Friday, 2 November 2012

The Impact of the English Civil Wars (A History Today Book) [Paperback] J.S. Morrill (Editor) 1991

Like many other aspects of the history of the English Civil War its impact on society, politics and the economy has caused serious disagreements among historians. While a substantial minority (albeit in the past) have said it is impossible to ignore or deny that the civil war did have some impact and that changes did occur in the social, economic and political superstructure, others have played down appreciably the consequences and some have even tried to deny that social changes were crucial partly determining the outcome of the war.

Certainly over the last quarter of a century it has been highly fashionable to question the social context of the civil war. In her book The Causes of the English Civil War p117 Ann Hughes says this changing historical fashion can be illustrated from the titles of two collections of sources covering early modern social history. In 1965 Lawrence Stone published Social Change and Revolution in England 1540-1640, whereas Barry Coward produced Social Change and Continuity in Early Modern England1550-1750. The coupling of continuity rather than revolution with social changes in the latter work reveals a more qualified assessment of the extent of transformation in early modern England.

The New Social History of historiography appeared in the early 1970s. According some historians it was perhaps the last major historiography of the 20th century to try and explain the complex historical phenomenon known as the English Civil War. Prior to the 1970s Social History had largely been limited to a study of everyday life. During the last thirty odd years the subject has come to prominence because some aspects of it have become the bête noir of a number of revisionist historians. The most positive side of the new history is that it brought into the public domain the lives of working people or the poor who had largely been ignored by historians. On the negative side this new history became divorced from any form of economic or materialist explanation of the civil war.

This collection of essays comes predominantly from historians who in one way or another question the impact of the war with sole exception of John Walters. This revisionist historiography has taken on many forms but its basic component is hostility to any form of Marxist historiography.

Given John Morrill’s editorial role in preparing this collection of essay it is important to understand his take on these events. He was clearly influenced by the New Social history historiography in an interview he describes his attitude towards those historians who were in the forefront of the group “So there came along the new social history which opened up a whole range of types of evidence, and so one of the most important things to happen for my period was the work which is most obviously associated with Keith Wrightson (who trained in Cambridge, spent many years in St Andrews, returned to Cambridge and then moved onto Yale). And the Wrightson revolution really, in the way in which social history is done, had a huge impact on those of us who were more interested in high politics. I mean popular politics, constructed high politics. Wrightson’s importance for my work is again something that people might be a bit surprised to hear about, but I personally, in my mid-career, saw it as absolutely fundamental.

In his introduction John Morrill is correct to point out while there is general agreement amongst historians of what to call the events in France around 1789 or 1917 in Russia there is very little agreement as to what to call the revolutionary events in 1640s England.

A reader coming to these events for the first time will find out that this problem is down to many factors.  A major one being the political bias of the historian.  Another is the sheer complexity of the historical crisis that gripped the English state. The book is recommended in the sense that it does give the reader a wide range of differing views albeit absent is a Marxist explanation but more on that later.

The book is simple in design but has a generous supply of fantastic illustrations which in themselves are worth further exploration.

Chapter one is by Charles Charlton and called The Impact of the fighting. Charlton begins by assessing the number s of dead and wounded during the conflict. Another ground for disagreement. Charlton highlights one of the main problems is that when dealing with primary sources regarding causalities these are open to bias depending on which side they came from?
In a striking passage in his memoirs Richard Baxter “said he watched the battle of Langport as a young chaplain in the army of the Parliament.  Baxter witnessed fierce fighting. Facing defeat the Royalists panicked. Standing next to Baxter was Major Thomas Harrison. As the Parliamentary army charged the Royalists fled, Baxter heard him ‘with a loud voice break forth into the praises of God with fluent expressions, as if he had been in a rapture’. 

According to D H Pennington “it was bloodiest conflict in relative terms in English history” crops and land were seized; cattle and horses were taken. Pennington makes the point that the Royalists were often more brutal than the Parliamentarians.Another useful source on the impact of the civil war can be found in Steven Porter’s book while careful not to exaggerate the destruction he has some important statistical data on the scale of the impact of the civil war. 150 towns and 50 villages suffered destruction of property. According to the House of Lords Record Office, Main Papers,23 Sept. 1648 “…miserable it is to see the multitudes of inhabitants and their children flocking in the streets of the bordering towns and villages and have not a house to putt their heads therein, whereby to exercise their calling”.

