Sunday, 21 August 2011

A Brief History of the The English Civil Wars-John Miller

 As part of my recommendations of new books on the English Civil war here is a brief review of John Millers book).

The English Civil War is testimony to the fact that John Miller is very well versed on the history and politics of this subject. The English Civil War is perhaps one of the most “hotly contested areas of English History”. Having said this it is perhaps given the limited space 200 pages a wise move that Miller does not delve into historiography of the Civil War.

I believe this is a weakness of the book but you pay your money and you take your choice. The book is light on military aspects which I think is a good thing. Some new books on the Civil war tend to use descriptions of battles etc. to pad things out.

The book is heavy on politics and this is a good thing. Miler clearly believes that this was a period that changed “the political, social, religious and intellectual landscape of the country for ever and was “an extraordinary turning point in British history”.

The book is not a deeply academic but is aimed at the student or general reader who does not have too deep an understanding of the complex nature of this subject. In the forward Miller says his aim was “to produce something for students and interested general readers that is both brief and clear'. 

As an interested general reader I think he achieves his aim entirely. I say this not to rubbish what after all is a very good book. If it is not already on university book lists then it should.

On John Miller

Professor Miller’s began doing his original area of research looking into English politics in the reigns of Charles II and James II, to his credit his books tend to concentrate heavily on the politics of this time. While certainly no Marxist historian he does take on board and analyses the movement of class forces and how they impact on important individuals

I would not put him in the revisionist collection of historians and again to his credit he does not solely examine the history of “winners” but has a substantial interest of how politics worked at “grass roots level”, His chapter War and the People demonstrates this.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Englishmen with Swords by Charles Montagu Slater, Merlin Radical Fiction, (1950)

Montagu Slater was a significant literary figure both inside and outside the British Communist Party. He was born into a working-class family in 1902 who went on to win a prestigious scholarship to Oxford.

Like many of his generation, he was shaped intellectually by the social, economic and political upheavals caused by the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism. While active in local politics at an early age he joined the CP in 1927.

This was an unfortunate time to join the British Communist Party because in 1927 it was already exhibiting signs of political degeneration, and slavishly sided with Joseph Stalin’s struggle against Leon Trotsky. Slater very quickly sided with the revisionist Stalinist theory of building Socialism in One Country which was in opposition to Leon Trotsky’s Orthodox Marxist position of permanent world revolution.

Any assessment of his literary work should take into consideration his Stalinist politics. His craven adherence to the theory of building socialism in one country paved the way for him in the 1930s to become editor of 'Left Review'. Slater was one of the founding members. Left Review from the beginning was an apologist for Stalinist crimes against the working class and became a house organ for attacks on Leon Trotsky.

According to Brian Pearce, the Slater was hostile to Trotskyism from the start, Pearce writes “In November 1937 the publisher Frederick Warburg revealed in a letter to the New Statesman that Left Review had refused an advertisement for The Case of Leon Trotsky, published by his firm. This book was the report of the examination of Trotsky, regarding the statements affecting him made in the trials, carried out by an independent commission of inquiry headed by John Dewey. The new liberalism of Left Review did not include giving a show to the other side. Editor Randall Swingler explained on behalf of the journal, in the next issue of the New Statesman, that ‘there is a line at which criticism ends and destructive attacks begin, and we regret that this line separates us both from Dr Goebbels and Leon Trotsky”.[1]

Slater who died at a very early age of 54 it must be said stayed true to his Stalinist ideas. Despite being linked with the`New Reasoner’ wing inside in the Communist Party, Slater agreed with every twist and turn of the British Communist party’s attack on Trotskyism. He backed the party’s reformist “British Road to Socialism”. When the Hungarian Revolution took place in 1956, he called it a counter-revolution. On his deathbed in 1956, he still retained his party 

Englishmen with Swords

Englishmen with Swords is a piece of historical fiction which centres on the years 1647-1649 in other words the highpoint of the English Bourgeois revolution. Slater wrote the piece using material from the journal of a minor but significant real-life participant of the English Civil War Gilbert Mabbot. It is a pretty honest portrayal of events.

As much as I can tell, the storyline remains faithful to actual events. The book should not be seen as a historical document but should be seen as a complement to academic historical research.

Slater should be congratulated for bringing Mabbott to the attention of a wider audience. Too many figures such as Mabbott have been lost in the revisionist stampede to replace the “history from below” genre with history from above.

Mabbott (1622—c. 1670) was according to Graham Stevenson “the official licenser of the press from 1647 to 1649 and himself a pioneering journalist and publisher of newsbooks during the English Civil War period”.

