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Christopher Hill: The Class Strugle Of The English Revolution

As a prolific historian and scholar of 17th century England, Christopher Hill has taken a unique historical perspective on the Civil War and its manifestations. He perceives the revolution as being a bourgeois insurrection . He also believes that this is the reason for the shaping of England since that time.

In 1913 R. G Usher wrote: ?The English Revolution of 1640 is as much an enigma today as it was to Charles. It is a riddle, which has to be solved. No one has tried to solve it because all assumed it was solved be repeating the Grand Remonstrance. Every Englishman born since 1800 has…been born into a view of English history. Christopher Hill did his part to dissect the Revolution and make sense of it. The following will describe some of his findings on the subject.

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This paper will demonstrate Hill’s unprecedented knowledge and understanding of the events in the 17th century. It will look extensively at some of his works, namely: Some Intellectual Consequences of the English Revolution, Change and Continuity in 17th Century England, The Good Old Cause 1640-1660, and his first book The English Revolution 1640 . Hill’s interpretation that three main people influenced the revolution will also be demonstrated in this paper.

He was born in York in 1912 as John Edward Christopher Hill. While attending college in the 1930’s, Hill embraced Marxism, an ideology that focuses on struggles between the different social classes. This is where how he based his interpretation of the revolution. Later, he attributed the revolution to this by citing the middle class upheaval as being the primary source. He has also produced exceptional books that probe subjects such as the Anglican Church and Puritanism. Hill was also a member of the Historians Group of the Communist Party (HGCP). Some of the other members included an extraordinary group, namely Rodney Hilton, Eric Honsbawm, and E.P. Thompson. Hill and other members of the HGCP founded Past and Present, an innovative scholarly journal. To this day, Hill is still closely associated with this publication.
Hill’s first book, The English Revolution 1640, aims to look at
the English Revolution as a great social movement similar to the one that came in France in 1789. Hill suggests that the power was handed over to a different class after the Revolution. ?The civil war was a class war, in which the despotism of Charles I was defended by the reactionary forces of the established Church and the conservative landlords. Parliament beat the King because it could appeal to the enthusiastic support of the trading and industrial classes in town and countryside, to the yeomen and progressive gentry, and to wider masses of the population whenever they were able by free discussion to understand what the struggle was really about.?
The war in England was between the King and Parliament. Parliament wanted to end the tyrannical monarchy and its unfair treatment of the individual. These included imprisonment without a trial and jury, taxation without consent or representation, seizure of land, punishment for speaking out against the government, and also the attempted banishment of the Parliamentary body as a whole. Hill believes that the bourgeoisie party was influenced by this treatment and rose up against the monarchy; the typical action according to Marx. There was a political party that sprang up in London called the Levellers. This party represented the views of the small producers, or Bourgeoisie. From an account of Leveller Rainborowe in 1647, he said ?if the writings be true, there have been many scufflings between the honest men of England and those that have tyrannised over them; and if it be read, there is none of those just and equitable laws that the people of England are born to but are intrenchment altogether. But…if the people find that they are not suitable to freemen as they are, I know no reason should deter me…from endeavouring by all means to gain anything that might be of more advantage to them than government under which we live.? This proves Hill’s point of view in that the man who said this obviously was of a lower class and demanded that he be given the same rights as members of higher social classes. He said that he would do anything he could to gain anything he could and limit the power of the government in this respect.

Hill further emphasized his Marxist point of view in his book Reformation To Industrial Revolution . The rich feared the rogues and vegabonds would emboldenthe poor to say ?they must not starve, they will not starve’, and proceed to direct action. ?What can rich men do against poor men if poor men rise and hold together?’ This is an account from a laborer who was tired of dealing with the same nonsense from the upper-classes in England.
The English revolution, like the revolt of the Netherlands eighty years earlier, and the French revolution one hundred and fifty years later, started with a revolt of the nobles. As we all know, and this excerpt tells us, the French revolution also occurred for this same reason, a very dissatisfied and rebellious middle class. One difference though between the English Revolution and that of the French is that there were no intellectual origins like there was at the time of the latter. There was no Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Karl Marx of the English revolution. It just happened, in typically British empirical way in which we always like to imagine ourselves muddling through: in a fit of absence of mind. A great revolution can almost never take place without ideas and reasons that would make a man kill or be willing to
be killed. Since there were no definitive philosophers during this time there must have been something that the revolutionaries held close to them that gave them the desire to go ahead with their plan of action. There was. The Bible, especially the Geneva Bible with its highly political marginal notes, came near to being a revolutionist’s handbook. With this and writings like Sir Walter Ralegh’s Prerogative of Parliaments or his History of the World. Oliver Cromwell has been noted to have recommended these works to other revolutionists of the time.

