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The Causes of the English Revolution: 1529-1642 (1972)

by Lawrence Stone

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Contains an analysis of the causes of the English Revolution, synthesizing the research of a whole generation of scholars.

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Lawrence Stone. The Causes of the English Revolution: 1529-1642 (London: Routledge &
Kegan Paul, 1972) xiv, 168. Hardcover.

Lawrence Stone, late Dodge Professor of history at Princeton University, follows upon the success of his 1965 work The Crisis of the Aristocracy: 1558-1641 with a rather logical historiographical progression to The Causes of the English Revolution: 1529-1642. The thesis of his earlier work emphasized the relative decline economically and politically of the aristocracy in the years leading to the English Civil War as being a direct result of social mistrust and reluctance to grant promotion on the part of Queen Elizabeth I. Stone writes that, “relatively little structural change took place in English society between the fourteenth and the nineteenth centuries: what altered was the role of the various social classes within a fairly static framework.” This image of later Tudor and early Jacobean society bears significant influence on Stone’s second work. However, as G.E. Aylmer of the University of York notes, Stone suffers from a lack of evidence from the “cultural and intellectual side.” W.K. Jordan of Harvard University generally agrees on this point. Causes of the English Revolution is partly a response to these criticisms.
The work is divided into three chapters (four in the recent revision published in 1997, to be discussed below), with the primary emphasis being placed in the third chapter entitled “the Causes of the English Revolution.” Stone acknowledges that the purpose of his book serves to “deal with broader perspectives within which, and only within which, the findings of the social historians can properly be understood.” Reflecting upon nearly thirty years of research, especially the debate among historians over the causes and origins of the English Civil War, Stone effectively divides his work into two parts: historiography and interpretation. For any significant understanding of the root causes of the Civil War, it is necessary to grasp the major theories and contentions of not simply English history, but revolution in general. Thus, Stone takes considerable pains to describe the various movements in revolutionary thought of the mid twentieth century, particularly those of P. Zagorin, Trevor-Roper, and J.H. Hexter, among others. Of particular significance for the later part of his work, the “J-Curve” theory of revolution, where, “the moment of potential revolution is reached only when the long-term phase of growth is followed by a short-term phase of economic stagnation or decline” is discussed. Following his exposition of various revolutionary theories, Stone notes that historians can “direct attention to problems of general relevance, and away from the sterile triviality of so much historical research.” Noting recent historiographical interest in social causes of the Civil War, Stone devotes his second chapter to this subject and concludes with a particular criticism of historians before him, writing that, “they failed to see that revolutions have extremely complicated origins, and that social causes are only one among many.” It is with such historiographical background that Stone embarks upon study of the causes of the English Civil War.
The remaining chapter on the causes of the English Civil War is further divided into what Stone deems preconditions, precipitants, and triggers. The difference in each of these terms can best be understood by distance in time from the Civil War. For instance, preconditions such as the unstable Tudor polity, economic growth, social change, and the rise of an opposition, which in themselves are not causes of the Civil War per se, rather profoundly altered the political and social landscape of early modern England such that some change, not necessarily sweeping or violent, would need to come about. The medium term “precipitants” during the years leading to 1640 are reflective of these more long term problems, that is social change brought about conflicts between the court and country, religious fervor clashing with Laudism, and political centralization pitting common lawyers against the Civil lawyers. Whereas the long term factors altered the landscape, the medium term made the differences in society and government more pronounced and necessitated change, yet still not necessarily a violent one. Stone admits that the triggers, those more immediate causes of the Civil War, could almost be considered accidents of circumstance rather than problems of great caliber. The blunderings of a Buckingham, Stafford, or Charles I, while perhaps misguided or ill informed, could not have precipitated civil war without the aforementioned long term grievances. Thus the results of the Civil War, while largely returning to the status quo after the Restoration, nonetheless allowed for the survival of “ideas about religious toleration, about limitations on the power of the central executive to interfere with the personal liberty of the propertied classes.” In a word, the solutions for the long term precipitants survived the remedies applied to the “triggers.”
