These books are both attempts, by oblique routes, to explain major events in English history: in one case the Civil War, and in the other the Reformation. That, however, is where the resemblance between them ends: for the rest, it would be hard to find a more extreme contrast in historical methods. Professor Underdown, as he makes clear in his preface, sees no virtue in attempts at explanation of the Civil War which concentrate on political events at the centre. For him, it is necessary to understand society in depth. For Dr Starkey, on the other hand, it is self-evident that, to understand political events, it is necessary to understand political circles. If Dr Starkey wishes to understand an event in a period of which he has previously known nothing, he will ask who was Groom of the Stool: Professor Underdown, faced with the same task, will ask who was constable of Batcombe. Both of them will then do a first-class piece of research answering their chosen question. Yet the really big decision, the choice of the field for investigation, is one which appears to both of them to be so obvious as to stand in no need of justification.
LRB 7 August 1986 | PDF Download