The Outbreak of the English Civil War 
by Anthony Fletcher.
Arnold, 446 pp., £24, October 1981, 0 7131 6320 8
Show More
The Royalist War Effort 
by Ronald Hutton.
Longman, £12, October 1981, 0 582 50301 9
Show More
Show More

The political troubles of mid-17th-century England will not go away. Every generation of professional historians – the Victorians Gardiner and Firth, who laid the chronological foundation; the Marxists and the participants in the gentry controversy, who supplied the sociological dimension; the provincialists and the revisionists of the present day – has devoted some of its best research and most lively debate to the Civil War. The justification of that heavy investment cannot be a tangibly utilitarian one, for if the Puritan Revolution had lasting consequences they were either, like the growth of national political consciousness in the shires which were drawn into the war, inadvertent, or, like the anti-Puritan and anti-reforming reaction after 1660, negative; and these are not, on the whole, the themes which have drawn scholars to the period. If the English Civil War is important, it is because it is interesting.

Anthony Fletcher begins with the meeting of the Long Parliament in November 1640 and ends with the outbreak of war in the summer of 1642. It is the events of those two years that the grand hypotheses of the past half-century have been largely designed to explain. Now the inquiry which was generated by those hypotheses has driven historians back to the events themselves. Narrative, enthroned by the Victorians and deposed by their successors, has returned in a sober guise; and in Mr Fletcher’s hands the question how things happened becomes the helpmate, not the master or the servant, of the question why they happened. The Outbreak of the English Civil War is a work of major ambition and major achievement.

To both the ambition and the achievement there are inevitable limits. Mr Fletcher does not pretend to see the whole period afresh. Indeed, in some respects there are, if one may so put it, fewer surprises than expected. Some of the most perceptive recent work (Tyacke, Collinson and Lamont on religion; Hirst on the electorate; Russell on the evolution of Pym’s character and Morrill on Pym’s relations with backwoods MPs; Peter Thomas on Court and country cultures) is intelligently deployed, but not always searchingly tested against the events Mr Fletcher describes. And Mr Fletcher is careful to warn us that ‘although this book contains a new narrative it is in no sense an attempt to replace Gardiner’s. Certain events which he treated fully have deliberately been passed over lightly, in order to allow space for discussion of aspects of the political process which seem to me to have received too little attention in the past.’

Readers of Mr Fletcher’s previous books will readily guess what those aspects are. As in his much-thumbed textbook on Tudor rebellions and his fine study of Stuart Sussex, he is primarily concerned with the relationship between the centre and the localities. The perspective which emerges is richly instructive and deserves to prove deeply influential. It is also necessarily restricted. Mr Fletcher thinks about Parliament and the country before he thinks about the King and the Court; and he thinks about the House of Commons before he thinks about the House of Lords. Within the Commons he shows little interest in political groupings, and perhaps assumes too readily that the House can be divided between Pym and his allies on the one hand – variously described as ‘the managers’, ‘the leadership’ and the ‘inner circle’ – and ‘backbenchers’ on the other. Concentration on high politics has its limitations, but so does a political study which does not come to grips with them. (I noticed not a single reference, except between the lines, to J.H. Hexter’s The Reign of King Pym, the most influential work on the politics of Mr Fletcher’s period to have appeared in this century.) A rounded explanation of MPs’ behaviour must take account of the full range of pressures under which they operated; and Mr Fletcher’s decision to tell us so little about the Long Parliament’s early legislative preoccupations automatically disqualifies his narrative from that endeavour. In a sense, Mr Fletcher has attempted too much or too little. An aside reveals that the book began life as a study of anti-Popery, and of petitions to Parliament, in 1640-2. Its subsequent growth has not been uniformly tidy. The narrative, which for the most part eschews suspense, and seems to be written for readers who already know the main story, may seem strangely organised to readers who do not. They should perhaps turn first to the conclusion, where they will find signposts.

