A Variety of Viewpoints: Charles II and the Cavalier Parliament

John Patrick Montaño
University of Delaware

Annabel Patterson’s new book, The Long Parliament of Charles II (Yale, 2008), carries on her career’s long efforts to reach out across the interdisciplinary divide and bring the methods and skills of a literary scholar to help illuminate the history of England, in this case the relations between Charles II and his first parliament. In this account of the Cavalier Parliament that sat from 1661–79 she takes aim at Charles II, claiming that his reputation as the indolent, merry monarch was “imagined by historians, no doubt to protect him from the charge of being, instead, a deceitful crook” (52). Whether the king or historians should be more concerned by this accusation is unclear, but Patterson here and elsewhere supports her claims with refreshingly original readings of the sources that will make this book essential reading for any scholar working with the variety of texts used here. As before, her interpretive skills here raise important theoretical questions.

Patterson has earned the respect and gratitude of historians of Tudor and Stuart England over the past thirty years. Indeed much of the work on the political culture of the seventeenth century is indebted to Patterson’s for her willingness to read all sorts of literature as historical documents and the letters, speeches, and memoirs that make up the historical record as literary texts. Her early work on the greatest poet to ever sit in Parliament, Andrew Marvell, was an early indication of future interests. In Marvell and the Civic Crown (1978), Marvell: The Writer in Public Life (1999), and her edition with Martin Dzelzainis of The Prose Works of Andrew Marvell (2003) there are readings of Marvell’s poetry, letters, and prose tracts that illustrate the writer’s ongoing engagement with politics in his public and private life, even though “his contempt for the Commons rivaled his disgust at the court” (164). In the years that followed her first book on Marvell, Patterson regularly returned to her concern for the importance of genres and how they could be manipulated by writers for polemical purposes as well as how generic conventions could influence the audience’s understanding of apparently benign texts. This can be seen in Censorship and Interpretation: The Conditions of Writing and Reading in Early Modern England (1984), and was wonderfully elaborated in books such as Pastoral and Ideology (1988), Fables of Power: Aesopian Writing and Political History (1991), and Reading Holinshed’s Chronicles (1994), in all of which her attention to textual detail is matched by her willingness to acknowledge the official pressures and censorship that constrained early modern writers.

By the time Patterson published Reading between the Lines (1993), her readiness to challenge many of the recent theoretical developments established her as a critic unafraid to question received wisdom about canonical authors. Next came Nobody’s Perfect (2002), her assault on the historiography and revisionism of the early modern period, lamenting how “ideological bias smears the lenses through which we peer at the past.”[1] She brings the same sharp-edged insights from history and literature to her treatment of Charles II’s relations with his Long Parliament, giving the king a thorough going-over for what she sees as his attempt to stymie the progress of parliamentary democracy. More importantly, Patterson provides her characteristically erudite commentary on the reading and use of the different sources available for the political history of the Restoration. Likewise, the book’s final section on “How We Got Parliamentary History” offers a salutary reminder about the way partisanship affects the historical archive, usually by being carefully concealed as unbiased reporting. In an early example of how all history is contemporary history, Patterson shows how James Ralph’s History and the notes she argues he contributed to Anchitell Grey’s Debates were deeply ideological and intended as “a work of Whig or Country party historiography” (256). Remarkably, as the author duly notes, this partisan work of history has now become an essential part of the historical archive.

Surely the most important benefit for historians to be found in the current work will be the way that Patterson trains the skillful eye of the literary scholar on the traditional sources of history, all the while raising necessary questions about authors, audiences, and perspectives. Part Two offers an overview of the best-known recorders of parliamentary debates under Charles II, with Patterson demonstrating the variety of reasons that each had for recording political news, with John Milward, Sir Edward Dering, and Samuel Pepys being supporters of the court who kept diaries that included considerable political news and comments, while Grey was from the outset keeping a record of parliamentary debates. Patterson distinguishes these men from others she calls memoirists like Clarendon, Burnet, and Temple who were writing an account of the period that naturally reserved an important role for the author himself (92).

There are also chapters on the “Scofflaw Pamphlets” and the “King’s Speeches,” each designed to reveal the different perspectives offered by the varying types of evidence as well as the alternative voices and interpretations they contain. While Patterson’s claim that there is “no study of the role of the royal speeches in the history of the second Long Parliament” (30) is not strictly the case, her analysis of the illegal pamphlets and Charles II’s speeches helps us understand their importance to the political discourse. Patterson shows again how dangerous it is for historians to assume that there is a distinction between the usual canon of sources and popular culture when writing about the rich political culture of Restoration England.[2] Indeed, her readings of the pamphlets make clear just how politically charged much of popular culture had become by the middle of the seventeenth century.

