The early to mid 1990s were an exciting time to be a history student or teacher, especially in respect of the early modern period.
The lazy conventions of "Whig" and "Marxist" history were being undermined not by mere contrarian counter-assertions, but by diligent research presented in an accessible and attractive way by the so-called "revisionist" historians.
The most well-known of these revisionists was, of course, Professor Conrad Russell, himself a liberal politician and heir to great Whig hereditary title.
Russell's detailed critique of the Anglo-centric Parliament-v-Crown narrative of the years before the "fall of the British monarchies" (not the "English Civil War") was profound: perhaps for the first time in seventeenth-century historiography, causes were connected to actual effects.
Alongside Russell, covering slightly different ground, was Professor Kevin Sharpe, whose untimely death was announced today.
In his magisterial The Personal Rule of Charles I (the knocked-about 980-odd pages of which is before me as I type), Sharpe set out to show that far from the 1630s being a time of increasing tension which "inevitably" would lead to a crisis, there was actually a great deal of stability: it was a personal monarchy which did work - and could well have continued working.
It may well be that the Russell-Sharpe moment has come and gone in Stuart studies: revisionism about the "English civil war" could now be as "old hat" as the interpretations it challenged.
But at the time it was an intellectually exciting debate - and it showed that to dismantle a prevailing school of thought it was not enough to make bare rebuttals; instead one had to do the hard evidential ground-work to show why the new interpretations should be exchanged for the old. And, of course, this is true for many disciplines, and not just history.
I will now put my volume of Sharpe back on the shelf, next to my Russells (and AJP Taylors, EP Thompsons, and GR Eltons). I will probably not have another opportunity to read the near-1000 pages of this great book. But I am glad that I did read it, and I am grateful for the intellectual confidence it (and the works of many other historians) gave for thinking critically about what other people would want me to believe as true.
History sometimes has a mixed press as an academic subject; but in my view there is simply no better way to learn how to properly deal with reasoned arguments based on assessments of documentary and other evidence. (Indeed, I often think it should be a compulsory degree for litigators.)
So I am very proud and fortunate to have a history degree. In the hands of a great historian, the subject has the power to change minds, and to promote an evidence-based approach and critical thinking.
And Kevin Sharpe was a great historian. RIP.
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