David Underdown: A Selective Retrospective


Mr. Cowan holds the Canada Research Chair in Early Modern British History at McGill University in Montreal. He also edits the Journal of British Studies and is currently working on a new book on The State Trial of Dr. Henry Sacheverell, for the Texts and Studies Series of the journal Parliamentary History.

David Underdown, (1925-2009), was one of the most prominent and influential historians of seventeenth-century Britain.  Like his fellow early modern historian and fellow Englishman, Lawrence Stone (1919-1999), Underdown was trained as a historian at Oxford, but he chose to work and to build his career in the United States.  Like Stone, Underdown managed to mentor, train and inspire several generations of American students; but unlike Stone, who was already an established scholar when he moved to and reigned at Princeton University from the moment he left England in 1963, Underdown built his American career from the very beginning.  He earned an M.A. in American History at Yale before taking up a variety of different appointments at places as diverse as Sewanee, the University of the South (1953-62); the University of Virginia (1962-68); Brown University (1968-86); and finally returned to Yale (1986-96), which is where he retired.  He remained an active scholar all of his life.  Despite serious health problems in his last years, he managed to write the substantial majority of a book on inversion in seventeenth-century England; his last scholarly article, ‘ "But the Shows of Their Street": Civic Pageantry and Charivari in a Somerset Town, 1607’ will appear in a future issue of the Journal of British Studies.

Underdown was trained at Oxford by Christopher Hill (1912-2003) and along with Keith Thomas (1933-), Gerald Aylmer (1926-2000) and Austin Woolrych (1918-2004), he was one of Hill’s most distinguished students; but his own historical research on the nature of the English revolutions of the mid-seventeenth century never quite fit with Hill’s solidly Marxist agenda.  Unlike Hill, Underdown was always just as interested in Royalists and Clubmen as he was in Regicides and radicals.  While it was always pretty clear that his own sympathies lay with the Parliamentarians’ cause, this never prevented him from attempting to understand their royalist opponents sympathetically.

His first book, Royalist Conspiracies in England (1960) addressed a topic that would remain unfashionable amongst Stuart historians, with a few notable exceptions, until recent decades when the subject has begun to come into its own.  In this sense, Underdown remained unfashionably ahead of his time in pioneering new approaches to early modern British history throughout his career. 

Although he eschewed the class conflict oriented interpretations of seventeenth-century politics that animated Hill’s work, Underdown continued to pursue an alternative social history of early modern politics in a way that also challenged many of the conventions of the then fashionable Namierite method.  The result was his masterpiece, Pride’s Purge (1971), a still incredibly valuable study of the Parliamentarians who made world history in 1648 by convicting the king of treason, ordering his execution, abolishing the House of Lords and then the institution of the monarchy itself.  Underdown’s meticulous prosopographical study of the backgrounds of 471 MPs who participated in this revolutionary experience, whether as purgers or as purged, led him to emphasize the importance of ideology in the making of the English revolution rather than to downplay it, as Namier had done in his work on eighteenth-century politics.  In this achievement, Underdown shared much with his contemporary Geoffrey Holmes (1928-1993), who accomplished much the same thing for the study of British politics after the Glorious Revolution.

Underdown’s later work turned from the national to the local.  His books Somerset in the Civil War and Interregnum (1973); Revel, Riot, and Rebellion (1985) and later Fire from Heaven (1992) continued to explore the impact of the English revolution, but from the West Country perspective rather than that of Westminster politics.  Underdown was born in Somerset and was always proud of it.  While other revisionist historians of the time were also making the same move, Underdown’s localist perspective was not based on a uniform vision of a ‘local’ world that was removed from, ignorant, and suspicious of national politics emanating from the court and London’s metropolis.  Instead, he sought to understand the social and political divisions of western England in terms of its own distinct geographic and cultural features.  This was a ‘post-revisionist’ style of local history avant la lettre and it compares well with later local studies that sought to reintegrate the study of localities with wider national and sometimes international perspectives.

Here was a new social history of politics that was truly different from Hill’s Marxist vision or Namier’s cynical realpolitik.  From the 1980s onwards, Underdown began to take gender seriously as a ‘useful category of historical analysis.’ He published an important article on the topic, “The Taming of the Scold: The Enforcement of Patriarchal Authority in Early Modern England,” in 1985, well before the publication of Joan Scott’s influential article on gender for the American Historical Review.  Inspired by, and in conjunction with, the work of his wife Susan Amussen, Underdown introduced the concept of patriarchy and the study of gender relations as key elements in any understanding of early modern England.

Underdown’s 1992 Ford Lectures at Oxford were later published as A Freeborn People (1996), a valedictory work which briefly and eloquently summed up his hard earned perspective on seventeenth-century popular politics.  His last book, Start of Play (2000) used his understanding of popular culture to illuminate the development of cricket as a modern sport.  He was always dedicated to learning and applying new methods and approaches to studying early modern history.  Whether it was statistics and prosopography in Pride’s Purge, cultural anthropology and gender studies in Revel, Riot and Rebellion, or religious and urban history in Fire From Heaven, Underdown was never content to stay put intellectually.  He kept moving onwards towards new fields worthy of exploration.  If the bitter debates over revisionism have now been put to rest, and if early modern historians now all take previously marginalized fields such as gender history or the history of sport seriously, we can thank David Underdown for showing us the way. 

For ‘twas not ever thus.  When Underdown began to research and write on the history of seventeenth-century England, the field was one of the most contested and competitive of any known to the profession.  The period was also thought to be central to understanding the origins of the modern world, and that is why the stakes were so high.  The field remains just as vibrant today, and the quality of the research may even be better than that of the mid-twentieth century, but historians have largely abandoned their Quixotic quest for the first modern revolution, and the sense that the English experience was more important than that of other parts of the world has certainly vanished.

Underdown was perhaps the last of a great generation of English historians of early modern England who were born between the wars.  These historians were not afraid to tackle big topics and grand theories and to apply them to deep and careful archival research.  Together they transformed our understanding of the period, but few of them could so consistently see the pitfalls and interpretative dead-ends in the reigning orthodoxies of the day as well as Underdown, and even fewer of them could point the way towards fruitful new avenues of research as keenly as he did.  Seventeenth-century history was once claimed to be ‘Hill’s century’ in recognition of Hill’s insistence that historians recognize the importance of that revolutionary era.  While David would likely have dumurred with genuine modesty, today it seems that ‘Underdown’s century’ might be a more appropriate term.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I would like to thank Susan Amussen, Mark Kishlansky, David Harris Sacks, and Robert Tittler for sharing their thoughts and comments on this retrospective.

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