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Review of Mark Kishlansky A Monarchy Transformed

Updated on February 16, 2018

Charles I

Charles I of England
Charles I of England | Source

Mark Kislansky's Work on the Long Seventeenth Century

Kishlansky, Mark. A Monarchy Transformed: Britain 1603-1714. New York:

Penguin, 1996.

Some works of history are groundbreaking studies that investigate new sources or look at old sources in a new way, while others tend to synthesize the body of scholarly literature that already exists. Mark Kishlansky’s A Monarchy Transformed belongs to the latter category.Kishlansky wrote A Monarchy Transformed as the volume on the Stuart period in the Penguin History of Britain series.Kishlansky argued that the Stuart period saw major changes to the British monarchy including: 1) the monarch’s “constitutional position” was far different at the end of the Stuart period than it had been at the outset of the dynasty, 2) the period saw a “continual mutation” because the methods that worked for one monarch quickly became outdated, and 3) “the estate that the Stuarts had inherited was far different from the one they bequeathed.”[1]There is no real novelty to Kishlansky’s thesis, and the themes that he emphasized correspond well to current historical understanding of the Stuart era.Therefore, this book should not be considered a groundbreaking work rather it is a work of synthesis.

Kishlansky focused A Monarchy Transformed upon important people and events.There were chapters on both the political and social milieu of the Stuart period at the beginning of the book.However, from Chapter 3 onward, the work was concentrated upon a general narrative of the Stuart era and emphasized the reigns of the monarchs themselves and the crises that dominated their dynasty.Kishlansky stated that his goal was to provide a general narrative of the Stuart era for those unfamiliar with the period.The book examined the reign of each Stuart monarch from James I to Anne.Kishlansky investigated the English Revolution and the events that led up to it, the Interregnum, the Restoration, and the Glorious Revolution with an interesting, yet unoriginal, narrative.

There is good evidence that Britain was in better fiscal shape when the Stuart dynasty ended than when it began with the accession of King James I. There was an important change in the way kings raised money during the Stuart era.The early Stuarts had to live off of what their possessions could provide, but this was hardly enough to support the royal family and court under normal circumstances.During time of war, the fiscal situation only became worse.The budget could not absorb the extra costs, and Parliament would force the monarch to grovel for a subsidy to pay for any wars. By the end of the Stuart monarchy, these occasional Parliamentary subsidies changed to annual taxes on land and products that were spread more evenly amongst the population.The monarch was no longer expected to “live of his (or her) own.”Instead, Parliament gave what amounted to an annual budget from the revenue of the state to support the crown.The creation of the Bank of England allowed for the use of the national debt to fund expansion of the British Empire.Military disbursements were funneled through the bank and the new financial institution began to issue notes to facilitate the exchange of goods and services.[2]These changes in government financing were very beneficial to the growth of the empire.

Queen Anne presided over a much larger empire at her death than James I held at his accession.While the coronation of James I in 1603 unified England and Scotland in theory, the passage of the Act of Union in 1707 established the empire of Great Britain officially.The British also took over sizable landholdings in North America during the Stuart era, beginning with the founding of Jamestown in 1607.While Ireland continued to cause problems for England during the Stuart Era, it still remained under English control.In spite of the instability of the Stuart Era, Great Britain emerged as one of the leading European powers by the end of the seventeenth century.

During the Stuart Era, the crown transformed from a divine right absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy that existed by Parliamentary grant.James I and Charles I viewed themselves as God’s representatives on earth, and thus theoretically above any questioning by their subjects.The end of the English Revolution saw the execution of Charles for treason and the establishment of Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate.The English people quickly became disillusioned with Cromwell and restored the monarchy under Charles II.However, the Restoration changed the way that the English viewed the source of the king’s power, and after the coronation of Charles II, the king served by consent of Parliament rather than divine right.The removal of James II for Catholicism and the subsequent coronation of William and Mary cemented the prerogative of Parliament in the establishment of the English monarchs.These changes show that the Stuart Era saw the transformation of the monarchy in multiple ways.

A Monarchy Transformed was a decent introduction to the Stuart era, but that is really all that Kishlansky attempted to accomplish.This work was primarily a political history that focused upon the leading figures in seventeenth-century England.Particularly prominent were the monarchs themselves, although Kishlansky paid substantial attention to George Villiers (Duke of Buckingham under James I and Charles I) and Oliver Cromwell because of their significance to the political narrative.The book emphasized the struggle for power between the king and Parliament, especially during the reigns of Charles I and the Restoration monarchs.By the reigns of William and Mary and Anne, such struggles were largely in the past as it became obvious that Parliament largely controlled the actions of the ruler.Many historians have emphasized the economic, social, and religious components of the Stuart era.Prominent Marxist historians produced important economic and social studies that focused the period of the English Revolution in the 1640s.Christopher Hill was a notable example.Scholars such as Nicholas Tyacke have investigated the religious undercurrents of prominent Parliamentarians like John Pym and Oliver St. John.Kishlansky largely ignored these issues in his work.He only emphasized them when they were specifically tied to the political narrative.

Kishlansky pointed out that this book was intended as a very general introductory narrative, and it served that purpose reasonably well.However, this was also A Monarchy Transformed’s biggest weakness.There was nothing terribly novel about the author’s arguments nor was there any new interpretation.There was no real analysis or of primary sources.In fact, there was no evidence that Kishlansky used primary sources at all.He compiled the book entirely from the secondary literature that he had available, and he admitted as much in the preface.Furthermore, Kishlansky admitted that he referred to the leading scholars from each reign in the writing of his work for advice, almost shifting the blame of any errors to those authors, which also belies the lack of originality in the book.The recommendations for further reading section at the end of the book gave a very short historiographical essay for each of the chapters in the book, most of which, except for the two chapters on politics and society, looked at a specific chronological time period from the Stuart period that had important political events or the death of a monarch as the dividing line between them.This section gave examples of the works that Kishlansky used in arriving at his narrative and interpretations and provided a good resource for his readers to investigate the Stuart era in more depth.In the final analysis, A Monarchy Transformed was a good introductory narrative that should be useful to novices wanting to learn more about the political milieu of seventeenth-century England.Those with a general understanding of the narrative would be better served to read specialized books that make more serious contributions to the historiography of the Stuart period.

[1] Mark Kishlansky, A Monarchy Transformed: Britain 1603-1714 (New York:

Penguin, 1996), xi..

[2] Ibid, 310.


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