When, in 1884, the great Victorian historian Samuel Rawson Gardiner published his pioneering History of England from the Accession of James I to the Outbreak of the Civil War 1603–1642, it took him ten substantial volumes to cover just those 39 years. Tim Harris’s impressive new book manages to survey the same historical terrain rather more briskly, in a single plump volume. But it is not only its succinctness that distinguishes his book from Gardiner’s. In the intervening century, the years between the arrival of James I in London in 1603 and the descent into civil war in 1642 have remained one of the most intensely contested and controversial periods in English – and British – history, and Harris’s account reflects not only how our understanding of the period has advanced, but in important respects how it has doubled back to its Victorian beginnings.
The sharpest difference is in the realm of political ideas. For Gardiner – as for most of the writers who succeeded him – the early 17th century was an age of intense, and ultimately irreconcilable, constitutional controversy. In contrast, Harris’s portrayal of politics and ideas in the Stuart realms is