The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England. By Edward, Earl of Clarendon.
Though Clarendon's History of the Rebellion is not only a well-established classic, but is also one of the leading authorities upon the most interesting and best-known period of our history, it is probable that the number of well-educated men who can honestly say that they have read it through is not very large. It is the fate of standard books to pass by slow degrees out of circulation. They furnish materials for writers whose works in their turn undergo the same fate; and thus, after a time, they influence readers through four or five different removes.
Hume had hardly any other authority for the reign of Charles than Clarendon. Hallam's Constitutional History put Hume's theories of the Stuart times out of sight. Lord Macaulay's review of Hallam is better known to many persons in the present day than Hallam himself; and it is to be hoped that Mr. Forster's curious and learned investigations into the reign of Charles I. have given to a still newer generation of readers more accurate notions on the subject than they could well have derived from any earlier source.
This is not to be regretted. If knowledge is to be kept within any sort of compass, original authorities must be gradually sifted, and laid on one side after their main results have been extracted. Still it is interesting from time to time to recur to them, even for other purposes than those of special study of the matters to which they refer. We have, no doubt, the means of understanding the history of the reign of Charles I. far better than Clarendon understood it; but the history of great events by a great man rather gains than loses in interest by the acquisition of a point of view, and of a set of thoughts, different from and wider than those under which he wrote.
The first thing that strikes a modern reader of Clarendon is the utter absence, from every part of his book, of anything approaching to what, in the present day, would be considered a philosophical or general view of his subject. The civil war appears to him, in the full sense of the words, an impious, wicked, unnatural rebellion. From first to last he views it with as much astonishment as horror. He cannot, or will not, understand how or why it could have happened. All his careful study of individual character, all his keen insight into the outrageous folly, wickedness, and selfishness of a great number of the King's adherents, do not appear to enable him to sympathise in the very least degree with the Parliamentary leaders. Charles himself could hardly have taken a more simple and decisive view of the perfect justice of his own cause, and the perfect wickedness of that of his opponents, than was taken for him by his zealous Chancellor of the Exchequer.
This is a singular contrast to the style of the present day. Any book with the faintest pretensions to rise above the rank of a collection of dates would contain some view as to the general causes of the civil wars—some account of the principles represented by the two contending parties, and of the degree in which those principles rose out of, or were suggested by, the ancient institutions of the country. Indeed, we should be apt to regard it as a merit if the author observed any moderation in such reflections.
Their total absence, and the absence of any notion of the very possibility of making them, produces as disagreeable an effect in Clarendon as an affected profusion of them often produces in our own times. It has for, one thing, the disadvantage of making the story unintelligible. Why, the reader asks again and again, did a quiet, orderly, loyal people rush into civil war? The only explanation suggested by Clarendon is that they waxed fat and kicked, that, being puffed up by peace and prosperity, they took to cutting each other's throats —a simply childish notion. The explanation that their liberties both were, and were felt to be, in real danger, and that the circumstances of the time rendered this almost unavoidable, never strikes Clarendon even when he is on the brink of it.
For instance, after describing, probably with truth, the years between 1630 and 1640 as times of great plenty and riches, he actually adds:—
'All these blessings could but enable not compel us to be happy. . . . The country full of pride, mutiny, and discontent; every man more troubled and perplexed at that they called the violation of one law [such a violation, for instance, as the forced loans, ship-money, or arbitrary imprisonment for things said in Parliament] than delighted or pleased with the observation of all the rest of the charter; never imputing the increase of their receipts, revenue, and plenty to the wisdom, virtue, and merit of the Crown, but objecting every small imposition to the exorbitancy and tyranny of the Government.'The fact that, for one reason or another, the Royal power on the one hand, and the popular appreciation of liberty on the other, had been increasing for ages, and that their collision was altogether inevitable sooner or later, never seems to have occurred to Clarendon, though the whole nation felt it, no doubt, more or less obscurely.
This want of speculative power, however, applies only to general views of history and morals. There is in Clarendon's history a good deal of philosophy of a certain kind; that is to say, the book contains isolated reflections upon particular circumstances which show that it was not from want of ability that its author did not take general views of what we should now call the philosophy of history, but because that philosophy or science was not then invented.
