The Century of Revolution by Christopher Hill

The full title is The Century of Revolution, 1603-1714; i.e. the century in question is the longish C17th from the death of Queen Elizabeth to the death of Queen Anne. I guess most centuries are centuries of revolution somewhere, and in one way or another, but the C17th was the only time the English have had an actual literal political revolution. In fact we had two, or one and a half. The first one, in the 1640s, definitely was a revolution — with parliament deciding to put an axe through the king’s neck, and power resting with the army and so on — but is usually referred to as the ‘Civil War’. The second one is referred to, at least by the English, as ‘the Glorious Revolution’, but was really something else: half invasion, half coup. It’s probably a bit strong to describe it as the Dutch conquest of England, but it was probably something closer to that than a ‘revolution’.

I bought this book because I was aware of a gaping hole in my knowledge of British history when it came to this period; I mean, my historical knowledge is patchy anyway, but I’ve read quite a few books about the C18th and C19th, and some about the Tudors and the medieval period, whereas my knowledge of the C17th didn’t go much beyond the clichés; right but repulsive vs. wrong but wromantic, and all that. So I bought this book hoping to get an overview.

And it did provide that; if anything I think I should have gone for something slightly more specific. A book that covers a whole century of history in a few hundred pages is inevitably going to be a firehose of facts; an enormous amount to take in, and not much of the kind of detailed context and human interest that sugars the pill a bit when reading history. Hill divides the period up into four sections, and for each, he organises the material into  ‘Narrative of Events’, ‘Economics’, ‘Politics and Constitution’ and ‘Religion and Ideas’. Which works pretty well, and I do feel that I’ve been given a good grounding in what was going on. I don’t know how much of it I’ve retained, though. If I was really serious about trying to get a handle on the period, I should probably read it again. Which I don’t think is going to happen.

It’s an interesting period, though. The Elizabethans seem so distant and exotic; the Georgians are so modern in comparison, and that difference, that spectacular change, is what makes the C17th so fascinating. Constitutional power shifted from the monarch to Parliament, Cabinet appeared, the civil service started to develop, economic power shifted from the landed gentry to industrialists and merchants, the stock market was established, credit notes removed the need for all business to be done using discs of shiny metal, the religious monopoly of the Church of England was broken, Britain became a dominant naval power, agriculture was modernised. We became modern: or at least more modern than most.

» The photo of a Loyalist mural in Belfast was posted to Flickr by Benjamin Harrison and is used under a CC by-nc licence.

5 Comments

  1. 28 April 2008 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    One book on the civil War that I enjoyed very much is The World Turned Upside Down, by Christopher Hill. Lots about Ranters, Levellers, Diggers, etc. I’ve read a couple books about the decline of the belief in magic in England during that century, too, but I can’t recall the titles. A great time to read about, but one in which I am glad not to have been born.

  2. Harry
    28 April 2008 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    Yup, I picked up one by Hill after having specifically asked for recommendations for books by historians who could write for a more general audience; I’m only reading this stuff for fun, so I want something fairly accessible. And it’s a well-written book, but at about three pages per year it has to keep on moving the whole time. I’m still considering picking up one of his other books, in fact, but as I say, first things first.

    A great time to read about, but one in which I am glad not to have been born.

    Supposedly the Chinese have that curse: “May you live in interesting times”. Given how accurately Chinese proverbs normally enter the English tradition, it probably turns out that what they really say is “May watermelons laughingly eat your trousers”, but the basic point holds.

  3. 29 April 2008 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    I kind of doubt the Chinese ever had such a proverb. The belief in rebirth never really took hold, even among Chinese Buddhists.

  4. 29 April 2008 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    I see the Wikipedia has an article about the saying, itself of doubtful authority. “One theory is that it may be related to the Chinese proverb, ‘It’s better to be a dog in a peaceful time than be a man in a chaotic period.'”

  5. Harry
    29 April 2008 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if there are any genuine Chinese proverbs that are regularly quoted in English.

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