For as long as history had been recorded, there had been kings, lords, and bishops in England. The church had dominated the thinking of nearly all Englishmen. Yet within a decade, war was waged against the king, the House of Lords was abolished and the King Charles I was executed in the name of the middle class. The act of 1649 was so uniquely shocking that on hearing it, ?women miscarried, men fell into melancholy, some with consternation expired.’ According to Hill, the people of the lower classes were very frustrated and could not stand their feeling of inferiority given to them by the upper classes. They revolted and then a capitalist system came to be where they could climb out of the socioeconomic trap that they had been trapped in the years
Hill describes three main things that propelled the people for the revolt; science, history, and law. It is the scientific thoughts of Sir Francis Bacon, history as presented by Sir Walter Ralegh, and the law as seen by Sir Edward Coke. The following will describe how Hill has demonstrated this theory leading to the revolution.

Bacon was a social as well as scientific thinker. He saw that something new was happening, in society as well as science: he defined what this was, and showed how it could be consciously utilized for the relief of man’s estate. Hill described three major improvements in inventions of the time, printing, gunpowder, and the compass. He argued that these things were a result of ?hunting by scent? more than science. Hill believed that they would have been much greater if they had been planned and not accidentally stumbled upon. Bacon gave a sense of purpose to the lower class, especially merchants and artisans. Bacon helped to make the people of these classes feel like they could contribute to and leave their mark on society as much as the other thinkers of the time.
Bacon’s political views were more like those of the Parliament’s instead of the King’s, who he worked for. He especially liked the Netherlands. He approved the fact that in the Netherlands, wealth was dispersed in many hands, and those the hands where there is most likely to be the greatest sparing and increase, and not in the hands where there would be the greatest expense and consumption.

With Bacon’s uncompromising statement of the priority of Bourgeois interests went an advocacy of economic liberalism?at least when Bacon was not acting as government spokesman. This further illustrates Hill’s main idea by showing Bacon’s sympathetic outlook on the life of a member of the lower class. Bacon suggested that reality could be changed by human effort. Hill notes in his book Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution that Bacon insisted that men should step back and reexamine the things that they took for granted, especially the obvious and self-evident things.

Hill also takes a look into Sir Walter Ralegh’s influence on the happenings of the seventeenth century. According to Hill Ralegh significantly contributed to the following events that the revolution brought about; a decline in the power of the throne, the adoption of an aggressive imperialist foreign policy, an extension of economic liberalism, the redistribution of taxation, the beginnings of religious toleration, and the triumph of modern science. Ralegh is also credited with establishing the first colony in America. Hill looks favorably upon Ralegh because, Ralegh’s political thought ruthlessly emphasizes expediency, utility, in a way that anticipates Hobbes. In civil wars ?all former compacts and agreements for securing of liberty and property are dissolved, and become void: for flying to arms is a state of war, which is the mere state of nature, of men out of community, where all have an equal right to all things: and I shall enjoy my life, my subsistence, or whatever is dear to me no longer than he that has more cunning, or is stronger than I, will give me leave.’ ?That any particular government is now Fure Divino is hard to affirm, and of no great use to mankind. For let the government of any country where I am a subject be by divine institution or by compact, I am equally bound to observe its laws and endeavor its prosperity. Hill saw Ralegh’s desire for an equal, capitalist society and believes that this is why he was so influential to the revolution. Ralegh, while expecting execution: ?When you have travailed and wearied your thoughts on all sorts of worldly cogitation’s, you shall sit down by sorrow in the end.? This shows that Ralegh was probably part of the middle class that rose up and made an unprecedented change in England.

Hill also believes in the influence of Sir Edward Coke on the revolution. Coke, an English jurist and political leader rose in Parliament and became attorney general. He gained a reputation as a severe prosecutor, and was favored at the court of James I. As chief justice of common pleas and of the king’s bench, he challenged the common law against the royal prerogative. Collisions with the king and political enmities led to his dismissal in 1616. By 1620 he had returned to Parliament, where he led popular opposition to the Crown.
Coke also wrote the Petition of Right. This was a petition addressed to Charles I by Parliament in 1628. Parliament demanded that the king desist from levying taxes without its consent, that he cease billeting soldiers and sailors in the homes of private citizens and proclaiming martial law in time of peace, and that no subject be imprisoned without cause shown. The petition was, in part, a reaction to Charles’s attempt to finance several costly and foreign wars by exacting the money, which Parliament had failed to provide, directly from his subjects. This played a part in the demise of the king and ultimately help lead the middle class into revolution.

As stated before, Christopher Hill takes a unique approach when trying to speculate reasons for the Revolution. He believes that it was mainly due to the middle class struggling for rights. He thinks that this was fueled especially by three men and their ideas. These men were Sir Francis Bacon, Sir Walter Ralegh, and Sir Edward Coke. Hill is revered as one of the most prolific historians ever to study this subject in English History.
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