Amid the pageantry (and the horrible family intrigue) of the approaching coronation, much will be said about the endurance of the British monarchy through the centuries, and perhaps less about how the first King Charles ended his reign: by having his head chopped off in public while the people cheered or gasped. The first modern revolution, the English one that began in the sixteen-forties, which replaced a monarchy with a republican commonwealth, is not exactly at the forefront of our minds. Think of the American Revolution and you see pop-gun battles and a diorama of eloquent patriots and outwitted redcoats; think of the French Revolution and you see the guillotine and the tricoteuses, but also the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Think of the English Revolution that preceded both by more than a century and you get a confusion of angry Puritans in round hats and likable Cavaliers in feathered ones. Even a debate about nomenclature haunts it: should the struggles, which really spilled over many decades, be called a revolution at all, or were they, rather, a set of civil wars?

According to the “Whig” interpretation of history—as it is called, in tribute to the Victorian historians who believed in it—ours is a windup world, regularly ticking forward, that was always going to favor the emergence of a constitutional monarchy, becoming ever more limited in power as the people grew in education and capacity. And so the core seventeenth-century conflict was a constitutional one, between monarchical absolutism and parliamentary democracy, with the real advance marked by the Glorious Revolution, and the arrival of limited monarchy, in 1688. For the great Marxist historians of the postwar era, most notably Christopher Hill, the main action had to be parsed in class terms: a feudal class in decline, a bourgeois class in ascent—and, amid the tectonic grindings between the two, the heartening, if evanescent, appearance of genuine social radicals. Then came the more empirically minded revisionists, conservative at least as historians, who minimized ideology and saw the civil wars as arising from the inevitable structural difficulties faced by a ruler with too many kingdoms to subdue and too little money to do it with.

The point of Jonathan Healey’s new book, “The Blazing World” (Knopf), is to acknowledge all the complexities of the episode but still to see it as a real revolution of political thought—to recapture a lost moment when a radically democratic commonwealth seemed possible. Such an account, as Healey recognizes, confronts formidable difficulties. For one thing, any neat sorting of radical revolutionaries and conservative loyalists comes apart on closer examination: many of the leading revolutionaries of Oliver Cromwell’s “New Model” Army were highborn; many of the loyalists were common folk who wanted to be free to have a drink on Sunday, celebrate Christmas, and listen to a fiddler in a pub. (All things eventually restricted by the Puritans in power.)

Something like this is always true. Revolutions are won by coalitions and only then seized by fanatics. There were plenty of blue bloods on the sansculottes side of the French one, at least at the beginning, and the American Revolution joined abolitionists with slaveholders. One of the most modern aspects of the English Revolution was Cromwell’s campaign against the Irish Catholics after his ascent to power; estimates of the body count vary wildly, but it is among the first organized genocides on record, resembling the Young Turks’ war against the Armenians. Irish loyalists, forced to take refuge in churches, were burned alive inside them.

Healey, a history don at Oxford, scants none of these things. A New Model social historian, he writes with pace and fire and an unusually sharp sense of character and humor. At one emotional pole, he introduces us to the visionary yet perpetually choleric radical John Lilburne, about whom it was said, in a formula that would apply to many of his spiritual heirs, that “if there were none living but himself John would be against Lilburne, and Lilburne against John.” At the opposite pole, Healey draws from obscurity the mild-mannered polemicist William Walwyn, who wrote pamphlets with such exquisitely delicate titles as “A Whisper in the Ear of Mr Thomas Edward” and “Some Considerations Tending to the Undeceiving of Those, Whose Judgements Are Misinformed.”

For Hill, the clashes of weird seventeenth-century religious beliefs were mere scrapings of butter on the toast of class conflict. If people argue over religion, it is because religion is an extension of power; the squabbles about pulpits are really squabbles about politics. Against this once pervasive view, Healey declares flatly, “The Civil War wasn’t a class struggle. It was a clash of ideologies, as often as not between members of the same class.” Admiring the insurgents, Healey rejects the notion that they were little elves of economic necessity. Their ideas preceded and shaped the way that they perceived their class interests. Indeed, like the “phlegmatic” and “choleric” humors of medieval medicine, “the bourgeoisie” can seem a uselessly encompassing category, including merchants, bankers, preachers, soldiers, professionals, and scientists. Its members were passionate contestants on both sides of the fight, and on some sides no scholar has yet dreamed of.