Taunton was according to Clarendon a third of the town was destroyed by fire, but according to Sprigge a flourishing town was all but destroyed. A number of books have come out recently, which contain important sources of eyewitness accounts of the civil war. One such is J Adair By The Sword Divided highlighted one particular aspect which was the development of social advancement inside the army and service in the armies of parliament certainly provided opportunities for social advancement. At first the rival armies were officered by men of much the same social status, but gradually new men from the middle, lower middle and artisan classed moved into positions of responsibility, both on committees that ran the war and in the wider army. John Hampden’s Shepherd, Thomas Shelbourne, rose to be colonel of Cromwell regiment of Ironsides and there were similar stories. The more conservative Puritan gentry objected to their newcomers as much as on social grounds as on account of their often unorthodox or radical religious views.

Forced requisitioning took place but a lot of goods were paid for at market prices. Adair says while there was “decay of life” there was also an opposite to this huge growth of profits for many people. Also things such as the legal system remained relatively normal and survived unscathed. In the London the impact of the civil war was difficult to assess in many respects everyday life carried on as normal. London also avoided sack or siege however emergency wartime powers were resented by large sections of the population. Its economy was vital for the New Model Army and this state of affairs led one Royalist to lament “if posterity shall ask who pulled the crown from the kings head said it was proud unthankful schismatically, rebellious, blood city of London”.

Charlton who came from a military background is particularly strong on military matters but when it comes to a more in-depth understanding of why people fought and how the war came about the chapter is very light. People on both sides of the war “chose deliberately which side they fought on.

Chapter Two the Impact on Government by David L Smith.  Smith seems to argue that the civil war was largely a defensive manoeuvre by parliament against a corrupt and inept monarchy. Smith believes that no appreciable changes occurred during the civil war and protectorate and we quickly move onto a mixed monarchy after Cromwell’s death.

Chapter 3 The Impact of Puritanism is by John Morrill. The chapter is well written and Morrill argues his point well but a lot more could have been said on this subject. The Puritan religion did have a material basis. For the understanding of some of the great problems of human history, the study of religion is a necessity. Cliff slaughter posed this question “What is the relationship between the social divisions among men and their beliefs about the nature of things? How do ruling classes ensure long periods of acceptance of their rule by those they oppress? Why were the ‘Utopians’ wrong in thinking that it was sufficient only to work out a reasonable arrangement of social relations in order to proceed to its construction? It was out of the examination of questions like this in the German school of criticism of religion that Marx emerged to present for the first time a scientific view of society. ‘The criticism of religion is the beginning of all criticism.’

Suffice to say this is not Morrill’s position. Therefore I find his analysis on Puritanism a little one sided.  Also there appears to be an absence of struggle in Morrill’s chapter. Next to nothing is made of the differing radical puritan groups that were outside mainstream puritan politics.
This is the history of the victors as Christopher Hill would have said. Little is mentioned of radical sects such as the Ranters, who flourished in England at the time of the Puritan revolution. While it is generally accepted that there was not a massive amount of unrest and protest during the civil war.  John Morrill has made the point that changes in social and economic policy were largely controlled by the middling sort and large-scale outbreaks were prevented by this class.

