A Prospectus for a "New" Constitutional History of Early Modern England (1)

Article excerpt

The study of English constitutional history has fallen on hard times. Once an intellectually thriving field, constitutional history now conjures up visions of bad tweed and bow ties coupled with dryly-legalistic discussions of statutes, charters, parliamentary debates, Year Books, and legal reports. Indeed, whether Whig, Neo-Whig, Revisionist, or Post-Revisionist in orientation, constitutional history has traditionally concerned itself with the "activity of government"; it has emphasized the formal structures of government, their historical origins, their changing composition, their evolving roles, and functions. (2) These formal structures, the Crown, Parliament, the Council, the established church, and the law courts, together constituted the sinews of government. Constitutional controversy arose when the respective roles and functions of these formal structures came into conflict. (3) Accordingly, constitutional historians became experts on the anatomy and development of the particular organs of government and their changing roles yet they were often unable to see the broader conceptual forest in which they were standing. As a result, some critics have lampooned constitutional history and its leading proponents as lacking theoretical engagement and being overly preoccupied with the minutiae of government at the expense of conceptual sophistication and breadth of vision. (4) The newer, more theoretically engaged fields of intellectual, social, and most recently cultural history, boasting a greater level of engagement with social processes and cultural practices, have taken precedence as more "relevant" to the concerns of the current generation of students.

The reasons for constitutional history's decline are both complex and controversial, extending well beyond the field's common identification with sartorial ineptitude. In assessing the career of Sir Geoffrey Elton, one of constitutional history's greatest proponents in the later twentieth century, Quentin Skinner has suggested that the progressive dissolution of Britain's overseas empire had by the 1960s rendered Elton's professed concerns with the study of government passe and that the growth of social and intellectual history from that period forward, embodied in the work of Elton's "betes noires," Keith Thomas and Richard Southern, reflected a change of priorities to concerns more relevant in a post-imperial environment. (5) Richard Cosgrove, however, has related the decline of English constitutional history to a more complex set of intellectual developments within the British historical profession suggesting that the increasingly generalized attack on "Whiggery" in historical circles during the twentieth century gradually undermined the triumphal narrative of English constitutional history best exemplified in the pioneering work of William Stubbs in the 1870s. This intellectual trend combined with the loss of overseas empire, changing academic fashions, revulsion against "Germanic" or racialist explanations of constitutional origins, the growth of "new" British history, and the subsequent dissociation of English constitutional history from English national identity all contributed to the displacement of the traditional meta-narrative of the English constitution's organic growth and development from its once privileged place in the study of the British past. (6)

Rather than affix blame for the current state of constitutional history, the purpose here is to outline a novel approach to the study of the early modern constitution that will both re-orient and re-invigorate what has become increasingly and often unfairly stigmatized as a moribund field of inquiry. The medievalist Helen Cam once wrote that, "Constitutional history is concerned with the working of government; that is, with the interplay of forces. It is bound, therefore to take notice of the social and economic factors, which determine forces, as well as with the legal conventions which regulate the relation of the different parts of the constitution. …