Figures like Mabbott have been largely neglected by modern day historians. This neglect is largely the fault of revisionist historians who have ignored radical figures such as Mabbott who had links to groups such as the Levellers. Another neglected area of research is regarding the proliferation of secret printings presses before the war which would tend to contradict historians such as Conrad Russell who have put forward that radicalism did not exist before the outbreak of civil war hostilities. Mabbott, after all, was involved in the publication of the Moderate newsbook.

Describing his time with the Moderate  Mabbott said: "I have laid down my former title of 'Moderate Intelligencer' and do go by another, 'The Moderate'". The Moderate espoused republican views. It fully supported the execution of the King and held views that were similar to the Levellers.

This link to the Levellers has been questioned by Frances Henderson who said “Mabbott's reputation as a Leveller, which rests solely on his alleged editorship of the radical newsbook The Moderate, is open to question. It is possible that he contributed to early issues of this newsbook, but there is no evidence that he was responsible for editing it and nothing in his career or conduct to link him directly to the Levellers”.

Henderson’s view has been challenged by to Patrick Ludolph[2] “Gilbert Mabbott was a licenser of pamphlets and newsbooks from 1645 to 1649. He was also brother-in-law to Sir William Clarke and a client of John Rushworth. From 1647 to 1649, he was in the pay of the New Model Army, acting as their “agent” in London. As well, Mabbott has been accused of being the editor of the radical newsbook The Moderate, an accusation which I have come to believe”.

Patrick’s views on the book are worth quoting  “I have read it, but I could not tell you much more about its background than what is already on the dust jacket. It is from Gilbert Mabbott (which you know because you commented here, but I thought I would say for others out there) and makes use of several original documents from the Civil War. However, Slater chose Mabbott because he knew absolutely nothing about him. He saw his name on a bunch of documents and decided to write from his viewpoint because Mabbott was a virtual nobody, a clean slate to write on. The irony is not lost on me. It has been a while since I looked at it; I seem to recall that Slater was a little confused about some things, but I do not remember what. Come to think of it, I probably should have done a post on this, but I read it before I started blogging”.

Henderson is not overtly gushing over Slater’s book Englishmen with Swords he believes “Slater chose Mabbott because he knew absolutely nothing about him. He saw his name on a bunch of documents and decided to write from his viewpoint because Mabbott was a virtual nobody, a clean slate to write on”.

Despite this, I still believe Slater’s novel is historical fiction of note. Not as good as Dickens A Tale of Two cities but is a credit to the genre. Historical fiction is not to everybody's taste but done well can reveal significant insight into historical events.

To conclude, it is essential to distinguish between a genuinely good historical novel and pulp fiction novels which sometimes contain glaring historical inaccuracies.

Chris Hopkinson in his essay Historicising the Historical Novel: cites “Lukacs in his The Historical Novel (1937; 1963) distinguishes between various periods when literary historicism has become merely a mannerism and periods when historical genres have made authentic engagements with history, as some of his section titles may briefly suggest: 'The Classical Form of the Historical Novel', 'The General Tendencies of Decadence and the Establishment of the Historical Novel as a Special Genre'. Lukacs, of course, as one of the most influential Marxist critics of the twentieth century sees the success of the historical novel at different period as not simply an aesthetic matter, but as one deeply determined by history itself”

[1] Brian Pearce,Some Lessons from History:The Left Review, 1934–1938
(November 1959)From The Newsletter, 7 November 1959.Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.
[2] Ludolph has blog called Gilbert Mabbott which can be found @ ttp://

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The Civil Wars 1637-1653 Martyn Bennett Sutton Pocket Histories-1998

The decade of the 1990s witnessed a veritable cottage industry that produced several books that sought to overturn previous Whig and Marxist historiography. The revisionist historians who carried out this revolt were clear on what they were against a little less clear on what they wanted to replace the previous historiography with.

Alongside Bennett’s book, you had John Morrill’s Revolt in the Provinces: The English People and the Tragedies of War, 1634-1648. Mark Stoyle. Loyalty and Locality: Popular Allegiance in Devon during the English Civil War, The English Civil War and Revolution: Keith Lindley, The English Wars and Republic, 1637-1660 to name but a few.

It is not in the realm of this article to examine the reasons for the rise of such disparate historiography suffice to say it was hostile to any Whig or Marxist historiography which sought to explain the war from the standpoint of it being a bourgeois revolution and not just a civil war. Martyn Bennett’s book should be seen in that context.

In this well-written book, Bennett favoured another type of historiography that was prevalent at the time called the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. The term was not a new one dating back to 1662 in James Heath’s book A Brief Chronicle of all the Chief Actions so fatally Falling out in the three Kingdoms, first published in 1662.