Healey insists, in short, that what seventeenth-century people seemed to be arguing about is what they were arguing about. When members of the influential Fifth Monarchist sect announced that Charles’s death was a signal of the Apocalypse, they really meant it: they thought the Lord was coming, not the middle classes. With the eclectic, wide-angle vision of the new social history, Healey shows that ideas and attitudes, rhetoric and revelations, rising from the ground up, can drive social transformation. Ripples on the periphery of our historical vision can be as important as the big waves at the center of it. The mummery of signatures and petitions and pamphlets which laid the ground for conflict is as important as troops and battlefield terrain. In the spirit of E. P. Thompson, Healey allows members of the “lunatic fringe” to speak for themselves; the Levellers, the Ranters, and the Diggers—radicals who cried out in eerily prescient ways for democracy and equality—are in many ways the heroes of the story, though not victorious ones.

But so are people who do not fit neatly into tales of a rising merchant class and revanchist feudalists. Women, shunted to the side in earlier histories of the era, play an important role in this one. We learn of how neatly monarchy recruited misogyny, with the Royalist propaganda issuing, Rush Limbaugh style, derisive lists of the names of imaginary women radicals, more frightening because so feminine: “Agnes Anabaptist, Kate Catabaptist . . . Penelope Punk, Merald Makebate.” The title of Healey’s book is itself taken from a woman writer, Margaret Cavendish, whose astonishing tale “The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World” was a piece of visionary science fiction that summed up the dreams and disasters of the century. Healey even reports on what might be a same-sex couple among the radicals: the preacher Thomas Webbe took one John Organ for his “man-wife.”

What happened in the English Revolution, or civil wars, took an exhaustingly long time to unfold, and its subplots were as numerous as the bits of the Shakespeare history play the wise director cuts. Where the French Revolution proceeds in neat, systematic French parcels—Revolution, Terror, Directorate, Empire, etc.—the English one is a mess, exhausting to untangle and not always edifying once you have done so. There’s a Short Parliament, a Long Parliament, and a Rump Parliament to distinguish, and, just as one begins to make sense of the English squabbles, the dour Scots intervene to further muddy the story.

In essence, though, what happened was that the Stuart monarchy, which, after the death of Elizabeth, had come to power in the person of the first King James, of Bible-version fame, got caught in a kind of permanent political cul-de-sac. When James died, in 1625, he left his kingdom to his none too bright son Charles. Parliament was then, as now, divided into Houses of Lords and Commons, with the first representing the aristocracy and the other the gentry and the common people. The Commons, though more or less elected, by uneven means, served essentially at the King’s pleasure, being summoned and dismissed at his will.

Parliament did, however, have the critical role of raising taxes, and, since the Stuarts were both war-hungry and wildly incompetent, they needed cash and credit to fight their battles, mainly against rebellions in Scotland and Ireland, with one disastrous expedition into France. Although the Commons as yet knew no neat party divides, it was, in the nature of the times, dominated by Protestants who often had a starkly Puritan and always an anti-papist cast, and who suspected, probably wrongly, that Charles intended to take the country Catholic. All of this was happening in a time of crazy sectarian religious division, when, as the Venetian Ambassador dryly remarked, there were in London “as many religions as there were persons.” Healey tells us that there were “reports of naked Adamites, of Anabaptists and Brownists, even Muslims and ‘Bacchanalian’ pagans.”

In the midst of all that ferment, mistrust and ill will naturally grew between court and Parliament, and between dissident factions within the houses of Parliament. In January, 1642, the King entered Parliament and tried to arrest a handful of its more obnoxious members; tensions escalated, and Parliament passed the Militia Ordinance, awarding itself the right to raise its own fighting force, which—a significant part of the story—it was able to do with what must have seemed to the Royalists frightening ease, drawing as it could on the foundation of the London civic militia. The King, meanwhile, raised a conscript army of his own, which was ill-supplied and, Healey says, “beset with disorder and mutiny.” By August, the King had officially declared war on Parliament, and by October the first battle began. A series of inconclusive wins and losses ensued over the next couple of years.

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