The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England

June 11, 2013

Authored by Dr. Martin Maw, Archivist at Oxford University Press

Edward Hyde, first Earl of Clarendon (1609-74), an Oxford educated lawyer and ultimately Chancellor of the Exchequer, had the tragedy to be a reasonable man in unreasonable times. His career took him into court circles in the 1630s, a period he came to remember as a paradise which enjoyed “the greatest calm and the fullest measure of felicity.” He lived to see that idyll ripped apart by civil war and to witness what had seemed a divinely measured and equitable kingdom descend into bloody pandemonium. For Clarendon, England became a monstrous body politic fighting against itself, an insanity of division that culminated in the execution of Charles I in January 1649, when the state figuratively and literally cut off its own head.  

By that time, Hyde was in exile. He had helped the queen and the future Charles II escape to France, but chose not to follow them. Instead, in 1646 he retreated to Jersey and began to recover from the chaos that had engulfed him. He spent two years on the island, relatively undisturbed. Steadily, at the request of the king, he created the bulk of his History of the Rebellion, a massive and impassioned exploration of the English civil war that he continued to assemble when he returned to the impoverished court abroad (read Book 1 now). The History remained incomplete, until Clarendon worked parts of his memoir into the text during his last years spent in political disgrace. Finally, his sons offered the original manuscript to Oxford, and after much editorial correction the 3-part work was published in six volumes, beginning in 1702.

History of the Rebellion Title Page - Do not reproduce without permission
The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England title page.
Image courtesy of OUP Archives. Do not reproduce without permission.


Its title page was a fanfare. The university’s printers indulged themselves in a gallimaufry of fonts, every bit as costly and ostentatious as the costume sported by the author in the engraved portrait that faces them. In it, Hyde appears a rounded and affable figure, the very image of a laughing cavalier ushering the public into his huge work. Yet appearances are deceptive. The earl was undoubtedly good company, but by instinct and schooling he remained a lawyer. His mind was grounded in rule and precedent, and all his erudition stemmed from that root. He aimed to instruct. Consequently the History is a judicial text, as readers quickly discover. Later editors tinkered with it, but Clarendon’s original first sentence, is an extraordinary piece of magisterial prose, a 500-word recital that serves as a thread leading us into his stacked labyrinth of authority and betrayal. The subsequent volumes repeatedly invoke the primacy of established law and Clarendon’s tacit standing as its champion, a corpus of precept and good practice he thought violated by civil strife, moral cowardice, and selfish pride, which had sent the kingdom spinning into armed camps “like so many atoms contributing jointly to this mass of confusion now before us.” The detachment was telling. In both a legal and a moral sense, Hyde was writing as England’s grand assessor, weighing up just remedy and restoration for church and state, a judge among the ruins.

Samuel Pepys was quick to sense that superiority when he got to know Clarendon in London, after the Restoration. By then, Hyde was both Chancellor of the Exchequer and Chancellor of the University of Oxford, a polished and wealthy politician. Pepys confessed to a great admiration for Clarendon in his diary, but added: “I did never observe how much easier a man doth speak, when he knows all the company to be below him … for though he spoke endeed excellent well, yet his manner and freedom of doing it, as if he played with it and was informing only all the rest of the company, was mighty pretty.” (13 October, 1666). Perhaps Clarendon was simply behaving like any other lawyer, never asking a question to which he didn’t already know the answer, but political and religious opponents found this glib pomposity insufferable. Added to his extravagance, and his clumsy tip-toeing between royal prerogative and a factional court, it won him few friends. He was elbowed out of office in 1667 and never regained favour, dying in Rouen seven years later. To many who rejoiced in his downfall, it was simply the demise of an overblown prig.

That impression faded with publication of the History. Clarendon emerged as a canny advocate of wise statesmanship and constitutional probity, with a sharp eye for character sketches: his London house, after all, had been the first in England to boast a private portrait gallery. The History won high praise (Hugh Trevor-Roper referred to it as “the historical bible of the Tory Party”), but proved hard to popularise. The perpetual copyright handed Oxford by Clarendon’s estate prevented the Press from allowing other publishers to reprint the History, and Hyde’s braided, legalistic prose proved too knotty for many editors to unpick and sample. Instead, his name attached itself to the university’s printing: first, to Hawksmoor’s building in Broad Street where the Press operated in the 18th century, and then to the label of Oxford’s more academic imprint. And now the inclusion of the History of the Rebellion in Oxford Scholarly Editions Online reflects a new episode in the history of OUP, its continuing evolution into digital publishing.


The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England is now available on Oxford Scholarly Editions Online in the Restoration Prose module. You can read Book 1 now.

Find out more about Edward Hyde, first Earl of Clarendon on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, freely available until 12th July 2013.

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