The Century of Revolution: 1603-1714

Christopher Hill

Routledge 1980
A book review by Danny Yee © 2006
The Century of Revolution is a broad-ranging history of England in the 17th century, providing a narrative of events but also covering economic and social history, constitutional history, and the history of ideas. It makes an excellent introduction to a turbulent period of English history whose upheavals and changes are hard to follow.

Hill breaks the period up into four periods: the Stuarts up to 1640, the Civil War and Interregnum, from the 1660 Restoration to the Revolution of 1688; and down to the death of Anne in 1714. Each section is in turn divided into four chapters: a narrative of events is followed by surveys of politics and the constitution, economics, and religion and ideas.

Despite this structure, Hill is particularly good at elucidating the complex links between the realms of politics, religion and economics. He covers the differences between Independents and Presbyterians and Levellers and the way religion cut across social and economic divisions, the ties between money and military strength, the links between religion and foreign policy, and so forth.

"The full Puritan programme for the Church involved an administrative revolution with far-reaching consequences for the state. The abolition of Bishops, or their removal from the House of Lords, would have ended 'the dependency of the Church upon the Crown' which, Charles I told his son, 'is the chiefest support of regal authority'."

He also handles broad themes that run through the entire period. Some examples here include the movement of sovereignty from the monarch to Parliament; the changing status of land and money; the laying down of the foundations for economic growth, through relaxation of manufacturing regulation and then trade liberalisation; the development of the financial system; the decline of religion from a central issue to one largely peripheral to politics; and the development of science.

"But the short-run effects of the commercial revolution were the opposite of its long-term stimulus to industry. The Navigation Act's indirect subsidy to shipping, and the great profits of the colonial re-export trade, diverted capital from investment in heavy and capital goods industries. Long voyages had to be financed, overseas fortifications built and maintained, native rulers bribed. Davenant, assessing the annual addition to the national wealth at £2 million, thought that seventy-five percent of this came from colonial and East Indian trades. Only in time would the profits made through the slave and fishing trades, through shipbuilding, through re-export and the industries working for it, spill over into general industrial investment."

And his accounts of military and political events are lucid and succinct.

"When the Long Parliament met, the House of Commons at once impeached Strafford and Laud. Other ministers fled from the country. Strafford was executed in May 1641, under an Act of Attainder which had been substituted for impeachment. A Triennial Act provided for regular meetings of Parliament, with an automatic procedure if the King failed to summon them. An Act was passed against dissolving this Parliament without its own consent. This revolutionary innovation was necessary if loans were to be raised, since only Parliament could inspire confidence. Collection of tunnage and poundage was forbidden without consent of Parliament; the judgement against Hampden and the levying of Ship Money were declared illegal, together with the other non-Parliamentary taxes of the eleven years of personal government. Prerogative courts — Star Chamber, Council of the North and in Wales — and the High Commission were abolished."

Hill makes good use of quotes to illustrate contemporary sentiments.

There are plenty of books covering this period, many of them much more recent — The Century of Revolution was first published in 1961 and only slightly revised in 1980 — but Hill's still stands out and fully deserves its recent reprinting in Routledge Classics. The Century of Revolution is history at its finest, entertaining with its lively narratives and descriptions, thought-provoking in its analysis, and satisfying in its broad sweep — without giving the impression that its interpretations and understandings are final.

January 2006

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%T The Century of Revolution: 1603-1714
%A Hill, Christopher
%I Routledge
%D 1980
%O paperback, 2nd edition
%G ISBN 0415267390
%P 355pp