The questions we ask determine the histories we write. If we want to write a history of British exceptionalism we can certainly find things that set Britain apart from its neighbours, including the common law, the long parliamentary tradition and the ancient monarchy. Alas, by selecting our ‘facts’ to suit our narrative, we might be telling only half the story. Nevertheless, the self-selected Historians for Britain have decided to go down that road to make their case for ‘fundamental changes … to the terms of our EU membership’, and it has fallen to the Historians for History to set the record straight, no matter where we stand on the EU.
As a student of the English Civil War or the Wars of the Three Kingdoms I had spent many years operating largely in a British or even English context until I began to engage with John Morrill’s insight, later echoed in the words of Jonathan Scott, that the execution of Charles I was not the beginning of the English Revolution, but the ‘last act of the Thirty Years’ War.’
Clearly, Morrill and Scott had understood what many of us had pushed to the backs of our minds. The Civil War was not an English or British conflict, but part of the religious wars across Europe in the aftermath of the Reformation and part of a wider process of state formation that characterised the seventeenth century.
It would be hypocritical to claim though that my own approach to history is completely unbiased. While our understanding of history shapes both our identity and our political choices, our background in turn has an influence on the kind of history we are interested in.
As a German immigrant in the UK I have always felt drawn to studying the connections between the British Isles and continental Europe because I have never quite understood British exceptionalism. Too many of the broader issues of political, religious and economic change seemed familiar, and ideas easily crossed borders, either in the form of printed books and pamphlets, or they travelled with scholars, merchants, migrants and exiles.
My own research on several English republican exiles who fled to the Continent after the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660 has revealed some of the wider European networks these refugees were able to tap into. Many of those networks dated back several decades, others even generations and centuries.
Regicides and republicans on the run were able to draw on acquaintances made during their Grand Tour, family connections, military connections, merchants, and in particular networks of Protestants that had already accommodated the Marian exiles a century earlier. Their continental allies protected, fed and clothed and supported them not just because they were fellow human beings but also because they were like-minded people, persecuted for their politics as well as their religious beliefs.
Religious ideas did not respect borders, and some English Puritans and sectarians might have had more in common with reformed Protestants in the Netherlands, France and Switzerland than they did with their countrymen and women worshipping in the Church of England.
Nevertheless, many histories of the English Civil War and English republicanism still end at the Restoration, while traces of an English republican tradition are sought at best across the Atlantic, but rarely across the Channel. And yet, the same classical tradition that inspired English republicanism found its way from ancient Greece and Rome, via the city-states of Renaissance Italy into many European countries. We find traces of this classical tradition in the political thought of the English Revolution, but also in C18th France, and in C19th Italy and Germany.
It would seem odd therefore to create an artificial island history where manifold continental connection stare us in the face.
Gaby Mahlberg, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern British History at Northumbria University.