The Long Parliament of Charles II reminds us what an incredible variety of forms were available for the dissemination of news and political information after 1660. Patterson rightly claims that the interest in parliamentary sessions was unprecedented, with a large and diverse audience that makes evident the intense level of interest in and demand for such material. One can only be grateful that this book goes a long way toward providing students and scholars with new means of interpreting the evidence. Patterson uses separate chapters to discuss each of the various categories of sources—diaries, memoirs, pamphlets, speeches—in turn, helpfully referring to them as genres, a concept that forces us to face the fact that not all sources are created equal. For historians, who most often are focused on separating fact from opinion or uncovering and examining a diversity of opinions, generic disparities are of tertiary importance, if considered at all. The generic approach advanced here will allow readers to take account of conventions particular to each, personal allegiances of the author, the “ego quotient” that often imperils a memoir’s value as objective testimony. These and other factors reaffirm the fact that none of them can be viewed as objective: for that reason, “we need to listen to them all” (37). All this is crucial advice for the growing number of scholars interested in political culture and hoping to analyze the texts and images that constitute it.

A fine example of Patterson’s method can be found in her final chapter on the parliamentary history of the eighteenth century. She shows how historians such as Laurence Echard and John Oldmixon helped establish a tradition of writing histories for political reasons and did little to conceal their biases, all the while claiming “to be of no party but the truth.”[3] The contest over who could provide an accurate history of the recent past carried on until the publication of Grey’s Debates in 1763, a non-partisan collection of speeches recorded by an MP over many years. While much was made of the unbiased nature of Grey’s careful recording of parliamentary speeches, Patterson’s close reading lays bare just how ideological and partisan the footnotes are, with commentary and additions that “continuously nudge the debates towards Whig historiography” (247). Furthermore, Patterson makes a case for James Ralph as the anonymous editor of the Debates, exposing how several of the footnotes intended to establish the support of contemporaneous scholars (no doubt concerned only with the truth) are in fact disingenuous references to Ralph’s own work. Furthermore, many of the editorial remarks are lifted straight from Ralph’s own wildly unsuccessful History.[4] Even in the aftermath of Anthony Grafton’s wonderful book on the footnote, they still may not qualify as a genre, but their susceptibility to ideological shenanigans is here made plain.[5]

Another issue that Patterson’s sensitivity to the concerns of her sources brings to the fore should be of particular interest to historians of Restoration politics. Time and again she finds passages lamenting the fact that “the names of the court and country party, which till now had seemed to be forgotten, were again revived” (34). Similarly, Sir John Reresby writes about parliamentary factions that he names as a “Country party” that was opposed “to those others whom they called the Court party,” evidence that observers both inside and outside Parliament were aware that were men who could be grouped together and distinguished by their allegiances and political positions. So while historians continue to have exchanges over the earliest date for the emergence of political parties, Patterson’s readings show that contemporaries were far less hesitant to do so.

For all the wonderful insights that Patterson contributes to the way sources can be read with greater subtlety and made to yield more nuanced types of information, there are times when her engagement with historical interpretations of the king and politics might not persuade everyone. Her harsh criticism of Charles II may be rooted in her advocacy of liberal ideals and the fight for things like parliamentary democracy that were at stake under the Stuarts and in many places continue to the present day.[6] She condemns the king’s speeches as manipulative, as they rely on what she calls a “psycho-strategic” attitude that relied on menace and deceit. Yet while the king’s promises to preserve the established government in church and state may have been rhetorical platitudes, they were not outright lies. His stylum minacem (63)—menacing style—can hardly have meant more than a threat to dissolve the present Parliament, an outcome that most of his opponents claimed to favor. Whatever psychological effect the king’s lamentations and threats may have had on members of both Houses, a significant number of moderates supported or opposed the court based on what they considered to be the nation’s interest, rather than their own.