Many of our readers will, no doubt, remember with very mixed feelings the famous but dreadfully difficult chapters (iii. 82, 83, 84,) which contain the reflections of Thucydides on the massacre at Corcyra. In the 7th book of Clarendon's History there is a passage, suggested by the quarrels in the Privy Council at Oxford, which in some ways so much resembles them that it is by no means unlikely that it is a conscious imitation. It is an essay of four or five pages on the nature of Councils, and on the sort of character and conduct which fits men to succeed in them. It is most characteristic of the man and of his mind. It is throughout a refutation of depreciatory commonplaces, and a vindication of truths which, though they may look commonplace, are constantly forgotten and disregarded. Debates in council, he says, are by no means merely formal, nor are they, as rash observers are apt to consider, useless. Men are often 'in this particular argument unskilful, in that affected, who may seem to have levity or formality or vanity in ordinary conversation, and yet in formal counsels, deliberations, and transactions are men of great insight and wisdom.' The objections to them are founded on ignorance of their practical working, and of the way in which affairs are of necessity conducted; and the way to succeed in them is to attain a certain even temper of mind, hard to be learnt, but absolutely essential:—
'There is not a more troublesome passion, or that often draws more inconveniences with it, than that which proceeds from the indignation of being unjustly calumniated and from the pride of an upright conscience; when men cannot endure to be spoken ill of if they have not deserved it.'This summary of the temper of mind necessary for public life, and the way of conducting public affairs, is very like the speculation of Thucydides (referred to above) on the temper of mind produced by, and successful in, revolutions. The tone and reach of the two speculations is similar, though their comparative importance differs.
The descriptions of character on which the fame of Clarendon as a writer principally depends are much upon the same intellectual level as this speculation. Each of them shows how closely and with what searching curiosity he examined and revolved in his mind any fact which interested him. Every one, his dearest friend, his bitterest enemy, the objects of his deepest contempt and of his highest admiration, are all passed through the same crucible. He looks into them with all the curiosity of a modern novelist, and gives in a few phrases a summary which in the present day would, by the invention of characteristic illustrative instances, be made to fill the constitutional three volumes of a novel.
The best, to our taste at least, are the characters of the men with whom he lived, and who were upon the same sort of level with himself. There is, for instance, an admirable character of Lord Cottington, who was his fellow-ambassador from Charles II. to the Court of Spain in 1650. He was a very old man, who passed the greater part of his life in diplomacy, and changed his religion three or four times. This is Clarendon's summary of his gifts:—
'He was of excellent humour and very easy to live with, and under a grave countenance covered the most of mirth, and caused more than any man of the most pleasant disposition. He never used anybody ill, but used many very well for whom he had no regard; his greatest fault was that he could dissemble and make men believe that he loved them well when he cared not for them. He had not very tender affections, nor bowels apt to yearn at all objects which deserved compassion; he was heartily weary of the world, and no man more willing to die; which is an argument that he had peace of conscience. He left behind him a greater esteem of his parts than love to his person.'It would be hardly possible in so few words to give a livelier picture of an upright, amiable, rather coldhearted man of the world with a great sense of humour. In the original, which is too long to extract, these generalities are borne out by a well-selected and well-told set of anecdotes and particulars which make the man live again before those who read them.
Clarendon was not so happy in describing his antagonists. He could not understand a Puritan at all. His character of Cromwell, for instance, represents, not a man, but a monster made up of contradictions. He describes him with great honesty, and was obviously struck deeply by his wonderful genius and force of character; but there is not a touch of sympathy in the whole description. He supposes, apparently, that, from the very first, Cromwell meant to be a usurper, and acted accordingly.
That a man could really believe in such principles as he held, that he could honestly act upon them, that his strength was derived from the fact that he clearly understood what he wanted and steadily pursued it, and that what he did want was by no means entirely bad, or even bad in the main—all this is utterly incredible to Clarendon. He arrives at the result that Cromwell was a living contradiction: 'In a word, as he had all the wickednesses against which damnation is denounced, and for which hell-fire is prepared, so he had some virtues which have caused the memory of some men in all ages to be celebrated, and he will be looked upon by posterity as a brave bad man.'
