Sunday, 21 August 2011

A Brief History of the The English Civil Wars-John Miller

The English Civil War is in the words of historian Lawrence Stone "a battleground which has been heavily fought over…beset with mines, booby-traps and ambushes manned by ferocious scholars prepared to fight every inch of the way." John Miller's A Brief History of the English Civil Wars is an excellent introduction to the complexities of this war/revolution.

Miller uses dramatic accounts of decisive battles and confrontations, as a backdrop to explaining the complex nature of the revolution. As Miller explains, the war changed the political, social and economic landscape of Britain.

The wars changed the political, social, religious and intellectual landscape of the country forever. In this brief account of just 200 pages of the civil war, Miller uses a lifetime of experience and study of the period.

It is unfortunate but given the lack of space at no point does Miller examine the different historiography on the English Civil War. The book is light on military aspects which I think is a good thing but heavy on Parliamentary politics during the revolution.

Miller believes that this was a period that changed "the political, social, religious and intellectual landscape of the country forever and was "an extraordinary turning point in British history".

The book is not profoundly academic but is aimed at the student or general reader who does not have too deep an understanding of the complex nature of this subject. In the forward Miller says his aim was "to produce something for students and interested general readers that is both brief and clear'.

To conclude the author of this book knows the subject very well, and because of that, the book is a decent introduction to the very complex events of the English Revolution.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

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

A historian recently wrote "over the last generation historians have moved away from the image of a distinctively English (and Welsh) civil war, of a limited, civilised and dignified conflict between factions of the cultured elite, and of a contest in which the common people appear if at all as a mindless, deferential, anonymous mass. Instead, historians have recently stressed the British-wide nature of the wars of the mid-seventeenth century, have portrayed those wars as brutal, bloody and all-pervasive, and have explored far more fully and sympathetically the role, allegiance, outlook and involvement of the non-elite.

Although he was reviewing another Martyn Bennett's Books much the same could be said about his book The Civil Wars 1637-1653. Bennett's book appeared in the same decade that produced a veritable cottage industry of books that sought to overturn previous Whig and Marxist historiography. Revisionist historians like Bennett 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, was 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.

The majority of the new historiography produced in the 90s was predominantly hostile to both Whig or Marxist historiography. Martyn Bennett's book is in that context.
One by-product of the rejection of both whig and Marxists historiography was the development of the theory "the Wars of the Three Kingdoms". While the popularity f the theory grew in the 90s it was, in fact, an ancient explanation for the English revolution it dates 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, saying "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. However, 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 a 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."[2]

This type of explanation for the revolution was popular with historians based outside England. The Northern Irish 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 reflects 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.[3]

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".

Bennett attaches great importance to the use of terminology in explaining the English revolution because it says a lot about how the historian "reflects and reinforces the interpretations we make". 

This approach is commendable. As Edward Hallett Carr 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". [4]

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"[5].

Bennett uses the term revolution 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 exciting 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.

To conclude is 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 is an excellent introduction to the conflict. It would have a been a better book if Bennett had given more of his understanding of the revolution.

[1] What's in a Name? the Death of the English Civil War:M Bennett-
[2] Quoted from
[3] ]
[4] E H Carr-What is History