Patterson also objects to the king’s use of his prerogative to summon, adjourn, or prorogue the Houses, while admiring the political maneuvering of his opponents. Yet one is left to wonder why the king would not make use of his prerogative rights or try to develop the tactics that led to him being characterized as the “royal politician.”[7] Surely the troubles his father experienced with Parliament—not to mention his beheading—must be taken into account when examining the king’s attempt to manage both Houses. The author acknowledges how Sir Edward Dering gave Charles II advice about tactics and timing, helping the king to use his prerogative and procedure to his own benefit, but do these devices make him a “deceitful crook” (170, 52)? Similarly, Patterson argues that Charles saw the Commons “as a particularly large group of servants who could be ordered about at his will or whim” (38). This ignores two decades of endeavors—most effectively those of the Earl of Danby from 1673–78—to organize a party the king could rely on for support. When the attempts to organize are acknowledged, his followers are described as “clients” willing to sell themselves for honors (55), a claim that ignores the reason that many men wished to sit in Parliament in the first place. Conversely, as the opposition attempted to organize, their readiness to accept office and titles from the king, and Shaftesbury’s lists of supporters found no place here. Are these strategies not, perhaps, another aspect of the Court and Country “parties” identified previously, as well as evidence that the court’s tactics were shared or even copied by others?

Finally, Patterson is too often ready to accept the “human inconsistency” of the “imperfect agents of principle” who opposed the king yet she is incapable of having a similar sympathy for the monarch or his ministers. This may, I fear, be a result of her hostility to the monarch as well as a lack of familiarity with some of the recent work on royalists and the Tories.[8] On the one hand, she describes the Early of Shaftesbury’s manipulation of the Popish Plot as “a convenient weapon . . . to reduce the influence of Catholicism at Court,” an apology that ignores the victims of Titus Oates’s lies, Shaftesbury’s repeated exploitation of the Duke of Monmouth, and the earl’s own insatiable ambition. Moreover, the Exclusion Crisis was fueled by another imperfect agent, Ralph Montagu, whose attack on Danby was caused in large part because Montagu had been removed as Master of the Horse and ambassador to France for bedding the king’s former mistress and his daughter Anne, Countess of Sussex. On the other hand, Patterson dismisses the Earl of Danby’s principles as moderation for its own sake (112), ignoring the carefully constructed policies, strategies, and principles that he placed before the king on several occasions, and which won over many moderate MPs and struck such fear in the minds of his rivals like the Earl of Shaftesbury.[9] Most importantly, the majority of Danby’s supporters in the late 1670s were never rewarded by the Crown, but were persuaded by the positions adopted by Danby after 1673, the very reason they turned on him in 1678 and held him accountable for betraying their trust.

Notwithstanding any differences over some of Patterson’s interpretations in The Long Parliament of Charles II, this is another important and engaging book written in the forceful style that has made the author the most respected literary scholar writing on historical topics. This book has much to say about political history and historiographical issues, including some that have oddly transformed the present reviewer into an ardent royalist. Nevertheless, its contributions to how historical sources can be read to allow them to provide a more nuanced understanding of the politics and political culture of the Restoration will be of interest to all those working on the long eighteenth century. Once again, Patterson reminds us of the perils of assuming that the past is over and done with or that it can be safely disconnected from the concerns of the present day. She does this, in part, by exposing how differing genres—especially those purporting to be from insiders to political secrets, apologists, or recorders offering unbiased materials—can shape the writing of future historians and contribute to the mal d’archive that can mislead scholars for generations.


[1]   Annabel Patterson, Nobody’s Perfect: A New Whig Interpretation of History (New Haven, 2002), 187.

[2]   The King’s speeches are covered from a different perspective in an admittedly less discerning chapter in my Courting the Moderates: Ideology, Propaganda and the Origins of Party, 1660–78 (Newark, 2002).

[3]   The quotation comes from Laurence Echard, an ordained Anglican priest, who also provided a famous description of Cromwell’s interview with the devil in September 1651; see his History of England (London, 1718), 2:713.

[4]   James Ralph, The History of England during the Reigns of King William, Queen Anne, and King George I, with an Introductory Review of the Reigns of the Royal Brothers Charles and James (London, 1744–46). Ralph’s work is a daunting 2000 folios, but does contain a wealth of primary documents.

[5]   Anthony Grafton, The Footnote: A Curious History (Cambridge, Mass., 1997).

[6]   See Patterson, Nobody’s Perfect, 18 and passim.

[7]   J. R. Jones, Charles II, Royal Politician (London, 1987).

[8]   Patterson, Nobody’s Perfect, 18–19.

[9]   The Earl of Danby’s memoranda, prepared for his meetings with the king, are in the British Library, Additional MSS 28042.