If there are flaws in the design of Mr Fletcher’s long book, however, the execution is handsome. He keeps an extraordinary wealth of material under control as he moves from Westminster to Whitehall, to the City, and to and from the provinces (where he breaks new ground by his use of urban as well as county archives). There is some vivid storytelling; and amidst an abundance of argument and telling detail, a central thesis emerges. In 1640, Pym had a radical programme which was intended to extirpate a deep-rooted conspiracy in Church and State and to remove the ‘evil counsellors’ responsible for its promotion. His problem was to convince his fellow MPs ‘that there was a more urgent task than condemning ship money, examining Star Chamber procedure or reforming the lieutenancy system.’ MPs wanted statutes: Pym wanted power. Some of Pym’s policies remain obscure. It is not always clear what Mr Fletcher means by ‘the political constructiveness which was a constant feature of Pym’s parliamentary career’, or what the connection was between Pym’s anti-Catholicism and his insistence on fiscal reform. Of the strength of Pym’s anti-Catholicism, however, Mr Fletcher leaves little doubt. For some time it remained a weapon of limited Parliamentary value. On the evidence Mr Fletcher presents to us (although I am not sure that this is his intention), anti-Popery seems to have played a restricted role in Parliament’s moves against Strafford and episcopacy. In late 1641 and 1642, however, a series of episodes – the Irish rebellion, the attempt on the five members, the Army plots – convinced MPs that Pym was right. Soon the provinces were convinced as well. Anti-Popery, which until the mid-1620s had given strength to the monarchy, need not have destroyed it in the 1640s: even in early 1642, ‘insofar as people contemplated civil war ... they did not envisage a war between king and parliament but a war between parliament and its papist enemies.’ But when Charles, raising his army, removed from the shires the only arms with which they could defend themselves against the expected Popish insurrection, he seemed finally to demonstrate that the conspiracy had reached the heart of the Court.

In this interpretation 1640-2 assumes a close resemblance to 1678-81 – the difference being that, whereas Charles II survived the second Popish Plot, his father succumbed to the first. Anxiety, mistrust and hysteria become the key to the outbreak of war: ‘normally sane and balanced men became the prisoners of their own fears and imaginings.’ Mr Fletcher describes memorably the wave of Popish scares which swept the localities after the influx of Protestant refugees from Ireland. At Westminster, Pym emerges as the Senator McCarthy of the Puritan Revolution. He and his allies, who ‘were in no position to distinguish between truth and rumour and had no desire to do so’, ‘relentlessly propagated and pursued’ a ‘fundamental misconception’ about Court politics. Of course, it takes two myths to make a war; and we are shown how the Court succumbed to its own conspiracy theory, in which Pym became a traitor long bent on destroying Church and State. Thus ‘two groups of men became the prisoners of competing myths that fed on one another.’ It is one of Mr Fletcher’s finest achievements to show how these fantasies came to poison and to polarise the nation.

No less impressive is his account, a wonderful feat of organisation and research, of the county petitions presented to Parliament in the months before the war. He sees them as the response of the provinces to a call for partnership signalled in Parliament’s Protestations and then in the Grand Remonstrance, the document in which Pym and his allies rewrote the history of Charles I’s reign as a grand Popish design. Mr Fletcher discounts the conventional view that petitions were ‘organised or managed from the centre. On the contrary, they deserve recognition as an authentic expression of deeply felt local opinion.’ The petitions can be used, he thinks, ‘to illuminate the mood of the provinces in the first months of 1642’. Perhaps he places a little more weight than they will always bear on manifestos whose authors often seem to have felt themselves in a beleaguered minority: but his claim that ‘the petitions present incontrovertible evidence of the hold parliament had obtained on the nation’s mind’ is powerfully supported. It offers a persuasive explanation of the confidence with which MPs, believing themselves destined to rescue the nation in its hour of crisis, usurped executive power and adopted a political theory which placed Westminster at the centre of the constitution. Mr Fletcher is excellent, too, on the arrival of the petitions in London, where counties competed both in the number and in the splendour of their delegations. ‘When a knight of the shire rose to announce the arrival of his countrymen at the door his whole experience of representing his friends and neighbours suddenly came into focus. This was a moment to glory in, a moment when the distance between Westminster and home fields and lanes all at once seemed shortened.’

There is another fine chapter on the rival county petitions which were presented to the King by Royalists. These remind us of the identity, so obvious that we tend to overlook it, between the Royalist cause and the Anglican one. If there was one set of developments which created the Royalist party, it sprang from the audacity of the sects and from Parliament’s assault on episcopacy and liturgy. When Parliament sought to enforce religious uniformity, it encountered the provincial resistance which had confronted Archbishop Laud. Mr Fletcher contends that during the year before the outbreak of war ‘the attachment of many to the forms and institutions of the Elizabethan Church settlement became evident ... petitioners made it plain that the notion of an Ecclesia Anglicana, which embodied a middle way and was equally resistant to Romish superstition and Genevan innovation, had struck deep roots. Foxeian and Laudian propaganda, in a sense, had fused.’ If this bold and interesting claim is to be substantiated we shall need earlier evidence to support it, for the affection men develop for institutions in times of stress may be quite novel. I am not sure either where Mr Fletcher would locate the dividing line which in his view made ‘Laud’s concept of worship as solemn, dignified, uncontentious and evocative’ so acceptable and ‘the ritualistic excesses of some of his episcopate’ intolerable. There is a broad subject here for future inquiry. Meanwhile Mr Fletcher performs a timely service by reminding us that ‘there is a real sense in which the English Civil War was a war of religion.’

