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.
Hardy’s glass-all-empty perspective is brought forcefully to mind by Blair Worden’s dispiriting account of the English civil wars. This, too, is a remarkable work of concision, narrating one of the most crowded series of events in Britain’s long history in little more than 150 pages. It is aimed at the general reader on the supposition that if such an audience still exists it has limited attention and little appetite for complexity. It presents a no-frills version of events in England (Scotland and Ireland receive infrequent asides) from the accession of Charles I to the end of the Stuart dynasty in the early 18th century, but concentrates on the period from 1640 to 1660. These events are called the civil wars – though technically there were no civil wars in England after 1651 – because as a label ‘it is as near to neutrality as we can get,’ and it is the author’s intention to drain the events of their passion and partisanship once and for all.
In this, his history succeeds as thoroughly as Hardy’s. Worden sets the bar for the political acuity, social idealism and heroic sacrifice of his participants very low, and they spectacularly fail to clear it. An incompetent king spawned a needless crisis that was then worsened by his narrow-minded, self-interested opponents. No one wanted the war but it lasted more than ten years and nothing good came of it: ‘It was a hard war to idealise.’ Once the parliamentarians, who held the advantage of manpower and treasure, defeated the king on the battlefield, they fell out among themselves and were successful at nothing other than intrigue and spite. Smaller and smaller groups of them accomplished little other than maintaining their own power. The theories they invoked to justify their conduct were as empty as their promises. When the Long Parliament was finally swept aside it was replaced by a series of unhappy constitutional experiments, all of them failures. The unconditional restoration of Charles II was the only appropriate conclusion to this dreary story.
Worden is impartially censorious. The king ‘committed political suicide’; the sufferings of the Puritans were ‘self-inflicted’. The constitutional theories of the republicans, which for the first time in English history articulated a concept of popular sovereignty, were so bankrupt they had to be disguised under the vague slogan of the ‘good old cause’. The achievements of the civil wars were inflated taxation, bloated government, and an Anglicanism that made Laudianism seem ecumenical. Who would have fought for these ends? Small wonder that the book concludes with Dryden’s partisan censure: ‘Thy wars brought nothing about.’ It is undeniable that the civil wars stretched the fabric of English society to its limits. Fathers were set against sons, and brothers opposed each other on the battlefield. The wars tested people’s faith and beliefs (many of which were found wanting), and resulted in cruel ironies. Who would have imagined that the first Protestant executed for his religious beliefs in the reign of Charles I would have been his favoured archbishop, William Laud? What justice did the John Hothams, father and son, get for defying their king when he attempted to claim his magazine of arms and munitions at Hull? They were subsequently executed by order of Parliament. How could the oracles of the common law reconcile the principle of inviolable precedent with the legal innovations to which necessity drove them? How could the hated levy of Ship Money become the model for Parliament’s military finances? What drove godly folk so nourished by the theory of divine mercy to pass such savage legislation as the Adultery and Blasphemy Acts?
After the Restoration, the royalists recounted these events as lessons in loyalty and sacrifice. Charles I didn’t just make a good end, he gave his life in defence of principles that included the divinity of monarchy and the sanctity of the Church. For centuries, sermons on 30 January commemorated the durability of the British constitution, the balance between subjects and sovereign, and the obedience necessary to prevent the chaos of rebellion. Self-sacrifice was considered noble and the many who expired on the battlefield or died on the scaffold were thought worthy of celebration. When, after 1688, unalloyed paeans to monarchy seemed less appropriate to some, the civil wars did not lose their lustre. The memoirs of moderate reformers, like Fairfax and Holles, were published by their descendants not only to resuscitate their reputations but also to distance them from the horrors of the regicide. When the three massive volumes of Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England were published serially at the beginning of the 18th century, they were hailed as the greatest work of British history ever written. Clarendon was no dewy-eyed loyalist: he had been an ardent supporter of reform in 1641-42, and was exiled by Charles II in 1667 after a lifetime of faithful service to the Stuarts. He could be cutting towards his enemies and blind to the foibles of his friends, but his history was one of high principle, personal sacrifice and titanic struggle that raised events in Britain to the level of those celebrated by the historians of ancient Greece and Rome. When Hume published his hugely popular account of these events half a century later, there could no longer be any question that the period from 1640 to 1660 had been the fulcrum of British history.
