Wednesday, 3 August 2011

A Brief Review of The Civil Wars 1637-1653 Martyn Bennett

This is the first encounter I have had with a historian who is associated with the school of historiography which portrays the English Civil War as Wars of the Three Kingdoms rather than it being an English revolution. One point Bennet is correct in that terminology used by historians should tell you a lot about how that historian sees the revolution of the mid-seventeenth century reflects and reinforces the interpretations we make or as E H Carr was fond of saying always look Tout for the bees buzzing in historians head.

In the title of this book Bennett uses the dates 1637-1653. I have not come across this date span before and Bennett explains why he uses

“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”.

Bennett in true revisionist style also questions the use of the term English Civil War “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'. Yet 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”. To Bennett credit he does not deny a revolution took place , he challenges the “revolution's Englishness.

This is a short book of 114 pages and should not be seen as an in depth or analytical study of the Civil war. At best it should be seen as a good introduction to the conflict.

While not being very familiar with this type of historiography its origins stem mainly from the rejection of large group of revisionist historians who sought to reject a Marxist and Whig interpretation of the Civil War. While Bennett uses the term revolution in a couple of titles the book does not really have any socio-economic analysis of the revolution.

Most of the book gives a reasonable explanation of what took place during the war. Chapters 1-6 deal largely 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 a basic insight into the growing divergence of views between parliament and a 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 very liberal use of historiography. I think he mentions only one other historian but this is probably compensated by very good notes at the back of the book.

Bennett backs his Three Kingdoms argument by saying “in a November 1998 article in History Today, J.S.A. Adamson argued that here England truly demonstrated its distinctiveness and any four nations context comes about when only England imposed its revolution on the other nations. But even here we could add that Welsh politicians and soldiers were involved in this revolution too. Moreover Ronald Hutton reminds us in The British Republic (1989) that the revolutionaries of 1648-9 were themselves products of the civil wars, who were changed so much by the experience of the war that they eschewed many of their long-held traditional political beliefs when they led the nation into the republican experiment. So even that most English of phenomena - the revolution - was a product of the crisis of the four nations”.

Bennett is enough of a good historian to not be too caught up with the “wars of three kingdoms” historiography and he warns against “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”.


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.

See Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia the wars of the Three Kingdoms

Further Reading

The Personal Rule of Charles 1st K Sharpe

Civil War –The Wars of the Three Kingdoms 1638-1660 Trevor Royle.

Britain in Revolution A Woolrych

The English Revolution and the Wars in the Three Kingdoms, 1638-1652 (Modern Wars In Perspective) Ian Gentles

Politics and War in the Three Stuart Kingdoms, 1637-49 (British History in Perspective) David Scott

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