Perhaps a still better instance of Clarendon's inability to enter into the feelings of a Puritan is to be found in a much less conspicuous case, which shows that to him it was a horrible mystery that the Puritans should be anything else but a crew of unnatural villains. In 1651 a Presbyterian, named Love, was executed for treason against the Commonwealth.[See his trial in 5 S. T., iv. 267, et seq.] He died like a martyr. Clarendon observes upon this:—
'It is a wonderful thing what operation this Presbyterian spirit had upon the minds of those who were possessed by it. This poor man Love, who had been guilty of so much treason against the King from the beginning of the rebellion as the pulpit could contain, was so much without remorse for any wickedness of that kind he had committed that he was jealous of nothing so much as of being suspected to repent.'He then describes the 'marvellous undauntedness' of his language, and the 'inward joy' which his behaviour showed, and, after giving some of his dying words, concludes thus:—
'And in this raving fit without so much as praying for the King otherwise than that he might propagate the covenant, he laid his head upon the block with as much courage as the bravest and honestest man could do on the most pious occasion.'The very essence of Clarendon's mind, and of the spirit of the age in which he lived, is in these words. The great lesson which the book, fairly read, would appear to teach is, that the whole war was a lamentable, but, as far as we can see, an inevitable mistake, the result of ignorance and narrowness of mind on each side, though no doubt Charles himself was more deeply to blame for it than any other person.
Clarendon contrives to obscure the incidents connected with its outbreak, and, as Mr. Hallam truly observed, he (if he were the author of Charles's State papers) got much the best of the written controversy with the Parliament; but the true nature of the case is plain beyond all dispute.
After his conduct in the early part of his reign, and after the attempt to arrest the five members (which we agree with Mr. Forster in considering as an abortive coup d'état), it was impossible to trust the King without security, and that security he never would give. In a word, it was necessary to depose him, at least for a time. The Parliament wished to do this gently, and without disturbing the forms of the Constitution; and those forms, of course, implied that the King was still to be King. This gave Clarendon an immense controversial advantage, for it was easy for him to show that their proposals amounted virtually to deposition, though they abounded in expressions of humility and duty; and this gave occasion for an inexhaustible supply of charges of hypocrisy and falsehood—charges which were well founded only on the supposition that there are to be no such things as constitutional fictions, and that a King of England ought to consider every phrase which the law uses about his office, as investing him individually with the full amount of the power which the literal sense of the words professes to convey.
On the other hand, it cannot be denied that some at least of the views of Charles and his principal advisers were what we should in the present day describe as far more liberal than those of their opponents. Perhaps the most remarkable passage in Clarendon's works is a part of his Life in which he describes the society in which he used to pass his leisure during his youth in London.
His account of the friends who used to meet at Lord Falkland's house near Oxford is charming, and there can be no doubt that some of them—Falkland, Hales, and Chillingworth, for instance—were at once the most learned and the most liberal-minded men in England. Of these, Falkland and Chillingworth lost their lives in serving the King, and Hales received preferment from Laud.
There can be little room for doubt that Charles I., Clarendon himself, and Lord Falkland were really and deeply attached to the Church of England, and as really and deeply opposed to the Church of Rome; and there is as little question that they, or at least that Charles and Clarendon, were opposed on every ground to the cruel laws then in force against the Roman Catholics, which it was one object of the Parliament to have strictly executed.
It is also matter of fact that by far the most liberal theological book of that age (Chillingworth's Religion of Protestants) expressed the tone of opinion and sentiment prevalent amongst Clarendon's friends. It was dedicated to Charles, and was greatly admired by Laud. There are few more curious problems in English history than that which these facts suggest. Why was it that religious liberalism in the seventeenth century was allied with political Toryism, whilst the most bigoted and narrow views of religion were held by the founders of our political liberties? We cannot at present enter upon this inquiry; but, in order to understand Clarendon, it is necessary to be aware of its existence, and to know that, though the highest of high Tories, he was anything but a bigot.
One or two of the sentences in which he refers to John Hales (who earned the epithet of the Ever Memorable) are very characteristic upon this point. He describes with manifest sympathy some of his opinions, then viewed as dangerous novelties:—
'He therefore exceedingly detested the tyranny of the Church of Rome more for their imposing uncharitably upon the consciences of other men, than for the errors in their own opinions; and would often say that he would renounce the religion of the Church of England to-morrow if it obliged him to believe that any other Christians should be damned; and that nobody would conclude another man to be damned who did not wish him so.'This foundation of highmindedness and liberality went admirably with the devotion of Clarendon to his sovereign, and with that passionate belief in him which blinded perhaps the keenest critic of character in all England to the most patent, as it was the most fatal, of all Charles's defects. Clarendon actually begins his character with these words: 'He was if ever any the most worthy of the title of an honest man,' and this he says though not many pages before he had given a full account of the secret treaty between Charles and the Presbyterian Commissioners from Scotland, which, says Clarendon himself, the King signed on the representation 'that the treaty was only made to enable them to engage the Kingdom of Scotland to raise an army . . . but when that army should be entered into England . . . there would be nobody to exact all those particulars.' In other words, he agreed to it only because he believed it to be a gross fraud.