So it remained until our own time. Byron commemorated ancestors who generations before had fought for a necessitous king and ‘wished to strew/self-gathered laurels on a self-sought grave’. Shelley began a stage play to celebrate Charles I. Royalism was romantic, not least in the hands of Sir Walter Scott, who made Montrose a Scottish national figure. But the great achievement of the 19th century was to turn from the royalists to the parliamentarians and to convert the civil wars into an epic struggle for liberty of one kind or another. This began with Carlyle, who, searching the records for those rare individuals who shaped the destiny of nations, bent history to their wills, and whose lives defined their ages, fixed on Oliver Cromwell. Until then, Cromwell had been a universally reviled figure, a Machiavellian blamed for betraying his monarch, his friends or both. But in Carlyle’s hands Cromwell was moulded into the man who made Britain great. His courage, valour and military genius were the qualities that had forged a mighty cause and could now forge a great empire. Macaulay believed he possessed ‘the keen glance of genius’. Studies of Cromwell soon poured from the presses. Forster produced his Statesmen of the Commonwealth, Guizot his biography, and Cromwell was given the starring role in the work of Samuel Rawson Gardiner, who claimed lineal descent from the man now known by his title, the Lord Protector. Gardiner’s work was the culmination of a tradition that championed parliamentary democracy and religious toleration, and saw the unmistakable origins of both in what was now being called the Puritan Revolution: it gave substance to Carlyle’s myth.
The Puritan Revolution was central to Victorian self-understanding, but its significance was even greater for 20th-century reformers and radicals. They believed they had discovered their ancestors among the Levellers, Diggers, Baptists, Quakers and a host of other social and political radicals. The startling ideas of these groups could be traced in the pamphlet remains of the Thomason Tracts in the British Library, or in the Clarke Papers, which revealed for the first time the extent of the radicals’ contemplation of natural rights. Even so, 17th-century millenarians had nothing on 20th-century utopians. The source of whatever idealism survived the world wars was traced back to what was now being called the English Revolution, the first of the class struggles that delineated all human history, with as reputable a claim to be the midwife of modernity as the revolutions in America and France. In the history curriculum of the Soviet Union, the modern world began in 1649. These may have been outsized, unsustainable claims, but they shared common ground with the views of every preceding generation. Britain had been defined by its revolution and each subsequent political, social and religious movement could trace its origins to interpretations of the mid-17th century. For generation after generation politicians and journalists drew their analogies from this period and taught their lessons by referring to it.
In sharp contrast, Worden’s civil war is an event of little consequence brought about by little people to little purpose. To reinforce this view he adopts a particularly brilliant means of presentation. Miniatures must be painted with small strokes. Thus he shrinks actors and events by evaporating their purpose and drama. Characters are portrayed as one-dimensional. Charles I was an untrustworthy dolt, ‘incorrigibly deficient in political judgment’, who only occasionally ‘deviated’ into effective but insincere strategies of compromise. Denzil Holles, whose brilliant plan to bring the war to an end in 1647 narrowly failed, is depicted as motivated only by ‘hatred’ of the New Model Army. Cromwell, despite his supposed life-long commitment to toleration, is presented as a kind of mystic whose philosophy could be reduced to the belief that the Lord would provide. He had a deep ‘distrust of political planning’ that accounted for the whipsaw constitutions of the 1650s. All of the great set-piece events of the war are drained of blood and spirit: the attempt to arrest the five members; the crowds baying for Strafford’s execution; Essex fleeing Lostwithiel; the seizure of the king at Holmby; the apprentices’ invasion of the Houses of Parliament; the Putney debates – all these are related as if from a list on a calendar. The trial and execution of Charles I, one of the turning points in world history, is allotted no more than two brief paragraphs. (Worden, following Marvell, praises the king for having his head chopped off without complaint.) If the narration is bloodless, the writing is deliberately monochromatic: Worden rigorously avoids metaphor and imagery in favour of a plain, matter-of-fact style. His perspective is calculatingly aloof and detached, but more from Ossa than Olympus. He makes large pronouncements – ‘wars are never fought for religion alone’; ‘the causes of historical movements are never self-contained’ – but then gets the name of Fairfax’s second-in-command wrong.
But a slender volume can have broad implications, and by cutting ties with England’s revolutionary past, and questioning the value of the sacrifices made by those who fought for their opposing causes, Worden has loosed the moorings of much subsequent British history. Succeeding generations drew inspiration from this great struggle not least because it was inspiring. Blair Worden is one of Britain’s senior 17th-century historians; where he leads others are sure to follow. If his interpretation succeeds it will diminish an entire historical epoch. Indeed, it might make it so uninteresting that no one will ever want to read about it again. English Civil Wars: b. 1640, d. 1660 R.I.P.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.