However there was a tangible fear amongst sections of the middle class who feared the little people As Lucy Hutchinson writes with disdain, “almost all the Parliament garrisons were infested and disturbed with like factious little people, in so much that many worthy gentlemen were wearied out of their command, some oppressed by a certain sort of people in the House whom, to distinguish from the most honourable gentlemen, they called worsted stocking men”. Hutchinson is probably referring to the people that were increasingly being influenced by the Levellers who expressed an awareness particularly amongst the lower sections that in order to have a say in these changes they must organise thorough some kind of political organisation.
The ideas of these sects represented the ideas of the lower strata of society. There ideas of wider democracy and equality were an anathema to the victorious upper-middle classes. It was as necessary for Cromwell to crush the Ranters as to liquidate Lilburne’s Levellers and Winstanley’s Diggers. A few selections from their tracts will show their lack of appeal to a class so enamoured of compromise as the British bourgeoisie. Coppe, their finest spokesman, addresses the propertied classes thus:  ‘Mighty men! ... Those that have admired, adored, idolized, magnified, set you up, fought for you, ventured goods, and good name, limb and life for you, shall cease from you.’ ‘For this Honour, Nobility, Gentility, Propriety, Superfluity. &c. hath (without contradiction) been the Father of hellish horrid pride, arrogance, haughtiness, loftinesse, murder, malice, of all manner of wickednesse and impiety; yea the cause of all the blood that ever hath been shed. from the blood of the righteous Abell, to the blood of the last Levellers that were shot to death.’ 

Chapter IV The Impact on Political Thought by Glen Burgess. For a substantial part of the 20th century civil war historiography was dominated by Marxist historians who were clear that social and economic changes did bring about changes in peoples thinking. Burgess in this chapter does not agree that there is a connection what Marxists have called base and superstructure. As Karl Marx explained in his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859): he believed that :
“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, who are independent of their will, namely [the] relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead, sooner or later, to the transformation of the whole, immense, superstructure. In studying such transformations, it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic, or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production”.
Burgess goes on to explain that previous approaches to ideological struggles in the revolution were expressed through an examination of pamphlets of the 1640s. While recognition that the literature was partisan they were taken “at face value, as part of a philosophical debate”. This approach, says Burgess, may be "inherently distorting".

Burgess believes that politics were fluid and that no one really stuck to their principles but ideas were merely "rhetoric". His examination of the different groups including radical groups guides his approach. He believes that the different political groups were largely acting empirically. Taking advantage of changes in the political situation with a number of rhetorical statements.
This in my opinion does not explain the complex philosophical problems that were being tackled by people like Thomas Hobbes and Harrington to name just two. In Anti Duhring Engels said if Englishmen nowadays do not exactly relish the compliment they paid their ancestors, more’s the pity. It is none the less undeniable that Bacon, Hobbes and Locke are the fathers of that brilliant school of French materialists which made the eighteenth century in spite of all battles of land and sea won over Frenchmen by Germans and Englishmen, a primarily French Century, even before that crowning French revolution, the results of which we outsiders, in England as well as in Germany are still trying to acclimatise.

Chapter V the Impact of the New Model Army. Ian Gentles develops a very good introduction to the New Model Army. Chapter VI John Walters is a bit of a strange choice in this selection essays in so much as you would not classify him as revisionist historian. In fact he would be much closer to the Marxist historians. His work is always interesting and thought provoking and this essay carries on in the same vein. Walters really believes that the world was turned upside down.

Walters examines large swathes of primary sources but like a good historian does not take them at face value. He recognises that these are not impartial documents but were weapons of war.  Significantly it is in this chapter that we get a real feel of the social turmoil that existed during the civil war. Walter’s believes that large segments of the population were becoming radicalised and became involved in all number of political and military activity.Riots broke out all over the place and many of these reflected the level of poverty that existed. Walters believes that these disorders threatened the social order. Walters is the only chapter that women get a look in. while not examined in any depth Walters recognises that large sections of the female population were being radicalised alongside their menfolk.


1.    Going to the Wars: The Experience of the British Civil Wars 1638-1651 [Paperback] Charles Carlton

2.    Ann Hughes, The Causes of the English Civil War p117

3.    G E Aylmer Rebellion or Revolution

4.    Mark Kishlanksy Ideology and politics in the parliamentary Armies 1645-49

5.    S Porter The Destruction in the Civil War

6.    G M Trevelyan Social History of Britain

7.    C Hill In the Century of Revolution

8.    Cliff Slaughter From Labour Review, Vol.3 No.3, May-June 1958, pp.77-82. Transcribed & marked up byEinde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

NB{ This essay replaces the previous Impact of the English Civil War on Society in the 1640s}