. Here though we see the full reaction to regime change. Fellow travellers of the Republic rush to change sides (in some cases becoming double-agents to help root out the Republicans who do not sway), and are quick to be visibly praising the restored monarchy and attacking the outgoing regime. Villain of the piece is portrayed to be General Monck, erstwhile General in the New Model Army, but then turncoat who changes sides and uses his forces to neutralise the Republican military and prepare the way for Charles II to return.

As part of the terms for his return, Charles II promises "Oblivion" a pardon to all but those who signed his father's death warrant. The new monarch however is shown as being far from charitable towards the surviving leaders of the Commonwealth and those (such as "Cornet Joyce" who originally took his father under arrest) he felt bore some part of the responsibility for the execution of the King. Vengeance is a better description than mercy as signatories of the document sentencing Charles I to death are arrested, tried with little real opportunity at defence, then (described in detail) hanged, castrated, disembowelled (still alive) and quartered. In an ironic echo of the Marian executions a century earlier, the dignity shown by those dying does much to uphold their cause - to the concern of Charles II.

The list of those excluded from pardon keeps growing, agents comb Europe (and less successfully the colonies in north America) assassinating, seeking rendition and extradition. It appears the town of Vevey in Swiss Bern was one of the few places to genuinely offer asylum and protect against Royalist agents. This is where Edmund Ludlow, whom many of the exiles hoped might lead the invasion to depose Charles II, managed to live safely until his death in 1692.

The King's Revenge
 shows clearly that the end of the Commonwealth did not only mean a restoration of monarchy. It also brought an end to a period when principle was a key determinant of policy. The men of principle were forced to hide or were extinguished. Those left behind in England and in politics were the survivors, those willing to bend to suit expediency. These politicians, rather than the restored monarchy were to set the tone for the future development of English and then British democracy. The "Good Old Cause" was well and truly buried.

November ’14 (****)

  Alice Hogge: God's Secret Agents

Alice Hogge's "God's Secret Agents"  tells the story of Roman Catholic missions and Jesuit priests in England during the reigns of Elizabeth and James I. This is a detailed and thorough account, with care taken to inform the general reader of the specialist contexts and terminology used by historians as the narrative progresses. She tells of the early missionaries from the continent, often educated in colleges founded in Europe by English Catholic exiles and how they travelled the country and lived within the "underground" recusant community.

Hogge claims that one of the reasons for writing this book was to highlight the work of Nicholas Owen. And indeed finding out his intriguing work for the first time was one of its surprises. Owen worked in the service of the Jesuit priest Henry Garnet, and was admitted into the Society of Jesus as a lay brother. Arrested early in 1606 after the Gunpowder Plot, he was submitted to terrible "examinations" on the rack until "his bowels gushed out with his life." However it is not this, terrible though it may be, that takes the readers interest. It is that Owen was the builder of many of the priest-holes found in the country's great houses and used to hide Catholic clergy when a house was searched. Helped no doubt by his small physical size, his work often involved breaking through thick stonework; and to minimize the likelihood of betrayal he often worked at night, and always alone. The number of hiding-places he constructed will never be known. Due to the ingenuity of his craftsmanship, some may still be undiscovered.

The main thrust of the book outlines the different and changing reaction of government to the recusant Catholics and those entering from abroad on missions. Initially tending to tolerance, this hardens, culminating in the post 1605 Oath of Allegiance and anti Roman Catholic legislation. The Apellant episode is also explored. Yet the Jesuits seem to have been opposed to regime change, the eventual Gunpowder Plot being the product of the frustration of home-grown subversives (assisted or not by government agents to increase the eventual anti-Catholic spin) at the lack of official change. Hogge paints a credible picture of the Jesuits as scapegoats for both James and Elizabeth's Government to blame their troubles on.

There are two final sections of note. One indicates where Owen's building work may be seen today, the other draws the parallels (already emerging to the reader as the story unfolds) with present day British changes to torture and terrorist legislation and practice in response to current concerns over militant Islam.

However, this may be more a book to be dipped into (using the index - for some unexplained reason chapters are numbered like a novel but given no other description to assist partial reading for research) rather than read cover to cover. Perhaps tighter editing might have helped but I found the initial chapters and the final post 1600 section of most use and value (especially those outlining James I's early religious inclinations). During the 1580's and 1590's I tended to get lost amongst the places, names, conversations, letters and travels of those being described.

