Sunday, 26 May 2019

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

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