Such blindness in our own days is scarcely conceivable, but we cannot estimate the power of personal loyalty as it then was. A king of England was to Clarendon both a temporal sovereign and a pope; and nothing more clearly shows the danger of this blind personal devotion to a single man than the fact that so wise and great a man as Clarendon was should have been converted by it into an instrument of tyranny and an enemy to the best interests of his country.
The general temper of Clarendon's mind, when he wrote his History, is discernible enough. The foundation of the whole, as we have said, was a stately, high-minded conception of things human and divine; but this conception was twisted, by his distaste for the narrowness and other faults of the Puritan party, in such a manner, as to lead the man who held it to a blind admiration for a party, not really more exalted than the one which he hated, and by no means so useful.
Falkland, Chillingworth, and others, no doubt, had a stately and noble view of an English king, but the stately view of the subject was by no means the only one. Every page of the History of the Civil War and of Charles's exile is filled with instances of meanness, brutality, cruelty, and debauchery amongst the King's adherents, which fully justify the bad opinion held by the Puritans of the Court and its party.
The history of the war in the West of England, where Lord Goring and Sir Richard Grenville were the King's principal officers, is full of instances of brutality and cruelty. Speaking of the Prince of Wales's own quarters, Clarendon says: 'The troops were without any discipline, and the country as much exposed to rapine and violence as it could suffer under an enemy.' Charles 'drew out his garrison from Cambden House which had brought no other benefit to the public than the enriching the licentious governor thereof, who exercised an illimited tyranny over the whole country, and took his leave of it, in wantonly burning the noble structure where he had too long inhabited, and which not many years before had cost above £30,000 the building.'
When Leicester was taken, 'the conquerors pursued their advantage with the usual license of rapine and plunder, and miserably sacked the whole town without any distinction of persons or places; churches and hospitals as well as other places were made a prey to the enraged and greedy soldier.' Sir Richard Grenville hanged as a spy an attorney who had been engaged against him in law proceedings, and his general course of proceeding is thus described. He used to summon men to attend him; if they failed to come, he sent to arrest them. 'If the persons were taken, they were very well content to remit their stock to redeem their persons; for the better disposing them whereto he would now and then hang a constable, or some other poor fellow,' etc. By these means this thief and robber 'had a greater stock of cattle of all sorts upon his grounds than any person whatsoever in the West of England.'
The book is full of misfortunes occasioned by the habitual drunkenness of the King's officers. Lord Wilmot 'drank hard and had a great power over all who did so, which was a great people.' When Lord Essex's army was surrounded in Cornwall, near Fowey, his cavalry escaped because Goring was drunk and disorderly ('the notice and orders came to Goring when he was in one of his jovial exercises') when he ought to have been on duty. Nothing can exceed the scene of petty, dirty intrigue which was constantly going on at the Court, and the impression left by the whole story is that, though Clarendon and a very few others were of a noble and magnificent character, the general hatred against Charles and his government was by no means ill-founded.
The natural result of this state of things upon a high-minded, enthusiastic, decorous man, whose temper was naturally hot and keen, was to turn him to grave but fierce humour, and his book is full of illustrations of this. Its style is too well known to call for description. Every one who has ever looked into it knows the endless sentences, the involutions, the strange constructions, which make it wearisome to modern readers. The qualities to which it owes its reputation are not so apparent but they may be traced by an attentive reader who will take the trouble to discard the historical tenses and to modernise the stops.