Bennett explains his reasoning behind his choice of historiography, “The enduring symbol of the crisis which gripped the British Isles during the middle of the seventeenth century is the name given to it, `The English Civil War'. This symbol is itself problematic and can even act as a barrier to a clear understanding of what happened in that turbulent century. It may be argued that calling the conflict the English Civil War limits the scope of our perceptions. By labelling it an English event, we can marginalise Scotland and Ireland and perhaps even ignore Wales altogether. Yet all four nations were involved in the rebellions, wars and revolutions that made up the period”[1].

Bennett’s book starts with examining the War from the standpoint of Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales in the first three chapters. As one writer put this historiography was “ a trend by modern historians aiming to take a unified overview rather than treating some of the conflicts as mere background to the English Civil War. Some, such as Carlton and Gaunt, have labelled them the British Civil Wars.

This type of explanation for the revolution was popular with historians based outside England. One such historian Jane Ohlmeyer argued “Proponents of the New British Histories agree that British history should not be enriched English history which focuses on Whitehall and uses events in Ireland and Scotland to explain developments in England. Yet the traditional terms used to describe the conflict which engulfed Britain and Ireland during the 1640s, which include 'Puritan Revolution', 'English Revolution', and more recently 'British Civil War(s)', tend to perpetuate this anglocentrism. None of these reflect the fact that the conflict originated in Scotland and Ireland and throughout the 1640s embraced all of the Stuart kingdoms; or that, in addition to the war enjoying a pan-British and Irish dimension, each of the Stuart states experienced its own domestic civil wars. The phrase 'Wars of the Three Kingdoms' acknowledges the centrality of the various civil wars fought within the Stuart kingdoms as well as the interactions between them.[2]

Bennett while supporting the “wars of three kingdoms” historiography does explain its limitations warning “against thinking that this current interpretation of the war is the last word, historical fashions come and go. It may be as well to paraphrase Mark Twain: reports of the death of the English Civil War may yet be greatly exaggerated”.

Martyn Bennett book is precise in the type of terminology used, as Bennett argued, the type of terminology used says a lot about how the historian “reflects and reinforces the interpretations we make”. 
This approach is commendable. As the great Edward Hallett Carr once said
if, as Collingwood says, the historian must re-enact in thought what has gone on in the mind of his dramatis personae, so the reader in his turn must re-enact what goes on in the mind of the historian. Study the historian before you begin to study the facts. This is, after all, not very abstruse. It is what is already done by the intelligent undergraduate who, when recommended to read a work by that great scholar Jones of St. Jude's, goes round to a friend at St. Jude's to ask what sort of chap Jones is, and what bees he has in his bonnet. When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf or your historian is a dull dog. 

The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger's slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use -- these two factors being, of course, determined by what kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants”[3].

The date spread used in this book 1637-1653 is not one I have come across. This throwing around of dates seems to have been popular in the 1990s. Bennett explains his reasoning “Imposing the dates 1642-1651 on the civil wars renders them relatively meaningless outside the bounds of England and Wales: calling them the 'English' Civil War is similarly problematic. The term English Civil War became common during the last century, adding to the range of titles available - from the contentious 'English Revolution' to the 'Great Rebellion' and the 'Great Civil War'. Yet such a title does obscure the involvement of the other nations as effectively in the book market as it does in popular entertainment”[4].

Bennett uses the term revolution in a couple of times in the book but does not believe this was a bourgeois revolution. The book does not provide any insight into the socio-economic problems that gave rise to the conflict. Bennett, to his credit, does believe that the war was a product of long term political changes at the base and superstructure of English society.

The book gives a good explanation of what took place during the war. Chapters 1-6 deal primarily with this and can be seen as a good introduction. Perhaps the most interesting and informative chapters are 7-8. Chapter 7 called Revolution in England and Wales gives an essential insight into the growing divergence of views within parliament and the growing threat posed by the Levellers. Chapter 8 gives a presentable account of the views and actions of the Levellers.

The book is quite striking in its minimal use of historiography. I think he mentions only one other historian, but this is compensated by the excellent notes at the back of the book.


Being a short book Bennett of 114 pages, it should not be seen as an in-depth or analytical study of the revolution. At best, it should be seen as an excellent introduction to the conflict. It would have a been a better book if Bennett had given more of his take on the revolution.

Dr Martyn Bennett is the Director of the Faculty of Humanities School of Graduate Studies and Research at Nottingham Trent University. He is the author of several books on the civil wars, including The Civil Wars of Britain and Ireland (Blackwell, 1997) and The Civil Wars Experienced (Routledge, 2000). His biography of Oliver Cromwell for Routledge appeared in 2006. His latest book is Cromwell at War: The Lord General and his Military Revolution-2017

[1] What's in a Name? the Death of the English Civil War:M Bennett-
[3] E H Carr-What is History