Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Book Review - The English Revolution by G.M. Trevelyan

The English Revolution 1688-1689 by George Macaulay Trevelyan

London: Oxford University Press, 1938 (1965 printing)

Historians go in and out of fashion as much as periods of history. Manning Clark is barely mentioned and hardly read these days, and yet at the time of Australia's Bicentenary he was lionized by the country. There are so many others too - E.H. Carr, A.J.P. Taylor, and the author of the work under review here, G.M. Trevelyan. It would be interesting to read a "history of the historians" that looked at how fashion and the change in societal mores moves a historian from flavour of the month to the dusty end of the second-hand bookshop - where Trevelyan is now no doubt Schama and Ferguson will be tomorrow - each age must write its own histories, or so it seems.

Trevelyan wrote The English Revolution at a time when it was clear that European despotism was threatening England and he points out that 1688 had some similarities with his own time. The French were looking to aggressively destroy Protestantism in Europe, and with the ardently Roman Catholic James II on the throne of England, seemed to have garnered an ally in the cause.

However, James II chose incorrectly. Every time. He rode roughshod over Parliament, angering those Tories who were his natural supporters; he tried to ally himself with dissenters, who could see through his chicanery, knowing he only relaxed the right for them to worship to further his Catholic ambitions and so were not inclined to support him; and did not even gain the support of many English Catholics, who were concerned that by connecting themselves to him they might suffer at the hands of the rest of the population.

So it was that a hitherto unthought-of alliance of Tories and Whigs, High Church and Dissenters, rallied around William and Mary when they landed on English Shores, and James yet again made a wrong decision and flew off to France, never to return.

The Revolution meant different things to different participants and different places. In England itself, the Revolution forever affirmed the primacy of Parliament over the Monarchy, and allowed for some freedom of religious worship. It spawned the beginnings of parliamentary parties, of Ministers of the Crown, and of the British way of non-interference in people's personal lives.

This result did not attain, however, in Scotland or Ireland. In the former, the religious toleration south of the border was not replicated, and in the Highlands in particular the feeling that William was not a legitimate King led to the Jacobite revolts that occurred for the next 50 years. Ireland in theory should have fallen for James, but he mis-managed his allies there, and brutal repression of the populace followed.

Trevelyan has written a good, basic introduction to the Revolution in this book, with enough background for those needing to be filled in on the situation before 1688. His view was that the Revolution was a great moment in English history, which allowed the Empire to flourish and for England to defeat France and ensure that Europe's history moved toward democracy. This book was written as part of the "Home University Library", versions of which flourished during the first half of the Twentieth Century. While not being a replacement for a University Education, the noble intent of these volumes was to provide for those that couldn't attend University a way of becoming familiar with a topic to a level of some seriousness. Quite often the books were well-written, by knowledgeable men (they were mostly written by men) - from memory the book on Marx was written by Isiah Berlin, for example.

There are probably more up-to-date books one could read on this topic, but if you happen upon this volume in your travels, it is a useful introduction.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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