PS In a sign of the times, this is now available much more cheaply as a eBook download rather than as a hard copy.....  
Oct '11 (***)


Further Reviews: The Spectator; The Jesuit

Richard Holmes: The Age Of Wonder: How The Romantic Generation Discovered The Beauty And Terror Of Science

My Christmas period reading has shown that Holmes' book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, well deserves the critical plaudits printed all over its cover. This is a well integrated story of the emergence of the modern "scientist" in the late 18th and early 19th century. Focusing on biographies of botanist Joseph Banks, the Herschel astronomy family and safety lamp man, Humphrey Davy this narrative shows how (largely through the networking of Banks) a culture of science for society rather than individual study emerges. The cast list interwoven by Holmes is broad as well as enormous: the Montgolfiers (a very entertaining chapter on ballooning) and explorer Mungo Park (who I remember mainly from a stained glass window in my primary school, close to where he grew up) but more significantly the close relationship between the people of science and the new Romantic literary movement. So we have the Shelleys, Southey, Coleridge and Byron attending lectures, sampling exotic gases as well as exchanging verses and prose with the scientists. A culture of Romantic celebs! In terms of A level language - a genuinely synoptic work from a master of biographical writing.

There are surprises: the emergence of Caroline Herschel as a great scientist of note in her own right as well as the driving force behind her two brothers. Davy is shown in a much less sympathetic light (and is perhaps over emphasized here at the expense of more focus on continental connections to the movement as a whole).

The book is well presented too. Apart from the usual footnotes I liked the device of printing key supplements to the main text at the foot of the relevant page. There is also a cast list that acts as a good reference to the galaxy of names mentioned (and which you might remember only vaguely from school science lessons).

Like the best of writing at the end you want to read on - about the new wave of scientists that come through - Faraday, Babbage and the significance of Mary Somerville. Perhaps there is scope for a follow up to the 470 pages of tight print presented here.....
Dec' 09 (*****)

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  Antonia Fraser: King Charles II

Fraser's 30 year old biography is comprehensive in its survey (over 600 pages before you get to the notes) of the restored Charles II. As such it provides a useful continuation to any study of the English Civil War and its postwar political development – or so I thought. Fraser's account makes it clear that in many ways despite being having a safer pair of political hands then his father and being constantly aware of the consequences of a rift with his subjects, politically Charles II was but a more worldy-wise and pragmatic version of his father. The father's problems are not eradicated by the son, or by the 20 years of conflict that preceeded the 1660 restoration. Charles II has problems with Parliament – the issues of conflict are similar to those of Charles I; he is perhaps most steady once he rules without Parliament at the end of his reign. Again this was possible only due to financial security and has elements of similarity with Charles I's period of Personal Rule. War would have meant recalling Parliament and a return to conflict – again as with Charles I. This insight in itself makes the read worthwhile. Equally useful is the light the work casts on the relationship of Charles II with his brother and heir, James II.

As for the biography, the narrative is best when telling of Charles II's early life and exile as well as his dealings with his womenfolk (clearly considerate). Once in power, the book becomes a less satisfying read. Chronology is the basis of its framework. At times a more thematic structure (or substructure) would make for a clearer read. It is perhaps a book better used for its index rather than as a cover to cover read. I missed the flowing, more integrated writing of Fraser's more recent work.
Oct '09 (***)


Lisa Jardine: Going Dutch: How England Plundered Holland's Glory

After an effective account of 1688, Jardine then leaves the political to explore the artistic, architectural and scientific links that were already in place between the Netherlands and England by 1688. These were indeed amazingly widespread. much more than I had realised. This is knowledgeable and very well illustrated, if a little too dry, pure "history of art" focused for me. It, like much of the work, is also perhaps a lttle too centred on the experience and evidence of one particular family, the Dutch Huygens household. The final section looks at the economic ties. This is the least satisfying part of the work. Too little is said of the reasons why, despite the connections argued for in the book, Anglo-Dutch trade remains competitive to the point of war and massacres of rival trade posts. Equally, too little emphasis is made on reasons for the series of wars in mid century between the two, or (despite what is said on the final page) on why the Netherlands declined as Englands fortunes grew. Just like those of Scotland in the same period..... In fact Anglo-Dutch relations and connections & links at the time seem to uncannily mirror those of Anglo-Scottish. Only, the Netherlands escaped complete assimilation with England. Now there's a theme for another book..... March '09 (***) 

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Claire Tomalin: Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self