The following passage is a fair specimen of the defects and the energy of Clarendon's way of writing. It is part of a manifesto on the commission to the Earl of Essex against the King:—
'It was not possible that a commission could be granted to the Earl of Essex to raise an army against us, and for the safety of our person, and preservation of the peace of the kingdom, to pursue kill and slay us and all who wish well to us, but that in a short time inferior commanders by the same authority would require our good subjects for the maintenance of the property of the subject to supply them with such sums of money as they think fit upon the penalty of being plundered with all extremity of war and by such rules of arbitrary power as are inconsistent with the least pretence or shadow of that property it would seem to defend.'A few verbal alterations will convert this clumsy sentence into the style of the most cutting leading article or review. For instance:
'You issue a commission to the Earl of Essex to raise an army against us, and for the safety of our person and the preservation of the peace of the kingdom to pursue, kill, and slay us, and all who wish well to us. Inferior commanders will soon learn the same lesson. They will require our subjects, for the maintenance of the property of the subject, to supply them with such sums of money as they please, and those who refuse will be plundered with all extremity of war. You thus erect, for your protection, an arbitrary power which in its very nature is inconsistent with the existence of the rights which you say you mean it to protect.'The following is, as it stands, as powerful as it can be:—
'By this rule if a member of either house commit a murder you must by no means meddle with him till you have acquainted that house of which he is a member, and received their direction for your proceeding, assuring yourself he will not stir from that place where you left him till you return with their consent; should it be otherwise it would be in the power of every man under the pretence of murder to take one after another and as many as he pleaseth and so consequently bring a parliament to what he pleaseth when he pleaseth. If a member of either house shall take a purse at York (he may as probably take a purse from a subject as arms against the King) you must ride to London to know what to do, and he may ride with you and take a new purse at every stage, and must not be apprehended, or declared a felon till you have asked that house of which he is a member; should it be otherwise it might be in every man's power to accuse as many members as he would of taking purses, and so bring a parliament and so all parliaments to nothing. Would these men be believed?’A very little attention to the rules of composition now generally understood, will show that Clarendon might, with hardly an effort, have made his book as brilliant as it is impressive, nor need it have lost any of its weight in the process. Indeed, its weight arises from the gravity of the author's thoughts, and by no means from the cumbrousness of his style.
It is full of humour. Numerous instances might be given, but we must content ourselves with a few. Cromwell's 'physicians began to think him in danger, though the preachers who prayed always about him and told God Almighty what great things he had done for him and how much more need he still had of his service declared as from God that he should recover.' Strafford's great fault was pride, which was punished 'in that he fell by the two things he most despised, the people and Sir Harry Vane.' Montrose refuses to be prayed for by the Presbyterian ministers because he knows how they would have prayed, thus: '"Lord vouchsafe yet to touch the obdurate heart of this proud incorrigible sinner this wicked perjured traitorous and profane person who refuses to hearken to the voice of thy Kirk" and the like charitable expressions.' Lord Berkshire's 'affection for the Crown was good; his interest and reputation less than anything but his understanding.' Lord Salisbury 'was a man of no words except in hunting and hawking, in which only he knew how to behave himself. In matters of state and council he always concurred in what was proposed for the King and cancelled and repaired all those transgressions by concurring in all that was proposed against him as soon as any such propositions were made.'
Undoubtedly the most remarkable of Clarendon's gifts was his occasional eloquence. With one specimen of this we must conclude. It may be doubted whether the language contains a nobler passage of the kind. The very negligence of the composition heightens its dreary pathos. The desolation of the church, the smallness and sadness of the company, the 'fellow from the town' who alone happened to know where lay 'King Harry VIII. and Queen Jane Seymour,' the Governor locking up the place, 'which was seldom put to any use,' when all was over, are marvellous accompaniments to the funeral of an English king who had died the death of a traitor.
The superiority of this passage over Mr. Wolfe's poem on Sir John Moore's funeral shows how impossible it is for the finest imagination and the most elaborate choice of words to equal the concentrated emotion which colours the language of a man who is writing of that which touches the very core of his heart:—
'Then they went into the church, to make choice of a place for burial. But when they entered into it, which they had been so well acquainted with, they found it so altered and transformed, all tombs, inscriptions, and those landmarks pulled down, by which all men knew every particular place in that church, and such a dismal mutation over the whole, that they knew not where they were; nor was there one old officer that had belonged to it, or knew where our princes had used to be interred. At last there was a fellow of the town who undertook to tell them the place, where, he said, "there was a vault in which King Harry the Eighth and Queen Jane Seymour were interred." As near that place as could conveniently be, they caused the grave to be made. There the King's body was laid without any words, or other ceremonies than the tears and sighs of the few beholders. Upon the coffin was a plate of silver fixed with these words only—King Charles. 1648. When the coffin was put in, the black velvet pall that had covered it was thrown over it, and then the earth thrown in; which the Governor stayed to see perfectly done, and then took the keys of the church, which was seldom put to any use.'
Saturday Review, October 29, 1864.