War without an Enemy

Blair Worden

  • The Outbreak of the English Civil War by Anthony Fletcher
    Arnold, 446 pp, £24.00, October 1981, ISBN 0 7131 6320 8
  • The Royalist War Effort by Ronald Hutton
    Longman, £12.00, October 1981, ISBN 0 582 50301 9

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in