Constitutionalists, Despots, Whigs, and Revisionists: Tudor Parliamentary History in the 20th Century
Parliamentary History, February 2021
Chris R. Kyle
The 20th century was the great age of Tudor parliamentary history. This essay examines the contributions and profound changes to the field made by the leading historians of the era, especially Sir John Neale and Sir Geoffrey Elton. Taking as its starting point the whiggish ideas of Stubbs's "Constitutional History of England," it traces the impact of A.F. Pollard, G.M. Trevelyan, and Sir Lewis Namier on the field.
At its core, though, lie the often acrimonious differences of opinion between Neale and his pupil, Elton. For Neale the Elizabethan parliaments were characterised by an increasingly puritanical Commons eager to wrest control of debates on religion and the succession away from the queen. In so doing this created a constitutional clash that would eventually lead to civil war in the mid 17th century.
This ‘orthodoxy’ was savagely critiqued by a revisionist ‘school’ led by Elton that dismantled the interpretation of Neale and replaced it with an institution that was not dominated by political conflict but by largely consensual politics. It was also a position that gave equal weight to the Lords and to the importance of the business of parliament – legislation. The revisionists were masters of critique and highly effective at demolishing Neale, but did little to replace his theories or to explain religio-political conflict – in doing so it could be argued that they killed the subject.
The essay ends by suggesting some new approaches to Tudor parliaments that could help revitalise the subject.
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