Impressed by the political articulacy of the petitions on both sides, Mr Fletcher suggests that ‘the county communities, by which term historians have largely meant the circles of gentry families that dominated the economic life and administration of a shire, were perhaps less introverted, rather more open to outside influences, than has sometimes been suggested.’ He finds it ‘hard to believe ... that many well-informed men were pure neutrals at heart.’ The extent to which the provinces shared the political preoccupations of the capital is a subject on which Anthony Fletcher and Ronald Hutton might disagree, but they are at one in urging us to use the terms ‘neutralism’ and ‘localism’ more discriminately, and in demonstrating that many of the ‘neutrality pacts’ which have commanded recent attention prove to have been born of strategic ruses by partisans.

Like almost all political historians of the Puritan Revolution, Mr Fletcher understands the Roundheads better than the Cavaliers. His emphasis on the unacceptable face of Royalism, on the swaggering, belligerent young loudmouths of 1642, is warrantable, but it tells only the side of the story on which Parliamentary propaganda seized. Hesitant allusions to ‘a certain unease apparent in the alliance of Cavalier hotheads and more moderate royalist gentry’, and to the part played by ‘the old-fashioned but still powerful concept of honour’ in the formation of Royalism, remind us how little we yet understand the Cavalier cause. Ronald Hutton’s book does not attempt a rounded portrait of Royalism, but it marks an important advance towards one. At last the Cavaliers are seen not through the romantic haze of Royalist historiography, which Mr Hutton dispels in an enjoyable introduction, or through the eyes of their Parliamentary opponents, but through the complex and daunting records which the Royalist war effort left behind.

Mr Hutton’s subject is the contribution of, and the effect on, the area which gave Charles I his most valuable support during the Civil War years of 1642-6: Wales, the Welsh Marches and the West Midlands. That is a large and difficult area for a regional study, but he not only commands it but moves effortlessly beyond it, to the Court and to battlegrounds all over England. He has done for the Royalists what was done for the Parliamentarians in Clive Holmes’s remarkable book on the Eastern Association. And he has done something more. Whereas East Anglia was controlled by the Roundheads, a substantial part of Mr Hutton’s territory – the border country that most interests him – was ‘not merely a base but a battlefield in itself’. Hitherto, local historians and military historians have tended to keep their distance from each other. Mr Hutton sees that if we want to re-create the relationship between the war and the community we need not merely to tackle problems of administrative, social and economic history (excellent as he is on all these) but to think in terms of military fronts, zones, corridors and supply-bases. To that daunting task he brings a thrilling intelligence, a powerful imagination and a bracing, epigrammatic prose. When did a young historian last make so exhilarating a debut?

In one respect, admittedly, Mr Hutton’s achievement in enlarging the scope of regional studies may not prove an unmixed blessing. When we describe an area as Royalist or Parliamentarian, we now mean, not that its inhabitants were Royalist or Parliamentarian in their sympathies, but that they were subjected to Royalist or Parliamentary occupation. This new orthodoxy may be as two-dimensional as the old one; and Mr Hutton’s thesis, if submitted to the misinterpretation which it half-invites, could help to reinforce it. He recognises that in Herefordshire ‘the common people were strongly partisan,’ and that in most of Wales ‘the entire community’ responded to the King’s appeals: but these observations do not detain him long. He is more concerned with areas where he believes the war to have been ‘an artificial insemination of violence into the local community’. Disposing of the ‘persistent and misleading impression that the royalist army was, like a feudal host, recruited from the tenants and dependents of royalist magnates,’ he shows that much recruiting was ‘virtually a private activity, working within the community but requiring no general response from it’: many recruits ‘must have signed up with the agent of whichever regiment found their village first’.

Mr Hutton’s reason for treating community sentiment so briefly lies in his grasp of an ugly truth about the war: that ‘ultimately it did not matter if the local population were alienated from the royal cause, so long as the king possessed an army with which to terrorise the provinces into providing him with the materials of war.’ Charles’s initial mistake was to defer too much to local sensibilities. The commanders he appointed at the outset of war were ‘great aristocrats and amateur soldiers, men who would command respect by virtue of their inherent status in the community ... In this manner Charles hoped to preserve harmony within his war machine and between that machine and the surrounding population.’ The results were charming courtesy and military catastrophe. Charles turned instead to commanders who ‘had two qualifications, that they had already proved their loyalty and military skill in the field, and that they were not the natural leaders of the areas with which they were entrusted.’

