Saturday, 26 June 2010

On Professor John Kenyon’s The Civil War in England

John Kenyon’s book the Civil War in England is largely a military history of the civil war, but this does not detract from its great worth as a great piece of history. It is also wrong just to describe it solely as military history as he has a sharp insight into the politics and economics of the conflict which blends well with his military understanding.

The book is a cracking read and moves along at the pace of a novel. It is a well researched book. This is the first book I have read of Kenyon, so I am not familiar with his work. He has been described as “one of Britain's leading scholars of 17th-century English history”, but I will hold judgement until I have conducted further work.

It would be wrong to describe him as belonging to the so-called ‘Marxist’ wing of early modern Britain historiography, but his use of class terms would certainly qualify him as a fellow traveller.

Kenyon held chairs at the universities of Hull, St Andrews, Kansas and Columbia, he published eight books, and also he was a reviewer for the Observer newspaper.

One obituary described Kenyon “as a product of King Edward VII Grammar School in Sheffield and then Sheffield University. When he appeared at Christ's in 1954, he cast himself in the role of mocking outsider, offering caustic criticisms from the fringes of college power in the confident and correct expectation that they would mostly be ignored. They were. College meetings would be punctuated by Kenyon's heavy sighs and even heavier disapproving sniffs and brief, dismissive comments, but the college men of affairs went about their efficient business untroubled by these background mutterings”.

Kenyon’s publications included The Stuart Constitution in 1966, The Popish Plot in 1972, Revolution Principles in 1977, Stuart England in 1978 and The Civil Wars of England in 1988. The History Men in 1983. While it 's hard to measure the man in one reading it is clear from this book that Kenyon had a “scholarly attention to detail and an ability to extract every nuance from his sources. He distrusted fads and was sceptical of theories not fully backed by historical fact”.

Kenyon was writing on the English Civil War at a difficult time for any historian who upheld views which saw the conflict in socio-economic or historical materialist terms. Kenyon faced growing hostility from a growing collection of revisionist historians who were increasingly vocal and poured scorn on the ‘Marxist’ wing of Early Modern England historiography.
From the beginning of the 1970s, a significant number of historians who wrote during the English Civil War sought to discredit any understanding that the civil war could be understood through either an economic determinist or historical materialist viewpoint.

Probably the two most well-known and respected historians of the above genre of writing were Christopher Hill and Brian Manning, both unfortunately no longer with us. Both sought to counterpose a growing group of revisionist historians such as John Morrill, Mark Kishlansky, Austin Woolrych and Conrad Russell who in one way or another tried to downplay the role of social, economic and political factors in understanding historical events.

According to Morrill, Mark Kishlansky, Ian Gentles ‘were prominent in seeking to challenge the nature and extent of Leveller penetration of the army, certainly before the high summer of 1647. Morrill argues that the Levellers rhetoric was fundamentally opposed to a standing army and that Lilburne’s own experience made him suspicious and out of touch with its rank and file, while Kishlansky suggested that the dynamics of army relations with parliament could be explained adequately in terms of the army’s own sense of its honour, its legitimate demands as an army, and its own experience in war and peace’.

Even today the causes of the civil war and the English Revolution are still contested. While Professor Kenyon presents a real and at times objective account of the fighting. He has described accurately as an “orthodox Tawneyite”.

While admitting that the causes and why people took sides were complex he was enough of a historian to realise that historical events do not occur in a vacuum. He was astute enough to make the point that Parliament mainly rested on the towns which were more industrialised than the rural areas which were primarily in support of the King, so much so that in 1643 Charles I said that he 'dared not trust his person inside any closed town'; the clothing areas were 'aggressively parliamentarian', Birmingham 'a solidly parliamentarian industrial town'.

In making this analysis, Kenyon was openly attacking the revisionists who were deliberately ignoring his albeit limited historical materialist viewpoint. Kenyon also opposed the revisionists who sought to deny that before 1642 social revolution was potentially present.

Again Kenyon did not deny that some rank-and-file soldiers (on either side) were not motivated by political principle. Scores of people were conscripted sometimes forcibly, there were mercenary elements that joined for the money and the possibility of plunder.

 But loyalties were strong. For example when Prince Rupert threatened Bradford in 1642, “an urgent appeal was issued to deserters from the army, and the response was overwhelming”.

Another thing that separated Kenyon from the revisionists was his support for the theory that the English revolution was a product of a general European Crisis of the 17th Century. This view tends to cut across the mainly nationalist English view of the civil war as opposed to putting the war in a more international context. (See Eric Hobsbawm-The General Crisis of the European Economy Past and Present No 5 May 1954 pp 33-53.
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