Saturday, 21 October 2017

The Civil Wars of England-John Kenyon - Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988 - xvi + 272pp

“ A Civil War is not only the conflict of opposing principles but the shock of material forces.”

Sir Charles Firth.

The causes of the Civil war have been fought over by historians for centuries. This fight sometimes resembles the real war of nearly four hundred years ago.
Kenyon’s book, which is one of the better military histories does confine itself to a straightforward, matter of fact description of the civil war.

According to Christopher Hill Kenyon’s narrative was of an “ orthodox Tawneyite: towns and cities 'solidly for Parliament', so much so that in 1643 Charles I insisted that he 'dared not trust his person inside any closed town'; the clothing areas were 'aggressively parliamentarian', Birmingham 'a solidly parliamentarian industrial town'. Kenyon grasps the fact which 'revisionist' historians ignore, that before 1642 social revolution was always potentially present”[1].

Hill also recognised that Kenyon’s book while being a military history of the civil war, was an excellent piece of history, with a deep understanding of the politics and economics of the conflict which combined well with his military understanding.

The book is a cracking read and moves along at the pace of a novel. It is methodically researched as to be expected of a historian of Kenyon’s calibre. He had a “scholarly attention to detail and ability to extract every nuance from his sources. He distrusted fads and was sceptical of theories not fully backed by historical fact”.  It is not for nothing he was described as “one of Britain's leading scholars of 17th-century English history”,

Kenyon is this book did not believe that the Great Rebellion as he calls it sprung from nowhere the quote in the introduction from Sir Charles Firth was not a throwaway line, “ A Civil War is not only the conflict of opposing principles but the shock of material forces.”This belief underpins the book.

Another belief put forward by Kenyon was that the war was the product of long-term economic, social and political trends. His quote from James Harrington, “the dissolution of this government caused the war, not the war the dissolution of this government”[2]  is confirmation of this.

As the writer and historian Gaby Mahlberg wrote in her blog of Harrington “ ‘Good laws’, Harrington believed, could give the country stability, and these laws had to be infallible, so that bad men would not be able to corrupt the state. Harrington never saw his dream come true. The Restoration of the Stuarts in 1660 meant a return of many of the old problems. But his ideas of mixed government and a balance of power remained influential in the writings of the Neo-Harringtonians of the later 17th and early 18th century. They influenced both the American and French Revolutions, while his materialist theory of political change would also strike a chord with Marxists and modern economic and political thinkers”[3]. There is no doubt that his writings struck a chord with Kenyon.

High Tide of Revisionism

Kenyon’s book appeared when writing about the Civil War was an extremely hazardous occupation. During the high tide of revisionism anyone writing Whig or Marxist history, Tawney was included in the Marxist camp was met by the revisionist attack dogs.

From a historiographical standpoint, Kenyon sought to position himself between the two camps. Kenyon tried to place his book within the context of the civil war being 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. (See Eric Hobsbawm-The General Crisis of the European Economy Past and Present No 5 May 1954 pp 33-53).

His use of class terms such as “Working Class and “Ruling Class” brings to mind Robert Ashton’s view that “the idea of religious, political and constitutional issues as an ideological superstructure based on foundations of material and class interests has been influential far beyond the ranks of Marxist historians. It has indeed been adopted, in part at least and with a radically different emphasis, by some of their more formidable and determined opponents. The following passage from a celebrated article by Professor Trevor-Roper may serve to remind us that anti-Marxist history is not necessarily history which plays down the crucial importance of material factors and class interest".

Hugh Trevor Roper, “Hit by the price revolution, slow to redeem their losses by ‘good husbandry’, left in the provinces of which, they complained, the hated metropolis had drained the wealth and vitality, taxed to maintain ‘the expenses of a court so vast and unlimited by the old good rules of economy’, the English mere gentry felt themselves to be depressed, declining class, and, grumbling, consoled and –or armed them with religious dissent. Against a protestant court some of them struck under the banner of recusancy; against a ‘popish’ court others struck again, under the banner of puritanism”.

Not all historians agreed with Hill’s assertion that Kenyon was a Tawneyite or for that matter Ashton’s analysis. John Morrill for one believed that Kenyon was closer to the revisionists than he was to Tawney. He made this very clear in his obituary for the Proceedings of the British Academy (Volume 101 (1999), pages 441-461).

Morrill believed Kenyon showed a “fundamental disapproval of model-builders and systematisers. He had no time for social determinism as a tool of the historian for explaining the past or of social engineering as a tool of the politician in effecting the future”. In fact, Morrill believed that Kenyon was a consistent revisionist from his early days up until he died.

One thing is clear a reading of Kenyon’s article Revisionism and Post Revisionism in Early Stuart History[4] he did not consider himself either a revisionist or post-revisionist.

Kenyon’s book is an excellent military history of the civil war that combines an excellent military narrative with an excellent political analysis of the war.

It is hard to place Kenyon or his work in any category. As one obituary writer said “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”. This a sums up Kenyon perfectly.


[1] The Civil Wars of England--John Kenyon - Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988 - xvi + 272pp- https://www.historytoday.com/christopher-hill/civil-wars-england
[2] A History of England, Volume 1: Prehistory to 1714- By Clayton Roberts, F David Roberts, Douglas Bisson
[4] https://www.jstor.org/stable/2124903