The hero of this second phase of the Royalist war effort was Prince Rupert, who reorganised the Royalist army with a flair and a thoroughness that have lain unrecognised. Rupert also, like his brother Maurice, showed an unsuspected tact in seeking the co-operation of civilians. Yet there was a limit to what tact could achieve, for ‘the solution to the problem of royalist administration was in fact unpleasantly simple: that the local populations had to be squeezed and squeezed again without mercy until they were forced to disgorge the money and provisions which the war effort needed.’ It was a solution which worked so long as the Royalists could win battles. Defeats in the summer of 1644 relaxed the pressure on the western supply-base and offered an opportunity for local resistance, both by the gentry, who sought to regain control of the Cavalier army, and by the Clubmen, about whom Mr Hutton makes an important contribution to current controversy. By 1645, however, Rupert had crushed that resistance. Only in the aftermath of Naseby, where ‘the royalist cause committed suicide,’ did the resentments of the Welsh and western counties prove insurmountable. Once the central army was broken, the local forces behind the front line melted away or went over to the Parliamentarian army which delivered them.

The Royalist War Effort is a short and fast-moving book. Occasionally one wishes that Mr Hutton would slow down a little: not in order to labour the learning he bears so lightly, but to give his readers time to answer back, or to tell them whether the material would permit interpretations other than his own. Occasionally, too, he is carried away into overstatement. But these are small prices to pay for the pleasures of the book. There are lovely moments of evocation and of humour; and Mr Hutton has an unfashionable understanding of the power which leadership, courage and heroism can command. (He also, incidentally, has a highly entertaining understanding of Archbishop Williams, whose indomitable combination of deviousness, obsequiousness and self-importance spreads through the book like a running gag.) Mr Hutton writes memorably about mobile forces: about the rival armies questing each other across Warwickshire ‘like two great blind moles’ in the days before Edgehill, or about Charles’s army on the march, which ‘must have represented a curious living museum, some parts of it resembling an army of the 1640s, the rest bearing equipment associated with the various centuries back to the Neolithic’. Best of all is the account of the shifting military frontier and of the forces which manned the garrisons. Hutton takes us inside those exposed, improvised fortresses, summons the chill of fear within them, and shows us the landscape beneath and around them, its grim silences broken by the deadly pattern of raid and counter-raid. We glimpse the power and the glory which the garrison commanders exercised as warlords, and the ‘lonely and defiant pride’ with which, at the very end of the war, they held out ‘like madmen or heroes’ even after Charles had ordered them to surrender. These pages provide an overdue reminder that, whatever else the Civil War was, it was first and foremost a war.

These two books give Civil War studies their biggest shot in the arm since the publication of J.S. Morrill’s The Revolt of the Provinces. Like Morrill, both authors risk generalisation and preserve clarity amidst the complexities they properly relish. Intellectually heartening as Mr Fletcher’s and Mr Hutton’s achievements are, however, the picture of Civil War England that emerges from their work is a melancholy one. Mr Fletcher, describing the destruction by fear and neurosis of ancient bonds of trust and affection, writes at times like a man who has turned up a stone. (Indeed, seemingly shaken by the depths of unpleasantness and irrationality he has so skilfully uncovered and reported, he is lured into some most uncharacteristically patronising observations about ‘the imaginative poverty of the 17th century’.) Mr Hutton brings out the growing brutality of the war and the hardship and the economic dislocation which it brought: the collapse of the North Wales cattle trade, the jamming of the Severn Valley trade route, the abandonment of fairs and markets, the plunder, the free quarter, the roving bands of deserters and criminals. Mr Fletcher takes as his epigraph the famous passage where the Roundhead Sir William Waller, writing across the lines to the Cavalier Sir Ralph Hopton, spoke of ‘this war without an enemy’. Mr Hutton makes the point another way: the enemy was there, but it was to be found in ‘the other war, fought between the partisans of both causes and the bulk of the population, which they attempted to press into service. In the last analysis it was the local community, not parliament, which defeated Charles I, not from hatred of his cause but from hatred of the war itself.’

Whether or not that claim survives unscathed, Mr Hutton’s images of warfare and occupation will abide. This is a world which has often been described before but never, I think, so vividly, of sequestration, of impressment, of concealment, of sauve qui peut, a world in which, as the military fronts moved back and forth, rival armies imposed conflicting oaths upon a bewildered population; a world where it became increasingly hard to distinguish between legitimacy on the one hand and power and protection on the other: the world, in other words, which in the postwar waste land of 1651 was to find so exact and so disturbing a reflection in the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences