Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Obituary:Barry Coward: A Partisan Historian of the English Civil War.

These remarks come one day after attending a memorial service for the historian and teacher Barry Coward. Well over 130 of Barry’s family, close friends, co-workers and former students attended the service. Perhaps it is a bit strange to say this, but it was a hugely enjoyable and uplifting occasion. The death of any person is a sad thing, but the fact of the matter is that Barry Coward was a special historian and I certainly left the memorial with the feeling that knowing him made you a better person.

I first met him in 1999 at Birkbeck University. I was attending an open evening because I was thinking of doing a part time degree and Birkbeck had been recommended to me by a friend. At the public meeting was Barry Coward. Part of the attraction of the degree was the study of the English revolution. I had a vague likening for the subject, but when I asked Barry about the course, he immediately fired my enthusiasm and signed up a week later. This was probably one of my better decisions

The first thing that struck me about Barry Coward was his incredible and infectious enthusiasm for his chosen topic. He was also something rare amongst most historians in that he was always warm and friendly towards his students.

In his own words “I never ceased to be amazed by their ability to combine full-time employment with part-time study and gain degrees as good as, and often better than, those who studied full time. It was enormously rewarding to watch Birkbeck students – especially those who had not done a formal study for some time – develop academically, and then use Birkbeck as a launch pad for life-changing experiences. I’d like to thank them for their enthusiasm and the freshness of their ideas that I drew on in my writings.’

Barry Coward was rare bread. He was both a serious historian, but he was also a first class teacher. John Croxon who was one of Barry’s students who spoke at the memorial testified to Barry’s special talent as a teacher. John’s experience echoed my own and many other students in the fact that Barry always had time and patience for students no matter how small their questions.

While listening to the speakers, you got a great sense of Barry’s modesty. This may have stemmed from the fact that he had a formidable knowledge of his subject so much so that some his books such as The Stuart Age, England 1603–1714 (latest edition 2003)The Cromwellian Protectorate (2002) are standard texts on the subject of the English Civil War. Fellow historian Ian Roy spoke of Barry’s work. I tend to agree with him as regards probably Barry’s most important task certainly because of its value for research purposes was his English Historical Documents, 1603-1660: which edited alongside Peter Gaunt.

His book on Oliver Cromwell (1991) has also become a standard textbook on the period. This was not an orthodox biography. He kept an open mind on the main issues surrounding Cromwell. He made an important point of saying that it is good to strip away the myths surrounding Cromwell. Many of these myths and falsehoods were spread by hostile biographers.

As the title says, Barry was a partisan Historian. He was a former president of the Cromwell Association. While he wore his history on his sleeve, he did so to further our understanding of not only Cromwell but also his place in the English revolution.

Coward was not a materialist historian. While not a revisionist historian, he accepted the way history of this period is now written without any attention to underlying socio-economic causes of events portrayed in the book. However Coward did concede that the differences which arose amongst parliamentarians were political rather than religious. The main reason for disagreement was over what to do with the king. What was the class basis of the differences between the Independents and Presbyterians?

He makes an outstanding claim that the New Model Army was not political from the outset and that it was not politicised by the Levellers, which I don to agree with. Coward says the army spontaneously gravitated to radical solutions over pay grievances etc. This downplaying of the ideological debates that took place in the army is a major weak point in the book. That is not to say that Coward had no grand narrative, which was his fascination with Cromwell’s attempt at a “Godly Reformation”. Again the weakness in this book is the absence of any class analysis. What social forces were moving not just Cromwell but other players?

Barry was an excellent public speaker although not the best he was not the worse. He also had one of the best traits of a historian in that during his lectures you could almost sense that when he was speaking on a subject, he was already rethinking his remarks.

It would be remiss of me to say that I did not always see eye to eye on his political and historical conclusions on the Civil War. We came from different political family trees. He was old school labour, and I was certainly to the left of him, but I must say that during his seminars which were probably the best part of my degree course we had a frank exchange and that was it. Having said this he was always, the gentlemen and these debates never became bitter or rancorous.

In conclusion, while Barry never subscribed to the Marxist method of studying historical events I am sure he would not mind me quoting Karl Marx to highlight Barry’s attitude to study. In the 1872 Preface to the French edition of Das Kapital Vol. 1, Marx emphasised that "There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits". Reaching a scientific understanding was hard work. Conscientious, painstaking research was required, instead of philosophical speculation and unwarranted, sweeping generalisations. Suffice to say Barry made it to that luminous summit. I will miss Barry and so will the past and future students of 17th century English revolution.

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