J. Morrill writes rather provocatively that, “If revisionism was provoked by any particular work, it was not one of [Christopher] Hill’s so much as Lawrence Stone’s Causes of the English Revolution.” This statement is particularly controversial, as Stone appears to be battling revisionism in parts of his book. It appears that Causes of the English Revolution was written in part as a response to the criticisms leveled by social historians at his earlier work. However, in his attempt to encompass a generalized view of the causes of the Civil War, Stone presents a work that necessarily appears theoretical, perhaps reflecting on the fact that the book is essentially a compilation of lecture notes and journal articles. Indeed, Stone indicates that he provides no definitive solution, however in battling with many of the major theorists of revolutions and the English Civil War in particular, certainly the author presents theses that necessarily challenge historians and even, as Morrill points out, calls for revision. For his assessment of revolutions, particularly salient following the turbulent 1960s, provides a new contribution to an often argued subject. In this capacity Stone is worthy of praise. However, Stone leaves himself prone to criticism for inconsistency. While criticizing the traditional Whig interpretation of the Civil War as well as Marxist theories, Stone desires to distance himself from two particularly potent viewpoints, one traditional and the other more provocative, in an effort to occupy a moderate position. However, Stone takes considerable use of certain revisionist historians (Hexter) to counter other revisionist historians, like C. Russell’s emphasis of the local institution during the Civil War. Stone balances on a fine line throughout his criticisms, which leaves one still enquiring where his historiographical sympathies lie.
In the 1997 edition of his work Stone found it necessary to add a further reflection to the end of his book, which bears the implication that he was unhappy with certain aspects of his first edition. The most important of these concerns was over the title, as Stone now admits that terminology should be in favor of a civil war rather than a revolution. This admission has serious consequences for the first half of the book, indeed why talk of revolution as such rather than civil war? An addendum simply cannot encompass this partial about face on the part of the author. Coupled with the author’s attempt to both criticize the revisionists as well as sympathize with some of its proponents, it appears to some historians, like D. Stevenson at the University of Nebraska, that, “his critics might very well see this as an abject surrender…itself.” That Stone’s work has been a lightning rod of criticism since its publication attests to a certain provocative and important contribution to the study of the English Civil War, however the recent (and last) revised edition of his work is somewhat disappointing, a retreat for some, that could prove confusing to the reader who has followed his work since the beginning.
Lawrence Stone’s Causes of the English Revolution proves to be a seminal work in the study of the English Civil War, an important contribution to one of the more controversial areas of the field, namely the reasons or causes for such a momentous and polarizing event in British history. This book should be necessary reading for students and scholars of early modern Britain as well as those studying the historiography of revolutions. As the original edition of this book has been around for over thirty years, it is relatively inexpensive for the scholar to obtain. The revised edition available through Routledge Press, while providing Stone’s most recent theories, does not pack the same intellectual and theoretical punch as the original. However, either edition would make an excellent edition to the libraries of serious historians of the English Civil War.

~S.P. Phillips ( )
  Shancis | Apr 28, 2009 |
Lawrence Stone, as one would expect, writes a masterful interpretation and analysis of the English Revolution. Importantly, he distinguishes between causes and triggers. He categorizes three levels of causality, differentiating between long-range items such as enclosure or Protestant/Catholic conflict, and mid-range items like the Thirty YEars War, and small, immediate items like the suspension of Parliament. By this method, Stone evaluates the underlying reasons that England overthrew Charles I and embarked on two decades of Civil War. ( )
  AlexTheHunn | Mar 16, 2006 |
As the title indicates, Stone looks into the revolution as one event with many causes. Good to have on the shelf, but definitely ought to be one of many perspectives on this matter. ( )
  heidilove | Dec 8, 2005 |
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