Review: Short Oxford History of the British Isles: The Seventeenth Century

In the course of doing research for my book on the decline of the West, it might seem strange that I have zeroed in on Britain and the Netherlands in the seventeenth century.

I’ve thoroughly studied the Renaissance and the Reformation in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. I’m confident that what I am looking for isn’t found in this period. The most interesting aspect of the Reformation would be the antinomians who were radical fringe of Protestantism who believed that the saved were not bound by the moral law and social conventions.

It is hard to argue though that Anabaptist groups like the Hutterites, the Amish and the Mennonites caused the moral collapse of the West. They were the religious radicals of their day, but now we think of these groups as the most “traditionalist” people in Europe and America. The New Jerusalem of the Münster rebellion was disturbing, but didn’t lead to anything that put down roots.

It is toward the tail end of the Reformation that we begin to see the emergence of the roots of liberalism in Britain and the Netherlands. This disease grew out of the Reformed world which I found surprising given how liberalism is such a drastic departure from Calvinism. As we will see, John Calvin was the opposite of an individualist, egalitarian, individualist, free thinker or a hedonist. There are few places in the world that a modern liberal would consider more hellish than Calvin’s Geneva.

The key to understanding this is that Calvinism never fully triumphed in England or the Netherlands. The followers of Jacobus Arminius challenged Calvinism. Without getting into the theological nuances, it will suffice to say that in the Netherlands the outcome of this clash was the Dutch Reformed Church became the established church, but only served a minority of the population. In England, the conflict between the Puritans and Presbyterians who were Calvinists and the ascendant Arminians in the Anglican Church and at the Stuart court of Charles I escalated into the English Civil War.

The upshot of this is that church discipline broke down in the chaos of the English Civil War like it was breaking down in parts of the Netherlands where religion was becoming voluntary. Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell let the Jews back into England in order to hasten their conversion and bring on the Apocalypse. Dissenters were tolerated and allowed to practice their faith openly and this led to the flourishing under Cromwell of a new wave of radical groups like the Diggers, Levellers and Ranters. Most of these religious cranks disappeared after the Restoration but one radical egalitarian group, the so-called Society of Friends, better known as the Quakers stuck around and would later have a major impact. Jews also flocked to cities like Amsterdam in the Netherlands that practiced religious tolerance and threw out the welcome mat for them after they were finally driven out of Spain and Portugal.

I read Jenny Wormald’s Short Oxford History of the British Isles: The Seventeenth Century to brush up on my knowledge of British history and to find other sources. It wasn’t a bad introduction to the topic. It is basically the story of how the Stuart dynasty blew it and the Whigs, who are the ancestors of modern day liberals, ended up dominating Britain in the eighteenth century.

We start off the Stuart dynasty with James I, the king of Scotland, who began the king of England, Scotland and Ireland after the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603. James I was a big believer in the divine right of kings and witch hunting. He wrote books about both topics. The seventeenth century began in Britain with James I arguing in favor of absolutism and an Anglican Church in which attendance was mandatory and ended with the Glorious Revolution and King William III and Mary II in charge, John Locke writing his Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration, the founding of the Bank of England and the end of censorship and the toleration of Dissenters.

The most important development in Britain in this century was the Scientific Revolution. Francis Bacon, the grandfather of modern science, blazed the trail to Issac Newton with his experiments. The Royal Society was founded in 1660. All of these advances in science and the fetishization of what was called “the mechanical philosophy” inspired the worldview that the universe was governed by immutable natural laws and that mankind could understand and control nature. This was the seed of the Enlightenment idea that human societies could be reconstructed on a new secular, rational and naturalistic basis.

I’ve heard thousands of times now that Christianity is “universalist” and “egalitarian” and is somehow the cause of our current predicament, but that is not where my research into Early Modern Europe is pointing. Instead, it seems that what happened was that Europeans continued to translate, digest and popularize texts from Antiquity. It started with Aristotle and Cicero in the High Middle Ages and Plato in the Renaissance. After Plato, European intellectuals in the seventeenth century became interested in Hermes Trismegistus, the Jewish Cabala and the occult (creating new organizations like Freemasonry), Epicurus and finally with Sextus Empiricus, Pyrrho and the Skeptics. The revival of atomism and materialism in the seventeenth century is related to both the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment.

Thomas Hobbes believed that only matter existed and that God was a material being. John Locke was heavily influenced by Robert Boyle’s corpuscular theory of matter. Both Hobbes and Locke based their theories on the “state of nature” and the “social contract.” Neither Hobbes or Locke were traditional Christians. The former was derided as an atheist and the latter was a Unitarian. Both were inspired by developments going on in contemporary science. Locke argued that rights were somehow based on “nature,” not English legal traditions.

A number of things came together here that sowed the seeds of liberalism in seventeenth century Britain – the revival of materialism in science, the breakdown of church discipline during the English Civil War, the grudging acceptance of religious tolerance, the return of the Jews to Britain, the growth of London and Amsterdam into large cities at the forefront of European commerce, the spread of newspapers and coffee houses, the reduction of the mortality rate due to the disappearance of the plague, etc.

Britain was far being “liberal” at this time though. Cromwell’s brutal conquest of Ireland is proof that the English were still far from thinking in terms of universal natural rights. Religious tolerance was hotly disputed throughout this century even during the Glorious Revolution which was triggered by James II’s Catholicism and inevitable succession crisis. This was the century of both the Royal Society and the Royal African Company when the English to seize control of the slave trade. This was when British settlers colonized Ulster in Ireland and almost the entire Atlantic seaboard of North America and created the slave societies in Barbados and Jamaica that were part of the “Golden Circle.”

No one would have described the British as “weak” in the seventeenth century. “Ruthless” was a more accurate term. The rise of Whiggery at the end of the century though heralded the world to come.

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