- The English Civil Wars 1640-60 by Blair Worden
Weidenfeld, 192 pp, £12.99, January 2009, ISBN 978 0 297 84888 2
Thomas Hardy, it is said, believed the history of humanity could be written in six words: ‘They lived, they suffered, they died.’ As a historical account this was more than adequate. It depicted change over time, contained a point of view, and encapsulated a universally applicable lesson. What detail the story lacked could be supplied by readers, each in their own way. Like many good historians, Hardy was writing from experience. A sickly child whose ambition to attend Cambridge and enter the church was thwarted at an early age, he eventually lost his faith. His best friend committed suicide and his family shunned his barren marriage, which soon devolved into a long, loveless arrangement of keeping up appearances and a house. His gloomy outlook and dyspeptic personality weren’t improved by critics’ responses to his work, or by his never quite consummated love affairs. Fittingly, he went to two graves: his heart was buried in Dorset and his body in Westminster Abbey.
Vol. 31 No. 12 · 25 June 2009
When Mark Kishlansky claims that the English Civil Wars have been ‘the fulcrum of British history’ ever since David Hume, he is talking bunk and not history (LRB, 11 June). Far be it from me to say what actually happened in the mid-17th century, but the received wisdom after 1688 – the true fulcrum – was precisely as Blair Worden suggests: that the Civil Wars were a pointless, bloody exercise which led nowhere. For nearly 300 years thereafter the master narrative of English history glorified the seamless continuity of a conveniently unwritten constitution going all the way back to the Saxons. The great reward of this constitution was its peaceful combination of order and liberty which, in contrast to continental Europe, preserved the country from absolutism in the 18th century, revolution in the 19th century, and dictatorship before 1945. In all these respects English history at the height of its power and prosperity was the absolute antithesis of what the Civil Wars stood for: violence, disorder, the rule of the military, and constitutional rupture. As such this was a history which had to be buried; and it was left to Scots, radicals and poets to keep its memory alive, however faintly. One would never guess from Kishlansky’s eulogy that Carlyle failed to write his great history of Cromwell and the Civil Wars because, in his opinion, the English were unworthy to receive it. Of course, the celebration of England’s insular uniqueness has long since died out, and this is why Kishlansky, like so many 17th-century historians, can think the way he does. But his delusion, though common, is still a delusion.
St Anne’s College, Oxford
Vol. 31 No. 13 · 9 July 2009
The academic infighting over the English Civil Wars would seem to be underway again if Mark Kishlansky’s review (LRB, 11 June) of Blair Worden’s new book and Peter Ghosh’s response (Letters, 25 June) are anything to go by. Kishlansky reports that Worden argues the wars were pointless and led nowhere and Ghosh calls Kishlansky’s views ‘bunk and not history’. Few historians would dispute that the Civil Wars of 1640 to 1651 were violent, or that in themselves they ‘led nowhere’. They didn’t ‘stand for’ anything. The point is surely that they had significant consequences in the extreme constitutional, religious, social and cultural crisis of the mid-17th century.
Having said that he can’t say what actually happened, Ghosh proceeds to tell us that the ‘true’ fulcrum of British history is not 1640-60, but 1688, which provides the ‘master narrative’, ‘the received wisdom’, for the next 300 years, and only the Scots, radicals and poets kept alive the importance of the Civil War period (how he must hate John Lilburne, John Milton, Tom Paine and the Chartists).
Here are just a few pointers to suggest that what happened in the mid-17th century does make it a major turning point in British history. First, the crisis of 1640-42 saw Parliament assert the right to determine its own calling and dissolution. That this right wasn’t finally secured then is not the point: it was the principle that effectively stopped Charles I’s absolutist inclinations dead in their tracks – 1688 merely confirmed that against the pretensions of James II. Second, the collapse of the state church in 1640 opened the floodgates for revolutionary religious movements that made nonconformity and religious toleration unstoppable forces in society, despite the backlash of restored Anglicanism in 1660. Was this ‘pointless’? Third, the 1640s saw the beginnings of a free press, championed by Milton’s Areopagitica, and among other things this gave a voice to the political ideas of the Levellers, Agitators and Diggers: the supremacy of natural rights over property rights, equality before the law, universal suffrage, the separation of church and state and the devolution of power from the centre to local communities. All of this was, of course, repressed at the Restoration and even today has not been fully realised. Were these things worth fighting for; were they pointless?
‘Shelley began a stage play to celebrate Charles I,’ Mark Kishlansky writes. Did he really? Shelley was opposed to capital punishment, thought Charles died well, and detested Cromwell, particularly for his behaviour towards the Irish. But he was a republican, and his fragmentary play (in which Charles is shown as combining domestic virtues with weakness and tyranny) cannot be considered a contribution to romantic royalism. In 1819 he described the trial of Charles as ‘the mighty example which … England afforded to the world of bringing to public justice one of those chiefs of a conspiracy of privileged murderers and robbers whose impunity has been the consecration of crime.’
Kishlansky gives the misleading impression that until Carlyle began the rehabilitation of Cromwell in the 1840s, the Civil Wars were not seen as a site of struggle for liberty. If so, one wonders what Hume had been about, arguing so hard that Charles I did not usurp English liberties. With whom was he shadow-boxing? This account airbrushes out the republican and ‘Real Whig’ historians of 1760-1840 such as Catharine Macaulay, Charles James Fox, George Brodie and William Godwin, who dissociated themselves from both Puritan fanatics and from Cromwell, tyrant and arch-hypocrite. Their heroes were the parliamentarians Hampden and Pym, and the intellectual republicans, whom Wordsworth called ‘hands that penn’d/And tongues that utter’d wisdom, better none:/The later Sydney, Marvel, Harrington,/Young Vane, and others who call’d Milton friend’. Vane, in particular, was for them a counterpoise to Charles I, a non-regicide republican martyr of the highest gifts, whose execution by Charles II was an outrageous injustice. Hume’s characterisation of Puritans as so many fanatical Praise-God-Barebones was countered by the discovery and publication in 1806 of Lucy Hutchinson’s Memoirs of Colonel Hutchinson, welcomed by the Edinburgh Review as an exemplary portrait of a liberal Puritan culture. A ‘Puritan Revolution’ narrative was well under way before the heroicising of Cromwell supplanted it with an alternative version.
Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge