These books, each by an eminent scholar, provide nuanced and thought-provoking assessments of the broader Restoration period to the Glorious Revolution and beyond. Together they offer novel means for reinterpreting the sources that have shaped scholarly and popular perceptions of the period, and by extension, they demonstrate how fresh positions on supposedly well worn and understood historical topics are still possible.
Annabel Patterson’s The Long Parliament of Charles II (often referred to as the Cavalier Parliament) commences with the election of the first royally summoned parliament of Charles II’s reign in 1661 (as opposed to the Convention of 1660–61 which invited him to return to the throne) through 18 sessions to its dissolution in January 1679. This is not, however, a chronological history in the conventional sense. It does not provide a complete analysis of politics in the period, per se, nor does it encompass all of parliament, focusing almost exclusively on the House of Commons and the king. Instead, Patterson, an emeritus professor of English, engages in forensic textual analysis, in an attempt to determine the shifts in this parliament from its major primary sources. She makes much of the fact that she is not, in her words “a proper historian” – a self-identification that perhaps explains the mistaken claim that James II was the last Stuart monarch. Nevertheless, it would be unfair to quibble over such points. She has provided a useful and original lens through with to view our knowledge of the period.
Patterson’s task, as she sees it, is to “put the sources themselves at the center of the story” and to “hear the voices of those who observed [and participated in] the Long Parliament” (8). After providing a brief chronology of the period, and an overview of the kinds of sources that will be examined, she sets about her task of analyzing those sources in Chapters 3–5. It is here that her methodology reveals the subtleties, for instance, in Charles II’s speeches, both those to which he contributed, and those that were written for him. The king wished to use his speeches to set the tone, or manage parliamentary debate. However, as tensions deepened over the course of the reign between the ruler and members of the House of Commons particularly, what he said is shown to have been less important in many instances, than the way he said something. She concludes that the “persona Charles developed for himself as an orator was so patently in disharmony with events that mistrust grew even as it was urged against” (89). When the crisis of the Popish Plot brought these suspicions decisively to the forefront, the Long Parliament was allowed to collapse.
Clearly, divisions existed and parties were forming, so what of the voices that reflected this? Patterson next turns to contemporary memoirs and the reminiscences of such figures as the Earl of Clarendon, Bishop Gilbert Burnet, Sir John Reresby, and Sir William Temple. She expands her analysis to include reports that MPs sent to their constituents, official newsletters like the London Gazette, and unlicensed publications known as ‘scofflaw pamphlets’. What emerges is a running profile of a House of Commons that was not surprisingly dominated by men with very individualized impressions of what was happening around them, and of the roles that they themselves, or those with whom they sympathized, played in those events. Why then did the Whig interpretation of this history, that featured parliamentary cohesion in the face of kingly ambition, emerge and prevail?
It is in her final section, entitled ‘How We Got Parliamentary History’ that Patterson demonstrates the emergence of the Whig thesis and a partisan shaping of the historical record. In identifying James Ralph, author of an anonymous Critical History of the Administration of Sir Robert Walpole (1743), as the editor of MP Anchitell Grey’s Debates (published in 1763 and subsequently seen as the crucial primary source for the parliament of 1661–79), we are given one final example of her nuanced textual analysis. The Debates may have been edited faithfully, but the footnotes transformed the documents into something different, “a work of Whig or Country party historiography”(256). This book and Patterson...