David Horspool’s new popular history has an interesting thesis: that the English are a rebellious lot, always champing at the bit to overthrow their rulers. It’s always good to challenge popular conceptions – by European tradition the French have the role of bloody rebels, while the English are the phlegmatic, unchanging, unchallenging lot, working slowly if not always steadily towards an agreed constitution so complex it can’t even be written down.
And in The English Rebel: One Thousand Years of Troublemaking, From the Normans to the Nineties, Horspool covers, as the title suggests, a lot of ground, and finds some solid support for his thesis, particularly up to the “Glorious Revolution” (or Dutch invasion, whichever you prefer). He also identifies a perhaps particularly English formulation for rebellion: “this isn’t against the king, it is to save the king from the evil councilors surrounding him”.
The idea of the English as rebellious is not itself new; as Horspool points out Thomas Paine in Common Sense calculated that since the Norman conquest there had been “(including the Revolution) no less than eight civil wars and nineteen rebellions”. Not a new idea then, but one that keeps coming up.
So far, so good. Unfortunately, however, the text suffers from some disappointing flaws. One is that it trails rather dutifully but uninspiringly through all those medieval aristocratic squabbles, not just Simon de Montfort and Perkin Walbeck, but rather lesser known figures such as Roger Bigold and Sir John Oldcastle. For such exciting, dramatic, blood events, the writing is surprisingly flat, and the half chapter or so per rebellion formula fails to inspire.
Horspool is also very unclear about what he means by “rebellion”. A lot of the time he is talking about attempts to overthrow the regime, but sometimes he’s simply talking about standing out against the king’s will, from Thomas Beckett to in modern times, where the thesis gets really stretched, he trails through the suffragettes and the Greenham Common protests.
Certainly the participants in both these movements were rebels in the most general sense, but to group them with some medieval aristocrat setting out his stall for the crown really fails to work.
This perhaps is a book that covers around 500 years more than it should. About half-way through it, Horspool himself identifies a major change in the way the English look at revolt, with the arrival of Protestantism, and specifically the doctrine of obedience to the Crown as a religious duty. Horspool writes (in one of his livelier passages):
“The theory took time to catch on. When Matthew Parker, who became Elizabeth’s Archbishop of Canterbury, went to preach, as an up-and-coming evangelical churchman, to Kett’s rebels at Mousehold Heath in 1549, it was his theme of submission for the common god which almost caused a riot. Though the rebels immediately demonstrated their evangelical credentials by being so distracted by the singing of a new English version of the Te Deum that they allowed Parker to get away, at this time the association of Protestantism and obedience was not yet commonly accepted. ..Increasingly, however, it would become a keynote of English Protestant thinking, and one widely disseminated by preaching and in treaties, pamphlets and biblical exegesis.”
If Horspool had stopped here, the book would have been a lot more coherent. Certainly after this he finds interesting events – and quite a few disproving the always rather weak claim that “the English don’t build barricades”. But had he covered the medieval period – thematically perhaps rather than chronologically, and used those conclusions to perhaps reflect on more recent events, this might have been a much better, more coherent book. What is on the page here is rather a useful handy reference to rebellions, rather than a book you really want to sit down with to read through.