How Markku Peltonen revisited England’s Revolution

Markku Peltonen mid-lecture
Markku Peltonen at the SCEMS-HRI lecture. Photo (c) I.C. Hine.

For our first visiting speaker of 2016–17, SCEMS was privileged to welcome Professor Markku Peltonen from the University of Helsinki, who (thanks to the generosity of the Humanities Research Institute) spent a week in Sheffield earlier this month. Best known to most of us for his seminal work on the political culture of Elizabethan and early Stuart England, audiences for his two lectures and masterclass were able to hear Markku begin to venture into the territory of the civil war and ‘revolution’.

Although in many ways a natural progression—Markku’s earlier work having done much to challenge the ‘revisionist’ paradigm in early Stuart historiography that questioned whether the civil war was caused by any deep ideological divisions—many historians choose to begin or end their studies in the year 1640. Markku’s first paper was suggestive of why this might be the case: mastering the vast output of the printing press in the 1640s can easily occupy an entire career. But even in such a well-studied area, this literature can throw up surprises, and in his first lecture, ‘The Republican Moment of the English Revolution’, Markku demonstrated that the printing press in the immediate aftermath of the execution of Charles I was not short of strident defences of an English republic. Whereas many historians have seen the beginnings of English republicanism as halting and uncertain,

Peltonen and audience at lecture
Peltonen’s first lecture (The Republican Moment). Photo (c) I.C. Hine

indicative of the accidental nature of the regicide, the authors Markku cited were willing to assert the superiority of republics to monarchies both through contemporary and historical examples, and more theoretical precepts.

In his paper to the History Department research seminar, Markku revealed another surprising finding: that many of these authors were equally happy to own the royalist accusation that the regicide had created a democracy, overturning the usually negative associations of this system in early modern political discourse. The basis of this understanding was the notion that following the execution of Charles Stuart (to these republican democrats, ‘tyrannicide’ rather than regicide), government was in the hands of the people. But perhaps most interesting was the ways that authors explored the implications of this system. For many, democracy was inseparable from the accountability of governors to the people, who were to exhibit a level of vigilance often modelled on classical Athens (sparking some fascinating discussion in the audience about the usage of Greek as opposed to Roman models of republicanism and citizenship). The implications of such a stance for the members of the Rump Parliament, who clung onto power perhaps too wilfully for many republicans, were not necessarily pleasant.

Meanwhile, the paper served to offer an explanation for an issue raised in Markku’s earlier masterclass: As well as hearing about Markku’s intellectual journey, this session had focussed on discussion of a curious text, An Essay of Christian Government written by Charles George Cock in 1651.

Peltonen mid-masterclass
Markku Peltonen at the SCEMS Masterclass. Photos (c) I.C. Hine

Whilst participants had struggled to interpret the author’s torturous analysis of whether monarchy or democracy was the ideal political constitution, we had paid less attention to the strikingly brief discussion of that third constituent part of the ‘mixed constitution’, aristocracy, and its associated corruption, oligarchy. Why so many defenders of the English Commonwealth preferred to describe the regime as a democracy over the supposedly more reputable system of aristocracy (which could straightforwardly be identified with the Council of State appointed in early 1649) is an interesting question, and one which perhaps will be explored in more detail in Markku’s subsequent work. We at SCEMS will certainly await this eagerly, having had the privilege of experiencing a foretaste of what will no doubt do as much to revise our understanding of the political thought of the English Revolution as his earlier publications have achieved in the case of the early Stuart period.