England Under the Stuarts Analysis
The value of Trevelyan’s ENGLAND UNDER THE STUARTS is not in its accuracy and its wealth of detail. Its special quality is its art. From the outset of his career Trevelyan wished to write history that was also literature, and he achieved his goal especially in this book.
He became a historian at a time when the claims of “scientific” history were ascendant. He says in his autobiography that he tried to be a traditional kind of historian, relating history to literature, against a current in the other direction. Indeed, he has a style that is a delight to read. He can combine and condense without losing touch with details. He is pleased to pause to give full treatment to the social scene, the landscape, and the character of the persons of his historical period. He informs his reader of purpose, motive, conclusion, and evaluation. These qualities spring from his commitment to liberal democracy, and the reader feels Trevelyan’s constant pleasure in watching the development of English Parliamentary government, humane law, and accomplishment in the arts that grace a civilization. It seems undoubtedly true that he played an important part in inspiring historians to write readable history without losing sight of factual accuracy.
The theme of ENGLAND UNDER THE STUARTS is the exploration of England’s unique contribution to the history of the world, which came about through her dealings with the House of Stuart. For in a line of development directly contrary to what was happening elsewhere in Europe, England transferred sovereignty from the Crown to Parliament and thus laid the foundation for modern democratic government. Despotism, Trevelyan says, was entrenched throughout Europe and would have determined the future but for the events in England during the seventeenth century.
To prepare the reader for these confrontations, Trevelyan skillfully sketches the social, economic, and religious life of the various classes in England in 1603, as James I rode from Scotland to take the English throne. He shows us manor house “high-vaulted dining halls . . . hung with tapestry, armour, weapons, and relics of the chase,” hunting, dueling, manners and marriages, education, and religion (the rack, the stake, the burning town, and the massacre). He continues with accounts of the middle and lower classes, the open fields, the wilderness as yet unenclosed, disease, manufacturing, the growing towns.
He prepares us further by discussing Puritanism with thoroughness and clarity. He divides the Puritans into three groups: those who wished to modify customs of the Established Church, retaining bishops; “those who wished for Puritan coercion under a Presbyterian regime”; and “men who desired to abolish the coercive power of the church, whether Anglican or Presbyterian,” allowing congregations to form freely.
The first of the great antagonists on the scene was James I, characterized by Trevelyan as a pedant, but human, whose defect was that he “couldn’t tell a good man from a rogue, or a wise man from a fool.” In the initial three years of his reign, says Trevelyan, King James set into motion the forces that were to drive two Stuart kings from the throne. In such perceptions and phrasings lies the special quality of Trevelyan’s history. He views the century broadly and from a high perspective; he establishes a theme, and he frequently reminds his reader of the controlling motives and ideas of the period. Each action is related to the whole pattern. The Puritans petitioned James “not for supremacy, but for security,” and James decided against them. “No Bishop, no King,” he declared; “I will make them conform themselves, or else will harry them out of the land.” But when his Commons supported the Millenary Petition, the struggle was determined. That the alliance of Puritan and Commons was ominous was a matter disregarded by the king.
It is not necessary to detail the events of the century, Trevelyan’s sure grasp of fact and...
(The entire section is 1,186 words.)