A sympathetic survey of the able administrator that naval historians of the 17th century so admire. Yet it is the personal diarist/observer that takes centre stage. The diaries cover barely 10 years of Pepys life but include Sex, drink, brutal (but successful) surgery, plague, fire, music, marital conflict, the fall of kings, corruption and courage in public life, wars, navies, public executions, and incarceration in the Tower of London. These are all treated clearly and methodically in themed chapters, organised in a way which would have pleased the methodical man himself. Tomalin argues that the diaries are much more than an account of events but are a genuine piece of literary value displaying more than ever before the personal tensions, desires and most of all relationships and concerns of the upwardly mobile. In this sense Pepys is presented as a flawed but essentially caring man guilt ridden after doing something he feels remorse for. He is shown as quite modern. Like Marlborough, Pepys is another example of how individuals accommodate to the intriguing question of Regime change. Tomalin shows clearly how a generation that grew up or begun carrers under Cromwell had to accommodate themselves with the restoration of the monarchy. Pepys never seems to lose the republicanism of his boyhood – yet has to come to terms with rising to high office due to royal favour. However he has the honesty to stand by his Royal patrons (unlike Marlborough and James II) even if heir lifestyle is not to his taste and he has to ultimately resign. It is perhaps a mark of how close you get to Pepys that there is a genuine sense of loss when he passes away at the end. This is a real read – impressively researched, and reading like a page turner. Jan '09 (*****) 


  Jessica Warner: Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason

Warner writes about the English (London?) gin "epidemic" of the early 18th century. As a piece of social history it is of value, well supported and argued (perhaps too drily though - this has the air of an academic work tweaked to do a Sobel "Longtitude" for a mass market). What is most surprising though is the way the argument shows that the issue was one focussed on women, and that it was the poorest women who emerge as the biggest victims economically as well as socially from the expansion of gin drinking as well as from its ever tighter control (they did most of the streetside selling). The big distillers/publicans were men.... they continued to survive, and were not locked up to the same extent. Dec '07 (***) 

  Mike Dash: Batavia's Graveyard: The True Story of the Mad Heretic Who Led History's Bloodiest Mutiny

This is the story of the 1629 Batavia mutiny of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). The (eventually quite horrific) story of shipwreck off modern Australia, mutiny, then "Lord of the Flies" type conflict between the shipwrecked survivors is well told, and equally provides a clear general insight into the workings of the VOC and the early routes to the east. The final section interestingly brings the story up to the present (despite a poor psycho-babble conclusion on the main character). There are a few caveats however: initially the book digresses too much from the story to talk of 17th century ships and trade in general. My edition had a third (over 100 pages) devoted to useful footnotes, but no numbering was given in the text - you had to look at the back in the "off chance" there may be a footnote and a statement was founded in history, not supposition..... Some illustrations would also be useful... Nov '07 (***) 

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Adrian Tinniswood: The Verneys: A True Story of Love, War and Madness in Seventeenth-Century England
Based on the massive 17th century Verney correspondence collection this gives a unique insight into the trials & joys of a well to do English gentry family. Tinniswood's Verneys are presented in a very readable narrative - a historical soap - with well judged asides to provide context to the general reader (if a little irritating to a specialist). Three aspects are made especially clear: the constant presence of mortality; the impact of civil war at a family level; the significance of social networking. Equally the book traces a clear change in the pattern of political power: from court based patronage, to the political corruption of early party politics and the emergence of trade based influence. Grass roots history at its most enjoyable. Maybe there are enough later letters for an 18th century follow up? July '07 (***)

N.A.M. Rodger: Safeguard of the Sea :
A Naval History of Britain Vol 1 660-1649

Monumental (691 pages!!) first volume in the excellent Naval History of Britain. Likely to be used more as a reference than as a a book to read (unlike the very readable Vol II) this has much of interest and value. Debunks the rounded military leaderships of William I & Edward I. It shows very clearly the emergence of naval structure & power in Elizabethan times - and the origins of the English pirate stealing from the Spanish pirate.... More surprising perhaps is the real contribution Charles I's Ship money made to the Navy Royal. One quibble, despite claims to the contrary it is very anglocentric; Scottish marine developments are crucial but are generally en passant. May '06 (****) 


N A M Rodger: Command of the Ocean. A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815

This is the second volume in the naval history and is very valuable, not just for its account of how the Royal Navy grew into the premier seafaring force of its time but also for placing this in a general political & economic context. Different sections on politics and society as well as naval technology and management styles show very clearly the emergence of Britain as the key imperial power. It reads easily and appears thoroughly researched. Hardly surprising it became a (surprising) bestseller in the UK. I look forward to Volume 3. Jan '06 (*****)  


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